So What?

I have been kicking a dead horse of late in the form of the movement that started in the 14th century and which has been called “humanism.” This movement went head-to-head with Christianity for many years — especially in the form of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, which, for all intents and purposes humanism defeated. But humanism also died. Following John Carroll’s lead I made some pithy comments about the death of humanism which he and I both lay at the feet of thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx — both of whom played pivotal roles in the scientific revolution and in the growth of capitalism which in many ways define our shallow “commodified culture” and certainly lay to rest any notion anyone might have about the possibility that humanism still lives. It does not.

But a comment by a reader of the last of three posts on that topic said, in effect, “so what?” The reader feels that the humanities in the colleges and universities. for example, are dead because there is no longer any call for them; students don’t want to study esoteric subjects that will not lead them directly to jobs, etc. To be honest, I wasn’t writing about the death of the humanities as academic disciplines in the colleges and universities which have been dying for many years. I will simply say that the humanities, and liberal arts generally, were designed to help young people think, to help them gain possession of their own minds, regardless of what job they undertake. What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools. Let’s leave it at that.

I would rather turn to the larger question of the humanistic movement. So what if this movement has also died out?

The problem lies not so much with humanism itself but with what humanism brought to the table, historically speaking. Let’s focus exclusively on the fact that humanism generated the Enlightenment and at the height of the eighteenth century, when humanism was in its glory the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his monumental works defending the role of human reason in ethics. One of his books, in fact, was titled Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. He defended the place of reason in determining right and wrong which he thought were no longer capable of being defended by the Roman Church or its Reformers. Christianity may have died out as a cultural force, thought Kant, but we no longer need it to do the right thing. With reason alone, following the categorical imperative, human beings were capable, Kant insisted, in determining in any given case which course of action was “in accordance with duty” and therefore morally right. The Kantian ethic, together with remnants of the Christian ethics combined to create in the Western world a moral high ground from which it was possible for anyone who made the attempt to determine in a given case what he or she should do.

With the death of humanism — and anything like the Kantian ethics — the notion of the moral high ground was leveled. Virtues such as courage, wisdom, justice, human rights, all notions that the humanists regarded as self-evident, were replaced by “values,” which were regarded as relative if not subjective. No longer universal in their appeal, values come and go with the winds of change and the level moral high ground provided no one a place to stand in order to see clearly what is right and what is wrong. Indeed, right and wrong have disappeared along with the moral high ground. And with it such virtues as courage, civility, honor, and chivalry, the virtues that Don Quixote fought to defend, have been lost — perhaps forever. Thus, even before Kant took up his pen the hero of Cervantes’ novel was made to look ridiculous, even mad, in his attempt to defend the virtues that were already beginning to disappear.

Today there are no more Don Quixotes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last man to defend the moral high ground. All around us lie the dead husks of that humanism that gave those virtues and indeed morality itself breath. What we have today is pragmatism, a careful calculation as to which course of action will turn out best for me in the short run. Reason simply calculates and for growing numbers of people compassion for our fellows has been lost along with  those virtues that were predicated on helping others, or as Quixote would see it, helping those who cannot help themselves.

There are remnants left of the Kantian and the Christian ethics, to be sure. But they pale in comparison with the virtues that Quixote defended. Humanism died and along with humanism the commitment to human reason that can lead us, along with centuries of tradition and various religions, to universal truths about right and wrong also died. So when we ask “so what?” we ask “why be moral?” The two questions amount to the same thing.

 

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Blueprint of the Bourgeois

If Hanna Arendt is to be believed, and I strongly suspect she is, Thomas Hobbes writing in the seventeenth century provided us with the blueprint of the bourgeois personality, one who is relentlessly engaged in the process of acquiring wealth, the type that would become the predominant character, world-wide, in the three hundred years that have followed. In this regard, she tells us that:

“There is hardly a single bourgeois moral standard which has not been anticipated by the unequaled magnificence of Hobbes’ logic. He gives an almost complete picture, not of Man but of the bourgeois man, an analysis which in three hundred years has neither been outdated nor excelled. ‘Reason . . . is nothing but Reckoning’; ‘a free Subject, a free Will . . . [are words] . . . without meaning; that is to say, Absurd.’ A being without reason, without the capacity for truth, and without free will — that is, without the capacity for responsibility — bourgeois man is essentially a function of society and judged therefore according to his ‘value or worth . . . his price; that is to say so much as would be given for the use of his power.’ This price is constantly evaluated and reevaluated by society, the ‘esteem of others,’ . . . “

