Introduction: I originally intended to devote the better part of 2012 to this thought piece. But the entry of Paul Ryan into the election cycle has added some urgency. Perhaps the Democratic Party pundits are correct that Ryan’s positions on, say, Medicare and contraception are too extreme to help elect Republicans. Even if they are correct about this election cycle, we would be wrong to underestimate the importance and power of Ryan’s ideological agenda. Even in defeat, the right may take solace, if Ryan succeeds in promoting his ultra-free market agenda. If his ideas are not taken on directly, if they are temporized with, they will continue to haunt us.


It is also curious, if not ironic, that the proclaimers of individualism are better organized than the community-minded. The right does well at bringing good numbers together for a focused, discipline campaign — whether against ‘Obama-care’ or to vote in primaries; while the left functions in a much more individualistic manner — dwelling on what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” — operating in isolated silos, hard pressed to organize a state-wide campaign, much less a national one. There is a difference between unthinking conformism and the conscious action of those struggling for authentic change in the structure of power. We can respect and support individual difference and still find ways to act collectively. This becomes possible if we think through which differences are matters of principle, which can be navigated, and which are not of immediate import.

– Howard Machtinger

Ryan’s politics, while extreme and mean-spirited, have a long pedigree in American politics and culture. His combination of extreme individualism and a sometime implicit, sometime explicit, appeal to white/male supremacy runs deep in our culture, and not only among the elite. The influence of individualist ideology on the thinking of many Americans has kept the left on the defensive throughout our history. It is at our peril if we depict Ryan as merely a right wing crazy, though he is surely that, if in a ‘nice-guy’ pose. For, as I will try to show, his politics resonate with American political traditions and with average Americans (mainly, but not only whites). The deterioration of the economy will not automatically lead to progressive action or politics. If we want our nation to become a more decent and more democratic society, we need to respond with an alternative vision of equal resonance. This will include an attractive evocation of the communal and social, an analysis of the structural, but also a recognition of parts of the individualist tradition that are not only compatible with, but essential to, progressive politics.

I propose a sober confrontation with the actual obstacles that we encounter in our day-to-day work so as to develop a more solid basis for our work. I am trying to turn my frustration with the current state of my country –and its left alternative — into an overall framework which both seriously takes account of and challenges the tenacity of American individualism. Otherwise I believe there will be a continuing disconnect between the left and its presumed constituency.

I have spent my adult life as an activist of the left, trying to convince others that fundamental change is necessary and possible, that the ‘people united can never be defeated’, and that grassroots activity not only reinvigorates democracy, but is the energy that drives substantive, progressive change. The movement in the streets helped end the devastating and inhumane war in Viet Nam. The actions of hundreds of thousands of ‘ordinary people’ ended Jim Crow. Countless women’s groups undermined patriarchy and placed the rights and status of women on the national agenda. Gay activists stood up against police harassment at Stonewall and beyond. The powers that be were forced to move because of the pressure of the grassroots. New political identities were created and innovative political forms developed. The pressure of the masses was the best — and often the only — way to make significant and positive change.



Yet today, big power — including the financiers, energy and pharmaceutical companies, etc. and their political accomplices — seems more in charge, more entrenched, more unassailable than ever — even after it almost brought down the global economy in 2008. The United States is currently engaged in countless wars (certainly in Afghanistan, but also Yemen, Somalia, and what about cyber-warfare against Iran?) without attracting much public attention, much less domestic opposition. Michelle Alexander has bemoaned the “New Jim Crow” embodied in the American criminal justice system. Republicans try to dismantle what’s left of the fraying social safety net as they wage an effective, if not completely successful, attack on many of the achievements of the women’s movement. And while public opinion has shifted dramatically on gay rights, violence and abuse of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people is still rampant. All this is compounded by catastrophic environmental heedlessness at the bidding of big energy.

Why and how has this come to pass? Why has big power not been disrupted and derailed more effectively? It will not do to blame this state of affairs solely on media bias, disinformation, and “balanced objectivity” or on the influence of big money in politics, though these factors certainly function to exacerbate the problem. As important as media disinformation are the frameworks and resonant images deployed to delimit the range of opinion and imagination. The genius of the media is not simple manipulation, but also how it effectively elaborates on, resonates to, recalibrates, and thereby invigorates long-term American values and sensibilities.

As activists, we need a surer sense of these values and sensibilities. We may start by acknowledging the tenacity and resilience of big power — by trying to understand why most Americans feel that challenging big power is not viable. Power is omnipresent in our lives. Who gets to define economic, social, or cultural opportunity? Specific power brokers can be hard to identify, but ‘pantheistic’ power is undeniable. Most people are well aware of issues of power. The ‘real world’ is where people are educated about the realities of power. How do people deal with this power — how do they accommodate or resist? Do they see power as invulnerable or fragile?

People calculate what risks are worth taking; when to challenge and when to defer. Often they conclude that the prudent course is to accommodate power and to seek an individual path to success. Economic failure is often similarly individualized and condemned in what William Ryan called “blaming the victim”: 1 holding individuals responsible for consequences that are out of their locus of control — such as the overall state of the economy or the state of the labor market.

For a society to function effectively, the structure of power must, if not celebrated or venerated, be found legitimate by enough of its members. America’s grand self-mythology is that it is a great land of opportunity, fertile soil for innumerable Horatio Algers. That class mobility in other industrialized societies is now more fluid 2 has done little to shatter this myth. Reality is trumped, not for the only time, by ideology. The seemingly inevitable conclusion is that if one doesn’t make it to the top, isn’t a power broker or celebrity, there is only individual responsibility; only oneself to blame. It is a truism of Marxism (or perhaps all Enlightenment-inspired thought) that the powerless will recognize the injustice of their situation and be open to social transformation. The work of grassroots organizers is therefore to help the powerless recognize who is exploiting them and to convince them that by acting collectively a change in power is forthcoming — the World Social Forum’s “another world is possible”, not Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” to the powers that be.


What lies at the root of the American belief that people as individuals can scale the heights of power if they work hard enough? How did it gain such traction in our culture? Let’s begin with 18th century America. The task of American revolutionaries was to convince the colonists that life under the British Empire was unbearable (and that its armies could be defeated). Though colonists were burdened by lower taxes than British citizens, the clarion call of “no taxation without representation” eventually carried the revolutionary day. There is a lively debate about the meaning of the American Revolution — including how much of a social revolution it constituted. At any rate, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution became the rationale for a new order, at least for Americans of European descent.

How to define this new order: A settler society; a Herrenvolk democracy (where only the dominant group has full rights); a slave republic? Who was included and who left out? Who was permitted to be a fully adult, independent citizen?

The Declaration of Independence accused the British of endeavoring “to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” So, from the beginning of the Revolution, native peoples were excluded from proclaimed universal rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Constitution defines Indian tribes in a distinct category from the federal government, the states, and foreign nations. The legal status of these tribes was worked out in a series of decisions of the Marshall-led Supreme Court. The subsequent takeover of Indian lands was justified by the Supreme Court’s adaptation of the concept of ‘discovery’ proclaimed in the 1823 case of Johnson v. M’Intosh. By this doctrine, the US inherited Britain’s claimed sovereignty over native lands whose people were merely occupants. In later decisions, Indian peoples were considered “domestic, dependent nations” in a relationship resembling that of “a ward to a guardian” federal government. The limited rights granted to Indian “wards” did little to protect even the “Five Civilized Nations”. The 1830 Indian Removal Act, signed into law by Andrew Jackson, led to a series of coerced treaties, the infamous Trail of Tears, the Second Seminole War, and the removal of all tribes to west of the Mississippi River.

