For some people on the political left, capitalism is a dirty word. They consider capitalism to be fundamentally incompatible with democracy, and so it has to go. Ironically, there are those on the right who agree – the difference being that they would prefer to lose democracy in favor of capitalism. Ideologues will be ideologues.
Recently, an article was published in Salon by cultural critic Henry Giroux entitled “Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Trump.” In it, he argues that illiteracy in America is not just a matter of unintended failures, but the result of a “willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the political and economic forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives.” He further argues that the “pedagogical machinery of capitalism uses language and other modes of representation to relegate citizenship to the singular pursuit of unbridled self-interests, to legitimate shopping as the ultimate expression of one’s identity….” He criticizes colleges and universities as “McDonald-ized” saying “students are relegated to the status of customers and clients.” He laments that digital culture and Hollywood films are tools of the financial elite, who use them to promote a culture of vulgarity, self-absorption, and commodification, and erode any sense of shared citizenship and civic culture.
To anyone familiar with the routine attacks on Hollywood by American conservatives, this must seem rather amusing. Hollywood celebrities and films are constantly attacked for legitimizing supposedly perverted lifestyles, promoting the tolerance of everything except traditional religion, and being “politically correct” on every issue. If the media has been so successful at destroying civic life in favor of corporate interests, why is California, at the heart of this supposed media juggernaut, one of the most politically liberal states in the country, even to the point of seriously considering universal health care? If the media has been so successful at destroying any sense of shared citizenship, why is it that millennials are politically liberal on a wide range of issues, social and economic? If colleges and universities are mere tools of capitalist money-grubbers, why is it that young, college-educated Americans gravitate so strongly toward Bernie Sanders?
Americans as a whole are better educated today than they have ever been. In the Progressive Era of the late 19th century, large numbers of voters could not even read or write. The founding fathers did not even trust white males without property with the vote. How is it that ANY progressive change ever came about in America? Votes for women, the 40-hour work week, compulsory education, social security, the FDIC? How did all of this emerge from the unbridled capitalism of the 19th century? We are asked to believe that capitalists can actually manufacture illiteracy from literacy. Yet somehow, literacy arose from illiteracy at a time when capitalists had virtually all of the power.
My point is that the human society is complex, and things don’t always turn out the way a simplistic view would suggest. Before World War II, eugenics was a popular idea. The notion that some people are genetically superior, and that some groups of people are genetically superior, is a seductive one. The “logical” conclusion is that selective breeding (and selective sterilization) will improve society. But like a lot of half-baked, seemingly logical ideas, it turns out to be disastrous in practice.
Communism was another popular ideology at one time. Many people were persuaded by its seeming reasonableness. Just as the masses of people need democracy to avoid being exploited by dictators, workers need to control the means of production, rather than be exploited by capitalists. But in practice, this kind of state control just ends up being another tool for dictators to do their own exploiting. Without checks and balances, autocrats just find another way of being autocrats.
In a way, political ideology is a lot like medical pseudoscience, which takes an incredibly complex system, the human body, and tries to simplify it. In the Middle Ages, it was popular to think that disease was due to an “imbalance of bodily humors.” Such notions are still popular today. If you’re sick, you need to “purify your body of toxins,” or “balance your aura,” or “center your vital energy.” But in a complex system, like the human body or a human society, such simplistic remedies often fail.
So it goes with political ideology. “Private enterprise is inherently superior to government-run enterprise.” It’s simplistic. It’s one extreme of a whole range of possibilities, between totally private and totally government-run. Maybe what works best is some blend of private and public? Maybe we should look at the DATA, honestly.
The data, compiled by non-partisan organizations and even some conservative think tanks (see here), tell us that countries ranking highly on human development and human freedom tend to be those that have mixed economies – capitalist, yes, but with strong labor unions and strong social safety nets. They rank low on government corruption – government leaders use their positions for the benefit of everyone, not to enrich themselves or their business associates.
Science is self-correcting. Scientists have to back up their theories with evidence. But in politics, there’s a tremendous amount of reality-avoidance. Almost all of it comes from ideology. So progress is often glacial. Ironically, almost no one objects to technological progress. So technology marches forward, rapidly. Technology, in fact, often stimulates social progress.
In an “ultimate” sense, capitalism may eventually fall by the wayside, as technology advances. As Arthur Clarke points out in his classic Profiles of the Future, a pattern replicator would make any distinction between capitalism and communism meaningless. It would generate enormous amounts of energy while making everything from seafood gumbo to designer jeans literally as cheap as dirt. But in the shorter term, capitalism has proven itself as a driver of human well-being – not unbridled capitalism, of course.
Long before highly sophisticated technologies like replicators come along, our species will have to confront the question of whether technological progress will finally overwhelm social progress. We tend to think that the recent past represents the epitome of technological advancement. No at all. The changes that are coming this century will be make everything up to this point look pitiful by comparison. In the past, machines have been able to outmatch humans only PHYSICALLY. What is coming is far more revolutionary.
Yet we insist on indulging in infantile macho posturing and tribalisms, pretending that military dominance is still viable, that “us and them” will still work. We don’t even want to think about how that will turn out, because if we thought about it for more than 2 seconds, we would know that it can’t end well in a highly technological, interconnected world. We would realize that social Darwinism can’t be sustained in a world with highly intelligent machines, powerful nanotechnology, and a degree of interconnectedness that we are only beginning to glimpse. And if you think these things aren’t just around the corner, you’re seriously deluding yourself.
Perhaps the virtual reality technologies that are also coming will give those in insist on indulging their infantile fantasies an outlet to do so, rather than playing them out in our shared reality. In any case, we will have to get a grip on ourselves, because the alternative is self-destruction. It isn’t about whether we can join hands and sing Kumbaya. It’s about a death sentence that focuses your mind, that forces you to confront the difference between necessities and indulgences.
The fact that we have seen no evidence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations has been taken as ominous by some, given that there are likely trillions of planets and moons in our galaxy. The argument is made that technological civilization has arisen countless times, only to snuff itself out, over and over. I don’t favor that notion myself. But it is clear to me that we are treading a dangerous path, and that things will probably get worse before we get to the light at the end of the tunnel.