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Capitalism Wins

capitalism_democracyFor the first time in American history, capitalism defeated democracy in our choice of a president. I don’t mean that president-elect Donald Trump wasn’t elected by a democratic process (although our electoral college scheme is oddly undemocratic), but that he is not for democracy. His personal worldview and lifestyle do not demonstrate the principles of individual liberty, inclusive community, and human rights. He doesn’t believe in dialogue and compromise. He doesn’t listen carefully or reason well. He lacks compassion for the working poor, the refugee, the differently oriented and otherwise aligned. Trump is a capitalist. We might even say that he’s a celebrity capitalist.

In The Great American Divide I tried to tease apart the two traditions of democracy and capitalism in US history. Our national experiment in democracy has been strained and challenged from the beginning. I’m not treating democracy as merely one form of government among others, but as also a social vision, a deep set of political aspirations that connect – at least in our imaginations if not yet in fact – toward “a more perfect union,” where the individual is understood through the lens of community, as sharing responsibility for the common good. Democracy is fundamentally about ‘the people’, their freedoms individually as well as their obligations to one another.

To throw capitalism into a contest with democracy sounds at first as if I’m committing a serious category error. Democracy is about politics and government, whereas capitalism is about economic opportunity and commerce. You can’t compare apples and oranges, as we say. But actually both democracy and capitalism are what I called seedbed traditions, each holding a set of values and investments for a preferred reality that it hopes to actualize. It doesn’t matter that one is about political process and the other is about economic pursuits.

Whereas democracy looks at the individual through the lens of community, capitalism sees community – or strictly speaking, the collective – through the lens of the individual, of what I desire and deserve, what’s in it for me. This is not to say that democracy disregards the individual, only that it understands the individual as belonging to a social organism, the body politic. It’s really about us – all of us, together. Depending on where you begin, with the individual or with the community, your lens on reality is very different. Your understanding of yourself, of your neighbor, of the larger world around you, and of ‘the good life’ will move you toward one pole or the other.

Frankly, even our founding fathers probably valued capitalism over democracy. Many of them wanted as little government as possible, so as not to interfere with every individual’s ‘pursuit of happiness’, which in their minds was contingent upon our rights to privacy, property, and financial profit. Stay out of my space, keep your hands off my stuff, and get out of my way: this isn’t really about us, all of us, together. But it has been ‘the American way’ from the beginning. It’s how the other nations see us.

Screw ’em. Why should we care what they think?

Peel back the political veneer of Western culture and you’ll see it more clearly as a juggernaut of capitalist ambitions. As our science opens up new frontiers of knowledge, advances in technology enable us to accelerate our pursuit of more – drilling deeper, pushing farther, growing faster (and getting fatter), casting our junk onto the pile so we can have the latest and best. We need to stay ahead of the competition. A rampant capitalism looks only to the prize of its envisioned success, unconcerned for the most part over the collateral damage, systemic side-effects, and long-term consequences of the pursuit.

Happiness is out there and ahead of us, right?

Whether you were for Hillary Clinton or not, the election of Donald Trump was decidedly not a vote for democracy. We can probably all agree that government has gotten too large in some areas, that it’s been sticking its nose in places it doesn’t belong. The framers of the Constitution were wise and well-intended to limit its interference on our life and liberty. In some ways, too, our government has become a big part of the problem. Maybe this represents a course correction for the American Experiment. Both Republicans and Democrats – as parties historically committed to government by the people and for the people – have agreed to democracy’s rights and responsibilities, to its privileges and obligations, to its vision of a people united.

Unfortunately the Republican party didn’t have a candidate survive to the end who could represent them, so they settled for Donald Trump. For the next four years and beyond, our nation will be a capitalist enterprise before it is a beacon of democracy. We will spend and tax, exclude and evict, bullying our way through the global china shop.

Trump has been declared, and now we have to play the hand we were dealt.

 
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Posted by on November 9, 2016 in Timely and Random

 

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Change Your Lens, Change Your World

phoropterMost of us have had the experience of getting our vision diagnosed by an optician. A fancy instrument, called a phoropter, is maneuvered in front of our face and positioned on the bridge of our nose. As the technician clicks various lenses over each eye and we try to read some letters or view a scene, we are asked to judge which of two clicks makes the picture more distinct. Eventually we arrive at the specific power of refraction that will compensate for the weakness and astigmatism of our unaided eyesight.

If we think of the phoropter as a metaphor for culture and the way it clicks various lenses between our minds and reality, we have a useful illustration of constructivism. The basic idea is that our minds do not merely look for and find meaning in reality, but instead they make meaning by constructing a model of reality and using this model as a frame for draping the stories, theories, judgments and expectations that constitute our personal worlds. I’m using ‘worlds’ in the plural because each of us manages a world unique to us (so we all have one), and we also progress through a variety of distinct worlds (or worldviews) over the course of our lifetime.

