A Progressive American Culture Is What We Need

progressive-culture-350The start of a new year seems an appropriate time to say: “Out with the old, in with the new.” “Out with the old capitalist consumer culture, in with a new progressive culture.” Or rather, since I don’t envision any immediate, radical transformation, “in with a renewed commitment to work for such a new culture.” Articles such as the LA Progressive’s recent “Major Social Transformation Is a Lot Closer Than You May Realize give us some grounds for hope.

In the 1990s the term “Culture Wars” became common.  On one side of this “war” were conservatives who believed that God or some sort of other external moral authority enabled them to determine what was right and wrong regarding such issues as abortion and the rights of women or gays. On the other side were those whom James Hunter in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America called progressives. They relied more on reason, their inner selves, and contemporary conditions in deciding right from wrong. These divisions cut across many religious lines, with different Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, for example, being on both sides of the line.

In 2000, about a decade after Hunter’s book first appeared, one conservative lamented that progressive ideas, lacking any “absolute moral standards” were too prevalent in American institutions. Many conservatives viewed our courts, schools, universities, and media as battlegrounds for contesting such issues as gay rights, pornography, and the teaching of evolution and sex education.

In this present essay, I wish to reframe the culture wars issue as one between a dominant capitalist consumer culture and a progressive culture I hope will predominate. Historian Joyce Appleby writes that “capitalism is a cultural system rooted in economic practices that rotate around the imperative of private investors to turn a profit.” As will become clear below, I think of capitalism as primarily an economic system, but one that has given birth to our current consumer culture. American culture is broader than just our capitalistic aspects, but it is capitalism and its emphasis on consumption that are its most prominent features.

I do not underestimate the difficulties of having a progressive culture replace our present capitalist consumer culture as the chief one in American life. We have grown up breathing the air of consumption as a way of life, and it takes a conscious effort and self-discipline to resist it. And any massive changeover would create problems of its own. Not the least of such difficulties would be transitioning from an economy dependent on a “buy, buy, buy” philosophy to a more modest, sustainable one without creating greater unemployment, doing serious harm to investors (including individuals and institutions investing in pensions), and decreasing government revenues. Think, for example, what might happen to the employment opportunities and stocks of companies like Wal-Mart if a massive number of people resisted buying any new product unless it met writer Wendell Berry’s personal 9-step list requirement before buying—#8 states, “It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.”

But the type of progressive culture I advocate would be imaginative and creative, capable of coming up with solutions to such complex problems. Its ultimate goal would be the improvement of the common good, but it would always be open to a wide variety of ideas on how best to achieve it.

Earlier Cultural Clashes

In Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (online version here) he discusses the changing meanings of the word “culture,” and we shall return to him shortly. But first let’s clarify here what is meant by the word. In the broadest sense culture embraces the whole way of life of a group, including their physical and mental activities: thus, Chinese, French, or U. S. culture (or even Nazi Culture). Related to this definition are terms such as “youth culture” or “popular culture,” both indicating an aspect or subculture of a larger culture. The word has also often been used as a collective term for the arts, humanities, and higher knowledge generally. This is a more elitist definition, sometimes referred to as “high culture,” and is related to what is meant by referring to someone as “a very cultured person.”

In his broad survey, written in 1958, Williams is primarily concerned with the reactions of various British thinkers to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy. He concludes that in British thought throughout this long period “the development of the idea of culture has . . . been a criticism of what has been called the bourgeois idea of society.” But in that sentence, he means the “high culture” of writers and thinkers like Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, and poet T. S. Eliot. It was such individuals who criticized the developing capitalist society.

But Williams also recognizes that “a culture is not only a body of intellectual and imaginative work; it is also and essentially a whole way of life,” and that different versions of what that life should be battled with each other—just as they would later clash swords in the U.S. “culture wars.” He argues against a “bourgeois culture” that advocates the “basic individualist idea and the institutions, manners, habits of thought and intentions which proceed from that.” He believes that “the principle of common betterment . . . ought to be an absolute value” and advocates a “common culture,” stressing a sense of community and solidarity as “the real basis of a society.” But, he insists, this culture will require “continual adjustment and redrawing” and must be tolerant and flexible—“It is necessary to make room for, not only variation, but even dissidence.”

