[This post begins a series on how the United States can move beyond our current political, economic and social impasse to create a new kind of society. The series continues Via Meadia's examination of the demise of the blue social model and its effects on American politics and culture.]
The frustration and bitterness that fills American politics these days reflects the failure of our current social, political and economic institutions and practices to deliver the results that Americans want and expect. It’s comparable to the frustration and fear that swept through the country in the late 19th and early 20th century as the first American dream – that every family could prosper on its own farm – gradually died.
From the era of the first European settlements in North America up through World War I, the family farm was the key social, economic and even political institution in the country. Until the 1920 census, a majority of Americans lived in rural areas and, unlike the oppressed peasants of Europe most owned and worked their own land.
The individual family farm was, in mythology and often enough in reality, prosperous and independent. For Thomas Jefferson and a long line of ideological descendants, the family farm was the cornerstone of American democracy. For generations, government policy sought to ease the path to cheap and — after the Homestead Act — free western land for American families.
The limits of this approach did not begin to appear until after the Civil War. As the best land was taken, the remaining land available for homesteading was increasingly marginal. It was too cold, too dry or too remote. The dependence of farmers on politically powerful railroad companies to ship their crops to market and the power of banks and speculators in the commodity markets put family farms at a disadvantage. The global commodity glut that developed as new techniques opened up new land not only in the American west, but also in Russia, Canada, Argentina and Australia depressed the prices farmers could get.
The last great burst of traditional American farm policy came with the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. The federal government opened former tribal lands for homesteading, and thousands of families rushed to stake their claims on new land. Many of these families would be among the dispossessed “Okies” who fled the Dust Bowl a generation later.
The family farm and the social and political model that rested on it didn’t die easy and it didn’t die quick. (Even today huge agribusinesses shelter their vast subsidy payments behind the public affection for the family farm.) Waves of populist protest against the decline of the original American social model roiled politics for decades. William Jennings Bryan built his political career on the economic and political frustration of millions of small farmers caught up in an inexorable and, to many, incomprehensible set of economic changes.
I’ve written in earlier posts about the shift from the first American Dream to the second: from the family farm to the suburban “homestead.” It was a profound change in American life and culture that has not yet been fully explored. The family farm integrated production and consumption, work and leisure, family and business. The family wasn’t just a union of sentiment: it was an element of production. Mom and Dad worked as a team to feed, house and clothe the family, and as the kids grew up they took on greater and greater responsibilities in the common effort. Their lives at home prepared them for the new lives they would lead on their own: the kids would grow up, marry, and start farms.
The 20th century suburban homestead was a very different place. In the early, “pure” form, Mom and Dad were still a team, but their roles were more differentiated than on the farm. Dad worked in the office or the factory and brought home the money; Mom organized the home and raised the kids. The kids might do chores around the house (girls more than boys), but their lives were increasingly outside of the family circle. They went to school full time from the age of six on, and instead of learning basic work and social skills in the family with their parents, they were taught skills and patterns of living in school to prepare them, in turn, for lives in which working life and home life were divided.
After the 1960s, Mom started working in a factory, an office or a store, and for girls as well as boys the center of gravity of their educational and social life moved away from the family circle.
Both the family farm and the “crabgrass frontier” (as Kenneth Jackson calls 20th century suburban America in a remarkable book) had their advantages and their drawbacks, and both allowed for broad prosperity and reasonable dignity and economic security for tens of millions of Americans. Generation after generation embraced both social ideals while millions of people from all over the world came to the United States, hoping to share in the American Dream.
Today the 20th century model of the American dream faces the same kind of crisis the 19th century version experienced 100 years ago. International competition and technological advances mean that the American factory worker’s earnings and opportunities are depressed in the way farmers were going to the wall 100 years ago. In the last twenty years, well-intentioned government efforts to put more people in owner-occupied housing led to a housing bubble and mass bankruptcies in the face of a financial panic and the ensuing recession, the worst in eighty years.
Our political battles today reflect the same kinds of frustrations we saw in the old populist era. Many cannot fathom another and “higher” form of the American Dream beyond the old crabgrass utopia. They want to turn back the clock and restore the old system because they don’t know of anything else that will work. The explicit political demand for this kind of restoration is usually found on the left, where it is often coupled with demands for the protection of American industries from foreign competition. But nostalgia for the old days isn’t just a left wing emotion; a free floating anger stemming from the breakdown of a broadly accepted social model helps power political currents on both ends of the spectrum.
