Swans Commentary » swans.com October 18, 2010  



The New Man


by Michael Doliner





"The duty and aim of Betar is very simple though difficult: to create that type of Jew which the nation needs in order to better and quicker build a Jewish state. In other words, to create a "normal," "healthy" citizen for the Jewish nation. The greatest difficulty is encountered because, as a nation, the Jews today are neither "normal" nor "healthy" and life in diaspora affects the intelligent upbringing of normal and healthy citizens."
—Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1929)

"It is frequently asserted that the task of Communist enlightenment consists in the education of the new man. These words are somewhat too general, too pathetic, and we must be particularly careful not to permit any formless humanitarian interpretation of the conception "new man" or the tasks of Communist education. There is no doubt whatever but that the man of the future, the citizen of the commune, will be an exceedingly interesting and attractive creature, and that his psychology (the futurists will pardon me, but I fancy that the man of the future will possess a psychology) will be very different to ours."
—Leon Trotsky (1922)


(Swans - October 18, 2010)   The Communist (and Zionist) intention to create a "New Man" was one strike against communism, indeed perhaps its strikeout in its one inning (or at least what all right-thinking Americans hope is its one and only inning) of existence. Conservatives like to bash Communists for their idea of recreating human nature to fit comfortably into the Communist state. They take it for granted that this is barbaric on the face of it. Condemnation of such an idea is in no need of justification. Richard Pipes, a modern historian, apparently traces this inclination to remake human nature back to the Enlightenment. According to a blogger named R. J. Moeller, Pipes writes the following:

Helvetius drew on Locke's epistemology to argue that insofar as man is totally molded by his environment, a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings. The means toward this end are education and legislation. The task of the political and social order, therefore, is not to create optimal conditions in which mankind can realize its potential but rather to render mankind "virtuous." Good government not only ensures "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" (a formula attributed to Helvetius) but literally refashions man. This unprecedented proposition constitutes the premise of both liberal and radical (Leftist) ideologies of modern times. It justifies the government's far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.

In blaming Helvetius (1715-1771) for inventing the idea of using reason to create a new man, Pipes is a little off. For this idea was hardly unprecedented. Two thousand years earlier Aristotle wrote in the Nicomachean Ethics:

It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature: for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them... (Nicomachien Ethics 1094 a-b)

Aristotle thought ethics a part of politics, and ethics involved fostering "virtu," human excellence. The purpose of the polis, and therefore politics, was to foster this excellence. Plato's Republic is primarily about how to order both the human soul and the state on identical principles, and how the state should be ordered to be able to order the soul properly. The rulers were to be philosopher kings. The Greeks too used reason to determine what was the best state and the best person. The difference is perhaps that the Greeks had no thought that reason could make the many just like the few. They were quite willing to recognize different capacities in different people. Only the few would ever subdue the appetites. The rest would always be ruled by pleasure and fear. This does not mean that they could not be quite pleased with their condition. Very few have any inclination of think, and most would rather be ruled by pleasure and fear. But that each state made or at least fostered a very definite kind of elite human being they had no doubt. For they only needed to look at how very different were the Athenians from the Spartans. The Romans too, of course, thought education, that is the experience of being a Roman, was what made a noble Roman. It bothered them not a bit that several of the emperors were adopted.

As the winds of propaganda blew up the flames of class war in the twentieth century, the Soviet Union became the United States' bête noire and it became important to convince Americans that communism was bad. What distinguishes them from us? What they did, clearly, and what they did was try to create a "new man." That was anathema to the American way of life. Right-wing think tankers latched onto the "new man" and declared that altruism, supposedly the central characteristic of the new man, never existed. The new man was ha, ha, ha, ridiculous. But more importantly, to even think of creating him was such a barbaric idea that it put anyone who thought it beyond the pale. To think along these lines is tantamount to being Hitler, or, what is the same thing, Stalin. Like Popeye, who yam what he yam, we are what we are, and neither the state nor anybody else has the right to mess with us. We grow up the way we grow up, like jungle animals with whatever shreds of civilization might have clung to our fur as we clumped through the bushes, or no civilization at all. And we are good just the way we are.

And we know what we are. We are what everybody is, selfish, that is, ruled by pleasure and fear. We insist that everybody is what the Greeks thought only "the many" were. The Greeks thought human beings only occasionally reached human excellence, but they knew perfectly well what that excellence was. They had the image of Achilles before them at all times. In any case human excellence, virtu, revealed itself to everybody, for it was by virtue of one's "virtu" that one appeared in public. Virtu showed up. Virtu unquestionably existed, for there was Pericles. He was someone you would listen to in time of crisis, someone whose words carried weight. Americans, on the other hand, thought human excellence was nothing more than a facade to cover clever greedy moves. "Trust no one" was the watchword.

