“America is hard to see,” wrote Robert Frost, not least because there is a duality to the American mind. Americans have long exalted freedom, often depicting themselves as its unique beneficiaries. At the same time, they have more than once altered the meaning of freedom and have just as often disagreed among themselves about its character, scope, and purpose. Similarly, Americans have long celebrated progress, assuming that the uninterrupted expansion of productivity would bring continuous improvement to their standard of living. At the same time, they yearn for the simplicity of the past. In their bewilderment, Americans have now all but lost the ability to formulate what they most need: an imaginative reconstruction of their history and a sober assessment of their prospects. The idea of freedom and the ideal of progress have combined to reassure Americans that, unlike other peoples, they are, and forever will be, the masters of their fate. Such a pleasing illusion has exhausted its usefulness and become an impediment to thought and action.

Not every American had benefitted equally from the so-called market revolution, that series of widespread social and economic changes that swept the United States in the early nineteenth century, specifically the replacement of a subsistence and artisan economy by commercial agriculture and capitalist manufacturing. Small farmers and urban workers had every reason to believe that the rise and spread of commerce and capitalism would bring them not boundless opportunities but unending dependence. By the late 1820s and early 1830s, these anxieties fed into a many-sided crisis of political faith. To the frustration of those Americans who aspired to become self-made men, and thereby to achieve the American Dream, the new institutions of nineteenth-century capitalism, such as chartered corporations and commercial banks, presaged the rise and consolidation of an aristocracy of money to which ordinary men would be subservient.

Antidotes for the disease included more democracy; reformers in some states fought to lower or abolish property requirements for voting and holding office. In addition, urban workers lobbied to form unions, understanding early that their strength lay in numbers. Southerners demanded lower tariffs and greater respect for state rights. Westerners clamored for cheaper land and debt relief. Much of this diverse ferment eventually coalesced behind Andrew Jackson, who pledged to speak for those who had lost out in the competitive struggle. Given his frontier antecedents, it is no surprise that Jackson epitomized the growing contempt for economic and political elitism, with its demands for hierarchical deference and its wariness of popular democracy.

Jackson directed his appeal primarily at voters who felt injured by, or excluded from, the market revolution. Like his Jeffersonian forebears, Jackson assumed that the United States could not long survive as a republic without an independent citizenry. Unfortunately, he noted, the present state and future prospects of economic, and thus political, independence were fragile. According to Jackson, history was nothing more than the struggle between the many and the few, an ongoing conflict that the greedy minority, determined to exploit the hard working, but powerless, majority, had instigated and sustained. Another phase of this historic confrontation, Jackson asserted, lay behind all the difficulties that were at present tormenting the American people.

The best weapon that the people had to combat the forces of wealth and privilege were equal rights, at least for white men, and limited government. Jackson thought the expansion of rights and the curtailment of government would eliminate the advantages that the few, who could manipulate government to further their selfish designs, had formerly enjoyed. Jackson promoted a vision of American society in which every white man had a fair chance to attain freedom and property–to live as he saw fit, assured that he could make his own way in the world with no hindrance to his progress.

Unlike their nineteenth-century progenitors, the liberals in the early twentieth century argued that individuals were not, and should not be, autonomous or independent, but instead must recognize that they were part of an immense and complex web of social relations. The welfare of a single individual was dependent on, and often subordinate to, the welfare of society as a whole. Seeking to hold the chaos of the modern world at bay, the Progressive reformers emphasized social cohesion rather than individual freedom.

In The Promise of American Life, published in 1909, Herbert Croly, editor of The New Republic, objected to the venerable assumption that the only way for Americans to gain freedom and independence was to acquire property. The competition for private wealth, Croly maintained, was the legacy of a barbarous past. Responsibility rather than property was now essential to the attainment of real freedom and lasting independence. To that end, modern societies, if they wished to remain democratic, had to transfer economic, social, and political responsibility to the people.   Freedom and independence ordained by the state were both useless and absurd. Croly relied not on the government to enforce order, but hoped instead that the American people would learn to discipline themselves. To survive the rigors of the modern world, Croly insisted that society had to be organized on a military model. The only question that remained was whether the United States would be composed by an army of citizens devoted to the welfare of the community or an army of mercenaries loyal to no one but themselves.

The Progressive movement came of age at a time when thinkers in Europe and the United States had begun to ask fundamental questions about the character and future of democracy and self-government. In their embrace of order, some Europeans found it easier to temper their commitment to democracy, which had perhaps been weak or nonexistent in the first place. American thinkers, by contrast, could not so blithely dismiss their traditional allegiance to democratic values, practices, and institutions. As a consequence, some redefined democracy and freedom. Croly tried to have it both ways. He wanted to achieve “Jeffersonian ends by Hamiltonian means,” that is, to institute freedom through the imposition of order by convincing Americans to regulate their own lives and conduct so that the state would not have to intervene. While Croly rejected private property as the basis of independent citizenship, a number of other twentieth-century liberals came to something of the opposite conclusion. Associating freedom and citizenship with the prospect of material abundance, they viewed the United States as a nation of consumers, striving to awaken the democratic potential of capitalism itself.

