Lemmings and Pioneers: Our Toxic Foundational Myth

Individualism is killing us. Our shared faith in an idol – the rugged individualist – is leading us off a cliff. We must rediscover a suppressed feature of our origins and history. We succeed when we work together, but we also face the threat of shared failure in the form of economic and ecological collapse.

Perhaps campaign finance reform can still save us from the worst of these problems, but we must keep in mind that economic and government dysfunction are symptoms of a problem that resides in the stories we tell ourselves, at the level of mythology.

The individualist myth is embedded deeply in our collective psyche.

Ultimately, it is the root of our identity as “Americans” as well as the root of our troubles. However bad our shared troubles get – economic malaise and wealth concentration, climate change and ecological devastation – we are captive to the notion that if we just work hard enough, we’ll (individually) be exempt from the (collective) consequences of our actions.

Individualism is ultimately infantile nonsense based on a selective misreading of history.

Although it may perhaps be traced back further, American Individualism is rooted in the notion that Pa Pilgrim somehow bought a ticket to the New World, buying one-way tickets for Ma, Junior and Sis Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock, and later that rugged pioneers loaded their nuclear families into a wagon and headed west, perhaps with a wagon train – a democratic small town (of separate households!) on wheels.

Perhaps the American experiment was not quite what it cracked up to be. Consider all the burdensome collective emphasis in the nation’s founding documents about how “We the people” found it “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another.” These are the opening words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, respectively.

But just as most Americans of European origin left their homelands individually there was always the option of escape from what they found on this side of the ocean, via the mythical Frontier. We are ultimately a society of quitters: people who looked around them, sized up the situation and said, “Screw these losers, I’m heading west!”

Sure, they traveled in groups. But upon arrival they supposedly found the best piece of land upon which to build a homestead (idyllic and isolated, in our mind’s eye). There is truth in this; a great many people got 160 acres for themselves through formal homesteading programs that supported isolation by reducing the land to a grid of acreage (which continued until 1976 – and for another decade in Alaska).

The stereotypical rugged individualist actually stood little chance against the stereotypical bands of Indians. On the other hand, the communalist Mormons built a flourishing new civilization in a rather difficult region of the west. Although The Book of Mormon included next to nothing that explains their propensity to develop elaborate socialist economics, the Saints used commonwealth approaches to counter the hostile settlers who passed through on their way to the gold fields. More on this here and much more in Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

We should wonder whether many pioneers would have made it to California if their path hadn’t conveniently included a stop to rest and resupply in Salt Lake City. And of course that great Mormon commonwealth (for all its flaws) was built by means of intensely collective travel: At first the community sent advance teams to build a string of camps from Missouri to Utah, and to build up the roads that would carry the wagons. The advance team also planted crops that would be ready for the main body of settlers.

For the second half of the 19th centurey the Latter Day Saints were gathered by means of the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which helped finance the hiring of ships from Europe as well as overland travel. The iconic image of Mormon migration is the handcart, which carried the goods of six people as part of a large company. When one handcart company ran into trouble, supplies were sent east to help them continue as winter approached. The Saints also built large stretches of railroad and telegraph line, creating a large and prosperous infrastructure that drew resources from Montana to Arizona into a thriving metropolis that was an essential stop for all who passed through on their way to the gold fields.

Once in the Gold Country (perhaps influenced by what they witnessed during their passage through Zion), these supposedly rugged individualists would often form collectives in which a half-dozen or so miners would band together: One would find paid work to raise cash for tools and equipment while the rest would set to work building common sluices and other infrastructure to work their nearby claims. Once development of their claims was complete, all would set to work. Leland Stanford, who made his fortune selling to miners, was so inspired by this model that he pushed co-op legislation while in the U.S. Senate and founded a university as a utopian experiment to build a cooperative world. Yes, that university.

I happen to believe that there would not have been a critical mass of emigrants to allow the United States to wrest the southwest from Mexico had it not been for the Latter Day Saints. The Great Basin would have remained a land of sparse outposts along a poorly defined border, perhaps along the lines of southern Algeria and northern Mali. We certainly wouldn’t have any Olympic host cities among the arid plains and forbidding mountains in which Brigham Young’s followers attempted to build the Kingdom of God.

The Mormons were not alone in this endeavor. And all homesteaders also built systems of mutual aid, and somewhat obviously they worked together to build new economies and systems of defense against the land’s previous residents (for better or worse). And there were many dozens of communes constantly springing up as the United States’ spread westward. This was a dominant model, as surely all but the dimmest erstwhile settler knew that simply heading off into start farming in “Indian Country” would not end well.

Although the American mythology is usually identified as “Judeo-Christian” this term is reduced to meaninglessness. If we are to make any progress against the entrenched imperial bastardization of these great traditions, we must confront what is really meant by Judeo-Christian. To wit: Christianity was an attempt to restore the deeply collectivist and anti-authoritarian nature of the ongoing Israelite resistance against Egypt, Babylon, Persia and Rome.

Whatever Judaism and its revivalist offshoot might offer in our context of collapsing empire, most American Christians studiously miss the point. We make noises about following Jesus while missing his core message: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

The expanding frontier of the United States has always been dotted with collectivists of all stripes, developing communities with loaded names like New Jerusalem or Zion. Even now the Hutterites and Amish show us that something else is possible on the outskirts, while Christian communards carry on in Chicago – including both the hippy-era Jesus People USA as well as 1950s-vintage Reba Place Fellowship.

Collective organizing did not stop with the closure of the frontier. Even in the 1950s, an era marked by paranoia against anything with a whiff of communism, huge cooperative enterprises were flourishing nationwide. As Jerry Voorhis described in American Cooperatives, a startling snapshot from 1961, well before the hippies supposedly invented co-ops as part of their counterculture, the nation was experiencing a golden age of cooperation, including major supermarket chains in numerous cities, as well as refineries to help farmers tap into the petroleum wealth under their land.

There is no Frontier anymore. We’ve got nowhere to which we might escape, so we have to stick around. We must pull out of the economy but remain facing it, ready to receive those who follow us. In the same way that the Mormons developed systems of emigration stretching all the way back to Europe, we need to find ways to draw people out from however deeply they are ensnared.

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