I've always thought of myself as a very smart, capable person with all the advantages that growing up upper-middle-class confers. The idea that I could fall through the cracks and become an economic statistic was anathema. I was the master of my fate, the captain of my soul and all that. Those of lesser abilities and means might become casualties of the economy, but not I.
When I graduated from college and found only clerical temp jobs to pay the bills, I blamed myself. The pain of that failure was so strong that I repressed it. This delayed my recognition of the external forces that contributed greatly to my situation. Instead of dealing with the pain, I kept blaming myself, consciously and unconsciously, and ignoring the economic and social factors involved.
It may seem easy to blame the System for one's failures, but I actually found it quite difficult to lay my failures at its feet. Blaming my parents and other individuals was easy; I could easily link them to their actions. The Establishment, however, is a specter lurking in the shadows. It guides the actions of billions with invisible strings.
There's also the problem of free will and the significant amount of freedom we still enjoy in these United States. No one held a gun to my head and forced me to go to an expensive liberal-arts college, major in English and work in the corporate world. But I was funneled into that path, and choosing a different path would've required a rare combination of intelligence, confidence and independence.
When I graduated from high school, there was nothing stopping me from moving to a commune and living in harmony with all God's creatures... except nearly all the messages I'd imbibed from television, movies and other media for hours a day since I was little, not to mention the far-more-tangible reinforcement of those messages by my family, peers, teachers, neighbors and society in general.
I could've chosen the road less traveled, but such a choice requires nearly superhuman will and self-reliance. We downplay our reliance on community, but we remain at least as reliant on it as our ancestors. The idea of relocating to a commune in the country is still pretty terrifying for me, and I think I know why: Because it's basically the opposite of the life I've been programmed for.
I was raised to "follow my dreams," specifically, the American Dream of material wealth and a sedentary job that would allow me to realize my "full potential," i.e. working as a high-level bureaucrat. Manual labor should be reserved for physical fitness, home improvement or yardwork; as a career, it's a dead end. Expensive possessions are markers of professional success, and, as everyone knows, professional success equals happiness.
Only now, as I try to break out of that rut, do I recognize the power of its spell. I came to rely on the American Dream emotionally the way I used to rely on my parents, until the adolescent trauma of middle school broke our bond. With our relationship on the mend, the demons that haunted my fantasies of escape from the mainstream are fading. I no longer need to stay in the mainstream to maintain my sense of self-worth.
It took me a long time to come to terms with my vulnerability to social and economic forces. That's a depressing thought and not at all flattering. We middle-class Americans like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, islands that may be buffeted by hurricanes but will never be moved or altered by them.
We live in the post-historical period, according to Francis Fukuyama, when the individual, esp. the American or First-Worlder, has been liberated from the shackles of external forces like tradition, economic restrictions or social taboos. Technology has freed us from the vicissitudes of history, the plagues, famines and droughts that complicated our ancestors' lives. Communism has been vanquished, and there remain only Terrorists, barbaric dead-enders whose inhumanity frees us from the laws of conventional warfare.
But, really, we're more vulnerable to external forces than ever before. Capitalism has dissolved many of the social bonds that gave us the resilience to resist (mainly, economic) pressures originating outside our families, neighborhoods, cities, regions or even countries. Families, unions, churches, fraternal organizations and other local institutions had the power to shield us from the worst predations of the Market and Government.
Faith in the power of the individual has encouraged us to go it alone and abandon any group that doesn't meet our exacting standards of wish-fulfillment. Individuals like Rosa Parks are rightly exalted for their courage, but the groups that gave them the strength to stand up to the System are left out of the history books. Every successful social justice movement has required massive organization, cooperation and coordination.
Society tells us that, if we're strong, self-reliant individuals, we don't need other people. We can make our dreams come true all by ourselves. Other people may be statistics, subject to forces beyond their control, but I'm too smart and strong to use those excuses.
The truth is nobody makes it alone, and we need other people to give our dreams meaning. What would be the point of making it on your own? With whom would you share your success? What joy would your success bring you if you had no one to share it with?
Rather than buy the Capitalist propaganda about the supremacy of the individual, we need to see how this spiel has been used to weaken community and leave us vulnerable to the machinations of the elite. Only re-knitting community will give us the strength to preserve our value as human beings.