Fame is our substitute for this appearance of virtu. We don't really think the famous, in person, would seem to be extraordinary human beings. Indeed, when an American tells you of his meeting with someone famous he almost always says that he was just like you and me as if this were an extraordinary and excellent thing to be. The Greeks were puzzled that someone might be attracted to something that was not excellent, as we are attracted to famous people. Though we do attribute to them a kind of magic, a kind of super ordinariness, and trouble ourselves with their lives, we really think them no better, and probably worse, than ourselves. For the most part they go from crisis to crisis. Unable to order their lives they wind up in jail, dry out from drug addiction, fall into bed and into messes with significant others, and say very little that is interesting or intelligent. We even admire them for being ruled by their emotions. We do not expect them to be brave or wise. We would never listen to them about something serious. Why would we actually listen to men who were ordinary and weak and had never shown themselves to be wise in counsel?

For us virtu is topsy-turvy. The less admirable someone is the more we admire him. Americans think of human excellence as a fraud or con, a good cover for the greedy little squirrel who is burying nuts while giving bombastic speeches. Much better the guy who shows himself warts and all. No one would ever think of our politicians as good, brave, honorable men whose word you could trust. They are winners in a dirty game. They lied, cheated and played dirty in every way they could get away with to win. That's what we like about them. All politicians lie, as everyone knows. If he said it, it's a lie. He, like everybody else, is looking out for numero uno, and whatever he says he says to gain some advantage. Everybody is at core selfish.

Think tankers were able to point to the Federalist Papers and the US Constitution in which the founding fathers argued for and then instituted a state system structured to referee the game of universal greed. They founded the American state as a sort of sporting arena in which unavoidable "factions" could duke it out without one being able to overwhelm any of the others. Low human impulses were inevitable, the best you could do was pit one against the other.

The state was designed to prevent the predators from attacking one another. For if everyone was, by definition, greedy, so were the Founding Fathers. You wouldn't want to referee between the lion and the lamb, but rather between lions who might tear each other to pieces without either gaining anything to eat. In reality the American state protected a sort of game preserve where the strong could poach upon the weak without killing each other. The famous checks and balances checked primarily the poor, or in Greek euphemism, the many, while they guaranteed that the differing interests, north and south would not overwhelm each other. The authors of the Federalist Papers feared, primarily, the House of Representatives -- the only branch elected by the "people." The Senate, chosen by the state legislatures, would prevent their getting too uppity. At the beginning the first citizens themselves strolled the hallowed halls, but "politicians," including representatives, soon turned pro, and paid representatives did their masters bidding in the sacred chambers.

All this took place under the steady and watchful eyes of the Supreme Court, a collection of old reliable retainers who had proved themselves to the rich with a lifetime of faithful service. They set themselves up to curb the dangerous "rights" the anti-federalists had forced upon the federalists in the form of the Bill of Rights. These august personages "interpreted" the constitution, and everybody went right along with it as if no one could read the Constitution for themselves. Had anyone bothered to do so he might realize that it needs no interpretation. The entire Constitution, with the exception of the Bill of Rights, is instructions for setting up the federal government. What's to interpret? The Supreme Court concerns itself entirely with the Bill of Rights and later amendments, that is the protections people thought they needed against the overweening power the Constitution proposed to take. In other words, the Supreme Court set itself up as constitutional arbiter of those parts of the Constitution that were supposed to restrict the Constitution's power.

The American "new man" is an inhabitant of this refereed jungle. No one thought him up or tried to create him; he is the product of unreason. He is ambitious, uneducated, and ready to do whatever he can get away with to succeed. He admires himself, as the paragons of all political regimes do. He is simply "the best" or "the greatest," and at the same time completely ordinary. Sometimes he secretly sees himself as ferocious, especially if he has just gotten a corner office on the forty-third floor of a high-power building in a with-it city. Above all he sees himself as self-made, owing nothing to nobody. He believes that the United States embodies the Enlightenment ideal of "freedom" as well as it can be embodied in this imperfect world. He openly resents any attempt to educate him and seeks only job training from school. He knows what he wants: fun and games. Americans who are not this are outsiders even if, like some Metics in Athens, they were born here and have lived here all their lives.

This persona, with his insistence on exalting greed, which had hitherto been considered low, had his problems from the start. The Americans' insistence upon greed's goodness rested upon an appeal to "realism," the understanding that once you cut through the crap all humans are greedy dogs. It was difficult to then turn around and exalt this greedy dog as "the greatest." To counter this Americans give profusely to charity and make many do-gooder noises. The good guy in an American movie is the one who does something for someone else, no matter how perfunctory. Unfortunately none of this can hide what Americans know deep down -- that all altruism is bullshit. Otherwise there might be something to the Communist "new man."

