In The Current Crisis in American Politics Walter Dean Burnham argues that the prevailing ideology of individualism in American political culture prevents a socialist alternative from developing in the United States: “On the ideological plane, there is still no room for a coherent socialist opposition to the liberal individualism that has always dominated American political culture. This ‘liberal tradition’ stacks the deck against the public sector in its dominant role, and it creates serious problems of legitimating that role in direct proportion as it expands. Accordingly, its intrusiveness and still more its mistakes will be much less tolerated than will those of any part of the private sector .... This quasi-permanent bias is an inevitable by product of hegemony in the cultural-ideological domain.”1 In the absence of such a socialist opposition, American politics can only fluctuate between the neo-laissez-faire ideology of the Republican Right and the welfare state programs of the Democratic liberals.
We have documented the accuracy of these remarks in our study of American film of this era. But we have also documented signs of hopes and desires that suggest antipathy for the predatory values of conservative economic policy and that would, we argue, be responsive to socialist ideals of equal distribution, social security, and democratic governance in a communitarian arrangement.
During the 1980s Americans demonstrated in polls that, although they had elected a right-wing conservative president, they were not in favor of the right-wing agenda, especially in regard to social and military matters. Indeed, on certain crucial conservative issues, the population was decidedly liberal. While a majority had come to oppose preferential treatment or affirmative action in hiring for minorities and women by the late seventies, in 1986, 66% still favored some government intervention to remedy discrimination.2 The same year, a majority were in favor of busing and abortion, and a large majority (averaging 80% across the classes) favored more rather than less government spending on cities, health, and education. These majorities stood in opposition to what conservatives hoped to accomplish. In a similarly oppositional vein, most Americans (66%) favored cutting defense spending in 1986, while over 60% opposed more cuts in social programs, and a large number (88%) opposed cuts in social security and medicare. On the whole, conservatives did not succeed in convincing Americans that the federal government should relinquish its paternalist role as a provider of security and welfare and as a regulator of business. For example, in 1984, in the middle of the conservative reign, 74% of the people were in favor of more spending on social programs, a public position directly at odds with what conservatives were arguing at the time. In the mid-eighties, large majorities also favored gun control, the Equal Rights Amendment, the nuclear freeze, and a government sponsored national health program—all issues conservatives opposed. Majorities also opposed the conservative program to reduce pollution controls, to intervene in Central America, and to reduce government aid to the poor so that they could fend for themselves.
It was probably on this last point that the public and the conservatives were most at odds. During this time, strong arguments were mounted by conservative ideologues against liberal social programs. Conservatives claimed that such programs did more harm than good by disarming poor and black people of their individual initiative. Essentially, it came down to accusing liberalism of being incapable of alleviating the worst effects of capitalism, and the conclusion was that capitalism should be left alone to work its wonders. The blindness (or cynicism) of the conclusion was evident. Yet what it did accomplish was to make clear that capitalism could not indeed be made humane by even the best liberalism had to offer. The demolition of liberalism cut simultaneously against capitalism, since the corollary conclusion was that capitalism was too vicious a social system to be dealt with through small-scale liberal acts of remedial or compensatory generosity. The viciousness of the system—and this was the lesson of the post-1978 conservative revolution—was such that even these measures would be overridden by the larger logic of the capitalist economy, one that structurally placed self-interest and greed before considerations of community. If the Right successfully defeated the liberals at this time, it also prepared its own defeat by making clear to many people that liberalism and pure capitalism (like capitalism and democracy) were incompatible.
Indeed, if anything, the conservative revolution gave the public a lesson in the real nature of capitalism. Americans in the early eighties very quickly caught on to the class, race, and sex gender allegiances of the conservatives. Asked whether Reagan cared about serving all people, 67% said yes in 1981, but only 36% did so in 1984. Asked whether he cared more about serving the rich, 24% said yes in 1981, and the figure had grown to 54% by 1984. By 1982, 62% felt that the poor were unfairly treated by Reagan’s programs, while only 3% felt the same regarding the wealthy. Blacks and lower income people consistently recorded much higher percentages of disapproval for Reagan’s performance in office. In 1982, a recession year when 58% expressed disapproval of how he was handling the economy, 87% of blacks recorded disapproval, as did 64% of those earning less than $15,000. For those earning over $40,000, it was only 40%. The conservatives cured inflation with unemployment and a military buildup, and fittingly, the most important problem on people’s minds shifted from inflation in the early eighties to unemployment and international unrest in the mid-eighties. But the simulated war economy could not be realized as an actuality, since public opinion during this period consistently went against the conservative position on war.
