The headlines read like an Onion spoof of the right’s anti-government, privatize everything mantra: “No pay, no spray: Firefighters let home burn.” If it weren’t for the fact that Gene Cranick and his wife lost their mobile home, three dogs and all of their possessions in that blaze, it might even be funny.
David Crocker, the mayor of South Fulton, which provides firefighting services to that area of rural Tennessee for a $75-a-year fee perfectly expressed the each-man-for-himself logic afoot here when he said, “It’s a service we offer. Either they accept it or they don’t.”
To punctuate this sentiment, the fire chief even refused Cranick’s on-site offer to pay the fee while his home burned, supposedly to teach the rest of that rural area a lesson. But what is the lesson? When government is run like a business—you get what you pay for—then we enter novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand’s objectivist ideal, a world where individualism reigns.
The right wing in this country loves that concept. From Tea Partiers like Glenn Beck to Libertarians like Ron Paul, individualism is touted as the great American ideal.
They cite as their mentor Ayn Rand, author of the classic 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged—which is having a bit of a resurgence these days according to the Economist and my own perception of reading preferences among suits on the subway. Individualism, however, is the enemy of anyone who wants to live—excuse the hippie reference—in social harmony with others.
As I explained a few years back in “The Freedom to Starve”: There is a scene in Monty Python’s satire Life of Brian where Brian, not wanting to be the messiah, calls out to the crowd: “You are all individuals.” The crowd responds in unison: “We are all individuals.”
The right wing , using pseudo-iconoclastic logic, transforms this comical send-up of religious conformity into their own secular dogma in which we are all just atomized beings. “Only an individual has rights,” not groups such as workers, Blacks, gays, women, and minorities, they argue.
True, we are all individuals, but we didn’t just bump into one another. Human beings by nature are social beings who live in a collective, a society. Under capitalism, society is broken down into classes in which some individuals—bosses, for example—wield considerably more power than others—workers.
To advocate for society to be organized on the basis of strict individualism, as the right wing does, is to argue that everyone has the right to do whatever he or she wants. Sounds nice in the abstract, perhaps. But what happens when the desires of one individual infringe on the desires of another?
Libertarians like Paul are more blunt about the logical ramifications of their argument. “The dictatorial power of a majority” he argues ought to be replaced by the unencumbered power of individuals, in other words, the dictatorial power of a minority.
So if the chairman of Dow Chemical wants to flush his company’s toxic effluence into rivers and streams, so be it. If General Motors wants to pay its employees starvation wages, that’s their right too. Right-wingers often appear to not want to grapple with meddlesome things like economic and social power. As the bourgeois radical Abraham Lincoln observed of secessionist slaveowners, “The perfect liberty they seek is the liberty of making slaves of other people.”
And so Gene Cranick is now the latest victim of shrink government, praise individualism gone amuck. This is madness that must be challenged.
Trillions exist for wars and occupations, bank bailouts and corporate giveaways that the New York Times earlier this week detailed have led not to hiring workers but to further corporate speculation and profiteering. I wish we could challenge this by walking into a ballot box in November and pulling a lever, but all historical examples point to the need for a fightback among working people and the poor.
May I offer up the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as a bold example of how we can begin to turn the tide? Just yesterday, the CTU—a union of 30,000, newly run by radicals, including open reds—announced a victory for teachers facing illegal firings. The new leadership earned its chops on the streets fighting school closures, privatization and the business model destroying America’s schools.
I’ll write more about the CTU in future posts. But suffice it to say that in a country where the right and the tepid Democrats who mimic their policies tell us we have no choice but to accept watching as our neighbors’ homes burn, there are alternatives to this new tough love.
Sherry Wolf is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak on Sexuality and Socialism, How Can We Unite and Fight the Right and other topics at your campus, community center or union hall for a moderate fee. Wolf is the associate editor of theInternational Socialist Review and author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation(Haymarket Books, named one of theProgressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at yahoo.com or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.