Daniel Defoe’s timeless masterpiece, Robinson Crusoe, may seem like an odd starting point for a discussion on American politics, but in times of fear it presents important lessons.
Crusoe is a paragon of 18th century English entrepreneurialism, a man of ordinary stock but ambitious and tenacious. He imagines his financial and personal greatness will be forged in plantation America. In pursuit of this ideal the adventurer becomes stranded on an island in the Caribbean, the only survivor of his crew. Never one to be disheartened by incredible misfortune, against fantastic odds the stranded Englishmen begins to fashion a means of existence. He survives the violent heat and hammering rains; the inhospitable terrain is mastered; and the seas conquered. Goats are tamed to provide milk, food, and eventually cheese; barley and rice are harvested bi-annually; and an impenetrable fort and country house retreat is assembled for comfortable living. Unashamedly proud of this new-Eden, Crusoe conceptualises himself as the lord and governor of the island. He has shaped a perfect environment, and, but for the want of society, the marooned mariner is perfectly contented with his existence. Importantly, Crusoe perceived that the luck and fortune that contributed to this survival was the work of the original architect, God. Providence, therefore, is the reason for his ascent from moral and physical to desolation to plantation king.
America has experienced many of these vicissitudes and could be Crusoe’s island brought to life. On arrival settlers found the land uninhabitable, the soils dry and unfruitful; the weather destructive and fatal. Indeed many of the early colonists failed to survive the first winters. But they braved the brutal climate, and by slow degrees, society emerged in embryonic form. Natural resources nurtured the colonies; timber, iron ore, oil, coal and fish were readily available. Crusoe’s island became their continent and through work and faith the Thirteen Colonies flourished. Such was their success, the colonists designed to cut the umbilical cord with the mother country and create a society as close to Enlightenment ideals as possible. The Founding Fathers’ self evident truths were incarnations of Defoe’s enlightened crusader. God guided the citizens’ spirit; he is independent, at liberty to build his property, and a diligent labourer working in ‘pursuit of happiness.’
Together these fundamental principles have had terrific staying power and are commonly understood as the American Dream. Like Crusoe, an entrepreneur in search of his betterment can cross the sea, build his modern day plantation, and become emperor of his own island. It is understood as such in society, everyone is encouraged to do their best, reach their pinnacle, work their hardest, and will be rewarded with a comfortable lifestyle. Beyond the individual the culmination of this philosophy is a richer and more successful society with unbound aspirations. Together Americans dreamed of human possibility and overcame the impossible, Neil Armstrong’s Moon-landing the example par excellence. When Armstrong alighted from the Lunar module and christened the lunar soil, he was not alone. Every American took that step with him because every member of society had contributed to making that step possible.
Providence it would seem has looked on America favourably; for centuries the Dream was real. During the 20th century American living standards out-stripped all other industrialised nations, the average American was a property owner with an array of commodities, including cars, fridges, microwaves, and televisions. Health care and education were universal, sacrosanct services that guarded the well-being of every citizen. Life expectancy grew from 45.2 years between 1890 to 76.7 in 1998; on average men were three inches taller by 1950 than they were in 1910; American real wage growth increased above inflation from 1900-1970; between 1950-1970 the median family income grew by 99.3%; unemployment was consistently less than 4%; and consumer spending rose by 60% from 1945-1960. Should you be a working-class American you could afford a home, send your child to college, and were guaranteed a steady job. Society was working for everyone.
Since the fall of Communism Liberals have championed this democratic capitalist model. Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history , the Fall of the Berlin Wall heralded a new dawn, the end of ideological conflict, and freedom from nuclear obliteration. Economists supplemented this optimism, neoliberalism was lifting millions out of poverty and brought an end to economic cataclysms such as the Great Depression.
FP Stephen M. Walt rightly observed that one of the problems was liberal defenders over-sold the product. The western model should be a Church on the Hill to the world, an example of how to construct a successful society. The end-point of this arrogance was the moral quagmire, Iraq – democracy by the barrel of the gun. The catastrophic War on Terror has left us riddled with insecurity about our values. The 2008 Recession compounded this great unease. The ideological pillars of the liberal order are beginning to crumble.