If fifty years of social liberalism had gotten Americans used to state guaranteed security, to the extent of frustrating the conservative desire to roll back the New Deal, two decades of antiwar sentiment had also accustomed them to being cautious regarding the more bellicose desires of conservative leaders. While Americans on the whole felt Ronald Reagan had built up the country’s defense capacities, a majority (68%) also felt by 1984 that the world was less safe than when Reagan took office, and 66% cut against the grain of the conservative agenda by expressing a desire to live and let live with the communists. Majorities throughout the period expressed opposition to the conservatives’ policies in Latin America. In 1983, 68% opposed aid to El Salvador, and in 1985, only 36% favored sending military supplies to the counterrevolutionaries fighting against Nicaragua.
The acute public perceptions of the class character of the conservative revolution and of the notoriously false claims the conservative administration made in order to rally public support for its war agenda took their toll on the public’s sense of trust and further eroded public confidence. The index of confidence in the leaders of business fell from an average 32% in the seventies to 26% by 1984, while the same index for military leaders fell from 37% to 30%. Public perception that government was primarily responsible for the problems facing the country rose from 39% in 1978 to 48% in 1982. The conservatives had managed to make the government the target of public resentment, but increasingly what people resented was the conservative use of government.
The conservatives had initiated a “new class war,” and increasingly in the mid-eighties issues were divided along class, race, and gender lines, as the white, male, business-oriented inflection of the conservative agenda became more and more evident. On the issue of further cuts in domestic spending, for example, of the 55% who expressed disapproval in a 1985 poll, more women and blacks disapproved than white males. And of those earning over $50,000 a year, 57% approved further cuts, while of those earning less than $15,000, 61% disapproved. Public belief that the conservatives would reduce government spending and taxes fell by thirteen percentage points between 1982 and 1985. And by 1985, 77% favored more taxes for corporations. The conservative revolution did not succeed in convincing people, and they for the most part saw through the public agenda to the private interests being served by it. Only 31% in 1985 felt that the nation’s wealth was fairly distributed, and 60% felt that it should be more evenly distributed. Moreover, even as his personal approval rating climbed from only 38% in the early eighties to a high of 63% later in the decade, Ronald Reagan consistently received low ratings from the public on specific issues. In 1985, only 44% approved of his handling of unemployment, 37% his attempts to reduce the federal budget, and 33% his position on South Africa. He managed to oversee an erosion of the relative parity with the Democrats which the Republicans achieved in the early eighties, so that by 1985, those calling themselves Republican stood at 32%, while the Democrats stood at 37%.
All in all, the conservative agenda did not win over the hearts and minds of the American people. And indeed, by 1986, the conservatives had done such a good job of displaying their race, class, and sex biases that they seemed to be losing their ability to advertise the specific interests of wealthy white conservative males as universal interests—their great accomplishment in the post-1978 period. Their success at promoting a procapitalist agenda seemed to be turning against them, since its working out (curing inflation with unemployment, gutting social welfare programs, bringing a large homeless underclass into being, creating a simulated war economy to heat up business) had such clearly negative effects (an increase in poverty, homelessness, and hunger, a rise in the threat of war, a scarcely concealable overflowing of corporate coffers at the expense of poor people). Nevertheless, the conservative revolution was correct on two counts: that the only way to cure the ills of capitalism is conservatism, that is, the institutionalization of brutality, and that liberalism cannot remedy a social system whose operative law is legitimate viciousness. If anything, the conservative revolution proved that only socialism—a radical equalization of wealth of the sort a majority of Americans desires as well as a leveling of social power—is indeed the only conceivable alternative.
