WPTPN: The Loss of the American Narrative

14 December 2016, 1011 EST

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Aida A. Hozić is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Florida. This blogpost draws on a chapter prepared for Hegemony and Leadership in the International Political Economy, edited by Alan Cafruny and Herman M. Schwartz (Lynne Rienner, forthcoming).

There is a moment at the end of every regime when the relationship between all hitherto accepted modes of representation and reality seems to collapse.  Regimes start running on fumes when well-established political rituals appear devoid of meaning, when institutionalized practices are revealed as arbitrary, when beloved symbols of power suddenly have no referent, pointing instead at power’s empty seat. In short, regimes collapse when narratives that have held them together are no longer believable.

America, I would argue, might be rapidly approaching that point.

In the late 1980s, British political economist Susan Strange warned that the “decline of American hegemony” might be a persistent myth. American structural power, she argued, remained intact, greatly aided by its remarkable knowledge industries. The myth of the lost hegemony, in her view, was just a way for American elites to avoid accounting for their own foreign policy mistakes.

Nearly thirty years later, America’s structural power – and even America’s knowledge industries – may still be in the position to define the rules of the game for other players in the international system. America continues to lead in production and distribution of mediated and/or academic knowledge, including knowledge about international affairs, if measured by economic or quasi-economic indicators (market shares, revenues, profits or dividends, rankings) – but its once unparalleled ability to control hegemonic narratives about itself and its role in international politics has been eroded. The loss of control over the global imaginary is less due to the rise of alternative centers of knowledge or image production (“counter-narratives”) and more to the contradictory influences of America’s own economic master’s tools – globalization, technology, and financialization. In other words, the appeal of America’s narrative is being diluted by the very strategies that have made the continuation of its structural dominance possible.

The key ingredients of the American autobiography over the past century, but especially after World War II, have been American Exceptionalism – as the macro-historical narrative of unique and fortuitous national destiny – and the American Dream – as the story of individualism, ownership, and meritorious success despite all odds. There is no doubt that these were mostly white, imperial, and male fantasies, which now clash with America’s demographic realities and diversity of its voices. There is also no doubt that they were the fantasies that nurtured, for decades, certain gendered and racialized socio-economic expectations for America’s working and middle classes which can no longer be sustained due to the same set of factors that have made the continuation of its structural dominance possible – globalization, which has outsourced manufacturing jobs elsewhere; technological transformation, which has replaced those same jobs with computers; and financialization, which has turned people’s very livelihoods and homes into objects of global market speculation.

But for the good part of the past century, American knowledge producers were still able to legitimize these narratives, even when they were obviously out of sync with world events and people’s experiences. American social scientists supplied allegedly objective knowledge supporting the idea of American exceptionalism; Hollywood and American media industries supplied emotionally-gripping stories validating the American Dream. Combined, they sustained the American autobiography. However, thanks to the same economic and political strategies currently underwriting American structural power, academia and Hollywood are no longer in the position to feed ancillary stories to this well-established autobiographical narrative. Successive waves of politically-supported “disruptive innovation” have eroded their story-telling capacities blending all knowledge into infotainment.

The symptoms of this malaise are all over. American economists have been on the defensive ever since the Great Recession. International relations scholars speak of “the end of IR theory” and pundits complain about the dearth of “grand strategy” conversations. The field, especially in the United States, is dominated by “hypothesis-testing” works, mostly quantitative, and no longer identified with any of its great paradigmatic traditions which sought to explain America’s role in the world. Ido Oren explains this move from great theoretical debates to quantitative research in the field of IR by relying on three factors – corporatization of the U.S. universities, changing levels of funding for social science research from the national security agencies of the U.S. government, and the embeddedness of International Relations within American Political Science.

Area studies scholars are also concerned about the decline and/or changes in federal funding for foreign languages, cultural training, and social science research about other regions of the world. In 2013, the U.S. Department of State completely defunded the so-called Title VIII program for Russia, one of America’s key knowledge generators about its super-power rival. Funding for Title VI programs, created during the Cold war to produce knowledge about East Asia, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia –has also declined, only to be supplanted by DoD grants, discussed above by Oren. However, notes Charles King, “…there is a substantial difference between research that broadly supports the national interest and work that directly enhances national security.”  And he continues: “It was once the case that state-supported research was meant to give the United States an edge in its relations with other countries. Now, with programs such as Minerva [a DoD funded program], the temptation is to give government an edge over the governed.”

