America is an experimental society. It always has been and it probably always will be. It started out as an attempt to begin again, free of the political, social and religious restrictions of the motherland. Decade after decade, new generations of immigrants have poured into the land bringing with them new ideas, other traditions, coupled with a determination to make their way in the New World. Initially, American culture was an offshoot of European, more specifically, of British culture. Since the war however, the boot has been on the other foot. European culture has been fashioning itself more and more after the American model, and of no country is this more the case than Britain. As a result, in America today, Europe can already see itself as it will be tomorrow if it continues to follow the American way. The child has become father to the man.
There are all too few books about America written by Europeans. And of those that do exist, most only address one aspect (the political/ the economic/ the religious) and do so only on the basis of outside observation coupled, perhaps, with the odd fleeting visit. I have researched all the social issues which most Americans already recognize to be problematic, boiled this embarrassingly diverse complex of issues down to a few leading themes and have then tried to tie the themes together by seeing them as the product of a characteristic attitude or mental set, one which is, for the most part, directly opposed to traditional American values.
The basis of my analysis is however as existential as it is intellectual. For some twenty years, I worked as a professor at some of America's best known Universities. As a European, I have to assume that I bring to my analysis of contemporary American society an outside perspective. But, as a twenty-five year resident of the United States, I have come to know America from the inside.
In the course of the decades I spent in America, I watched the social environment disintegrate almost beyond recognition. On my occasional visits back to Europe I noted, with some alarm, that many of the problems which I had, at one time, thought to be distinctively American were just beginning to be European problems. Sexual abuses of the kind that are commonplace today all over Europe were rare in the Britain in which I grew up. Marriages were made to last. Drugs were virtually unknown. Armed robbery was a rare event. Policemen never got killed on duty. Whether a causal relation can be established is another matter, but one thing is certain. The social problems I deal with in this work existed in America before they became a matter of public concern in Europe. Now they exist in Europe, and elsewhere in the world.
Having spent spent several years on the West coast of America, I returned to work on the East coast. A first draft of this work was finished and ready for publication in the early 80s while I was teaching there. At that time, I gave the work the title: 'California, Here We Come!' For I had quickly come to appreciate that, in parts of the East, for example in Quaker circles, the values with which I was brought up still operated. The earliest draft of this work was therefore intended as a warning to America not to go the Californian way.
At the end of the 80s, my mother became terminally ill and I returned to my homeland to spend time with her before she died. A few months in England and I realised that it was already too late for Europe to escape the social developments which I deplored and so I renamed the work, 'The Way of the West'. This was a time when AIDS, for example, which was already a catastrophe in America, was only just beginning to take its toll in Europe. I re-drafted the work at that time, thinking it could have served as a warning to Europe not to go the American way.
Then in 1995, I was invited to take up a visiting professorship at a small but well-run liberal arts college in the Mid-west. I found, in an area known as the 'Buckle of the Bible Belt', something I had not found either on the West or the East coast -- a friendliness and generosity which was genuine, marriages which worked as life-long partnerships, a religiosity which was heart-felt and yet tolerant and, above all, a commitment to values which had already become an integral part of the college curriculum. This small college transformed my conception of America. More especially, it made me aware of the virtues which had raised America from relative obscurity, at the beginning of the century, into a position of world leadership by the end of the century. In the Mid-west, I met people who were just as concerned as myself about the developments which form the central topics of this work. Indeed, they were much more concerned than the Europeans with whom I had tried to discuss the contents of the work in England. Recognizing the paramount importance of mental attitudes, as a force for change, I rewrote the first and last chapters (Prologue and Epilogue) to reflect my new, psychological understanding of the causes of the social deterioration which I had undertaken to record. Hence the latest title: 'Egoism and the Crisis in Western Values'.
