Had a great time on the program and found the host quite congenial.
I will be appearing on the Vinny Eastwood show, an alternative radio program in New Zealand, tomorrow.
Had a great time on the program and found the host quite congenial.
ur current strain of monopoly capitalism has extraordinary social effects, although one would never find this discussed in the media. Since the media itself is one of the drivers and perhaps the main cheerleader for monopoly capitalism in general, it would be foolish and self-destructive to allow a real dialogue on the subject of how the system affects our individual selves. One obvious example of this is in religious belief. It is much remarked on how we have the most Christianized society of all the major Western countries and how incongruous our way of living is compared to Christ’s actual message. The preachers in our society are distinguished by their expensive suits, jewelry, and snake oil personalities, and are nonetheless listened to by masses of people who purport to followers of Jesus Christ – that is to say, a Jewish man/god who had no possessions whatsoever and spent all his time with lepers, prostitutes, and destitute fishermen. This arises out of the peculiar brand of Christianity that emerged in the United States, derived from the concept of the “elect,” a kind of aristocracy in which material wealth and success constitutes evidence of providential blessings. God is thus reinvented as a capitalist, and never mind what his chief messenger actually said and did.
Although this may be the clearest example of the domineering effect that monopoly capitalism possesses on our lives, it has other pernicious influences as well.
An anthropologist, seeing our culture from above, would naturally remark on the disparity and poor and rich, the racial lines in which rich and poor are distributed, and the culture’s obsession with imprisoning black men for the crime of smoking a plant. That same anthropologist would no doubt also note the manner in which the bodies of women are used as prizes to distinguish the relative success of men and how those bodies are used to sell every manner of product imaginable. They might also conclude that, whatever gains women have made in the working world, they remain viewed by society as pure commodities to be selected for their physical characteristics, used, disposed of, and then replaced.
That is to say, our culture views women the way the military infrastructure sees young men.
And this brings us to the subject of my little rant here. Of course youth is a fetish in our culture; it is so obvious that to say it is to invoke cliché. It makes perfect sense that it should be so. In a culture where everyone and everything is seen in purely mercantile terms, and worldly goods form the basis of worship, it is natural that youth – which is to say, raw human potentiality – becomes what is most valued.
Spirituality itself – the sense of the sacred – is dead in our country. Sacrality requires a certain attachment to history, and to traditions, and to learning from the past. All of this is dead, of course, in a society which has no long-term memory and jumps from fashion to fashion in increasingly hysterical and rapid succession. It is literally dépêche mode. And what remains is the desire to be frozen in one’s youthful state, and – absent that – to possess others who still embody youth. What material good, after all, could be valued more than the promise of maximal time, given our instinctive fear of death and the utter lack of social comfort?
These things are connected, then, in my view: the elimination of social bonds of any importance, the capitalist infrastructure, and the fruitless pursuit of youth for its own sake. The phrase “he who dies with the most toys wins” becomes a motto for an entire people. The phrase itself acknowledges the essentially infantile nature of modern life without any real beliefs in a higher purpose. Hence the rampant cynicism in our society, an unearned cynicism, a cynicism without history or education, the knowledge of a desiccated world acquired from one’s couch.
I am not arguing in favor of natural religion or that we should believe in an illusion. Indeed, one of our many problems is that in believing everything to be illusory, we become vulnerable to every illusion imaginable. Our cynicism becomes a means of control.
The simple reality is that monopoly capitalism is an oppression machine. In the quest to generate fantastic profits for a tiny subset of human beings, it requires vast energies from other human beings who are graded according to their youthful potential, dumped into the machine, and spat out. Is this what we want? Is this the best organization possible? Is the only worthwhile goal in life maximal productive efficiency in the service of 0.1% of the population, regardless of the human costs?
What I am arguing is that if our society tells us that the only thing worth knowing about life is that young men kill and young women fuck, then it is wrong.
I am monstrously lucky.
Sure, I have a tough time making ends meet sometimes and have the usual worries of a modern person in 21st century America, which is to say that I am better off than 99% of the world’s population.
