Capitalism, the Moral Order, and the Rise of Protean Man

We have a national religion in this country. It’s called free market capitalism. Its values regulate every aspect of American life in the same way that Islam forms the character and governs the conduct of the average Saudi. That it is reverenced and submitted to just like a state religion is perhaps signaled in Richard Wolff’s observation that capitalism has been almost totally off-limits in terms of national debate, unlike other fundamental aspects of our society, such as the educational system, or even the most basic unit of society, the family, which have been subjects of intense controversy.

Our religion’s principal deity would, I suppose, be Mammon, but Pope Francis has suggested another in the pantheon: “The worship of the golden calf of old … has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.”[1] Note carefully: Cult—total devotion of one’s life to a particular object (financial gain); dictatorship—a power (the capitalist system outside the control of states) that governs without the consent of the governed. That we live in a cult of money should be obvious to anyone with the faculty of rational apprehension. But it might not be so obvious that we live under the dictatorship of a faceless, inhuman economic system.

This is best understood, I believe, by thinking about what it means to set up market values, essentially consumption and financial gain, as the dominant values of a society. It means that economic activity is directed not, as it naturally is, to meeting human need, but to the accumulation of wealth, of external goods. In capitalism in particular, this works out in practice to be wildly disproportionate accumulation by the owning class, and our work is overwhelmingly for the benefit of the “one percent.” But the same values tend to form the basic outlook of everyone in the society who accepts the system, consciously or unconsciously.

I think that this is why Americans have barely reacted to some of the more egregious social and economic outcomes of the capitalist system. For instance, half of Americans are below or near the poverty line, and almost a quarter of all American children live in poverty. Since around 1970 or so, real wages have stagnated and fallen even as productivity and corporate profitability have risen (profitability sharply) with a corresponding increase in the rate of divorce, and a decrease in the quality of home life, as households came under ever greater economic strain. Or consider the spectacle of millions thrown out of their homes and deprived of their livelihoods in the on-going financial crisis, now in its sixth year, as the banks—cause of the crisis in the first place—were bailed out and propped up at the expense of the crisis’s victims. It’s all too easy to think of other examples. And we take no serious steps to remedy any of this. The market demands that we simply adapt, and that is what we have almost always done. It zigs, and thousands are laid off; it zags, and whole communities, like Flint and Detroit, are practically destroyed as their industries are sent overseas. The human side of us might care, but we all intuit at some level that the real concern is the good of the market, not human values like meeting authentic needs and the health and strength of families and communities. As long as there’s the prospect of economic growth and upward trending markets, we’ll just bear with the human consequences. And of course the consequences are far, far worse in the developing world. That’s the dictatorship of the economy.

Nor is the effect of this basic disorder in values limited to the macro-level. It shapes and forms the individual psyche as well. For example, Charles Churchyard has called attention to what he calls the rise of “Protean Man.” Such a man has no fixed code of conduct or set of moral absolutes that might interfere with his ability to conform to the demands of the multiple workplaces and communities the new economy will require him to labor in, and live in, throughout the course of his lifetime. That is what the global economy dictates. This trait Churchyard calls “flexible conformity” which, he persuasively argues, is a root cause of the widespread adoption of moral relativism. Churchyard is an unapologetic enthusiast of capitalism, especially American capitalism, and sees moral relativism as “greasing the wheels of productivity”:

“Today’s relativism is only an advanced form of flexible conformity... An individual who believes that values vary with times and circumstances will be susceptible to the values of whatever group he happens to be a member of, and he will thus function as its cooperative and obedient participant. This, of course, is precisely what the engine of American productivity has needed in the past and continues to need all the more now, when speed and change are increasing in the world of work, and employees are called upon to be ‘focused, fast, friendly, and flexible’—especially the last. The youth whose only firm conviction is that standards of conduct are relative should become the adaptable worker of the future.”[2]

It is simply easier to be “morally flexible” than to have a definite, unchanging moral code, which could bring us into conflict with others, the values of the workplace, or even of the entire system.  More generally, we might hold on to “soft” values like tolerance, non-judgmentalism, and a certain superficial kindness. But what happens to values like contentment with what you have, when both commercial workplaces and the wider consumer culture promote what is essentially covetousness?

Churchyard also rightly points out that as productivity and the demands of work have increased, domestic and community life have been devalued. This is because

“’s personal feelings and needs often have nothing to do with, and at times run counter to, the requirements of one’s role as an effective worker. The overriding purpose of work is getting a job done with maximum speed and optimal results, not satisfying people’s desire for friendship and community....”

Further, the constant change in the modern workplace
“...prevents and transience dissolves strong emotional ties.... However unsatisfactory this may be in human terms, it is what the modern economy needs, and the human aspects of the process have to be kept subordinate to the process itself. Lasting and significant personal relationships may actually interfere with productivity rather than assist it... Superficial amiability ... is the functional desideratum, not deep friendship or enduring community.”[3]

What must be the state of the soul of those who have internalized such values of free market capitalism? It is not a virtuous soul, in the old sense of the perfection of the truly human faculties of reason and will, even if not a particularly vicious one, perhaps. But the picture Churchyard paints of it is not exactly attractive either, and when juxtaposed with the Christian idea of the image of God, the divine pattern of human existence, our Protean souls can only strike us as hideously disfigured:

“Protean man is not the man of nobility or the man who has realized his highest potential. He is the hollow man, uncertain and restless. But this is precisely the motivation that may result in highly productive functionality. After he attains a new level or accomplishes a new task, he still feels unsatisfied and proceeds on to the next in an endless and futile quest.... The insatiable consumer acts in a similar way as he joins the numberless throngs of shoppers in the mall. ‘I buy things I don’t need, with money I don’t have, to impress people I don’t like,’ declares a cynical commonplace. However unsatisfactory such behavior might be to its practitioners, it unquestionably helps to stoke the engines of manufacturing and to drive the endless cycle of acquiring and creating commercial products.”[4]

Productivity, consumption, continual and pointless innovation, workplace achievement, economic growth—these are indeed deeply unsatisfactory goals. The purpose of an economy is to provide us the external goods we need in order to live virtuous lives, to meet the needs of the body as we pursue natural happiness in this world and eternal happiness in the next. But we have inverted this order and made external goods the ultimate object of our activity, and our values are merely instrumental in the achievement of that object; those values in conflict with its attainment gradually die away—like moral objectivism versus relativism, contentment with what God has given us versus greed, family and community versus sacrificing these to meet the demands of productivity and global competition, or non-materialism versus materialism.

Do we have an alternative to the cult of money and the dictatorship of the economy and all the material and spiritual affliction they have left in their wake? Not if you listen to the political, financial, and media elites. But, yes, we do. We have the social justice teaching of the Church with its call for all economic and political activity to be directed toward the good of the human person in all his dimensions, body, soul, and spirit. That is sanity. But it would mean nothing less than a revolution in the present order of things and a casting down of our idols.

Doran G. Hunter

Doran is a National Committee member of the American Solidarity Party

[1] “Address of Pope Francis to the New Non-resident Ambassadors to the Holy See: Kyrgyzstan, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg and Botswana,” May 16th, 2013.
[2] Charles Churchyard, National Lies: The Truth about American Values (Cambridge, MA: Axroide Publishing, 2009), p. 390
[3] Ibid., p. 392.
[4] Ibid., p. 393

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