In his article, The Iron Cage And Its Alternatives In Twentieth-Century American Thought, Jackson Lears traces the progression of American thought from the beginning of the twentieth-century to its end. In the beginning there was a managerial consensus or a control orientated and pragmatic approach to politics and economics. While this increased American prosperity, it brought with it a high level of discontent among most Americans who felt trapped in a monotonous routine of work, the proverbial iron cage.
As the Great Depression loomed overhead, there was a general consensus of fear and insecurity prevalent in many Americans' minds. Looking back, many economists believe this fear, or "stark unreasoning terror" as FDR had put it, was essentially responsible for the Depression as many Americans halted their spending as the economic future was unclear.
It wasn't until World War II that prosperity would again return to the American economy. Nevertheless, America was still very much focused on controlling its environment, and WWII and the subsequent Cold War are prime examples of this obsession with control. But the war had put money into American pockets, things were good and people could afford to raise families, sparking the beginning of suburbanization.
A general sense of victory and optimism lasted throughout the 1950s, but by the 1960s younger Americans wanted more from life than a nine-to-five job. There was, in essence, a struggle between economic nationalism and a fulfilling life of pure experience and leisure. A search for pure reality and peace of mind was the underlying theme of the Counterculture movement of the 1960s. The Cold War hysteria of the 1950s had been replaced by a desire to break the chains of conformity that had become the norm after World War II. Everyone was moving to the suburbs. Everyone was buying similar looking homes. Everyone was starting families. Everyone was working.
The Counterculture movement intended to free the general population. Lears writes: "Amid a managerial obsession with control, abstract expressionists and "beat" poets...explored the frontiers of artistic spontaneity...there is no doubt that these artists, among others, were seeking a backdoor exit from the iron cage--an experience of pulsating spontaneity in an over-organized society. Sheer play, they realized, could still be a very serious thing."
Then the 1970s reared its ugly head. Vietnam had been a foreign policy disaster, companies had begun to realize the potential of outsourcing, and the counterculture had worked to fragment the strength of the ideology of control. As a result, multinational corporations gained more and more power. Eventually, a resurgence of the managerial consensus happened among government officials and corporate heads. American citizens were now left to fend for themselves.
This has become the dilemma of the modern American: Where do we go from here? The Keynesian ideal of an economically secure working population is non-existent in this new century. The same "stark unreasoning terror" that prefaced the Great Depression has returned. Americans are uncertain about the future, and out of this has emerged a hyper-individualistic mentality, a selfish attitude that has many Americans focused solely on their own situation.
A new and unified approach is necessary in order to overcome the obstacles that have been placed in front of American citizens by a government who has taken the side of corporations who only care about the bottom line. Hiding in our own personal bubble will only guarantee certain ill-fate. Let us look to the labor and civil rights movements as inspiration. Together the American people hold the power over the future of the country. It is the American people who have the control and it is about time that we start exercising it or we shall be forced to return to the dark iron cage.