If you grew up thinking you are “white”, the New York Times “1619 Project” is a must read.
Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.
“Anglo-America’s dingy realities – deindustrialisation, low-wage work, underemployment, hyper-incarceration and enfeebled or exclusionary health systems – have long been evident. Nevertheless, the moral, political and material squalor of two of the wealthiest and most powerful societies in history still comes as a shock to some… every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. In fact, the state has been AWOL for decades, and the market has been entrusted with the tasks most societies reserve almost exclusively for government: healthcare, pensions, low-income housing, education, social services and incarceration.
The other dingy reality is that we use the police as a cordon sanitaire between us and the consequences of all of our social and political failures; the police keep the homeless out our minds; the mentally ill away from our door steps, the darker skin tones in their allotted neighborhoods and the desperately poor from stealing from a “middle class” teetering with economic precarity. While we have come to live without a general sense of prosperity, we cannot seem to relinquish our attachment to “order”.
Of course we can’t. We can sense that we are, collectively, a ticking time bomb. Today, American exceptionalism means extreme inequality of wealth, more guns than sense, abiding racism and a pathological distrust of collective problem solving. The way we police in the U.S. is inextricably bound up in the exploitative capitalism to which we as citizens have become resigned.
The police are to capitalism what neurotic or compulsive behaviors are to the psychoanalyst; symptoms of a (death) drive. In Freud’s words, (the drive)… is “like the grain of sand around which an oyster forms its pearl”.
The capitalist death drive is to accumulate, to acquire and to constantly rediscover that that no acquistion really satisifies, no level of profit is sufficient. Impelled by a dread of scarcity and the impoverished view that the only real “wealth” is private, Americans are frantic earners in a bleak zero sum landscape. If I don’t get it, someone else will. We accept that there are “winners and losers”. We accept that folks for whom cost-benefit analyses are difficult, impossible or irrelevant tend to get pissed off when they perceive themselves to be left behind. They are wont to behave in ways that disrupt the “order” that dispossesses them.
The state proscribes violence to its citizens. Not as Freud pointed out, because it disapproves of violence, but because it wants the monopoly on violence. The majority Black population of Minneapolis distrust their police greatly but cannot imagine their absence. In the USA, we have created our own monsters; we are the jailers and the jailed.
As with the neurotic, dysfunction continues until the drive is recognized (and re-addressed). Until we contend with ravening capitalism, our policing will remain unchanged.
Acting together we flattened the curve of the pandemic. Not the government. We did. We the people.
Remember that phrase?
Now …we the people are no longer acting together. On July 1,we hit 50,000 new cases of coronavirus. Our personal best.
Are we so weary of inconvenience and uncertainty, that we are willing to abandon parts of our society? Have we already forgotten that this virus will disproportionately kill our parents? our grandparents? those with underlying health problems at any age? the poorest among us?
Americans have neither the stoicism to actually bear the risk of dying from covid-19 nor the fortitude to embark on an indefinite period of rigorous self-isolation. Nor, even if we could muster those qualities, could we get a majority of our fellow countrymen to go along. And so, instead of deciding upon some basically rational course of action, we have collectively agreed to forget the things we could no longer bear to know.
We have come to see that the gaudy marketplace and our comfortable way of life is built upon the backs of the “essential” and the perennially poor. (Hedge fund managers are not “essential” workers.) It has also dawned upon us that the “world’s greatest economy” is a house of cards. “Supply chains” get sick. The human links in these chains lose their jobs and the flywheel of consumer spending slows down.
Another revelation for the middle class: the “social safety net” does not really exist! This uncomfortable truth has has long been a knee on the neck of the 20% of the American public that has no household net worth. For this economic demographic, the quaint notion that the government “has your back” actually went out the door forty years ago along with Ronald Reagan’s wits.
However, we have seen what a uniformed representative of government can do; casually kill George Floyd with one hand in his pocket.
The “commodity fetish” in capitalism is the tendency to see the value of a commodity as an inherent property. The value of a widget is related only to the value of other kinds of widgets in the marketplace. We are blinded by the panoply of glittering widgets. The complex of interpersonal relations that go into producing widgets is ignored.
The pandemic has lifted the curtain and exposed (in Marx’s terms) the “relations of production” usually masked by “market” metaphors. “Supply chains”, it turns out, are people. “Supply chains” get sick.
Workers we took for granted and did not notice are now “essential” to our way of life. Why are these workers “essential” today? Why weren’t they “essential” on January 15? They are “essential” today because what they do is suddenly visible and cannot be taken for granted. “Supply chains” are working people whose labor keeps the groceries stores stocked so Americans never have to be without retail choice.
What do these “essential” workers have in common? They are poorly paid and their employers consider employee safety an afterthought.
If you work in a meatpacking plant, by order of President Trump, you are officially considered less essential than the steak you’re cutting up.
Since February, we …comfortable white people…have come to see that even America … our insular City on the Hill …can be attacked by an invisible and inexorable enemy. We have been forced to look mortality in the face.
It became apparent that our government would not help us.
By the time of George Floyd’s murder, we had come to see that our only pandemic defense was our collective willingness to sacrifice the immediate gratifications of easy sociability and retail therapy. We came to see that our individual health depended upon community action. We sheltered in place and experienced oppressive uncertainty. Will we survive? Will our family members survive? Will our incomes survive? Will the “American way of life” survive?
Regardless of our ethnicity, we have all been imprisoned in a radically uncertain future.
How can any of us live a moral life in this cruel world that we have fashioned for ourselves?
-We live in a wealthy country where we allow one out of 7 of our citizens to live in poverty and half of the ten richest people inherited their fortunes.
-We live in a country where an 18 year old boy can be shot down in the street by the police, his body can be left in the street for hours and then the “authorities” assassinate his character and memory as well.
-We live in a world where ostensible “human beings” decapitate other human beings over differences of belief.
-We live in a world where our own country’s BFF in the Middle East, turns Gaza into an open air prison; a real life version of “District 9”.
-We live in a country where our congressmen use the appalling Ebola epidemic in West Africa to stoke fear of Central American children fleeing failed states.
-We live in a country that has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners.
Is it moral to compartmentalize? to rationalize? to emotionally walk away from the horrors? I can walk by the homeless. I can put the sign-holding beggar at the intersection out of my mind. Iraq is long ways away; so is Israel and…aren’t there bad actors on each side? One out of 6 African American men in prison? Out of sight, out of mind. I am just trying to live my life. Sometimes I feel like holding up my own hands in the face of this onslaught of the wrong and crying “Stop already”.
Last evening my wife and I were on our way to eat dinner with friends. At 23rd and Union in Seattle we saw a solitary African American man holding up both hands with a sign in one hand that read “Hands up, don’t shoot”. A resonant plea to our own humanity “Stop, recognize me”.
The moral third refers to those values, rules and principles of interaction that we rely upon in our efforts to create and restore the space for each partner in the dyad to engage in thinking, feeling, acting or responding rather than merely reacting. Jessica Benjamin
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a coliseum of confrontation, exploitation & bestiality, such humanity is surely brought into being.... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.Is this the doom written within our nature? If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races and creeds can share this world…if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real . Tortuous advances worn over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.
From Brad deLong
I would conclude that managers with a bias toward freedom, choice, decentralization, and responsibility produce good results alongside a civilization of bewildered individuals lacking moral certainty. By contrast, prophets produce a civilization filled with confident fanatics who then commit gravely immoral actions--and who afterwards have nothing to say but: “Will you please send Lazarus down here with a damp cloth?"