28 July, 2009 — The B u l l e t Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 242
“We’re free… we’re free.” The last words of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece, Death of a Salesman, are uttered, sobbing, by Linda Loman over her husband Willy’s grave. Weary and penniless after a life of selling “a smile and a shoeshine,” overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness and failure, yet mesmerized by the thought that his life insurance will provide his estranged son with the stake that might induce him to compete and ‘succeed,’ Willy Loman’s suicide famously symbolises the tragic dimension of the relentless competitiveness at the heart of the American capitalist dream. “He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong,” this son laments at the grave side, even as his other son dedicates himself to “beat this racket” so that “Willy Loman didn’t die in vain…. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man.” At the end Linda stands over the grave alone. Telling Willy that she had just made the last payment on their mortgage, a sob rises in her throat: “We’re free and clear…. We’re free…. We’re free…”
When first uttered on stage in 1949, at the start of the Cold War, these words spoke to the ambiguity of the freedom represented by the ‘free world.’ Fifty years later, when Linda sobbed “we’re free” at the end of Death of a Salesman‘s sesquicentennial revival on Broadway, she seemed to embody the angst of an entire world enveloped by the American dream at the end of the 20th century. One could everywhere sense the anxiety – an anxiety as omnipresent as ‘globalization’ itself – that had emerged with accumulating awareness of the enormous odds against actually “beating this racket” and escalating doubts about the worth of a life defined by the freedom to compete. What made the tragedy of Willie Loman so universal as the 20th century drew to a close was that even people who wondered whether the capitalist dream wasn’t the wrong dream could yet see no way of realizing a life beyond capitalism, or still feared that any attempt to do so can only result in another nightmare. Overcoming this debilitating political pessimism is the most important question anyone seriously interested in social change must confront.