American Creed vs Social Justice - II
by Michael Brenner on 09 Oct 2022 0 Comment

This is the second in a trio of essays on the theme of how the American ethic of extreme individualism has shaped collective thinking about issues of social justice.  It draws on an earlier piece written in 2016 – hence, the references to then President Barack Obama. The particulars are noteworthy but here used mainly for illustrative purposes.



The Opportunity Ladder Cop-Out


There are moments in life when you receive an unmistakable sign that a landmark has been passed. One of these “scales-dropping-from-the eyes” phenomena occurred under the Obama Presidency. Although slighted at the time, and forgotten today, it marked an historic turning in how the country’s political elites shed their commitment to a broad, comprehensive view of what constitutes the public good. In so doing, they announced that the true American conception of equality was a competitive, individualized pursuit of success and material well-being. 


A few days before Barack Obama’s 2016 State of the Union address, we learned that his much-heralded war on inequality was being replaced by a clarion call for a Marshall plan to build “ladders of opportunity.” Some folks in the White House, it was reported, had gotten the wrong fix on the focus group dynamics. They decided that efforts on behalf of the have-much less and have-nots were “divisive” - in contrast to the one percenters’ sustained pillaging of the 80% which already had shifted a couple of trillions of national wealth into the pockets of the super-rich. “Opportunity” is less contentious. Just what ladders of opportunity did Mr. Obama have in mind – the number of rungs, what they would lean against, who can kick them out from under you? 


“Opportunity” vs Economic Justice


Mr. Obama’s calling off the war before the first shot was fired carries a blunt lesson. America today is a plutocracy. Talk of how national wealth is distributed upsets those who garner the lion’s share. It smacks of “class war,” i.e. the exploited, the short-changed, the neglected and the strugglers may get into their heads the “un-American” notion that the game is rigged - that government policies favour the well-placed, that appeals to that same government for relief are rejected as unacceptable abuse of the system which is theirs alone.


Mr. Obama obviously had heard and listened to them between December 4 when he gave his inequality speech, “inequality is the defining issue of our times,” and January 24 when he changed the mission. Fifty days is a short war – in sharp contrast to Washington’s standard for its “Wars on….”


Obama’s shift into the “opportunity” theme is surrender to the mythology that so neatly serves the Republican philosophy and those interests it promotes. It literally is music to their ears. The unhappy economic plight of the less well-off is no longer defined as the result of structural features of the American economy as fostered by government policy (or passively accepted to the extent that they stem from global forces). It is transformed into an individual matter whereby persons are deprived because they have not managed to climb the ladder of success.

The availability of such ladders is one issue. Another, even more important, is the condition of those who have no access to the ladder and/or that the reward for their work has declined because of the way power is distributed and used in America. Most people are not going to reach the top or anywhere near it - that is an impossibility. But that does not mean that they should be denied a decent life.


In effect, Obama expressed the dominant philosophy of the country’s political elites and its collective superego. Society is viewed as an agglomeration of individuals who compete for places in the upper ranks where the financial and status rewards are lavish. A rat race to determine who is the ‘big cheese’. The winners enjoy the best gourmet Abbey Ste Mere Saint Paulin. The losers live on the rinds. And a struggling “middle class” of working people make do with Velveeta.   


By concentrating on opportunity alone, Obama evaded the hard issues of public policy. And evading hard issues is what the Obama presidency was all about. Moreover, along with like-minded politicos and pundits, his policy ignored simple logic. It makes no sense to encourage people to climb the ladder of success when their conjectured ability to do so promises riches that are unavailable. Not everyone can be as well-off as today’s 1% is, or the 5% or the 10%.


There is not that much money to go around. Nor are there that many managerial/ entrepreneurial jobs. Who will do the work of the “working man?” In other words, improving the standard of living of salaried Americans whose share of national wealth actually has declined steadily for 40 years, who are worse off today in absolute terms than they were a decade ago, demands a shift in some portion of the wealth concentrated at the top to those lower down the scale. That is the arithmetic of it. 


The substitution of opportunity for social justice has continued at an accelerated pace. That make one sceptical as to how much heart and conviction there is in the new-found interest in reducing inequality. It has been belied by every administration since Jimmy Carter. Abroad, ‘levelling upward’ means raising the floor of earnings and tax breaks for commercial/ financial firms and their wealthy beneficiaries.