The American new man suffered from bad faith. In spite of the hallowed Constitution built upon the admission of universal greed, he could not entirely convince himself that greed was good. Or, if he did convince himself that greed was good then he concluded that the laws were simply arbitrary, giving advantage usually to the already rich. Greed or the laws were good, but not both unless in one's own case the law served greed. Although everyone mouthed an insistence on the goodness of the laws, they didn't mean it. For anything that restricted greed, that fount of all desire, was bad. In short, the setup the regime created actually discredited the regime itself. Men instituted laws to prevent force and fraud, but why prevent force and fraud in the jungle? To bend or break the rules -- that is, undermine the American regime, is as American as apple pie. The rules were there to be manipulated. For those who found ways to use the law for their own gain this was a happy discovery; for others not so happy.

During the twentieth century the American new man became a figure at odds with the regime itself in the cause of some vague morality that cannot even be described. The movies reflected this change. In Dragnet Joe Friday was just doing his job. He was a cop catching bad guys. The police were, without question, on the side of good. Bad was bad and good was good. Perhaps Dirty Harry was the first to find himself at odds with the system in his struggle to do good. He is after Scorpio, a bad guy so bad that he is not even greedy, just plain bad through and through. But the rules prevent Harry from pursuing him with all his energy and in the end force Harry to give up his badge, that is, step outside the system of law. After him it became almost obligatory in cop movies for the hero to have a dust up with his immediate superior over his use of unorthodox methods, usually force, in the pursuit of bad. Although it is sometimes merely ritualized it is still there, present, for example, in the Die Hard movies. In Witness the system not only hinders John Book in his pursuit of bad guys, it is the bad guys. His enemy is a gang of rogue cops. Lucky for him, higher up there are still good cops who are really good, but the notion that somewhere higher up the system was still "good" was evaporating. In Chinatown the system is corrupt through and through, and it destroys the good and beautiful, Evelyn Mulwray, the Faye Dunaway character. Gittes, the hero, in denying virtue for himself, says that we all swim in the same dirty waters.

Raymond Chandler's hero Marlowe is not particularly greedy. He usually turns down offers of cash to protect his integrity. He doesn't judge people by whether or not they broke society's rules, but with a yardstick of his own. He relies more upon how he feels about them than what they have done. People are good or bad because the hero likes or does not like them. He relies on a kind of integrity or authenticity that reflects itself in his no bullshit wisecracking dialog. He, like Gittes in Chinatown, navigates a world without signposts relying upon his natural instinct to guide him. Finally, In Bad Lieutenant, McDonagh, the Nicholas Cage character, does every imaginable bad thing yet keeps hunting down bad guys. The world is a jungle again except that the animals are drug fiends stupefying themselves to ward off excruciating pain, and the good guys are the bad guys.

As long as the Soviet Union existed the disintegration of the American man remained hidden. However up in the air he was he was far better off than his counterpart on the other end of the seesaw. That guy thought he was a person, but he was a mere cog in a machine. Compared to our gaudy, three ring big top his world is some dreary WWII-era pup tent. He was an ant in an anthill, his own existence completely dissolved in the collective. Our imagination is like a fireworks display in California; his like a Moscow winter. Our lives are much, much better.

So you see? If you listen to reason you will have his horrible life. For his life is what reason gets you. All their misery comes from their trying to reasonably plan their economy. See how much better the free enterprise make-it-up-as-you-go system is? We have no idea what the fuck is coming next and that's what makes us better. Reason is, let's face it, stupid to say nothing of vicious. The only sane way is to let the invisible hand of the market guide you. Use of reason ends in the Gulag Archipelago, a vast totalitarian system of prisons for political prisoners. Reason is both evil and boring, incomparably worse than the gaudy spectacle of unreasonable American freedom with its delightful pet rocks and inflatable women.

When the Soviet Union disappeared it was as if the guy on the other end of the seesaw fell off. The seesaw crashed down. Without the totalitarian other, Americans fell into Gittes's dirty water, up shit's creek and, never mind the paddle, without a boat. Given that the shit was their own greedy little motives, they had been dipping into it for a long time, but the seesaw ride with the Soviet man had enabled them to push off, feel themselves lifted into the sky, and forget that their asses were wet from having been dipped into shits creek on every downward swing. Greedy little money grubbers at the bottom, "the greatest" at the top, Americans enjoyed the seesaw ride so much that they paid little attention to anything else. With Soviet man gone, Americans had no one to push down the other end of the seesaw and lift them up. The seesaw came down, dumping them into the creek.