If a socialist alternative is to be developed in the United States as a way out of the impasse of possibilities we have called the American quandary, the Left, we would argue, must overcome its traditional distrust and distain for popular culture. The Left’s dismissal of culture in favor of politics and economics (elections, strikes, party and coalition building, grassroots organizing, etc.) must give way to an understanding of the crucial importance of culture as the seedbed of that support which would allow socialist ideals to be politically acceptable in the United States. We have demonstrated that the politics of the eighties merely confirmed the culture of the seventies, the mobilization of arguments, images, and ideology that answered the popular desire for hope and renewal by turning that desire in a conservative direction. One of the consequences of a society which mixes rule by an economic elite with democratic procedure is that political power must be ratified by the electorate. Culture is the realm in which the psychology of that electorate is formed. Economic power determines the right of access to political institutions, the ability to shape social policy. But political power must also have a cultural base. And this is what we have noticed particularly in the seventies and eighties: the Right successfully developed cultural ideals before it assumed political power. To a certain extent, culture precedes and determines politics. If this has clear implications for understanding conservative ascendancy in the political realm, it also has implications for formulating a socialist alternative to that power.
Popular film articulates fears, desires, and needs that are pre-political in character and that could be channeled in politically progressive directions. Moreover, popular film demonstrates in its repetitive nature, its hyperbolic forms, and its displacement procedures the impossibility of meeting those needs and desires (for self-worth, community, security, freedom, etc.) or of allaying those fears (of aggression, domination, powerlessness, indignity, social disintegration, etc.) in the current institutional context of the United States. This is so because the needs, desires, and fears on display in popular films arise from the very system that is advertised in film as the only way to fulfill those needs, answer those desires, and assuage those fears. As a result, they exceed the solutions proffered, solutions which merely reproduce the original problems that provoked fear and desire in the first place. Thus, there is an antinomy at the heart of ideology, and it indicates that the tautological closure of ideology is also an irreducible opening. The American social system is condemned to repeat its initial imbalances, and the oscillation between conservative individualism and liberal welfarism can do nothing to resolve the problem or to close the opening. It is an opening that the Left can exploit because it suggests that the only way out of the antinomy and the repetition is an altogether different social model. This opening, we suggest, is what leftists must take advantage of if they hope to develop a viable socialist politics in the United States. But they can do so only if they learn to address the needs, fears, and desires that register so clearly in popular film.
While some needs and desires are ideological and are programmed by the society of domination as part of its operation—the need among conservative women for patriarchal men or among such men for proofs of manhood through violence—others reflect aspirations that are not likely to disappear with capitalism or patriarchy. For example, the need for empathy and care that is such a strong theme of many films seems structural and permanent, although it is now channeled into a family model dominated by men. Rather than equate the need with the social model and condemn both, progressives should attempt to develop alternative institutions that supply the same needs without reproducing the inequality which in the patriarchal family is the price of care.
Another need evident in popular film is the need for a social structure of reassurance. Our study has taught us that when such structures collapse or are weakened without any healthy substitute being offered, people tend to seek neurotic compensations which frequently take fascist forms. What the power of these needs suggests is that socialism, if it is to be feasible in the United States, must offer the possibility of such reassurance. And this must take the form not only of guaranteed incomes and rewarding employment, but also of means for meeting psychological needs through cultural representation.
The fears evident in popular films are often ones that would be dispelled by a secure social system, where survival and fulfillment were guaranteed. Other fears we have described are more problematic—the male fear of women so evident in horror movies, for example. The sexual anxieties that provoke male violence arise in part from economic insecurity and can be allayed in an alternative social arrangement. But other fears are endemic to patriarchy and to male socialization. The problem of male hysteria requires an extensive transformation of male attitudes and socialization processes, and our description of how this hysteria saturates more public concerns such as militarism and conservatism suggests that this is not a marginal issue. It must be as central to social reconstruction as income redistribution.
The fear of the loss of individuality is central to American culture. That fear is laden with conservative prejudices, and it also derives in part from male socialization, as we have demonstrated. But the broad prevalence of that fear should provide a lesson to the Left. Simple collectivism or statism is not likely to succeed in a cultural context in which such a fear is as powerful as it is. The Left should take a theoretical and political lesson from that problem. The individual is not an ideological category, though individualism as a social policy may be. One lesson we take from our work is that a society devoted to the common good must also make it possible for all people to be autonomous and self-determining. And, once again, that is not only a problem of political rights, but also one of psychological dispositions and cultural representations. If our examination of the two poles of social rhetoric (metaphor and metonymy) suggest that no autonomy is possible outside of a determining context of social relations, the inverse seems no less true as a formulation for socialism: the condition of genuinely unforced collectivity is individual autonomy. If the Left is to succeed in the American context, the liberal ideal of autonomy must be deconstructed. That is, it must be inhabited, and its potential for exceeding the semantic boundaries now put on it must be exploited. Only by working within the existing ideological structures of a society can the Left hope to appeal to a broad mass of people. By inhabiting the fear of a loss of individuality, the Left can turn it toward socialist uses. A first step in that procedure is to counter the prevailing cultural representations that associate freedom with capitalism; it is imperative that a social system that permits powerful individuals to dominate and exploit others be shown to be responsible for the very anxieties and fears that are exploited by cultural representations which bolster the power of those individuals. It is only in a society where individual assertion is privileged that individuality is threatened. This procedure also requires a reconceptualization of such collective institutions as the state, which must be reformulated and reconstructed in such a way as to cease being perceived as constraints on individuality and instead to be seen as facilitators of autonomy. This strategy has negative implications for the naive formalism of the Left regarding collectivity, which has been abstracted out of its material networks into a state form which is then imposed on a recalcitrant society. Our contention is that the collective good can only be realized in a situation in which individual self-development and collective well-being support and guarantee each other.