Emanuel Macron, Elizabeth Truss, Shinzo Abe, Mario Draghi, Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel/ Olaf Schulz heralded their ascendency by lowering taxes for the rich while cutting pensions and social programs in the name of ‘austerity.’ As Bill Clinton pronounced in 1995: “The era of big government is over!” As good as his word, Clinton removed all serious regulation of the financial houses while sharply curtailing support for dependent children and food stamps. Both Clintons were rewarded for twenty years with lavish campaign donations and gigs to swell their personal bank accounts.


“Inequality’ was in vogue some years ago – stirred by the much praised and little-read book of Professor Thomas Piketty. For a while, the term was everywhere: at conferences, in scholarly publications, on the TV talk shows and on the campaign trails. Talking about it was trendy. Actually doing something about it was rare to non-existent. The Covid intervention signalled the topic’s falling out of favour – like hula hoops or ‘Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Meanwhile, the income gap widened and the huge disparities in living standards relegated to the status of a peripheral issue in public life. Just as Piketty’s hefty tome has lost it place of honour on the coffee tables and office desks of the great and good.  


Let’s bear in mind a few other revealing facts. During Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House, federal government spending relative to GDP has dropped faster and further than at any other time in American history - the post-war years excluded. It is dropped to 19.2% and now is even lower still. That is well below what it was under the Nixon and Reagan presidencies. Since spending on Homeland Security, the Pentagon and Intelligence agencies has gone up, that means that domestic programs have been cut to the bone or eliminated completely.


Medicare, too, has been cut; and Obama twice agreed to cutbacks in Social Security as part of his futile “grand bargains” with the Republicans. So, the wage-earner earns less while support programs of all kinds are reduced. Against this reality, the placing of a few aluminium ladders against the commanding heights of the economy (whose denizens continue to ride the express elevator) will mean little or nothing for remedying the historic inequality that we are experiencing.


Goals and Values


Moreover, the opportunity ladder metaphor disparages all those who work hard at the myriad jobs that the large majority of Americans occupy. Are they to be respected as diligent contributors to the national welfare - or deserving only of thin rations since they failed in a universal competition to scale the ladders that lead into the boardrooms, trading floors and real estate development sites of America? Does “making it” mean anything other than hustling at a hedge fund after paying your way through college by dealing three-card monte outside Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan every summer? 


The stress on opportunity also sends an unhealthy message as to what goals are worth aspiring towards, as to what has value, as to what the appropriate balance should be between self-enrichment and the public good. Do we want a society wherein the young are instilled with the dream of becoming Lloyd Blankfein or Steven Mnuchin? Do we want them to see that as the measure of success, of a fulfilling life? Do we want them to calibrate how each dollar spent on their education translates into what income? Do we want all young Americans to enroll in business schools so that they can reap Wall Street bonuses? To take this tack is to reinvigorate an American myth that does more to inflict harm than to inspire good.


Rugged Individualism


The American creed of rugged individualism and self-reliance, born of another age, endures. Americans are led to believe that they are masters of their fate. Even when victimized by forces beyond their control (the financial crisis, globalized labour markets, natural disasters), they feel deep down that their resourcefulness is being tested. They may like help from public authorities or the ‘community,’ but in the end the core belief persists that a person, or family, must and should rely on oneself.


Blaming the finger of fate is a copout. Accusing those responsible is politically incorrect. In places like Texas, that attitude prevails even when a chemical plant blows up, destroying a town, because it has eluded inspection or not met standards for decades. In Oklahoma, tornadoes kill school children because public authorities feel no responsibility to build storm cellars or safe rooms. Editorial writers warn that the gravest danger is that soft “liberals” will exploit these disasters to mount a campaign for state regulation that will encroach on the freedom of the local citizenry. An additional worry is that any remedial action could cost money - raising the dread prospect of “tax and spend” public policy.


These ideas are deep-seated in the American experience. According to the national narrative, it was individuals who defied nature, tamed the wilderness, pursued the good life and often found it. Individual shortcomings registered in their failings to fulfill aspiration. For those who didn’t quite make it, hope was transferred to their children for whom a lifetime of striving and struggle promised something more and better.


Communities of church and kin could help. They could not be expected, though, to protect individuals from facing squarely the testing of their moral fibre and their observance of the work ethic. The visible results of their life project provided the evidence.


The physical circumstances in which early Americans lived are part of the explanation for this peculiar creed. The Protestant Ethic is another. The instrumental liberal philosophy that shaped thinking about matters public and private, economic and political, made the peculiar seem universal and natural. These elements were woven into the fabric of American life. An individualist view of oneself, of interaction with one’s fellows, became the cultural/ social norm. It took on a life of its own, imbibed by generations of immigrants from a medley of diverse backgrounds. Those far removed from the creed’s founding by time, distance, religion and domestic mores readily became true believers without being aware of it.


