Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Clarifying the Crisis
I have followed many of my mentors (Dewey, Tillich, Niebuhr, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, now Berman) in identifying the American crisis, which is truly a global human crisis, as the reduction of human life, meaning, and action to economic concerns. Berman says that instead of printing "In God We Trust" on the American dollar, we should print "What's In It For Me?" Of course in the American religion's concept of God as the Invisible Bestower of Wealth, it means the same thing.
But please understand. I am not disparaging the economy. I am not against money and people getting it.
Money is important. Money = the ability to consume. We are living bodies (e.g. animals) and need to consume matter/energy to live. And because we need to consume, we also need to produce. Production/consumption (i.e. the economy) is essential to life. The human capacity to increase production (first hunting/gathering, then agriculture, then crafts and trading in the market, then industrialization, now information technology) is definitely a progressive advance of the human species to provide all that is necessary for life. Conserving the earth, the condition for biological life, is also essential, i.e. the link between ecology and economy.
But when biological life becomes the only good, when we are totally bent on survival, or beyond survival when just keep expanding our economy to get more and more ability to consume, we are losing some other goods--and ironically we are depriving many others their ability to maintain life in a increasingly disparate world and we are destroying the very condition for life.
Association to shape common space (e.g. "politics" in its root meaning--not the way we use it today) is a fundamental good as well and the source of our power and freedom. I would argue that while economy is a basic good, association for common good is a higher good--that we seem to be losing today by making the economy the only standard of success.
Another higher good is value itself, that which a culture expresses in its language, art, religion, manners, science, sports, architecture, cities, and spaces for recreation and discovery. Civilization (derived from "civis" meaning city/state) also articulates this concept. Though I admit that in some societies there are household gods for the private sphere, religion is a part of culture and civilization, should not be subordinate to the economy, but an expression of what transcends the surviving and thriving of biological life.
To repeat: there are three interdependent, goods that relate to three motivators and capacities of human existence: self-interest (production/consumption measured by money), affiliation, or what Aristotle called "recognition," (association for common good), value (culture and its activities and expressions). When culture and politics are subordinated to economy, we have what Berman is talking about and what have been becoming as a nation of "hustlers." We have a politics and a culture corrupted by money.
Again I am not saying self-interest, the pursuit of the ability to consume (money), is wrong or bad. It is a basic need (and I would say "right") for all of us so that we can be about higher pursuits. I am just saying let's not make it the end-all, the purpose of our existence. I can see young people thinking they need to secure the basic needs of life and so are focused on "making it." But we older, wiser people should be much more progressive and balanced than that.
Correct balance and proper subordination within the three realms is the aim of an ethics of integrity over against our current morality. Human dignity is #1 and that means ability and opportunity to speak and act with others to shape our common space and time (i.e. freedom and power) with respect for the earth which is the condition of our existence. This ability is only there if people have their basic material needs satisfied and are educated to think and express themselves creatively.
Economics, Culture, Politics.
Self-interest, value, community.
Money, language, power.
Private wealth and cultural value in support of, not replacement for, common good.
Economic behavior is a means to the end, Civilization is the expression of the end, Associational Being and Action in tune with our earth and universe is the end.