The Business of America

The business of America, as they say, is business. Politics, like education and even medicine, has become business. Indeed, there is scarcely any activity we can think of that has not been transformed into business, including sports. In education, we are now told to do what is best for our “clients,” and that translates into giving them what they want and not what they need — and making it profitable. Medicine has huge billboards and runs countless advertisements on the television selling their latest product or service to their patients. Businessmen, successful or not, are elected to high public office. And sports, well, we know about sports: even at the collegiate level they have become commodified. We have known for years that this was coming, but we were not quite expecting what has occurred.

So much of what is going on results from our collective attitude to the earth which we regard with indifference (contempt?) and threaten to destroy in our rush to garner greater and greater wealth and bigger and bigger profits. Let me explain — with the help of my friend Robert Heilbroner, author of The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. He points out that we need to ponder what he calls “the bourgeois attitude toward nature.”

“[In contrast with our bourgeois attitude] one aspect of the culture of most past civilizations strikes everyone who examines these extraordinarily diverse societies. This is their sacred view of the world. Whether in China or India, Greece or Rome, the Americas or Africa, the earth is seen by earlier civilizations as peopled with spirits and living presences, suffused with an animism that inhabits every rock as well as every living thing.”

This attitude cannot be found in the Judeo-Christian religion, however,

“which from Genesis on bids man to seize and shape, appropriate and subdue nature for human purposes alone.”

This attitude has come to permeate the thinking of much of the West and has given impetus to the tremendous success of the capitalistic system of economics which has given Western (and recently Eastern) people so much they can be proud of: a diverse culture, extraordinary creativity both in the arts and in science, longer and healthier lives, and wealth beyond rubies. But it has come at a price, because our attitude toward the earth threatens to bring down the entire edifice around our ears and bring suffering to millions of people as never before in human history. As Heilbroner goes onto point out, this attitude

lies rather in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. [The earth is no longer our Mother. It does not live. As we are taught by science and technology, it is simply there for the taking.] It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus accumulation [i.e, profit]. . . . . Capitalism requires and engenders a belief in the indifference of ‘nature’ to the operations performed on it my man, a point of view epitomized by the scientific outlook. The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward a material world — a point of view that would be impossible if the world were portrayed as “mother” Nature. The ideological function of science is to delegitimize this animistic view, replacing it with the much more powerful view of nature as object, the obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man.”

To begin with, as I have noted in previous discussions on this topic, it is part of the nature of capitalism that it has no intrinsic moral dimension. Capitalism, is a-moral, at the very least.  Moreover, many of those in business who rely on science to assist them in taking from the earth as much plunder as they can would deny science in the form of the predictions of climate change which would thwart their desires and curtail their avarice. They lean heavily on the scientific attitude that the earth is inert and there for the taking — “obedient servant and uncomplaining treasury of man.” But they ignore its dire warnings that there is a price to be paid. They fly about the world making money; rely on computer models to tell them the latest stock predictions — not to mention the weather; they plant and harvest crops based on the latest information provided them by agricultural science. They quantify everything and rely heavily on calculations and predictions that depend, in turn, on scientific evidence. When it is useful science is leaned on heavily, but when it tells them to beware they refuse to listen.

It is not surprising, however, that an economy like ours would ignore warnings about climate change since such a thing cannot be fathomed by those who think in terms of profit and loss and who see the world as something to be exploited and to render up its treasure to them and to no one else. So we should not be surprised when those in Congress and the White House, so heavily dependent on the business community for their jobs, ignore the warnings about climate change and insist that it is a Chinese plot to destroy the American economy. They find it more comforting to keep their collective heads buried in the sand than to admit that it might be wise to proceed with caution. After all it’s only the earth and it’s there to plunder and exploit. It’s not our Mother, it is simply inert and lifeless. Or it soon will be.

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Minimal State

There are those among us who see the political state as a Big Brother who watches everything we do and tells us NOT to do those things we want to do. Or it takes our money. They would minimize the role of the state, if not eliminate it entirely. They call themselves “libertarians” because they are convinced that without a political state watching over us we would be free as birds. What they don’t realize is that the sort of freedom they envision is chaos, like a crowd trying to escape from a burning theater. Without restraint we do not have freedom. Quite the opposite.

