In an exchange of essays on American democracy published in the January 11, 1941, issue of The Nation, a few leading intellectuals of the time explored the question “Who owns the future?” The context: an escalating world war and the rise of fascism and despotism, which had engulfed the world in an ideology that would cost millions of lives. The tension in the debate is one that has existed throughout history: Can we remake the world in a way that generates a future full of opportunities and possibilities for the majority? In one piece, Professor Frederick Schuman, predicting the demise of democracy, posited that Americans were too weak in spirit and shallow in thinking—too “decadent”—to stop the march of what he called “Caesarism.” He argued that “this is not a defect of our collective power. It is a defect of our collective wisdom and our collective will.” Schuman passed off his cynical worldview as high-minded intellectualism, but The Nation’s editors—along with Max Lerner, in a spirited rebuttal—saw his argument for what it was: the bitter resignation of an “intellectual defeatist.” Schuman, like many others in those very dark days, had lost faith in the power and promise of citizenship in a participatory democracy.
Beginning in the late 1970s, another assault was under way, this one more clever and in some ways more lasting. A movement centered around Ronald Reagan ratcheted up the belief that the individual is paramount. The notion of collective provision, compassion and citizenship was replaced by consumerism and greed as a way to “participate” in society and define who we are. Using a linguistic attack wrapped in the language of freedom, Reaganism made individualism seem selfless, even heroic, while the idea of government obligation to help the needy was seen as vain or wasteful. Cynicism was the engine driving this new political and cultural outlook. It was a time when the free market—not democracy—was put forth as the answer to our problems. Corporations would now be more powerful than governments. Reagan’s partner across the pond, Margaret Thatcher, succinctly summed up this dangerous mythology when she said, “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and families.”
Despite the theatrics depicting Reagan and Thatcher as bold, gutsy leaders, each presented a fantasy of purity, simplicity and security while rejecting the notion that there were serious internal problems to address. Everything was just right, because Western individualism had defeated fascism and would soon defeat communism. All we needed to do was return to an idyllic past—one that never really existed. “It’s morning in America,” announced the famous Reagan campaign ad, ignoring the obvious question: Morning for whom? Reagan and Thatcher wanted us to forget about last night by using fear (the threat of nuclear war) and cynicism (their way was the only way; no alternative) to convince us that change was risky or impossible. In their effort to promote a new brand of individualism, they tried to establish a thoughtless conformity that bred submissiveness and an ahistorical consciousness. Together, they set about erasing history by attempting to roll back the gains of the New Deal and Great Society (here) and the social democratic state (in Britain).
All of it served to pull us apart, placing “I” above “we.”
As the adolescent son of Italian immigrants (a bricklayer father, a cafeteria worker mother), I couldn’t relate to Reaganism. It contradicted the core elements of how my family survived: sharing, working together and looking out for one another. It led me to ask what we could do in the face of such absurdity. The question still burns a hole in my head and in my heart.
“You’re automatically part of society.” These words from my father still echo in my memory twenty-five years after his death. Born in the Italian mountain village of Colli a Volturno in 1941, only a few months after that Nation issue hit the newsstands, he lived the early part of his life underground, his mother desperately trying to keep her youngest child alive as Italy was collapsing under the rule of Mussolini, war, occupation and despair. I knew his struggle, so his words always went deeper for me, meant something more. Working with him starting at the age of 7 as a part-time laborer and full-time translator, I listened, watched, and sometimes interpreted the ideas and conversations that he and his fellow skilled tradesmen (many of them immigrants) had as they recast obstacles into opportunities. They had to work together, overcoming inclement weather, bungled architectural blueprints and unrealistic building deadlines set by developers looking for quick turnarounds. Witnessing the way they moved through life inspired in me an awareness I describe as “creative response.”