In 1912, three years after Croly published The Promise of American Life, Walter Weyl, his colleague at The New Republic, published New Democracy. Weyl affirmed that the equitable distribution of goods and wealth, not social responsibility or political participation, offered the best opportunity to build a democratic future for the United States. Modern industry had sped the transition from an economy of want to an economy of satisfaction. Now all that waited to be accomplished was securing equal access to the products that industry had made available. The prospects of democracy, Weyl intoned, rested on economic affluence, which could be fulfilled not by devotion to the outmoded laissez-faire policies of a bygone era, but only through governmental oversight and management of the economy.

For Weyl, consumers were the only group that represented the interests of society as a whole. They bore the economic and social costs of rising prices, of adulterated food and unsafe products, and of shortages and strikes. If Progressivism was anything, it was, according to Weyl, a movement to secure the rights of American consumers. His analysis distinguishes consumers as the “common man” of Jacksonian Democracy, whom Jackson believed could succeed through their own efforts once government had removed the obstacles to their advancement. Instead of requiring government merely to eliminate unearned advantages and artificial barriers, Weyl proclaimed that the state must speak for the consumer, the “man on the street,” through the enactment of new, and the stricter enforcement of existing, economic regulations. Weyl expressed none of the misgivings about what the English social critic Hilaire Belloc had called “the servile state.” Governmental mandates would put an end to destructive competition and replace it with a new cooperative spirit. The activist state challenged the “old poverty ethics of survival,” Weyl wrote, and nurtured the “new wealth ethics of social improvement.” Far from being dictatorial and oppressive, the modern state was, in Weyl’s judgment, the chief instrument of economic progress, social justice, and political freedom.

Weyl enumerated the many ways in which the state would benefit the common man and serve the common good. By ensuring an equitable distribution of wealth, the state would put an end to revolution, and eliminate the need for violence and crime. The state would abolish poverty. The power to tax, Weyl explained, discouraged extravagance and waste by, for example, levying burdensome taxes on luxury items. Alternately, state control of education enabled authorities to devise a more coherent and effective economic order by instructing students in thoughtful forms of consumption and prudent uses of wealth. In the past, Weyl complained, Americans had been too preoccupied with competition and conquest to bother about fashioning more efficient systems of production and more equitable mechanisms of distribution. But the great “feats of moral heroism,” as he referred to them, were now rightly consigned to the past. Democracy had “put down the mighty ‘great man,’” and exalted the “unnamed multitude.” With the judicious intervention of the state, consumption could be expanded, inequality reversed, and democracy reinvigorated.

Like the Progressive movement, the New Deal also linked the survival of freedom and democracy to the growth of abundance, prosperity, and consumption. Automation and technology promised to ease the formerly severe conditions of work, to eliminate drudgery, and, for good measure, to profit workers with higher wages, greater leisure, and increased access to a widening array of goods and services. Rexford Tugwell, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s principal advisors, was satisfied that machines would reduce to a minimum the need to work. Only a sentimental attachment to the work ethic, Tugwell charged, inhibited a release from the hardships of labor. Tugwell reasoned that the forthcoming era of abundance required a new ethic that questioned the ritual of self-sacrifice and that repudiated what he called the “art of wretchedness.”

Labor itself was a disagreeable necessity, the stigma and infamy of work part of its nature, not the result of class exploitation. Work should thus be relegated to the periphery of life, and consumption installed to replace it. Human dignity, to say nothing of freedom and progress, lay in the attainment of security and comfort, not in accumulated years of grueling and unrequited toil. If democracy were to have an enduring significance, then leisure, ease, prosperity, and contentment, formerly the domain of the wealthy alone, must become the common entitlement of all.

Early New Deal programs, such as the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), had emphasized production over consumption. After 1935, the Second New Deal elevated consumerism to unrivaled influence and public acceptance, on the way toward developing a mature consumer economy.  Deriving the theoretical rationale for consumerism from the English economist John Maynard Keynes, Tugwell and other theorists of the New Deal, such as Horace Kallen, ventured to augment the purchasing power of the masses. Government spending would create jobs, stimulate consumption, and avert socialist crusades to redistribute income and end inequality.

Money was intended to be spent and invested, not saved or hoarded. Thrift and abstinence were misguided and injurious to the economy and, as Kallen put it, exposed a pessimism about the future that was decidedly un-American. Languishing investment, rising unemployment, deepening poverty, and worsening misery were the inevitable results. The historic ills of capitalism, Kallen suggested, including what had heretofore been the stubborn problem of social injustice, could be remedied only if citizens ceased to be workers and became consumers, and only if freedom came to mean an expanded choice among the goods and pleasures of the world.

Neither the Progressive movement nor the New Deal ever fully realized the expectations they had unleashed. All Americans, it turned out, did not have, and could not acquire, the wherewithal to participate in a consumer economy. The poor, black and white, were thus denied access to the version of the American Dream that the architects of Progressivism and the New Deal proffered. To invoke an oft-use cliché, the rising tide of prosperity that followed the Second World War did not raise all boats; it beached some and sank others, as Americans learned in the 1960s when they unexpectedly rediscovered poverty in the midst of plenty. That disappointment, and the often confused and desperate efforts to allay it, such as the expansion of the welfare state, splintered the liberal coalition, which had endured since the 1930s. By the mid-1960s, a host of social and political issues drove a wedge between its diverse constituents. Fierce disputes erupted about the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War; about abortion and equality for women; about gun control and the death penalty; about school prayer and the pledge of allegiance, all of which and more tore liberalism apart.