In the 1890s, the “restorationists” were the agrarian populists. They wanted to protect family farmers from the forces that were undermining this hallowed way of life and they genuinely could not imagine that the end result of the shift out of agriculture could lead to richer and better lives for most Americans. This was perfectly understandable and rational: few people in 1890 could have predicted or imagined the new social system that would emerge on the basis of mass production and mass consumption in the 20th century.
But understandable and rational is not the same thing as right; the agrarian populists were defeated as much by their inability to develop workable policies as by the arguments of their opponents. The farmers were angry at the railroads and the banks, but although these big corporations often did abuse and even cheat small interests, and although they certainly used their economic strength to get state legislators to write favorable legislation — the railroads and banks weren’t the farmers’ most formidable and destructive enemies. Their most dangerous and implacable enemies were the laws of economics and the larger historical forces driving agriculture worldwide toward a new, large-scale, capital intensive model with which the small family farm could no longer compete.
It is, of course, a very similar situation today. The forces ripping up our old social model are too powerful to beat. That is not because the rich bankers or global multinationals are engaged in a conscious conspiracy of rip-offs and oppression (though, frankly speaking, big business does sometimes engage in exactly that). It is because the forces ripping up the social model are deeply implanted in the nature of the economic system — and that system is a reflection of the propensities in human nature which we cannot and perhaps should not overcome.
There is another important similarity, one often overlooked in the pessimism, anger and anxiety provoked by the inexorable decline of the “blue social model” that shaped America in the 20th century — just as it was overlooked 100 years ago.
The similarity is this: the changes in the world economy may be destructive in terms of the old social model, but they are profoundly liberating and benign in and of themselves. The family farm wasn’t dying because capitalism had failed or a Malthusian crisis was driving the world to starvation. The family farm died of abundance; it died of the rapidly rising productivity that meant that fewer and fewer people had to work to produce the food on which humanity depended. The industrial and scientific revolutions of the 19th century made agriculture so much more productive, and brought so many of the world’s hitherto remote and inaccessible lands into productive contact with world centers of population, that old and outmoded methods of production could no longer be sustained.
The family farm didn’t die of thirst in a desert; it drowned in a sea of abundance. 125 years ago, Americans didn’t have to organize themselves to cope with poverty and the erosion of living standards; they had to organize themselves to capture and enjoy the vastly increased prosperity and freedom which new technology made possible.
This is exactly what is happening today. Revolutions in manufacturing and, above all, in communications and information technology create the potential for unprecedented abundance and a further liberation of humanity from meaningless and repetitive work. Our problem isn’t that the sources of prosperity have dried up in a long drought; our problem is that we don’t know how to swim. It is raining soup, and we are stuck holding a fork.
As we figure this out, and reorganize ourselves to exploit the unprecedented opportunities before us, America is most likely headed for another era of rapidly rising standards of living.
In the past, the United States prospered partly because of our (still uniquely favorable) geography and natural resource base, and partly because our culture and our institutions made us a dynamic and innovative people who somehow got to the future before anybody else. All of those advantages are still ours today; just as the United States was the first country to achieve mass prosperity based on “Fordist” mass production and consumption, we are well placed to be the first country to enjoy the full prosperity that the new technological revolutions make possible.
The challenge for America today is similar to the challenge we faced more than a century ago, even though our responses will have to be different. Progressive society was reasonably well adapted to the conditions of its time and was able to transform a nation of family farmers into a nation of suburban homesteaders; post-progressive society will have to achieve a similar transformation in our time.
Doing this won’t be easy. It’s going to take the political and cultural creativity of more than one generation to reformulate and rebuild the next version of the American Dream, but it can, will and must be done. Nobody can predict where all this creativity and energy will take us, but it’s already possible to see some of the major lines along which we can advance — and to identify some of the roadblocks holding us back that will have to be cleared out of the way.
In future posts I will do my best to scout out the road ahead. At this point, let’s just conclude by remembering the words that Arthur Hugh Clough wrote and that Winston Churchill quoted in the darkest days of World War Two, “But westward, look, the land is bright.”