The bourgeois was originally the owner of the means of production who was the bane of Karl Marx’s existence, the ugly capitalist who ground his workers under his foot, stealing the profits they made and keeping the profits for himself. The capitalist today may no longer own the means of production. He may own properties, deal in stocks and bonds, or more than likely be the C.E.O. of a multinational corporation. He might even be a professional athlete! He has become the man Hobbes described early on, a man fixated on making more money than he can possibly spend in his lifetime. The amorality of the bourgeois who simply wants to live well soon becomes the immorality of the exploiter and the dodger of taxes who uses others and places additional burdens on those who can ill afford to take up the weight. All of this is predicated on his fascination with wealth and power as ends in themselves. As Arendt notes:

“The so-called accumulation of capital which gave birth to the bourgeois changed the very conception of property and wealth: they were no longer considered the results of accumulation and acquisition but their beginnings; wealth became a never-ending process of getting wealthier. The classification of the bourgeois as an owning class is only superficially correct, for a characteristic of this class has been that anyone could belong to it who conceived of life as a process of perpetually becoming wealthier, and considered money as something sacrosanct which under no circumstances should be a mere commodity for consumption.”

Arendt thought the Leviathan, Hobbes major work, provided the blueprint I mentioned at the outset. The type of person he describes feeds on raw competition, creating in the world of the bourgeoisie a war of man against man, survival of the fittest. Hobbes said this was a state of nature and suggested that in such a state life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In this state humans cease to be human and become pawns in a game in which the capitalist himself becomes wealthy at the cost of those who oppose him.

Needless to say, this blueprint has changed considerably since Hobbes drew it. Raw capitalism has never seen the light of day, the state of nature becoming in the transition a bit of an exaggeration. Capitalism has always been tempered by remnants of Christian ethics and the rule of law, constraints on the raw greed that motivates the man or woman who seeks only money and more money, a person Arendt describes as “more-than-rich.” In this country we have a number of such laws that prohibit the unfettered growth of capital in the hands of a few — or so it would seem. But those who are more-than-rich spend much of their time working to make sure that those laws and those restraints — such as tax laws and the E.P.A., for example — are rendered nugatory, weakened so that the government cannot effectively interfere with the making of huge profits. The type Hobbes describes still exists.

There are good people owning property and paying others to work for them. And there are private owners of small corporations who do not exploit their employees. To be sure. These people do not fit the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with. But for the “more-than-rich” in this country the blueprint is accurate: there are those who would squash all opposition underfoot in order to amass more and more wealth –money beyond reckoning — thereby creating ugly juxtapositions. Athletes sign multi-million dollar contracts while many others around them must work two jobs or have no place to live and no food on the table. The average corporate C.E.O. in this country makes nearly 400 times as much annually as his or her average employee. And the C.E.O. typically pays little or no income taxes.

The picture is unpleasant, but it is not overblown. We claim to be a Christian country (or some make the claim) while at the same time we see around us the 1% growing richer, the middle class disappearing, and the more-than-poor growing poorer and more numerous. What this means, it seems to me, is that those laws that protect the rest of us against the rich must be enforced and even strengthened because the blueprint that Hobbes provided us with in the seventeenth century is not the least bit exaggerated when it comes to describing unfettered capitalism, including the type of person who flourishes in our day and who would just as soon see all around him fail as long as he amasses great wealth.

Easily Duped?

(This post might best be regarded as a companion piece to the post on Totalitarianism that recently appeared.)

During the early years of the twentieth century Communism was exported around the world as part of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to initiate a world-wide revolution and guarantee that their way of life would be adopted (one way or another) by all countries. As a political and economic program it had many attractions — especially for the disenfranchised and, surprisingly, for intellectuals as well.

In this country many intellectuals and artists who taught at universities, wrote poetry or novels, or acted on the stage or screen were duped into thinking that Communism was the answer to the world’s problems. After all, it resembles Christianity in many ways  — while Christianity had become inoperative for a great many people. It proposes a society in which the greedy capitalist pig is ground under foot; no one goes without; everyone is equal and free and all participate in their own futures. Or at least that was what thinkers like Karl Marx and Lenin promised. The reality was that millions of lives were sacrificed for the cause, even innocent lives, at the hands of the Cheka established by Lenin who acted with no restraints whatever. The lives of the innocent were said to be, with no regrets, “an example.” However, the messages coming out of Russia suggested to the unwary that Marx’s dream was being realized: the people were being set free and were in the process of determining their own futures. And the reason the blissful message was coming across the ocean and around the world was because the Bolsheviks had discovered the power of propaganda.

