Recent developments in the U.S. economy have no meaning. Breathtaking inequality of wealth, brazen financial fraud, a Congress with approval ratings lower than gonorrhea, the disappearance of the Middle Class, the wholesale abandonment of the rural and the young – none of it means anything. It’s just what’s happening. Things like this are normal, really.
The sentiment above is described as “nihilism,” the belief that world events have no significance. The philosophy was most vigorously advanced following World War II, where to believe that events had meaning was to go insane with anger against a God who would allow such atrocities. The rational response is then to reject all myths and dreams in favor of a featureless belief in existence, a passive acceptance of tactile daily life, nothing more.
I bring up the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre in conjunction with recent economic developments precisely because they are incompatible with American culture. The United States is a place of myths and dreams. The nihilistic response to historic contortions of the economy is a dramatic shift in the country’s character. Americans are more than welcome to abandon their most cherished ideals in favor of worldly ennui, but before we do, I recommend that we take one last look at what we are giving up in favor of berets, deep sighs, and chain smoking. Perhaps it is the economy that requires abandoning instead.
Myths drive America
Joseph Campbell showed that every culture is driven by myths, represented by archetypes that appear in their oral tradition. America is no different than the Sumerians, Greeks, or ancient Celts in this regard. Our oral tradition is packed with stories of The Pioneer, The Inventor, The Reformer, The Idealist, and many more towering figures that illustrate the myths we hold dear. Lewis and Clark and Daniel Boone, Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr. – these are America’s most influential figures. Yet these archetypes are not the root of our culture; they all emerge in response to myths.
All men are created equal.
In America, your family heritage does not matter as much as your talent.
Hard work pays off.
We are working toward a more perfect union.
All human activity is more complex and nuanced than a simple myth can describe; this is why they exist in the first place. The human mind abhors a vacuum where narrative is concerned. We crave a coherent story, even if it might be based on partial (or total) falsehood. Clearly, if we were to use the above principles of America’s social dynamic as direct descriptions, they could be contradicted by innumerable counter-examples. All men are created equal, except for natives, Africans, women and immigrants, Jews, Catholics, et cetera. Your family heritage does not matter, though in our list of presidents we have two Adams, two Roosevelts and two Bushes. Hard work pays off, but ironically, hard workers tend to also pay a higher rate of taxes than those whose labor is limited to structuring leveraged buyouts and other financial tricks.
The coherence of the story is more important than its veracity. American myth gives us comfort when we examine our collective history in all its moral uncertainty. Myth tells us who we are in a world that has never been under our control. In the case of American culture, our myths tell us that, yes, the dominant factions of society have abused the disenfranchised, but this has improved steadily. Yes, your last name still influences your destiny, but immigrants still flock here for opportunity. Ergo, there’s no need to be radical, because chances are you will see benefit by following the current system.
When you look at events of the 20th century, America’s myths appear to be guiding its actions. Racism, homophobia and other forms of intolerance are on the run. Wages increase steadily for all forms of labor. Dangerous, exploitative work environments go from commonplace to illegal. Immigrants from my mother’s Italian family in 1906 all the way to Scottish talk show host Craig Ferguson continue to flock to America’s shores in search of something unavailable in their nation.
But what about the 21st century? What about the economic developments of the past two decades conform to any of our national myths?
Recent scholarship by Gilens, Page and Piketty tell us that all men might be created equal, but only men from certainty monied interests have influence on society’s direction. Inequality of wealth now means inequality of opportunity for Americans. The famous upward mobility that drew immigrants from foreign shores is now replaced by a system where your parents’ social position is the most accurate predictor of your fate.
Does hard work pay off in 21st century America? Surely – but it pays drastically different wages depending on who you are. Small and mid-sized enterprises now must compete against global corporations that have the right to foreign tax havens, specially-written subsidies and regulations, and access to capital markets that will give them cash irrespective of their business’ inherent risks. “Hard work” as one of the elect executives of a megabank or oligopolistic corporation pays exponentially more than similar work as an single proprietor, small company, or God forbid, 1099 contractor.
Finally, are we working toward a more perfect union? One might argue that in the new era of winner-take-all hypercapitalism, we are not attempting to be a union at all. The Powers That Be, leveraging the American myth of the Cowboy or the Homesteader, reinforce that we are all individuals, and thus should take sole and unique responsibility for whatever is happening to us in terms of the economy, structural factors be damned. The only time we will be reminded of our national identity is when the DC foreign policy braintrust decides it is time to invade a distant nation, or a megabank requires direct access to the Federal Treasury to pay off some bad bets. At that moment, we are all in this together. Directly after, it will be time to get to work and stop being jealous of your betters.
Should we replace the old myths – or restore them?
Recent developments in our economic life show that America has lost the guidance of its myths. It is now acceptable to us that wealthy scions be spared prison for heinous crimes, or that private equity financiers should pay single-digit tax rates, or that wages should fall in the face of executive pay, or hundreds of other aspects of this new indignity. Despite clownish political pundits who continue to nihilistically protest that all of this is “normal,” the national direction has broken away from its root narrative that this is a democratic nation that does right by the individual in his or her search for prosperity, justice and happiness. We are left, I believe, we three choices:
We embrace nihilism. This is just the way it is. Stop comparing modern life to some principle you learned in civics class, and get on with living.
We embrace new myths. There are new archetypes to be formed if we want to go with the flow of the “new normal.” The Pioneer can be replaced by The Reliable Bureaucrat. The Inventor will be less revered than her replacement, The Intellectual Property Defender. The Idealist will be superseded by an archetype that better fits the times, The Explainer Journalist. The Reformer will not require an update, but should be sent directly to the landfill of civic history. We can then speed toward the destiny that these kinds of archetypes will guarantee – a bright, shiny, digital feudalism.
We recommit ourselves to the myths that built America. We know that America frequently fails to live up to the high-minded ideals of its philosophers. This is a country founded by people who proclaimed the right of the individual to self-govern while actually owning human beings like cattle, after all. But the fact remains, this place has succeeded – thus far – in becoming a more perfect union. You only have to do business in Europe for a short period of time before realizing that outside of the U.S., being a self-made success from a working-class family in a rotten town is, tragically, a dubious thing. Immigrants still come the to U.S., despite its travails, for the chance to see labor pay off in a brighter future for one’s family. But these American qualities are under attack from within. Our reflexive tendency to see our national myths at work even when they are absent has allowed the country to be seized by nihilists. The dominant class of the United States appears all too content to own America through a parasitic financial system driving a government that has been captured at the highest level. But then, the rest of the nation is also content to coast on the inertia of these expired myths. Their lethargy gives you the sense that they, too think of this as normal.
Which future do we choose? Are the myths of our civics classes, history books, and countless political speeches so easy to discard? Are we excited to follow the new path to be trod by followers of the Reliable Bureaucrat? Should we instead choose to feel nothing at all and luxuriate instead in the temporal joys of selfies and superhero movies? Or is there noble work to be done.
It remains a choice. Soon, I fear, the choice will be made for us.