Assessing America’s Destructive “Work Ethic”
D. C. Weiser[*]
The meanness, or rather the brutality, which the leading institutions of corporate economy, education, and governance in America breed, nurture and hybridize is yielding a hellish crop. This brutality is evident in the social hemorrhaging of Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandyhook, in the incarceration, torture and execution of people of color as clearly as in the devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt. The rapes and hate crimes targeting women, men and LGBT persons testify to this deeply ingrained savagery. An epidemic of clinical depression and other forms of mental illness resulting from hopelessness in the general population is sweeping the nation (especially apparent in suicides of children, young persons, and young veterans of the US-driven ‘War on Terror’ and even un-deployed reservists). High tech educational testing, school construction and management corporations, enticed and backed by Wall Street gamblers, have launched an assault designed to cripple our public schools, dispossess our teachers and replace them with their own hand-picked and probably low-paid adjunct, temporary or “distance” staff in proprietary or “so-called” charter schools. The strategy is clearly meant to weed out the poor, especially poor blacks, Hispanics, the disabled, and other “undesirables”). A virtual menagerie of fascist strains have sprung up from the muck of stupidity, incompetence and chaos spread the length and breadth of this country ever since the Alzheimers presidency of Ronald Reagan. The Southern Poverty Law Center counts 1,007 such organizations since 2012, including Army of God, Aryan Nation, Racist Skinheads, Neo-Nazis, White Supremacist, Black Supremacist, Anti-LGBT, Anti-Muslim, Christian Identity, Radical Catholic Antisemites, Ku Klux Klan, and other criminal gangs and hate groups. We have permitted the cynical slaughter of our young in indefensible wars of aggression, ignoring US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which Fallujah is perhaps the cruelest, most terrible symbol. The ability of US House and Senate to govern is in complete collapse and it is far from certain that it can be restored.
The wholesale imprisoning of minorities has become second nature for our criminal justice system, as racial profiling has for police. The degradation of American society is plainly visible in the rampant militarization of police departments, the widespread practice of over-policing, the application of increasingly harsh penalties for minor infractions, the acceptance of torture (in the case of unjustly imprisoned political prisoners like Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, four decades of solitary confinement; or in the case of civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart, who is dying of Stage Four Terminal Cancer, the prison’s refusal to grant compassionate release, President Obama’s refusal to pardon), and especially the criminalizing of the poor, destitute and unemployed that the complete abandonment of America’s core principles is most evident. With the utterly barbarous and protracted execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, we can say with confidence that Oklahoma is Not Okay.
Nowhere is the disconnect more apparent than in the complete opposition of the majority of Americans—Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, T.E.A. Party, Conservative, Liberal, Progressive alike—to the corporate and corporatized government positions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, education (the majority wants amnesty on student loans, low- or no-cost college education, public schools, Obamacare (the majority of Americans actually want a single-payer system like Canada, Britain, and Scandinavia have), worker rights and safety protections, paid family leave, sick days, and Iran.
What all of this nonsense most clearly shows is the immense influence of a corporate sector desperate to seize any and every conceivable profit center and revenue stream in the public sector. If the monster can’t expropriate (i.e., steal) something (say, Iraq, Social Security, or Afghanistan) outright, it destroys it then recreates it (like Haiti, like Iraq, like Afghanistan). Think about it: What does corporate welfare, typified by Big Agra, Big Oil and Big Pharma raiding the US Treasury in the form of immense subsidies, have in common with the War on Drugs, the War on Terror, the continuous assault on Obamacare, the agenda to abolish or privatize all government agencies, the Postal Service, Department of Education, public health, EPA and OSHA, Social Security and Medicare; or with the wholesale granting of Constitutional and personhood rights to corporate entities, with Citizens United, with our inability to raise the minimum wage, or to pass meaningful gun control, campaign finance, and banking reform laws with enforcement teeth? They all have the same motive: profit-maximization or profiteering regardless of social cost. Corporate culture’s leadership and the new barony of 1-percenters are engaged in a power-grab of historic proportions, comparable to the secular confiscation of church property during the Middle Ages. Multinational corporations intend to take the place of the nation-state and traditional governments and to remake secular laws in their own image to suit their own oligarchic whims. Naturally, the nation-states, governments and their legal structures must first be destroyed.