There has been a visible change in peoples’ lives as the deification of economics has destroyed the American working class. Since 1980 the bottom has fallen out of life for the lower third of society. When you compare white society, both rich and poor, today with fifty years ago the data signals the death knell of the Dream. In the 1960’s there was virtually no difference in social capital between the top and bottom. All the indicators of success and failure – teenage pregnancy, employment, mortality, infant mortality, drug and alcohol abuse – were, generally speaking, equal. Today this is completely reversed. The White working-class is the only social group in American society whose mortality rates are increasing; unemployment is endemic; teenage pregnancy is up by a factor of 12; there is an increased addiction to self-destructive habits like drugs and alcohol; elevated infant mortality rates; and shocking suicide rates. To take one example since the millennium life expectancy for white women has fallen by three years. On the surface this appears innocuous but when we consider that life expectancy should always move forward it becomes increasingly problematic; this social groups has lost 20 years of progress. The American Dream has turned nightmare.
Such violent shifts in circumstances ignite our less edifying qualities, as Defoe acknowledged. When Crusoe discovered an unknown foot-print on his island he understandably concluded others inhabited his paradise. Since this mysterious people did
not share his European ideas, he begins to reason that his island project was imperiled. With such a rapid material change, Crusoe’s behavior shifts erratically, he becomes enthralled to paranoia, fear and wild hysteria. Alarm and danger are imagined everywhere, trees take the form of men, shadows startle him, his crops and livestock are feared destroyed, and his fate is to be devoured by cannibals. In a Trump-esque resolution, he resolves to build wall ten-feet thick to keep the invaders out and protect his colony. He even considers ambushing the ‘natives’ and destroying them in a pre-emptive strike. Defoe is making an important point here. The cannibal threat brings sharply into focus the unforeseen consequences of the shifting nature of our existence. What was once successful can quickly ravage, but for the grace of God and with it we abandon reason and good judgement. ‘How strange a chequer work of Providence is the life of man’, Crusoe laments.
It is no surprise that certain Americans have succumbed to similar tendencies. As Defoe acknowledged fear disturbs our values ‘today we love what tomorrow we hate; today we seek what tomorrow we shun; today we desire what tomorrow we fear; nay even tremble at the apprehensions of.’ Forty years ago white working class America was successful, now it has completely collapsed. They see the establishment fight for feminism, they see immigrants flocking over the border receiving Federal aid; and they see bankers getting bail-outs. Is it any wonder they are fiercely anti-liberal, want to stop immigration, and demand a show-down with the banks? But the problem extends far beyond the lazy redneck stereotypes of Trump supporters; fear has led to an identity crisis, where social values that were considered axiomatic and were the glue of society are becoming irrevocably altered. Where the individual reigned supreme, the tribe has taken hold; tolerance has became intolerance; happiness has submitted to fear; love has folded to hate. Muslims, Mexicans, China and women, are the objects of this new fear. We must remember that however unpalatable we consider this behaviour these expressions are human and a completely natural reaction to their rapidly deteriorating social conditions. Is it any wonder they are attracted to “Make America Great Again”? They want to rebuild the past were their lives made sense, where they were not living in perpetual hopelessness and fear, where the American Dream existed.
While Crusoe’s conditions were caused by an abstract capricious Deity this social crisis is the culmination of our economic and political choices. The establishment has refused to ameliorate the conditions of those suffering; instead they place their faith in economic providence. Globalisation was and is inevitable and the decimation of small industrial towns are the victims of progress. We cannot escape this inevitability. The white working class have been forgotten, sacrificed to the economic gods. As Crusoe was cut off from mankind, they have been left in an island of economic despair, stranded, destined to live a silent life. Who are they to question the sovereignty of economics? We are merely creatures in the economic cosmos. For Crusoe, Providence ‘could dispose of me absolutely, as he saw fit.’ In the 21st century economic providence can eject people from their seat of prosperity and comfort without consideration. The economy moves in mysterious ways, it is Provident; and can both give with one hand and take with another. The fear that creates,however, will not diminish but grow, unless addressed. This language of violence does not begin and end with Trump. The antidote will be found when the conditions that are fertile ground for fear are addressed.