More than a half century later, Williams’s words are still relevant. But he was writing primarily about Great Britain? How about the United States?

From the 1890s forward, as historian William Leach has written:

American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this. American consumer capitalism produced a culture almost violently hostile to the past and to tradition, a future-oriented culture of desire that confused the good life with goods. It was a culture that first appeared as an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.

“Reigning culture” it indeed became among the broad U.S. population. But it and the capitalism that hatched it was challenged by many writers and reformers who from 1890 to 1914 advocated Progressivism. According to one historian, it was a movement “to limit the socially destructive effects of morally unhindered capitalism, to extract from those [capitalist] markets the tasks they had demonstrably bungled, to counterbalance the markets’ atomizing social effects with a countercalculus of the public weal [well-being].” It did not attempt to replace capitalism, but to have government constrain and supplement it so that it served the public good.

Writers continued to criticize capitalist culture throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880s (1950), Henry Steele Commager wrote: “Who, in the half century from Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, celebrated business enterprise or the acquisitive society . . . ?  Almost all the major writers were critical of those standards, or contemptuous of them. . . . Most authors portrayed an economic system disorderly and ruthless, wasteful and inhuman, unjust alike to workingmen, investors, and consumers, politically corrupt and morally corrupting.” Writings of the 1930s, after the Depression had struck, “pulsed with anger and pity—anger against an economy that wasted the resources, paralyzed the energies, and corrupted the spirits of the people, pity for the victims of that economy.”  Even in what remained of the first half century, very few novelists revised “the judgment which had been passed on the acquisitive society. . . . The novelists remained irreconcilable.”

As late as 1963, anthropologist Jules Henry could write in Culture Against Man that the U. S. culture of his day was “a culture increasingly feeling the effects of almost 150 years of lopsided preoccupation with amassing wealth and raising its standard of living.” He believed that the two main “commandments” of U. S. culture were “Create More Desire” and “Thou Shalt Consume,” and that these two commandments contributed to planned obsolescence, instability, “technological drivenness,” and to making any religious or moral restraint on wants outmoded.

By the late 1960s, however, the Counter Cultural youth rebellion was challenging the dominant capitalist consumer culture. In his 1969 book, The Making of a Counter Culture, California history professor Theodore Roszak noted the influence of Herbert Marcuse as one of the “major social theorists” influencing “the disaffiliated young.” Marcuse believed that by increasing the consumption of goods and services, the elite who ran technological society in the West had conditioned people to accept the increasing loss of their freedoms. And he wrote that “freedom from the rule of merchandise over man is a precondition of freedom.”

In 1973 E. F. Schumacher’s influential book Small Is Beautiful appealed to some youth still advocating a less acquisitive society and culture. In it the author criticized modern economics and the consumer culture of his day for encouraging a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy,” and he bemoaned their environmental effects. He declared that “the cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”

During the second half of the 1970s, two other books strongly condemned the dominant capitalist consumer culture: Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture and historian Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissim

Berry faulted our dominant culture, where “relationships with all other creatures become competitive and exploitive rather than collaborative and convivial.” And where “the world is seen and dealt with, not as an ecological community, but as a stock exchange, the ethics of which are based on the tragically misnamed ‘law of the jungle.’”

By the end of the 1970s, after the youth rebelliousness of the 1960s had long waned, Lasch wrote that “bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas.” But a “culture of narcissism,” which was “the final product of bourgeois individualism,” had arisen, stressing such goals as self-awareness. This new culture, he believed, meshed with an expanding culture of mass consumption in which advertising goaded “the masses into an unappeasable appetite not only for goods but for new experiences and personal fulfillment.”

Many of the former youth protesters of the 1960s participated in this “mass consumption,” as the growing consumer culture sold mass entertainment in new formats (including music, films, and books) to young adults. And whether it was music, clothes, books, or some other goods, U. S. youth continued being major consumers. Advertisers also increasingly targeted younger people.  In 1987, over 90 percent of U. S. teenage girls in one survey listed shopping as their favorite leisure activity.

