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.

Celebrating a death?

I’ll admit I didn’t spend much time yesterday wrestling with my conscience about the fact that America was in a celebratory mood because of a man’s death.

Osama bin Laden was an evil man who perverted his religion and was dedicated to the destruction of America and the slaughter of innocents. The world is a better place with him gone, and if Americans wanted to celebrate that, who, really, could blame us?

But I came across a beautifully written piece by Susan Piver that at least made me give some thought to what she calls the “misdirected jubilation” on the news of bin Laden’s demise.

There has been an outpouring of misdirected jubilation, as if a contest had been won. Nothing has been won. Unlike winning a sporting event, this doesn’t mean that our team has triumphed. Far from it. There is only one team and it is us.

One of us is gone, one apparently horrific, terrible, vicious one of us…is gone. I don’t feel regret for him or about this. I’m regretful for the rest of us who are now left thinking that this is a cause for celebration. It is not.  It is a cause for sorrow at our continued inability to realize that there is no such thing as us and them; that whatever we do to cause harm to one will harm us all.

But what really struck me in the piece was this notion: “Our enemy is not one person or country or belief system. It is our unwillingness to feel the sorrow of others—who are none other than us.”

There is so much violence in this world because so many refuse to see the humanity in those they fight – because they cannot feel the sorrow of others. If all of us could fully feel the pain of a mother who loses a child to a Palestinian rocket, to an Israeli counter-attack, to a Predator drone strike in Afghanistan, to a stray bullet in L.A., to a terrorist bombing in London, would the world end up a better place?

Feel your sadness for us and them so fully and completely that all boundaries are dissolved and we are left standing face to face, human to human, each feeling the other’s rage and despair as our own, one world to care for.

It is good advice, profound advice. It is also, I’m afraid, beyond the capacity of most all of us.