The Corporate Professor   /   Spring 2012   /    Essays

The Trigger of History

Capitalism, Modernity, and the Politics of Place

T. J. Jackson Lears

Fast train;; flickr.

Challenging the default-setting determinism of contemporary public discourse—to show people pulling the trigger of history, refusing to pull it, or throwing the gun away altogether.

Remember the promises of neoliberalism? Only a few years ago, neoliberal futurologists from Bill Gates to Thomas Friedman imagined a friction-free capitalism, powered by technology, generating wealth for all. The proliferation of personal computers (they said) was revolutionizing the workplace, displacing rigid hierarchies with fluid networks, empowering everyone, and creating a “free agent nation.”11xSee Daniel Pink, “Free Agent Nation,” Fast Company (31 December 1997), online/12/freeagent.html. Countercultural doubts about the benefits of unregulated capital or unchecked economic growth were swept into the dustbin of dead ideas. Ronald Reagan put a folksy imprimatur on a revived faith in limitless progress through individual entrepreneurship—a cult of self-made manhood resurrected unchanged from the era of Samuel Smiles and Karl Marx. Neoliberals embraced this nineteenth-century individualism.

Yet individualism still coexisted with determinism. In the late twentieth century, as in the late nineteenth, market discipline acquired the force of natural law. Resistance to its dictates, according to the conventional wisdom, was futile. The train was leaving the station, and we had better get on. Margaret Thatcher put the matter succinctly: “there is no alternative.” Choice and coercion cohered: we would all choose to do what we had to do anyway.22xThatcher used the phrase repeatedly; for numerous examples, see 

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