In a recent discussion with others in the wisdom circle I attend, we were reflecting on the different worlds of the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States, and the profound differences between our Western world and the worlds of other cultures and nations. From the ancient Greeks we inherited our accent on the individual as a separate and irreducible center of identity, dignity, sentiment, and agency. Perhaps as an effect of the fact that the Greco-Roman culture overarched a wide region of numerous indigenous societies, the detached and self-standing individual became the locus of supreme value. After the ‘dark age’ of medieval Europe, this priority of the individual reasserted itself with the Renaissance ideal of the hero-artist.

lensesOther cultures, both ancient and contemporary, view reality through a different lens from that of Western individualism. Instead of looking at the collective through a preference for the individual, they define an individual through the lens of community. It’s not that the individual is unimportant; rather, the individual only makes sense as a function of the whole. Self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s community takes precedence over competition among individuals for self-advancement.

Not only might competition of this sort be discouraged in community-oriented cultures, such a mentality and behavior will likely be condemned, even punished by banishment from the group. A Western individual is apt to condemn this attitude in turn as both repressive and ignorant, since a community exists for the sake of individuals and not the other way around.

Not all Westerners are individualists, and we could surely find many individualists within the more community-oriented cultures of our day. The point is not to draw a geographical or even a cultural boundary between the two types, but to reflect for ourselves as to which lens holds priority for us. As we view reality and construct our worlds, which lens is in front of the other? Our first lens (the one in front) will automatically filter and qualify the other, as the core beliefs by which we construct our worlds and live our lives.

The answer is probably more complicated than my question leads us to think.

When the individual is before (i.e., in front of the lens of the) community, typically the rights of the individual will take precedence over his or her responsibilities to the community. In my recent post The Great American Divide I suggested that capitalism, as one of the seedbed traditions beneath the American world(view), is based on a philosophical preference for the individual over the community. According to this view, a community is essentially a collective of individuals seeking economic opportunities that will support and promote their personal ambitions. This is not to say that capitalism necessarily breeds selfishness in its devotees, but Adam Smith did affirm ‘rational self-interest’ as one of its driving forces (competition being the other).

A preference for the individual over community keeps the tether of moral values firmly staked to a concern for the benefits and risks to the self. If altruism plays any part, then it’s in the form of what the communitarian philosopher Philip Selznick calls ‘bounded altruism’ (The Moral Commonwealth, 1994). Here the outreach of individuals extends to familiars and fellow members, but not to strangers or outsiders. The reciprocal turnaround of value back to the individual needs to be fairly short in order to justify one’s investment, charity, or sacrifice on behalf of others. Generally speaking, commitments of this kind to strangers or outsiders do not bring reciprocal value to the benefactor – a liability for which American capitalism offers compensation in its provision of tax write-offs for donations.

On the other hand, when community is before (i.e., in front of the lens of) the individual, a responsibility to the greater good sets constraints around individual rights. This doesn’t mean that individuals can be arbitrarily stripped of property and freedoms whenever it serves the collective interest, which is how individualists often paint the problem. Granted, when the collective is really little more than an aggregate of individuals under the control of a dictator or special-interest bureaucracy, the individual – particularly those at the bottom or outside the circle of power – is, we might say, perfectly expendable. History has shown this time and again.

So obviously we need to be more careful in the way we define ‘community’. It is decidedly not merely a synonym for the collective, that essentially disconnected aggregate of individuals mentioned above. A community (literally “together as one”) represents a qualitative shift in consciousness where the self-other reciprocity and competition of capitalism is transcended (included and surpassed) in the experience of empathy, advocacy, and communion. The individual is not subtracted or subordinated, but rather honored and lifted into this higher consciousness of community life.

Again, in my post The Great American Divide I made a case that democracy, as the second seedbed tradition beneath our American worldview, is based on a philosophical preference for the community over the individual. For Jefferson and other framers of the US Constitution, this order of priority meant that individuals are not essentially competing units of self-interest; rather they are self-transcending agents in the synergy of ‘a more perfect union’. With its emphasis on our individual responsibilities to the community, this tradition of American liberal democracy insists that our rights as individual citizens are only defensible within a larger culture where individuals work together for the common good.

So what I earlier called the ‘great American divide’ turns out to be a fundamental dilemma posed to each of us. As we step into our creative authority, it is up to us to decide which of these lenses has priority to the other. Each commitment provides some counterbalance to the other, and in their tension is where we must construct a life of meaning.

 

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