The Rebirth of the American Subject

30. XII 2022

We are not alcoholics because we drink; we drink because we are alcoholics (S. Basara)

Prologue: The touchdown

America rose from the Atlantic like an auxiliary universe in which God’s experiment with mankind could be started from scratch – a land in which arriving, seeing and taking seemed to become synonymous. While in the feudalized and territorialized old Europe every strip of arable land had had an owner for thousand years, and every forest path, cobblestone or bridge was subject to age-old rights of way and restrictive privileges in favor of some princely exploiter, America offered countless arrivals the exciting contrasting experience of a virtually lordless land that, in its immeasurability, wanted only to be occupied and cultivated so as to belong to the occupier and cultivator. A world in which the settlers arrive before the land registers — a paradise for new beginners and strong takers[1].

Introspection: Risk-taking and chance nobility

Since its inception, America stood as a symbol of impunity in the unilateral penetration of unexplored areas[2] and a new frontier that embodies the spirit of globalization and risk taking. It was the land of escapism and new beginnings with no baggage of history and tradition, and few rules; an unstructured community of risk-takers where everyone had the same initial conditions. What in normal circumstances would be characterized as looters, were in fact pioneers and early settlers. The armed land-taker, a farmer under God, acted under rules more suitable to the definition of crime rather than noble participation in the exploration of the world. After several centuries of plunder and destruction of indigenous life, this criminal conduct got a divine stamp of approval in the form of Manifest Destiny.

America lacked its hereditary and institutional nobilities. But, as luck was the only metric of distinction, it defined one of its own, the nobility of chance: individuals who had become rich, famous and favored in their sleep, and who never quite understood what had carried them upwards[3].

On the clean slate of new beginnings everything was subject to change, an anomaly that went against the grain of the mores of the stability-obsessed Middle Ages. Until the late 20th century, America retained its status as a site of pure potentiality. It had no past, only future and was whatever it imagined itself to be, that unique place where anyone who wants to do something new can do something new and where the code of optimism constituted the true national language[4]. But the most unique (and the most troubling) aspect of American subjectivity, which defines the essence of its antisocial core, was the Chosenness, the American password for the disinhibition[5] of action and appearance on the world stage.  

This motif has created a stage where exception to the moral law could be taken. In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment this argument is summarized in Raskolnikov’s statement to the prosecutor:

In short, I argued that all people – not only the great, but even those who deviate only marginally from the common rut, that’s to say who are only marginally capable of saying something new, are bounded, by their very nature, to be criminals – to a greater or lesser degree, of course. Otherwise they would find it hard to get out of the rut, and it goes without saying that, again because of their nature, they could not possible agree to remain in it.

Belonging to the chosen people empowers one to commit crimes as a way of performing his duty of removing the obstacles to the new posed by the ordinary people, the destruction of the existing reality in the name of one that is better.

This is the logic that had defined the spirit of the New Continent from its discovery. In his letter to Doña Juana de Torres, Christopher Columbus wrote: Our Lord made me the messenger of the new heaven and the new earth, of which he spoke in the Book of Revelation by St John, after having spoken of it by the mouth of Isaiah.

Self-deception: The great accounting fraud

Some memories have to be buried and forgotten because they contradict the optimism of the big picture and some other will be used to build the official version of the “good history”.  And so the history began.

Things could never fully add up in the land of new beginnings. Luck is a zero sum game – it has both winners and losers. This (simple) fact collided with the puritanical code — there are no losers, only people who wallow in self-pity – and its existence had to be kept out of the public sight and political discourse. By deliberately manufacturing a mythical image of America and its past, the power of the past can be used to transform those that are governed and shape their subjectivity.

The great American accounting fraud — hiding the losers in the gambling hall of pursuit of happiness[6] – has been an ideological maneuver intended as depression concealment, which covers the abyss beneath every failed fortune-seeker. But, with time, the accumulated deficit of luck grew so big that it could no longer remain hidden and its burden became unbearable in the early 21st century. Its resurfacing defined the wounded subject of postmodernity.

With time, America has become a country with vanishingly few paths out of poverty (or even out of the working class) and after several centuries of the American dream, the direct lineage from the early settlers and risk-takes – the committed aficionados of luck – found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder which gave birth to the culture of victimhood.

The accidentally wounded white American male subject, an ousted member of dominant and privileged majority, has become a collateral damage of capitalism’s global triumph. Beaten in just about any game that matters, even the ones they invented, they have joined the ranks of excess population on the way to irreversible social displacement and marginalization.  

The emergence of the American wounded subject in the new century was immersed in nostalgia for the times of new beginnings, a demand for another chance to those who found themselves lost in the game of luck, competition, and meritocracy.

At the center of their uprising resides Ressentiment /rə,säntə’män/,  a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon,  a dormant emotional sediment caused by the loss of privileged position. Not sufficient to mobilize political action, it remains inactive and intoxicating.

This condition resulted in armies of disillusioned individuals who have committed themselves to chemical escape from American reality.

Intermission: The rebirth of the subject

Subjects are distinguished by their capacity to act – formation of a subject requires diffusing the inhibitory mechanisms in order to eliminate the regression of endless doubt instrumental for converting “theory” into actions. The easiest way to create disinhibiting mechanisms is to subject oneself to the command of a higher authority.

The modern right-wing populist uprising is modeled on the Jesuit mode of subjectivity, which consists of absolute surrender to supreme authority (the pope), cultural manifestations of the ability to suffer, and conversion of suffering into passion.