My disenchantment with the way things have turned out in America springs from a belief which, perhaps, contemporary Americans no longer share, namely, that traditional American values uphold about as perfect a social order as can be achieved in a very imperfect world. The ideal of a genuinely democratic society where anyone, no matter what his class, race, sex or creed, could prosper by dint of hard work -- a society of the people, governed by the people, for the people -- a society committed to the religious view of life but without the dogmatic constraints of an established church -- a decentralized society based upon the family and the community and admitting a multiplicity of self-governing states held together in free union; this was an ideal the like of which had never been seen before in human history.
But things have gone badly wrong. In place of 'individualism', you find either libertinism without responsibility or the conformism of the corporate state. In place of the 'family', you find solitary sexual adventurism. In place of 'community', you find urban slums and suburban sprawls. In place of 'religion', you find a deep-rooted secularism founded upon an unqualified commitment to science and technology. In place of 'health and sanity', you find an addictive society which has become ever more dependent upon the psychiatrist. In place of 'law and order', you find a widespread criminality which is by no means confined to the so-called 'criminal class'.
Since writing and revising this work over more than a decade, the predictive power of my central thesis has been amply confirmed. Whatever happens in California happens in the rest of America -- a few years later. Whatever happens in America happens in the rest of the world -- a few years later. Over and over again I have made predictions, both for the rest of America and for Europe, based on my initial experience of the way things were in California in the late 60s and 70s. And over and over again my predictions have turned out to be on the mark. This does not mean that the content is now out of date. To be sure, in one sense it does now read as a chronicle of happenings from the 60s through to the 90s. But, in another sense, the course of developments through those three decades has brought us to the point at which we are now forced to ask what kind of a society we want to see in place at the beginning of the next millenium. The break-down in family structures, for example, has now brought us to the point where the family is no longer a viable institution. Should we now jettison the family altogether and replace the traditional family with some other strategy for raising successive generations? Or should we do everything in our power to revive the family? I hope that a reading of this work will help to confirm that the traditional family not only represents the best means available to our kind of society of raising children but of inculcating, in successive generations, the values which have worked for us in the past.
The social problems of contemporary America are not arbitrary or idiosyncratic problems but problems generated by pressures at work throughout the world today. Moreover, the destiny of America is not one from which the rest of the world can isolate itself, not only because of the importance of America in world affairs but also because America is one of the few genuinely international societies to be found today. The 'melting pot' has become a crucible in which the viability of alternative ways of being and thinking, of working and relating, is presently being tested.
In the case of such 'third world' nations as those to be found in South America, in Africa or in parts of Asia, one obvious solution to the many social problems they face immediately recommends itself -- raising the standard of living to levels which are taken for granted in the West. But the problems which the West encounters are not based on need, but on greed. They have materialized in the context of an extended period of post-war affluence without precedent in the history of human civilization. If the satisfaction of material needs only succeeds in producing an ever deepening social and spiritual poverty, one is forced to ask what will transpire when the material resources which have fueled the rising tide of affluence begin to run out. One thing is certain, the social and personal disciplines which might have carried us through such crises in the past are no longer in place.
Apocalyptic sentiments are nothing new. But there is something different about the times in which we live. It is not just that today, as never before in history, mankind possesses the power to destroy life on earth or, at least, to make the planet virtually uninhabitable, at least by the standards of the past. This destructive power is matched and complemented by a constructive potential which should not be underestimated. For the first time in history, nature is at our command. For the first time in history, the world is becoming one. For the first time in history, a world-wide web of communications is in place, making it possible for individuals across the globe to share their life's experience.
How we shall respond to this challenge, it is still too early to say. As a first approximation however, it seems important to maintain as many alternative societal models as possible and to learn to analyze, as carefully and as judiciously as possible, the different social systems which presently compete for favour in the eyes of the world.