As Francois Furstenberg 3 has explored, the seeming contradiction between democracy and slavery also required rationalization. There was a growing group who saw democracy and slavery as incompatible, a violation of the Declaration’s ringing pronouncements on the equality of ‘men’. The activists among them came to constitute the Abolitionist movement which grew up between the Revolution and the Civil War. But the dominant ideology tried to square the circle, attempting to somehow reconcile the quality of all men with the enslavement of some. Furstenberg poses Madison’s rationalization that “assent may be inferred where no positive dissent appears” 4 over and against Jefferson’s call for revolutionary renewal by each generation. Americans had resisted the imposition of British power and proved their virtue and right to freedom. In Madison’s view, new generations by not dissenting signaled their acceptance of the legitimacy of the republic.

Furstenberg argues that this notion was extended to explain away the inequality of slavery. From this perspective, slavery was a personal choice, independent of power relations or history. Autonomous, virtuous individuals would rather die than be enslaved. As slave owner Patrick Henry put it in the run up to the revolution; “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” before famously concluding, “I know not what course others may take, but for me, give me liberty or give me death.”5 For Henry, revolution against the British demonstrated that he and his fellow whites were not, literally, slavish. Slaves were thereby abject cowards without morality or virtue. Nonviolent resistance to enslavement went unrecognized; violent revolts were demonized as the work either of outside agitators or mad monsters. Du Bois eloquently lamented this definition of autonomous manhood even as the black soldier temporarily overturned the myth of passive assent in the heat of the Civil War:

“It was a commonplace thing in the North to declare that Negroes would not fight. Even the black man’s friends were skeptical about the possibility of using him as a soldier, and far from its being to the credit of black men, or any men, that they did not want to kill, the ability and willingness to take human life has always been, even in the minds of liberal men, a proof of manhood. It took in many respects a finer type of courage for the Negro to work quietly as a slave while the world was fighting over his destiny, than it did to seize a bayonet and rush mad with fury or inflamed with drink, and plunge it into the bowels of a stranger. Yet this was the proof of manhood required of the Negro. He might plead his cause with the tongue of Frederick Douglass, and the nation listened almost unmoved. He might labor for the nation’s wealth, and the nation took the results without thanks, and handed him as near nothing in return as would keep him alive. He was called a coward and a fool when he protected the women and children of his master. But when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and a brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible in the United States. Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro soldier as a fighter.” 6

After the Civil War, this understanding of Black agency was buried. Again, Black autonomy was denied. The struggle for freedom became a just-so story of how the Great Emancipator had bestowed freedom on the passive slaves, a narrative that still dominates Civil war memory despite the consistent, even relentless, critique of countless scholars of the last generation. By the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, Woodrow Wilson could commemorate it without mentioning slavery while extolling the reconciliation between North and South, mutually complicit in white supremacy. Power had shifted somewhat, but was not overturned. The powerless remained powerless.



The Civil War did resolve another argument between Jefferson and Hamilton that had divided the Revolutionary generation: about whether the country should be built around the sturdy yeomanry — theoretically independent landholders, small and big 7 — or around an emerging market economy. The market economy and its concomitant ‘free labor’ ideology won out. Before the Civil War, many working people had been won to the ideology of ‘free labor’, an ideology which held out the hope that they could escape wage labor and become independent owners of land and/or capital. Proponents of free labor opposed the expansion of slavery westward — because it would gobble up land that could otherwise be reserved for striving white migrants — without necessarily being supportive of Black people. For instance, Abe Lincoln’s Illinois was not alone in banning Black in-migration. But the post-Civil War order locked workers into a seemingly permanent proletariat. The innovative businessman began to supersede the autonomous yeoman farmer in American establishment iconography — though the image of the independent farmer retained resonance for the Populists at the turn of the 20th century and even today, for environmentalists like Wendell Berry.

The market economy did not undo either white supremacy or the idea of autonomous individualism. If Black people were no longer enslaved, surely their lack of success was their own fault. If Whites could not escape the factory, their unworthiness was thereby demonstrated. The post-Civil War period of rapid industrial growth, the exclusion of Chinese immigrants (urged on by most of the organized labor movement) and the final seizure of Native lands birthed a crude Social Darwinism — in the wake of the Great Panic of 1873, until then the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history –using pseudo-science to laud the status quo as the inevitable outcome of a defining struggle for existence and to demean the ‘lower classes and races’ as losers in that struggle. Its collective efforts demonized; the emerging dynamic union movement was met with owner violence in alliance with state power to preserve order against the disruptive ‘tramps’ and ‘communists’. By the beginning of the 20th century, a narrow-minded and limited ‘business unionism’, typified by Samuel Gompers’s American Federation of Labor (AFL), had come to dominate the labor movement.

As Furstenberg further notes, “as the institution of slavery became a distant memory, the idea that … ‘the world seldom turns wholly against a man, unless through his own fault’ continued to sanction an individualized, libertarian view of social life, in which contempt rather than pity was the proper response to the poor, the oppressed, the excluded.”8 So the overturning of legal segregation in the 1960s left the responsibility for the socio-economic situation of Black people solely on the shoulders of individual Blacks.

These ideas have deep roots in the liberal capitalist tradition as Hobbes and Locke, in the 18th century, replaced God’s judgment or aristocratic blood with the verdict of the market. We are talking here not merely about a market economy, but as C. B. MacPherson 9 suggested a generation ago, a market society, in which those who succeed owe nothing to society while the value of human endeavor is reduced to a purely market relationship. As today’s Republicans articulate it, “we [entreprenurial capitalists] built it.”

Autonomous, or (in C. B. MacPherson’s language) ‘possessive’, individualism has deep roots in the western tradition as well as in American culture. Its appeal to the upper crust is obvious. But why its resonance for those lower in the power hierarchy? If one believes in the meritocracy (originally a negative term, transmuted via American boosterism into a celebratory one)10 then one may fantasize one’s future feats or take refuge in self-definition as a member of the sturdy hard-working middle class (today the words ‘working class’ or ‘poverty’ have been largely banished from official political discourse) holding off the barbarians: the onslaughts of the ungrateful, unmotivated and often racially or ethnically “other” who are seeking a handout. Or one may, despairingly, see oneself as a deserved failure.

