Outside the Asylum
Capitalism's Report Card
Part One: Basic Principles
Anyone looking at the politics of the English-speaking world would be struck by the amount of resources spent on blame. I don’t mean to suggest that these expenditures are always inappropriate. Blame, or its more positive valence, moral accountability, has been a more or less constant concern of humanity throughout recorded history; it’s nearly impossible to conceive of a morality without it. That begs the question of whether or not morality is a good thing for humanity to have; unlike Nietzsche, I tend to think it is, not only because it makes life more pleasant, but because it makes survival more likely. Probably this is the reason humanity invented morality (and blame) in the first place; like manners, it maximizes the survival chances of a social species. Morality is a way of attempting to limit risk and damage. (Nietzsche and I agree on that; he just doesn’t like the fact that humanity is, for the most part, a social species.)
Over the past few hundred years, those humans who live in Europe or its (erstwhile) colonies, have focused their attention on morality with increasing anxiety. There are many reasons for this. The Protestant Reformation and the secularization of the modern era, each of which complicated morality both in conception and practice, are among them. However, I think our recent preoccupation with morality—and anxiety over it—has increased mainly because we have, over the last five hundred years or so, repeatedly indulged our penchant for inventing dangerous and damaging things with the potential for getting badly out of hand. Since morality is a way of limiting risk and damage, it’s not much of a leap to imagine that the advent of world-destroying technologies in the 20th century—both nuclear weapons technology, whose destructive potential immediately struck even its inventors, and energy technologies, both nuclear and fossil-fuel based, whose risks were not so immediately apparent, but became more visible over time—would increase both a focus on morality and profound anxiety about it.
I’d argue that the global quarrel over European imperialism and colonialism also served to increase the focus on, and anxiety over, morality. This quarrel, which arguably began in the 1400s, reached its fever pitch in the twentieth century, at the same time that those extremely dangerous weapons technologies and energy technologies emerged and achieved global dominance. By then, two world wars had happened,
and the United States had stepped into the shoes of its colonial parent, Britain, and had taken over Britain’s colonial project, creating a two-way imperial competition between the English-speaking world and the Soviet Union. The continuing quarrel over colonialism and imperialism was, at its heart, a question of moral accountability, if only because there were a lot more countries and people deprived of agency and political autonomy by the imperial competition than those who benefited from it.
As the dangers presented by imperialism and colonialism increased, in scope if not in intensity (I’m sure African slaves felt those dangers were quite sufficient in the 1500s, but the dangers did not then have the capacity to destroy life on earth) people turned to morality, with increasing anxiety, to limit the dangers and mitigate the harm—or at least to make sense out of them.
Much criticism arose from the developing world, as well as from smaller first world countries drawn inexorably into the wake of the two imperial behemoths whether they would or no. Even within the two dominant imperial cultures, large numbers of people questioned the moral validity of the competition itself, demanding moral accountability from those in power. No good answers were provided to their questions and objections; those defending the imperial project on both sides merely attempted to heap blame on the other empire without addressing the immorality of either imperialism itself or the competition between the two imperial forces.
So it’s not that there is no place for blame in politics; blame is a near-inescapable part of human morality, which is a vital contributor to human survival. In fact, those who suggest that politics should not include blame tend to be extraordinarily untrustworthy types often found in the CIA, political consulting firms, and big banks. And it’s not that the twentieth century was wrong in its moralistic focus—having recently suffered the Great War, the Holocaust, and World War II, confronting the A-bomb and the Cold War, the denizens of that century were more than justified in their (or, rather, our) concern with moral accountability—and even with revisiting past cultural crimes such as slavery and genocide. It’s not even that such concerns are outdated in the 21st century. In fact we are, paradoxically, in an era where it has never been more appropriate to ask who’s to blame—and also in an era where blame as a concept and an organizing feature of politics is constantly misused. Scapegoating, of both people and ideas, has become the primary currency of the political system (especially the political press), and those wielding the hatchet usually do so on behalf of the most powerful, regardless of circumstances or consequences.
It’s time that we examine how we allocate blame.
