Whether as a symptom of or as a commentary about the state of affairs of the U.S. economy we hear many (pundits especially) say the middle class is declining… if not disappearing. A growing number of people the state of affairs is quite stormy as they are finding it harder and harder to stay above water, yet for a select few who are smoothly sailing along it has never been better.
Not surprisingly there is a segment, especially those in the lower half of the middle class, who are becoming a bit worried if not despondent. Often such feelings emerge when one experiences his/her access to the necessities for life to be diminishing—as the saying goes, it’s not a depression until you lose your job. Why is it that the drowning of a class is of no one’s concern except to the many individuals who are experiencing it first hand?
A Self-Centered Culture
Concern generally is focused on things affecting ‘me’ and ‘what’s mine’ not on what impacts the ‘we’ to which each and every single person is inextricably and deeply connected.
Why is this so? The short answer is, when it’s all about ‘me’ there is no time or space for ‘we’! That is to say, when ‘it’s-all-about-me’ care and concern is confined to (and rarely if ever extends beyond) one’s own skin. The deeper root cause answer is people have swallowed hook, line & sinker—internalized–capitalism’s belief system, with its individualistic and competitive way-of-being as their system of orientation, In this materialistic system everything is an object to be exploited for one’s own gain. You are of no value to others apart from whatever material gain they can exploit or extract from you.
When the only value is material value, any general sense of morality is a very limited sense, if there is any at all. Accordingly many dismiss out of hand any notion concerning the human collective, apart from a need for a military collective to protect me and what’s mine.
It’s On Us
Why do we not concern ourselves with the larger-scheme-of-things? Because all we care about is ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’! As Adam Smith stated in The Wealth of Nations, “every man . . . is much more deeply interested in whatever immediately concerns himself than in what concerns any other.” Smith also claimed that if we all did this—sought to maximize our self-interest—the invisible hand will see to it that society benefits. Accordingly Smith actualized this self-interest assumption about humankind through capitalism, the system of economics he created. The practice of capitalism has spread worldwide not because of its spiritual essence appealing to our humanness but similar to any pleasure in the moment producing substance because of its addiction creating quality.
Capitalism offers no inherent moral or ethical principles! Morality rests on a concern for we, on a universal sense of care and concern for the other and all other living beings. It is a self-centered materialistic system, wherein self-preservation means selfishness—greed is good when ‘me’ is the unit of survival.
We’ve been hoodwinked into (actually) believing in an imaginary invisible hand that somehow will attend to others if we structure (our) life in the insatiable pursuit our (very own) material self-interest. You seek your material self-interest and the invisible hand will mysteriously if not magically attend to the betterment of society. If Adam were among us, an independent critical thinker would have to ask: So how’s it working out, Adam? The following excerpt from It’s the EconoME, Stupid offers a glimpse of this imagined inquiry between Smith and his Questioner:
S: Well, you make it sound like a devious plot, when in fact it is all part of the Divine Plan.
Q: Devious! I don’t mean to imply that the intention of those who crafted the system was not honorable. What I do mean to communicate is that the theory is grounded in misunderstanding and error—especially given what is known about humankind today.
If you are a good hard worker, if you go along with what the market expects, then the theory leads you to believe you will acquire wealth, position, and power; it’s all part of the Divine Plan. This is an alluring promise. But even you’ve acknowledged that rarely will everyone realize the promise—and the statistics on the distribution of net worth and income bear this out.
It’s deception if and only if we acknowledge it and yet continue to promote the promise!
S: How could it be in error when, as was stated in The Wealth of Nations, it is part of God’s plan!
Q: The source of the economic theory we’ve been adhering to is not
Divine—as you had suggested—by any stretch of the imagination.
Time has provided the proof of this! The invisible hand does not adequately regulate the system—the market is not self-correcting.
Why else would we require additional mechanisms (e.g., the chief of the federal bank increasing/decreasing interest rates; or government bailouts and stimulus packages) to tinker with things?
S: OK, but haven’t we realized tremendous wealth! After all it does work!
Q: Yes it works, but for only a few. If you focus only with one eye open—on the material aspects of life and societal wealth accumulation—then I can see why you could draw this conclusion. We must not forget that although some have realized great personal wealth, many more have not. Also, the improved distribution of material wealth was precipitated by both the creation of labor unions and the enactment of legislation, in the early 1900s, that forced and enforced a more just distribution, not to mention safer working conditions.
Yet, today, as we’ve previously discussed, the distribution is far from optimal with the top 20% of the population owning the vast majority (84%) of the wealth in society. It’s working, but for whom?
So it is no wonder that we have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies—some of whom display psychopathic tendencies—being paid over 300 times that of their lower -level employees while at the same time seeking to further reduce labor costs and avoid paying taxes (corporate and personal). Why? Because they feel a compelling need to do so. As it is with most addicts they can’t help themselves, they are addicted to getting and having more!
We shape the leaders we get: The corporate (as well as the political) world offers fertile ground for the socially friendly psychopath within which to satisfy his/her self-interested needs with low probability of being prosecuted for crimes against humanity; for creating black holes (a.k.a. organizations and workplaces) where the human spirit is quelled.
We should not be a surprised that the make believe invisible hand is nowhere to be found! This system of orientation we’ve internalized and been structuring life by is truly a confidence game, a flimflam perpetrated upon us all for the material short-term gain of a few. Unfortunately the joke is on us (including the perpetrators) because the system is a self-destructive suicidal life destroying system.
If Only We Would
Isn’t it time we cease being complicit in our own destruction? Isn’t it time we cease suicidal behavior? Isn’t it time for every ‘me’ to embrace ‘we’, to embrace all people! Isn’t it time for a change of worldview and a corresponding system of orientation? Isn’t it time for a change in the intent of business?
Instead of continuing in our belief in the imaginary, we need to step out of the rat race to then envision how life (your life) would be if business were conducted—if organizations were structured and managed—as if people (and life) really mattered most. What a wonderful human world it could be if we each were enabled to fully express our humanness by engaging in meaningful work through which we can be humanly productive, creating human value (and not solely material value).
We deserve an inspiriting ennobling workplace, because we are human. Our development as human beings depends upon it!
I have been out of circulation (relative to this discourse) for a while. That said, your post resonates deeply with my values and appraisal of how the world works. Thanks for keeping the faith, Greg!
Rick, just maybe if it resonates with enough people then perhaps a critical mass will emerge to change things for the better for all.