Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowship-winning philosopher Elizabeth Anderson recently spoke with Joe Humphreys at the Irish Times about America's toxic obsession with by-your-bootstraps individualism, and specifically how it relates to poverty.
There are plenty of impactful quotes throughout the interview, but the parts that stuck out the most to me—as an agnostic born into an Irish Catholic family, whose mother worked for the church for a long time—were her observations about America's puritanical roots, and, later, the impacts of World War II. Anderson essentially proposes the idea that early America Puritans like the Pilgrims were determined to distance themselves from the institutional power of the Catholic church—which, for all its faults, has at least had a longstanding commitment to helping and empathizing with those suffering from poverty. In addition to Manifest Destiny, these Puritans believed that hard work was the only promise of salvation, which eventually evolved into the whole "rugged individualism" idea that consumes so many American conservatives and Evangelicals. While Anderson acknowledges that this ethic is rooted in a very pro-worker mindset, it's clearly been secularized over time into a highly partisan hatred of the poor, with a nod towards its religious roots:
There is a profound suspicion of anyone who is poor, and a consequent raising to the highest priority imposing incredibly humiliating, harsh conditions on access to welfare benefits on the assumption you’re some kind of grifter, or you’re trying to cheat the system. There is no appreciation for the existence of structural poverty, poverty that is not the fault of your own but because the economy maybe is in recession or, in a notorious Irish case, the potato crop fails.
I think this work ethic ideology lies at the root of prejudice against whole groups of people. So the English notoriously considered the Irish lazy, lacking in the work ethic, just as [white] Americans think of blacks that way. The work ethic lies very deep in the way western countries have conceptualise the superiority of their groups.
Anderson also ties this back to World War II (a connection I've loosely explored elsewhere) by pointing that Europe was ravaged—forcing the predominantly Catholic population to acknowledge the importance of community support—while the mainland United States remained unscathed, ushering in an era of prosperity that allowed individuals to thrive even more:
That individualism – the idea that I’ve got to save myself – got secularised over time. And it is deep, much deeper in America than in Europe – not only because there are way more Catholics in Europe who never bought into this ideology – but also in Europe due to the experience of the two World Wars they realised they are all in the boat together and they better work together or else all is lost. America was never under existential threat. So you didn’t have that same sense of the absolute necessity for individual survival that we come together as a nation. I think those experiences are really profound and helped to propel the welfare state across Europe post World War II.
The interview is brief, but the whole thing is worth it for the few small insights like this.
Why do so many Americans hate the welfare state? [Joe Humphreys/The Irish Times]
Image via Wikimedia Commons