Gildered: Why the Rich Could Steal America

The great story of American life over the past 40 years is the rising political power of wealth, both personal and corporate. The process is central to our cultural adjustment to the 1960s. We celebrate the enhancement in the 1960s of the rights of women and minorities. We have ignored the obverse side of that process, the collapse of white male entitlement. Perhaps no national elite has ever suffered such a disastrous loss of status without catastrophic military defeat.

America had reunited after the Civil War on the basis of white male supremacy. Regardless of the 15th and 19th Amendments, white men possessed political legitimacy. All details of twentieth century American culture were shaped around the gender and race foundations of white male power. When the Civil Rights Revolution destroyed the legitimacy of white male power, all aspects of American life became unmoored.

The search for new grounds of legitimacy played itself out most publicly in the presidential elections of 1968, 1972, 1976, and 1980. In general terms the Democratic Party embraced the Revolution and struggled to shape a new legitimacy out of the expansion of civil rights. It lost itself in the cacophony of new voices that had been set free. The Republican Party mounted a counter-revolution that apparently sought to restore legitimacy to white males.

For both Nixon and Reagan the coded references to white male supremacy were more electoral strategies than serious policy objectives. In office Nixon agreed to much of the continuing legislative program that had dominated the 1960s. Reagan, however, was after much bigger fish. In office he did little to restore white male power, but he did campaign openly for “supply-side economics,” a rationalization for tax cuts for the wealthy and elimination of much government regulation of business.

The question we face now is how a policy that so obviously hurt far more people than it helped acquired and sustained broad popular support.

The answer centers on Ronald Reagan’s special relationship with America’s national myth, the Western. Components of that myth are most widely known in terms of western movies, and, for a huge portion of voters, Reagan was personally associated with Western movies. Both as candidate and as President he easily evoked images associated with the tradition of Western films.

Western movies are only the tip of the mythic iceberg, however. Unrecognized elements embedded in that myth contributed substantially to Reagan’s success. A crucial element was the hostages in Teheran. Americans are unusually vulnerable to stories of captives, especially when the captors are dark skinned—the prisoners of war in Korea, the prisoners of war presumed to be still in the hands of the Viet Cong after that war had ended, Patty Hearst held captive by the Simbionese Liberation Army, hostages taken in Lebanon, the hostages in Teheran. In each of these cases, the captors were dark skinned people.

Rescuing captives is a vital element in the Western myth. The roots of the myth lie back in the seventeenth century. The first American story—one that could not have happened in Europe—was published in 1682. Written by Mrs. Mary Rowlandson of Lancaster, Massachusetts, it described her experience as an Indian captive. Mrs. Rowlandson cast her experience as a trial of her religious faith, and she saw her survival as proof of God’s blessing on the entire New England project. It was read throughout the colonies, repeatedly reprinted up to the Revolution, and established the Captivity Narrative as a genre exploited by others.

Captivity of Americans was seared into the fabric of developing American culture. The American as a passive captive, however, was not useful for the newly independent nation. In the 1820s James Fenimore Cooper, the first American to earn a fortune writing fiction, transformed the Captivity Narrative into the Rescue Narrative. His five “Leatherstocking” novels are all tales centered on the rescue of an American female captured by Indians. American readers recognized in Leatherstocking a representation of “the American.” Cooper was imitated, not only in hundreds of popular Western novels but also by such living characters as Kit Carson, John Fremont, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. In the twentieth century the Cooper tradition shaped the development of the Western film with its cowboy hero.

Probably no other candidate would have benefited as much as Reagan from the ongoing national agonizing over the captives in Teheran. President Carter tried to rescue the captives, but the effort ended in a catastrophic failure in the Iranian desert. That disaster certainly helped Reagan win the election. And then, on the day of his inauguration, the Iranians pointedly waited until the minute after Reagan had taken the oath of office to release the captives. Reagan, the genial cowboy, began his presidency as the Rescuer.

The drama over the release of the hostages was playing during Reagan’s inauguration. We all knew that the moment he became President our captives would be released. In that context, Reagan delivered an inaugural address which was a sustained attack on the federal government. In a much quoted line he assured us that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The government, in effect, has captured Americans by limiting their dreams. But “We have every right to dream heroic dreams,” and his administration will renew our ability to dream great dreams. He will rescue us from government.

