The most recent installment of the New York Times‘ “Opinionator” column features an impassioned piece by Todd May about America’s culture of violence. The article posits that our brutishness is rooted in aggressive individualism: with everyone is in it for themselves, it makes it difficult to serve a broader social good. When individualism is enshrined in our economic structures, it places additional stress on a populace already trained to see the world through a competitive, rather than cooperative lens. Violence can spark anywhere.
May (emphasis mine):
The embrace of classical liberalism or neoliberalism erodes social solidarity. Each of us is an investor, seeking the best return on our money, our energies, our relationships, indeed our lives. We no longer count on government, which is often perceived as the enemy. And we no longer have obligations to those with whom we share the country, or the planet. It is up to each of us to take our freedom and use it wisely. Those who do not are not unlucky or impoverished. They are simply imprudent.
Competitive individualism, insecurity, neoliberalism: the triad undergirding our penchant for violence. This, as much as anything else, is the current exceptionalism of America. Others are not our partners, nor even our colleagues. They are our competitors or our enemies. They are hardly to be recognized, much less embraced. They are to be vanquished.
Obviously, there are some benefits to individualism, and the author points to creative expression and technological innovation as examples. But the fact remains that America’s murder rate is three-to-five times higher than other industrialized nations. If we agree with the premise (and we may not) that competitive individualism is to blame for our savagery, it may be instructive to consider where the boot-strapping self-determination that once defined the American experience (or at least its mythology) went off the rails and became paranoid, petty and dangerous.
I blame the hippies.
Well, not just the hippies, but the entire counterculture of the 1960s, which manifested individualistic materialism even as the turned-on, tuned-out youth of the day engaged in half-assed cooperative experiments. Ever wonder why the era’s communes and collectives didn’t pan out? Because selfish, stoned people aren’t particularly good at working together.
It might seem a little nuts to suggest that a movement centered largely on stopping a mindless war would lay the foundations for America’s culture of violence, but if you take May’s thesis to heart, such conclusions are inevitable. By abandoning the tenets of the Great Society and its focus on organized labor and social class divisions, the New Left of the 1960s left the door wide open for the laissez-faire malignancies of subsequent decades. I am not suggesting that radical individualism did not play a part on the road to greater social justice. I am, however, proffering that the cynicism ushered in by the assassination of John F. Kennedy and exacerbated by escalation in Vietnam made it all too easy to overlook the role of government — particularly the Lyndon Johnson administration — in advancing civil rights through an often painful reorientation of political parties around bedrock social issues. Vietnam was Johnson’s albatross, and it gave opponents of the war an excuse to abandon traditional leftist politics in favor of abstract intellectualism. Meanwhile, Milton Friedman was breeding a zombie army at the University of Chicago that would soon infect even stalwart liberals with their neo-Randian, globalist worldview.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, the free marketeers had essentially taken over our economic discourse. Even big D democrats and liberal think-tankers came to see federal agency capture by corporations as an inevitability. So why fight it? Better to deregulate and let the hidden hand do it’s frisky business. Meanwhile, the right became enamored of Francis Fukuyama and his End of History, in which neoliberalism (and its handmaiden, neoconservatism) has become the dominant — and permanent — economic and social construct. (Fukuyama somehow missed the “clash of civilizations” which came to define the post-9/11 era, but we had “bad cops” Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney to address that.)
As May points out, our culture of violence owes something to our perceived global badassery:
We live in a different world now, and this makes many of us insecure. We long for a world more cooperative with our wishes than the one we now live in. Our insecurity, in turn, reinforces our desire to control, which reinforces violence.
The boomers are currently on their 1,000,000th victory lap, but nothing will ever change the fact that their “revolution” failed to bring an end to the war in Vietnam. Not that they ever miss an opportunity to remind younger generations about their righteous defiance. But where were they when Wall Street ate Washington? Playing the market and flipping real estate, I reckon.
Libertarians (including the ones who are OK with Rand Paul‘s stance on women’s reproductive rights but think seatbelt laws are an invasion of liberty) are fond of saying that there is no difference between the political parties. They’re mostly right. But as usual, their preferred remedies would only make things worse by reinforcing the most self-serving and paranoid tendencies in our society. Gun violence has nothing to do with guns, you know.
The mainstreaming of such attitudes is a direct result of the materialistic individualism that took root in our culture more than 40 years ago. At some point, possibly during the 1970s, this cancer might have been treatable. I fear that now it is terminal. Worse still, the symptoms aren’t confined to America — it’s a global condition.
Postscript: Francis Fukuyama loses. Just look at China, the ultimate fusion of capitalism and state control. Hey, at least the crime rate is lower.