One of the intellectuals to be taken in by the blatant falsehoods coming out of Russia was Lionel Trilling, the brilliant essayist and teacher at Columbia University. He flirted with Communism, as did so many of his liberal colleagues (including George Orwell and my advisor at Northwestern as it happens) and eventually after he became aware of the huge gap between theory and practice in Russia he wrote a novel that reflected his own experience. In that novel, The Middle of The journey, one of the main characters is a powerful figure in the Communist party in America who has seen the light and wants to disengage himself from the Party and the atrocities that have been committed in its name. But he fears for his life, because such is the reality of the Bolshevik mentality: you are either with us or you are against us.

We struggle to understand how so many brilliant minds could have been easily duped into thinking that a political program would deliver on its promises and create heaven on earth. As suggested above, it was because of the fact that the Bolsheviks controlled the media in Russia and they didn’t allow journalists from other countries into theirs without a guarantee that they would control what was said and/or written. The only newspaper to refuse those conditions was the London Times. The rest of the world accepted the lies because they wanted to believe them. Moreover, it gave them hope. They could not accept the fact that what was told them was carefully selected and colored to present the best possible picture.

In his study of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes gives us an insight into just how effective this propaganda machine was (one which the Nazis later copied almost exactly):

“Communist propaganda strove, and to a surprising extent succeeded, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contrast to it, in which the Soviet citizens were required to believe or pretend to believe. To this end the Communist Party asserted a monopoly over every source of information and opinion and, in time, severed all contacts of its subjects with the outside world. The effort was undertaken on such a vast scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that the imaginary universe it projected eclipsed for many Soviet citizens the living reality, inflicting on them something akin to intellectual schizophrenia.”

Now, this was how propaganda worked within Russia. It was not this successful when transported to other countries. But for those, like Trilling, who cared about their fellow human beings who were starving on long lines waiting for a cup of soup, especially during the depressions that were not uncommon within numerous capitalist countries, what they heard about Communism sounded like the answer to their prayers. Karl Marx was, after all, an ethicist more than an economist. His message in Capital, for example, was about the exploitation of the workers by greedy, selfish owners who cared only about profits. The intellectuals in this country and In Spain and England, especially, saw this going on around them. There was enough truth in the messages they were allowed to read and hear from Russia to cause many of them to join the Party that promised to deliver the franchise to the chronically  disenfranchised. Or at least, they would have a piece of the pie they were themselves making.

We now live in different times, but there are powerful political forces in this country, and others as well, who would silence a free press, dismiss unpleasant truths as “false news,”  and control the information we receive, colored and flavored to their taste. There are those who would silence opposing points of view. There are those who lie as a matter of course in order to convince the faithful that they have all the answers. There are those who have convinced themselves and a coterie of followers that the end justifies the means, any means. Thus is a free press more important now than ever before, as is an alert and even a suspicious citizenry.

While we are not in Russia during the 20s and 30s, we are in a country where the freedom we prize and which so much defines us is under threat by some who would make us prisoners of their minds — not unlike Lenin and, later, Stalin. We must avoid exaggeration and paranoia, but we would be well advised to be on our guard.

Worldly Philosophy

Ours is not an age in which we want to have much to do with those who pursue ideas for their own sake; rather, ours in an age that stresses the practical, the “cash value” of ideas that must result in immediate gratification of the pleasure principle. It is said, for example, that the young  should avoid college courses in such things as philosophy, history, and literature because “what can you do with them?” They are impractical and don’t lead to a better job and, presumably, happiness ever after. This has not always been the case. There was a time when knowledge was pursued for its own sake and the practical was an after-thought.  Moreover, as it happens, such things as philosophical ideas can have immense practical payoff. Take John Locke.

I am reading a remarkable book written by Richard Pipes entitled A Concise History of the Russian Revolution. In the early pages of that book, while trying to probe the causes of the revolution in Russia, and indeed the root causes of revolutions around the world, Pipes points out the immense influence of the English philosopher John Locke.

“In his political writings Locke laid down the foundations of the liberal constitutions of Great Britain and the United States. But his philosophical treatise [Essay Concerning Human Understanding] inadvertently fed a very different, liberal current of political thought. The Essay challenged the axiom of Western philosophy and theology that human beings were born with ‘innate ideas,’ including knowledge of God and a sense of right and wrong. This notion had made for a conservative theory of politics because, by postulating that man comes into the world spiritually and intellectually formed, it also postulated that he was immutable. From this it followed that the principles of government were the same for all nations and ages. According to Locke, however, man is born a blank slate on which physical sensations and experiences write the messages that make him what he is.”

