In L’Âme des Peuples, André Siegfried considers the future of the United States. He questions whether the “national ideology” still applies. Today, 65 years on, are we now able to answer his question?
American culture is a combination of numerous complex factors and is fast-changing. In the author’s view, it has not yet assumed its full potential. “American identity is not yet finalised” and we need to constantly revise our description of it. Based on ancient origins, a new people emerged, which quickly reached its peak and which is now at a pivotal point in its history. This was the view of André Siegfried in 1950.
The factors which shaped the Americans
The United States are in the West but are not in Europe, whereas Russia is no longer in the West but is still in Europe. Here, André Siegfried sums up his thinking regarding the countries he studied in L’âme des peuples and seeks to position the United States in relation to the others.
He noted that the abundance of land and the sheer scale of the natural environment here has created a special relationship between man and nature, which is reflected in the American approach. Man conquered nature more than he adapted to it, without taking account of the limitations imposed by the climate, and soil erosion, etc. He forced nature to comply in order to obtain what he wanted, without abiding by sensible crop rotation rules for example.
American, French, and Chinese cultural profiles
It is interesting to compare this viewpoint to that of François Jullien regarding the Chinese “silent transformation” strategy: there’s no point in pulling on the plant to make it grow… you just need to promote the right conditions. In the Chinese view, transformation is the flipside of action and is a long-term process. Two radically different views…
Between 1815 and 1914, we witnessed a “huge ethnic population movement”, with 30 million people leaving Europe for North America. This migration transformed all of these Europeans into a new people, made more recognisable through assimilation. There were three main immigration waves:
- 17th and 18th century: English, Protestant and Puritan colonisation.
- 19th century: English, Scots, Germans, Irish, Scandinavians and Jews fled famine and persecution to find a new life and freedom. The Germans brought with them their discipline and regimentation. The Irish Catholics introduced a touch of fantasy and disorder which lightened the heavy Puritan atmosphere. The Jews brought with them their worries, their curiosity, their enterprising spirit and their ideas.
- 1880-1914: The Slav-Latin wave arrived in North America, fleeing poverty.
It took three generations to complete the immigration process. “America assimilated immigration within its melting pot”.
In this country, which is still economically young, the author has noted that it is easier to create new wealth than to share existing wealth, whereas in old Europe it is easier to share than to produce. “Where the European has become revolutionary, focusing on sharing, the American remains politically conservative”. The attitude to natural resources, exploitation, production, money and profit is radically different. It is this mindset which is the source of American dynamism. Can we compare it to Europe’s dynamism in the 19th century? Is the question one of age or cultural characteristics?
The development of the American mindset
The age of the pioneer
The pioneer operates based on individualistic principles: initiative, personal responsibility, and a willingness to accept a hard life. The very concept of life is based on the individual’s initiative, without state intervention except to punish criminals. The result is a certain degree of chaos, related to unbridled speculation, a taste for adventure and a certain amount of eccentricity. The Americans are creators and “risk-takers”.
The machine age
With the conquest of the continent completed, technology and new production conditions brought about changes in American living standards and mentalities. Professionalism, discipline and organisation began to take precedence over individual initiative and fantasy. In the author’s view, there is “a considerable difference between the ideology of the founding fathers and the Ford assembly line”. The “standardisation steamroller” created unity among these Americans of disparate origins who, despite their differences, began to see things in the same way and resemble one another: the same homes, same restaurants, same income, same slogans and same ideas. This uniformity helped cement national unity. Not only was it accepted but it was viewed as progress. This standardisation became the most distinctive feature of American society.
Has the melting pot succeeded in forging a genuine American character?
The assimilation involved transforming the immigrant into an Anglo-Saxon. He had to accept a social structure even if it was not created for him. He had no choice, but did so readily because this was proof of his assimilation and consequently he adopted American characteristics.
Initiative and efficiency result from a respect for effort and a lack of routine.
The American has confidence in the future, in people, in the United States and in the Constitution, which is seen as a gift passed down from the founding fathers.
He is virulently optimistic and convinced that nothing is impossible if people have the energy and the will to achieve it. “It’s this pioneering pride which transformed a continent but it’s also the free spirit of a man who believes that the future belongs to him and that he is not a prisoner of his past”.
Here, we find the heritage of the Protestant notion of “social service” based on duty, a willingness to evangelise, the need to judge the good and the bad, and to moralise. “Displaying a spirit of moral uprightness, America is full of good advice. As we all know, humility is a catholic virtue”.
- Idealism or materialism
The American is both idealistic and materialistic, which is not contradictory in his view. “He is an apostle, expressing spiritual things in dollars… A true believer, convinced that everything can be organised, including the spirit. Although he sincerely believes in human dignity, he feels that this dignity is inseparable from his standard of living”. It is his duty to improve man’s condition in the world: “Bible, fridge and western democracy! His good intentions are sincere and his good faith absolute”.
Docile and obedient, the American masses love the American system. The American is ready to accept everything in the name of competence. In his view, education is essential but it must be practical. He sees it less as the acquisition of a culture than as a set of ready-made notions and skills. The standardisation of production is based on the collective discipline needed to mass-produce items.
Once a fanciful dreamer, the American has today become conformist. For the immigrant, this conformism can even be a sign of his assimilation and his adoption within the American family. It’s important not to stand out. People are happy to be like everyone else, to have the same clothing and the same ideas. “It’s very fashionable to praise individualism but if this takes the form of originality, and protests against the slogans and ideas accepted by all, it will eventually make life difficult for you and success less likely. Here, we see one of the dangers of passivity and I would be inclined to see this conformity as one of the future threats to this civilisation”.
The United States today
The Americans believe in luck and technology. “This young and new divinity takes precedence over culture, seen as a fading goddess… They are so proud of their thinking machines that they almost forget to think for themselves and the critical spirit is losing ground to the skills of the expert”.
Strongly attached to national identity (individualism, initiative, freedom, competition), the American seeks to limit state intrusion within his private life, rather than ask it to assume new responsibilities. But André Siegfried questions whether the individual will not be more inclined to turn to the state and accept its social discipline (New Deal, Fair Deal, Welfare State)? Perhaps we should add Obamacare.
After having explored the very foundations of American dynamism, the author questions whether organisation will not eventually take precedence over the individual. In his view “individualistic and liberal ideology no longer matches the needs of what is now a totally industrialised society”. Nevertheless, he reminds us that the Second World War demonstrated that the Americans were capable of creative thinking and organisation.
The United States are still without a doubt the world’s leading economic power and Silicon Valley’s economic dynamism is undeniable; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and many others amply demonstrate that American dynamism is alive and well.
André Siegfried believed that standardisation and conformity risked diminishing the creative spirit. However, this is precisely what makes it possible to make a profit from an innovation and to finance others. Far from being opposites, these two systems can be seen as complementary, bolstering one another and pursuing the same profit-driven goals. Individual initiative is still valued and the pioneering spirit has not disappeared but is actually flourishing in the United States thanks to the American concept of organisation, which leaves no place for fantasy.
L’âme des peuples, André Siegfried