Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (3 page)

Earlier I called the rich right and big business and libertarian ideologues highly rational. Selfishness
rational up to a point, even extreme and cruel selfishness, and this elite confederacy won its war by means of cold-blooded rationality. On the other hand, their increasingly essential political allies in this project are among the most irrational, emotional, unreasonable, and confused Americans of all—religious nuts, gun nuts, conspiracy nuts, science-denying nuts, lying-blond-madman-worshiping nuts. The response to the pandemic showed vividly how this unholy alliance operates: for months early in 2020, right-wing media and the president pursued a two-track propaganda effort that made a catastrophe worse. Fantasyland’s magical thinking and conspiracism and mistrust of science fueled the widespread denial of and indifference to the crisis, and fused with the evil geniuses’ immediate, cold-blooded certainty that a rapid restoration of business-as-usual must take precedence over saving economically useless Americans’ lives.

What I said at the end of
I’ll restate (and I first drafted this paragraph, it’s important to note, a year before COVID-19 existed): societies do come to existential crossroads and make important choices. Here we are. The current political and economic situation wasn’t
because history and evolution never are. Nor is any particular future. Where we wind up, good or bad, is the result of choices we make over time—choices made deliberatively and more or less democratically, choices made by whoever cares more or wields more power at the time, choices made accidentally, choices ignored or otherwise left unmade. Even before the pandemic and its economic consequences, and before the protests and chaos following the murder of George Floyd, we were facing a do-or-die national test comparable to the big ones we passed in each of the three previous centuries—in the 1930s, the 1850s and ’60s, and the 1770s and ’80s. Forgive the
Hero’s Journey
talk, but this is America’s Fourth Testing.

We can continue down our recent paths. We can leave in place, as is, the 1980 paradigm shift in the political economy and its suicidal excesses that have made most Americans worse off. We can maintain a superficially unchanging culture to fool and comfort ourselves. We can rage against the irreversible social and demographic changes. We can treat the imminent tsunami of technological transformations of work and life the same way we’ve dealt with the tech revolution so far—by letting it
according to the preferences of big business, letting it overwhelm us and reshape the economy and society without any collective vetting or negotiation or consensus.

We can, in other words, fail to change what needs changing—and thereby guarantee America’s continued decline and fall. Or we can try to make fairer, smarter choices about which new to accept and which old to recover and how to shape them. We can rediscover the power of collective action and the government to make progress. We can actually aim for a new,
America. This present inflection point really isn’t just a matter of changing the ways we think and operate in order to escape national doom. After we pass through the latest recession (or depression), the technological
for a flourishing of abundance and leisure might actually allow us to design and build a twenty-first century that’s closer to utopia than to dystopia.

How do we aim for that future, one more like
Star Trek
Mad Max

One way is by emulating the social premises and promises and policies that are in place elsewhere in the rich, developed world. In the 1980s some of the smartest of these societies redoubled their commitment not only to markets but also, unlike us, to making their market economies work for the majority and for the long run, by buffering economic insecurity and inequality and other downsides of new technologies and the newly globalized economy.

I’m inclined to believe the theories that American history tends to run in cycles, sociopolitical and economic eras that last for decades before the pendulum swings in a different direction. My hunch and hope is that we’re at the end of the long era that began forty-odd years ago, and that America may now be on the verge of positive change and a bracing cascade of the wildly new and insanely great. But it won’t happen by itself. Pendulums must be pushed.

Historical sums of money are pretty meaningless because of inflation—$1,000 in 2020 is the same as $850 in 2010, $500 in 1990, $150 in 1970, and so on. So throughout this book, unless I specify otherwise, all dollar amounts are inflation-adjusted, even when I don’t mention that I’ve rendered a historical sum in “today’s dollars” or that it was “equivalent to” the larger present-day amount.

I’ve referred to America as Fantasyland, but it was always also Tomorrowland. Four hundred years ago, back in the time that we think of as totally rustic and primitive Frontierland,
was in the name—the New World. That was the brand from the start, exciting and attractive because it was an entirely unfamiliar blank slate. People by the thousands left Europe, abandoning the
World, sailing to the New World to improvise new lives and new ways of life, to invent new identities. The new inhabitants created new communities they called New England, New Netherland, New Amsterdam, New Hampshire, New Salem, New York, New Orleans, New Haven, New London, New Jersey, new everything.