The implications of this radical change in the perception of human nature were picked up by such thinkers as Helvétius in France who expanded Locke’s thesis into a full-blown political theory that centered around the notion that human beings were imperfect and the political state was necessary in order for them to become fully human. This implied that government is justified in “far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.” As Karl Marx would have it, “The whole development of man . . . depends on education and environment.” Thus was born social science and close at its side materialism and with it capitalism with all its warts and imperfections. It no longer mattered that man was created in God’s image because God was effectively dead. As a result, man could become anything the governments and their agencies determined he could become. As Helvétius had noted:

“Man is totally molded by his environment. Thus a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings.  . . . . Good government not only ensures the greatest happiness for the greatest number but literally refashions man.”

The people do not know — parents do not know how to raise their children, for example. But the state knows and we need to simply follow the lead of those in power to realize our full human potential.  Not only does this idea drive the social sciences, but strange as it may seem it has permeated our colleges and universities in our day as growing numbers of radical faculty members openly regard education as the indoctrination of the unformed young into the “correct” way of thinking and acting — namely how their professors themselves think and act. I kid you not. Nor do I exaggerate.

It was especially during the period from the eighteenth century until the middle of the twentieth when this way of looking at things had the most powerful influence outside the academy. It was the intellectual background for the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Constitution of the United States which was founded on the hope that through civil laws, education, and social engineering citizens would develop civic virtue and ignore their own self-interest in order to realize the common good — through which they themselves could become better human beings. Thomas Jefferson had a portrait of John Locke in his study, be it noted.

In any event, this shows us that ideas written down in his closet by the unworldly philosopher can have immense impact on the real world in which most people dismiss such esoteric stuff as “irrelevant” and go about the business of doing business.  And one might think also of the writings of Karl Marx, as mentioned, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. These were “worldly philosophers.” For those who want practical results and are willing to think about why and how those results are to be brought about, it might pay to read what philosophers, historians, and novelists have had to say — and regarding the latter I am thinking about the immense impact of Charles Dickens’ novels in England in the midst of widespread poverty and a diffident Parliament that seemed to be heading the country toward another”Reign of Terror.”

Words

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

It’s interesting, to say the least, how folks bandy words about, making them mean what they want them to mean — not unlike Humpty Dumpty who pays them extra when they work overtime.

Take the word conservative, for example, which ought to include such things as environmentalists who are regarded by many so-called conservatives as liberal “tree-huggers.” Environmentalists are dedicated to conserving our world. But those conservative critics are really dollar conservatives who care only about the bottom line, the profits that are frequently the result of attacks on the environment. There are also intellectual conservatives who are dedicated to preserving those ideas that have helped to create a better world. I number myself among such types. And then there are those liberals usually identified as democrats who advocate human freedom and number among themselves the bleeding heart liberals who react in a programmed manner to all types of human pain and misery — real and supposed. They leave their minds on the shelf and lead with their gut. Endorsing political correctness, they also head the attack against the Canon in the universities and all books written by “dead, white European males.” The pain and misery resulting from this attack, in the form of uninformed and confused students with shrunken minds, is ignored in the name of “social justice” — which can be loosely translated as “what I want to be the case.”

Oddly, it is quite possible for someone to embrace a number of these positions simultaneously and without inconsistency. One can be, for example, a democratic socialist who seeks greater social equality through democratic means.

Socialism, according to Karl Marx, is the economic system that arises upon the death of capitalism, an economic system that feeds on the rotting carcasses of exploited workers — speaking of human pain and misery. Karl Marx was convinced that the state would commandeer the means of production and socialism would result. But eventually the workers would themselves own the means of production and all would share equally — an economic system, called Communism.  Many an intellectual in the early part of the last century embraced the ideals of Communism until, like George Orwell, they discovered that so many of those who said they were promoting Communism were actually fostering totalitarianism and were responsible for the death of millions of their fellow humans — all in the name of “equality,” and “justice.” It is worthy of note that Communism, as embraced by Marx, resembles in important ways the Christianity preached in the Gospels.

And speaking of Christians, there are those who claim to be Christians and who are quite happy with their own prejudices and even preach hatred against all of those they regard as different from themselves. These should be called nominal Christians, as they are Christian in name only. The real Christians, who are rare, are those who do the right thing because it is the right thing and try hard to love their fellow humans, as was preached by the original (and some might say the only) true Christian. There are some who seek to do the right thing, as our beloved blogger Jill Dennison tells us each week, pointing out those who truly deserve our respect and admiration. And, I dare say, many of those people are not even nominal Christians! So it goes.