Not all of the fears expressed in film can be of use to the politics we advocate. It would be difficult to say how progressives could use monsters and disasters to their advantage; the revolution is not a Halloween party, after all. Nevertheless, the very striking fear of uncontrollable forces determining peoples’ lives which are projected or metaphorized in the horror and disaster genres are at least indicators that the social system of capitalism is not working smoothly. And what our analysis suggests is that it cannot work smoothly, because it rests on fundamental anxieties regarding survival (idealized as “freedom”) that tear the temporary pacifications of the system apart from inside. Thus, even those fears and aspirations that seem least political can be read politically, for what they indicate is the presence of desires that are not being satisfied under the current system of domination. The desire for self-worth and personal achievement, even in its most ideological cultural forms, confronts capitalism with an indictment every time it is frustrated and displaced into metaphoric substitutes. And it must be frustrated broadly if capitalism’s minoritarian monopoly on social wealth is to be maintained. Moreover, the very necessity for metaphoric substitutes throughout American film culture indicates that those desires must be deflected. The pervasive presence of those desires suggests that the Left is not operating in a vacuum, without a mass base. A politically conscious base is not there, but a base of counterhegemonic desire is, one that can be the source for progressive change.
But if the Left is seriously to take advantage of the possibilities we are describing, it must come to see that the desires and needs which conservative cultural representations seem to satisfy are not themselves necessarily conservative. For much too long, the Left, especially the cultural Left, has adopted a dismissive attitude toward the culture of the very people in whose interest the Left supposedly works. The Left assigns an inherent, noncontextual meaning to prepolitical desires and needs that are essentially indeterminate and undecidable, that change content according to the material circumstances which shape them (either prosperity or recession, for example) and according to the representations which exist in the culture to guide need and desire. Those representations operate like mental representations in the psyche; they organize the psychological dispositions of social agents and create a common sense of social reality. Cultural representations are not merely added onto an already constituted social substance, a body of feeling and thought which those representations reflect as something external to them. That body of feeling and thought could not exist without those representations, just as desire in the mind cannot exist apart from representations that orient it. Consequently, the political meaning of a culture is not given as something which preexists the representations in that culture. Those representations are themselves constitutive of that meaning. Consequently, such meaning is malleable, constructable, indeterminate. It can change according to which material circumstances prevail, which representations hold sway. The needs and desires which the Left condemns in popular culture appear conservative precisely because they are shaped by conservative cultural representations, and they will continue to assume conservative shapes as long as a conservative rhetoric of social construction is not opposed by leftist attempts to develop an effective rhetoric of cultural representation in the American public sphere. For socialism to be possible in the United States in a fully democratic manner, it must first become possible in people’s minds. To a certain extent, in order for the actuality of socialism to be realized it must simultaneously be represented as something realizable. This is the nature of desire, both personal and political. All such desire is to a certain extent Utopian, in the sense that its actual object is always absent from the representation that signifies it. It is for this reason that one could say that Ronald Reagan was actually elected somewhere around the mid-seventies, when cultural imagery first began to summon him forth. The same must be true of an alternative socialist society. To be desired, it must be represented. And it won’t be realized if it isn’t an object of desire. We will conclude, then, by suggesting that the Left must construct socialism as a possible object of desire in the realms that most attract popular desires—film, but also television and music. The Left must develop an effective politics of cultural representation at the same time that it builds coalitions and formulates economic programs. The latter will make no difference in the world without the former.