Recall that Locke, as well as the Founding Fathers, confined full citizenship to male property owners. Independence meant not needing to work for wages for a living. These were the people understood to have a full citizenship stake in the society. As Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon have shown, during the 19th century — with the emerging dominance of industrial power — the ranks of the independent came to include white, male wage earners.11 The equality of white men was built on the subjugation of non-whites and the dependence of women. Even as voting property qualifications for white men were eliminated in the first half of the 19th century, the color line hardened and the free Black population lost the few rights they had previously held. Jacksonian Democrats supported the takeover of native lands to be put at the disposal of land-hungry whites. The native-born white ‘common man’ became apotheosized as opposed to aristocrats or other elites. 12 Freedom became identified with native-born, white male opportunity. After slave abolition and the struggles of Reconstruction, the freed people were relegated to a Jim Crow status. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, immigrants were treated as part of the lower orders, not fully Americans. But by post-World War II America, white immigrants — including the Irish, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans — had gained acceptance; celebrated often for their hard work, embrace of America, and consequent patriotism.


How have poor whites come to terms with the American social order? In puzzling over the obeisance of poor whites to the pre-Civil War slave-ocracy, Du Bois offered the following:


But the poor whites and their leaders could not for a moment contemplate a fight of united white and black labor against the exploiters. Indeed, the natural leaders of the poor whites, the poor farmer, the merchant, the professional man, the white mechanic and slave overseer, were bound to the planters and repelled to the slave and even from the mass of the white laborer in two ways: first, they constituted the police patrol who could ride with planters and now and then exercise unlimited force upon recalcitrant or runaway slaves; and then, too, there was always a chance that they themselves might also become planters by saving money, by investment, by the power of good luck; and the only heaven that attracted them was the life of the great Southern planter.13

Du Bois points to interconnected areas that are worth further exploration and updating:

1. Romance with power; the attractions of heavenly affluence and ‘cultural’ adoration:
This may be too obvious to require explanation. How else to account for the American love of celebrity? Many Americans possess an intricate knowledge of the intimate doings of entertainers and sports people that far surpasses their awareness of ‘boring’ politics or the ‘strange’ realities of the rest of the world. American business success can entitle those inclined to become larger than life, as well. Bill Gates and Donald Trump, among many others, have sauntered across the celebrity threshold.

2. The ‘American’ dream of getting rich someday:
An October 2000 Time-CNN news poll, for instance, showed that 19 percent of Americans thought that they were in the high income group that would benefit from proposed tax cuts for the top 1 percent of the population. Many more believe that they will make it to the top in their lifetimes. America is perceived as a ‘meritocracy’ in which those who work hard and are innovative are rewarded. The quintessential American story is rags-to-riches. Americans look upward for inspiration; not horizontally or downward to express solidarity with others in similar or more difficult straits.

3. Identification with power; signing on to the ‘police patrol’ at home and abroad:
A less obvious connection to Du Bois’s analysis, deserving some elaboration: Probably FBI Director (1924-1972J. Edgar Hoover was not the first to play the role of celebrity law enforcer. Certainly he consolidated the link between political dissent and disorder. Nixon elaborated this theme by evoking the “silent majority” upholders of “law and order” disturbed by the actions of the black freedom and antiwar movements. His signature innovation was to conflate resistance with the ungratefulness of spoiled rich kids, a theme that the Republicans have used to great advantage ever since in their faux populism. War resistors were privileged cowards; environmentalists, job destroying elitists; feminists, humorless underminers of traditional values; and gay teachers, seducers of innocents away from the straight and narrow. Class no longer functions as an economic or social term, but has become almost completely acculturated in establishment discourse. Progressives are intellectual snobs out of touch with mainstream America. (Is America the only country where its political leaders try to act less intellectual than they are?) After a brief anti-authoritarian interlude in popular entertainment, in response to 60s culture, Nixon initiated a new genre of Dirty Harrys, contemptuous of civil liberties and ‘coddling’ of criminals; a lawless law enforcement officer who dealt forthrightly with an immoral, violent, and crazed underclass, while bucking his cowardly, bureaucratic, complicitous superiors.

To cite one example, the proliferation of crime shows (overwhelming the long-standing genres of sit coms and westerns) — whatever their identity politics or entertainment virtues — worked to reinforce an image of brave law enforcement holding off the predators and drug addicts. These media representations are linked in time to a qualitative shift in prison population. As both Michelle Alexander 14 and Loïc Wacquant 15 have noted, in the 1970s, most penologists were expecting a decline in prison population. Now there are more prisons with more people of color even while serious crime has been on the decline. The astronomic number of black males enmeshed in the criminal justice system is truly astounding while the overall percentage of incarcerated makes the US number one in the world. 16 Illegal drug users are represented and imprisoned as Black and Latino even though drug use is rampant in white communities.

So if one does not literally join a neighborhood patrol, a la George Zimmerman, one over-identifies with the police as protectors of a racial order, even as race itself is obfuscated and/or avoided in the discourse. Invasive ‘stop and frisk’ policies, along with increasing surveillance of the population (to protect ‘good’ Americans from the colored barbarians infiltrating from abroad), proliferate and are legitimized.

At least since the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the role of the US in the world has been under debate by establishment power: should the US role play the role of world’s policeman or should it ensconce itself in supposedly impregnable isolation? The police side had been on the ascendant since World War II, sobered for a historical moment by defeat in Viet Nam, and consolidated in panic mode since 9/11 — when the protective barrier of the big oceans seemed to have been breached by cold-blooded barbarians (re-imagining the suicide efforts of the Japanese kamikazes in a more technologically vulnerable era). The US government admits to hundreds of military bases in over 100 nations in its worldwide network. And the work of the CIA and other groups whose legal mandate was once upon a time to act abroad now bleed into domestic spying and surveillance.

America is still felt to be the haven for individuals to dream and innovate, unlike decadent, ‘socialist’ Europe. And so it is the last, best guardian against the barbarians. Having successfully outgunned and outlasted the collectivist, atheistic Communists, the US now stands ready to take on the anti-Christian, anti-American, alien terrorists. Despite professed concerns about government spending, the defining struggle of the Christian individualists against the barbarian hordes effectively insulates the military budget (which constitutes more than half of federal outlays)17 from all but cosmetic cost cutting.

Anti-terrorism has assumed an emotional hold over American consciousness. As Tom Engelhardt has pointed out, the cultural preparation for the inevitability of a heinous anti-American attack has been in the making for a couple of generations:

So many streams of popular culture had fed into this. So many “previews” had been offered. Everywhere in those decades, you could see yourself or your compatriots or the enemy “Hiroshimated” (as Variety termed it back in 1947). Even when Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t kissing Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies as an atomic explosion went off somewhere in the Florida Keys or a playground filled with American kids wasn’t being atomically blistered in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, even when it wasn’t literally nuclear, that apocalyptic sense of destruction lingered as the train, bus, blimp, explosively armed, headed for us in our unknowing innocence; as the towering inferno, airport, city, White House was blasted away, as we were offered Pompeii-scapes of futuristic destruction in what would, post-9/11, come to be known as “the homeland.”

Sometimes it came from outer space armed with strange city-blasting rays; other times irradiated monsters rose from the depths to stomp our cities (in the 1998 remake of Godzilla, New York City, no less). After Star Wars’ Darth Vader used his Death Star to pulverize a whole planet in 1977, planets were regularly nuclearized in Saturday-morning TV cartoons. In our imaginations, post-1945, we were always at planetary Ground Zero.18

This rich and disturbing fantasy life — celebrity envy buttressed by the myth of economic mobility, paranoia of the ‘other’ and strong identification with the forces of ‘law and order’ — is grounded in the newly invigorated logic of the market. American entrepreneurial mentality is what sets us apart, makes for a land of opportunity, and requires diligent protection from the envious other. As the police powers of the state are lauded, hyped and expanded, the social welfare role of the state is delegitimized as overly bureaucratic, intrinsically a distorter of the honest, if unsparing, workings of the market.

