September 20, 2009 - The past week saw two conflicting kinds of political consciousness that point to what is right and what is wrong with our culture today.
The first was on display on September 12 in Washington, D.C., as hundreds of thousands of individuals flooded Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall in front of the Capitol building. This Tea Party was organized to protest out-of-control federal government spending and deficits, attempts by Congress and the Obama administration to control health care, economically destructive environmental regulations on businesses, and limits on economic liberty that make individuals more dependent on government.
This demonstration was the most dramatic of many this year that have taken place from coast to coast, complemented by citizen protests at town hall meetings held, often reluctantly, by elected government officials.
No doubt each demonstrator sought to voice his or her opinions about public policies with which they rightly disagreed. But something else was happening that could have effects much more far-reaching than stopping any particular piece of legislation. The demonstrators were beginning to expand their consciousness of themselves as producers who are proud of running their own lives and who are stung by the injustice of being punished and set upon by their government and fellow citizens for their virtues. Whether construction workers, retail clerks, software engineers, business owners, professionals, inventors, you name it, most were concerned that government is taking their fates and their futures out of their hands.
Most successful social movements, for better or worse, depend on enough individuals recognizing some important aspect of themselves that they share with others and that offers opportunities for mutually advantageous action. Individual blacks in the South in the 1950s and ‘60s rightly saw themselves deserving liberty to run their lives as they saw fit and to participate in the political process. They also saw, as they’d seen since the days of slavery, that they were victims of white political elites who used state force to limit those liberties. They saw that the time was well overdue for the shackles of state-enforced segregation to be removed. And they saw that they could act together to eliminate the injustice they suffered.
Many Americans today are becoming more conscious of themselves as striving to take responsibility for their own lives, their own families, their own careers, and their own material well-being, and as being the authors of their own happiness. They are growing more conscious of the government shackling them in the name of helping those who are irresponsible and who do not strive to better themselves but, rather, simply make demands on those who do. And they are growing more conscious that they can take to the streets and eliminate this injustice.
This consciousness of themselves as creators and producers is still emerging and evolving. This perspective of producers versus moochers still does not define how they view American politics and culture. “Liberal” versus “conservative,” two very confused concepts, still organize and integrate their understanding of the world in which they live.
But to the extent that their consciousness of themselves as producers who hold up the economy and society becomes primary, these Americans will seek united action with other producers to demand that government leave them alone. They will no longer sit silently as they are denounced as “selfish” and “greedy” for wanting to run their own lives any more than black Americans will sit silently when racial epithets are hurled at them.
This first form of political consciousness is in stark contrast to a second form, one that was fostered by former president Jimmy Carter last week. Speaking about those who oppose President Obama’s policies, he said, “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African-American should not be president.”
Where did Carter get his evidence for this accusation? Surely not from some poll or survey! In fact, the charge originated in an ideological model that he chooses to carry around in his head. He, like so many on the left, sees the world in terms of group membership. That is why they find it difficult to understand that millions of individuals would oppose programs—whether offered by white or black politicians—that limit their liberty as individuals.
Indeed, the left’s defense of government paternalism is based on this mindset, on group consciousness, on the notion that individuals acting in voluntary cooperation with others are too often impotent. And it is this kind of consciousness that Carter and collectivists like him must foster if they are to keep the producers in bondage.
Producers of the world, unite!
Protests against the policies of Obama and Congress will certainly continue and intensify as the 2010 elections loom. Those who want to effect a deeper social change and to reinforce the moral foundations of a free society should not only raise their own and potential allies’ understanding of the benefits and hazards of particular policies; they should also foster in themselves and others their own self-consciousness as producers and creators.
Looking at the world this way will provide a surer guide not only for political action but for the kind of culture that will help vanquish the tribal mentalities that hold so many back in their own lives and that support a political system that, in the end, cannot stand because it destroys the producers.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.