Habits of the heart, individualism and commitment in American life

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Capitalist values have rotted the moral fabric of America for more than 300 years, and the dreadful results are all around us.

by Philip Eden | May, 1986

Habits of the Heart, Individualism and Commitment in American Life

This is an outstanding study–thoughtful, confronting a problem of great significance, marked by careful scholarship, of deep integrity, with a real sense of history and a genuine moral purpose. It is a study of the mores and attitudes of middle-class Americans. What are their values, goals, motives, purposes? What is important to them? Are they happy? Do they live full and satisfying lives?

The authors approach these questions in two ways: first by a form of survey, but in-depth interviews with representative types of personsf second, by an historical approach, using De Tocqueville’s study of Democracy in America as a benchmark. They therefore describe the present condition placed in its historical setting.

Self Interest, a Cancerous Growth

What is the author’s major conclusion? They review De Tocqueville’s finding in 1832 that Americans were centered on their self-interest, and that this represented a major danger to the functioning of a democratic republic. They now believe that this concentration on self has become a widepread sickness, a “cancerous growth.”

Several of the most fascinating chapters of the book deal with the effects of this obsession with self-interest and self-satisfaction on the basic relationships of people, such as in friendship, love, marriage, and therapy. Others, of course, have written on these topics. David Riesman developed aspects of it in The Lonely Crowd, Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism, and Sartre in his descriptions of the existentialist angst. Many novels, movies, and plays have been based on the same theme. It is an obsession which is widespread and pervasive.

The authors believe that Americans who wish to live full and meaningful lives would have to transform themselves into persons with “virtue” in the sense in which the word was used by the authors of the Federalist Papers, i.e., persons who have a commitment to community, a concern for the common goodf and they contend that a start on this process of personal transformation can by made by participating in social movements for the common good. They hold up the civil-rights movement as an example.

A Cancer Fostered by Capitalism

The authors of Habits of the Heart are non-Marxist sociologists. They are not accustomed to looking at classes and the relations of classes in an economic system as dominating, formative influences on the development of beliefs and attitudes. Nevertheless, they are fairly clear in tracing the roots of the growing emphasis on individual self-interest to the growth and dominance of capitalism and its values. So while the authors might say it more implicity, it is pretty clear that the root of the cancer is capitalism itself. They are explicit in tracing the breakdown of local communities of common interest and self-government to the nationalization of the market under capitalism and the growth of national and international corporations. So it is capitalism and the capitalist ethic which have fostered and encouraged individuals to be concerned primarily with themselves and their own satisfactions, and have destroyed the local communities, allegiance to which might have countered the concentration on self. Economic dependence upon national and international corporations has supplanted the ties of local community.

The book is a massive attack on the sanctity of self-interest. While the neoclassical economist Gerard Debreu accepts self-aggrandizement as a law governing human behavior, and wins a Nobel Prize for describing it with the mathematical precision of universal scientific law, these sociologists look upon it as a social disease. They do not find it to be admirable at all.

Mores and Social Movements in the Lower Classes

We should all look forward to the obvious next step of Bellah and his associates. That would be to apply the same methodology to other groups besides the middle class. I believe they are wrong to assume, as they do, that the middle class fairly represents the country as a whole. It is true that the same methodology might reveal in other classes reflections or variations of the same obsession with self-interest as in the middle class. I am confident, however, that they would also find many different strains of beliefs, especially among the working classes.

I believe that in the working class they would find an exceptionally rich body of memories, loyalties, and beliefs, of shared defeats and victories, of the union movement, of participation in social movements, political movements like the New Deal, third party movements and the socialist movement. Among blacks they would find a combined relgious and social movements. The social movements of Hispanics and American Indians have many similar characteristics. Among women they would find movements for political, social, and economic equality, past and present, with and without men; among farmers traditions that go back to the struggle against European feudalism, emigration to th is country, pioneering on the frontier, and involvement in the movements of Jacksonian democracy and populism.

All of these are groups that have “paid their dues.” Moreover, theirs are not merely cultures of shared memories. They are involved in ongoing social movements with current economic concerns which are issued of survival in a period of counter-revolution. Workers are fighting to keep their jobs, against multinational corporations that want to move operations to lower-wage plants abroad. They are struggling against the colonialization and degradation of U.S. labor. While many in the middle class, especially those in the professional and technical categories, can look upon their work as a calling and can derive satisfactions and esteem from it, all too many of the jobs in industry have become dehumanized and degraded to the point that they lack any meaning. The main concern of racial minorities is jobs, police brutality, a way out of the ghettos in which they are imprisoned. Women are concerned with the feminization of poverty, sex discrimination in work and pay, child care, and aid to dependent children. The farmer’s current concern is the preservation of the family farm as a way of life against corporate agribusiness.

In the aggregate, these groups comprise far more people than the middle class. If they were interwieved, they would be bound to express these concerns, and these are not middle-class concerns: they are more elemental, involving survival itself.