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, investors’ pressure to produce a continuous stream of block-busters is now squeezing out films that once made Hollywood so appealing – mid-budget movies. Stories about ordinary people are being replaced by super-heroes, animated characters and special effects movies targeting global, and particularly Chinese, audiences. A number of well-known filmmakers are feeling left out – Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh – and they are speaking out, lamenting the death of story-telling in recent American films. Even George Lucas, who sold his Star Wars franchise to Disney, has been critical of the industry for privileging profits over story. In an interview with Charlie Rose, following the release of the Disney version of a Star Wars sequel, Lucas went as far as to say that “filmmakers in the Soviet Union had more freedom than their counterparts in Hollywood,” who, he maintained, “have to adhere to a very narrow line of commercialism’.”

We can only speculate about the consequences of this commercially-driven narrative shift which is replacing the once immensely popular cinematic vision of American democracy such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Captain America. A critical review of Hollywood’s super-hero super-budget movies in The Atlantic magazine, written in the heat of the U.S. 2016 Presidential campaign, further elaborated on the narrative consequences of this trend, warning against its paranoid portrayal of the world and vigilante heroes a la Captain America. American cinema, emphasized Alex Wagner in this text, “continues to shape how Americans think about themselves and the world, and extreme apocalypse mass culture may very well have whetted an appetite for extreme apocalypse politics.”

Likewise, we can debate the emotional impact of the terribly macho and terribly romanticized immigrant sagas – such as the Rocky franchise – and compare them with the affective register of the equally macho conspiracy-laden franchise The Bourne Identity (while noting that some things, such as gender and racial bias, never change). And we can wonder about the effects of Hollywood’s anti-Vietnam films – Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Coming Home – on perceptions of American power at home and abroad. We can view these anti-war films as symptoms of weakness and erosion of the U.S. hegemonic power or as indicators that America was, in fact, so sure of itself that it could withstand critique and dissent. Either way, I would argue, and for better or for worse, such films offered a more inspiring view of America’s role in the world than do serialized Marvel comics, Harry Potter novels, and J.R. Tolkien’s fantasies – all produced in times of continuous warfare, just as grave as Vietnam.

There is, perhaps, quite a bit of truth in Jonathan Kirshner’s claim that the 1970s, the era just before the birth of the blockbuster, was Hollywood’s last Golden Age. “When I was in college, we argued about the movies,” wrote Kirshner, because the films of the Seventies, “these commercial Hollywood movies – were shaped by, and in dialogue with, the political, social, personal and philosophical issues of their times.” Contemporary films, by contrast, no longer provoke such conversations, says Kirshner. With the advent of big hits, big action, big stars and big money, the relationship between films and their audience has dramatically changed. Marketing rather than word of mouth has become crucial in determining the box-office success of a film, sidelining audience opinion. “The American film culture had changed,” concludes Kirshner, “It was not about anything anymore.”

And, as we have learned from the bitter campaigns during the 2016 Presidential election, no common American narrative has emerged that can reconcile the twin pressures of globalization and nationalism; the push towards the technologization of knowledge and story-telling is replacing substance with form; the financialization of knowledge industries – as much as all other aspects of everyday life – deeply polarizes their audiences and reduces all story-telling to just one common denominator: return on investment.

Who will produce America’s hegemonic narrative in the future? Over the last decade, America’s establishment – political and financial – has placed its bets on social media (“The next revolution will be tweeted.”). George Soros, billionaire and philanthropist, warns that this may be yet another way in which America cedes its power to China, thus demanding a partnership to avoid war. “In recent years,” says Soros, “the US has led the world in the innovative development of social media, while China has led the world in finding means to control it.” Yet, Strange’s analysis would suggest that competition with China – or the loss of American hegemony – should not be America’s main worry. Far more troubling, perhaps, should be Charles King’s concern that “young Americans can play video games with their peers in Cairo, chat online with friends in St. Petersburg, and download music from a punk band based in Beijing. But consuming the world is not the same as understanding it.” Even less so, we could add, as producing it.

And in the aftermath of this pitiful election cycle, we can all witness what has filled the vacuum created by America’s lost narrative: fear, conspiracies, fake news, political demagoguery and … tweets.

The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN group is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.