Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's Virtues, Or We Need Morality but NOT Traditional Morality

Conservatives, Liberals, Revolutionaries

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #977, October 11, 1998

"From whatever vantage point one looks, it is unmistakable that there is what could be called `a moral crisis in America.' There has been, to a significant degree, `a breakdown of traditional morality.' But the answer to this -- at least the answer that is in the interests of the majority of people in the U.S. and the overwhelming majority of humanity -- is not a more aggressive assertion of that `traditional morality' but winning people to a radically different morality, in the process of and as a key part of radically transforming society and the world as a whole. It is not the tightening but the shattering of tradition's chains that is called for."

Bob Avakian

In light of the power struggle now threatening to bring down a president, the 1996 essays by Bob Avakian on the 'crisis of morality' in U.S. society are both timely and insightful. These important essays include: "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Beneath William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting An End to 'Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)."

In this selection from "A Pulpit of Bones" he talks about how the Conservative forces in the bourgeoisie like William Bennett have gained the initiative. Bennett has emerged as a "moral authority" and a powerful voice demanding Clinton's resignation in his latest book, "The Death of Outrage."

Other selections from Avakian's essays will follow in future issues and the entire series will soon be available on our website at

"Western morality"--and, for that matter, the dominant morality in all parts of the world, wherever society is marked by class division and exploitation, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression--has always been a rationale and justification for oppression. Although, in a society like the U.S. today, literal slavery is no longer upheld and women are not literally (or legally) treated as the property of men, the exploitation of labor, the subjugation of Black people and other "minorities," and the oppression of women remain integral and indispensable parts of the prevailing system. And it is not surprising that, in the face of changes which tend to undermine or cause upheaval within that system--to say nothing of direct challenges to it--the ruling class of this society more aggressively asserts the authority of its "traditional morality" along with sharpening and more ruthlessly wielding its sword of repression. Thus, it is not only William Bennett and other "Conservatives" who are waging a holy crusade for "The Family" and "Family Values," but they are joined and rivaled in this by the Democrats and "liberals" of the ruling class.

The fact is, however, that in this crusade, and more generally these days, the "Conservatives" have the initiative over the "Liberals." Why? There are a number of underlying factors: major geopolitical changes, in particular the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union; changes in the world economy--involving the further internationalization of production and of speculative and other parasitic activity by capital--together with changes in the U.S. economy, including significant shifts in the composition of the work force away from "blue-collar" jobs; and a huge increase in debt associated with the unprecedented U.S. military build-up during the 1980s (the cost of "winning the cold war").

So the waning of liberalism must be seen against a broad canvas. On the one hand, economic and social shifts--like "downsizing" of industry and the decline of unions, suburbanization and the fracturing of the old-line urban political coalitions--have weakened the traditional social props of New Deal politics. On the other hand, intense global economic pressures and looming fiscal crisis are forcing drastic restructuring of government spending and social programs--this following years of restructuring in the private sector. This is an era of "lean and mean" and ever more mobile capitalism. It is about cheapening production, depressing wages and benefit levels, and creating a more flexible and "disposable" labor force. And it is about massively slashing New Deal/Great Society-type social spending--now decried as "unproductive cost burdens." (Wasn't it the Democrat Clinton who coined the phrase, "end welfare as we know it"?) These and related factors have cut the ground from under the "New Deal consensus" and the concessionary programs ("war on poverty," etc.) which have been the basis for Democratic Party administration of capitalist rule in the U.S.

Resurgent Patriarchy

At the same time, many of these same factors, together with the struggle waged by the women's movement, have resulted in a situation where large numbers of women have not only the necessity but also the possibility of working outside the home. All this has been accompanied by a great deal of turmoil and upheaval, and one of its most important consequences has been that, from a number of angles and among various sectors of the population in the U.S., the basis of the traditional patriarchal family and the "traditional family values" associated with it has been significantly eroded. And yet all these changes are taking place within the confines of the same system--on the same foundation of capitalist economic relations.

This is potentially a very explosive contradiction, and in many aspects this explosiveness is already erupting. On the one hand, it is vitally important for those who preside over this system to "contain" this contradiction and not to allow it to produce a polarization that could threaten to tear society apart. In particular, they must try to avoid fundamentally alienating great numbers of women and driving them into radical opposition to the status quo--including many professional and other middle class women. At the same time, it is crucial for the guardians of the status quo to fortify patriarchal relations, while adjusting them to the realities of the present situation.

The polarization and bitter struggle around the right to abortion has been a concentrated expression of this. Clearly, the essence of the anti-abortion "movement"--which from its inception has been led and orchestrated from "on high" (I am referring to the role of powerful ruling class figures, not the alleged inspiration from god)--has been to assert patriarchal control over women, including to insist on the defining role of women as breeders of children. The fundamentalist foot-soldiers of this "movement" make this very clear.

The following prayer offered at an "Operation Rescue" rally, cited in Life magazine (July 1992) typifies this: "Oh please, Lord, break the curse on women's hearts that says we don't need our men. Break that independence." The fact that this prayer was voiced by a woman provides an eerie reminder of the active participation, and the particular role, of significant numbers of women in the Nazi ranks in Germany under Hitler (something analyzed by Claudia Koonz in her book Mothers in the Fatherland). (It is one of the most outrageous ironies of the battle around abortion that the anti- abortionists have raised the specter of the Holocaust to characterize the abortion of fetuses, when in fact their agenda, with regard to women and more generally, parallels very closely that of the Hitler fascists, who in fact attacked abortion--and restricted and criminalized it--as something contrary to the essential "motherhood" role of women.)

The War on the Poor

In another dimension, the changes in the U.S. and in world economics and geopolitics have meant that millions of people on the bottom of American society, particularly those in the inner-city ghettos and barrios, face the prospect of being more or less permanently "locked out" of any meaningful, or gainful, employment--except in the "underground economy," centering largely around drugs, which has become a major economic factor and a major employer in every major urban area (and many smaller cities and towns and even rural areas as well).

Here again, the need of the powers-that-be is to contain and maintain ultimate control over this situation--and over the masses of people on the bottom of society--and to erect and fortify barriers between them and other sections of society ("the middle class"). This explains the continuing increase in funds and forces devoted to crime and punishment--the police and prisons, the wars against these masses in the name of "war on drugs" and "war on crime"--on the one hand; and, on the other hand, the fact that these wars are never "won" but are always ongoing.

All this sets the framework and the "tone" for ruling class politics in the U.S. It demands that the "leading edge" of this be an aggressive, mean-spirited assault on those on the bottom of society and the slashing of concessions to them--a war on the poor in place of a supposed war against poverty--along with an equally aggressive and mean-spirited crusade to promote and enforce "old-fashioned values" of patriarchy and patriotism as well as good old white chauvinism (racism).

One after another, all kinds of "theories" and "studies"--claiming to show that there are innate and unchangeable differences between races and genders and other groupings in society which explain why some have and really should have a privileged and dominant position over others--are spread and legitimized throughout the mass media. This, it is claimed, provides the "scientific explanation" for why programs that purport to overcome such inequalities are doomed to failure and must be gutted. What it actually provides further scientific proof of is the utter bankruptcy of a system and a ruling class that is abandoning even the pretense of overcoming profound inequalities and instead is inventing "profound reasons" why they cannot be overcome. And in all this, while the "liberals" have a role to play, the initiative belongs to the "conservatives."(END)

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