It is about time we reflect on the distorted industrial-consumer culture and the “…isms” that propagandists use to confuse reality. The idea of individualism is certainly an American cultural icon as much as socialism has been a cultural red flag. If you like something, tag it as an instance of good old American individualism. If you fear or hate it, label it socialistic. In both cases, simple labels cloud real issues and misdirect us away from realism. Of all the …isms I prefer realism, the only source of hope.
Illusions of Individualism
Many authors, beginning perhaps with Aristotle, have written books about “Man the Social Animal.” That does not mean that they exclude the individual from their analysis of social relations among persons and groups; it only means that humans (men and women) evolved in close cooperation with each other to survive for eons before, and even after the advent of modern technology and industry. Language itself evolved through the interaction of humans with one another. However, my earliest reading in the ‘social sciences’ often referred to the “individual versus society,” or, “the individual and the group.” But things have changed.
In modern times among industrialized nations, especially the USA, “the individual” has become culturally paramount. Why? Because the core principle behind building the consumer culture is the strategy of marketing to the individual by pitting her/him against others in terms of status, likability, beauty, power, ego, etc., etc. That is entirely consistent with the very process of industrialization, which has weakened social ties in families and communities. The greatest leverage in hiring a person is her/his individual isolation and alienation from family and community. That, of course, is also the source of much social dysfunction in modern societies all over the world.
The idea of individualism is associated with freedom in the lexicology of Americanism. That has some very deep historical roots, especially having to do with the formation of the nation from diverse groups of immigrants, first mostly from all over Europe, along with the kidnapped victims of slave traders sold to southern plantation owners and the wealthy in the other colonies as well. As immigration continued and the population spread west, the image of the “rugged individual” came to dominate the culture of conquest of the territories already occupied by Native Americans in what western tribal members now often call “Indian Country.” The cultural image of the frontiersman and cowboy came to epitomize the American value of individualism. Think John Wayne.
On the other hand, we live in an increasingly complex society in which individuals depend on society itself more than ever, as they hold tightly to the image of the individualist they feel obligated to uphold. At the same time, they know at least subliminally that they are helpless without some form of institutional support. Living every day with that kind of cognitive dissonance is psychologically destructive.
Illusions of Socialism
Americans know little of the history of socialist movements in the U.S.A. The concept has more to do with images of foreign invaders of our culture than with the actual struggles of working class people for a fair share of the rewards of the capitalist system for which they worked long hard hours alongside their children. Many Americans today see socialism as a European travesty. Nevertheless, movements of workers and farmers in the early days of industrialization, especially in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century, achieved many of the benefits and protection from abuse that fewer and fewer workers enjoy today.
For generations after FDR instituted the New Deal in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, organized business partisans worked to crush labor unions by taking away worker protections, the right to organize, and the right to strike. They finally won with the elimination of New Deal era laws protecting the nation from reckless financial speculation—such as that which caused the 2008 “Great Recession.”
Nevertheless, labor unions had remained strong through most of the 1950s, when I got my first summer job as a construction worker. I was paid “union scale” because the contractor for whom I worked was a friend of my father. I earned about $3.50 per hour in 1955 when my high school friends were getting around 95ȼ per hour in non-union jobs at gas stations or stores.
When I entered the labor force as a teenager in 1954, a strong progressive income tax assured the funding of public services without much federal debt. Union contracts provided a comfortable moderate living for the average worker, and the GI Bill (along with low-cost tuition at public universities) offered many the opportunity to pursue higher education if s/he wanted to.
If you ask a Republican politician today about creating such conditions now, s/he will immediately scream that you advocate “socialism” to destroy the American Way of Life. Well, I don’t care what you call it, the American individual in 1955 (except for most Black folks and other minorities) had a lot more economic freedom than our oppressed growing cadre of minimum-wage workers have a chance for today.
The individuals with all the “freedom” today are those hedge-fund operators and overpaid CEO’s who got all those special tax breaks from their neo-fascist front-man Donald Trump and who hide their growing assets in overseas secret accounts, just like drug kingpins and royalty. Jeff Bezos avoids paying his taxes and rides his phallic rocket to the edge of space while his goons suppress the minimum-wage workers trying to organize to bargain for a livable wage in his sweat-shop warehouses.
Ideological Contradictions and Social Reality
It is in the short term interests of the extremely wealthy classes of owners of most of our nation’s assets to keep us distracted by arguing over phantom ‘isms’ because it keeps us from focusing on the social and economic realities they have achieved by bribing the politicians who their money keeps afloat. Senators Manchin and Sinema are only the most obvious traitors to their constituencies, taking millions in corporate bribes, “campaign contributions,” to act against the public interest. It does not matter what ‘…ism’ you may attach to the current “American way” or its opposition. It is a kleptocracy plain and simple, aided by the exploitation of culturally displaced (mostly old white male) Americans, distracted by bizarre conspiracy theories that support politicians’ pretensions to authority in a nation whose political class has lost all sense of the boundaries of morality and legitimacy.