restricted access CHAPTER 5 Resistance to the New Hyper-Individualism

From: The 1970s

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Chapter 5 RESISTANCE TO THE NEW HYPER-INDIVIDUALISM Not everyone found comfort in the increasingly though not fully entwined enthusiasms for greater human equality and the marketplace that took shape in the 1970s. An unfettered individualism , with all progressively more welcome to participate as autonomous buyers and sellers, was emerging as the central feature of contemporary American culture and gaining traction around the globe, but it deeply troubled certain observers. Some of the objections came from predictable if diverse corners. Socialist revolutionaries from Vietnam to Angola to Nicaragua, for example, saluted equality, at least in principle, but rejected the market and restricted private property. They fought for a collectivist future that they believed would offer greater justice and less exploitation, but it was a fight they clearly would be losing within a decade. Labor union organizers in the United States, the traditional core of domestic collective action, struggled similarly in the 1970s to hold on to the benefits of collective bargaining. But they watched their memberships decline steadily, victims of the shift from manufacturing to service work and of the nimbleness of capital in an increasingly integrated global economy. Strikes and protests by public service employees in New York City and elsewhere during the economic trauma of 1974–75 alienated much of a shell-shocked public. The AFL-CIO and its supporters among more liberal Democrats in Congress understood that free markets were likely to benefit those with capital much more than those without it. But they were powerless to stop the hem- 228 CHAPTER 5 orrhaging of union membership and influence. The very idea of a unified “working class” essentially disappeared in the 1970s.1 Meanwhile, as described in chapter 2, on the anti-egalitarian front, white racists, male chauvinists, and opponents of homosexuality endured, bolstering some of the ranks of the Republican Party. They steadily lost the cultural high ground and most legal decisions, however, and they began articulating their concerns in less openly racial and gendered language. By the end of the twentieth century, opposition to full human equality was losing its appeal, particularly among younger Americans, a sign of where the future was headed. The two most significant and enduring forms of dissent against the new hyper-individualism came, in different ways, from environmentalists and religious fundamentalists.The powerful new wave of environmental activism that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s focused on the degradation of natural resources, both in the United States and around the world. From this green perspective, the unrestrained consumption encouraged by the free market was grossly irresponsible and unsustainable .What industrial society needed was to repair its ruinous relationship with the earth, air, and water, to replace exploitation with balance. From an ecological perspective, the Cold War competition of Soviets and Americans for greater economic output and ever-larger nuclear arsenals was a tragedy, one demonstrated in polluted waters from the Great Lakes to the Arctic Sea, in government mismanagement from Los Angeles smog and sprawl to the draining of the Aral Sea, in nuclear accidents from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl. Under capitalism, it has been said, man exploits man, whereas under communism, it’s the reverse. From the perspective of natural resource damage, something similar was true. There was little comfort in Karl Marx’s writings or in Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations promising to out-produce the West: “We will bury you!” In comparison to Communist revolutionaries , most environmentalists, particularly those associated with large mainstream organizations such as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, seemed like unthreatening THE NEW HYPER-INDIVIDUALISM 229 moderate reformers from middle-class and affluent backgrounds, while more radical direct-action groups such as Greenpeace and Earth First! had relatively few members. But at its heart, environmentalism represented a truly subversive critique of the enthusiasm for free markets. Greens focused on often-ignored “negative externalities”: the considerable social and ecological costs of consumption not reflected in market prices, such as pollution and resource depletion. Collective responsibility needed to replace individual choice; careful environmental regulation had to restrain free enterprise. Communism largely disappeared by the 1990s, but environmentalism remained, in its different way, a potentially significant brake on the logic of markets.2 The second significant and sustained source of resistance to the newly inclusive individualism of the market was the resurgence of religious fundamentalism in the 1970s. Across the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim landscapes of the decade, militant forms of piety bloomed as embattled religious activists fought...


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- 1969-.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1960-1980.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1969-1974.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1974-1977.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1977-1981.
  • United States -- Economic conditions -- 1971-1981.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1945-1989.
  • United States -- Commerce -- History -- 20th century.
  • Equality -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Nineteen seventies.
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