In any event, words do have relatively fixed meanings, as our dictionaries attest. But, in the spirit of Humpty Dumpty, many of us think that meaning, like truth itself, is something we make up and which dances to the tunes we play. This leads us, as we are becoming increasingly aware, toward a relativism of the meanest sort, a relativism in which hate comes to mean the same thing as love and truth is a fabrication of those in power whose private agenda centers around themselves and their ugly urges toward more and more power. It pays us to beware and to tread carefully, to make sure we know whereof we speak and insist that those claims that we are told are true have the force of evidence and argument to support them. And we should make sure folks say what they mean even though they seldom seem to mean what they say. Otherwise our minds will become prisoners of those who delight in making others a means toward their own ends.

 

Population Control

I recently returned from a brief sojourn to the North Shore of Minnesota where the sun is always shining and the temperatures are pleasant. It is truly beautiful. We met my wife’s brother in St. Cloud and drove up together to spend a few days hiking and visiting. It was delightful — though the return to home base with the temperatures in the 90s, the humidity off the charts, and the lawn burned out from the prolonged drought was a bit of a shock.

In any event, on the return trip we had to wait a while in St. Cloud for the train to arrive to take my brother-in-law back to hot and steamy Montana and we turned on the television in the motel room and watched a National Geographic special that touched on a timely topic: world population.

Now I have blogged on this in the past and have made my position clear: exploding human population is in my view the major problem facing the future of this planet — especially if, as expected, food production is adversely affected by global warming. But this program revealed an apparent truth I was unaware of, and that is that population in “developed nations” has dropped and is predicted to drop even further. The program focused on Japan where the country has taken it upon itself an effort to induce young Japanese couples to marry and procreate. It was mentioned that in Russia a young couple is given a refrigerator by the State if they have a child! In any event, there is concern among a number of those countries that their populations are dropping off and that this is a trend that will continue.

One would think this is very good news indeed — declining human populations are a good thing, surely! But it raises a provocative question: why would the countries by worried and making various attempts to provide incentives to young people to have more children? The answer is glaringly obvious once you think about the problem a bit: it’s all about the economy. These countries want bodies that will work, earn money, pay taxes, and buy things they don’t need. Fewer people endanger an economy that requires people to earn and spend.

Joseph Schumpeter, whom I have referenced in earlier blogs, predicted in the 1940s that capitalism would fail not because of the rise of the Proletariat as Marx predicted, but from its own successes. In a word, as young people become more affluent and more self-absorbed they would become more and more calculating (“rationalizing” was his word) in their approach to life and would decide that children would only be a deterrent to the satisfaction of their desires and they would wait to get married and have fewer and fewer children — if they had any at all.

As Schumpeter himself put it, young people

 “. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.” Moreover, they would think, “why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

As a result, Schimpeter predicted, population in those countries that depended on capitalism would see a decline in population and this would eventually cripple the economy. This, of course, explains why the “developed” countries are worried about the decline in human populations in their countries. It’s all about the money.

In sum, it would appear that reduced human populations would be a blessing as far as the preservation of the planet and the reduction of a great many of the global problems humans face at present, but if it hurts the pocketbook then it must be discouraged.

 

Filthy Lucre

For hundreds of years in the West it was deemed vulgar to be involved in the making of more money than was required to live on, including lending at interest or simply hoarding. The notion that one would spend his or her time simply accumulating money and wealth was regarded, not only by the Christian Church but also by those “in the know” as beneath contempt. In Dante’s Inferno, for example, the usurers are placed beneath the murderers because they commit a sin against God, whereas murderers only commit a sin against man. Those who lend money at interest seek to make money appear where there was none before, creating money without laboring in any way, creating money ex nihilo. Only God can do this, it was thought. When man seeks to copy God he has stepped beyond a moral barrier that condemns him to eternal perdition. In Dante’s poem the usurers sit at the edge of a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks, waiting for the gold to increase, presumably.

There can be no doubt that the deep prejudices that folks like Adolph Hitler drew upon against the Jews in Europe was based, in part at least, on the fact that the Jews saw nothing wrong with usury or the making of money while those who did not espouse that particular religious view were told in no uncertain terms that it was contemptible and trifling and even vulgar. There was one Jew, of course, who founded a new religion based on the notion that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But he was an exception and has been widely ignored, especially of late. In any event, the accumulation of wealth as an end in itself was regarded as de-humanizing and even immoral.

How did this view change? How did we get from looking down at money-gatherers to regarding them as the most successful people on earth and worthy not only of our respect but even, in some cases, of our adoration? Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are held in high esteem in our culture. We even have elected a president whose only possible claim to that office is that he was a successful (?) businessman. They are examples of the fact that anyone can “make it” in America. The Horatio Alger myth lives on, though it gets a bit weaker when we discover that many were born with a silver spoon in their tiny mouths and we also discover that Balzac was right: where there’s a fortune there must have been a crime.