In any event, the economist Robert Heilbroner, who wrote The Nature and Logic of Capitalism, has a chapter in the book that addresses the relative roles of the state and capital and their need for one another. Those who would do away with what they regard as state interference would cut off their very noses to spite their faces. Ugly, to say the least. And stupid. The state does tend to become bigger and bigger, that’s certainly true. And we all hate to pay taxes (those of us who do pay taxes, that is). But the role of the state has become absolutely necessary to the preservation of our society and for the continuered prosperity of those who would do away with it. As Heiolbroner notes:

“It is equally evident that the designation of capitalism as ‘self-ordering’ . . .must be understood in a qualified sense. The term applies that all essential activities connected with the material process can be, at least in principle, consigned to the markets. [This is untrue] not alone in the case of such goods as defense, without which no marketing system seems imaginable, but in the broad historical reality of capitalism as a self-reproducing social formation. Here the state, both as defender and promoter of the economic realm, has played so prominent a role that even the most abstract scenarios of the system unwittingly assign it a central and indispensable place when they take as their unit of conceptual analysis the state. Remove the regime of capital and the state would remain, although it might change dramatically; remove the state and the regimen of capital would not last a day.”

The state provides capital with avenues of transportation for their goods as well as avenues of communication to open up new markets and keep those open that are at present offering the owners large profits. The state also provides the capitalist with trained (if not educated) workers and health care for the employees in order to enable them to continue to work and produce commodities and goods. This is in addition the huge military machine that, as Heilbroner suggests above, defends the capitalist from those who would threaten his profit-making activities. In addition, as we have seen especially in recent times, the government stands ready to bail out struggling or failed businesses, — as in the case of such things as farm subsidies and the recent bailouts of the banking industry and two of the three major auto companies in this country.  Government is absolutely necessary to the continued existence of business and the health of our economy. It is perceived as Big Brother watching and nay-saying, but it is in fact Big Brother who makes it possible for those who would do away with it to prosper.

At present, of course, we have a president in this country who is a staunch advocate of minimal state, because he also sees the state as having outgrown its usefulness. He would do away with those regulatory agencies that protect the citizens and their health, forgetting in the process that upon their good health depends the continued prosperity of such things as, oh I don’t know, say, the hotels and resorts that have made the man a fortune? The desire to minimize the state and reduce, if not eliminate altogether, its role in our economy is myopic, to say the least. It sees only what it wants to see in its paranoid condition, and ignores the fact that the political state is the underpinning of everything they regard as valuable, namely, those things that have made (and keep) them healthy and wealthy. It is short-sighted, if not simply stupid — not unlike the continued ignorance of global warming that is a direct threat to their continued existence, not to mention the continued growth of their obscene wealth.  It’s as stupid as, say, thinking this nation can go it alone in the day of international conglomerates and global business in which the economies of the nations of the world depend upon one another as never before. Isolationism is not the answer; it’s not even a desirable option. Neither is libertarianism. We all depend upon one another in so many ways — as never before.

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.

Again, Black Friday

I have posted this piece before, but in light of the fact that we now have a mega-holiday that a character in one of the comics I enjoy calls “Hallothanksmas,” and given also that advertisers are now calling November “Black Friday Month,” it seems especially appropriate as we are about to see the ugly face of commodified Christmas once again.

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither — but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that increasingly encroaches on Thanksgiving is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation. If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket. The real issues, like spread of nuclear weapons and the damage we are doing to the environment in our tizzy to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities.

Black Friday

[I am reblogging this post from a couple of years ago because the problem persists. In fact, it seems to be getting worse with stores now opening on Thanksgiving Day and employees being told simply to shut up.]

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither —  but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that increasingly encroaches on Thanksgiving is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation. If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket. The real issues, like spread of nuclear weapons and the damage we are doing to the environment in our tizzy to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities.

Not-So-Sacred Earth

I wrote recently about our tendency to reduce such things as art and athletics to something that can be measured and counted in dollars and cents. I drew on some of the things Robert Heilbroner wrote in his book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. There is much to be learned from that remarkable book, and one of them has to do with our attitude toward the earth we are rapidly destroying in the name of “progress” and “profits.”