The Self Images of the Time
America is a society in crisis. The crisis manifests itself, on the surface, in an entire range of phenomena which have already achieved the status of nationally acknowledged social problems. But the roots of the crisis lie deeper, buried in the subterranean soil of the contemporary American psyche. Often, only too often, this crisis is projected outward and explained, or excused, with reference to some external threat: the threat of communism in the immediate post war period; more recently, the threat of declining world power status. The real threat to America however stems not from without but from within. It is an internal threat, the threat of a rapidly deteriorating social environment.
It is the thesis of this work that traditional American values have recently been inverted, so that the social reality has come to express values which are the very opposite of those to which the nation nominally subscribes. The nation which invented a quite new, and extraordinarily successful, democratic ideal has given way to a highly inegalitarian society, resistant to even the most moderate social reforms.
America is a vast and various country. And no one set of generalizations will neatly apply overall. But it is not difficult to identify those parts of America in which the New World Order is presently being worked out. John Naisbitt, the author of the 1980s best seller, Megatrends, focuses upon California, Florida and New York as the vanguard of what he heralds as the new America revolution, a revolution which, he claims, will change the face of the world and not just of America. Marilyn Ferguson, the author of Aquarian Conspiracy' one edition of which is introduced by Naisbitt, makes a special plea for California as the State which is presently evolving a blueprint for the future destiny of America, and so of the world. These configurations are confirmed by Harris, whose America Now (later renamed Why Nothing Works because some of his predictions were so off the mark that they now only apply to America then) does however take a much more pessimistic view of things. And for good reason; because the very States which, supposedly, point the way to the future, are also the States in which America's social problems are most apparent. Whether you are talking about the rape, child abuse, AIDS, divorce and the break-down of the family, drugs, abuses in the church or the many faces of crime, over and over again, California, Florida and New York are to be found leading the way. The richest, the most 'progressive', the most future-oriented States are the ones which have contributed most to the present crisis in American values.
American sociologists have been examining the phenomenon of 'Modern Man' for some time now. But the American sociologists of the fifties and early sixties were an uncongenial lot. They suffered from an excess of integrity and a disagreeable readiness to look at the deteriorating social environment with some attempt at veracity. The titles of their books tell a story in itself. By Vance Packard The Hidden Persuaders, The Sexual Wilderness, The Status Seekers, The Waste Makers; by David Riesman The Lonely Crowd; by C. Wright Mills The Power Elite; by William Whyte The Organization Man.
Then, at the end of the halcyon days of the sixties, two theoreticians stepped forward to welcome the new age. Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture was written to appeal to the young. It took its stand in the political and social movements of the sixties and saw, in the spirit of the times, a presage of what would follow, just as soon as the young grew up to assume the reins of power. The book was supposed to be prophetic. In fact it is historic. It records the brief, spasmodic response of a youthful elite who were sufficiently well provided for to be able to afford the 'revolution'. It was not an assault on, but a by-product of, affluence, destined to wither and die just as soon as the green-backs faded.
Like Roszak before him, Charles Reich saw The Greening of America as a positive response to the stultifying patterns of the technological society, to the manipulative dominion of the corporate state, to de-humanizing logic and mechanized obsession. Here is a passage in which Reich announces the coming of the new American Revolution. 'There is a revolution coming. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its last and final act ... It promises a higher reason, a more human community, and a new and liberated individual.' (Reich, p.4)
But there were dissenting voices, nevertheless. In his first major work Future Shock, published in 1971, Alvin Toffler argued that the pace of change had reached a pitch which could not but bring with it the most dreadful social and personal consequences. 'The United States,' he told his readers, 'is a nation in which tens of thousands of young people flee reality by opting for drug-induced lassitude; a nation in which millions of their parents retreat into video-induced stupor or alcoholic haze; a nation in which legions of elderly folk vegetate and die in loneliness. Such a nation, whether it knows it or not, is suffering from future shock.' (Toffler, p.325)
And then the dissenter underwent a conversion. Ten years later, when he came to write The Third Wave, the critical pessimism had gone. While noting the difficulties attending adaptation, Toffler emphasized the much greater cost of not changing fast enough. His new book opens with a statement which has all the fervour of the convert. 'A new civilization is emerging in our lives, and blind men everywhere are trying to suppress it. This new civilization brings with it new family styles; changed ways of working, loving, and living; a new economy; new political conflicts; and beyond all this an altered consciousness.' (Toffler, p.25)
The ambivalence expressed by Toffler's conversion has become an endemic feature of American social theorizing ever since. In the eighties, a new band of optimists has emerged. Realistic optimists, like the later Toffler and John Naisbitt or even Daniel Yankelovich, take note of the chaos which the turning world is introducing into the lives of ordinary mortals. But they argue in defense of this brave new world on the grounds that bigger is better and with the hardly veiled threat that, in any case, the forces of modernity cannot be withstood and that therefore those who do not join them will be beaten by the course of events. But there are also the idealistic optimists, like Ferguson, who talks of a new holism, a changed human being, in touch with himself and in tune with the universe.