In any event, the attitude toward “filthy lucre” has changed radically and it is down to people like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Calvin. The changes in attitude came in two stages. Firstly, the notion that the acquisition of great wealth, once regarded as a sign of grubby self-seeking greed, had been replaced by the eighteenth century, when capitalism was aborning, by the notion that the accumulation of great wealth was an example of virtuous behavior  — a point of view we find expressed again and again in Adam Smith who wrote that “probity and punctuality are virtues that invariably accompany the introduction of commercial relations into society.” And, secondly, it was said that commerce benefits not only the one who engages directly in the activity, but it benefits everyone else around him as well. It has a “trickle down” effect, if you will. Smith worried that capitalism displaced centuries-old morality, but he felt that, in the end, it was worth the trade-off.

But even before Smith we read that John Locke worried about the possibility that in a state of nature a man could accrue to himself more of nature’s bounty than he could possibly need and in the process leave little or nothing for his fellow humans. This was not a good thing. But once gold and silver were taken to be true wealth and John Calvin insisted that the gaining of wealth was a sign of God’s grace and favor, this no longer was a problem; now one could accumulate as much as he wanted whether he could ever spend it in his lifetime or not. It would never spoil and, presumably, there was plenty left for others to accrue as well. So was born the “Protestant work ethic.”

Thus, in our day, we have heroes who would have been pilloried in earlier times. We now regard the making and hoarding of money as not only acceptable but also as a sign of intelligence, imagination, and hard work, worthy of admiration, a measure of success. In the process the accumulation of capital, has become at the very least an a-moral activity, even though folks like Karl Marx continued to regarded it as immoral — because it necessarily involves the taking it way from others who need it more, who earned it, and therefore deserve to have it. This happens under capitalism in the form of the creation of “surplus value” which we have come to dismiss as, simply, “the earnings of capital.” The wealthy see their immense profits as something they have earned and therefore deserve, whereas others (like Marx) might view it as coming at the cost of unethical acts that involve the exploitation of those who actually do the work necessary to produce the wealth in the first place.

But no matter which way we look at it, the making and hoarding or money, no matter how great the hoard, is now viewed in our culture as a good thing. It is no longer “contemptible and trifling,” unworthy of human beings who have been touched by the hand of God. It is no longer “vulgar.” At the very least it is clear that the making of filthy lucre has become “demoralized.” Ethics and economics simply do not mix in our current commodified culture. No longer do the usurers have to worry about  being placed in a burning pit with heavy bags of gold around their necks through eternity. Now they build high-priced, low-quality mini-mansions, swim in their own swimming pools, and drive large, powerful gas-guzzling cars to Church every Sunday for an hour.  And the rest of us admire them and want to be just like them.

The Moral Vacuum

I call your attention to a comment made in an excellent post on the website titled “Zenocrat” and written by Ewa Kuryluk. She notes, in speaking of Franz Kafka, that:

Employed by an international insurance company, he watched bureaucracy driven by capitalist efficiency operating in a moral vacuum and imagined how easily it could be turned into a totalitarian death machine.

While somewhat disquieting, this is brilliant sentence that captures the heart and soul of capitalism and the moral problems it raises. The notion that this efficient economic system operates “in a moral vacuum” is precisely why it has come under such close scrutiny by thinkers like Karl Marx and Robert Heilbroner.

Marx talked about “Constant Value” and “Variable Value” which are based on the cost of the means of production, salaries of all employees, including management and owners, deterioration of the physical plant, and the like. But over and above these, insists Marx, there is something he called “Surplus Value,” which is created ex nihilo, as it were, in that it does not correlate in any way to the human labor that went into the production of the commodity, and which (in the form of great wealth) somehow manages to end up in the pockets of the owners of the means of production. In today’s world this is reflected by the salaries of the CEOs of giant corporations in this country who make between 300 and 700 times what their average employee makes. This is usually “justified” on the grounds that the CEO must be paid a “competitive” salary (with benefits) for fear of losing them to another company. Or there is talk about the “risks” he or she takes in running such a giant corporation. But these are pathetically weak excuses in light of the huge disparity they attempt to cover up.

Not many years ago the N.F.L. Players Association struck professional football on the grounds that the players’ salaries should be based on the “take” from the total number of games they played in a season, billions of dollars. Granted, the players were already making huge sums of money — though paltry by today’s standards — but they felt it was only fair that the pie should be cut in such a way that the players got their fair share rather than the amount each individual could bargain for on his own. Interestingly, this is a thoroughly Marxian notion (though the players would be reluctant to admit that). The total pie in professional football, even at that time, was huge, and on Marxian principles the players should have been allotted their fair proportion, even granting that the owners’ shares might remain large.