Contemporary victims of neoliberal capitalism retroactively see their newly found world in support of interpreting their history as a repressed memory of systematic abuse. Their version of American reality is a hysterical reaction to failure with subjectivity defined by their coming out, no longer needing to hide and admitting to the abuse[7].  

Their impassioned rage is mobilized through flood or arbitrariness with an aim of manufacturing reality from improbable possibilities through a populist cacophony of God, victimhood, entitlement, male privilege, ressentiment, and sovereign citizenry. The underlying discontent is contextualized through conspiracy theories and fusion paranoia. What used to be the terrain of fringe movements has become so deeply ingrained in the mainstream politics that the paranoid style has become the cohering idea of a broad coalition plurality that draws adherents from every point on the political spectrum. 

With their recent leader out of the picture, defenestrated, embarrassed, and discredited, the march of victimhood of angry citizens not only did not slow down, but it continued with new intensity and higher granularity. They offer impassioned conversion of their suffering and, like modern-day Jesuits, stand as passive followers offering their unconditional obedience to the highest bidder, a prospective new “pope”, who would elevate their victimhood, pledge their votes, and monetize their rage capital.

Epilogue: Reverse flows from the netherworld

2022 confirmed what previous years already outlined. In the last 12 months, the number of mass shootings in America exceeded 600 again, only marginally lower than the previous year’s record 692, and two times as high as in 2015 when the identitarian orgy got a new dose of legitimacy. These killings have become the micro representation of the rebellion of unreason that illustrate the final phase of transformation of the game of competition into a competition of cruelty.

For the chosen, failure and mediocrity is forbidden. But when the number of those who fell through the cracks grows so big that they become a community of like minds unified by shared victimhood and their new sense of belonging, the power of collective self-pity becomes a force of its own. The community is generally inclusive, which reflects a fear of small numbers — it likes size because it reinforces cohesion and identity robustness. It absorbs everyone willing to join in but expresses hostility to outsiders – burning bridges reinforces commitment to the identity.

The stealth approach of stochastic terror is the beginning of an uprising from the inside – a blowback of the American dream, its nightmare version — an autoimmune reaction of the system driven by the extrapolated logic that human life is worthless if it stands in the way of the pursuit of happiness.

Tired of self-abuse, anesthetized by drugs and alcohol, disillusioned white males have taken permanent residence in a conflicting configuration between life as they wanted it and life as it has been. They have been lost in their desperate search for a savior who will restore their (perception of) lost dignity and self-respect, and reclaim, on their behalf, what they always considered rightfully theirs, the privilege of luck.

Angry and armed with guns, but feeling powerless, they are taking a short cut in externalizing their depression through a simulated ritual of frontier justice and revenge for their predicament by denying the future to the innocence the way it had been denied to them.

This is the baggage of the American dream, which reinforces the late-Shakespearian perception of humans as competition-infected, jealousy-blinded, failure-scared risk-takers, which appear on the world stage as balls with which illusory powers, malign genies, money spirits and greed demons play their games[8].

In imperial Rome, Fortuna, the goddess of luck, was primarily the protector of slaves and destitute plebeians who depended entirely on chance and the generosity of the rich. In America, she had found another constituency as a protector of the new nobility of chance and turned its back on the poor.

The nebulous reality of the American dream has become the story of divine betrayal and its latest chapter represents an uprising against the new divine order. And this meaningless rebellion will not stop until the actual victims finally begin to speak and reflect about their history in honest and clear terms. Not when they tell themselves fairy tails about themselves, but when they start connecting the dots and drawing the lines.


[1] Peter Sloterdijk, In the World Interior of Capital, Polity (2013)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] The disinhibiting value of confession is another Jesuit motif of subjectivity – in its modern version, survivor transcends his trauma completely only when he can make it public as a testimony.

[8] ibid.

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2 thoughts on “The Rebirth of the American Subject

  1. Mr. Lucky

    Our society has many real victims but many more who view themselves in that light because they never made the connection between self-learning and positive outcomes. Doing something concrete with one’s life starts with the realization that one must start with doing for others, the cornerstone of Christianity. One does not gain unless one contributes. Others cannot do this for you. Today, everyone is looking for a savior to solve their problems and give them stuff to make them comfortable and fulfilled. This will never happen, nor should it.

    America started and moved forward through theft from others. We have killed millions of those who were here before us or brought here against their will to be the slaves of others. Yes, this was a land of opportunity where second sons and others trapped by the remnants of the Middle Ages could come and revive their lives. The trouble is we didn’t get ahead through our contributions to others but by taking what others possessed and wasting much of what we took. In the main, America has little to be proud of when the cost of what we have has been so high. No wonder we lack direction. My litmus test for the state of our country is to park at a corner with a four-way stop pattern for an hour. Just watch to see how many obey the law unconditionally. The over-under is 50% and I am betting the under. How can we take any comfort from a country experiencing more than 600 mass shootings in each of the past two years?

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  2. Eric Anderson

    This immediately puts me in the mind of Hegel’s response to the Madison/Jefferson debate. Essentially, he posited that we’d not learn the answer until after the closing of the American frontier. Well, give or take a century after the closing, we have our answer. Madison’s mechanistic separation if the public sphere is failing. Jefferson’s approach to “res” publican vision may have been the vehicle that not only allowed the U.S. to prosper well into the future, but also the world given our outsized influence.

    Now, I fear our disenfranchised cowboy politicians will burn the world down around all ears out of of pure ressentiment.

    Beautifully argued Bjarne.

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