Friday, January 30, 2015

The Shrinking Cage of Late Capitalism

It’s easy to focus on what we’re losing as the American Empire falls and the fossil fuels that support our lifestyle run down. That may be why the British TV show Downton Abbey is so popular in the US right now. It dramatizes the effects of the decline of the British Empire on the nobility. Just as they were dispossessed of their estates and castles, the American middle class is being stripped of our cushy jobs and comfortable homes in the ‘burbs. We may be looking to them for coping techniques.

But this week I’d like to talk about what we have to gain as Industrial Civilization goes the way of the dodo. The civil religion of Progress would have us believe that our society provides for us better than any previous civilization provided for its denizens. Even though our physical desires are being satisfied to a degree unheard of in the historical record, our social needs (and even many physical needs) have been denied to meet the demands of the Capitalist economy.

The primary sociological property of Capitalism seems to be its corrosive effect on social relations. With the help of fossil fuels, it has made us much more individualistic than even the hermits of fairy tales or the mountain men of the Wild West. We can meet the minimum requirements of survival just by sitting alone at a computer all day, pressing buttons. In many ways, this is the ideal vocation for a Capitalist worker. It isolates the individual socially, economically and spiritually.

In this situation, our only apparent dependency is on an employer, and that is mediated by money and Capitalism. In return for labor, the employer compensates the employee in the form of a salary or wages, healthcare discounts, retirement account contributions and other financial benefits. The social component of the relationship is incidental to its economic essence. You don’t need to form a personal bond with your boss, co-workers or customers in order to get or keep your job.

All other dependencies, physical and social, can also be paid for with money. We can buy food at the grocery store or at a restaurant. Even a personal connection with a server is expressed financially through tipping. We pay utility companies for heat, light, water, air-conditioning, phone service, internet access, etc. These relationships are almost completely impersonal, conducted by mail or the internet. If we require socialization, we generally find it at work or through activities with an economic rationale, such as volunteering, i.e., providing free labor, or taking a class, i.e., providing employment to a marginalized professional, usually an artist. 

By subordinating social relations to economic arrangements, Capitalism seeks to “free” us from social debts: personal services that don’t involve financial or material compensation. Money is supposed to buy us social, moral and emotional independence. This is the goal of many Americans today, to be “free and clear” of all debts and obligations, be they economic or social. We don’t have to worry about the sweatshop worker who made our socks, because we paid a fair market price for her product. The Free Market has determined fair compensation for the worker. If the worker is poor, it is her own fault for failing to exploit the Free Market to her advantage. The same dubious morality can be applied to all our relationships, even that with our parents.

We aspired to this freedom, because we came to see familial relationships, friendships and other social obligations as more trouble than they’re worth. Their psychological and economic costs seemed to outweigh their benefits. They came with the strings of tradition attached, and we were no longer willing to submit to those restrictions. In effect, we traded traditional communities for feminism, free love and liberation from our family’s expectation that we will find a steady job, get married and have kids. Many communities have been built around this kind of freedom, but they remain few and far between in the U.S.A. 

Into this gap strides Capitalism, which is only too happy to oblige. It wants to banish social debts economically in order to dissolve the personal relationships that grow from them. Once the relationships have been severed, the “free” individual is only dependent on one thing: the economy, i.e., Capitalism. Each person becomes a single economic unit, a consumer who must meet all his needs and desires on his own. This maximizes consumption, because people are no longer able to pool their resources. Once we have been reduced to solitary consumers, we no longer have any social responsibilities.

But this “freedom" is an illusion. We are always dependent on Humanity and Nature for our continued existence, whether we know it or not. There are always debts we can’t repay financially to those who have supported us, are supporting us now or will support us in the future. Have you heard the one about the parents who billed their children for the cost of raising them? The point of the joke is those services can’t be quantified in money or any other material compensation. That’s social, emotional and spiritual work that can only be repaid in kind. Even if your children repaid their debt to you in money, no matter the amount, you would surely be poorer for it.

The decay of social relations has bred distrust of our neighbors, because we don’t know them anymore. It’s also easier for us to abandon our friends, family or neighbors, because we think Society, in the form of other people or Science or Technology or the Economy or the Government, will pick up the slack. When you get right down to it, we don’t really think we need each other. But our sense of self-reliance has been inflated by fossil fuels. The irony is we’re much less self-reliant than our ancestors. Without the infrastructure of modern life, the vast majority of us would be dead in a few weeks.

