The Human Condition, American Nihilism, and the Absurd

How is it possible that the vast majority of Americans remain unconditionally committed to the American Empire even though it rests firmly on a foundation based on money, power, speed, greed, gluttony, sprawl, size, class inequality, racial injustice, environmental trauma, and violence without end?  Although millions of Americans distance themselves from many of these insidious traits, they, nevertheless, continue to march in lockstep with political leaders who embrace them all.  How can this be?

Where is the glue which holds the highly destructive American Empire together?  The glue is nothing less than the human condition itself, God’s gift to us in the Garden of Eden.

There they were in the Garden, Adam and Eve – separated, naked, purposeless, powerless, and fearful – just like we Americans.  What they were up against, as are we, was the human condition.  First, we are, as were they, all separated from each other.  Second, our lives are meaningless.  Third, we are overwhelmed by our inability to influence our own destiny.  We are powerless.  Fourth, since we are so afraid of death, we spend most of our lives denying the inevitable.

God told Adam and Eve that they were free to eat the fruit from any tree in the Garden but one, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”   “You will surely die,” warned God, if the fruit from that tree is eaten.  Seduced by the slippery serpent, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  So enraged was God by their complete disregard for his entreaty that he imposed on all of us who have come after Adam and Eve the same four conditions which bedeviled them.

Just as the clever serpent seduced Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, so too has the United States government enticed millions of Americans into its web with the promise of human connectedness, meaning, power, and security.  Such an offer few dare refuse.

For starters, U.S. citizenship offers us membership in a very large and influential community, the United States of America.  Whether or not it’s possible to have a real sense of community among over three hundred million people seems to matter little.  Most Americans still believe that, “We are the greatest nation in the world.”  What is important is that American citizenship implies a sense of connectedness to something that is bigger than life.  It enables us to feel less separated from ourselves, from others, and the ground of our being.  We experience the satisfaction of belonging even though it may be illusory.

The fact that the United States is the world’s only remaining superpower is not only a source of pride for millions of Americans, but also a source of pseudomeaning as well.  We are number one, the most powerful country in the world.  How we use this power matters not.  Few seem to care how many innocent Afghans, Iraqis, or Palestinians we massacre through our policy of full spectrum dominance.  “Might makes right,” said Adolf Hitler.  We want everyone to be just like us, and we are in charge.

Many an American truly believes that only the U.S. government can solve all of our problems all of the time. The government will protect us from the economic recession and from terrorism.  Unfortunately, if the truth be known, U.S. government policies were a major cause of the recession and appear to be much more effective in promoting terrorism rather than eliminating it.

Finally, in the eyes of many Americans, the United States is immortal.  It will surely live forever.  But is it really true?  How can an empire survive if it engages in an endless war on terrorism, the rendition of terrorist suspects, prisoner abuse and torture, the suppression of civil liberties, citizen surveillance, pandering to the rich and powerful, environmental destruction, a culture of deceit, and a foreign policy based on full spectrum dominance and imperial overstretch.   Massive military spending, multi-trillion dollar budgets and Wall Street bailouts, mounting trade deficits, and a precipitous decline in the value of the dollar are concerns of only a few.  For most it is simply business as usual.  Everything is going to be just fine.

But everything is not okay.  The American Empire’s promise of allaying our fears of separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and death is pure bunk.  The U.S. government is all about nihilism.  It has become too big, to centralized, too powerful, too intrusive, too materialistic, too high-tech, too globalized, too militarized, too imperialistic, too violent, too undemocratic, too corrupt, and too unresponsive to the needs of individual citizens and communities.

In the language of French existentialist Albert Camus, the American Empire is “absurd.”

Thomas H. Naylor

December 10, 2010

Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza and Downsizing the USA.