Robert Heilbroner worried about many of the same things, particularly the moral vacuum of which Kuryluk speaks. In The Nature and Logic of Capitalism he notes that:

“[Capitalism] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last, and most important, because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all elicit activity from  any need to justify itself on other grounds. . . . The expansion of capital is aided and abetted by the declaration that moral and aesthetic criteria — the only dikes that might hold back the flood tide of capital’s expansion — are without relevance within the realm of economic activity.”

And it is precisely this lack of moral restraint, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as moral high ground — the notion that “all’s fair in love, war, and business — that provides the grounds for the concern about the “totalitarian death machine” of which Zuryluk speaks. There need to be moral dikes to stem the tide of greed and avarice endemic to capitalism. We have hints of this today in this country in light of a Federal Administration headed by a quasi-successful businessman who yearns to be a despot.

There is no question that Western men and women have benefitted in many ways from capitalism. Adam Smith thought this justified the lack of moral restraints that Heilbroner mentions and Kafka and Marx worried about. Of course, Smith was convinced that human beings had a natural sympathy for one another that would mitigate somewhat the raw forces of competitive capitalism and the subsequent bracketing of moral precepts. In any event, this may be wishful thinking, since it is not clear that we are better off because we now have two SUVs, a powerboat plus a skidoo, and a home on the lake (which require that both husband and wife work full-time) than we would be if we all lived in smaller homes where one spouse lived at home, perhaps with the grandparents living in as well, and where the family could spend time together and the children could get the discipline and structure that they surely miss.

In a word, it’s not at all clear that the benefits of capitalism outweigh the costs, whether the “moral vacuum” of which Kuryluk speaks will not eventually suffocate us.

Regulations

We live in a time of ferocious de-regulation as the Republican majority in both houses of government in the United States is in positive tizzy to rid the country of those nasty regulations that have been interfering with the increase of profits for the very few. But there are regulations and there are regulations. Some are in the spirit of “mercantilism” that is intended to increase a nation’s wealth by regulating all of the nation’s commercial interests. Those are the regulations people like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had in mind when they argued for a system of “free enterprise” that would increase human liberty and contribute to the common good. That was in the eighteenth century, the age of Enlightenment.

But there are regulations today that are designed to protect citizens from the dangers following upon the blind pursuit of profit that threaten the health and well-being of us all. Smith fought against “mercantilism” because the government at that time was intent on decreasing wages and expanding the pool of needy workers that would then be available to the wealthy who owned the factories. Smith argued vociferously for raising the wages of the working classes. The attacks of Karl Marx were also against the same propertied class in the name of the “workers of the world.” Today’s regulations that are designed to protect citizens from corporate abuse, not to mention the destruction of the planet that sustains us all, are of a different order and would most certainly not have been opposed by Adam Smith. One wonders about Edmund Burke who, while a student of Adam Smith, was also a more ferocious defender of the rights of the propertied classes —  though he had some rough words for the “sophists, economists, and calculators” who pervert the true principles of economy by promoting policies that were inimical to the welfare of the country.

In any event, those who might refer to Smith or to Burke in pursuing the elimination of regulations might want to reflect on the intention of the two thinkers., Both were concerned about the liberty of all citizens, though Smith was primarily concerned about the liberty of the ordinary workers who were busily being exploited in his day by the mercantile classes, the owners of the means of production, as Marx would have it a century later. Smith was a compassionate thinker, a pillar of the British Enlightenment and firmly at the center of the Scottish Moral Sense School of philosophy who was convinced that men would, left to themselves, do the right thing. His famous comment, often invoked in defense of free-enterprise capitalism should be taken in the context of his entire thesis and in his earlier work in moral philosophy. When he says that

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest”

we must pause and reflect that this is the man who regards human sympathy and benevolence as fundamental traits in the human soul. The pursuit of self-interest, in Smith’s view, would not conflict with benevolence or the well-being of others, because we are all, Smith thought, concerned not only about our own good but also the good of our fellow human beings. By pursuing self-interest we are at the same time pursuing the best interest of others. There is no conflict, in Smith’s view, because all humans want all other humans to be happy and well off. All, that is, but those who own the factories that employ humans at starvation levels. Smith fought hard to demand that the government, if it interfere at all, fund public education and work to promote policies that raise the wages of the working men and women rather than to reduce them as many would do in his name today. The mercantile system that Smith criticized sought to direct the economy in the interests of national wealth and power, not in the direction of the ordinary worker. Thus, when he advocates free enterprise it was because he was convinced that left to themselves workers would care for one another and help the economy at the same time. He was convinced, for example, that educating the workers and raising their wages would increase productivity, improve worker morale, and increase profits, while at the same time making it possible for the workers to live fuller, richer lives. This is the free-enterprise system he advocated.