The more intelligent theorists tend however to be pessimistic. Rather than leaping forward to rosy conclusions on the basis of highly-selective evidence, they try instead to trace the social problems in question back to a mental set. This trend first became apparent in the seventies with Philip Slater's The Pursuit of Loneliness, a text which examines the self defeating consequences of egoism. But it has been continued in the eighties by such critics as Russell Jacoby (Social Amnesia), Paul Wachtel (The Poverty of Affluence) and Christopher Lasch (The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self). More recently still, we find theorists who shift the focus of attention away from society to the culture and the values which the culture is propagating. Hirsch's 'Cultural Literacy' concentrates upon the extraordinary levels of illiteracy in contemporary American society while Allen Bloom, the success of whose Closing of the American Mind came as an unexpected surprise to the author and his publishers, deplores the evisceration of traditional values in present day American University education.
What these more pessimistic critics have in common is a tendency to trace the problems back to a falsification of the critical relation between self and society. In the words of Christopher Lasch: 'The question arises whether the faltering of the American economy and the failure of American foreign policy do not reflect a deeper failure of morale, a cultural crisis associated in some way with the collapse of "traditional values" and the emergence of a new morality of self gratification.' (Lasch, 1984, p.23)
It is for this reason that Slater used the term 'individualism' to describe the self defeating paradox of self-gratification. In his earlier work, Lasch, in common with many other critics, employed the term 'narcissism' to circumscribe the central problem of a false relation between self and society. Later, and precisely to avoid the simplistic interpretations habitually placed upon this term, he preferred to talk of 'survivalism' and the 'minimal self'.
The terms adopted matter much less than the clarity and consistency with which they are employed and the perspicuity of the analyses to which they lead. For purposes of argument, we shall use two pairs of terms, one positive, one negative, to denote alternative tendencies in two contrasted types of society: one which places the main emphasis upon the self, and another which places the main emphasis upon the social whole. 'Individualism' is the positive value which may be ascribed to the self in any society for which the social whole exists, first and foremost, to promote the interests and the well-being of the self. 'Egoism', on the other hand, will be employed to denote the degenerative form of individualism. How, and under what circumstances, Individualism degenerates into Egoism is the theme of this enquiry.
These two terms 'Individualism' and 'Egoism' stand in contrast to an alternative pair, 'Collectivism' and 'Totalitarianism'. 'Collectivism' is the positive value which may be ascribed to any society for which the self is seen to exist, first and foremost, for the benefit of the social whole. Here in the West, we have become so accustomed to assuming the primacy of self over society that we have difficulty in according a positive value to any ideology which recognizes and affirms the alternative priority. And yet, throughout human history, collectivism, not individualism, has been the rule. And even today, many countries have opted for collectivism, usually as a measure called for to correct the exploitive tendencies of capitalist egoism. 'Totalitarianism', on the other hand, will be employed to denote the degenerative form of collectivism, more specifically, a collectivism which has fallen under the control of a single, irresponsible authority, whether that of an individual or a ruling elite.