Or, if not destroyed, at least reduced to pliable, bribable, client-states with whom this New Disorder of the World can do business—though only as a preparation for their ultimate destruction. These are not so much client-states of the US government as they are of the global corporate hegemony that now dictates US policy, writes its laws, and buys off its bureaucrats and ideologues in all three branches of government. On this scenario, as Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying have plainly shown, allies are merely potential client-states, awaiting the same fate as those, like Iraq and Afghanistan, the US denominates as “terrorist” or rogue states. (A “rogue” state is one that does not wish to be economically colonized and exploited by a corporate confederacy of multinational conglomerates.)
Destruction, followed by reconstruction, that’s where the smart money is, right? It’s really the same plot as the original movie version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” In that old fiction-horror classic, it’s what those alien peapods do to their human victims once they fall asleep (that’s when you’re most vulnerable). Suck up all their matter and restructured them—inside the pod. Replacement veggie-humans. Soulless zombies.
It’s an apt metaphor—that pod—for modern, monopolistic, parasitic, corporate capitalism. It fits what Douglas Rushkoff calls “a corporate life-form,” calls it an invasive institutional parasite that “mistakes the map for the territory.” In Gangs of America: The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disabling of Democracy, author Ted Nace describes it as “a new life form,”
“[with]…an evolutionary history, a characteristic structure, a set of behaviors. It scales to any size, serves virtually any function, adapts to any culture, and is robust—capable, at least in principle, of functioning indefinitely. It is programmed to survive, to maintain its structure and functional integrity, to grow, to avoid danger and recover from damage, to adapt, and to respond to the outside world.” (My italics)
All Nace has to add is that it has green acid for blood, a remarkable knack for disappearing at crucial moments, hates living things with a vengeance, and is virtually impossible to destroy for the writer to identify this corporate “life-form” with the infernal monster in Ridley Scott’s original Alien. Where is Ripley when we need her?
The subtitle of Rushkoff’s remarkably instructive book, LIFE INC.—‘How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back’—brings into sharp focus the extent of this parasite’s ambition: to literally recreate the entire world in its own image. Multinational corporatism might well say, in the words of an old sci-fi TV show, “The Outer Limits”: “We control the horizontal. We control the vertical.”
Science Fiction and Fantasy, which as genres of literature constitute a kind of collective unconscious for our time, has supplied us with numerous representations of the relentless “corporate life-form” of modern capitalist ideology: Alien, Terminator (both spawning wildly popular sequels), andthe Dark Lord, Sauron, in The Lord of the Rings.More recently, in Neil Gaiman’s extraordinary, memoir-like fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, two visually challenging (for humans) alien creatures: the ancient demon, Skarthach of the Keep, that wanted “to give people money,” gave “THEM WHAT THEY NEEDED,” and “MADE them happy.” And the truly terrifying Hunger Birds, “vulture-monsters” and “cleaners” capable of tearing and devouring—cleaning—the fabric of worlds, in particular, the colored world of Earth’s material reality, leaving behind only a pulsing gray, nihilistic void like the static on a TV when the picture’s gone.
Recent disclosures of the NSA’s global spying and its data sweeps of phone and email records of the entire population, intimidation of AT&T, Verizon, Google and the other telecom companies, the widespread lying and rationalizing of NSA and CIA (Michael Hayden and Keith Alexander) and other government leaders and mouthpieces (Senator Diane Feinstein) show that the US government has abandoned the rule of law altogether in favor of its own piecemeal and expedient “interpretations”; it has joined the ranks of criminal organizations like the Mafia, the Third Reich, Medellin and Cali, Sinaloa, Gulf, La Familia and Los Zetas cartels.