I’d consider it an axiom that the process of allocating blame should be based in historical fact. The subjective nature of history—the fact that you can tell a story many different ways, and that those tales are influenced by everything from personal self-interest to outright prejudice—does not invalidate the notion of being reality-based. Only an idiot, or someone acting in bad faith, would assert that one should abandon accuracy and fact because subjectivity makes establishing them complicated; only an idiot, or someone acting in bad faith, would assert that one should abandon the idea of morality because much of human existence is not governed by simple moral absolutes. These notions, facile and appealing though they may be to the military industrial complex and to those who like their intellectual meat cut up and pre-digested for them, appear nothing less than lazy and pathetic to anyone with aims larger than the protection of sociopaths for pay.
Since we are in the “No, We Can’t” era of American politics, in which it is considered a fact of life that no one can accomplish any large project not dedicated to reproducing the current social conditions, and because we have shifted, arguably, from being advocates of the Apollo Project, who use reason to explore new frontiers for humanity, to being inheritors of something which might be called the Hades Project--the support and coddling of powerful figures who sit in the shadows obsessing over riches and death—it’s perhaps sensible to give a few examples of what I mean by those larger aims. Primarily, I’m referring to the aim of human survival; secondarily, to the aim of perpetuating human civilization; thirdly, to the aim of minimizing human suffering. Additionally, I’d like to put in a word for seeing what humanity is capable of in areas other than torture, deception, war, and acquisition.
It’s instructive to note that all these aims used to be a common assumption. That is, it was assumed by just about everyone that most of the political spectrum, both leaders and voters, held these aims and merely disagreed about how to achieve them. We’ve left that particular Kansas behind, but without reaching anywhere as colorful or magical as Oz.
So first, blame should be based on historical fact, and while we might debate what those historical facts are, their debatable nature does not release us from the obligation to discover them to the best of our ability. At the very least, we should consider our current situation in light of the past fifty years of history, and try to form an accurate picture of where we just were, so that we can better understand where we are. Simultaneously, we will almost certainly re-interpret our past choices in light of their consequences, which we now inhabit. Without such analysis, well-grounded in evidence and logic, blame is insupportable, and turns to poison.
Secondly, I’d consider it axiomatic that blame goes hand in hand with power.
As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben states, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
A friend of mine dislikes this statement, because he thinks it wrong to demand action of a person just because they can do it. When he said this, I realized that I had an entirely different understanding of the statement. To me, “with great power comes great responsibility” means “If you don’t have power, you can’t be responsible.”
That idea is important to me because one of the worst features of American politics, and American culture generally, is that we cling to the illusion that power is irrelevant here. We all have equal power (we call it “opportunity,” which in itself should tell you something). That assumption pervades our thinking. That’s why we spend so much time blaming the (other) American people, or blaming ourselves, and why we obsess about personal moral character. It’s because we assume a power-neutral world. Everyone gets a fair shake. We all pass go and collect the same $200.
We used to rely on those who had been abused by the system to provide analyses of power. Black people especially took on this role, joined by all the others who had been systematically abused. This abuse jettisoned them out of the illusion that we had, in the United States, comfortably resolved the problem of power, and they were able to see power, and analyze it, in a way that many Americans couldn’t. The entire culture leaned on their analyses, whether they knew it or not.
Unfortunately, over the past ten years, since we entered the “No We Can’t” era, large numbers of Black people, brown people, white women, and all those who have, in Killer Mike’s words, “been denied,” have been, in one way or another, either bought off or deceived by their leaders. After Obama, few people discuss power, few people believe in material change, and few people, even among those who adhere to “resistance” movements, talk about human rights. They talk instead of privilege, and what they mean by privilege has devolved quickly from the fact that Trayvon Martin could not walk to the corner store to get a Snapple without being killed to the fact that somebody said something mean on Twitter—or something they disagreed with. Their conception of power, if they have one at all, is skewed.
Blame without a foundation of fact, without an understanding of history, permeated by a denial of where power is and how it works: that is the mud our culture is stuck in, spinning its wheels and digging deeper. In order to make blame, or, if you prefer, moral accountability, serve the purposes we probably originally invented it for—maximizing survival chances—we must get out of the car. That is the great importance of the Sanders movement, for all its flaws. It enables people to get out of the ideological car. It is the great importance of indie media, and, despite *our* flaws, the great importance of this site.
Next week, I’ll write about what I see when I get out of the car and look around.