To understand the pathologies behind our paradigm of militarism, institutional racism, and extreme inequality, we should focus not so much on the attitudes of the elites but on the ideology that they use to advance their agendas. In his critique of Barack Obama, the author Chris Wright comments that:
“As a Marxist, I’m not very interested in the psychology of the powerful. I don’t think it matters much, and it tends to be pretty uniform and predictable anyway: self-overestimation, self-justification, moral rationalizations for every horrendous decision made, brutal callousness to human suffering beneath (at best) a veneer of concern, energies directed to machinations for increased power, cowardly accommodation to the path of least political resistance, a collective insularity of the golden-boy culture gilded with sycophants, etc.”
This ideology can be called neoliberalism because it is the chosen term for the extreme version of capitalism that the ruling class has made into conventional political thought. And neoliberalism is an exceptionally useful worldview for a power elite to propagate because it gives those who share their ideology the same mindset that the elites themselves have.
Like every dominant class throughout history, the plutocrats see those in the lower rungs of society as inferior. But neoliberalism causes this hostility towards the poor to spread among the broader population. Following in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and propagated by right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, an attitude has developed among many people that one’s economic position is always their own fault. Resentment towards perceived freeloaders is widespread, with even lower-class people often being suspicious that their economic peers are siphoning off society’s resources through welfare.
When this impulse to blame the country’s decay on laziness and “degeneracy” is fed by the dominant political forces, the ruling elite’s belief in the supreme moral value of wealth and the need for a corporate capitalist “free market” becomes the worldview of much of the rest of society. The super-rich believe that “freedom” means the ability to gain unlimited amounts of wealth without accountability, and this is essentially how most conventional political thinkers also view freedom. The domination of the neoliberal consensus applies to both the mainstream “conservative” and “liberal” sides since the Democratic Party reliably helps Wall Street and large corporations while marginalizing potential progressive reformers.
In reality, our political system is controlled by neither conservatives nor liberals. Electoral politics, government agencies, the courts, the universities, and the media have been bought out by corporations and billionaires. America’s economy is tied in with permanent wars, which are waged to sustain the demands of a global corporate-controlled empire. Our politics and our culture have been subverted by a tiny ruling circle, whose agenda isn’t to advance the traditional definitions of conservatism or liberalism but to protect their own wealth and power. And these elites have gotten many people to rationalize their tyrannical rule-or to even be unaware that a dominating class exists-by branding the accumulation of wealth as a personal freedom that shouldn’t be limited.
This economically centered concept of “freedom” is popularized by giving Americans-especially white Americans-the sense that they have the opportunity to succeed in the game of capitalism. Of course, the vast majority of white working class people never become part of the capitalist class. But the promise that they can theoretically become the commanders of the capitalist apparatus is rooted in the Western mentality of individualism, which is psychologically compelling for someone who’s told that the masters of business are society’s deserving “winners.” And the fact that becoming part of the capitalist class would entail domination over society’s “losers” is justified by the darker part of Western culture that glorifies conquest. This aspect of our culture derives from the mentalities behind colonialism and slavery, and it’s now being used to justify our current period of exploitation.
The shallow culture of consumerism enforces this lack of concern for the common good, as well as the regimentation and lack of community that our modern suburban paradigm has created. America’s culture is in a crisis of empathy, where people are encouraged to only think of their own interests while ignoring the circumstances of those who are different from them. Anthropologically, it makes sense for a population in these circumstances to largely be cynical, suspicious of outsiders, and loyal to authority.
It’s also clear that Donald Trump is a symptom of the system that he exploited towards winning the 2016 election. A society that bases itself in exploitation and conquest while ignoring its own fallibility and injustices was the perfect habitat for Trump’s rise.
Trump won’t be the last of America’s late-stage capitalist authoritarian leaders, and he likely won’t be the worst. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, a homophobe and racist who seeks to impose torture and military dictatorship, is a potential vision of the political forces that will enter the American mainstream within the next ten or twenty years. Like Trump and the other right-wing populists, Bolsonaro’s agenda is also a deeply anti-democratic iteration of neoliberalism that aims to use the police power of the state to enforce corporate tyranny.
People are willing to support the agenda of these leaders both because of the cultural mentality of neoliberal capitalism, and because of a more explicitly authoritarian mentality that stems from neoliberalism. In a passage from the 1950 sociology report The Authoritarian Personality, the report’s authors assess that social factors similar to our current dynamic of class hierarchy are what cultivates a predisposition towards being loyal to power:
[A] basically hierarchical, authoritarian, exploitive parent-child relationship is apt to carry over into a power-oriented, exploitively dependent attitude towards one’s sex partner and one’s God and may well culminate in a political philosophy and social outlook which have no room for anything but a desperate clinging to what appears to be strong, and a disdainful rejection of whatever is relegated to the bottom.
Psychologically, powerful supporters of neoliberalism like Obama and Trump share a lot with the adherents of neoliberalism who have no power. What unites the powerful with the supporters of power is the belief that the rich deserve their wealth, and that the poor don’t deserve to be helped. Click To Tweet As the clinical psychologist John F. Schumaker recently wrote about the empathy deficit that modern consumerist capitalism has created:
“Only the odd diehard biophile or flower child still preaches love as the revolutionary force that could awaken a higher humanity and reverse our death march. People have become less loveable, both in terms of their loveableness and, more crucially, their ability to love.”
The lesson is that if we want to make things better, we need to spread compassion and generosity throughout our daily lives. Even more important is the creation of a mass movement that seeks to overthrow corporate capitalism, and then creates a society which protects the planet while ensuring that every person has a safe and comfortable life.
Feature Image: Tiago Hoisel