In 1979, President Jimmy Carter went on national television and gave a speech that was soon called the “national malaise speech.” It pissed off a lot of Americans because they didn’t want to hear it, even though much of it was true at the time. I want to focus on just one paragraph and ignore the rest for the purposes of this essay:
“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Now, before all of you atheists, agnostics((I’m pretty much one of those), and pagans(sometimes I feel like one of those) out there get your panties or whatever in an uproar, let’s just pretend that the “faith in God” part is left out. It’s of no importance to my argument, anyway.
Specifically, I would like to zero in on just one sentence, with my emphasis added: Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.
That sentence comes from the ancient heritage of my ancestors. No doubt there are very similar sentiments expressed in a multiplicity of other cultures(I can think of several offhand–Greek, Roman, Native American to name a few), but I’m most familiar with my own, which I think is only natural, so I’m going to focus on that with the comfort of knowing that there’s a lot of concurrent thoughts out there.
The old Nordic people who invaded and conquered most of England brought with them the principle that individuals should be judged by how they lived their own individual lives. A warrior was respected if he fought well in battle. A chieftain earned respect by how he distributed the spoils of war in addition to his martial prowess. A woman was respected for how she ran the household(she was a virtual dictator there) and how she raised her children. A shipwright was respected by the quality of the ships that he made. A craftsman was respected by the quality of his products and by the beauty of his art. And all were judged based on whether or not they behaved honorably.
Wealth was good, but it definitely was not the be all and end all. If one was a rich asshole, one was still an asshole and therefore not entitled to respect, which was far more important. The old Vikings didn’t have much regard for hereditary rights: Just because your dad was a respected man didn’t mean that you were; you had to earn that in the eyes of your peers. And how did you earn their respect?
By your actions in your own life, that’s how. Aristocratic privilege had little place in Viking life, and the divine right of political rulers or of the wealthy just had no place. What was given by others could be taken away by others. These attitudes and values were the very foundations of Western democracy. They were spread by the sword, yes, but the Anglo-Saxons were pretty quick to embrace them. No king, no church, no one, should have the right to say: You do it just because I told you to do it because I’m me!
That is the foundation of the Magna Carta, of the United States Constitution, of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, of the United Nations Charter.
So how does that sentiment pose a fundamental threat to capitalism? It’s as simple as capitalism itself, and yes, I’m using Marx’s definition here. Capitalism is the economic system which has only one objective: the accumulation of more capital, or profit, or wealth, soonest, by any means necessary. That’s it. That’s Marx’s masterpiece Das Capital in a nutshell. That’s what it all boils down to. Once you truly understand that, the actions and consequences of capitalism, and the motivations of capitalists, are ridiculously easy to understand.
My father understood that. He once said, “If you want to know why something happened, follow the money and it will probably lead you to the truth.”
My dad was talking about life in a capitalist society. And he was right. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not just the way things are. We have a choice. We The People can choose another path. We The People can choose a better way of life, a way in which we are judged, and rewarded, by what we do, by what we accomplish, not by what we own or what we can buy; by how we treat others, and they by how they treat us. Or how we honor our natural heritage and environment and our fellow human beings. Not by how much money we have. Not by how many toys we own. Not by whether or not we can afford the latest smartphone or automobile. Not by how many hours we camp out in front of a big box store in order to be the first to buy a brand new product on Black Friday.
No. We should be judged, and rewarded, in ways that are more valued than just money, by what our fellow human beings think of us. That is the Viking code, which was passed down for centuries. It brought down kings and governments and inspired revolutions. It told everyone that they as individuals and families and communities could make a difference for the better, if only they stood up and acted.
And that is total anathema to capitalism. That is why capitalists try to curtail the right to vote and, if that fails, work to insure that only those with a lot of capital or a lot of benefits from capital have even the ghost of a chance of being elected to an office that has real power. That is why the United States Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United v. FEC that money is speech and corporations are people. That is why our local police are being militarized. That is why…fill in the blank. Y’all are intelligent people. You figure it out. It’s not that hard, and it’s not unattainable.
And that is what scares the shit out of our Powers That Be.
The old way can point the way to the new way. Just exactly how is open to debate, but first, we have to acknowledge that there are other ways, that capitalism is NOT the be-all and end-all, that it is NOT just the way things are.
We can do better than this. My ancestors are screaming at me.