Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Is the capitalist system compatible with life?
Norman Pollack: I think not, not as a reflex-action, but because the commodity structure, which is the salience of capitalism, is the source of alienation. Human beings are reduced to commodities, valued—if at all—for their exchange value. The characteristic impulse or query under capitalism is, what’s in it for me? There is no intrinsic respect for others; in fact others become no more than means to the satisfaction of one’s own ends. The classic statement of this analysis is Marx’s Economic-Philosophical Manuscript of 1844, and an excellent statement built on that is Fritz Pappenheim, The Alienation of Modern Man.
During the presidential election which takes place at present in the United States, do you think that the debate which is held between the candidates is as high as the expectations of the voters?
Regrettably, candidates and voters are on the same egregiously low plane, an absence of thoughtful discussion, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. Sanders, the one presumed radical, in fact has supported the entire US policy of intervention, covert action, and regime change. Clinton supported the surge in Afghanistan and is a decided hawk. The Republicans, with the possible exception of Rand Paul, are crypto-fascists, on both domestic and foreign policy. If Trump succeeds, militarism will triumph over all else, nor will others object, including the electorate.
What do you think of email’s scandal of candidate Hillary Clinton?
It seems obvious that she is incapable of telling the truth. She craves power, at any and all costs—and makes Margaret Thatcher look like Florence Nightingale. If one had to choose between Clinton and Trump, Americans would be best advised to move to Canada.
The crisis of ‘ 29 produced the Nazism, the current crisis produced ISIS. What is there of changed in the world?
Excellent question. I don’t think Nazism and ISIS are on the same historical continuum. Perhaps a deeper continuum is the growth of depersonalization, a breakdown of the human personality structure, yielding nihilism and a desire to destroy rather than to construct.
How do you explain the bankruptcy of labor movement’s framing forces? What is your reading on this matter?
I feel deeply pessimistic, for this traditionally progressive social force appears to have abandoned a sense of solidarity not only within itself but toward all who are persecuted and discriminated against. Labor is capital’s mirror image, only less successful in wealth accumulation. In America, this was very different 50 years ago and earlier: real strikes over basic issues, plus alignment with civil rights groups.
How did we arrive at the point where the consumption governs the life, whether it is in the media, political, societal, economic sphere, etc.? Is this situation bearable?
Consumption as practiced is far worse under capitalism because it is the path to identity. (I mean conspicuous consumption, as opposed to the necessaries of life—again better resolved under socialism.) Bearable—so long as false consciousness persists and prevails, rich and poor alike not exposed to, nor capable of comprehending, an alternative.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Norman Pollack is an American historian, born in 1933. He is a Harvard Ph.D., a Guggenheim Fellow in 1968 and an emeritus professor of History at Michigan State University in East Lansing Michigan. He has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. His highly praised books include: The Populist Mind (1967), The Populist Response to Industrial America- Midwestern Populist Thought (1976), The Just Polity: Populism, Law, and Human Welfare (1987), The Humane Economy: Populism, Capitalism, and Democracy (1990), and Eichmann on the Potomac: The Psychopathology of Drone Warfare (2014). Norman Pollack has a long history of engaging civil rights and anti-war activities over the decades, beginning when he was 15 and campaigning for Henry Wallace and his Progressive Party in 1948. Later he campaigned for Adlai Stevenson in the 50s and supported Martin Luther King. Prof. Pollack was a major intellectual voice during the late 60s in giving a knowledgeable boost to the New Left and writing on American populism, which became a popular documentary « The Populist Mind« . After receiving his doctorate in American Civilization from Harvard, he taught at Yale and Wayne State before going to Michigan. In his later years he has focused on the history of civil disobedience, socio-political alienation, and the sociology of fascism. Prof. Pollack currently writes for Counterpunch, looking at the identifying characteristics of America’s descent into a new form of neoliberal fascist state.
Published in Oximity, September 17, 2015: https://www.oximity.com/article/Norman-Pollack-If-one-had-to-choose-be-1