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Thoughts on the Egoistic Ethos of Capitalist Culture

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bounce In the same year that saw the outbreak of the American war of independence a quirky academic who definitely fit the popular profile of a crackpot, a peculiar-looking, hypochondriacal, absentminded professor of philosophy who was known to literally wander the streets talking to himself, and who remained a lifelong bachelor with an unusually close relationship with his mother, Adam Smith, wrote a bulky book, The Wealth of Nations, that has ever since provided the capitalist system and its true believers with a handy rationalization for selfishness and greed.

In a thousand or so pages Smith constructed an argument that supposedly turns looking out for #1 into a social virtue. At least the crass choir of corporate bosses, bankers, and Wall Streeters that he continues to posthumously preach to think so. But despite his sophisticated if strange mind, Smith’s vaunted case for self-interest boils down to little more than Gordon Gekko’s uncouth assertion that “Greed is good”. Professor Smith fancifully theorized that in a so-called free-market society greed would operate like an “invisible hand” guiding all the participants in the economy to do the pragmatic and productive thing, and orchestrating the creation of a lavish prosperity that would trickle down even to those at the beggarly bottom of the economic totem pole.

Talk about a ludicrously counter-commonsensical ivory-tower theory! Those of us living in economic real time, so to speak, know that turning people loose to follow their greed is a prescription not to increase the general welfare but rather to wind up concentrating a despicably disproportionate amount of wealth in the grasping hands of a few cutthroat alpha male capitalists. When avarice is deregulated the result is NOT a free-market meritocracy in which hard work is fairly rewarded, in which enterprising individuals generate affluence for society as a whole. What we really and lamentably get is a society in which a few aggressively greedy captains of industry and finance grab and lock up most of the capital created by the labor of working people, leaving only the economy’s crumbs for everyone wearing a blue collar.

It should come as no surprise at all that this is the way the world really works under capitalism. If you allow people to be wantonly guided by greed do you really think that you’re going to have a system in which the big boys of big business don’t monopolize as much of society’s bounty as possible? A society in which the super rich, out of some kind of ethical good sportsmanship, refrain from exploiting their power to unfairly rig the game? And a global economy in which the wealth of nations is equitably spread around?

The notional notion that you can harmlessly and beneficially harness greed is actually far more unrealistic than the supposedly discredited socialist conviction that greed can be put in check by a system based on altruism and social compassion. At least socialism recognizes greed as a dangerous human foible and attempts to discourage it. Capitalism, on the other hand, tries to fool itself that greed can be channeled as a force for good. Capitalism and its diehards make the exact same mistake with the greed that lurks in our human nature that “the company” in the movie Alien makes with the frightfully feral creatures discovered on a distant planet. Capitalism and “the company” both mistakenly think that they can safely manage and make use of an unmanageably destructive quantity. And the result in both cases is ruefully disastrous.

The Ripley character in Alien had the right take-no-prisoners idea about how to best deal with an untamably dangerous force, you fight it, you don’t try to make it your b**ch. You can dismiss socialism as a utopian pipe dream if you like, but at least socialists choose to nobly fight not foolishly accommodate our selfish and anti-social tendencies.

Let me reiterate by referencing another movie, self-interest is most certainly NOT an “enlightened” guiding principle to live our lives by, rather life experience and history teaches that it leads straight to the dark side, for individuals and societies. Capitalism willfully embraces the dark side that our greed inclines us toward, and socialism resists it. Capitalism then is the Darth Vader of socio-economic systems, and socialism is Luke Skywalker leading the revolt against it.

Unfortunately today the world has been swallowed up by Darth Vader’s evil empire, global capitalism is in the geopolitical and economic catbird seat for the present and the foreseeable future. The pro-greed ethos of capitalism is having its way with human history, setting it on a course for more and more misery.

