Apart from the issue of corporate money, I think there are deep historical reasons for the collapse of conservatism American-style as an ideology. They have to do with the senescence of possessive individualism in the age of global human cooperation and massive human impacts on the biosphere. Possessive individualism as a worldview originated with the hyperacquisitive English gentry class in the later seventeenth century and was codified into philosophy by thinkers like Adam Smith. It is worth remembering that the wording Madison wanted for the opening of the Declaration of Independence was “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property.” Possessive individualism has been the ideological foundation of capitalism ever since.
Now, however, it is obsolete, for two reasons, both global in scope: the rise of the transnational corporation, and the advancing ecological crisis. Karl Marx long ago described the joint-stock corporation as “capitalist communism” and believed that its global development would unify humanity, but in a coercive and destructive way, dragging the world into deeper and deeper cyclical crises that would result in mass unemployment, hunger, and war. He therefore anticipated a point at which the working people of the world, recognizing their own transnational unity and practical interdependence, would collectively overthrow capitalism and establish what he called “the free association of the producers” in which “the full and free development of each depends on the full and free development of all.” This, not state ownership, was Marx’s vision, founded on the notion of the “social individual” for whom the freedom of others is not the limit of her own, but its expansion. In other words, socialism offers a fundamentally different vision both of freedom and of the individual.
This vision was eclipsed both by authoritarian state capitalism masquerading as “socialism” in the USSR, China, and elsewhere, and by the enormous postwar boom that was actually premised on a greatly enlarged public sector. As that boom collapsed, the response of the ruling elites, especially in the US and the UK, was to promote possessive individualism with a vengeance (as “conservatism”) through a vast and well-funded network of foundations, think-tanks, media outlets—and churches.
But all the propaganda in the world for this ideology, this social personality and value system, would not have taken root if the organization of everyday life had not provided it with fertile soil. I think (following Guy Debord in his *The Society of the Spectacle* and his mentor on this, Georg Lukacs) that it’s the actual structuring of space, time, and social relationships under late capitalism that has accomplished this. The process of suburbanization and the industrialization of consumption (tract homes, supermarkets, malls, the private automobile as the dominant mode of transportation, TV viewed in the home as the dominant form of entertainment, geographical mobility expanding even as upward social mobility is curtailed, etc.) is the extension of the possessive individualist social personality into the structure of life.
Consider. Even without privatized, atomized habitation and consumption, the private automobile alone is the perfect conditioning tool for narrow egoism. One is enclosed in a metal box that partially shuts out the surrounding environment and allows the creation of one’s own private micro-world of sound, air temperature and humidity, and so forth. The screen-like windshield and rear window create the illusion that we are inside a video. Every other driver, sealed in her or his own hurtling metal box, is a potential threat, by way either of rudeness or of stupidity. We travel surrounded by people going in the same direction, but completely insulated from each other except via the most rudimentary friendly (wave) or hostile (horn, finger) signals. We are thereby converted into monadic creatures with communicative abilities inferior to those of insects and bacteria–even as we prattle away on our cell phones to people who aren’t there. In these ways, the private automobile is the perfect emblem for the late-capitalist self.
Study after study shows that this existence, which goes against the grain of our evolution as cooperative social creatures in extended kinship networks, does not make people happy. There is, consequently, a vast industry (whose two biggest components are “the mainstream media” and “organized religion”) devoted to suppressing even the possibility of another way of life–to crushing the human imagination and flattening desire into the appetite for merchandise or the promise of a false transcendence.
But the kicker is that the continual suppression of imagination and manipulation of desire requires abundant cheap energy. For this energy to remain cheap, its social, public-health, and environmental costs must be left out of the calculations. Now those costs have escalated enormously, and payment time has come due. My sense is that alongside the financialization of capitalism, we’re seeing, in the face of overwhelming social, economic, and ecological evidence, the crisis of the possessive-individualist personality structure. The more that every message from reality tells us that we are interdependent not only with the rest of the human race but with the entire biosphere, that property boundaries are imaginary and physical and biological continuities are real, and that free worldwide cooperation is the only way for humanity to survive–the more that hungry-ghost ego, driven by greed (for More) and fear (of Not Enough) screams in rage and panic and frantic denial.
The crazy panic of teabaggers and others about “socialism” and against “ecoterrorists” is, in my view, ultimately a panic about the manifest bankruptcy of possessive-individualist ideology in the face of the evident necessity of sharing and cooperation and the looming ecological catastrophe. So, at the other end, is the panic of the religious Right over evolution on the one hand and abortion on the other. These two sources of terrified rage among millions of Americans have in common the insistence that we are animals, living organisms sharing a four-billion-year heritage of change and development and made of living cells, in which embryos and fetuses are “aborted” every minute of every day. Much of the history of Western culture has been based on two closely related beliefs: the Judaic notion that humans have been given “dominion” over all life on earth; and the related Christian doctrine that only humans among all living beings have “immortal souls,” the evidence for which is that we alone possess “right reason.” At this point, especially after the apalling carnage that occupied much of the twentieth century and the ever-multiplying discoveries of the intelligence of nonhuman creatures from dolphins to parrots to prairie dogs, these notions look like mere vanity. But in the meantime they have provided the justification for the despoliation of entire ecosystems and the greatet mass extinction since the Permian era.
Financialization is the economic parallel to this crisis: the retreat of capital and the class that both owns and serves it into a fantasy world in which “wealth” is created out of nothing, out of digits in a computer. This materialized fantasy world is kaleidoscopically mirrored in popular entertainment and in the demigods of celebrity, who act out the fantasies of an increasingly overworked (or workless) and economically stressed population as the “rich and famous”—while the real rich, the billionaires and trillionaires of fossil fuel and fantasy finance, go quietly about their depredations and manipulations. Meanwhile, the energy to power the vast fantasy comes from nonrenewable sources that pollute and destroy at every stage: from extraction (the Niger Delta, the Gulf, the Appalachians) through transportation (the Exxon Valdez and countless other spills) to end use (coal ash spills, smog, global warming).
The crux is that we are facing a stark choice: a free, democratic cooperative commonwealth in which we inhabit the biosphere as stewards and partners with all life on earth; or a spiral down into genocidal and ecocidal madness as fascistic corporate states fight like swarms of starving rats for the last water, the last soil, the last minerals, on a planet dying of heat exhaustion. Think Somalia, on a global scale. Or realize that your survival and the survival of your children lies in fighting to save the commons: the air, the water, the forests, the living earth that is the only paradise we will ever have.