The social convulsions driven by Capitalist industrialization have repeatedly shaken our society to its core, like a tree being rattled by a machine for its fruit. Much of our humanity, as manifested in empathy, solidarity and charity, has been lost in the process. Ironically, Capitalism has gone a long way toward achieving Marx’s dream of casting aside the traditional institutions of our society: family, church, state, etc. These have all been warped and weakened by the demands of Capitalism, forced to conform to its ethic. 

We may love our kids, but we sacrifice them to a dysfunctional school system so we may be “free” to pursue our individual goals. We may be concerned citizens, but we treat politics as a spectator sport, waiting for political programs and candidates to be chosen for us and, at best only directly participating once a year. We may go to a Christian church for an hour a week to pay lip service to Jesus’ message of charity and love, but we spend the rest of the week in service of self, mostly gratifying our material and physical desires.

I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve sought refuge in Capitalism. Frankly, I’ve found companies to be more supportive than most of my friends. My employers have certainly been more reliable. It’s no wonder I’ve put so much faith in them. They do tend to come through for me more often. They often ask more of me than I’m prepared to give, and my friends have been much less demanding. But at least the institutions are usually there when I need them, even if they exact a pound of flesh (or soul) for the privilege. I’m much more emotionally devoted to my friends, and what they can give me is much more valuable than what the institutions can. But my friends’ unreliability makes me question the sincerity of their commitment to me. At least with institutions, I know where I stand. 

It took the entire Industrial Era for social relations to reach their current state of decrepitude, just in time for the rug to be pulled out from under us. We no longer have communities strong enough to escape the shrinking cage of Late Capitalism. It has fed on our growing dependence to become stronger, more invasive, more demanding, more controlling and less generous. We now find ourselves at its mercy as its jaws close on us.

We’ll have to rebuild our social networks to survive the collapse of Capitalism and Industrialism. Our ancestors were only able to survive the rise of these forces through the support of tightly-knit families, neighborhoods and grassroots organizations. They would not consider the exchange of our comforts for revitalized communities a great sacrifice. Nor should we.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Losing the Imperial Inheritance

For those of you who’ve been following this blog the last couple of weeks (or the last 9 years), you may have noticed that I’ve thoroughly vilified the system that furnishes us with a comfy, middle-class lifestyle. But why would I want to disassemble the Empire now? We’ve got a good thing going here! Surely it can still be counted on to deliver a comfortable life for myself and my progeny?

Therein lies the rub. Our lifestyle isn’t as comfy as it used to be, and it seems to be getting less comfy each year. In fact, I don’t think the Empire will be capable much longer of keeping us in the manner to which we’re accustomed. And that may be the most decisive factor in my political radicalization: the failure of the American Empire to give me the share of the American Dream that I believed was my birthright. 

I would like to believe that I would’ve been aware of and fought the evils of the American Empire even if I'd lived through its Golden Age, as my parents did. But my track record implies otherwise. Despite being aware of my imperial complicity for a decade, I’ve repeatedly returned to the corporate world, trying to preserve and then, after quitting my cushy job, recover that cozy corner of the American Dream I’d been looking forward to since childhood. If I’d managed to stay on Easy Street, I’m not sure I would’ve been willing to abandon my creature comforts in an effort to undermine the imperial system. 

I’m forced to admit that this historical period has catalyzed my awareness of the crimes on which the Empire, and my comfortable existence, is based. When you’re sitting pretty, you’re less likely to question the socioeconomic structure of your society, and you’re far less likely to indict that structure. After all, you deserve to be successful, right? You’re a good person, and you’ve earned everything you've got. That seems to be the default self-image of the middle class.

It’s much easier to condemn these luxuries as they slip away. When your bed isn’t as comfortable as it used to be, you’re more likely to lie awake and question the assumptions by which you’ve lived. You’re more likely to think that things are headed in the wrong direction and may never have been just and fair in the first place. When the luxuries your class once enjoyed are now enjoyed by others, it’s much easier to question those people’s worthiness and the justice of the system that is creating this new disposition of wealth. Of course, not everyone reacts to insecurity this way. 

Many people employ xenophobia to scapegoat marginal groups, e.g. immigrants and ethnic, racial and religious minorities. One or more of the “alien” groups is blamed for the “Real Americans’” loss of status. This often leads to the demonization and further oppression of these already-oppressed groups. It’s an approach that exploits the ugliest side of human nature and unleashes destructive forces that are not easily controlled. (For a prime example, see “Third Reich, The.”)

