First Harvest

17 November 2005
Article
 
Cover First Harvest

First Harvest
The Institute for Policy Studies, 1963-83

Edited by John S. Friedman
Preface by Gore Vidal
Introduction by John S. Friedman
Grove Press Inc, New York 1983
ISBN: 0 394 62491 2

Preface by Gore Vidal

The mindlessness of American politics is one of the wonders of the First World, and a cause of mirth not to mention tears in Worlds Two and Three. Since our republic's founding fathers feared monarchy and democracy equally, they gave us a constitution that has made it impossible for us to enjoy, if that is the word, either. Although we have traditionally taken pride in our lack of political ideology, it is now beginning to occur to a number of our more thoughtful citizens that we also dangerously lack political ideas. From time to time a popular movement will sweep the country and, for a moment, an idea will be introduced into the body politic. The movement to abolish slavery is the best - as well as the last example that we have of an idea which created not only real politics but a real political party that came to power in 1861. Ten years later it had ceased to exist except in name, and what might have been the start of a golden age for the United States became mere gilt. Currently, the so-called nuclear freeze movement shows some sign of bringing together a large number of like-minded people, but it is moot whether or not the result will be a real political party in opposition to the Republican-Democratic party, that peculiar binary affair, shaped like an idiot's brain.

The United States has been at war, either hot or cold, for forty-two years. For thirty-eight of those years this war has been directed against what Ronald Reagan has recently called "the focus of evil in the modern world", the Soviet Union and its relentless ideology which, Reagan tells us, inspires not only the nuclear freeze movement but is also subtly weakening Dow Chemical by pretending that they are polluting the environment. Since the owners of the United States have not been able to come up with a positive program to demonstrate our superiority over other systems (the free market place was put on ice many years ago by big business), the only political glue that can be counted on to hold together our system is fear of Communism and its evils. Hence the periodic cry, "The Russians are coming!", and a defense budget of three to six trillion dollars for the next five years.

Like the Bourbons, our rulers never learn and never forget. Like the Bourbons, they tend to strike the same note. Nearly a century and a half ago in France, George Sand wrote: "The great fear - or pretext - of the aristocracy at this hour is communism... By the word communism they really mean the people, their needs, their hopes. Let us not be confused - the people are the people, communism is the calumniated, misunderstood future of the people. The ruse is useless: it is the people who upset and worry you".

Plainly, it is the people at large that distress and disgust the current administration. The Omnibus Crime Bill now stalks the corridors of the Capitol. It has been killed again and again but like Dracula it rises again and again because, sooner or later, it will be necessary to have in place the legal means to keep order when the rioting - and, perhaps, worse - begins. Our governors are, literally, reactionary. Certainly, they react swiftly to any challenge to a system that enriches them mightly through all sorts of special legslation, of which the lion's share goes to the Defense Department (in my youth nicely called the War Department). But mindless reaction is not enough to save them - or us.

The United States is now in serious disrepair. The educational system, never much good, is being cut back. Inner cities resemble Calcutta. Productivity is almost as low as England's - and that is low indeed, while our per capita income has dropped to tenth place in the world, and so on and so on. Our success story is turning sour indeed. But since the Russians are coming, we cannot spend the money that we need to repair much less perfect the United States. We must spend all our money to fight and destroy (in a non-nuclear nuclear war, of course) Satan who broods athwart the opposite hemisphere. Naturally none of this makes any sense; and all of this is mindless. But there is nothing new here. In the last century, Herzen wrote: "Open any history you like and what is striking... is that instead of real interests, everything is governed by imaginary interests, fantasies". Certainly, fantasy now governs in that Disneyland by the Potomac where the Great Cue-card Reader preaches his simple-minded sermons of hate, and the last best war of all draws nearer and nearer.

Fortunately, in another part of Washington DC, there is the Institute for Policy Studies. For twenty years it has encouraged scholars of various sorts to try to bring ideas into American politics. This is probably not possible but at least it is a very good thing to have intelligent and knowledgeable people examine, say, police departments and ask such basic questions as: what is a police department for? should it be a para-military elite with its own politically oriented spy-system (of the order of what we have in Los Angeles) or should the police be volunteers - or what?

Naturally, the institute has had its problems. Anyone who suggests that a road be repaired by a non-crooked contractor is apt to be called a Commie. Nevertheless, good ideas do come out of the institute and its various offshoots around the country. Also, from time to time, an idea that has been isolated in the lab just off Dupont Circle may find its way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol (the way to the White House appears to be permanently blocked by subtle anti-bodies).

In a political system that eschews reality, there is obviously a good deal of work to be done in simply describing the state of the world in which we live. This anthology of analyses and ideas is a step in the right direction and, to quote yet again wise Herzen, when it comes to history, "There are no time-tables, no cosmic patterns; there is only the 'flow of life', passion, will, improvisation; sometimes roads exist, sometimes not; when there is no road, genius will blast a path". I hope that there is some genius here in these pages. If not, the reader will at least find a pretty good map of the country; and that is a lot.