I am not suggesting that all Americans fully accept this white/male-supremacist, rugged individualism. On the one hand, I am fully aware that big business relies on government to subsidize it — as in the building of the transcontinental railroad, to cite an early and fateful, but not first federal initiative –and rescue it from its excesses as we have witnessed, not only since the crash of 2008, but even under the stewardship of putative Ayn Randian, Federal Reserve chief Allan Greenspan. Big capital aims to socialize its risk as it privatizes profits.

On the other hand, there are countless Americans who struggle — and have struggled historically — to revivify their community, conserve our natural resources, and fight the power. I am arguing that radical individualism has ideological hegemony; that to bring about meaningful change it needs to be overturned, not accommodated as many liberals are content to do. I have tried to establish its historical and cultural pedigree, but clearly since the time of Reagan/Thatcher it has been reinvigorated, as Milton Friedman has replaced John Maynard Keynes or Paul Samuelson as the go-to economist and Ayn Rand re-heroicized. Friedman has been the great popularizer of neo-liberalism. The neoliberal agenda promotes the primacy of the market, reducing the cost of labor, and privatizing all spheres of economic and social life. This agenda favors efficiency or ‘cost effectiveness’ and individual responsibility over equity and negates public responsibility to redress historical and other inequalities. The “structural adjustment” programs imposed on Third World nations — by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank starting in the late 1970s — have been brought home as privatization of public services effectively replaced the public interest with private interest. And, of course, neoliberalism functions to reinforce the kind of individualism I am delineating.



Despite the near collapse of the world economy in 2008, neoliberal individualism remains the litmus test for economic policy and for ‘Americanism’, as well. It has infiltrated the thinking of many Americans. Young activists are hailed as ‘social entrepreneurs’ rather than as grassroots organizers. In the face of widespread and stubborn unemployment, there are countless initiatives, on the Web or in schools, focusing on individual “workplace preparedness” to prepare a resume, or dress for an interview, but little about collective action. Of course, Wisconsin and the Occupy movement are exceptions, but even in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker found a way to undermine public unions and prevail against being recalled, at least for the moment.

The tacit assumption, in the left, has been that since the economy collapsed, most people would perceive — as the Occupy Movement did — that big business had pushed us over the edge. That view takes too little account of the ongoing state of American political discourse. The 2008 economic crisis is blamed by the right on an out-of-control federal government — which cravenly drew irresponsible homeowners into the market — as distinct from an out-of-control Wall Street. Faux-populists of the right argue that the ‘creative destruction’ of the business cycle should have been allowed to play out. Government intervention to save the inefficient ‘too big to fail’ distorted the natural workings of the market (though of course these activists were more exercised by the limited Obama stimulus than by relief for the big banks). Government expenditures are seen as a waste of resources properly in the provenance of the individual. Taxes redistribute resources away from the productive individual to the wasteful, self-perpetuating bureaucracy. The opposition to, or popular disinterest in, financial regulation should therefore not be surprising. After a generation or more of delegitimization of big government (initiated by the 1960s left and then opportunistically and more effectively by the right with the onset of Reaganism) boosted by the collapse and/or degeneration of world socialism, the free market utopia remains a potent ideal.19 The right perceives, not without justification, the two generations from Progressivism through the Great Society — which resulted in greater, if insufficient, regulation of business and the framework, if not the substance of a welfare state — as an historical aberration from the general trend of American history. Activists in the Tea Party yearn for a return to an era before income tax, government regulation, or (bizarrely) the direct election of Senators.

Whereas, the Great Depression led to the rise of industrial unionism — as well as a left with real influence — in the 1930s, unions today are under continuing attack, their ability to organize undermined by the weakness of government agencies like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Unions have been defined as narrow-minded interest groups, sometime criminal bureaucracies, and as an imposition on worker freedom, as well as corporate flexibility. Since Reagan’s busting of the air traffic controllers’ union (PATCO), positive descriptions of unions have virtually disappeared from establishment discourse. Public sector workers, with a substantial non-white membership, are stereotyped as living high, with extravagant pensions, backed up by selfish unions, a new twist on the well-worn theme of ‘welfare queens’. This was certainly a factor in the failure of the Wisconsin recall movement, as 58% of white men voted for Walker.

While Tea Party activists are still a minority political force, they have gained the initiative in the Republican Party, and have outsize impact because their politics effectively encapsulate the direction of American political discourse since Reagan. It is pointless and misguided to dismiss their politics as ignorant or simple ‘false consciousness’. The question is whether there is any limit to popular toleration and submission to the Tea Party’s articulated individualism and its implicit white supremacy and macho strutting. Those on the left assume that people will not accept the destruction of basic entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. For sure, these are the ‘good entitlements’ (disproportionately to the benefit of whites who earn more and live longer; for those who are assumed to have worked hard enough to be ‘deserving’) not for the poor and those under 65. And perhaps they will survive in some form, but unless there is a clear alternative to American individualism — with its white and male supremacist underpinnings — I fear for the survival of any sufficient social safety net, much less progressive change in the hard days ahead.

Clintonesque new Democrats have engineered an abandonment of New Deal and Great Society social welfare politics in the name of more efficient government and individual responsibility.20 The 2012 Republican Convention tried to show that true Americans could become individual big business successes, while the Democrats promised access to the professional class, a la the Obamas — albeit with some minimal support from government programs. The New Democrats have led the way in marginalizing the left as the left has lost whatever footing it had managed coming out of the 30s and 60s. The left only seems to rouse in relation to initiatives connected to identity politics. While I want to dissociate myself from those who are contemptuous of identity politics, identity issues — while crucial to broadening who is included in social, civic, and political life — do not do well at connecting constituencies or confronting broad economic inequalities. And sometimes they reinforce certain forms of market individualism; multiculturalism can be used to generate multiple niche markets.

Market relations have come to dominate in previously relatively insulated social spaces, including education — which has been reduced to a form of vocational training. While public schools have traditionally prepared our youth for their roles in the capitalist economy — in what has been termed the Fordist or factory model — they functioned at some remove from capitalist logic. Now schools of education are dismissed as founts of (John) Dewey-ite socialism and as relics in the new ‘knowledge-based society’. Teachers are no longer honored as surrogate parents and enablers of economic and social mobility, or even dismissed as amiable non-competitors in the market. Test scores have become profit surrogates as the measure of success; teachers unions are routinely demonized (it being the most unionized occupation); and teachers are subject to Taylorist modes of evaluation, where their work is increasingly surveilled and their time regimented. FOX News pulls no punches in demeaning teachers. However, it is not just right wing shock attacks; a bipartisan consensus has encouraged Democrats to go after teachers unions, one of their most loyal electoral bases. So-called ‘reformers’ in the Democratic Party have sometimes led the attack.

