I don’t know when we decided that someone’s moral worth, both individually and collectively, depended entirely on their ability to manipulate financial arrangements. But I think we should probably go back and un-decide that, posthaste.
Unfortunately, recent steps to increase corporate power and control, to vault the corporation (the only type of entity I like less than the nation-state) above the nation-state for preeminent domain over how people conduct their lives, are all but locked in. A done deal, you might say, if you were inclined toward the business end of things. Increasingly, there is no other end of things to be inclined toward.
Obviously, I’m talking in part about Greece. After talking a big game and getting everyone excited for a couple days that Greece was actually going to reject the fascism of finance to make people’s lives miserable and potentially unlivable, Tsipras backed down and Greece swallowed a deal that pays obeisance to the corporate gods of privatization and burdening the poor. Remember how we discussed that those who are successful have all the power to determine what success even is? When the wealthy or those with disproportionate pieces of the pie get to write the contracts (spoiler alert: they always write the contracts), then the poor end up paying. Every bailout and austerity measure disproportionately hits the poor, in taxes, in lack of a safety net, in the corrosion of basic civil society that comes from mortgaging the very notion of civil society and putting it up for fire-sale to a private entity.
There is also this high-minded moral condemnation that comes with all this, a heavy-handed rhetoric of “you deserve this” and “you lived beyond your means then, so suck it up now”. This presumes that more than a handful of people in Greece were responsible for the irresponsibilities of the initial accrual of debt. It’s like blaming the people who took bad mortgages in 2008 for the housing bubble/crisis. When you live in a society that worships home-ownership and tells you you’re worthless till you’ve hit that milestone, of course you’re going to take the loan when it’s offered. After all, it’s the bank’s job to know whether it’s a reasonable deal or not. Similarly, the average Greek citizen bearing the bulk of both direct and indirect costs of the new measures punishing them for their “misdeeds” had absolutely no role in decision-making for the circumstances that led them here. They may have enjoyed the theoretical benefits of a prosperous bubble, but could no more have stopped it and made Greece behave “responsibly” than they could have overthrown the government in Germany.
This notion that people are responsible for all actions of not only their governments, but their banks is frightening and irrational. I recognize that in the theory of conservation of finance, someone “has to pay” or be held responsible. And I guess the Greeks are geographically closer to the Greek bankers and former regimes than, say, the Swedes. But any notion that the connection is much stronger than that is pretty flimsy. Power and decision-making are what tip the scales in this arena, and the average Greek citizen had close to zero. The strongly-defended reaction of Germany and the Eurozone is a little like jailing the whole city of Baltimore because they “allowed” a murder to take place in their city limits. “Well,” the indignant authorities respond to cries of injustice “if you didn’t want this punishment, you should have elected people who would make sure no murder could possibly take place!” Airtight logic, no?
If you feel like we’ve seen this movie before, it’s because we have. Most poignantly in the 1920’s in Germany, which I guess helps explain the hypocritical fervor with which that country’s representatives now enact vengeance on the Greeks (see also freed slaves coming to Liberia and subjugating the local population and the whole Israel/Palestine debacle). The government running Germany and charged with paying impossible bills had nothing to do with the government that had decided to fight World War I, and indeed had far less responsibility for the war’s destruction than, say, the other European governments. And the people of Germany had far less power over the Kaiser’s decision set than anyone. But the whole nation’s people got blamed and penance was extracted, all with heavy-handed moralizing about the superiority of other European peoples. Now I guess I believe in a sliver of culpability for being willing to fight the war, albeit under coerced circumstances, and I suppose I feel there’s a comparable amount of culpability for cooperating with capitalist institutions at all (yep, I’m not absolved here, though I personally don’t believe in taking on debt). But that level of culpability is more like an asterisk than a warrant for an indeterminately long prison sentence. Someone said yesterday that 50 years is the “optimistic” timeline for payoff, that one of these unimaginable bills would come monthly for a half-century. Now, sure, I guess they just negotiated that down to forty years or something, but Jesus. Are we even thinking about these things, or are we just letting the invisible hand pin our arms behind our backs?
Don’t worry, kids. Nothing bad happened with that consistently humiliated and subjugated population in Germany in the ’20s. They were fine.