Make no mistake: the US embrace of fascist tyranny while hiding behind painted masks of “Freedom,” “Transparency,” “Democracy” and “Progress” is driven exclusively by the corporate sector, with ExxonMobil and Walmart leading the way.
The Corporate Juggernaut singled out the United States, with its historic traditions of independence and civil rights, as posing, at least potentially, the greatest threat to its own agenda—even if that independence and those rights existed merely on paper, possessing no actual substance. Since passage of the two so-called P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Acts, the NDAA authorizing torture, indefinite detention and even assassination of U.S. citizens at home or abroad, the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and our democracy are in tatters. Destruction, after all, is what capitalism does best.
I want to make it clear that I am talking about institutions, not individuals. I am an individual, not an institution. So are all of you, whether you understand what that means, or even agree. President Obama is an individual, not an institution, although he works for an institution. Barack Obama is the current tenant of the most powerful office of the most powerful government of the most powerful nation on earth. That is why it is sometimes said that the President is “the most powerful person on earth.” This is not strictly true. The President of the United States may be the most powerful person in the world. (Like bubonic plague or AIDS, he can invade and destroy countries, pardon persons on death row, or have people assassinated, after designating them enemies, terrorists, or threats to national security). But, although the President may be the most powerful, he is also the least free, person in the world. This is attested to by the fact that most sane persons do not wish to be President, by the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and JFK. You only have to look at the President’s itinerary. Like all other forms of employment in America, the US Presidency is a job, not a career or even a career move. President Obama’s job is 24/7. As much as any prison “lifer” President Obama has been institutionalized. It’s just a different, perhaps a better institution. A different kind of prison.
I, on the other hand (for whatever reason: poetry, philosophy, or A.D.D.), have not been institutionalized. Not that society hasn’t tried. The closest I ever came to being institutionalized—in the sense intended here (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)—was at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Instead of becoming institutionalized, I got educated—and civilized. (Hannah Arendt claimed that, if anyone was responsible for making her a reasonable person, it was Karl Jaspers, her teacher, mentor and lifelong friend. I have been extremely fortunate in having had many excellent teachers, from grade school through grad school. I even managed to learn from the few bad teachers I had. Like a bad book, a bad teacher can often be instructive. So, besides my own efforts, I would blame all of my teachers collectively for the content of my character, the quality and conditioning of my mind. Especially the nearly two dozen really good ones—in grade school: Miss Grimes, Miss Cipelka, Lottie Crowder, Dorothy Pillman, in high school: David Brummet, Ruth Morrisey, in college: William Bleifuss, Chris Hauer, Jay Karr, Roy Leeper, Stanley Baldwin, Dave Collins, Wayne Zade, Richard Mattingly, Ernest Mitler, James Swindler, Martine Palo, and in grad school: Richard De George, Warner Morse, Rex Martin, Art Skidmore, and Jack Bricke.)
All of the descriptions, judgments and attributions I have made and will make here apply exclusively to institutions and not to individual persons (although they may have significant consequences for individual persons).
On this scale, the Corporate Golem is driven exclusively by the profit motive, specifically profit-maximization, whatever excuses it makes or justifications it offers for its decisions and the actions it takes. Let’s be clear on this point: we are talking about MNCs the size of ExxonMobil, Walmart, Bertelsmann, Carlyle and J. P. Morgan-Chase, not small local businesses, mom-and-pop coffee shops, art house movie theaters, or professional firms ranging from independent book stores to psychology, law, or medical practices; although, to be perfectly honest, all businesses have been infected with and mind-numbed by the advertising propaganda promoting capitalist ideology that gets pumped out 24/7 through the highly-corporatized, mainstream media.
As a matter of fact, everything that goes on in this society and much of the world, is imagined, devised and shaped solely by this profit-maximizing motive. That is a conspiracy, not a conspiracy theory. Only a people who have been so brainwashed by the allure of advertising imagery and self-flattering propaganda jargon aimed directly at their collective hypothalamus or reproductive organs that they believe in endless progress, that progress is growth in profits accurately measured by GDP, that GDP accurately measures anything other than growing inequality, waste, structural violence, disease and destruction reflected by the sum total of profits, independent of how those profits are distributed or used; that humankind’s destiny is for everyone to become a successful entrepreneur, or that entrepreneurialism is anything besides disguised social Darwinism, blind faith in salvation through technology, naïve trust in scientific “expertise,” and sheer hucksterism.