During the 1980s, with President Ronald Reagan in office, U. S. consumer capitalism seemed stronger than ever. In his Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000), David Brooks wrote: “We’re by now all familiar with modern-day executives who have moved from S.D.S. to C.E.O., from LSD to I.P.O. Indeed, sometimes you get the impression the Free Speech Movement produced more corporate executives than Harvard Business School.” And Brooks made clear that the “bobos,” or bourgeois bohemians,” many involved in information and media businesses, were big spenders. “These are the people who are thriving in the information age. They’re the people, you go into their homes and they’ve got these renovated kitchens that are the size of aircraft hangars, with plumbing. You know, you see the big sub- zero refrigerators and you open the door and you think, they could stick an in-law suite in the side.”

Fast forward to 2012 and what do we see?  In his Jefferson Lecture of that year Wendell Berry stated:

Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished.

 But this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.

He also argued for a broad definition of culture that would include “the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking.” And it would be a culture that encouraged affection “and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence.”

Creating a More Progressive Culture

The progressive culture I envision would battle against our still dominant capitalist consumer culture, one that continues to churn out a cornucopia of products, but also produces robots replacing human workers who join our mass of unemployed sufferers.

In contrast, a progressive culture would build upon many of the ideas of the U. S. Progressives of a century ago and of others mentioned here such as Williams, Schumacher, and Berry. And it would stress the values that I outlined in an earlier essay, What Is Progressivism?” They include love, compassion, empathy, humility, tolerance, compromise, and a love of peace and beauty, all of which we need to champion with hope and optimism, realism and idealism, imagination and creativity, and humor, passion, courage, and sticktoitiveness. Stressing such values, a progressive culture would be unlike the Soviet and Nazi cultures that attempted to impose their ideas upon all their peoples.

Early Progressivism was a trans-Atlantic movement that arose in western Europe before developing its own U. S. variety. And even though we are primarily concerned here with nurturing a U. S. progressive culture, true to the best instincts of our Founding Fathers, we can also profit from the thinking of modern-day European progressives. As an example, a 2013 book of 21 essays, all but 2 of which are by Europeans, deals with the legacy of Schumacher and offers many progressive suggestions.

Versus a culture that emphasizes individualism and what Berry calls the “law of the jungle,” a progressive culture would champion community and compassion;

  • against a prison system that stresses retribution and keeping “criminals” off the streets, it would emphasize rehabilitation;
  • against a “more-goods-this year-than-last” mindset, it would stress environmental sustainability and modest material needs;
  • against a capitalist culture where (in the words of Berry) “everything in the country would be marketable and everything marketable would be sold,” it would emphasize beauty and goodness;
  • against the concentration of power in corporate hands, it would seek a more democratic distribution of power.

Raymond Williams wrote that “a culture, while it is being lived, is always in part unknown, in part unrealized. The making of a community is always an exploration, for consciousness cannot precede creation, and there is no formula for unknown experience. A good community, a living culture, will, because of this, not only make room for but actively encourage all and any who can contribute (my emphasis) to the advance in consciousness which is the common need.”

This fits in with what I wrote in my earlier essay about progressivism being “a big tent,” tolerating and welcoming all who are committed to progressive values. A progressive culture should be pragmatic, not dogmatic. It should seek solutions to our complex problems, not demonstrate ideological rigidity. We should respond to those overly concerned about whether such a culture might be more socialistic than capitalistic, as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once did to those concerned about his Marxist ideological purity: “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

One of the most attractive aspects of the early Progressive movement was the diversity of its adherents—consider, for example, when the bellicose Theodore Roosevelt ran as the Progressive Party candidate in 1912, the pacifistic Jane Addams seconded his nomination at the party’s convention. Another noted pacifist, Dorothy Day, in a 1954 letter gave advice that I think a progressive culture should embrace: “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences—that is the basis of the ecumenical movement, which is part of the peace movement.”