Americans are only too aware of the dangers that follow from the degeneration of Collectivism into Totalitarianism, dangers which are identified with the very names used to describe such social experiments -- fascism, militarism, communism. In the course of the last world war, America played a critical role in bringing totalitarianism to a close, both in Europe and in the East. And in the post-war period, the threat of communism has repeatedly been invoked to unleash the hounds of war -- not only abroad but also at home, as witness the witch hunts associated with Senator McCarthy. And yet, America remains strangely blind to the dangers which follows upon the degeneration of Individualism into Egoism -- in part, perhaps, because Egoism has naively been assumed to constitute the necessary precondition for successful capitalism. And yet, the success of Japanese capitalism (which is collectivist in character) should already have given Americans grounds for calling this assumption in question. Moreover, the coming economic success of collectivist China will be so overwhelming that it will threaten, or even shatter the very foundations of, the Western social order.
But however awful the consequences of Totalitarianism might be, and precisely because they often are so awful, Totalitarianism, or the degenerate form of Collectivism, tends to breed internal as well as external resistances. Present developments in Russia and Eastern Europe are an instance in point. But Egoism, or the degenerate form of Individualism, tends to be self-confirming and self perpetuating. The more egoistic individuals are, the more convinced they become that Egoism is the answer and the more blind they become to the dangers and shortcomings of Egoism.
Clearly there is a circle involved in the very attempt to trace social phenomena back to their source in individual attitudes, a circle which might even appear vicious at first sight (are individual values the product of social pressures or social pressures the product of individual values?). Instead of trying to break out of the circle, it might therefore be more beneficial to try to break into it at some appropriate point. As appropriate a point of entry as any other is the phenomenon of rootlessness.
Rootlessness is a quite distinctive characteristic of life in North America. Rootlessness began as an expression of the strangeness of the country to which the colonists came, and also to its territorial vastness. The first colonists were quite similar in background and outlook but the land to which they came was one in which they had to begin again from scratch. As the lands to the East were settled so new waves of settlers pressed on Westward into an uncultivated interior, acquiring lands which had often to be wrested from the native Indians. Rootlessness continued as a function of successive generations of immigrants, who brought with them to the New World different languages, customs and traditions. Often the new groups made little attempt to integrate but created sub-cultures within the overall culture of the United States. As the American economy thrived and prospered, rootlessness was perpetuated by the policies adopted by the captains of the corporate state. Managers and workers were moved hither and thither across the country at the behest of the organization or were forced to move in quest of employment. The result was a society which was uniquely rootless in its social constitution.
In a work appropriately entitled A Nation of Strangers, Vance Packard used the phone directory as a criterion of social stability and volatility. Taking the year 1971 as his base, he researched the percentage of main residential telephones which were disconnected in the course of that year. He found that the most stable environment was located on the East coast (with Pennsylvania leading the way), the most volatile in the West, with Nevada leading the way, along with Arizona, Oregon and, of course, California (Packard, pp.8-9). This was only to be expected. For rootlessness is a way of life in the Golden State. The mobile home is not for the social peripheral who has fallen by the wayside. Such a person would be much more likely to stagnate in a city slum or vegetate in a wilderness cabin. No, the mobile home is for the man on the move, the man who intends to make his way.
Those who are forever on the move do not have time to cultivate relationships. It's now or never. The new comer is invariably impressed with the warmth of his reception. He finds himself on a first name basis right away. He is regaled with bumptious enthusiasm, assailed by a seemingly unlimited generosity. All doors are open to him, all initiatives enthusiastically entertained -- at least at first. Only later does he become aware that, although he may be on the best of terms initially, the terms deteriorate with time. The longer he stays, the faster he outstays his welcome.
