Asshole capitalism

I just read several paragraphs in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the academic study of assholes (really), and it was like an epiphany: a unifying theory of asshole that explains just about everything that’s going wrong in the country right now.

Among the more intriguing issues taken up by James is the relationship between capitalism and asshole production. Simply put, does capitalism encourage assholes? James quotes Samuel Bowles, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who argues that market thinking “may set in motion a spiral of market-induced erosion of other-regarding and ethical values, which in turn prompts greater reliance on markets, which in turn further erodes values, and so on.”

A society caught in that spiral, James argues, is a society in distress. The institutions that sustain capitalism—public education, religion, family, law—begin to fray, resulting in a profusion of assholes. Such a society is in the grip of what James calls “asshole capitalism.” “Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more.”

The result: Living standards rise for only a few; political power is concentrated in the hands of a minority, whose members change the rules to protect their own interests; and “liberty,” “opportunity,” and “prosperity” devolve into platitudes. Sound familiar? James thinks so. “The United States stands at the precipice,” he writes. “Chances are fair to good that it has already reached a tipping point into asshole capitalism and perhaps irreversible decline.”

Doesn’t that pull it all together? The TEA Party is nothing if not a party of assholes — a group of individuals who have an immense belief in their own entitlement while deriding anyone else who receives government assistance as moochers and freeloaders. Then there’s the Mitt Romney version of the capitalist asshole: writing off 47 percent of the country as freeloaders because they don’t pay federal income tax, perfectly oblivious to the fact that they pay a higher rate in payroll taxes than he does on his income. Congress, almost self-evidently, is full of assholes, especially the House of Representatives. After all, how else do you describe a man who cheerfully votes against funding the federal flood insurance program to make sure victims of Hurricane Sandy can get relief just a few years after cheerfully praising far a more generous relief package for his own constituents who were hit by Hurricane Katrina? The dude is a straight-up asshole, pure and simple.

And the impact of this sense of entitlement that is  the main defining characteristic of the capitalist asshole: the very foundation of what makes this nation both great and a capitalist success — public education, infrastructure, any public investment that doesn’t flow almost immediately to the pocket of one special interest or another — is eroded.

If Aaron James, author of Assholes: A Theory, is correct, the United States is at the tipping point of asshole capitalism. I hope he’s wrong. But we have one major party that is most certainly “defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life.”  I think that party is in the midst of a serious decline, and I hope all the non-asshole Republicans I know are rethinking their allegiance, or at least committed to freeing the party from its asshole wing. In the meantime, though, the party can do a lot of damage, and perhaps push us over that tipping point. The upcoming battle over increasing the debt ceiling, a manufactured crisis in which the Republican Party threatens to destroy the nation’s credit rating unless it gets what it wants, is a perfect opportunity for the nation to reject such assholery outright.

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