The infiltration of capitalist logic into American religion is also indicative of the penetration of market values. Certain Protestant sects have long associated economic success with membership in God’s ‘elect.’ The 19th century ‘gospel of wealth’ similarly espoused a materialist spirituality. As distinct from Christ’s compassion for the poor or the golden rule; today the right, including the religious right, is contemptuous and mean-spirited toward the poor, especially if they are people of color. They are losers, who are not fully citizens, whose voting rights need to be curtailed and whose culture needs a makeover. Even some of the Black mega-churches 21 preach an updated version of the ‘gospel of wealth.’

Welfare policy exposes the animus of current social policy which rather than helping those in need sees fit to punish and fix them, to rid us of predatory “welfare queens’ — the enshrined social negation of the autonomous individual. Those who have become dependent on the state for economic and social support have forfeited their liberty along with their humanity. Instead of bemoaning the meager relief offered poor women (and men), their autonomy is violated on a consistent basis on the grounds that otherwise they will abuse the ‘system.’ If the poor somehow stitch together a piece of the fraying social safety net or seize a moment of personal pleasure, they are damned as undeserving rip-off artists. The point of welfare is to humiliate and stigmatize its recipients, supposedly to motivate them to work, independent of feasible job opportunities or adequate childcare. Somehow policy makers have reduced the human choice for reproduction into an economic calculus based on how much more monetary aid a welfare recipient can receive for an additional child. The absurdity that an additional $64 per month in support (the rate in New Jersey at the time of Clinton’s welfare reform) motivates a woman’s choice has led to welfare caps on an already inadequate, not to say pitiful, allowance.22 While reproductive rights are under attack for all women, they are already denied those on welfare. Their bodies are especially deemed to be in need of discipline and control. Government subsidies for big business far exceed payments to the poor, but are rarely targeted for sustained scrutiny.23 Once again, ideology trumps facts and evidence. The sheer mean-spiritedness of US welfare policy betrays a still lethal combination of racism and sexism; which, if not directly confronted, will prevent a more helpful, compassionate, and hopeful social welfare policy.

The triumph of consumerism, domestically and internationally; the elevation of money-making to — if not unprecedented heights — harkens back to the Roaring Twenties, or further, to the age of the Robber Barons of the late 19th century. The new capitalist globalism further defines the economy as an international competition, with first Japan in the 1980s, and now China, and even India, as threats to American supremacy. ‘Win-win’ corporate-speak is absent except in arguing for access for US capital to third world economies; the US is engaged in fight to the death with these new competitors. The great fear is that the US will lose out in the 21st century economy. Foreigners will undermine our way of life. Clearly the moment of US unilateral power has passed. How will America manage its decline from ‘super power’ to a more equal membership in the community of nations? If we are not #1, who are we? The right’s visceral and retrograde reaction is to reinvigorate American exceptionalism — that America has a unique destiny among nations, not subject to limits imposed by history, the actions of other countries, human error or hubris. Few establishment politicians of any stripe will publicly disavow the notion that the US is somehow exceptional or destined for greatness. This outlook facilitates the dismissal of the European social safety net and health care systems by those on the right.

In truth it is no easy task to rally a country around its decline. Yet, as reality sets in, that is exactly what is needed: a vision of our future not steeped in boosterism or exceptionalism but one which can energetically engage new realities such as economic stagnation or impending environmental crisis, not solvable through the individualist or free market kit bag, or by American unilateralism; and not to be wished away. In fact, the goal of left activism is to actually accelerate this fall from a place of domination to one that is more humane, while cushioning the inevitable blow to our society and others by (re)building strong communities and values of solidarity and connecting our efforts with that of others throughout the world. The Arab Spring is part of our renewal, as well.


What might such an alternative look like? As I have noted, there are other opposing, trends in American history and culture, but these have often fought an uphill battle against crude American individualism. These articulations had their limits — only ideas and actions outside of history have no limits –but they constitute anchors in an alternative tradition. Workers in the 19th century invoked a republican (not capital R) ideal of a nation of equal citizens to oppose big capital. Workers in the 1930s sang and acted on “Solidarity Forever”. Women in the early and mid-20th century demanded “bread”, and also a life with “roses”. Civil rights activists bemoaned “being ‘buked and scorned”‘, relit “the light of freedom” and promised that “we shall overcome.” Farmworkers chanted “Si Se Puede” and “Vive la Huelga”. Abolitionists, “freedmen”, and SNCC activists fought for a ‘new birth of freedom’. Anti-warriors opposed Indian removal, the Mexican War, the takeover of the Philippines, and the war against Viet Nam. Many more stories, slogans, and songs can be distilled from Howard Zinn’s popular “A People’s History of the United States.”

Our weakness in passing on and reinvigorating these alternate traditions has helped open the way for the right to take the initiative in defining and offering solutions to social problems. Importantly, it has obfuscated the role of collective action in improving the lives of our people; our social justice and organizing traditions. Much of what I will suggest is already in practice by many vibrant activists and groups. I humbly offer these ideas, not because they are previously unknown, or because I am expert in any or all of these movements, but because they exemplify what I mean by offering an overarching alternative to white/male supremacist individualism.

Here are some suggested directions:


We must help people understand and critique the structure of economic opportunity; to break away from understanding economic mobility as purely a triumph of individual will or economic problems as resulting from individual shortcomings. In my experience, even those aware of social inequities often harbor powerful feelings of inadequacy. If we can demonstrate the reality of a system of advantage subject to challenge, then it becomes perhaps possible for facts and evidence to come into play. One important point is that people’s motivations are fundamentally constrained by many factors. This point deserves elaboration as our situation is complicated and affected by multiple factors:


a. The deindustrialization and ensuing financialization of the economy has led to a decline of decent blue-collar jobs. Lower wages in other nations combined with the threat of off-shoring production has lowered the price of labor. Financialization of the economy and capitalist globalization are the driving forces in this deindustrialization, not affirmative action, over-regulation, or the actions of labor unions.

Big money has been made without serving any productive purpose. In particular, the right has been somewhat successful in blaming the victims of the housing bubble24 — the foreclosed upon — diverting attention from a system which had little interest in the viability of the housing market or the security of homeowners while it could make big profits through exotic financial instruments. The machinations of the big finance produced no useful goods, created few jobs, and devastated the lives of millions and the hopes of the young. Rather than making capital available for productive investment, the deal makers at Goldman Sachs savor short-term profit-taking and monumental annual bonuses, no matter the social consequences. What exactly has finance capital “built”?25

b. Trace and explain the disempowerment of working peoples’ organizations, especially unions and the consequent effect on the wages and working conditions of workers. This goes hand in hand with efforts to democratize unions and to interject broader issues such as immigrant rights, environmental controls, or childcare into the labor movement.

c. The growing wealth inequality in societies has a number of documented negative consequences including poorer health outcomes, loss of social trust, and increase in homicides, etc.26 In the US, this inequality is fostered by numerous factors, including decreasing taxes on wealth, the disappearance of decent paying blue-collar work, and the unraveling of the social safety net. The initial abandonment and isolation of the inner city (including its schools) — often followed opportunistically by displacement of the poor due to gentrification — has compounded the problems of the poor. Wealth inequality means that people have fewer resources to rely on in an emergency (such as job loss or serious medical problems) and it means less access to higher education as tuition costs soar and student debt balloons.

