29 March 2013

Where has the lone hero gone? Cowboys, capitalism and the future of conservatism

One of the movie blogs I follow called my attention to a piece by the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm, excerpted from his last book, published earlier this month in the Guardian newspaper. Hobsbawm's subject was the "myth of the cowboy." His comments seem relevant to yesterday's post on anarchism and capitalism. The global popularity of the American cowboy, Hobsbawm wrote, was "due to the built-in anarchism of American capitalism."

I mean not only the anarchism of the market, but the ideal of an individual uncontrolled by any constraints of state authority....Individualist anarchism had two faces. For the rich and powerful it represents the superiority of profit over law and state. Not just because law and the state can be bought, but because even when they can't, they have no moral legitimacy compared to selfishness and profit. For those who have neither wealth nor power, it represents independence, and the little man's right to make himself respected and show what he can do. I don't think it was an accident that the ideal-typical cowboy hero of the classic invented west was a loner, not beholden to anyone; nor, I think, that money was not important for him. As Tom Mix put it: "I ride into a place owning my own horse, saddle and bridle. It isn't my quarrel, but I get into trouble doing the right thing for somebody else. When it's all ironed out, I never get any money reward."

In a way the loner lent himself to imaginary self-identification just because he was a loner. To be Gary Cooper at high noon or Sam Spade, you just have to imagine you are one man, whereas to be Don Corleone or Rico, let alone Hitler, you have to imagine a collective of people who follow and obey you, which is less plausible.

I don't know when Hobsbawm wrote this, but I wonder what he, as a Marxist, would make out of the apparent decline in popularity of the lone hero in American pop culture. Back in the golden age of TV westerns, one of the most common formulas was to have the lone hero ride into a new community every episode, set some injustice right or simply help a worthy person, and move on. The formula fit other genres, too. In our generation you hardly see it. Ours is the era of "shipping," A show without ongoing relationships would almost literally be a show about noting for many modern viewers. Most of us are so thoroughly connected to friends and family by our cellphones and like devices that the lone-ness (rather than loneliness) of the oldschool hero is empathically incomprehensible. It's no longer an appealing fantasy -- and since Hobsbawm links the appeal of the loner hero to an anarchic streak that provided emotional support to capitalism, may we not link the declining appeal of the loner hero to the declining appeal of Republicanism -- as perceived by many Republicans -- among younger people. Thoughtful Republicans have tried to trace this to an image of bigotry that the more libertarian among them consider dispensable, but what if the problem is deeper and more than ideological. What if one of the major capitalist innovations of our time --the promotion of social networks through portable communications devices -- has gravely undermined the individualist mentality on which capitalism has long appeared to depend? We shouldn't try to exaggerate this point; social networks don't make socialists in most cases. But what they may do is make the insistent rhetoric of individualism espoused by Republicans and libertarians less relevant and compelling to people who prize their connectedness above all. So long as political individualists still think of individualism (not to mention Americanism) in cowboy loner terms, they may as well be speaking a foreign language to greater numbers every year. If they keep that up, maybe they'll follow their old heroes into the sunset.


Anonymous said...

Yet, technically speaking, the cowboys were the steer herders. They couldn't operate alone, they needed a group to keep the cattle from wandering during the roundup and drive. Not only that, they had to be well coordinated and organized and they had to work as a team - especially in the even of a stampede.

What they think of as "cowboy" was either a Texas Ranger or Federal Marshall or an armed thug - the "regulators", etc. In other words, either a government employee or a criminal.

Of course, for most of them, their idea of the old west and cowboys comes straight out of Hollywood fiction. In the real old west, the "lone gunman" was usually bushwhacked by a gang.

On a side note - most of the "cowboy" towns of the old west prohibited the carrying of firearms.

Anonymous said...

I don't think social networking has lead to any decline in the "individualist" mentality. If anything, it's hyped it up to new levels with twitter, etc. Social networking is a lie in that it isn't so much about "networking" in a real sense. It is about self-promotion.

Samuel Wilson said...

The facts about historical cowboys don't change the fact that an ahistorical fantasy about the lone cowboy was popular for a long time but seems to be no longer. Ideally we might assume that people learned the truth, but since I doubt that I'm trying to account for the decline of the loner hero, and not just in westerns, in other ways. As far as social "networks" are concerned the desire to promote oneself so aggressively is just another departure from the old "strong, silent" archetype. The point isn't that social media make us more socially conscious but that it leaves behind the old mountain man ideal that some people still consider relevant.

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're saying. My post was aimed at others who may read this blog without understanding the truth behind the cowboy myth.