Unfortunately, the U.S.A. has a long, not-so-proud tradition of this brand of politics. We have a disturbing habit of fearing and then persecuting the most-subjugated groups in our society: slaves, immigrants, the poor, etc. Our history and the state of the economy have established the conditions in which this kind of movement could be reborn with a vengeance.

I’m pretty sure the path I’ve taken is the one less traveled, and with good reason. It’s the path that leads through the looking glass, and what’s on the other side is horrifying. You see the victims of the American Way of Life: the human beings killed in our “humanitarian interventions;” the children worked to death in the sweatshops that keep us looking hip; and the unborn poisoned by the toxins released in the manufacture of our gizmos. Worst of all, you see that their suffering is caused only by our greed, fear and ignorance.

The urge to blame outsiders for one’s own misfortune is strong and will likely get stronger as the Empire unravels. But the consequences of that choice are too terrible to imagine, much less to take the chance of resurrecting them from the darkest periods in history. We must face the demons that haunt the American conscience, or they will complete their conquest of our souls and turn our inheritance into a graveyard.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hypocrisy of an American Leftist

When I became a Leftist in 2004, it was by way of a rude awakening. Noam Chomsky’s lectures and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States pulled me through the looking glass. I realized our way of life is not primarily the fruit of our own labor, but rather is built on the backs of the poor, in the U.S. and across the globe, especially in the Third World.

I felt as though my parents, teachers and all adults had sold me a bill of goods about Truth, Justice and the American Way. My world changed overnight from one ruled by fair laws to one in which might makes right. Capitalism was transformed from an essentially peaceful outgrowth of human nature to a tyrannical system imposed and enforced through state-sponsored violence.

All my material comforts were now tainted by sin. In a desperate bid for moral purity, I purged myself of “unclean” possessions, those that had been manufactured through the virtual enslavement of the workers and/or degradation of the environment. I put all my sports apparel, much of which was Nike-branded, in a garbage bag and donated it for my roommate’s fundraiser. Thereafter, I sought out clothes, food and other products that claimed to have been grown organically or manufactured under humane conditions or made in an environment-friendly manner. 

For those of you who have embarked on this kind of quixotic quest, I probably don’t need to tell you what happened. Trying to change the world is exhausting when every effort that falls short of perfection feels like a failure. I was also lonely in my pit of guilt. I was surrounded by people going along with the status quo. Why did they seem OK with it? I felt like everyone around me was fallen and I alone had been saved from the ignorance that blinded them.

Eventually, I gave up my crusade. It seemed hopeless and had no appreciable effect on the global (or national or local) economy. The Machinery of Death kept chugging along the same as before, as if nothing had changed. To my extreme chagrin, the world was not transfigured to match my new perception. Despite my pleading, America did not change its imperial ways.  Unconsciously, I was probably hoping that the Empire would reform itself so I wouldn’t have to abandon my lifestyle and my faith in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. 

When the shock of my revelation finally wore off, it was easy to understand why so many of us go along with a system we find increasingly inhuman, onerous and even evil. All I had to do was ask myself, “Why do I go along with it?” The answer was obvious and awful, always lying just below the surface of my thoughts: Because it’s easy and comfortable, and the alternatives seem lonely, hard and pointless. 

So I’ve soldiered on as a member of the mainstream, unwilling to foresake my comforts and mostly resigned to my complicity in the Great American Crime of Empire. I still try to buy organic food and second-hand clothes so my money doesn’t abet sweatshops. But I’ve indulged in conventionally-grown food, sweatshop-made clothes and many other imperial luxuries in the intervening years. That’s not to say that striving for ethical perfection is pointless, only that stumbling along that path is inevitable, and I’ve found it counterproductive to beat myself up over my failings.

Much as we Leftists like to condemn the evils of the American Empire, we’re often loath to renounce the luxuries that it bestows on us. We’ve been enjoying those luxuries for decades, if not centuries. We no longer even think of them as luxuries, but essentials. However, if we want to repay our debt to Nature and the rest of the human race, we need to ask ourselves what is truly essential to life and what can be done without. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The Psychology of American Exceptionalism

I don’t usually like to think about how my status as a white male citizen of the First World entitles me to privileges enjoyed by a relatively small portion of the human race. At other times, though, I seem to revel in torturing myself with that knowledge. Consciously, that’s my way of punishing myself for my failure to do enough to help those who live on the other/wrong side of the tracks. Unconsciously, I think I’m punishing myself for more personal sins. What those might be, I’m not sure. As I continue to make peace with my parents, though, my penchant for masochism seems to be receding, which leads me to believe that was the source of my unconscious guilt.