Increased wealth inequality preceded both the Great Depression and the 2008 economic crisis. Most people understand that their economic condition has declined, but so far their anger has little focus when it is not taken out on those with even less power.

d. Ending legal segregation did not level the playing field. As in the post-Civil War period, the post-civil rights period still means huge gaps in wealth, education, and health. Black and Latino communities were much harder hit by the crisis of 2008; rather than the cause, they were the greatest victims of the housing crisis. As we shall see, we need to communicate a more inclusive and egalitarian view of America for these obvious truths to register on popular consciousness.

e. The channeling of people of color into the school-to-prison pipeline: Black and Latino students are disproportionately disciplined in our schools. While blacks make up 17 percent of the student population, they are 37 percent of the students penalized by out-of-school suspensions and 43 percent of the students expelled.27 Black boys account for nine percent of the nation’s student population, but comprise 24 percent of students suspended out of school and 30 percent of students expelled. There is no evidence that children of color misbehave more often than whites, and they are more likely to be suspended or expelled than whites for similar offenses. Dramatic shootings aside, school violence has been on the decline,28 yet the number of students suspended, expelled, and arrested has soared in the last 20 years.

Out of school, saddled with criminal records making it more difficult to get jobs, youth of color are set up for entanglement with the criminal justice system. By the 1990s, the odds of black males going to prison in their lifetime was 28% , for Latino males,16%; compared to 4% for white males.29 “Crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades — they are currently at historical lows — but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact.”30

Expectations of social groups (and individuals) are powerful and self-fulfilling. In Japan, for instance, Koreans do relatively poorly in schools as they are a disrespected minority In the US they are perceived as Asian, a group stereotyped as high achieving, and they perform relatively well.31 Countless studies have demonstrated the power of teacher expectations over student performance.32 Of course, expectations will not change or be positive if the student continues to be perceived as not fully human or culturally dysfunctional.

The inequity of punishments and racial and class distribution of second chances — after a run in with authority or academic difficulties– needs to be communicated, as with some success it has in the fight over the unequal punishment for crack vs. cocaine use. (Crack and cocaine do not differ chemically; they differ radically in what they symbolize racially.) Again the facts of inequity need to be accompanied by an effective evocation of the human experience of those victimized by these policies.

f. Immigrants are not the source of American economic problems. America has long been the destination of migrants, the unwilling along with the willing, even before the days of passports and documents. They have been discriminated against and portrayed as un-American and inferior even as they became central parts of the American economy and society. Today the world has been pulled together more closely than ever. No nation lives in isolation, separate from others. Products, money, people flow back and forth across borders as trade relations, industry, and agriculture all are being transformed. This has created problems for many people from textile workers in North Carolina to peasants growing corn in Mexico. If we are to survive and prosper in this period of frightening change, we have to understand why people are moving from country to country and see their movement as part of a bigger pattern sweeping the planet.

Bill Clinton gave us NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) promising prosperity for Americans and Mexicans alike. NAFTA has become a model for US trade proposals throughout the hemisphere. NAFTA lacked real protection for working people and the environment, leaving big money free to take advantage of new economic opportunities without social accountability. Initially decent-paying jobs moved to nations where labor costs were lower while American-subsidized corn eventually overwhelmed Mexican corn farmers. As a result, many came north to work for subminimum wages in dangerous conditions. In response, border security tightened and while it did not stem the flow of immigrants, it made the trip more dangerous and discouraged migrant laborers from risking their livelihoods to return home. In these and other ways, immigrants are caught up in systems beyond their immediate control.

These constraints have been explained away as inevitable by the right or framed as excuses for lack of effort (or worse) on the part of the poor. Nike has urged us to “just do it” because YOLO (You Only Live Once); media mavens and educators alike harp on ‘role models’. If a heroic individual somehow attains material success, one should emulate his or her efforts; instead of working with others to remove obstacles to group success or upset the structure of power that necessitates heroic efforts, in the first place. Surely we all can benefit from the influence of mentors, but the subtext of ‘role model’ worship is a message of the futility of group action. Personal psychology substitutes for structural analysis. Group solidarity is excluded as a viable possibility in the face of eternal, immutable hierarchies. “You can’t fight City Hall.”

Even when matters are, to a certain extent, under people’s control — such as educational effort — positive results are far from guaranteed. Obama’s competitive “Race to the Top” — in which states are pitted against each other to compete for federal funds — is premised on the notion that a good education will ensure success in the 21st century global economy independent of the state of the global economy, the distribution of wealth, the price of labor, or the rate of poverty. It reinforces the idea that a good education is a prize, not an entitlement. Generalizing from the individual case, in which higher education gives some advantage in the labor market, to the conclusion that more education will automatically improve the economy as a whole is a classic example of what philosophers call the fallacy of composition, thinking that the whole is simply an aggregate of individual elements — in this case, that individual educational success guarantees improved economic opportunity. It is without empirical support that improved education will reinvigorate a failing economy or lead to better jobs in the economy as a whole. It may well result in more qualified people chasing fewer available jobs. The number of recent college graduates who are unemployed or under-employed is an obvious indicator that educational achievement alone does not automatically create economic success for individuals or in the society as a whole.



Of course, individual experience and choice matter. In our summoning up of the structural and systematic, we cannot lose sight of the reality that these larger entities are mediated by the individual. There is individual accountability. A goal of political organizing is to convince people that each of them has choice and power. That is why, for instance, following orders is not a sufficient explanation or excuse for the commission of war crimes. Our aim is to understand, to paraphrase a 19th century radical, that we make our own history, but we do not make it as we please; we do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. It is this context that makes purported role models of economic success unusual and also generally inimitable.

Americans are wedded to the ‘personal’. We need to find and develop stories that effectively depict individual triumph and tragedy in realistic circumstances, a context with constraints and openings. And we should avoid stories that imply that everything is determined and that people have no control.33 This is the core problem with ‘conspiracy theorists’, which imply that hidden power is in control of everything that matters. Motivation is ultimately individual. The power of free market individualism stems in large part from its appeal to individual capacity. As Jimmy Cliff put it, “You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try you’ll succeed at last” supplemented by the Beatles “With a little help from my friends.” Our appeal to individual action is rooted in our communal and human ties.

It must further be admitted that the modern notion of the individual does represent a triumph of freedom. People are now freer to choose their life partners or to leave them. The rights of free speech, association, and assembly enshrined in the Bill of Rights need to be protected and expanded, not curtailed. In fact, these individual rights open up space for forms of group solidarity. It is indicative that the free market view of individual rights is skewed. It opposes reproductive freedom (see Ron Paul34) and wants to control and discipline people’s bodies. Nor is it seriously concerned with government surveillance and intrusive police power.

This is because its individualism is rooted in white and male supremacy. Women are not viewed as fully formed individuals and paranoia of the ‘other’ justifies the violations of basic freedoms. So the job for critics of extreme individualism is not to downplay the achievement of individual rights, but to broaden their application. It has become routine for the right to identify progressives with societies who have repressed these hard-won individual rights and we should be capable of a convincing response.

