An amazing thing happened on the way to the 2016 election. The primary season confounded one of the fondest wishes of neoliberalism: to abolish the need for collective solutions to collective problems. Two huge anti-mainstream insurgencies—the one, Donald Trump’s, captured the Republican nomination, and the other, behind Bernie Sanders, came tantalizingly close to snatching the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton—have been demanding active government intervention to address America’s social pain. Whatever their profound differences, both sharply reject the dominant trend of a generation.
We have, over these years, been pushed and pulled towards an individualist dystopia in which, according to its proponents, it would be unnecessary (and unthinkable) for governments to do more than the most minimal tasks. A social and political transformation has been taking place that includes reshaping realities as well as attitudes. The new arrangements have many names: neoliberalism, austerity, privatization of government services, free-market globalization. It has led to numerous practical changes including charter schools, “the end of welfare as we know it,” prisons for profit, warfare using mercenaries, deregulation of banking, NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the growth of the “precariat.” Even breakthrough government programs such as prescription-drug coverage and the Affordable Care Act have been designed to be carried out by corporations and built on private profit and individual responsibility.
Although we are getting used to these changes, their bizarre character can be captured by an odd-sounding expression: What has been taking place over the past generation is the desocialization of social pain. These changes have been implementing Margaret Thatcher’s mission “to change the soul” of the underlying population. She had in mind making people less dependent, less prone to look to unions and to government to solve their problems, and thus more willing to assume responsibility for their lives. This was, of course, in keeping with her main contention that “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families.” Right-wing think tanks and media have been drumming this into anyone who will listen for a generation, reshaping values, ideas, and attitudes in an immensely effective, well-organized, and lavishly funded effort. They have implored us to turn away from treating the public realm as a terrain for improvement and change. They have pitched, as the dominant value of American society, that each of us is on our own.
Even in our individualist society, this goes sharply against a core belief: that our individual well-being is tied in with the well-being of the society, and that collective well-being is an essential goal that we can and should pursue. Thus it was not outlandish that President Lyndon Johnson should declare a “War on Poverty” in 1965, or even that a majority of Americans believed that poverty could be eliminated in their lifetimes. Thus urban renewal, Model Cities, Head Start, unemployment benefits, manpower training, and dozens of other forms of social responsibility.