But the truth is that nothing about us or what we’ve done has earned us a spot at the top of the human food chain. We just happened to be born in the right place in the world, at the right time in history, to the right parents (in the right socioeconomic class). Geographically, historically and sociologically speaking, we won the lottery. We could just as easily have been born in a remote village of the Congo in the midst of a civil war to HIV-infected parents, condemned to a life that is nasty, brutish and short. Luck alone saved us from that fate.

From this knowledge springs the guilt of the privileged. If our station was bestowed on us by happenstance, then the poor must also be blameless for their lot. No one (with a shred of empathy) would blame a poor child for being poor, but many would blame a poor adult. The Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man (or woman) pulling themselves up by their bootstraps still has a powerful hold on the American imagination. But recent history casts doubt on its contemporary relevance. The social mobility of our society now lags behind most other post-industrial countries. 

It’s bad enough that, for the most part, our system keeps the rich rich and the poor poor, but what’s even worse is the extent to which their poverty subsidizes our affluence. While fossil fuels and technological innovation helped create the massive middle class of the 20th century, the U.S. economy is still heavily dependent on cheap human labor at home and abroad. Millions toil in sweatshops and fields across the globe for slave wages to provide us cheap food, clothes and other consumer goods. 

On some level all we bourgeoisie seem to be aware that behind our good fortune there lies a monstrous crime. Confronting this psychologically, however, is a tall order, and one that most people avoid as much as possible. The mainstream media and culture work hard to keep us from thinking about such unpleasant realities. The Powers That Be don’t want us to think about it, because then we might be inclined to change the system that put them in charge.

Most Americans obey this tacit command. On those occasions when our minds do wander into that minefield, our deliberations tend to be brief and lazy, accepting any path that will get us back to safe ground with our peace of mind intact. As a result, our theories on the subject are nebulous and poorly reasoned. We may pick up strands of mainstream beliefs, but we’re unlikely to act on them. Action would require faith, and we aren’t willing to subject our beliefs to the scrutiny that would justify that level of commitment. The default position seems to be: Somebody has to be on top; it might as well be us. The point of this limited contemplation is not to understand the phenomenon; it’s to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the misfortune of others.

Some Americans on the Right side of the political spectrum give the matter serious thought, but most of their conclusions are just more concerted efforts at evading guilt. The more overtly Christian regions of the Right wing are pervaded by the belief that we’ve been chosen by God to receive these gifts of wealth, freedom and power. By His economic and geopolitical Grace, God wishes us to police the world in the name of Truth, Justice and the American Way. 

Other explanations of American exceptionalism are subtler and not explicitly dependent on a self-serving interpretation of the Bible. They say our primacy has been secured by our industriousness, virtue and/or democracy, and we must maintain these values to preserve the heritage handed down to us by previous generations of Americans. The fact that these arguments carry significant political weight is a sobering comment on our educational system.

Of course, American exceptionalism is the ideological backbone of the mainstream media, so it’s no surprise that so many Americans have adopted this world-view. It also tends to be employed by people who are worried about dropping in socioeconomic status. Nowadays, that describes most of us. This status anxiety is projected as concern for the stability of America’s position in the world. We identify with the slumping superpower and believe that, if our homeland can be restored to its former glory, then so can we.

Others are looking for an institution to fill in for authority figures from our childhood who were either absent or inadequate, e.g. parents, teachers or clergy. As our families and other social support networks fray, more people become candidates for this coping device. Rather than face the world alone, we pledge uncritical allegiance to someone or something else in a desperate bid to keep from ever feeling insecure again. 

Many of us choose to trade our reliance on ineffectual or unavailable elders for strident nationalism, a.k.a. patriotism. Thus the fatherland becomes a surrogate parent whose actions and motives can never be questioned. Our sense of security has already been seriously damaged, and exposing the motherland’s flaws would shred our last safety net. Therefore, the homeland must be defended from all attacks, martial or rhetorical, no matter how minor or valid.

But the fact remains that America did not become a superpower through the goodness of its works or because we’re God’s favorite country. Our dominance was achieved through a combination of slaughtering Native Americans, enslaving Blacks and using our generous fossil fuel deposits to build a military capable of extorting wealth from most of the world. As members of the American middle class, we’ve benefited greatly from this arrangement. Only by acknowledging our complicity in this system can we begin to reclaim our humanity.