It is also curious, if not ironic, that the proclaimers of individualism are better organized than the community-minded. The right does well at bringing good numbers together for a focused, discipline campaign — whether against ‘Obama-care’ or to vote in primaries; while the left functions in a much more individualistic manner — dwelling on what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences” — operating in isolated silos, hard pressed to organize a state-wide campaign, much less a national one. There is a difference between unthinking conformism and the conscious action of those struggling for authentic change in the structure of power. We can respect and support individual difference and still find ways to act collectively. This becomes possible if we think through which differences are matters of principle, which can be navigated, and which are not of immediate import.


Now that we have explored constraints on individual action; what is to be done beyond critique individualistic thinking and ideology? Obviously, as my political experience is necessarily limited, my comments are intended to be suggestive, not definitive or exhaustive. My goal is not originality so much as linking together ideas and practice that serve to pose alternatives to the tradition of American individualism that I have been interrogating:


1. Reinvigorate the notion of community. In all our work, connect people and locate spaces for group interaction. The experience of empowered community has been the emotional center of Occupy’s power. Simply put, humans are social, not isolated, animals. In events, mundane and catastrophic — from hanging out to natural disaster to economic collapse –our lives are interleaved; we are all interdependent. Providing help for others is human solidarity and love. It does not breed harmful dependence, but is an essential part of our interdependence. To think otherwise betrays a mean-spiritedness that is out of sync with the great majority of human ethical and spiritual systems.35 It is the lack of hope that promotes a debilitating dependence, but of course we all have to depend on each other. For most of us, an important goal in life is to find someone we can respectfully depend upon. Equally desirable is a supportive community.

Our potential community is inclusive. It includes people or color, immigrants, women, gay,
lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, as well as working and middle class people and youth, recognizing that these are cross-cutting identities and not distinct groups. To develop community we encourage interaction, support collective action around common grievances, oppose privileging the interests of those with greater power, and honor the culture and style that each group brings with it. Our goal is to build mutual trust so that we can interact honestly and work together effectively.

The political system does not exist only to provide physical security. It exists to help solve the problems confronted by its constituents; part of the political compact is not only provision for those in need, but the promotion of the health and well-being of the population. We are not Social Darwinists, separating the wheat from the chaff, the strong from the weak, or the successful from the struggling.

Though competition sometimes brings forth extraordinary effort and performance, cooperation is usually the better strategy for achieving goals, including basic survival. (Even within competitive sports, the individual star works in a team concept.) Otherwise why would humans have gathered in groups, not just families, from our earliest days as a species? Certainly the current one-sided emphasis on competition is not only elitist, but destructive to core values.

2. A key part of our community is what we call ‘the environment.’ Many others are more knowledgeable about the environmental movement, so I will try not to belabor the obvious. I merely want to emphasize the centrality of environmentalism to a vision of an alternative to white male supremacist individualism. Crude individualism ignores our rootedness in the given, natural environment. Environmentalism is, of course, the opposite of elitism; it seeks the appropriate place for humans in the living environment. It asks us to do no harm and show that your actions will do no harm in our interactions with nature and to clean up after ourselves when we do intervene in natural processes. It also teaches us to take the long view and to tune into the connectedness of life. And it has powerful spiritual implications.

Environmentalists have been framed as elitists who care more for spotted owls than working people. Whenever a questionable energy project is being marketed to the public, two themes are constant: ending dependence on Middle East oil and job creation. Energy independence is an impossible goal if American usage continues at current trends. Job creation and job quality are usually wildly overstated; of course the question is how to convincingly communicate this reality. Part of effective communication to workers and farmers is a vision connecting honest labor to care for the environment, as well as the impact of environmental recklessness on people’s health. What will happen to the coal miners, oil workers, and loggers? What role might they have in the infrastructure renewal that is so sorely needed?

Fighting big energy reminds us of the formidability and persistence of the other side. But, despite armies of PR men, it faces major image issues. Huge profit-makers during hard times, they peddle the canard of global warming denial.36 This can only be a winner if it is not confronted; if we retire from the argument in frustration. Energy is a collective good which should be subject to democratic accountability. Making this happen is obviously a long-term project; injecting this perspective into the discussion an immediate priority.

3. Critique white supremacy and racism not as individual prejudice, but as a system of advantage and disadvantage. Our goal is not to make people feel guilty, but to build solidarity among those injured or manipulated by the system of white supremacy. While individual racist attitudes need to be challenged, the main terrain of anti-racist struggle is at the societal level where racial advantage is institutionalized and more intractable, the Obama Presidency notwithstanding.

4. We all live in a new, globalized world and many of us feel vulnerable and scared. This is where the immigrant story can meet the stories of American workers, creating a series of interconnected stories. As decent jobs disappear, the core question is: Is the way forward to identify and attack ‘villains’ who are more vulnerable — immigrants who are without the protections of citizenship and labor laws? Do we license and applaud police state ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids on the poor and vulnerable? Do we support the creation of a second-class labor market in the form of “guest worker” programs?

Or, is there another way, that helps us figure out solutions that are humane, just, and actually address real-life problems? We need a leap away from demonization toward mutual understanding and solidarity. In a global economic order, working conditions and wages inside our political borders are intimately tied to working conditions across these borders. Creating spaces and points of solidarity is one alternative to anti-immigrant hysteria.

5. The maintenance and improvement of infrastructure — sanitation, the power grid, water supply and sewerage, school buildings, bridges — only seems to surface when a bridge collapses or the dikes fail. Support for community institutions (playgrounds, schools, parks, churches) along with local economic development is crucial. As Obama meekly suggested in his much derided attempt to explain that economic success is rooted in a community, not the sole accomplishment of individual entrepreneurs — infrastructure is part of our commons. As in the Great Depression, work on the infrastructure not only provides jobs; it promotes a sense of commonality.

6. Demand and educate about core entitlements such as health care. Again, the task is to bring Big Insurance and Pharma to account. Our current political institutions are ill equipped to take them on as politicians rely upon them for both monetary support and policy initiatives. Their outsize power is indicated in their success in propagating negative stereotypes about health care in Europe and Canada. The obvious direction is to assert that access to care is a fundamental right not a privilege for the rich, and should not be tied to the increasingly insecure workplace.

There are many other possible directions and ideas, but I think my drift is clear. Despite the power of white/male supremacist individualism in American culture, the current situation — in which politics as usual has hit a dead end — affords us opportunities. How we frame the issues, what values we enunciate in opposition to those drawn from the tradition of white/male supremacist individualism is central to our work. Nothing will come our way automatically or because of objective conditions. Just as the economic crisis of 2008 did not move most of the country to the left; declining standards for the middle class will not necessarily lead to solidarity with those more powerless, unless we can effectively articulate and project an accessible alternative to radical individualism.

Bearing that caveat in mind, we are capable of projecting a more realistic, even modestly hopeful, sense of the future. In an America that will become ‘majority minority’ sometime in the next few decades, the numbers are with us in promoting an inclusive vision of our people. We can find more ways to welcome immigrants and help them relate to other communities. We can derail the New Jim Crow. The Tea Party is looking backward to an America that never existed. We can look forward.