Anyone who can read these words is lucky. Anyone who has all of their senses and resides in that part of the world’s population centers having sufficient technology to access the Internet (far less than 50% of the planet) is lucky.
We all know this, and we internalize it and move on, and bitch about our status anyway. But the “lucky” aspect of this is just the beginning.
There are two ideas that nag at me:
(1) All of the terrible suffering endured in the world is entirely capricious and it is therefore literally true that it would have been better had no one ever been born. No consciousness, no pain.
(2) Our moral imperative is to help others to whatever extent we can without regard to our personal means or geography, and when we do anything that is not directly assisting others we are egregiously immoral.
These may seem in opposition, but in actuality these ideas are mutually supportive. If we find ourselves in the midst of a war, once we moved past our own survival, would we not tend to the wounded around us? Suppose we disagreed with the reasons for the war. Suppose we found ourselves in a remote country, where we did not speak the language, and couldn’t even begin to understand the motives for war. We should still help the wounded, shouldn’t we?
If not, why not? What possible argument could there be to support our desire to (1) do nothing in the face of the war around us, or (2) take some other action that involves not helping others?
We are not (or, at least, most of us capable of reading this at the moment) in the middle of a war. However, we are on planet Earth, and the atrocities taking place at this very second are too numerous to mention. We all know these are going on around each second of every day and we limit our horizons to those in a small circle around us. And if we ever do think about the problems of the world, we quickly assure ourselves that our resources are such that we could never really make a difference.
Is that relevant? Suppose I can only, by expending the totality of my energies of my lifetime, reduce total universal misery by some pathetic, barely existent fraction of 1%. Does that mean I shouldn’t do it? What possible argument could be levied against using my life in this way? That it could be better used in some other way? Then it becomes a matter of calculation, and possible disagreement, but this would be a choice of possible alternatives within the structure of helping others. One possibility that would definitely be excluded would be, for example, to eke out a comfortable existence for myself and my family and friends, and buy a television and two cars and all the various accoutrements of modern life. All those resources could be better used in alleviating misery.
You might want to punch me at this point, and I don’t blame you. Please tell me where I’m wrong.
Every time I decide to share a laugh with a friend, or pick up Richard II and curl up in my favorite chair, or write in this blog, instead of volunteering at a homeless shelter, I am fit to be damned.
If this isn’t true, then why isn’t it true?
“You can’t be expected to live your life that way.”
“Being with friends makes you a good person, not a bad one.”
“First do no harm. You are not expected to bring evil into the world, but you can’t ask that everyone in the whole world dedicate their lives to bettering one another.”
These are not arguments.
Let’s take another example.
Everyone recognizes overindulgence. We might disagree about where the line lies, but everyone understands the concept and agrees that it would apply to one situation or another.
Let’s pick one: A man buys a Porsche.
Without judging in any way whether this action is good or bad, we can all recognize that there is no practical reason to ever buy a Porsche. Unlike, say, an SUV, wherein people talk themselves into believing they “need” one because they have kids, no such rationale can ever be given for a Porsche. There is no important reason to ever buy one. People like them because they are cool, or because they go very fast, but not because they aid in the assistance of others.
So that’s overindulgence.
Now look at the world. We see monumental universal misery all around us.
Is it an exaggeration to say that, in the face of universal human misery, that it is an overindulgence to treat oneself to an ice cream? Every time one is faced with the desire to have an ice cream, one would have to weigh its benefits against the global benefits of using those resources to help a starving person, for example. Will your desire for ice cream ever outstrip the need of the destitute?
“Well, I have to provide for my kids.”
Does providing for one’s kids mean buying expensive presents and sending them to expensive schools or even buying them clothes at some place other than Goodwill? If we’re serious about the simple principle of assisting others, then every dime we have that could be used for help and isn’t used for that renders us morally repugnant.