The materialism and ethical egoism (“The view that each individual should seek as an end only his own welfare” – Runes’ Dictionary of Philosophy) at the empty heart of capitalism have created a spiritually unfulfilling, morally unhealthy, and economically unjust existence for us to endure. And the human condition under such a system is only likely to grow more socially and spiritually sickly.

We already live in a world in which billions, with a B, are serving an undeserved life sentence of poverty, powerlessness, exploitation, drudgery, and grief. And not only does there seem to be no hopeful prospect of a general pardon or compassionate parole for the innocent masses of mankind currently jailed in the morbid reality of capitalism, things clearly appear to be going in the opposite direction of hopeful. The wealth gap between the poor and the plutocrats who sit pretty at the top of our society’s food chain continues to obscenely widen. The economic, technological, and military goliath nations continue to pursue globalization in ways that cause horrendous hardship for the enlarging underclass of the Third World. And the ecological chickens of the greed-driven Industrial Revolution are beginning to come home to roost in a big way in the form of catastrophic climate change.

Ironically, even though they pride themselves on being “realists”, none of this makes much of a dent in the devotion of capitalism’s adherents. They can certainly see the mote in the eye of “Marxism”, to use their favorite word of reproach. They’re always quick to cite the fact that the Soviet Union was an unpleasant and ultimately unsuccessful system as conclusive confirmation of the conventional wisdom that socialism is a failed experiment, a historical footnote to the wishful idealism of those of us on the loony left of the political spectrum. The demise of the Soviet Union is supposedly proof positive that capitalism, a system “rationally” predicated on the profit motive is the only genuinely viable system and that anyone who thinks otherwise is living in a cloud-cuckoo-land. If conservatives would only apply the same critical analysis to their beloved capitalism!

Alas yes, it turns out that it’s really capitalism’s faithful who are delusionally out of touch with the entire unpretty picture of cold, hard reality I’ve been painting. They enjoy smugly thinking that the commies we’re knuckleheadedly naïve for believing that selfishness could be socially engineered out of human nature and refuse to acknowledge the plainly pernicious social consequences all around them that result from the blatant way we befriend our greed under capitalism. They like to speak in euphemistic terms such as free enterprise and the Protestant work ethic. They glibly blame the victim when it comes to homelessness and poverty, simplistically surmising that anyone not doing well must doubtlessly lack drive and a well-developed work ethic. Some still even cling to denial about the glaring reality that industrial capitalism is helping to cause global warming and threatening our very survival as a species. Etc., etc.

Whatever it takes to keep their flimsy faith that self-interest is enlightened and greed is good, hmm? Yep, the intellectual dishonesty of free-marketeers seems to know no shame when it comes to rationalizing their own wishful idealism. Never mind that the touted triumph of capitalism has come about by trampling upon the working class, upon the democracy we profess to hold dear, and upon morality, spirituality, and social solidarity. Never mind any of that, capitalism lets people freely fly their greed flag, and that freedom is supposed to covers its multitude of sins! Staunch supporters of capitalism just curl up with this libertarian rationalization, retreating into the ideologically defensive fetal position of being proponents of “freedom” and refusing to face the real-world evils of a system that gives way too much free reign to man’s piggish proclivities.

Let me be perfectly blunt here, the greed, consumerism, and ethical materialism codified by the capitalist system are sending our civilization down an express road to perdition in a Gucci handbag. But the corporate owned media establishment keeps propagandizing us to think that me-ism, mammonism, and materialism are working for us. Capitalism may have taken away our spiritual sense of direction and moral moorings, but not to worry, just keep your hungry-eyed gaze fixed on that carrot of upper middle-class affluence it dangles in front of you. Keep selfishly chasing the dream of living the lifestyle of the rich & famous. Keep shallowly functioning as though man does live by bread alone, and as though you can never have too much bread. This is the bourgeois programming we’re constantly bombarded with by our culture nowadays.

If you'd like to explore this and other related topics further please visit my new website, The Total Revolution Just click on or copy & paste the address below. Thank you.

Very Happy

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