It should surprise no one that the European revolutionaries are not inspired by the American dream. Nobody, after all, expected the fighters for national liberation in the post-Napoleonic era to cherish the memory of Metternich, and the United States is now a much mightier pillar of the new Holy Alliance for the preservation of the status quo. It intervenes, directly or by proxy, wherever the social order is threatened, from Taiwan to Greece to Guatemala. Whenever they are under attack, profit and privilege can rely on the forces of “freedom.” In Vietnam the American bombers spell out for the local population the bloody message “Better dead than red.” The Green Berets are ready to jump in order to rescue the ruling oligarchies of the banana and other republics of Latin America (though the profits of US companies are now better insured by training local troops for the struggle against “subversion”). Like a black knight in nuclear armor the United States Navy patrols the seas, proclaiming that no more social revolutions will be allowed, that China’s in 1949 was the last to be tolerated, while the Cuban affair was simply a misunderstanding. The Vietnamese resistance aroused enthusiasm far from Hanoi and Saigon because it challenged American presumption and proved that human courage still counted even in the world of nuclear balance. The Tet offensive in 1968 drove Western students to action because it revealed that the enemy was not invincible. Che Guevara, alive or dead, was hailed as a symbol of solidarity, of the international nature of the anti-imperialist struggle.
The salesmen of the American dream, and they are legion in Europe, prefer to bypass this role of international gendarme, or to justify it in terms of domestic achievement. They point to the democratic niceties, to the civil liberties the United States can still afford. They stress even more the economic achievement, the technological lead, the intellectual investment that vast accumulation has rendered possible, the level of research and management, the high productivity–in short, the superior wealth of the nation; and they turn to the young revolutionaries with the rhetorical question: Can you dismiss the American model in spite of all this? The answer is not in spite of it but because of it. The most frightening prospect, the American nightmare, is that with so much wealth man should not be able to build a different kind of society. In fact, the Europeans are merely echoing the indictment of America’s New Left which, instead of being dazzled by the moon, points to the dark side of American society; its inequality and racism, its collective poverty and private plenty, its derelict health services, its belated discovery of pollution and urban chaos–and to the system responsible for it all.
To its admirers, the United States has discovered the secret of perpetual motion for capitalism. Advertising, as a new dynamic method of sales promotion, is a way of getting rid of industrial surpluses superior to that of coffee burning in agriculture. Above all, with military expenditures absorbing, even in official figures, about one-tenth of the national product, the state has a powerful lever to direct the rhythm of output. Advanced capitalism differs from its predecessor. The vagaries of the cycle are less pronounced, unemployment is relatively smaller, growth comparatively more regular. This is not the place to discuss whether this post-Keynesian equilibrium, resting on a militarization of the economy unprecedented in peacetime, is stable and lasting. The painful discovery of America’s rulers is that even while the going is good, the system runs into new contradictions. American expansion meets resistance at home, as well as abroad. The outsiders rebel. The hitherto passive blacks refuse to continue being pariahs in the alleged land of plenty. The growing movement of protest among students and the radical part of the intelligentsia is a symptom of something deeper–the clash between the direction to which the expansion of productive forces is geared and the social needs of our age.
The “consumer society” is a misnomer suggesting that at least, as regards consumption, the average citizen is the uncrowned King. Though his material conditions have in many ways improved beyond recognition, modern man is still an alienated producer and a highly conditioned buyer of goods, a dissatisfied purchaser of leisure and pleasure with very little control over his environment. A producer society, guided by industrial and commercial profit, would be a much more accurate description. That problems such as pollution and urban decay are tackled only when they become unbearable is in the logic of things. Modern capitalism has changed enough in method and manner to face up to the unprofitable when it is under pressure. But it has preserved its essence. Profit remains its ultimate driving force, and it is intrinsically unable to confront the collective or individual problems of our society from any other angle. Consciously or unconsciously, this is what the protest is really about.