Corporate dehumanization and the expectation that everyone keeps up with the rules, learns them perfectly, and makes all the “right” decisions, mixes particularly badly with recent advances in technology. We’re talking oil and water, pills and alcohol, fireworks and forests kind of mixing here. My parents have been going through a series of micro-disasters stemming from this combination lately, including their newish car’s computer rebelling on them through sensors that almost cause accidents and my Dad getting locked out of his GMail for nearly a week because they (apparently?) thought his Albuquerque IP address was the source of Chinese hackers. When Alex got a new phone on our joint cell-phone account, my phone’s voicemail password suddenly stopped working and, when I got back in, I was told several “unauthorized attempts” had been made from my phone. This despite the fact that when my previous version of this phone had been stolen, they were perfectly happy to charge me for the unauthorized data bill that the thief had racked up.
The problem is that the computer always knows best who is who and what that means. It doesn’t seem to matter if you have the password that you’ve always had or the secret code, the algorithm will decide whether you’re real or not. There have been a lot of trippy neo-Frankenstein type movies made about this scenario, but it is a real-life and chilling set of circumstances that are developing. When my Dad offered to take his IDs into Google, they wouldn’t entertain the idea. There was no way to prove to GMail that he was who he always had been, except to input an attached cell-phone number to the account that had never been tied to the account. The computer assumed he had a cell-phone and that this phone was more intricate proof of his identity than anything human he could provide or prove.
In that same post linked above, I displayed a YouTube video of a scientist questioning ten tenets of scientific orthodoxy, including the idea that people are just machines. The prevailing belief system of those in power at this juncture is that we are all just machines and should become more machine-like in our behaviors, our “thinking” (air-quotes theirs). It’s the underlying premise not only of modern science, but also of economics. People are pre-programmed rational actors who deserve punishment and even being taken offline for deviating from the mechanistic behaviors of accumulating wealth, delivering productivity, and making smart financial decisions.
This would all almost be a reasonable way of ordering things if what smart financial decisions were stayed constant, sane, and fair. The heavy-handed moralizers of The Economy claim that finance is a lesson that can be learned, internalized, and applied to situations in a consistent manner and that everyone has equal access to the education to know the rules, learn the game, and play. Even if money were entirely equalized, though, this wouldn’t be true. Because the real winners in contemporary finance are those who manipulate the situation to their advantage. There’s nothing objective about the accumulation of wealth and power. It depends largely on not only your ability to swindle those who know less than you (in this one arena) out of their money, but even more on convincing the government to give you free money. Those that have succeeded in the last ten years in business did so primarily by convincing a vulnerable government to give them near-endless supplies of free cash, in the form of bailouts or interest-free lending. And the main way those people convinced said entities to float them is with, well, money. So the game is just to start with an unequally distributed good, then spread that good from those who happen to have it to those charged with making the decisions and, voila! Entrenchment at the top, paid for by those who never had power, influence, or money to begin with. Stupid people! They should have figured out a way to steal their own money in a way financial rules have arbitrarily deemed acceptable!
Among other things, this system is intensely immoral. Charging the uninformed, the downtrodden, the long tail of societies for the recklessness of their society’s hegemons while simultaneously rewarding other society’s hegemons for happening to outwit them… Really? This is the way we want to structure a global operation? And for what benefit? So we continue to drown an unwell planet in more terminally unnecessary plastic widgets? So we continue to cancerously grow our species until it chokes out all other life that had the misfortune of being born on Earth? If you’re going to celebrate the alleged lifting of people from poverty that you attribute to capitalism, you also have to revel in the creation of poverty it ensures every day, starting with the functional enslavement of Greece.
And then, hopefully, you ask where poverty came from in the first place. Poverty is not the natural order of things that capitalism saved us from. Poverty was invented by imperialists and robber barons, people who thought they could trick and swindle whole countries out from under the feet of people who’d always lived there. You may think we’ve come a long way from feudalism, but at least feudalism allowed people at the bottom to work their own land and save some of the food. People were not wholly owned subsidiaries of whatever wealthy decision-maker swindled them away from the other wealthy decision-maker.
There are other ways to structure a society, that give humanity back to the humans and recognize that cancerous amoral/immoral growth for the sake of enriching whoever has the reins today is not the objective of our existence. Or should not be. I know, I said “should”. I know science and economics tell you morality doesn’t exist. That appears to be the whole problem.