Heilbroner is convinced that the Judeo-Christian religion combined with modern science to engender an attitude toward the earth that encourages exploitation. He calls it the “desacralization” of the earth. If we loved the earth and regarded it as something sacred, or truly believed the earth is our Mother, as many cultures do, we could not possibly treat her the way we do. It’s an interesting thesis, though some might find it unsettling. In any event, what we have here is a serious type of reductionism indeed: reducing the earth to an inanimate thing to be exploited for our creature comforts.

To be sure, the Judeo-Christain religion teaches us that the earth is there to serve our purpose, whatever that purpose happens to be. Early on there were restraints, of course, as the New Testament taught that wealth in itself is not necessarily a good thing, that the love of money is the root of all evil. But these restraints gradually loosened and there was nothing in our religious tradition to suggest that the earth is sacred: it is there for us to do with as we might. By the time the exploitation of the earth became possible on a grand scale, thanks to a science that reduces reality to “an uncomplaining grid of space and time,” and great wealth became available by exploiting the earth, there was no moral compass in Western culture that allowed us to see that the direction we were taking would be both harmful and wrong. Heilbroner thinks that moral compass disappeared completely when John Locke insisted late in the seventeenth century that “unlimited private acquisition, for centuries the target of the most scathing religious and philosophic criticism, was in fact compatible with both the dictates of Scripture and the promptings of right reason.” Locke was of course simply aligning himself with John Calvin who had argued a century earlier that great wealth was a sign of God’s favor. As science led to the industrial age the way was being paved for capitalist exploitation of both human beings and the earth that supports them. It has now become a fait accompli.

The role of science in Heilbroner’s view is especially interesting. As he put it, the ideological aspect of science “lies in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus [capital] accumulation.” This translated in a remarkably short time into a technical explosion that made it possible to exploit the earth and take from it anything that might increase our wants and needs. Lacking any restraint from our religious tradition the cry went up to take and keep from the earth as much as possible. The result of this thinking was unfettered capitalism, greed with a capital “G,” and an earth that suffers from relentless exploitation, air and water that may not sustain us much longer, and multinational corporations that blindly rush after profits with no thought for the morrow.

What’s It Worth?

I used to watch “Antiques Roadshow,” one of the very few shows on public television that people actually watch in great numbers. But its popularity as well as the nature of the show itself are worth consideration. The former depends on the latter. But what is the show about? What does it mean? What are the subtle, hidden suggestions the show passes along to us? These are questions worth considering.

People bring family heirlooms and treasures to a city where cameras are set up and experts evaluate the worth of these treasures in dollars and cents. In a word, the “value” of things is translated before our eyes from delight, sentiment, and aesthetic appreciation to filthy lucre. It is a sign of what has been called the “commodification” of culture. In such a culture everything is turned into a commodity — including human labor — and a price is put on it which determines its value. Without the dollar sign attached to it, it has no value. We are so used to the process we no longer think about what has been lost in the translation. What things are really worth has given way to what price they can bring. “I love that painting, but is it worth anything?” This is absurd.  If you love the painting it has real value. You don’t need to attach a dollar sign to it.

The same sort of thing happens in “sport” which is the reduction of athleticism from something beautiful and valuable in itself for participants and spectators alike into a money-making proposition where television and promoters call the shots and the athletes are valued for what kind of market they create with their skills. The better ones make more money, and vice versa. Just think about what the commercialization of the Olympics has done. It has turned a series of athletic events that should amaze and astound us for the remarkable skill shown by the participants into a competitive spectacle where every medal earned is rewarded with dollars and carefully counted; winning has become not the main thing but the only thing that counts. It really isn’t: I don’t care if Vince Lombardy did say it. It is the event or the performance itself that should be valued, not wins and losses.

When I played and coached competitive tennis I loved to win. Don’t get me wrong. But I never fell into the trap of thinking that winning is what it’s all about. I played because I loved to play: to hit the good shot or to “be in the moment” when you know every shot will go where you want it to and nothing else matters. When I coached I always stressed performance. Let winning take care of itself; just give it your best effort. And I certainly would never have thought to put a price on winning or losing.