The creed worked as a one size fits all national super-ego. It constrained and channelled social impulses as well as personal ones. It ironed out differences of circumstance, of capability, and of temperament - or, at least, muted any expression of grievance about them.


How do we explain the durability of so arduous a social ethic? Certain conditions of American life played a part. One was less likely to be utterly destitute than in the Old World or other places. The country’s bountiful wealth, especially cheap food, made a difference. You were not firmly pinned in place due to religious persecution, fixed emblems of social status, or speech. Moreover, you could hope - thanks to seemingly limitless space and near universal elementary education. Provided, of course, that you were not black or Native American.


Perpetuation of the American creed was not entirely an organic process. It well-served the interests of the rich, the dominant WASP establishment, and - from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards - industrialists. They fostered the ethic, stressing self-reliance and mythologizing socio-economic mobility.


Substitute ‘finance/business’ for ‘industrialist,’ remove the word WASP, and the dictum still holds today. Ideas and interests always have a strong affinity for each other.


American individualism, like all ideologies, is a package of untruths and partial truths laced with just enough truths or near truths to make it credible and palatable. The creed’s vitality is evident in current public discourse. Government is a term of derogation, despite everyone’s dependence on it for the essentials, and some of the nonessentials, of their lives. State, as concept, simply does not exist.


Politicians are held in near universal contempt even as the populace vote for current office holders. Indeed, they vote for the scoundrels repeatedly as evinced by the huge electoral advantage of incumbents. Gross actions by public officials that transfer trillions in national wealth from one group of citizens to another are passively accepted with equanimity as ritual invocation of the words ‘tax reduction’ or ‘limited government’ make feathering the nests of the favoured appear like an exercise in civic virtue. Moves to repeal all manner of regulation that serve the commonweal and/or protect the unprivileged are cast as acts of individual liberation that get government off the backs of the ‘people.’


There is one additional element in the American Experience that helps us to understand how a polity that proclaimed in its Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal’ can slight the distress of those whose life condition is marked by scarcity in a land of abundance. A veiled truth is that alongside our cherished freedoms, we have a relatively high tolerance for accepting the presence among us of fellow citizens who are hurting.


That has been evident in the treatment of the native population, in enslavement of African blacks, in denial of public assistance for the poor, the infirm/ the vulnerable well into the 20th century – and now recrudescent in word and deed into the 21st century. Today, we stand out for our cavalier acceptance of camps of homeless in our city centres, and the absence of outrage at the extreme dereliction of basic humanity in inflicting pain on detained illegal immigrants – tearing children from their mothers, incarcerating them in holding pens lacking basic services, and allowing them to disappear into the shifty world of predatory contractors and human traffickers.


Admittedly, they are aliens – not American citizens. Still, it evinces the attitude of casual dehumanization that is congruent with a social ethic that justifies extreme inequality in terms of ‘winners and losers.’ At a time when public protest on ‘identity’ issues and other socio-cultural matters has become commonplace, I don’t recall any equivalent demonstrations to denounce actions which we used to depict as the sins of tyrannies in less democratic and compassionate countries. 


The weakened sense of communal need and obligation that marks the present era of American life, is inexplicable without recognizing the tacit complicity of a very large slice of the population. People protect their well-being or their sense of well-being by keeping unwelcome facts a secret from themselves. They are sublimated. Our political class, and this Democratic President: “you can be confident that nothing basic will change” Joe Biden, mean to keep it that way.


Viewed in long-term perspective, the regression from the historic civilizational social compact fashioned in the post-WW II era marks a turning point in the evolution of Western societies. Time to fold your tent, to pull up stakes, to pack it in, to furl the flag, to luff the sails, to let go of a lost cause. At best, to wait for next year. In the extreme, to write it off permanently. And if one chooses to breast the tide, to do so stoically.


Perspective and Prospect


The United States moved beyond the primitive myth of rugged individualism over the course of the 20th century. Progressive social legislation reconciled it with both the realities of industrial life and a less unfeeling humanist ethic. The myth did survive and co-existed with the new ethic. There were those, though, who found living in a country that did not reify the myth intolerable. These reactionaries joined hands with powerful economic interests to reverse the tide of history. Their signal success over the past forty years is the overriding reality of public life in the United States today. Few acknowledge it. Obama’s arc of history bends both ways as his Presidency vividly demonstrated.


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