For cultural critic Paul Smith, the tension between progressive and primitive is a constitutive condition of American history and culture. In Primitive America, Smith contemplates this primary contradiction as it has played out in the years since 9/11. Indeed, he writes, much of what has happened since—events that have seemed to many to be novel and egregious—can be explained by this foundational dialectic.
More radically still, Primitive America attests that this underlying stress is driven by America’s unquestioned devotion to the elemental propositions and processes of capitalism. This devotion, Smith argues, has become America’s quintessential characteristic, and he begins this book by elaborating on the idea of the primitive in America—its specific history of capital accumulation, commodity fetishism, and cultural narcissism. Smith goes on to track the symptoms of the primitive that have arisen in the aftermath of 9/11 and the commencement of the “Long War” against “violent extremists”: the nature of American imperialism, the status of the U.S. Constitution, the militarization of America’s economy and culture, and the Bush administration’s disregard for human rights.