Smith would not have fought against the sorts of regulations that protect citizens today against the abuses of the large corporations that would poison the air and water. Nor would he defend the supposed “right” of mega-corporations to be deregulated in the name of increased profits. Certainly not if those actions were undertaken at the cost of increasing poverty for increasing numbers of men and women and direct threats to their health and the preservation of the planet on which we all depend, which they most assuredly are. Smith would never condone, for example, the sort of attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency we have seen of late. So those who invoke his name in defense of their attacks on regulations might to do well to actually read Adam Smith’s book and pause to reflect on the long-term costs of their short-term thinking.  It’s not all about profits. It’s all about the common good. It was in Smith’s time and it still is in our’s.

The Family and Civil Society

At the very core of what used to be called “civil society” sits the family. This is where the young are taught such things as civil discourse, self-discipline, responsibility, and the restraint that eventually becomes what we call “character.” There are those who insist that the family so described is no more. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist who spent forty years writing Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (once regarded as a “must” read and now simply becoming musty on the forgotten shelves of university libraries) predicted the dissolution of the family and eventually of civil society. This would result, Schumpeter insisted, from the success of capitalism — not the failure, as Marx would have it. This is because capitalism breeds a culture of calculation focused upon self-interest and short-term thinking. But above all else, it breeds a temper opposite to the temper that insists upon self-sacrifice for the needs and goods of those we love and a genuine concern for our children and their children.

At the heart of capitalism, insists Schumpeter, is the process of “rationalization,” as he calls it, the mind-set of folks raised to think that material goods are the measure of success and the source of all human happiness. Rationalization leads young people to calculate, for example, whether to not to get married — given the fact that children and the responsibilities of the family would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the things that they think will make them happy. The would-be parents

“. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.”

It is this tendency to calculate that disturbs Schumpeter, not only in the planning of the family in the first place, but later on as parents insist that both must work in order to achieve the level of prosperity they believe is necessary to be happy. This “must” is a felt necessity in a self-absorbed culture that places a premium on material goods and possessions as a key to happiness. It has replaced the urge to make the family unit as strong and safe as possible. The result is a more open and mobile, often broken, family and one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.

Schumpeter wrote before the Second World War but his concerns have been echoed by more recent students of culture, such people as Hannah Arendt in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and more recently Gertrude Himmelfarb — all of whom despaired for the weakening or disappearance altogether of the family unit they saw at the center of civil society which they sought to preserve. Arendt, for example, saw a failure of nerve on the part of both parents and teachers that has led to the rejection of the notion of “authority” especially

“the authority of adults, implicitly denying their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and [which] refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

Himmelfarb notes the erection of a commodified culture created by capitalism in which we find we are “too present-minded and self-centered to tolerate the kinds of constraints imposed on parents in the interest of the family — or for that matter, the constraints on children, who are no less present-minded and self-centered.” She goes on to note:

” Nineteenth and-early-twentieth-century accounts of working-class life are replete with stories of children laboring part-time and contributing their meager earnings not only willingly but proudly to the family. Today children commonly receive allowances from their parents to be spent for their personal satisfaction.”

I can attest to this myself as I received no allowance but, rather, worked after school while in high school in the early 1950s and earned $13.00 a week, bringing $10.00 home to help with the costs of running the home and keeping the remaining $3.00 for my needs during the week. This was the era of the 1950s family that is so often derided by theorists today who see the movement toward more open family groups as a good thing, greater freedom and less restriction and sacrifice — rejecting the notion that discipline and self-sacrifice might be the sorts of things that build character and make families stronger. These same folks regard the parents as incapable of raising their children properly and would rather see them raised by “experts” trained in psychology or social work, persons attached to assorted state agencies.

In any event, one cannot focus exclusively on the weakening of family ties for the disappearance of civil societies, since the Church has also traditionally been an important part of character building, teaching those virtues that helped young people grow into responsible and other-oriented adults. And, for the most part, the Church no longer addresses these issues as they are caught up in the business of turning a profit, filling the pews, and assuring their congregations that they are loved regardless of how they behave.

But it is interesting to ponder the explanation these thinkers point to when they express concern for the successes of capitalism and its decided reorientation of values in creating a calculating, self-interested, commodified culture that measures success and happiness in terms of annual income (which, by the way, helps to explain why children, and their parents in many cases, hold teachers in such low esteem). Have we really come to an age in which, as Schumpeter insists, the average parents calculate the pros and cons of raising a family in terms such as these:

“Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”