In 1940, the American folk singer and travellin’ man, Woody Guthrie, wrote an anthem to a vast nation that was then about as socialist-minded as it was ever going to be. He imagined his republic of the democratic ideal thus: This land is your land / This land is my land / From California to the New York Island / From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters / This land was made for you and me. Golden west to ye olde world east, northland of the giants to sultry south, the boy had all points covered.
While Guthrie’s folk song was being penned, America was rebounding on FDR’s New Deal. The presidential initiative – aimed at putting a nation derailed by the Depression back on track – took the wreckage of the early 30’s capitalist crash and redesigned it, scaling back first-class, abolishing third and expanding premium economy-class so all could ride together onward to destination true democracy.
While this new deal was a big deal for Americans reared on the principle of freedom to do most everything, including fail, Roosevelt’s social programs and Guthrie’s mood made the true blues among them smell a rat. For those boatloads of new Americans who braved storm-tossed seas dreaming of one day staking out their own acre plot in some yet unpronounceable backwater west of the Appalachians, their idea of the new frontier hardly conjured up images of an America gone soft on elements borrowed from French or even Soviet republicanism. Authoritarian government of the old country and the cronyism endemic in it was the real poverty they were running from, after all.
In America, and that goes for the America lived by Guthrie in the 30’s and 40’s, private ownership was (and is) the endgame, and liberty meant (and means) the freedom to wall oneself in. Guthrie would write: Was a high wall there that tried to stop me / A sign was painted said: Private Property / But on the back side it didn’t say nothing / this land was made for you and me. When Dylan resurrected the song in 1961, presumably his choice of song was not only homage to Woody but also a lyrical effort to kick-start a movement rooted in the idea that America was best when shared, at its most sinister when ruled by them that build the big guns, build the death planes, hide behind walls, hide behind desks. Fair to say, they might have been bards in different eras but both artists were merely continuing America’s great, but seldom acknowledged, tradition of democratic socialism.
Was democracy ever the same music to everyone’s ear? Was it more so than to an America that loved the sound of liberté but had a funny idea of égalité and found fraternité discomfiting? Never have so many owed so much to one man: John Locke. So much a part of the American mindset, his English libertarianism elevated private property as a natural right, tall alongside liberty and the pursuit of life. Providing those propertied possessions kept migrating west indefinitely, growth and expansion could go on unchecked. Manifest destiny was moving west at a rate of knots, but so was population. By the time the final pieces were added to the federal jigsaw, the lower 48 states stretched to the Pacific. It would be that great divide that would put a natural check on geographic expansion, but not on population. From the Redwoods of the Pacific West to Gulf Stream waters of the Atlantic, America’s stretches were vast enough for a while to incorporate all its people before some of them decided to incorporate America.
In the space of two generations, the shift in the semantic of a single word, incorporate, has proven profound. The America Incorporate (Inc.) we see today seems a far cry from the America whose rift Roosevelt sought to heal by means of incorporating its tired, its poor, and its huddled masses, who – if not exactly yearning to breathe free, in the words of the stirring poem – were certainly looking to breathe again after years of extreme belt-tightening. Where New Deal strove to incorporate the public with unprecedented and unlimited scope, 21st Century America Inc. uses incorporation to mean private and limited. This has not gone unnoticed by those on the pulpit voicing discontent. Them is fighting words. Them used to be a dirty word. These days things are such that the battle cry of democratic socialism has become hip again.