In a commodified culture something important is lost when these sorts of reductions take place. In reducing the value of heirlooms and family treasures to dollars and cents we lose the aesthetic and sentimental value of the objects themselves which has nothing whatever to do with money. In reducing athletics to sports we lose the thrill of watching another human being perform extraordinary feats of strength, skill, and movement as we worry about whether they will win or lose. Our three-dimensional world is hammered into a sheet.

We seem to have lost sight of why things are truly important to us in our urge to measure everything in terms of money. But how do we measure in this way the value of a child’s smile, a sunset, the trust the blind man has in his dog, or the love of another human? We can’t — certainly not in terms of dollars and cents. The important things don’t have a dollar value, they are valuable in themselves.

Compassionate Capitalism

Capitalism comes in many forms, from raw “free market” capitalism to the form we recognize in which capitalism is tempered somewhat by social programs to benefit those who might otherwise be excluded from the table of plenty where the capitalist sits and eats his fill. Robert Heilbroner wrote the definitive study of “raw” capitalism in 1985 and he characterized it as follows:

Its ideological aspect lies rather in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus accumulation. . . .The culture of capitalism thus expresses a voracious, even rapacious, attitude toward the material

world. — a point of view that would be impossible if the world were portrayed as ‘mother’ Nature.*

This view of the world was, of course, the view that Karl Marx attacked in this three-volume study of capitalism that led, eventually, to the establishment of socialism in countries like Russia and China. Marx was particularly concerned about the unethical dimensions of capitalism, its notion that the exploitation of workers was acceptable in the name of higher profits for the owners of the means of production. In fact, the ethical concerns raised by Marx were what carried the book to the popular heights it achieved later on; as a book on economics it was filled with flaws and misconceptions and is nearly unreadable. Marx’s economics rest, for example, on the “labor theory of value,” which has since been shown to be simplistic and downright unworkable.

Our country started out with what historians call “mercantile” capitalism, a form in which the mother country, Britain, dictated who the colonies were to trade with and to whom they could send exports. Most exports went directly to England, of course, while others were taxed heavily by Britain when sent elsewhere. In a word, the mother country called the shots and merchants and farmers who were eager to make profits in this country had to bend to the yoke willingly provided by Great Britain. This yoke eventually became a burden and erupted in the American revolution, of course. Indeed, Marx predicted that all forms of capitalism would eventually lead to revolution as the workers of the world would find their burden excessive and rise up and throw it off.

The fact that this has not happened in this country after the British yoke was thrown off is largely due to the growth and expansion of the middle class — a class that Karl Marx never saw evolving from the heart of capitalism. In addition, especially since the Great Depression, this country has introduced a number of social programs that have tempered capitalism and made it more compassionate, if you will — programs designed to assist those in need, those excluded (as mentioned above) from the table filled with rich foods that feed the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalist hierarchy. Also, a number of steps have been taken to temper the “rapacious” attitude of those in this country toward Mother Nature to whom they owe their very lives.

But the middle class and the social and environmental programs that make capitalism more compassionate have recently come under fire in the form of the Republican strategy to enrich those who control the wealth in this country and widen the gap between those with great wealth and those who are impoverished — while, at the same time, eliminating as far as possible those governmental restraints on further capitalist “rapaciousness” toward the planet. In a word, as the planet itself comes under attack, the middle class, which Karl Marx never saw coming, is in danger of falling into the chasm that is widening in this country as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. I discussed this in an earlier blog and it is reinforced by information collected by the Pew Research Center:

As the 2012 presidential candidates prepare their closing arguments to America’s middle class, they are courting a group that has endured a lost decade for economic well-being. Since 2000, the middle class has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some—but by no means all—of its characteristic faith in the future.

Will this eventually erupt in a revolution as Marx predicted? Is “Occupy Wall Street” a sign of things to come? Will our continued denial of the stewardship we owe Mother Earth finally catch up with us? Time will tell. But much depends on the awareness of the growing number of those at the bottom of the capitalist pyramid who may or may not realize what is occurring. As of this writing they seem content to remain in the dark.

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Robert Heilbroner: The Nature and Logic of Capitalism (New York: W.W. Norton, Inc.), p. 135.