“America”, the Empty Signifier?

What do we even mean when we say the word “America” or “USA” now? What is left?

A center of “innovation”? An engine for “growth”? A leader in “productivity”? A hub for financial transactions? A land of “liberty”, which in practice means a mixture of licentiousness, profiteering and stifling statist control?

Even if the USA is still any or all of these things, none of them, alas, amount to a country. They are instead merely dry, narrow minded technocratic constructions; and today, as the Floyd riots spread in a chain reaction of blind nihilism and inchoate resentment, they seem drier and emptier than ever.

For all the privations now sweeping the land, the problem is really this: the entity today called “America” (as well as most of the West) has “woke” up to find it has no shared wisdom; no spiritual convictions; no unifying ethnic identity; no idea of shared spaces; no serious relationship to the land and nature it occupies; no obligations to truthfulness or realism; no grasp of neighborliness, relationship or community; no operative idea of real heroism or tragedy; no aesthetic sensibility; and certainly no grounding for personal sacrifice. It cringes, lividly, at the very words “history”, “virtue”, and “God”.

Without any of these things, there is no basis for holding people together in any sort of large undertaking, except through bare-knuckled tyranny. There is instead only res idiotica as far as the eye can see. (Read Deneen if you need to be filled in on this terminology.)

This is what Donald Trump surely intuited when in one of his more lucid moments on the campaign trail, he lamented that “we don’t have a country anymore”.

Unfortunately Trump, as a man who ultimately sees only “economy”, big business, quantitative world trade and of course his own constantly-sore ego, was himself practically an avatar of the res idiotica, and so he could not quite penetrate to the deep implications of his very own words—just as he could not see the implications of nursing “a big, fat, ugly bubble” in the economy (also his own words).

The U.S. Constitution, in some ways a wise and thoughtfully constructed document, has little to say on any of this. And if it did, who actually bothers to remember what it means or says anymore, other than a small and mostly hated clerisy of jurists?

For some, the Constitution is a cherished rhetorical football, effectively the center of a mini-cult of its own. Most of the activists in the country, on the other hand, have stopped bothering with it altogether, except as something to be manipulated at will, in postmodern fashion.

The truth is large portions of the US Constitution are no longer operative, and even if they were, they would have little to say on the problems the USA now faces, since the Constitution was designed for a polity that had not yet destroyed its economic, natural, spiritual and cultural inheritance for the sake of imaginary money, hedonic jolts, narcotics both chemical and digital, and the narcissistic joys of endless grievance.

So three main options present themselves. One, chaos and dissolution. Two, tyrannical takeover. Or three, the rediscovery (through some miracle) of the vital patterns and knowledge that have been exhausted or thrown away.

Options One and Two may oscillate back and forth, feeding on each other, for some time yet. As for option Three, we must admit it seems unlikely in the extreme. Much about the current circumstances of the world, both material and mental, militates against it. But then again: cometh the hour…