Social Movements of the Poor Are Class Struggles

There are important economic interests at stake in every significant social movement. All of the social movements mentioned above have struggled against the established order and have been severely repressed. Union organizers have been beaten and killed, blacks have been lynched, radicals ostracized, many ordinary people starved into submission. The strength and power of the established order to preserve the status quo are not clearly described in this book. The connections between economic power, political power, and the repressive police power of the state are not presented. Yet this too is part of the tradition and h istory of social movements in our country. If middle-class Americans want to join social movements, they will surely be welcomed as allies by those who have been in them for many years out of sheer necessily. But it is not quite fair to urge the middle class to join social movements and not tell them of the risks they may incur.

It is significant that Bellah et al. should recommend that the middle class now engage in social movements and that the suggested model, the civil-rights movements, is one in the history and traditions of the lower classes. Their suggestion for the middle class, moreover, tends to be utopian. Middle-class people suffering from the malaise of self-interest which cripples their full growth as human beings, are told that they should join social movements essentially as a form of therapy, in order to transform themselves, and to gain a sense of participation in community. But in reality a social movement should be joined only by those who agree with its purposes, and not for its therapeutic side-effects. The working classes never joined social movements for such therapeutic reasons: they felt compelled to do so for economic survival and betterment. The only way out of their oppression was through unity and cooperation. The poor had enough economic interest to warrant undertaking the risks of participation in these movements. Does the middle class have similar compelling reasons?

not all social movements, however, are class struggles. The peace movement and the environmental movement tend to cut across class lines, even through there may be class interests involved. It is not surprising that the middle class may assume leadership in these movements because it too has an overwhelming interest in these issues and in human survival.

The Straighforward Cure–The Cooperative Spirit of Socialism

If the cause of the cancer of self-interest is capitalism and its ideology, the cure should be substituting a healthier ideology that puts concern for the common good at at least on a par with self-interest. Bellah and his associates spar with this is vague terms. A more straightforward recommendation is adoption of the mores of socialism, or cooperative forms of organization of work and living.

I suspect that Bellah et al hope that the social movements and the personal transformations they recommend will somehow produce a capitalist society that is more humane and allows community commitment and healthier lives. Perhaps the welfare capitalism of the New Deal and in the Scandinavian countries are what they have in mind. Many of us would like to share that hope. But it is well-night impossible to deal with this problem in the fundamental and honest way that Bellah and his colleagues intend without confronting the issue, that capitalism itself is the root of the problem. The great merit of the authors is that they are sociologists who are concerned with the human condition and that they have taken a clear position on the side of humanity. This has led them to question many fundamental things about our society: they should question this one more explicity.

Staying in the Middle

Habits of the Heart is an essentially non-politcal book. The closest it gets to politics is to express a widespread distrust of politicians. It is difficult to understand why the authors avoided the political fact that the bulk of the middle class supported Reagan. The ABC News survey conducted the day after the 1984 election indicated that 68 percent of all with incomes over $30,000 voted for Reagan. The authors certainly could have use this fact as poof of their primary contention, since Reagan epitomizes concentration on self-interest.

The failure to place the middle class in the spectrum of classes in our capitalist society is related to the authors’ failure to describe the capitalist system itself. Historically, the middle class tends to be conservative. The petty bourgeoisie apes the bourgeoisie: it would dearly like to rise to upper-class status and desperately fears to be thrust into the lower class. This is the historic position of the middle class, between the hammer of the rich and the anvil of the poor. In class conflcits the bulk of the middle class has often in the past identified its interests with the rich and against the poor. Recent tragic examples are middle-class support of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. Although Bellah and his associates clearly envisage middle-class participation in good social movements, the history indicates that they are more likely to choose bad ones than good.

The economic interest and position of the middle class makes it affluent and comfortable. even if the resulting concentration on self may make many of its members very unhappy, they still remain affluent and comfortable. Their economic interest tells them to support Reagan, even while their conscience tells them not to. Their hearts are in conflict with their stomachs. The book would be clarified if this conflict was described explicity.

Marxists can learn a great deal from the study of Bellah and his associates. Those Marxists who concentrate on economic foundations and class relationships have a tendency to overlook “habits of the heart” that are also important elements in understanding the human condition. By this I mean that human beings are not only rational, nor concerned only with economic interest. Humankind is much more complex. Vast numbers are motivated more by cultural, ethical, or religious beliefs, or by historical memories, than by an economic rationale. Some Marxists tend to put such beliefs and memories into a subordinate position. Bellah and his associates do not make this mistake. On the other hand, their study would be greatly enriched and illuminated by an understanding of the dynamics of capitalism and the imperatives it imposes.

This book warrants the kind of discussion that the authors themselves call for. It is full of penetrating insights. The authors call for a change in the nature of work, the nature of education, of the corporation. All of these subjects are eminently worth discussion.

COPYRIGHT 1986 Monthly Review Foundation, Inc.

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