Unpublished: The Political Tragedy of America

Here's the political tragedy of America. Most of the poor people in America are White people. There are more poor rural Whites than there are poor urban Blacks. But those two groups are so separated by walls of suspicion and distrust that the greatest political force in America today--poor to middle class persons of all colors--remains divided and thus conquered by powerful monied and political interests.

America is built around two great ideas that sit in tension, democracy and capitalism. Tending to that fraught relationship is our Grand Experiment. It is, I would argue, the great question of our generation. Shall capitalism come to control democracy? Or shall democracy control capitalism? Over the last few decades capitalism has come to rule and dominate. The political and military machinery of America is increasingly being run by corporate and monied interests. America today is a corporate oligarchy.

--from an unpublished post pondering the divisions that separate poor and middle-class voters from becoming a powerful voting coalition

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13 thoughts on “Unpublished: The Political Tragedy of America”

  1. Richard, have you read I. F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates? In addition to being a delightful read and a thunderbolt to the head for anyone who's never dug below the surface of Plato's dialogues, it shows that, in your words, "that fraught relationship [between rule by wealthy elite and democracy] is our grand experiment," and also the grand experiment of democracy from the start.

    BTW: To inform his analysis, Stone brings in the idea of the king as a good shepherd as portrayed in Homer. So, apparently, if we want to get to the bottom of this "experiment" we need to examine the idea that wise and powerful benefactors are needed to protect commoners from themselves. Or better yet a philosopher king... So how does Jesus fit into this? I'm guessing that most of us have preliminary thoughts on that. But I'd like to hear yours.

    BTW of the way: Stone was not a philosopher or scholar, but a journalist. Some reviews of his work are bitter in decrying the conclusions he reaches, for that reason. Interestingly, in The Trial, he devotes a chapter to Socrates' "wild goose chase" of seeking after perfect definitions and making fools of his partners in dialogue in the process. It was a tool in Plato's/Socrates' tool chest for disqualifying common opinion--and thus the role of commoners in governing. Interestingly, James' disparaged what Stone called a "wild goose chase" as "vicious intellectualism." I think it's great that you venture outside your area of expertise to make important points. After all, neither faith nor democracy can be respected if the view of commoners is not... And I loved Stone's book precisely because it both critiques and serves as a counterexample to elitism. (It's humorous, then, that Stone is critiqued for not being the proper elite to make his point.)

  2. Interesting Video!

    The Myth of Capitalism with Michael Parenti - YouTube
    ▶ 58:01▶ 58:01

  3. Much obliged. This resonates a lot with what McCabe wrote: “What is wrong with capitalism is simply that it is based on human antagonism, and it is precisely here that it comes in conflict with Christianity. Capitalism is a state of war, but not just a state of war between equivalent forces; it involves a war between those who believe in and prosecute war as a way of life, as an economy, and those who do not. … Christianity is deeply subversive of capitalism precisely because it announces the improbably possibility that men might life together without war; neither by domination nor by antagonism but by unity in love. It announces this, of course, primarily as a future and nearly miraculous possibility and certainly not as an established fact; Christians are not under the illusion that mankind is sinless or that sin is easily overcome, but they believe that it will be overcome. It was for this reason that Jesus was executed – as a political threat. Not because he was a political activist; he was not. … But he was nonetheless executed as a political threat because the gospel he preached — that the Father loves us and therefore, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, we are able to love one another and stake the meaning of our lives on this — cut to the root of the antagonistic society in which he still lives.” Herbert McCabe, God Matters (London: Continuum, 2005), 192-193.


  4. I'm very aware that there's a language round these ideas in which, unlike so many of your other readers, I lack knowledge and fluency, so forgive the clumsy ramblings, but:

    1. I love it when you frame what feels (to me) like the right question - this week's been a doozy!

    2. Even with my limited grasp of the field, I'm wondering if "capitalism" and "democracy" are the unitary concepts you seem to imply. Aren't there different shades of capitalism differentiated by more than just degree?

    Is the capable business entrepreneur who gives at-cost services to some clients known to be in difficulties and prioritises family commitments over an easy buck in the same bed as the grasping out-of-my-way asset-stripper? Are they both capitalists? Is 'Christian capitalist' an oxymoron?

    Michael Sandel is great at getting us to explore our easy assumptions about democracy, as well. Would a society that allowed every citizen an electronic vote on every bill passed by Parliament/Senate be a more democratic one? Would we want this? Or is modern democracy our best guess at the least-worst compromise?

    I'm asking myself why I'm asking these questions, and I guess it's because of my conviction that some of the best lies hide behind our lack of morally differentiating vocabulary. Is self-esteem a good thing or a bad thing - it all depends if you have a comparison or a contribution engine running it (in my opinion) - but we don't have a way of saying this in a way that 99% of the population seem to be able to hear (trust me on this one).

    So, let me at least allow others to shoot me down in the same way:

    It is, I would argue, the great question of our generation. Shall the anxiety/reward-driven desire to have more than yesterday come to control the impulse to contribute to the good of the other at personal cost?

    But I'm guessing you were getting to that in next paragraph...

    Blessings to you as always, Richard, as you have been significantly to me during my week of ill-health.

  5. Less than halfway in, and I'm feeling less ill-informed already. I enjoyed the Keynes quote that "Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men (sic) will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone."

