In his book Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power, my friend, mentor and NYU professor Lawrence Mead presents a convincing argument that distinctive Western culture, in a progression through its Northern European, British and now American iterations, is the true basis for the wealth, power and dominance of the United States in the world. More specifically he asserts that individualism, which he traces to roots in Protestant Christianity, versus collectivism is the chief driver of this wealth and dominance. Secondarily, he suggests that internalized moralism, rooted in the freedom that came with the Protestant Reformation and expressed in our democratic governance, provides the necessary check on both capitalism and potential social abuse.
There is, I believe, significant truth in these assertions, including the undisputed wealth and power that resulted. While the expansionist Catholicism of Southern Europe opened the doors for European dominance, the thought and initiatives of Northern Europe created the economic productivity and its ultimate expression in a consumer economy.
Spain, for instance, was only an early actor. As a Southern European and very Catholic country, it invaded the Americas with a papal mandate to claim territory and convert all inhabitants, collectively, to Catholicism. Anyone who did not convert was to be treated as property, less than human, to be used in any manner the conquerors saw fit. The mandate resulted in gross subjugation and abuse of the conquered populations and reckless extraction of resources.
But Spain experienced little lasting benefit. The patriarchal/hierarchical culture focused primarily on the accumulation of wealth for the church and its designated political representatives. Holding, rather than investing, was the order of the day.
The true economic winners were the Dutch and British, countries with more individualistic/entrepreneurial cultures. The Dutch prospered through trade and transportation, the British even more so by adding value through the manufacture and sale of consumer goods using the raw materials acquired from the conquerors. It is obvious where the United States has gone with this, driving individualist consumer culture beyond the wildest imagination of the early capitalists.
Material wealth and economic and military dominance have, indeed, been the products of this culture. These are indisputable realities.
The unanswered, or perhaps just unfaced question, which looms especially large today, is whether the individual moralism of White Protestant culture ever held or now holds sufficient sway to keep us in check from global destruction caused by the social and environmental underbelly of this material behemoth.
On the moral front, the capitalist success of individualist Western culture depended, and still depends, heavily upon cheap labor and unfettered access to extractable natural resources. Slavery, for several centuries, was the blatant expression of this market mandate. It continues today, less visibly, in child and quasi-slave labor in impoverished areas of the globe where raw materials are mined and consumer goods are manufactured.
In the US, internalized moralism eventually held sway in the abolition of slavery. But the drive for cheap labor and an unchecked amoral scapegoating process quickly reasserted itself in both the sharecropper/Jim Crow south and the industrial north. Competition for wealth and social position fanned the flames of hatred among poor Whites and European immigrants, once again scapegoating the Black population. Hatred of color remains the distracting diversion for less-educated economically challenged Whites in the United States. The fires burn hot today, fanned by elements of power that are happy to see these flames curtain off the unfettered dash to accumulation at the top.
Extraction of resources from under the feet and homes of indigenous populations remains a global reality, feeding the hidden furnaces of material comfort for predominantly White America and the capitalist wave worldwide. The onslaught pushing these native populations to less productive lands is only exacerbated by climate change, another byproduct of insufficiently checked individualist development of the West, the United States leading the charge.
A death knell is ringing for White American culture and its global pigmentocracy, built on the backs of people of color and the unfettered extraction of resources. On its current trajectory, the end seems certain in one of several ways: the nuclear genie used to pacify the globe will escape its bottle and blow the world to oblivion; narcissistic individualism uncoupled fully from collective responsibility will continue its descent into social chaos; the climate crisis and all its ramifications will take humanity the way of the dinosaur; artificial intelligence will subsume a human culture which is moving steadily along a spectrum from being served to being controlled by the algorithms of super computers. As we approach the brink of any of these disasters, the global poor (BIPOC) will be further and further marginalized. Violence of desperation will balloon. Borders will be closed. The genocide of proxy wars will increase and, when push comes to shove, more blatant forms of extermination may well be deployed.