A more conservative political coalition emerged from these debates, and the resentment that they had engendered. By 1980, conservatives had enough political influence to elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Reagan had advertised himself as a proponent of traditional values. While governor of California, he denounced the “wave of hedonism” inundating American society and urged a “spiritual rebirth, a rededication to the moral precepts which guided us for so much of our past.”   As a candidate, and later as president, Reagan showed little interest in cultural and spiritual affairs of any kind.

To the extent that he was the political and ideological heir of Andrew Jackson, Reagan was not a conservative at all, but a right-wing liberal who thought that government had no prerogative to interfere in society beyond the need to keep public order.   Reagan’s principal aim was not to attack the “wave of hedonism” or to cultivate the “spiritual rebirth” about which he had spoken as governor, but to end the regulation of business and the economy, to sanctify private enterprise and the free market, and to abrogate as much of the New Deal as possible.

It is no small irony that Reagan’s electoral success placed the Right in a quandary. Republicans had to continue attracting the votes of those alienated from liberalism and troubled by moral decay without at the same time inciting their antipathy toward capitalism itself. To escape this dilemma, leading conservative thinkers depicted the permissiveness of liberalism as another chapter in a recurrent attack on economic freedom and progress. During the 1980s and 1990s, neoconservative critics such as Irving Kristol, Charles Murray, and Michael Novak excoriated liberals not for their encouragement of a “culture of hedonism,” but for their commitment to a massive federal bureaucracy that crippled initiative, that regulated the economy, and that destroyed liberty by subjecting every aspect of life, public and private, to the dominion of the state.

Whatever value there may have been in the conservative exegesis of liberal misdeeds, this account of the American crisis had one obvious flaw. It ignored that dependence on consumption had promoted an ethic of selfishness and self-indulgence, which eroded the very freedom that conservatives purported to revere. Modern capitalism survives by inventing new desires that only consumption can gratify. Advertising does not so much sway consumers to purchase this or that vehicle, to take this or that vacation, or to enroll in this or that wireless plan. Rather, advertising makes the consumer an addict, unable to survive without the arousal and release that only the act of consumption provides. Experience and habit have by now taught the American people to be slaves to their appetites. In the boredom that results from the meaninglessness of home and family, school and work, they have learned to demand ever more elaborate and sensational playthings with which to amuse themselves. Conservatives’ repeated endorsement of private enterprise and the free market hardly offer a remedy for such afflictions.

No politician, thinker, or critic today can, or should, absolve capitalism of it sins.   At the same time, no one ought to assume that capitalism bears the entire indictment against life in the modern world. Capitalism and, more specifically, the prospect of universal abundance and the ethic of consumption, originated with the rise of modern science during the seventeenth century. The material achievements of capitalism rest on the technology that science made possible, and derive from the sense of limitless power that science conferred—from, that is, the intoxicating prospect that human beings can vanquish nature. Insatiable curiosity and insatiable desire awakened together, and rooted the ideas of freedom and progress in both modern history and modern psychology. It has been a Faustian bargain.

The United States came into being in the midst of the Enlightenment, at the sunny pinnacle of the Modern Age. Eighteenth-century philosophers attached their hopes for a better future to the triumph of reason over superstition, of culture over nature, of abundance over scarcity. The doctrine of progress that they shared admitted no limits on productive capacity. Beguiled by the dream of inevitable and unending progress, few in Europe or the United States during the eighteenth century could have imagined the need to return to a more humble and more frugal existence. The equitable distribution of wealth in this country and around the world, which both economics and morality demand, entails a reduction in the standard of living among the privileged classes and the rich nations. The depletion of natural resources and the abuse of the environment required to support (and expand) current levels of productivity foreclose all other possibilities.

Universal abundance was the noble dream of progress. In the twenty-first century, a more reasonable and more worthy aspiration is for everyone to obtain a “competence,” a small plot of land, a modest shop, a worker-owned business or factory, a useful occupation. A competence entails not only property ownership and the livelihood that property, including intellectual property, confers, but also the knowledge and skill needed to maintain them. Less arrogant and harmful than the ideal of universal abundance and consumption, the ideal of universal stewardship and proprietorship is at once more intellectually and morally demanding. It calls upon men and women to cherish what they have and what they have made, to make their property an expression of themselves, to live within their means, to husband their resources, to respect the earth, and to forebear the temptation of relentless improvement. Whether they identify themselves as liberal or conservative, Americans have yet to relinquish their devotion to progress, and to the growth of freedom that they believe will follow in its wake. They continue to mortgage the future on the deceptive promise of universal abundance and limitless prosperity in which they have so long placed their faith. The question that intrudes is whether they should any longer count that attitude a virtue.

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Editor’s note: The featured image is by Wojtek Gurak and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

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