Many of the ideas of Wendell Berry are appealing not only for the truth they contain but also because they appeal to such a diverse group of people. The Humane Vision  of Wendell Berry is a book of 17 essays, all but one written by “social conservatives.” The one exception is Wallace Stegner, who in an essay/letter writes to Berry: “Your books seem conservative. They are actually profoundly revolutionary . . . They fly in the face of accepted opinion and approved fashion. They reassert values so commonly forgotten or repudiated that, reasserted, they have the force of novelty.” No wonder that Berry has been a frequent contributor to The Progressive.  Counting the current December 2013/January 2014 issue, he has written three essays for it in the last seven months alone (see here for links to six Berry essays in the magazine during the last four years). In addition in the December 2010/January 2011 issue there was an interview with him.

Reading Berry and some of the conservative essays about him demonstrates that conservatism can be much more complex than we progressives often recognize. One can be a traditionalist in many ways, as Berry (and Pope Francis) are, and yet still contribute to the formation of strong progressive culture. As long as we value openness, diversity, dialogue, humility, and tolerance more than ideological rigidity, we should welcome such contributors. Pope Francis’s recent criticism of capitalism especially holds out hope that more Catholics might support a progressive culture than the capitalist culture that U.S. Catholic politicians like Paul Ryan, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich have advocated.

We should also welcome those who believe that capitalism can become more humane. In a previous essay entitled “Can Capitalist Cultures Become More Humane?” I maintained that they could and wrote that “there is nothing intrinsic about capitalism that necessitates that every capitalist corporation promote or encourage a culture of greed.”

An embracive spirit and one of open dialogue is also evident in the goals of the LA Progressive (LAP) and Hollywood Progressive (HP). As described on the first of these two linked blogs: “We [LAP] publish reports and comment on issues of political, social, and cultural consequence to progressives everywhere. Our articles advocate progressive positions and policies but conservatives are also welcome to read and comment. But if you are looking for a fight, you’ve come to the wrong place. Only civil discourse is permitted. . . . The LA Progressive exists to provide a means of expressing progressive viewpoints and to champion the causes that promote the betterment of society particularly the lives of the dispossessed and powerless. But we have a sister publication, the Hollywood Progressive.”

I view the sister blogs as a united, but diverse, voice working together, however unconsciously at times, to help create a strong progressive culture, one that will ultimately dethrone our present dominant consumer capitalist culture. The blogs combined attention to “political, social, and cultural” matters covers a sufficiently wide range: the LAP’s categories of Civil Rights, Domestic Issues (e.g., education and health care), Economy, Elections, Environment, Foreign Policy, Justice, Media, and War, and the HP’s of Film, Literature, Music, Poetry, Sports, and Stage. My fellow contributors to the two blogs manifest a wide variety of interests and skills and each one makes a unique contribution. And just as blogs can forward a progressive culture, so too can different institutions and professions in their workplaces (see here for some examples).

What we progressives must do as a group, however, is follow the advice of the civil rights song of the 1950s and 1960s: “Keep Your Eyes on The Prize.” Our main ultimate goal should not be any isolated victories now and then, important as they may be, but the grand “prize” of improving the common good by creating a more progressive culture that wins over most of our fellow citizens. It would be one that emphasizes community, compassion, diversity, and tolerance, but also one that is ever growing, changing, and developing. One that overcomes myths like trickle-down economics and “the poor are lazy,” but is never dogmatic. One that seeks truth, but never claims exclusive possession of it. One that values the past and what we can learn from it, but also that is determined to leave our children and grandchildren a worthwhile and sustainable future environment in which they may flourish.

walter mossAs mentioned above, William Leach wrote that when it first appeared more than a century ago our capitalist consumer culture was “an alternative culture . . . and then unfolded to become the reigning culture in the United States.” So now, in the twenty-first century, we need to champion a progressive culture so that it advances from an alternate culture to the “reigning” one.

Walter G. Moss

Published by the LA Progressive on January 1, 2014
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About Walter G. Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm