BY MATTHEW HERBERT
We are a nation of rugged individualists, we tell ourselves. We struggle alone and unaided on the great playing field of life. If we work hard, we succeed. Life is a meritocracy.
My favorite version of this myth, one which I believe in on sunny days, is Walt Whitman’s. America is a vast country of open skies, Whitman believed, offering endless opportunities for work to whoever wants to earn a living. In turn, what we do with our labor helps make us who we are.
All work is dignified work, continues this myth. The way we earn our living is a means of leaving our unique mark on the world. Work expresses a will to power, because it gives us the best tools we will ever have for fashioning a part of the world to accord with our wishes. Here is Whitman, singing of this strong spirit and its uniquely American character:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs
All very good. Whitman is lyrically feeling his way around a philosophical distinction Hannah Arendt will make between labor and work in The Human Condition. Labor, which Arendt says is something we have to do to, repeatedly and (seemingly pointlessly) to sustain ourselves, work is an intrinsically interesting activity that engages our mind and leaves behind a durable object in which we can take pride. It is what Whitman is referring to as the special thing that belongs to each worker “and to none else.” Meaningful work makes us who we are.
Capitalism in America came to conflate Arendt’s ideas of labor and work. The effusive joy of “I Hear America Singing,” reflects how lucky Whitman thought we were in this convergence. In a booming, bumptious America, no matter how you labored, it also counted as work. When Whitman wrote “I hear America Singing,” if you could walk out into an American morning and do your job, you were, without even thinking about it, helping build a great and noble nation. You were part of a living poem.
But with professionally specialized work, came wealth as well. Building the streets, railroads, cars and ships that made us who we are also made profit, some of which was passed along to the worker in the form of good wages. For quite a long while, trades-based work made Americans prosperous even as it guided them toward becoming their essential, poetic selves.
Now fast forward a century. It is the 1970s. Two decades have passed since the post-World War Two boom started to fuel new, increasingly profligate patterns of consumption. Americans have come to measure the value of their work, not in the mark it made on the world, but in the marginal amount of wages it brought in. The sacred thing that could belong to each of us was no longer a trades-based identity, but raw purchasing power. Buying stuff was the whole ballgame now. The advent of all-out consumerism de-sacralized work. It meant that all that mattered was whether our job brought us more stuff than the next guy.
Now anyone with even a single Marxian bone in her body has already recognized this unfolding story as the grim tale of alienated labor. American capitalism had come to reverse Whitman’s happy dilemma. With the rise of consumerism, no matter what kind of work you did, it also counted as mere labor–the rote execution of tasks to gain spendable wages.
Here is Gore Vidal, who had more than one Marxian bone in his patrician frame, from a 1972 essay. Vidal is discussing what it meant to work and earn one’s living in our great land, where purchasing power was now paramount:
Although the equality of each citizen before the law is the rock upon which the American Constitution rests, economic equality has never been an American ideal. . . . A dislike of economic equality is something deep-grained in the American Protestant character. After all, given a rich empty continent for vigorous Europeans to exploit (the Indians were simply a disagreeable part of the emptiness, like chiggers), any man of gumption could make himself a good living. With extra hard work, any man could make himself a fortune, proving that he was a better man than the rest. Long before Darwin the American ethos was Darwinian.
Now jump ahead to 2009. It has been 60-odd years since consumerism took over our culture, and nearly 40 since Vidal penned his jaded observations on this development.
An overtly Darwinian political class has arisen in America. It views the unbridled competition for wealth with full-bodied approval. With Ronald Reagan setting its mood and Milton Friedman drawing its economic curves, the new Republican Right promoted for three decades the idea that the true purpose of work was to pursue pure, unmitigated self interest in the form of higher wages. Scrap for all you can, says this dogma, and society will take care of itself. Taxation, a threat to one’s pile of wages, is legalized theft, says the new Right; resist it with all your cunning. Look out always and everywhere for Number One. Greed is good.
Margaret Thatcher put the words in Reagan’s mouth that he was not quite smart enough to come up with to summarize this view: “[T]here’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”
As I say, it is 2009. Tony Judt, an American historian, lies dying in his bed, and he is thinking about how far America and Britain have run with Thatcher’s idea. A friend, a Holocaust historian, is helping him write his last book. Judt has this to say about living and working in America, where most industrial jobs have fled overseas, wealth inequality now equals China’s, and median life expectancy hovers just below Bosnia’s:
Many Americans are well aware that something is seriously amiss. They do not live as well as they once did. Everyone would like their child to have improved life chances at birth: better education and better job prospects. They would prefer it if their wife or daughter had the same odds of surviving maternity as women in other advanced countries. They would appreciate full medical coverage at lower cost, longer life expectancy, better public services, and less crime. However, when advised that such benefits are available in Western Europe, many Americans respond, “But they have socialism! We do not want the state interfering in our affairs. And above all, we do not wish to pay more taxes.” . . .
The presumption in the American Bill of Rights–that whatever is not explicitly accorded to the national government is by default the prerogative of the separate states–has been internalized over the course of centuries by generations of settlers and immigrants as a license to keep Washington “out of our lives.”
The suspicion of the public authorities, periodically elevated to a cult by Know Nothings, States Rightists, anti-tax campaigners and–most recently–the radio talk show demagogues of the Republican Right, is uniquely American. It translates an already instinctive suspicion of taxation into patriotic dogma. Here in the US, taxes are typically regarded as uncompensated income loss. The idea that they might (also) be a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation . . . is rarely considered.
How did we get here from Whitman’s broad, sunny morning that saw happy workers doing interesting jobs and building a great country? Whitman felt great patriotism for the quality of life we were building in our land. It was possible, he thought, to be a fulfilled individual and contribute to a great society. Whitman saw these projects as complementary, completely harmonious with each other.
But our political culture today posits that true patriotism lies in the naked pursuit of economic self-interest. Seek the most wealth you possibly can. Whatever normative questions arise in the hubub will be addressed by the functioning of free-market forces. Will people get sick? Of course, and doctors will charge whatever they can to cure them. Intrepid, rational actors will, if they deem a sufficient financial need, pool some of their wealth to pay for a market-based hedge against medical costs. They don’t need the government to fund or organize this service for them. The rational individual pursuit of wealth will always find efficiencies that elude bureaucratic do-gooders.
The foundation of this rugged individualist political culture is the belief that people must seize basic services directly from nature; they must not allow governments to intervene in providing them. Government always screws up the provision of services and, with no competitors to curb them, overcharge to boot. It’s a mess.
But rugged individualism is based on a blind disregard of what government is. In the state of nature–best and most clearly imagined by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan–there are no governments, or even society–Maggie Thatcher would have loved it. Each individual has the natural right to use lethal force to protect her life and property. There are no rules outside the biological imperatives, primarily to eat and defend what is yours. You need little imagination to picture such a life in Hobbes’ famous terms. The universal, natural right to use lethal force would make life “nasty, brutish and short.”
To escape this hell, we form the Social Contract. Each individual surrenders the right to lethal force, entrusting it to a mutually recognized governing authority. This voluntary transfer of the right to use force is why, in almost all developed societies, the police and soldiers have all the guns. It is not an ideal setup, because a wicked government could use the guns against us, but we have consensual politics to try to ensure the legitimacy of our all-powerful government. It is much, much better than the state of nature.
I’ll come to the point. Americans have never committed fully to this contract. Because we have an undying suspicion of the government’s motives, which we refuse to treat therapeutically through politics, we retain the right to use lethal force. We retain it just barely–through the highly disputed Second Amendment to our constitution–but we retain it nonetheless. And this scotches the whole deal of the Social Contract. This tiny sliver of daylight between us and the Social Contract keeps us in the realm of savages, which is, for some reason, where we think we ought to be.
Why did I open this discussion by talking about work, labor, wages, consumerism and medical insurance? Because those things reveal in uncontroversial terms something that is deeply shameful–and therefore, I would hope, controversial–about our national character. We value and enjoy living in a violent, Darwinian society. We believe life should be a real contest, with real winners and losers.
To take just one indication of this attitude, which I’ve already touched on, medical care: we have much more than enough money in our country to provide medical care to everyone. The way we keep it out of the reach of millions of citizens is a deliberate choice. It reflects a national consensus that life should be like a reality TV show but really real. We want to enjoy watching the spectacle of people trying their hearts out and coming up short in the game of life. We are not a sufficiently decent people to choose to care for people instead. As long as we have a safe perch from which to watch the show, we want life to be nasty, brutish and short for those not clever enough to recognize the game or not strong enough to escape to the next level.
Often, when there is a mass shooting in America I rerun a blog post of mine in which I try to remind Americans that we like it here in the big leagues of violent chaos. We like gun violence. We like mass incarceration. We like the reality-TV contour of our national spectacle. We accept death and fear and hopelessness as acceptable costs for holding on to the romantic, outdated dream that life is a struggle that cannot be insulated from the law of the jungle. Take a look at the things we value and the things we don’t: we want the law of the jungle, or at least an enticingly real simulacrum of it.
Our spectator love affair with gun violence is just the tip of the iceberg. Our national journey has taken us taken is to a place where we work primarily to consume, where we regard the taxes we pay as a pointless ripoff, and where we fervently want life to be a Darwinian struggle, something that can only be kept up by artificial means.