He set about his rescue by sponsoring wide ranging deregulation of business activities, tax cuts that disproportionately favored the wealthy, attacks on safeguards for workers and on labor unions, and a tripling of the national debt. Over the decades those policies have led to stagnant incomes for the vast majority, serious weakening of protections for public health and safety (inadequate protection of food, the failed response to hurricane Katrina, the regulatory failures that enabled the BP oil spill), the grotesquely feeble financial regulations that led to foreclosures on millions of American homes while workers in the upper levels of finance have acquired astonishing wealth.

And yet, politicians who support the policies that bore such fruit continue to win popular support.

That perplexing fact is possible because the Rescue Narrative that Reagan initiated at his inaugural, with supporting help from Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Mostafawi Mousawi Khomeini of Iran, continues to resonate with many Americans. It does so because Reagan’s Rescue Narrative enjoys mythic stature. It defines not only America but the individual American. Reagan liberated America by enabling individual Americans to imagine themselves as heroic Rescuers. America, in Reagan’s terms, would be rescued by the actions of those who used their new freedom to create additional wealth. In 1960 the American had been defined by race and gender: the white man was America. The civil rights and women’s movements destroyed that identity. Under Reagan the American was above all an individual, regardless of race and gender, who made a lot of money.

Reagan was almost certainly innocent of any conscious intent to use the Rescue Narrative to change the nation, just as individual Americans were not conscious of responding to it. Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that many Americans had constructed that new story independently. Reagan was the galvanizing shock that brought it to life.

After the 1960s and 70s, making government the villain was no great challenge. The question really is why so many felt Reagan’s solutions were right. The answer again lies in a part of the Western myth. At the time of Independence it was unusual for a man to spend his working life as the employee of another. “Labor” law was simply the inherited Master-Servant relationship of the common law tradition. Under that tradition there was almost no distinction between a “servant” and a “slave.” Which is to say that working as another’s employee lacked respect.

As the economy was transformed into an industrialized market economy, the North needed to construct a view that asserted that wage labor was superior to slave labor. The basic solution was the belief that wage labor would always lead to financial independence. Because throughout the eighteenth century most men did in fact move from working for others to financial independence, and because vast expanses of “vacant” land lay to the west, available land sustained the faith. Anyone, it was held, could achieve financial independence by heading west. West was opportunity. As the Republican Party’s motto put it in 1856, “Free Land, Free Labor, Free Men.”

The negative side of the faith that anyone could achieve financial independence was that labor at best received grudging respect. Real Americans achieved financial independence, and all of them could do it. Those who didn’t achieve independence were lazy, shiftless, immoral, or criminal. That was the American Dream. Americans have done whatever it takes to keep that Dream alive. For example, one of the functions of white male supremacy was its promise that a white man, even if he didn’t achieve financial independence, possessed the consolation that he could not fall to the level of a non-white or a woman. When race and gender failed them in the 1960s, white men (and many of their women) salvaged something for themselves in the remnants of the Dream: even if they hadn’t become financially independent, they still had a chance to do so—if only the government would get out of their way.

For most people, mythic narrative functions below consciousness. It is the framework within which life makes sense. In this case, however, at least one man discovered terms that explicitly associated “supply-side economics” with the Western tradition: George Gilder.

Gilder has withdrawn to the recesses of conservative think tanks, but in the early Reagan years his name was a household word. Just as the Reagan administration began in early 1981, Gilder published a book called Wealth and Poverty that struck a national nerve. It was actively promoted by the Reagan administration and became a national best seller. It did little to promote specific policies, but it did much to promote an atmosphere that supported what Reagan did.

Gilder’s interest for us lies as much in his first two books as in Wealth and Poverty. He originally came to prominence as a warrior in the gender wars of the 1960s and 70s. That phase of his career culminated in Sexual Suicide (1973) and Naked Nomads (1974). He had an intense and basically accurate sense of the tremendous loss of status experienced by American males. As an upper class New Yorker/New Englander, he was little disturbed by racial issues, but he responded viscerally to the sexual revolution.

He was not a prude. On the contrary. He saw that “sexual energy animates most of our activities.” He objected to the ways in which notions of liberated sex devaluated sexuality. Instead of “embracing every aspect of our lives,” liberated sex has reduced sexuality and sex “to copulation, as if our sexual lives were restricted to the male limits—as if experiences of maternity were not paramount sexual events” (SS, 1-2).

From such sensible foundations, Gilder’s social conservatism finally leads him to hysterical conclusions. By the end of the book, after he has considered developments in reproductive technology, Gilder achieves lift-off. Leaving behind any resemblance of reasoned discourse, Gilder raises the specter of a world in which all reproduction has been taken over by the state, with babies grown in artificial wombs rather than women’s bodies. It would be a technocratic nightmare in which “women would at last be liberated from the ‘baby trap’ and from the oppression of marriage and family. This is the ultimate destination of ‘feminism”: female inferiority and familial disintegration under the auspices of the Sexual Suicide State” (SS, 261.Gilder’s hysteria provides a measure of the dislocations of American life that emerged in the 1960s.

His second book, Naked Nomads, considered the plight of men without women. His thought is based on the old idea that the violent energies of the male had to be controlled before civilization could develop The solution was a theoretical bargain in which a woman gave an individual male exclusive sexual rights in exchange for the male’s agreement to protect and provide food for the woman and her children. This bargain not only provided for women and children, it also saved males from their own natures,

In modern America, Gilder argues, this basic bargain has been rescinded by liberated women. For most of human history, the male’s superior physical strength enabled him to provide and protect women and children. With the coming of industrial society, however, physical strength became of diminishing importance. As Gilder put it in Naked Nomads, “In modern societies the provider role is performed with money” (p.131). Or, as he summarized it in 1986 in Men and Marriage (p. 6), “Money replaces muscle.” Women have therefore become increasingly capable of providing for and protecting themselves and their children, and they have thereby destroyed men’s function in the world.

At some point in the years following publication of Naked Nomads, Gilder discovered “supply-side economics” and immersed himself in available materials. From that study he was able to construct in Wealth and Poverty a new foundation for American manhood.

Supply-side economics is fundamentally elitist. The central argument of supply side economics is that the purpose of government is to encourage economic growth (such matters as protecting human rights fly outside their radar). All economic growth comes from the activities of creative entrepreneurs. Workers, it seems, contribute nothing. It then follows that government policies should be designed to encourage those willing to take great risks to develop new products or services. Specifically, the argument calls for reduced taxation on high incomes and accumulated wealth and for reduced government restriction of economic activity through regulatory mechanisms, all in the name of motivating entrepreneurs.

Gilder is not an economist, and he elaborates supply side theory not to advance the theory but in order to weave it into a narrative which will restore the male to his proper position. In Gilder’s new story the role of the male recovers the bracing challenge of the hunt: “A successful economy depends on the proliferation of the rich, on creating a large class of risk-taking men who are willing to shun the easy channels of a comfortable life in order to create new enterprise, win huge profits, and invest them again.” (245).

The reference to “risk-taking men” is not casual. Gendering the creation of wealth as a male activity is crucial for Gilder. Entrepreneurialism channels the male’s innate need for adventure toward socially constructive ends. More important, it trumps the kind of providing that women are able to manage. The gender argument is rarely explicit in Wealth and Poverty, but it permeates the book. Women may be able to provide for and protect children on their own, but they can’t do the heavy lifting needed to energize the national economy. Women, it appears, simply do not pursue entrepreneurial projects. Only men do so. Thus, in the celebration of risk in supply side economics, Gilder found a distinctively male role.

“Risk” is also crucial. The problem with government is that liberals, who support the idea of female equality, also support the idea that government should attempt to reduce risks for citizens. Confronted with the challenges of the deteriorating environment and diminishing natural resources, for example, the instinct of liberal government is to impose regulations, to limit activity, to plan the future in detail. Government seeks to provide insurance against risk.

Liberal government focuses on the closing of frontiers rather than seeing that the “problems and crises” afflicting modern America “are in themselves the new frontier. . . . The old frontier of the American West also appeared closed at first. It became an open reservoir of wealth only in retrospect, because the pioneers dared to risk their lives and families in the quest for riches, looking for gold . . . and finding oil . . .Only in retrospect were the barrens of Texas and Oklahoma an energy cornucopia . . .” (Wealth and Poverty, p. 268).

In the glories of entrepreneurial risk-taking, Gilder recovers the male glory of the Western, which looks a great deal like the energetic manliness of Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish-American War. His heroic risk-takers, when considered objectively, look a great deal like the hero of Owen Wister’s formative Western novel, The Virginian (1901). In spite of Gilder’s repeated assertions in his first two books that women are superior to men, his views are astonishingly close to those of the nineteenth century: women are morally superior, but their values simply don’t shape the world. Women may civilize men, as Molly Stark does in The Virginian, but they must cast aside their own values and embrace male values in marriage. Like the families of the pioneers which Gilder evokes, women must follow where men will lead.

In Gilder’s world, however, the measure of the man has become restricted to money. When the Virginian insists that “ . . . a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him,” nothing suggests that the Virginian would concede equality to a man who pulled out a big wad of money rather than a revolver. While Gilder, like the Virginian, holds a cheerfully elitist view, for him money is the measure of all things. “Material progress” he wrote, invoking the greatest good in his philosophy, “is ineluctably elitist; it makes the rich richer.” (Wealth and Poverty, p. 259) Money has, indeed, replaced muscle. American manhood has shriveled to nothing but the possession of money.

The difficulty Congress experienced in dealing with financial regulations to prevent a repeat of the 2008 meltdown was not the crude amounts of money spent to sway their judgments. The cash was more symptom than cause. Americanness has come to be identified with the possession of large sums of money. Big money legitimizes itself, and facilitating the continued acquisition of large sums of money is for many the legitimate purpose of government. Money, not the people, has become the source of sovereign power.

The Teabaggers are right on one thing: we do need to take back our government. Their approach—calling for “smaller government”—serves only to compound the problem. To restore government by the consent of the governed, we need to break the emotional and psychological hold of mere money. We need to restore real values. The fetishization of the Constitution now going on in Congress will not restore values. It is all about limiting government in the interests of wealth.

We need a discussion of the goals of government, and the place to start is with the Declaration of Independence. There is a set of values to conjure by. It says that governments are instituted to secure the human rights of all people. It puts people before money, human rights before cash. It is a readily available starting point.

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2 Responses to Gildered: Why the Rich Could Steal America

  1. I like the two parts of this analysis: western or cowboy myth as a rescue narrative, laissez faire as policy based a masculinity/meritocracy myth. However the two parts do not cohere very well. Reagan rescuing entrepreneurs from government puts them in the role of weak victims, not heroes. When they turn the tables and become risk-taking heroes, who exactly are they rescuing? Another point worth drawing out: what happened to the violence implicit in the original rescue myth? I might see capitalism as institutional violence, but I don’t think that is resonant in the minds of the masculinity/meritocracy myth producers and consumers. In contrast, when the rescue myth is used to justify police force, the violence is at least subliminally present for all observers.

    • David, Thank you for the comment. Your point about rescued entrepreneurs being weak victims is absolutely right. Big businesses have frequently presented themselves as hapless victims of wrong-headed governmental interference. Such contradictions seem never to have damaged their heroic representations of themselves at other times. In their heroic guise, they are rescuing all of us by providing jobs, sparking the economy, etc. In Gilder’s little story they are pioneers caring for their families. The violence takes many forms. Often it is violence against nature–blowing away mountaintops to get coal, contaminating ground water to get gas, creating drug resistant disease to raise cows, selling foods with ingredients that make people sick or fat. Often violence is directed against labor–the firing of the air traffic controllers and breaking their union, anti-union management tactics, directing all productivity gains to to management or ownership, relying on contract workers rather than employees. (In the late 19th century workers were explicitly identified with Indians as “savages.”) And there is the violence of our military, destroying cities to save them.

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