  6. Richard, you might be interested in Michael Harcourt's The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order. He explores the complementary historic rise of free market ideology and the belief in the necessity of punishment for the natural order. Our economic system assumes that the natural order is a self-sustaining market that doesn’t need any external intervention; human laws can only disrupt these natural laws, so these human laws should instead focus on one area only: “to criminalize and severely punish those men who did not recognize and abide by the natural order . . . The logic of neoliberal penality has made possible our contemporary punishment practices by fueling the belief that the legitimate and competent space for government intervention is the penal sphere. The logic of neoliberal penality has facilitated our punishment practices by weakening any resistance to government initiatives in the penal domain because that is where the state may legitimately, competently, and effectively govern.” His comments on the arbitrary distinctions between freedom and discipline/regulation are also pretty fascinating.

  7. It’s been a while back now but during the hunt for the “Unabomber”, because of his supposed ‘Radical Left’ leanings, Parenti was apparently targeted by the US government as being a potential suspect. He tells the story in one of his lectures how they either came to his house or to his office on campus and started hassling him with questions. He quickly dispatched the lackeys with his razor sharp wit and sarcasm.

  8. What is most disturbing is that there is a large segment of middle class Christians who have come, or who have been led, to believe that capitalism is inherently righteous, that it "justly" carries within it the law of "survival of the fittest".

  9. Andrew,
    It's been interesting to muse on your formulation. A few thoughts.
    1. I don't think that--in most cases--it's beneficial to pit self-interest against the interests of others. In seeking to do the right thing--most often--the self should be given the same weight as others. That frees a person to focus on making the best choice, vs. the choice which preserves personal purity of heart. The latter, I think, can be as heartless as pure selfishness.
    2. Sometimes the sacrifice is to both oneself and others in the short term. The famous "Jesus wept" verse depicts the Christ's response to just such a predicament. Any time a person sees delayed gratification as worthy not only of their own sacrifice but others' too, your formulation is not adequate.
    3. It's not that your formulation is not good. I think it is. We ought to seek to treat others with higher regard than ourselves, except in cases like 1. and 2. That would relegate your formulation to the majority of interpersonal matters, since most of the time no great value or moral consideration is at play. The trouble is that there is no formulation that is adequate to all situations. Love is too complex. Life is too complex.
    4. Perhaps all generalizations apply only as well as our ability to see when they do not.
    This last point might seem crassly self-serving to persons like you and I who are good at playing this game. But that's because we're good in the abstract. In real life, I think most persons see the issues in the concrete ways that matter in their lives just fine. Which is to say, we should be careful not to apply this last generalization in critique of others...which Jesus did in fact warn us about, right?

  10. Thanks, Tracy. It's late in my part of the world, so I'll respond only briefly.

    I think it's helpful to raise the issues of binary generalisations and of ivory tower mentalities. I suspect I do have quite a 'polaroid' view of life, but the crucial distinction for me isn't quite so much about self/other as it is between fear and (agape) love, between flesh and spirit, the animal I evolved from and the human I could become. I think I have hundreds of moments a day in which to choose between these two, some more decisive than others. I don't think this is a matter of purity, more of freedom - to what extent have I developed the freedom and mindfulness to choose to contribute rather than to compare? I try to be kind to myself and to others in these moments of decision - it's not our fault we live constantly with the potential to choose different spiritual (or evolutionary, if you prefer) paths - it's the result of our genetic inheritance and experiences up to that moment. Inner conflict is the inevitable stuff of life (Rom 7). The story that unfolds, then, is the rich, complicated and messy interplay between these dynamics, not a score out of 10 at the end of the day. And of being OK with the mess.

    I still feel I'm struggling to express myself clearly, but there's my midnight offering for what it's worth. Always a pleasure, Tracy. Blessings.

  11. Hi Andrew,
    I see where you're coming from much better, now. Thanks! You're right, if I'm characterizing your view properly, that we do struggle to rise above our narrow concerns and be fully considerate of others. That we ought to do so IS an excellent generalization. Of course, even that gets messy, as you say. Where I'm struggling to come around is that there are alternate frame of reference, and it's difficult to balance the contents of different moral worlds. I suspect that neither of us gives a lot of weight to a deontological frame. But--practically, not philosophically--I find myself acting utilitarian much of the time. It's the legalism I'm prone to. But here's the rub: I really do not know how to measure between doing the most good and sacrificing that to be compassionate in the concrete. It's just dumbfounding. But I suspect that too often I'm just taking myself too seriously. I hope you won't make that mistake!
    It was a pleasure.

  12. Yes, this is exactly the point I was leading towards. Sometimes, notions of right and wrong become sacrificed to greater evils. I reflected on this theme often when reading (and watching this week) Twelve Years a Slave. The 'right' response is the struggle of the search, the willingness to tolerate impossible dilemmas and still act (shades of Hamlet here, perhaps). I think in these extreme situations, ethics are stretched to breaking point. Perhaps then the only choice is not to become slaves to the fear of death - to exercise moral courage regardless of the 'rightness' or 'wrongness' of our choice. Thus, Solomon remains a free man throughout his bondage. Personally, I'm very happy having an armchair response to this question and hope never to be put to the test.

    By the way, I think there can be very practical consequences arising from an exploration of these extreme places of human experience. Once we realise the limitations of right and wrong, we are freed to focus instead on social bonds. This takes us in the field of justice, for example, from notions of blame to notions of harm, from retribution to reconciliation (or at least restitution). As Rumi famously put it, "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,there is a field. I will meet you there."

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