The absence of the Soviet Union made the hypocritical pretense to goodness unbearable, pointless and, perhaps, even inefficient. America could now reveal itself for who it truly was, a rapacious mother fucker, and saw no reason not to. It was the end of history. Why not take off your mask. All that Enlightenment crap about human dignity is just so much fog. We're mother fuckers!

Suddenly relieved of the burden of hypocrisy to cover the grab for goodies, the Bush administration reveled in its own nastiness. They tore off the mantle of goodness the US had worn for so long and showed themselves naked. Rumsfeld was the best at playing the question and answer game, mouthing enigmatic nothings as he strutted up and down in front of journalists, all of whom seemed to aspire to being leaches. His brazen callousness awed everyone. If art for art's sake is one ideal, Bush made another of shittiness for shittiness's sake. Gleefully his guys did every shitty thing they could think of. They allowed the destruction of libraries and denied medicine to babies. They broke into houses in the middle of the night and raped the girls. They humiliated the heads of houses for no good reason. Bush-era guys practiced pointless torture even in the early days of the Iraq War, when they were sure they had won. The notorious torture prisons served no purpose other than as a flagrant display of barbarousness. Human dignity? Don't make me laugh. It's a dog-eat-dog world. Surely torture could extract no useful information from someone who had spent years in the hole? What useful tidbit could such a being know? The torture prisons served no purpose other than that of display, a display of all the things America prided itself on not being but actually was, a country of greedy guts with no belief in anything other than whup ass.

American man had for some time covered his nature to conceal it from himself. He was a good guy. Of course he knew, but he didn't want to know. Every American knows that whenever you do anything for anybody else, even your wife, even your child, you are moving to the left, that is, into the opposition. Family values, wink, wink. The Bush administration simply made this impossible to deny any more. Bush is the pin-up boy for caring for no one but yourself. He was the star of a movie called "Stupidity." He showed that the Constitution was not a compromise between reason and unreason, as if anyone could believe that, but simply a device for unreason to lull reason until the time was right to repudiate all those stupid "truths" we said were self-evident just to fool you. It's a dog-eat-dog world sucker, and we're taking you out. Thugs rule.

Bush and friends were sure that their own mother-fucking unreason had taken reason, or the Enlightenment version of it, out once and for all. They were sure they had buried that party pooper. They reveled in unreason, saying whatever they felt like, true or untrue, and notoriously claiming that they created reality for others to interpret. Nonsense gave them a real kick. They were sure that anything reason could do, ass-kicking could do better. They made it up as they went along, said things that no one believed but everyone discussed seriously, and convinced themselves that they no longer even needed to manipulate images on a screen. Reason, demonized for so long, had deteriorated so far that people would believe any fucking thing you dished up no matter how outlandish or unreasonable it appeared. And indeed so it proved.

The whole country trotted along behind Bush's lurching wagon train of unreason as it rumbled westward towards the Promised Land and into the unknown. Their commitment to unreason as the greed's best political tool was unwavering. The Bush men and women were, I am sure, aware of the impending disasters of climate change and peak oil that loomed over humankind like a perfect storm and a tsunami both about to crash down on a very fragile civilization, but believed that unreason, that is grabbing everything for themselves, would save them. They were planning to hole up on fortified islands or walled gated communities. Or even more likely, they believed that these problems, problems that, let's face it, reason had plopped down on the table, would disappear if covered with bullshit, their stock in trade. If we simply deny it is happening, make up fake science, and slander anyone who disagrees, the whole planet won't burn to a cinder. The ostrich had it right from the start. The market proves it. And even if the planet does cook, our little islands with their private armies and high tech security systems would be safe. We'll have air conditioning. So we'll be on vacation for awhile and fuck you suckers. That greed itself might turn the planet into a new fetid witch's cauldron and suck away in frivolous fun and pointless work the remaining oil necessary to powering down, they never considered. How could they, given that thinking was, for them, verboten? That the calamity would overwhelm even the greedy ones, sitting on piles of goodies, never crossed what was left of their rational minds. They completely forgot that they were perched on top of the giant construct of civilization and, if it went, so would they. They put all their eggs in the basket called ass-kicking. Greed had set itself up against reason, embraced its opposite, ass-kicking, and so barreled ahead to an inevitable doom it could not, in its commitment to unreason, see.

One might envision this as the shoving off point into the void, but in good American fashion we should insist that there is no one shoving off point into the void. Rather there are many or none and no one can know just where they are or even recognize them when they see them. That would put us right in the muddle of the mind of the American new man.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago (1964-1970) and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.   (back)


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Published October 18, 2010