March 15, 2019
by Umair Haque
Why American Life Ended Up Cruel, Empty, Hopeless, and Futile
One of the things Americans don’t quite understand these days is that the world regards them more or less as the new Soviet Union — a collapsing empire, whose single-minded dedication to a ruinous ideology, along with its inability to ever question it, led it to become a weird and gruesome dystopia. Bread lines for…bread? Try bread lines for healthcare, or “active shooter drills” at school, or Kardashians becoming billionaires for precisely nothing, while the average American’s income hasn’t risen in half a century. The world thinks America hasn’t just lost its mind — the world thinks America’s lost its soul (or that it never had one, take your pick.) Is it right?
Hence, people all over the world observe, with a kind of bewilderment and confusion, that capitalism is what seems to have brainwashed Americans into giving up, or giving away, their souls. American thinking, culture, logic can’t quite seem to question capitalism, to challenge it, to think beyond it, to reason further than it — or even to really understand that it has shortcomings at all, much less that those shortcomings have destroyed American prosperity, stability, and power wholesale. People across the globe, say French people with healthcare, or Germans with retirements, or even Asians, aspiring to such things, don’t understand how this brainwashing, this strange surrender of the soul happened — nor, on the flip side, do Americans really understand just how badly they’ve been brainwashed, or even that they have.
(Ask yourself: imagine you lived in a country where longevity, happiness, incomes, and savings, were all plummeting, while suicide, depression, infant mortality, and inequality were all spiking. Would you call such a nation’s system, ideology, way, a success? Of course not. You’d call it, just like the Soviet Union, a catastrophic failure. And yet America cannot do the same for itself.)
So how did capitalism brainwash Americans into giving away their souls? (If you’re asking “who took them”, the answer’s easy, capitalists did.) Have you ever wondered? I don’t just mean the “trivial” how. The easy answers: “Fox News!” and so on. The first rule of any real ideology is that you can’t ever question it, so quite obviously, just as living in the Soviet Union, you couldn’t publicly question communism, so in America, you can’t question or even really say the word “capitalism.”
I mean the deep how. How did capitalism eat America’s soul? How did it convince Americans to believe backwards, weird, crazy, upside-down things…over and over again? Things like what, you might ask? Things like, for instance, people shouldn’t have healthcare. That retirement and childcare are grand privileges that only billionaires should have. Only the rich deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. That nobody’s life has any inherent worth. That everything in society, from democracy to education, should be bought and sold.
When we examine these beliefs, an underlying theme emerges pretty quickly. Capitalism convinced Americans that vice is virtue. The world can see that everywhere — Americans seem to believe that cruelty is kindness, that love should be “tough” (not, well, loving), that the best thing you can do for someone who’s fallen down is to kick them, that everybody being as selfish and greedy as possible is what’s best for everyone, that the sole point of human life is to pile up more money than the next person, that we should generally be as mean as possible, even if we do it with a smile — and never mind doing anything worthy, noble, interesting, or true — in ways that literally nobody else in the world does. Go ahead — ask your European or Canadian friends if they think everything in society should be privately owned, if it should be run for profit, if people should be “self-reliant”, if society should be a Darwinian contest for artificially scarce resources, if insulin should cost more than a mortgage, blah blah, insert tired Americanism here.
What the? Again, if you’re American, you probably think to yourself: “Wow! Umair’s so mean! What a bastard!!” whereas if you’re not, you probably think to yourself: “Yeah, that describes Americans to us pretty well.” Do you see what I mean a little?
(Now, that doesn’t mean ALL Americans, or even you. But it does mean enough Americans that American life has become profoundly and grimly dystopic in all the senses we’ve already discussed — “active shooter drills”, medical bankruptcy, opioid epidemic, falling longevity, things which simply don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Yes, really — anywhere. These statistics aren’t just dry data — they are vivid evidence of social attitudes, of beliefs, of mindsets. Americans might say they believe in kindness and gentleness and compassion and so on, but taking a hard look at actions, not just words, at the shattered state of society, a very different truth is revealed.)
So the way that capitalism brainwashed Americans is right down at the very root. It made morality immoral, and immorality not just “moral”, but something more dangerous still: logical, reasonable, desirable, necessary — something that you’re rewarded for, applauded for, cheered on to do, trained in, encouraged to constantly pursue. Again, that’s obvious. Teachers earn pennies — hedge funders earn multiple millions. Which one raids whom’s pension? Why do frats still run campuses? Why aren’t American kids taught that every other rich country in the world has public healthcare and retirement — instead of crackpot ideas like “resilience” and “grit”, which are fancy words for being selfish, mean, and competitive?
