Just the other day I saw a well-known documentary, “Food Inc“, which shines a light on the physically and morally toxic American food industry. I found myself getting very depressed about all the young people, especially poor, young people developing diabetes. Fully half of minority children are set to develop this disease
Being a Celt, certain types of sadness are pleasurable for me in a way similar to the Portuguese “saudade,” and so I tend to nurse melancholic feelings along to see what juice they have in them…. Melancholy is like the dear brother pig, all of whom, except for his death screams, is either useful or delicious.
Thinking about Food Inc and ruminating on the sadness that the story of all the overweight, diabetic poor people dredges out of me, I remembered something that Felipe González, the former president of Spain, and an extremely intelligent and perceptive man, once said about Americans.
I’m quoting from memory, González said something like, “Americans are sad people, I find them touching” (me enternecen). My first reaction was to find his remark condescending and offensive, but after thinking about it at length, I decided he was right.
What is this sadness, where does it come from, what is it about?
Everybody, even Thomas Friedman, has read that bit in the Communist Manifesto, describing the action of capitalism on society that goes, “All that is solid melts into air” The full, famous paragraph goes like this:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It … has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” … for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation … Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind. (emphasis mine)
Taking that as my text, I would preach that as America is and always has been the absolute vanguard and the world’s most enthusiastic advocate of capitalism, logically no other people have ever felt capitalism’s effects half as directly or half as powerfully as Americans have. If we add to that the deracination of the process of immigration, then we also talking about people who have had all the defenses and the retarding effects of “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations” already stripped from them when they arrived.
More than even the British who invented capitalism, Americans therefore stand naked before the forces that “melt all that is solid into air” with all that is holy profaned.
That leaves the American “at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”.
How to avoid that self-examination is the central task that Americans have set for themselves.
This has led to a frantic search for new “veils of religious and political illusions” to make all of this contemplation of “his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind” bearable.
This explains to some extent the obsession with entertainment, the idolatrous celebrity culture and growing religious eccentricity.
The man and his companion whose statue grace this post might be apt symbols of an industrial effort at distraction from the “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” and the “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”, as shown in “Food Inc”, which make up the actual warp and woof of our lives.
The consolation would be that since American society has advanced far further on this road than any other, if capitalism is ever to take the path of the Oozlum Bird*, it will happen in America first.
*The Oozlum bird, also spelled Ouzelum, is a Legendary Creature found in Australian and British folk tales and legends. Some versions have it that, when startled, the bird will take off and fly around in ever-decreasing circles until it manages to fly up itself, disappearing completely, which adds to its rarity.