The dark underbelly and corollary of the tenets of this Entrepreneur’s Creed is that it reduces everything to the criteria of employment or ownership. Having a job is the litmus test for being able to enjoy the rights of citizenship, making acceptance of the tenets of entrepreneurialism the fundamental social reality. Not having a job or owning a profitable business is, in 21st America, the equivalent of a Medieval peasant not having a soul, or of excommunication from Mother Church. The mere fact that practically every MBA program in the country subscribes religiously to these tenets of entrepreneurialism, tenets that are demonstrably false (including the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph), shows just how deeply entrenched and intransigent our trouble is.
The only cause of poverty is a lack of money (not lack of education or having the “wrong kind” of education, not bad character, not laziness, not criminal tendencies, and assuredly not a lack of “right-thinking,” whatever that is). As Barbara Ehrenreich has compellingly argued, all of these problems, especially that of a minimum living wage, are moral issues, not economic ones. Decisions and policies about them may have economic consequences, but they are not the ones that conservative Republicans, T.E.A. Party Libertarians, FOX anchors or Wall Street lobbyists like to point to (erroneously). We can scotch this economic fairytale that raising the minimum wage causes unemployment. As a matter of fact, it has precisely the opposite effect; it acts as a stimulant to the economy, boosting enterprise and lifting all boats in a community. This scapegoat of reactionary conservatives is nothing more than a self-serving distraction from selfishness (profit-maximizing strikes again!). We shall have to look elsewhere for the causes of unemployment.
Through her reluctant experiment in “emergent journalism,” putting her body on the line and actually working these low-wage jobs and experiencing the accompanying “life-style,” Barbara Ehrenreich learned some very important lessons: that the poor work very hard indeed at physically demanding jobs (waitresses, hotel housekeepers, warehouse pickers and assembly line packagers); that there are no “unskilled” jobs, that all jobs require intelligence, skill, focus and dedication; that the poor are disrespected and despised just for taking low-wage jobs, treated as criminals by misbegotten, paternalistic, white collar managers who themselves perform the vast bulk of workplace pilfering, theft and embezzlement. Ehrenreich also discovered that the poor are victims of wage theft by management to the tune of more than $100 billion each year, estimated by M.I.T. researchers.
A nation and people that deny a living wage to every worker, especially to the working poor, who criminalize the poor, the young, minorities, or believe that poverty, like literary fiction, is character-driven, or who believe that the poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty must have a very low opinion of work. The vast majority of employed Americans hates work and despises what they do and, more importantly, detests why they do it: namely, for money. They may ignore this fact, drive it from their minds, by burying it under fatuous achievements and by consuming ever more material commodities.
But, revealingly, by so doing they stand in flagrant contradiction to at least ten thousand years of history and the teaching of every major religion: that the needy, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the most vulnerable members of society have a claim on the majority to treat them with dignity, relieve their suffering, assist their needs, heal their wounds, and restore them to their full and welcome place as members of society. Not to blame them for weakness or criminality, while offering to sell them courses on basics of sound financial management.
The business of America is not business, certainly not show business; but neither is it a Monopoly game, a Hobbesian “war of all against all,” a proof of natural selection or justification of social Darwinism. It is not built into the fabric of the cosmos or the nature of reality; nor is business humankind’s inevitable lot. Meaningful work is essential for human beings; working to “earn a living” is not. The proper business of America is to retire its existing business ideology as no longer a viable concept for civilization.
[*] D. C. Weiser is the author of more than a dozen works of poetry, nd nonfiction. His latest work and the object of a current Kickstarter campaign is Sinister Dynamic: Global Governance and the Reconstruction of Nature.