AMERICA'S INFATUATION WITH A RELIGION OF INDIVIDUALISM
The United States has become plagued by the steady corrosion of an unequal society. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans now earns a greater share of the nation’s income than it did in the previous two decades and possibly since 1929, according to the Wall Street Journal. The 400 wealthiest Americans now own $1.4 trillion in wealth, which is greater than the gross domestic product for the country of India with over a billion people.
But inequality is related to more than economic imbalances. Various studies, many of them encapsulated in the book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, have demonstrated that unequal societies tend to result in greater incidences of other social ills, including violence, alcoholism, domestic violence, mental illness and other problems, as well as lower levels of trust, less involvement in community life, and more racial and gender discrimination. As American economists Robert Frank and Philip Cook have pointed out in their book The Winner Take All Society, in the age of Wal-Mart and “Chindia,” the lives of millions of breadwinners and their families have been made less secure by the creation of a virtually unlimited global labor pool, which has tended to drive wages, benefits, and quality of life toward the lowest common denominator. By concentrating most economic gains among just a handful of winners, the U.S. development model has dramatically widened the gap between the wealthy and the vast legions of everyone else, consigned to the treadmill of a “winner-take-all society.”
Since inequality is related to the prevalence of other social ills, and with the United States plagued by the highest inequality rates among developed countries, it comes as little surprise that that U.S. also is the world’s leader in murders and other violent crimes, suicides, and incarceration rates. America jails more people than any other nation in the world, seven to ten times more people incarcerated than in Europe (depending on the country). We spend more money on constructing prisons than we do on universities. In the United States, violence of all kinds—street violence, domestic violence, entertainment violence, official state-sanctioned military violence—has become a way of life, the sea in which we swim. In the post-WWII era, this caused the U.S. to be feared, but the military failures in recent years have caused the U.S. to lose much of its global credibility and, with it, its allure to the world.
Europe, on the other hand, is a more egalitarian place and suffers from less inequality, making it the envy of the world. This manifests in large and small ways. Once, when I was in Rome and entered a very average restaurant, I was waited on by an elder gentleman, I would guess in his early 60s. Rome, and Italy in general, and perhaps France too, must have more elderly male waiters than any other place in the world, which always struck me as odd. In the United States, waiters usually are younger people, mostly female, who wait tables part-time while they are going to college or to bring in some extra income. It's considered a fairly menial job, even at the better restaurants. Menial is OK at a young stage in life, and in the right restaurants the tips can be decent. But by the time someone gets into their 50s or 60s, if they are still waiting tables the assumption in America is that it's been a pretty hard life with no good prospects in sight.
So I would look at these elderly Italian and French waiters with a fair amount of pity. For some reason they all facially reminded me of Alan Greenspan, as if Greenspan himself had fallen on harder times and ended up as a waiter. Yet what always struck me about these waiters was that they brought so much dignity to their occupation. Even more than dignity, their pleasant demeanor and obvious mastery of their craft indicated a degree of contentment, and now I knew why. With basics like health care, pensions and housing taken care of, suddenly you don't have to worry as much about your position on the success ladder. You don't have to worry so much about climbing that ladder, or only entering the occupations that will put you on the highest and fastest rungs, which is what the game is all about in America. You aren’t trapped inside the “winner take all” society.
But in America, due to our infatuation with a religion of individualism, we always have been drawn to extraordinary achievers and Herculean heroes. Our worship of champions, stars and celebrities, whether athletes, pop idols, Hollywood icons, business tycoons, military warriors and even a few politicians, is reflective of this national narrative rooted in our Puritan heritage, filtered through Locke, Adam Smith and Jefferson and manifested in fabled rags to riches stories. Certainly individual achievement is important, but the fact is the vast majority of Americans are just average. They are neither winners nor losers in this winner-take-all society, they just go to work each day, doing the thousands of ordinary jobs that make society work. And that’s OK
or at least it should be.
But U.S. society and its incentives are not predicated on the likely fate of these middle class lunch pail Joes and Janes. The current script calls for everyone to strive hard to be like their heroes, to dress, talk and act like the celluloid stars, even though most will never arrive at a place more than a few notches up the mountain towards that Sisyphean goal. It makes little sense to construct the rules and agreements assuming most people will climb very high, yet that’s exactly what the American Way does. Who needs a social support system that supports families and everyday people when everyone aspires to live a life of Bono, Angelina Jolie, LeBron James, or Bill Gates?
But the disconnect between reality and myth only makes for a crazy making existence, full of personal unhappiness and, yes, aggression, crime and the Haves trying to wall themselves off from the Have Nots. Of course, for those hundreds of millions of Americans who have no chance of joining the one percenters, there is always the Lotto. Yet luck, by definition, can never be universal, though that increasingly seems to be the basis for what’s left of the American social contract: “Blessed are the lucky, for they will win.”
But in Europe, the average person can relax more into her or his unique role in life, as nearly every occupation can receive the respect and dignity it deserves. Those who wait our tables, who pick our food, who cut our hair, who take care of our children, who drive our public transit, and the thousands of other occupations necessary to make society work, deserve a similar level of treatment as wealthy bankers, lawyers, corporate CEOs or NBA and Hollywood superstars. In Europe, they have this but in America, we do not. This is a key transatlantic difference, and one that is very hard to quantify. Quality of life, real quality, often is hard to quantify.
When I was in Berlin I had another such epiphany when I had the opportunity to stay for a time in an anarchist community that thrives in the poorer sections of East Berlin. My American friends Jason and Peter lived among these anarchist circles. "Anarchism" and "anarchy" are the most misrepresented of political ideologies, the words are commonly used to mean "chaos" or "without order," and so by implication anarchists must desire social chaos and senseless violence. But in fact that’s way off the mark, while there are some lumpen-ruffians who like to smash windows at protests and call themselves ‘anarchists,’ true anarchists are the most peaceful, nonviolent people one could hope to know, and their political theory is simple: they oppose all forms of hierarchy, preferring consensus decision-making, community, and a society where individuals freely cooperate together as equals. Idealistic, yes, but a generous dose of idealism always has been a part of the German psyche, from Kant to Hegel to Goethe.
Jason took me up onto the roof of his apartment building where we could look down upon views of the adjacent blocks. Not far away on the near-horizon was the soaring Fernsehturm, a television tower that stands 1100 feet high in Alexanderplatz, the famous square where hundreds of thousands gathered in November 1989 demanding the fall of the Berlin Wall -- talk about the power of idealism. From the rooftop, Jason pointed out the various anarchist venues in his neighborhood.
"Down there and across the street on the corner is an anarchist restaurant, where the food is incredibly cheap and tasty. For four bucks you can stuff yourself. And over there is the anarchist movie house, where for a couple of dollars you can see all the top movies. Months after their first release of course, but so what.”
He also pointed out other store fronts and buildings where there were bookstores, a theater, meeting spaces and live music venues. Nearby was a vacant lot where you could see various hippies and anarchists who were living in old buses, campers and the like. Previously when walking along his neighborhood streets, populated by many people on foot or bicycle with fewer cars hogging the road, he had pointed out swirling murals painted by anarchist artists that brightened up the sides of rundown buildings. It was impressive. The anarchists had created their own alternative community, including their own infrastructure, institutions and cultural space, where they could live, work, play and enjoy.
And of course all this was easier to do, and not so fraught with worry and anxiety about the future, because they had the foundation beneath them of the German social support system. Even their low cost housing was the result of the government allowing takeovers of abandoned buildings, a common practice in Europe. These anti-capitalist misfits had a mimetic niche in the interstices of the capitalist system, where they could plot and plan their nonviolent transition to a more cooperative world. In Europe, those who pursue the intellectual and creative life are inheritors of their nation’s social insurance system as much as any doctor, businessman or lawyer. It is everyone’s birthright. So creativity can flourish in its own way and time, like a rare flower crawling up through the cracks of the pavement. Who can say that the cultural memes they are brewing in their anarchist stew will not one day be the seeds of the planet’s salvation?
Meanwhile, back in the good ol’ USA, here we are, the lone remaining superpower, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, with the most powerful military the world has ever seen -- and yet we have not figured out how to ensure that the lives of Americans are not so filled with anxiety and fear. We haven’t even figured out how to provide health care to all Americans. Despite all our wealth and military power, for too many Americans there is no security.
Europeans, meanwhile, have a more stress-free attitude that perhaps can be summed up best in one word, a Danish word—hygge (pronounced hooga)—which describes a relaxed state of conviviality that involves close friendships and family bonds. One American expat who has lived in Denmark for more than thirty years tried to explain the sentiment. “The gist of it is that you are not supposed to have anything to do except let go,” she said, describing a nearly zen timelessness where the present doesn’t worry so much about the future. Wrote another American who had been living in the Netherlands, “To comprehend this system is to enter a different state of mind.”
—Steven Hill 2:22 PM