The religion of the newcomers was itself new—Protestantism had existed for less than a century when the English Protestant settlers arrived. The particular sects of the early settlers were all so feverishly new—Puritans (here to build the New Jerusalem), Quakers, Shakers, Mennonites, Amish, Methodists, Baptists—that they required a new place, empty of too many disapproving white people, in which to practice and propagate their peculiar faiths. And then, uniquely in Christendom, Americans proceeded to create and spin off
new religions, massively successful ones, from Mormonism to Christian Science to Pentecostalism to Scientology—as they continue to do.

Here in America we embraced and encouraged, as no other country had before us, a new and different approach to making and selling things—entrepreneurialism, whereby almost anybody was unusually free to give any business (or religion) a go. “The discovery of America offered a thousand new paths to fortune,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote after spending most of 1831 crisscrossing the United States, “and placed riches and power within the reach of the adventurous and the obscure….The passions which agitate the Americans most deeply are not their political but their commercial passions….Americans affect a sort of heroism in their manner of trading [that] the European merchant will always find…very difficult to imitate.”

The young Tocqueville had been dispatched by the French government to the young United States to study its new approaches to incarceration, but he chronicled and marveled at
variety of non-European novelty he came across. “A new science of politics is indispensable to a new world,” he wrote in
Democracy in America,
and Americans’ “love of novelty” was being restrained only by lawyers and “their superstitious attachment to what is antique.”

He realized that the American character derived from a self-conception of being new and always embracing the new.

The inhabitants of the United States are never fettered by the axioms of their profession; they escape from all the prejudices of their present station; they are not more attached to one line of operation than to another; they are not more prone to employ an old method than a new one; they have no rooted habits, and they easily shake off the influence which the habits of other nations might exercise upon their minds from a conviction that their country is unlike any other, and that its situation is without a precedent in the world. America is a land of wonders, in which everything is in constant motion, and every movement seems an improvement. The idea of novelty is there indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration. No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man; and what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do.

In America,
the idea of novelty is indissolubly connected with the idea of amelioration,
new equals improved, progress apparently built in.

The creation of America and then the United States coincided exactly with the Age of Enlightenment, the early 1600s to late 1700s. Ours was a nation built from scratch meant to embody the best Enlightenment principles and habits of mind. Freedom of thought and speech. Embrace of reason and science. And most importantly for this discussion, a foundational belief in the idea of human progress. The United States was a self-conscious incarnation of the modern idea of purposeful, rapid progress—that is, of seeking and expecting one’s life and society to be perpetually new and improved.

So our expectation of constant social and cultural change has its roots in the new Enlightenment thinking in which America’s founders and many of its people were steeped. But the country’s birth also occurred simultaneously with an explosion of the materially new as well. You probably imagine, as I did, that the average European’s standard of living gradually improved as the Middle Ages ended in the 1400s. In fact, in the economies of America and Britain, measured by the average person’s share of total production, as the economist Robert Gordon says, “there was virtually no economic growth before 1750.” And that changed only because in the 1760s and ’70s practical large-scale steam engines were perfected, just as manufacturing was being otherwise mechanized. Suddenly life was transformed: the industrial revolution began at the same moment as our Revolution. In fact, one reason Americans fought the war was because the English back home weren’t eager for the colonies to industrialize and had even banned some kinds of manufacturing in America. When victory came, it seemed all of a piece, like providence or destiny: an amazing new nation, amazing new technology, amazing new systems of manufacture and transportation—land of the free, home of the new.

It wasn’t just a one-time change, this sudden proliferation of intertwined new technology and new economics starting around 1800, the change from muscle-powered labor and zero-sum economic stasis to steam-powered growth, boom and done. The enthusiastic embrace of
new technologies and new businesses and new ways of living became a permanent American condition, the beginning of perpetual flux, an ongoing flood of newness. Once the economy was growing at a rate beyond that of the population, each citizen’s share of the economy increasing by 1 or 2 percent a year, and thus doubling in size every couple of generations, constant change in all parts of American life was essentially guaranteed. It meant there were new sorts of businesses and jobs, new relationships between workers and bosses, new kinds of buildings and bridges, new and more and bigger newspapers, new varieties of hope and dreams for oneself and one’s children and grandchildren, and some new kinds of unpleasantness and misfortune as well.

Tocqueville wasn’t the only young European to understand how this commitment to the endlessly new was the defining feature of the zeitgeist from which the United States emerged. Karl Marx never visited America, and as a young man at a moment of political fervor in quasi-feudal Europe, he could not foresee the resilience of new, industrializing political economies like ours to adapt and thrive for another century or two. But in 1848 he absolutely nailed the new condition of perpetual, contagious reinvention that America most purely exemplified. “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish [this] epoch from all earlier ones,” twenty-nine-year-old Marx and his twenty-seven-year-old co-author Friedrich Engels wrote in their

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life.