And yet this weird, hidden perversion of morality into immorality is why Americans are in a deep, grave emotional and spiritual crisis, too. Why American life is so deeply unhappy, so angry, so bitter, so pointless, so empty, so meaningless, so futile. Because we cannot deny our true inner morality anymore than we can deny the sun rising in the dawn. We can try, sure — but we are only lying to ourselves, and when we do that, my friends, we are more miserable and false and hollow every minute.
Let me explain. I have to warn you, you’re probably going to hate this part, really really hate it, every sentence in it, if you’re American. It will strike you as bizarre, weird, and totally upside-down. But that’s kind of the point.
Do you know the very first sense humans beings have? What begins to unfurl even before our full sense of sight, touch, or taste? Our morality. Yes, really. Go ahead — roll your eyes. I know that many of you have been brainwashed by capitalism, which is the topic of this essay, and you won’t be able to handle such an idea, because of course American thinking teaches you that “moral systems” are things that can “differ”, which is to say, I can kill you and call it moral. But I can’t, sorry — I can say that I get social approval, or that I get cultural status, and so on, but what I can’t say is that hurting you is moral, because that is an oxymoron. (So you can continue to be cynical and ignorant if you want, or you can understand the world and yourself.)
There is a moral sense in us, which is every bit as essential as our five physical senses. That moral sense says that says we need to be treated with inherent worth — and we must treat others that way, too. Have you ever seen a baby approach another, with a great, wide smile — not rage, fear, and racial slurs? Approach an adult with a kind of wide-eyed curiousity — where the adult might approach another adult with hatred and rage? Fearlessly jump and laugh, like, as the saying goes, “no one is watching” — which makes us all smile a little bit?
That’s the moral sense. It impels us to be three things. Fair, authentic, and kind. Fair: it tells us that if we privilege some, we harm others — and if we harm others, we have taken away happiness, beauty, truth, for no good reason at all. Authentic: we mustn’t lie, especially about how we feel, because that is the precursor to all forms of violence. Kind: we must never cause others pain, and prevent and console pain, wherever and whenever we can, just as a little baby or puppy will literally come and wipe your tears away. (Go ahead and roll your eyes if you’re American, it makes no difference to me.)
The result of these the three elements of our moral sense, fairness, authenticity, and kindness, is that we feel disgusted, repelled, disappointed, alarmed, maybe angry and scared, when we see the inherent worth of others taken away — just like a baby is, when it sees, for example, another one being abused, or again, a puppy.
Note here already how different American logic is from even a baby’s inner wisdom, or a puppy’s. It tells us to celebrate abusing and demeaning and violating one another, to take away everyone else’s inherent worth, to climb over them, and pull them down — not approach with curiousity and gentleness and empathy and grace. We are to make everyone “stand on their own feet”, which means denying everyone healthcare, retirement, income, savings, and so on, as universal basics, we are to police them for being liabilities to us — but never care for them, or even really see them at all. But all that is exactly the opposite of what our innate moral sense tells us to do.
Hence, Americans are perpetually surprised, confused, bewildered — living in a kind of fog, unsure about what is right or wrong anymore. They are morally disoriented, and they don’t know it. They are alienated from their sense of placedness in the world, their sense of being at home in the universe — that is what moral disorientation does. (Hence, the sudden swing into superstition, fantasy, extremism, paranoia, delusion, and so on)
But how did Americans end up celebrating abusing each other? What told them to deny their innate moral sense? Because things condition us, brainwash us, confuse us — and for Americans, foremost among these is capitalism. Capitalism — economics, politics, media, thinking, all that’s ever allowed to be said or heard — presents Americans with these strange and bizarre theories, which literally no one else in the world believes, takes seriously, they mostly laugh at them, when they’re not repelled by them.
These theories say that extreme, aggressive self-interest is the best way for everyone. That if everything in society is treated as a disposable commodity, including human beings, “efficiency” and “productivity” will rise. That if you and I are only ever competitors — not neighbors, friends, citizens, but adversaries, opponents, in a deathmatch for basic things like healthcare and money, then and only then will we ever make maximum profit. What the…? Do you see a little how backwards all that is? How it’s one colossal denial of the moral sense in us all?
The truth is that we’re all born with this moral sense, this need to treat and to be treated with dignity, this need to have and give inherent worth. All this is what Bowlby and Piaget’s pioneering work proved. We have this moral sense innately — every single baby is born with it. And as we mature, without it, we see no beauty or meaning or purpose in the world. We grow depressed and despondent and empty — or worse, we become twisted, we become fatalistic cynics inside, hoping to feed on pain, like the Sacklers, Zuck, etcetera.