Our economy will continue to be troubled for the foreseeable future. To have any chance against big business and its acolytes, the labor movement needs to be reinvigorated and more inclusive. The experience of the Occupy movement suggests such a possibility. College must be made affordable and our nation’s infrastructure attended to.

US international policy is an imperialist disaster. Governments of both parties have had us mired in endless wars and buttressing up brutal dictatorships or power-hungry military men. The role of NATO as a multilateral, imperial police force needs to be unmasked and overturned. New concepts of security are called for, as well as new standards of international behavior. Wikileaks has opened a window on the dirty workings of US international policy — demonstrating the necessity of a more open policy in sympathy with the struggles of people around the world rather than a fruitless attempt at domination.

Military adventurism is not the only international danger. Multinational, as well as national, institutions have not demonstrated the capacity to effectively protect workers or the environment, or to rein in finance capital. They have acted, rather, as accomplices to the financiers and the derivative dealers and as servants of the energy and pharmaceutical companies. We have noted the negative impact of NAFTA on both the Mexican and US economies. New and secret initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have powerful implications for computer access and privacy, free speech, intellectual property rights, corporate investment power and so on.37 And as labor becomes more internationalized, a new regime of labor protection becomes an increasingly obvious necessity if we abandon a narrow-minded and losing strategy of trying to protect native-born American privilege.

Underpinning all these crises is the looming danger of environmental calamity. Eventually the reality of experience will marginalize the global warming deniers, but this belated realization should not function merely as a boost to fracking or nuclear power. Many green thinkers are busy thinking of what a non-carbon-based, environmentally conscious society might look like. This thinking has to be made accessible to all people. Otherwise, the short-term will once again trump the longer-term survival issues that must be confronted. Environmentalism has made strides in the consciousness of our youth; let’s build on that before they are strait-jacketed into mainstream thinking. Global environmentalism requires an alliance amongst all of the world’s people, with a focus on the interests of nations and peoples most directly threatened.

The ideology of white/male supremacist individualism is both mythical and divisive. It sets up group against group and individual against individual. It is also self-contradictory at its core because at the same time it identifies individualism with true liberty, it tries to exclude whole groups from the privilege of full citizenship and autonomy. It denies reproductive freedom as it tries to discipline rebellious bodies. It claims to care about the long-term effects of the deficit, but celebrates short-term profit-taking at the expense of society and the future. Its authoritarian streak is rooted in its attempts to deny and repress group solidarity. It suppresses the rights of assembly because it esteems a predictable, orderly environment for capitalism; and people who assemble can be disorderly. As a guarantee of freedom it celebrates gun ownership, but it countenances surveillance of dissidents and racial profiling. It thrives on fear of the unruly under-class.

Democracy is premised on the notion that people should have control over how they are ruled. The market as the arbiter of human worth, as such, is anti-democratic at its core. The collateral damage of what establishment economists call market externalities (like pollution or CO2 emissions or offshoring of jobs), betrays its callousness towards society as a whole, its untrustworthiness. A purely market society is a cold, manipulative place without human warmth or nurturing culture. There are greater romances than that of commodity worship. The economy exists for human purposes, for us; we do not exist to be handmaidens of a rigged and often mean-spirited system. As an alternative, we can connect power to solidarity — rather than hopelessly pleading and lobbying the powers that be — recalling the warning of revolutionary Benjamin Franklin: “”We must hang together…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.” Challenging power is of necessity a group project. Individuals as individuals have little choice, but to accommodate power. Individuals cannot effectively challenge a system; they can only hope to rise in it. Even as fundamental change seems improbable, the task dauntingly formidable; the current self-destructive, dysfunctional, and mean-spirited system is signaling its own impossibility. It is our turn to once more re-ignite ‘the light of freedom’.


1 Ryan, W. F. Blaming the Victim. Random House Digital, Inc., 1976.

2 See for a recent summary of studies on relevant mobility and Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well? Economic Mobility Project| May 2007 for the persistence of belief in class mobility.

3 Frustenberg, F. (2006) In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Penguin,

4 Quoted in Ibid. p. 20.

5 His speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses in March 1775 is widely credited in convincing it to send troops for the Revolutionary cause.

6 Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935, 1998), Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. New York: The Free Press, p. 104.

7 See Scott Reynolds Nelson, “We’ve Always Been Deadbeats: Debt is not a new American way” at for the enmeshment of early rural Americans in the credit market, and not as purely independent freeholders.

8 Furstenberg, p. 221.

9 C. B. MacPherson (1962). The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon.

10 “Meritocracy” was originally coined by disgruntled British Labour Party intellectual Michael Young in the 1950s to describe a “dystopian” society where the poor would be permanently marginalized as unworthy.

11 Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, “‘Dependency’ Demystified: Inscriptions of Power in a Keyword of the Welfare State,” Social Politics Spring (1994), p. 18-20.

12 An enduring equation was also forged between anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, where the elite intellectualism was perceived as obscurantist, manipulative, and exclusive.

13 Du Bois, p. 27.

14 Alexander, M, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York 2010)

15 See Wacquant, L. Deadly Symbiosis: Race and the Rise of the Penal State (2012) or “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, the Role of Prisons in American Society” in New Left Review, January-February 2002.

16 See

17 See for instance,

18 Copyright Tom Engelhardt 2006. This article appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Nation magazine. At

19 See, for instance, John Gray (1998), False Dawn. New York: The Free Press for a non-socialist critique of free-market utopianism.

20 See, for instance, for Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government” is over.

21 See or

22 See Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997), New York: Pantheon Books, especially Ch. 5, Linda Gordon, Pitied but not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (1994), New York: Free Press and Nancy Fraser and Linda Gordon, “‘Dependency’ Demystified: Inscriptions of Power in a Keyword of the Welfare State,” Social Politics Spring (1994).

23 See

24 Subprime, like inner city and disadvantaged, now serves as a sometime racial euphemism and other time racial accusation.

25 See Matt Taibbi (2011), Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History, New York: Spiegel and Grau Trade Paperbacks for a vivid and clear description of ruthless profit-taking by big finance.

26 See for further elaboration on the social impact of inequality.

27 For one example among many studies, focusing on middle schools see a recent study by The Southern Poverty Law Center, “Suspended Education” by Losen and Skiba at On the “thuggification” of even elementary school students, see Ann Arnett Fergusson (2000), Bad Boys Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, University of Michigan Press.

28 See the important work of The Advancement Project, especially Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies (June 2000) and Education On Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track (Mar. 2005).

29 See Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison, US Department of Justice, 1997.

30 Michelle Alexander, “The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare” (March 25, 2012),_the_age_of_obama_as_a_racial_nightmare/.

31 See

32 See or the classic study of Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the Classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

33 For instance, creationists are adept at taking advantage of people’s fear of determinism when they deny evolution — for them, evolutionary science takes the meaning out of life; fueling the notion that people are nothing more than pawns of forces beyond their control.

34 See Paul, R. The Revolution: A Manifesto. (2008), New York: Grand central Publishing.

35 See, for instance, religious historian Karen Armstrong’s,

36 See James Lawrence Powell, The Inquisition of Climate Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011),, and

37 See for more details on the implications of the secret TPP talks.