One way the new political economy could sustain itself in the United States was the exceptional western expanses that were available for settlement. Before America existed, the word
had exclusively meant the boundary between two countries, but then we gave it its new and enduring American meaning—the frontier was thenceforth the endpoint of the settled and familiar and the exciting start of new and barely known lands. The technologies that were built out so giddily and fast, steam-powered railroads and electric telegraphy, kept our frontier line moving west, allowed more millions of people, new immigrants and descendants of former immigrants, to fashion new lives in new towns and cities closer to the frontier. In less than twenty years, from the early 1840s to 1860, America’s railroads grew from about 3,000 miles to 30,000, and its telegraph lines from 38 miles to 50,000.

If an American disliked being a factory worker or any other kind of wage slave, he could light out for the territory ahead of the rest, or at least sustain himself with the fantasy of doing so, to homestead or build the railroad or hunt for gold or silver or for suckers to grift. He or even she could leave an overfamiliar old hometown for some new place to become someone new, with a reworked or fictitious identity. In the early 1900s, for instance, one of my grandfathers escaped his strict Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, where his family had lived for a century after arriving from Germany; moved by himself twelve hundred miles west to Nebraska, where he’d never been and knew nobody; became a lawyer, an occupation for which he hadn’t been educated, and a Unitarian, a religion previously unknown to him; and met a socialist and suffragist, probably his first ever, whom he married just as women won the right to vote.

In the Old World, it had taken half a millennium for a few ancient cities to grow from populations of thousands to hundreds of thousands. In the United States, new cities were conjured into existence and managed to grow that much in a few decades. Chicago went from five thousand people to more than half a million in thirty years. New York, doubling in size every decade or two, reached a half-million population in 1848. In my novel
set in New York that year, a practitioner of the new medium of photography considers the astonishing new high-tech
of his suddenly enormous city.

To be modern, he thought, is to be artificially aglow…gaslight spreading into every parlor and respectable street…the laughably large new panes of plate glass that amounted to architectural magician’s tricks…the unearthly rays of light beaming from burning lime that transformed any actor on a stage into a shining angelic or demonic figure; the new, exceptionally
yellow paints and new bright red printers inks, all mixed up by chemists in laboratories; the telegraph wires that sparked and blushed against the night skies….Modern America glows.

Newness generated on such a scale at such speed was probably unprecedented in human history—and then with the addition of telephones and
lights and skyscrapers and cars, and airplanes overhead, those huge new cities became new all over again.

Back in 1850, before railroads extended even to the Mississippi River, San Francisco grew in two years from a town of five hundred to a city of 25,000, the largest west of Chicago. That was thanks to the Gold Rush, which instantly added a dreamier new piece to the modern American dream—that anybody could get rich overnight. The Gold Rush was the beginning of California’s evolution into the most American part of America, a place where every kind of new is created and thrives and then gets adopted by the rest of the country and the world—new religions, new forms of entertainment (movies, television, theme parks), new technologies (aerospace, digital), new lifestyles based on driving, on dressing down, on being outdoors, on lifestyle perfectionism.

California would become internationally synonymous with the casual as well as the new. But from America’s earliest days, foreign visitors like Tocqueville noted this new culture’s characteristic informality, in dress, in speech, in the lack of deference by common people for the elites. So did astute natives like Walt Whitman, who in a single sentence of his preface to
Leaves of Grass
pointed to both of these defining habits of Americans—“the picturesque looseness of their carriage” and “the President’s taking off his hat to them, not they to him,” as well as their extreme “welcome of novelty.” The counterculturalism of the 1960s, an extremely picturesque extreme ultra-looseness, was just one of a series of self-consciously
modes that have serially defined the American zeitgeist before and since—the Transcendentalist and Bowery B’hoy subcultures of the 1830s and ’40s, the Jazz Age of the 1920s, the TV-besotted 1950s, the 1970s Me Decade, the yuppie 1980s, the hip-hop 1990s—each of which made daily life look and feel new all over again for new generations of Americans.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new technologies applied to making and growing and mining and moving and communicating things drove economic growth. “If there is one thing that economists agree on (and there are not many),” the economist and innovation expert Mariana Mazzucato writes, it “is that technological and organizational changes are the principal source of long-term economic growth and wealth creation,” perhaps as much as 80 percent of it. It’s a cycle in which “inventions are overwhelmingly the fruits of long-term investments that build on each other over years.” Those two centuries of growth continued to make the country seem perpetually fresh and to enable Americans’ characteristic optimism and taste for the new.

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