Donald Trump’s angry America is all about this. The president of the United States of America, the country held out as the bastion of individual freedom and opportunity, has carried individualism to its narcissistic zenith. He has turbocharged the concentration of wealth at the expense of the environment and the common person. A consummate master of illusion, he has convinced his base – a populace less and less useful to him and other accumulation elites beyond the economic benefits of consumerism and the votes needed in our inconvenient democracy – that their troubles are caused by – shazam – people of color and, of course, godless un-American socialists. Why should we expect something new? It’s the time-tested and proven American way. License the White poor to shoot the Black despised and the pink socialists, while all but the few are stripped of the means to prosper.
The middle class, as it erodes, is thrust down into this violent emotional maelstrom of self-destruction. No need to worry about the White upper middle class just yet. They remain numbed and blinded to complacence by their material comfort. In the words of the Wicked Witch of the West, “All in good time, my pretty, all in good time.”
We now face a spiritual crisis of existential proportions. The Protestantism that added at least some check of individual social responsibility to the American capitalist and expansionist mandate, has given way to a much more individualistic but increasingly less moral Evangelicalism. Only the thinnest valence of hotly disputed morality issues are now employed to distract from the mad and overwhelmingly blind dash toward the concentration of wealth and resultant global extinction.
It is questionable, in America, whether individualist moralism was ever sufficient to bridle the ultra-productive but amoral energy of capitalism. Current concentrations of wealth and power would say otherwise. Neither the right nor the centrist left have mustered the moral courage to treat workers fairly, harness productivity for the larger social good or tackle environmental realities in a meaningful and effective manner.
It’s a simple thing, really. For the American experiment to grow out of this narcissistic and deadly adolescence and into full and successful maturity, humility must displace arrogance in the dominant culture. But White America has been, collectively, arrogant for so long that we (I am White and male.) cannot see it. The world, the universe, is holding the mirrors to our face. Greta Thunberg speaks to the United Nations. George Floyd whispers “I can’t breathe.” Wildfires scorch and super storms flood. Private violence is advocated as a valid adjunct to police brutality.
What we need, truly, is a new religion, or more accurately a new spirituality, more deeply and individually internalized than anything currently available. The general social obligations presented by traditional Protestantism have morphed into a primarily externalized pursuit of social justice. Its energy is consumed butting heads with an Evangelicalism promoting narcissistic accumulation behind a mask of holier than thou morality. In the meantime, the amoral capitalist juggernaut skirts them both with its increasing control of the political and economic apparati. All slide blindly together toward the brink of extinction.
The major religions of the East (Hinduism and its Buddhist offspring) have mastered the understanding of ego and connection to the whole, as have many indigenous religions that understand and celebrate a balance between needs and respect for resources. All, to greater or lesser extent, advocate for abandonment of ego, the driving force of individualist capitalism, in favor of the connected realization of the higher Self. They fall short in the recognition and celebration of individual energy and productivity. They get the seamless connection to whatever it is we call God. They miss the active participation of that spiritual force in the creative energy and expression of the individual.
A spiritually mature humanity might draw from both the European and Eastern understandings to find what I would call a connected individualism. The West neither could nor should become mindlessly collective, abdicating all freedom and authority to the state. But we could certainly benefit from a more Eastern view of ego and individualism. Our productivity needs a more powerful and deeply internalized moral compass. We need an ego that is connected with humility to the whole – human, all of creation, all of the cosmos.
American individualism, arrogantly uncoupled from a mature spiritual connection to the rest of the earth and its human community, must be reined in before it kills all. White America, specifically, needs to stand down. It need not disappear nor abandon its gift for productivity. But arrogance must be abandoned in favor of listening and a willingness to become partnered with, indeed led by others into a process of restoration and a new path of holistic progress.
Lawrence Mead is right about cultures. They shape global community. White American culture, to this day leading the world, is now at the apogee of a trajectory of individualism disconnected and run amuck. Global community is paying with its life. Abandonment of creative individual energy is not the answer. What is needed is a humble and celebratory understanding of the unfathomably vast and unselfish source of that energy, with its will and urge to express itself for true creative advancement through the hands and efforts of the connected individual.
There were two special trees in the Garden of Eden. We have lived as isolated individuals – scared, hoarding, and violent – for far too long under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Come home, come home, America, to a place of mature, humble, and truly bountiful connection under the Tree of Life.
© Jerry S. Kennell
Jerry Kennell, Taos, NM, blogs on contemporary American spirituality at www.twotreesinthegarden.com.
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