But the cultivation of a large number of 'friends' on the most superficial basis has little to do with any congenital incapacity for loyalty or affection, and more to do with a politicization of the institutional environment. In a predatory world, friends can never be more than allies, and then only as long as they serve your cause. As Slater has pointed out, the institutional wheeler-dealer quickly learns to spread his affability broad and thin, so that he can maximize his alliances while still remaining free to withdraw his personal capital from any unprofitable investments. Hence the all-too familiar syndrome of the 'fair-weather friend'. When you prosper, your friends accumulate; but, when you fall on hard times, they vanish, even faster than they appeared.
The free-floating liberty of the Egoist, who multiplies his options and makes tentative selections but stands ever-ready to withdraw himself from any unprofitable engagements, is an empty liberty which creates a correspondingly empty person. What Slater has called the 'freedom fix' is precisely what gives rise to 'loneliness.' The Pursuit of Loneliness is what results when everyone pursues his own particular interests, if necessary, at the expense of others.
Lasch employs his own alternative concept of the 'minimal self' to describe the emptiness of the Egoist. The minimal self arises as a product of the pressures of survivalism. But, for Lasch, survivalism is by no means restricted to anything as obvious, or as obviously dramatic, as the cult of cryogenics, the construction of fortified nuclear retreats, the prevalence and popularity of doomsday literature or of apocalyptic religion. Drawing his psychological insights from studies of the victims of known historical catastrophes, such as the holocaust, he concludes: 'Everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity. Selective apathy, emotional disengagement from others, renunciation of the past and the future, a determination to live one day at a time -- these techniques of emotional self-management, necessarily carried to extremes under extreme conditions, in more moderate form have come to shape the lives of ordinary people under the ordinary conditions of a bureaucratic society widely perceived as a far-flung system of control.' (Lasch ,1984, p.58)
Emotional disengagement leads to emptiness which, in turn, breeds superficiality. In a book which made a splash in the sixties, Herbert Marcuse, an ex-patriate German jew, undertook a detailed critique of the superficiality of the Egoist from a Marxist stand-point. One Dimensional Man was essentially an attack on contemporary capitalism which its author blamed for the deteriorating social and personal environment. Condemned by the culture at large, Marcuse's analysis nevertheless found favour with the young. A posse of students was formed to watch over Marcuse's house and to protect him from the wrathful recriminations of the capitalists.
The curious thing about the Egoist is that, in the realm of values, he tends to produce the very opposite of what he aims at. He aims at liberty and he arrives at uniformity, if not conformity. His is a materialism which results in a devaluation of material goods. He is dedicated to success and, for this very reason, haunted by a deep-rooted sense of failure. He claims to be a conservative and yet he is congenitally disposed to overturn established values and institutions.
To start with liberty, it has often been said that there should be a statue of Responsibility on the West coast to match and complement the statue of Liberty on the East. Freedom has to be counterbalanced by responsibility or else it becomes a self defeating value. But typically, the talk is about rights, rarely about duties; about liberty, rarely about responsibility.
The pursuit of freedom without responsibility produces the false dichotomy of Egoism and Altruism. And then one of a number of things transpires. The individual may be exhorted to forego Egoism and to sacrifice himself, unquestioningly, for 'God and Country', or rather, for the political and religious representatives of these same ideals. It is just this kind of unscrupulous exploitation of Altruism which led theorists, such as Ayn Rand (whose hatred of Altruism bordered on the pathological) to attack every variant of Altruism as a sort of 'creeping communism'. It is our 'fear of freedom' which leads us in the direction of Totalitarianism warns Erich Fromm, a psycho-sociologist, ever mindful of the Hitler years but forgetful of the alienation which made it possible in the first place. Yes, surprising as it may seem, it is out of the extremity of Egoism and the desperate loneliness to which it leads that there arises the fervent desire for collectivism, the abandonment of the self by its self in favour of its amalgamation in some all embracing social aggregate. Or again, the circle will be neatly squared by reducing Altruism to another form of Egoism -- the idea being that doing things for others is just the way a certain kind of Egoist gets his kicks.