November 13, 2008

Economics, Part V: Empire

It's been a little while since I posted to my economics series. But that's because it's a very hard series to write; the ideas are tough to wade through, the conclusions not easy to stomach. I'm going to keep working through this, and have a few more posts in mind already; here's the links back to the first few if you're just joining the conversation:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

* * *

We have seen that the inevitable result of both capitalist societies and socialized societies is the same thing: societies that, despite their philosophical differences, produce the same sort of fruit. Pure socialism, like pure capitalism, is impossible because of human nature; both evolve into a culture of oppression, created through the outworking of human greed in which some hoard the power, the wealth, and the resources. In both capitalist and socialist societies, poverty abounds, whether in its material form (lack of resources, the more common of the two) or in its social form. Social poverty is nothing to trifle with; the more disconnected a culture gets, when individuals gradually isolate themselves from one another (to maintain an illusion of independence), psychological and social tragedy is the result. If such a society is to maintain itself, it must isolate its constituents from one of two things: from the resources, or from each other.

If those few in power choose to isolate the many from material resources (which usually requires physical force, and thus requires a large military), the citizens tend to bond together out of necessity. In sociology we call this a "liminal state," where hard times (oppressive government, harsh environment, enemy tribes or nations, etc.) force a group of people to cooperate for their very survival. An interesting thing happens as a result, what Victor Turner calls "Communitas": communitas is a word that has an obvious relationship to "community" (a group of people cooperating towards a common goal), but it is far stronger than that. The community that results from this "liminality" is bonded for life. It's not that they happen to share common traits or feelings or hobbies, it's that they cannot easily undo the bond they share from overcoming an immense trauma or ordeal together. It is the thing they have in common - a shared experience upon which to base their relationships that will last through trial and tribulation.

Everyone has experienced liminality in some form. I have, several times. My wife and I moved to Australia for a while, a new place for us where we knew almost nobody, with which neither of us was familiar. The year we spent "confronting the odds" grew us together as a couple in a way that living in a place with which we were comfortable could never have done. We were far closer after a month in Australia than we were after a year and a half in New York. Another time, I went to India with some colleagues from the seminary. Every time I see them, we still laugh and joke over the experience - it happened nearly a year ago, and it was merely two short weeks, but great power for relational bonding was contained within those very difficult cross-cultural situations. This is one of the reasons that so many Americans who visit impoverished countries are amazed at the smiles on the faces of the poor; they are "happy" despite oppression. We must be careful not to mistake the amazement of the Westerner as unrelated to their own material wealth; he or she can afford to travel, which often indicates a dependence on material wealth for "happiness." Such people (myself often included) often equate material wealth (and good circumstances) with happiness, and its absence with misery; he or she cannot believe that one can be happy without material possessions or in the midst of hardship. Meanwhile, those in poverty are united by their suffering; but they still suffer. Communitas does not alleviate the material poverty, it provides an emotional and social outlet. Yet such societies take advantage of this as a justification for hoarding the wealth. The Socialized Empire decrees that it knows how to distribute the resources, who needs what, etc. Naturally, the government is "more equal" because they have the trying hardship of having to spend their time determining who gets what, so naturally they deserve a larger portion. Or something to that effect. Regardless, the government ends up keeping the collected resources for itself while allowing its people to remain "happy" in their suffering.

The (potentially) more dangerous of the two options happens when the society decides to isolate its "citizens" from one another. Now, I say "decides" (as if the society were its own entity apart from the people), but a society is both a cause of and a product of the culture - these are interrelated ideas. In some cultures (such as our own Western culture), individualism is a very strong value. The communitas of socially impoverished cultures does not come in a vacuum - these cultures are often communal in nature to begin with. Western cultures, however, are strongly individualistic. The individual is the endgame; he or she can handle things on his or her own.

The society can take advantage of this as well. By encouraging competition between the isolated units as a means of getting "better" ideas, technologies, products, etc. (and there is little doubt that competition DOES produce more enduring creative expressions), it can cause its constituents to self-motivate to work harder and harder. This works to the advantage of a priviledged few - those who have an initial edge or discover an edge in the course of their struggle - at the expense of the many. This, of course, is not really divisible into two groups, but rather is stratified into a continuum of advantage. However, the two largest groups are those who are considered in "material poverty" (those who work themselves "to the bone" to sustain themselves) and a lower-middle class that, though they have enough material wealth to live comfortably, STILL work themselve to the bone in order to achieve what the society begins to tell them is the society's dream - independence from financial burden.

And so the society is suddenly full of people working very hard to produce an awful lot, and yet none of them are a) happy, or b) helping one another. Instead, the competition gets increasingly more fierce. The few that can afford it go into politics (both Barack AND John are wealthy - don't think for a minute that either of them understand the concerns of the poor or even of the middle-class), and thus the leadership of the country becomes increasingly wealthy. What happens then? The same thing that happened in the socialist state - decisions are made based on the security of those in politics. [sidenote: yes, that goes for both parties - democrat and republican - who just approach it differently; the republicans supposedly give tax breaks to other wealthy power magnates and thus get elected by others in power, whereas the democrats make promises they can't keep to the poor, who elect them out of desperation]

Once again, how do the wealthy, now in power, maintain their lifestyle? By building up a defense network. This, of course, is where we get our military. The two parties in America rely on different means for this; the republicans want to maintain the right to bear arms, and so allow each citizen to defend his hunk of dirt (forgetting that the same armament is used to take said possessions by those in desperation or who don't adhere to societal rules), while the democrats want to ban armament (except from the hands of those they choose, which is suspiciously like a socialist military) so that nobody HAS to defend their stuff, it's just always safe (which is naiive as well; the criminals still keep the weapons - they didn't respect the law in the first place). The cycle thus circles around and around, the wealthy getting richer (now through legislation), the poor getting poorer. For sure, it does tend to take more time in this type of economy, but as we have seen, the inevitable result is a socialist state anyway, and thus as time progresses, the cycle begins to increase its speed.

This cycle of the maintenance of injustice has a name. Two flavors of society, both progressing forward in a cycle of dualism, end up in the same place: Empire. The poor are slowly pushed to the margins, and slowly made into the largest class, yet the most powerless; the wealthy, meanwhile, grow ever more wealthy at the expense of others. And nobody notices it happen until it's too late.

(to be continued ...)

1 comment:

Dan said...

thanks for the reminder that wealth does not equal happiness. I know this, but I don't always remember this. keep it comin'!