In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More has been imprisoned for refusing to sign the Act of Succession. His friend Norfolk attempts to get him to comply and sign the act, and they have the following exchange:
NORFOLK: Oh, confound all this…I’m not a scholar, as Master Cromwell never tires of pointing out, and frankly I don’t whether the marriage was lawful or not. But damn it, Thomas, look at those names…You know those men! Can’t you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?
MORE: (Moved) And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
More’s God is a fascinating entity who lays traps for the learned. More’s intelligence enables him to be more in danger of Hellfire than Norfolk, whose simplicity assures his ascension even if he is in the wrong. Remarkable.
Of course I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, which one could argue makes everything pointless. I am myself haunted by the possibility that this play has been run again and again in a mindless eternity for no one’s amusement. But, as I noted at the beginning, this amplifies our responsibility rather than reducing it. The difference is that the damnation is entirely within the limitations of our own consciences.
I’m not saying I have any answers, or that I’m right. I don’t know. That’s the reason I’m up.
There was a recent story that illustrates one of the many problems of the hard-right free-market capitalism strategies espoused not only by Thomas Friedman but seemingly the conventional wisdom of everyday Americans. Even in an era where the Gulf Oil spill, a direct result of these policies, is having genocidal effects on sea life, people still cling to the notion that the American capitalist society is best.
I don’t necessarily want to argue (at this moment) that it isn’t. In fact, let’s say all the things defenders of capitalism say about it are true. It stimulates innovation; it creates prosperity; it evens the playing field so that any person can succeed on their own terms and become rich if only they work hard enough. These things are not true, of course, (or rather they are true in a very limited sense) but let’s assume they are for a moment. Even given this, a totally unregulated capitalism (which is what free-marketeers and, incidentally, libertarians such as Ron Paul promote) has destructive effects on our society.
The story I want to discuss concerns the increasing lack of antivenom to certain types of poisonous snakes. What has happened is that the general lack of snakebites, and poisonous snakebites in particular, has made it unprofitable to produce antivenom:
Unfortunately, after Oct. 31 of this year, there may be no commercially available antivenom (antivenin) left. That’s the expiration date on existing vials of Micrurus fulvius, the only antivenom approved by the Food and Drug Administration for coral snake bites. Produced by Wyeth, now owned by Pfizer, the antivenom was approved for sale in 1967, in a time of less stringent regulation.
Wyeth kept up production of coral snake antivenom for almost 40 years. But given the rarity of coral snake bites, it was hardly a profit center, and the company shut down the factory that made the antivenom in 2003. Wyeth worked with the FDA to produce a five-year supply of the medicine to provide a stopgap while other options were pursued. After that period, the FDA extended the expiration date on existing stock from 2008 to 2009, and then again from 2009 to 2010. But as of press time, no new manufacturer has stepped forward.
In theory, goods and services are produced to meet the demands of society, creating a situation which benefits both the producer and the consumer. The consumer benefits from the goods and services and the producer generates a profit for him or herself. Simple enough. However, the key word in all of this is profit.
Capitalism is to human organization as Nietzsche’s ubermensch is to humanity itself. In other words, the pursuit of profit divorced from other concerns trumps social values, and indeed it creates social values. For any business model to work, it must operate based on the desires of others. Those desires tend to be generated by the businesses themselves. Do we need cheese puffs? Do we need Disney television programs? Do we need nuclear weapons? No, but we can have as much of those things as we want, because those things are associated with profit.
It is not inherently profitable to promote human community. Businesses do not benefit from people giving their labor to others for their benefit, or sharing vehicles, or giving clothes away when they no longer fit, or any of a million other human behaviors that do not involve production.
The end result is a situation where people may die of a snake bite because it isn’t cost-efficient to make antivenom.
Obviously, there are other social effects as well. People now take it for granted that of course businesses have a right to monitor, for example, one’s messages on the internet even on private time. It could affect their business, which is what’s really important, not the rights of the individual. That is explicitly a capitalist meme. It is the thought process of the employee. And it infects all similar discussions like this, because people have gotten so used to thinking this way that it becomes a reflex.
Truth, Justice, and the American Way, as Superman (the ubermensch) likes to say.
This is Joe Green's blog.