We retain our moral sense no matter how much or how hard capitalism (or anything else, really) tries to brainwash us — and we see proof of that in the way Americans react, constantly, with shock and anger, to the fact that everything in their society is for sale. What capitalism can do is brainwash us — like any ideology — to believe it is the answer to everything. What it cannot do is to replace, wholesale, our innate and natural moral instincts. It cannot ever really convince us that taking away people’s inherent worth, abusing them, can be good. The most it can do us convince that we will benefit. But these are not the same thing.
That is why we know that some things shouldn’t be for sale — even if our most celebrated theories invent bizarre justifications for it, that we’ve been taught by capitalist logic, something deep down in our bones rebels. Something instinctive, in the soul, the psyche, the center. It says — that little baby in us, which is so often the wisest part of us — that we need desperately to be treat and to be treated fairly, to see every life as beautiful and strange and worthy, which is to say that we wish to be treated as equals, as fellow travellers, as people of equivalent possibility. In other words, we retain an inner core of humanity — no matter what, and without it, our happiness and fulfillment and self-belief all crumble, too.
Now, there will always be instances where our morality prevails — as it should. Maybe it won’t be when we are abused, and we abuse, at work, for example — maybe we buy into that. There will be times when capitalism can and does succeed in brainwashing us, into mistreating and abusing and neglecting others, into being little exploiters and predators ourselves. But it can’t do that all the time — that is why Americans have been left so unhappy, so conflicted, so disoriented.
Capitalism asks Americans to do what is profoundly unnatural. To never, ever treat one another as equals of inherent worth, of inviolable possibility. To deny one another dignity, meaning, truth, purpose. The result of living in this unnatural way is a growing wave of deep, aching depression, of isolation, loneliness, anger, rage, disconnection, of suicide and hatred and self-destruction. Most of all, a kind of profound alienation, a seeping numbness, an inability to feel or empathize or care about anything anymore. (How else does a society let its kids do “active shooter drills” — unless it is completely unable to feel anymore?)
So capitalism asks Americans to violate the deepest part of ourselves, because it asks us to sell, pimp, violate, and exploit our fundamental core, the deepest thing in us. It demands that we, and the societies we make up, sell our morality for profit, instead of treat lives as things of inherent worth. But we can find no beauty or meaning or truth in our world, then, either. Everything turns grey. There’s just twilight where should be the dawn.
When will our moral sense override capitalism’s conditioning? Probably when the rich and famous buy college slots our kids could have had — bang! Probably when a Presidency auctions off our country — bang! Maybe we will come back to our first sense. Then, our moral sense will kick in — because now we’ve been hit at a kind of personal level — no matter how much capitalism has tried to brainwash us into believing that violating people, exploiting lives, taking away their inherent worth, reducing them to commodities, is all that can ever exist. We will feel angry, disgusted, and outraged. And we will think — “hey! That thing shouldn’t be for sale!” But…
Sadly, strangely, funnily — we probably won’t think the next obvious thoughts “Wait. Why is everything in our society for sale to begin with? Why am I for sale? My health, intelligence, dignity, happiness, longevity, meaning, purpose? Should any of that be for sale — or should I, and everyone else, have inherent, inviolable worth?”
Capitalism has brainwashed us that far successfully, preventing us thinking what we feel — hence, we end up conflicted: “I want a capitalist society! Nothing else! Wait — oh my God, why am I so miserable? Why can’t I feel anything anymore? Why is everything so futile and pointless?” LOL — maybe you see my point. But no amount of capitalist brainwashing can annihilate our innate moral sense totally — it can only prevent us thinking thoughts we’ve been told are too dangerous, too troublesome, which don’t conform to what we’ve been all our lives is normal, decent, and respectable, but remaining deeply unhappy and uncomfortable inside all the time, because we are ill at ease with ourselves, and our worlds. Bang! Despair. Confusion. Disorientation. Does that sum up how you feel a little?
It’s not decent and respectable to have a society in which the deepest thing in us — our moral sense — has been perverted, turned upside down, sold, pimped out for profit. It’s not normal, either. That’s what our icy numbness and flashes of panic and sense of despair are all trying to tell us — even people who’ve been brainwashed into being exploiters and abusers so long we’ve forgotten we can be anything else. Our first sense never goes anywhere. It still there, deep down, giving us its wisdom, which, in truth, is the wisdom of the mountain, the river, the springtime, the whole universe — every instant of every day. Are we listening yet?