In a challenging new essay for Eudaimonia & Co., Umair Haque names 5 social pathologies of collapse. And I think they can kickstart a conversation around our culture’s greatest needs. This is my reflection of the fourth pathology: extreme capitalism.
Of all the pathologies effecting us, this is the most divisive. And perhaps the most obvious.
To root out why this is, we have to go back in time. A really long way. Like two millennia.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine what other people thought about economics then. In fact, there was no field of economics. No Adam Smith to write The Wealth of Nations and create modern capitalism. No arguments about deficits and balanced budgets.
They didn’t have any of our shortcuts to dysfunctional, partisan bickering.
But part of the problem with putting ourselves 2000 years in the past isn’t so much about what we would not have, but what we would.
If we were Hebrews or followers of Jesus, we would have a social understanding of money-lending which demanded we not take interest. You think being expected to bake a cake is religious persecution? Try God’s take on interest.
Taking interest on loans or being taxed by an oppressive foreign occupier is understood as stealing. Being indebted to another person is like being enslaved.
And so much of what that itinerant preacher from Galilee spoke about two millennia ago was economics. Specifically the way wealthy exploit the poor and the indignity of wage slavery.
We could hardly understand being in that world. But, if we transported 1st Century Hebrew people or Jesus followers to the U.S. in 2018, we’d all get a completely different experience.
Our banks, credit card companies, pay day lenders, hell, even Amazon match this definition of stealing.
They’d take one look at modern economics in America and they would think we’re a thousand times worse than Rome.
And that reality would be on all of us.
What Does He Mean By Extreme Capitalism?
Umair Haque’s use of the phrase “extreme capitalism” is not mine. Though it does hint at the central problem: that the center has shifted off its axis.
The central problem of modern economics is that it fails to fully account for other costs. For instance, it is deficient in accounting for human needs or accounting for extraction or waste. This is particularly true since the rise of neoliberalism in the late ‘70s.
Adam Smith understood that markets can be too constrained by governments, but they also need governments to keep them honest. Imbedded in capitalism is a give-and-take between freedom and a moral conscience.
Think of it like a kid who is always testing your limits—that same kid needs a schedule and reinforcement to keep him grounded. The one who acts crazy during the day is also the one who needs to cuddle at night. He needs you to tell him when it’s time to go to bed. No matter what he says about how bad rules are, he needs them.
Neoliberalism’s singular, provocative insight was to pretend that morality shouldn’t be a check in the system to impose balance: the system would naturally balance without it. An invisible hand would protect it.
It makes about as much sense as letting the players on the field call the Super Bowl. And even less sense when we realize the entire global economy is now balancing on this belief because we want it to. Even when, like the emperor’s new clothes, the hand proves to be thin air.
Despite the popularity of neoliberal theory today, support for it is crumbling. The IMF, bastion of neoliberalism globally is moving away from it. Why? Because all of the available evidence proves this theory completely wrong. A system without checks only ever achieves greater imbalance.
No Place Like Home
The imbalance in the economic system is borne out by the expanding wage gap, shrinking middle class, and increasing dislocation of people to find work.
While my grandparents left their family systems to revel in their retirement, my family has moved frequently for work. Since leaving for seminary, I have not lived near my parents. Or spent more than a week and a half at a time in my hometown.
My parents grew up going to their grandparents’ regularly. The extended family was just down the street or the other side of town. Even in a big city like Detroit, that’s a simple bus ride.
My separation from my grandparents was based on their leaving for retirement and my parents leaving their hometown for work. My children won’t know the experience and benefit of growing up in the proximity of family. Still a relatively new concept in human history.
The Cost of Mobility
“But in America, there is the catastrophic collapse of social bonds. Extreme capitalism has blown apart American society so totally that people cannot even care for one another as much as they do in places like Pakistan and Nigeria. Social bonds, relationships themselves, have become unaffordable luxuries, more so than even in poor countries: this is yet another social pathology unique to American collapse.”
Our love and belief in social mobility is virtuous, but comes at a cost. And increasingly, that cost is a social net deficit.
But what then of our decreasing social mobility? If moving for work is the norm and it’s blowing holes in our social networks, then what do we make of those unable to move for work? If that’s the norm, getting stuck in one’s hometown is socially unacceptable. So what social and economic punishments are we imparting on those who aren’t mobile?
This isn’t a coincidence. Our social bonds eroded in the era of mass migration. It isn’t new. This isn’t Facebook or Twitter.
If we want to rebuild our social bonds, it will take more than cutting jobs and declaring staying close to home is just great. It won’t come from union busting and wage stagnation. It takes intention.
We must ask ourselves:
What value must we place on family and proximity to actually rebuild our communities?
The American social safety net was built, not just to protect the weak, but to also protect families and communities from the pain of separation and indignity of isolation. It’s very design was to protect mothers and children and the family unit. It ensured they had a home and food and stability.
As we take the safety net away, we take away the glue we’re using to keep our most conservative institutions, our families, together. And now we’re tearing them apart using immigration as a proxy for economics.
This is one of the ways our system is extreme.
Changing One Letter
“Yet those once poor countries are making great strides. Costa Ricans now have higher life expectancy than Americans — because they have public healthcare. American life expectancy is falling, unlike nearly anywhere else in the world, save the UK — because it doesn’t.”
All of this will ultimately go to how we use our money. As we go about destroying every place we like to print the word WE and change that one letter to say ME, we are left with less and less.
And 98% of all MEs are too.
This is the strangeness of this American pathology—that once again, the world’s center is located closer to traditional capitalism than we are.
Here, the reference to the UK isn’t coincidental. Margaret Thatcher first brought neoliberalism to the world stage, before George H. W. Bush would call it voodoo economics. Before it would have the chance to ballon the wealth gap and deplete our common bonds.
While not alone, our two countries are the most delusional. We pretend markets are naturally moral creatures! And we do it while demonizing the poor for their supposed immorality! Without a whiff of irony.
But this mutated extreme capitalism, loosed from the burden of morality and ethical consequence only inspires and amplifies the morality and immorality of its practitioners. Without systems to keep the powerful honest, the powerful build a dishonest system.
We think the system will magically balance when nothing in the world works that way.
The Uniquely American Part —
What does our cynical, exploitative economics say about us?
- It betrays the vision we have of our hard work and our honesty.
- It betrays the decency and easy generosity of the average American from the “heartland”.
- And nothing about it sounds like the American Dream.
This must call our own identity into question.
If it’s about me, then you can be about you; therefore I’m not responsible.
We make the WE disappear. And leave none of us responsible.
And this becomes the whitewash for slavery and Jim Crow; prisons and militarized police; closed borders and nationalism; and every attempt to protect the right of the individual —
Even as the individual exploits his neighbor. Steals from her. Takes her money, dignity, and place in society.
The individual, constantly at war. The neighbor, another individual, constantly the enemy. Constantly declaring war on his neighbors and friends and family
- for his right to do so,
- his self-defense,
- his anxiety
at what is being done to him; always him. Playing the victim and hating victims. All about everyone else’s responsibility for themselves.
The WE is missing and he knows it.
It’s almost like he knows that “we” have done it on purpose.
And he feels powerless and alone to do anything about it.
Can a person of faith gather with his friends on Sunday and pray with a clear conscience what Jesus taught in his most radical of prayers?
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Can we pray that we have already forgiven those indebted to us when our pathology of exploitation demands I get them to pay up?
That their indebtedness to me is somehow their fault, somehow their moral failure? That I am a simple, innocent business person of high moral character? And that our common space, exploited to benefit me over them shall never be questioned?
Can we really pray the Lord’s Prayer?
Given our pathology, it is a cry of desperate hope for transformation far more than it is an embodied reality.
Can we really pray it?
Or will we realize that our erasing of the WE only indebts us more?
Will we see, too, that to people of faith throughout history, this present “extreme capitalism” is a new form of slavery?
And how do we square that with who we know God to be? God, the liberator, longing to free us like slaves from Egypt
or the new Rome.