In a commencement address delivered at Harvard University in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that “the West does not understand Russia in communist captivity.” Now, 30 years later, United States citizens find themselves unable to understand America in capitalist captivity.
Many of those in attendance at Harvard that June day expected the great writer, in exile in the United States, to be full of praise for America. He said he wished to speak as a friend, cautioning that, “Truth seldom is sweet; it is almost invariably bitter.”
Solzhenitsyn did speak frankly, and now from our vantage years later we can fully appreciate his powers of observation. He said, for one thing: A decline “in political courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today. The Western world has lost its civic courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, in each government, in each political party . . .”
Solzhenitsyn, a former political prisoner in Soviet labor camps, noted the pattern whereby “common corporate interests” dispense of independent-minded or unfashionable trends and ideas to create “strong mass prejudices” and “a blindness which is perilous in our dynamic era.” In addition, the West is entangled in “a cult of material well-being” that worships material acquisitions, while people seek personal happiness as their sole purpose.
Flash forward to a news analysis that appeared this month on the front page of The New York Times. In this article, titled, “Seeing an End to the Good Times (Such as They Were),” happiness is defined materialistically, economic jargon measures the quality of life, and blindness frames the narrative.
The newspaper of record’s news analysis defines life in America in these narrow terms: credit markets, possible recession, housing bust, officially unemployed, economic stimulus, benchmark short-term interest rate, and growth in the current quarter. The only people qualified to speak to the matter (and thus quoted) are academic and corporate economists, to whom everyday people are the Xs and Ys of cold calculus.
A step or two outside the box of capitalism, alternative ideas spring up to describe our deteriorating situation. Included in this list of deterrents to the good times (none of them mentioned in the Times article) are: wealth disparity, perpetual war, perpetual debt, excessive commercialization, price-gouging, loss of public spaces, natural resources depletion, neglect of infrastructure, inadequate public transportation, infringements on privacy, cheapening of culture, and worsening global warming.
If we plunk ourselves down even further outside the box of capitalism, our measures of good or bad times broaden significantly. Money is not the focus when we factor in family, friends, mutual support, culture, new adventures, peace of mind, and the pleasures of our environment. We can reach a little higher and include in this accounting the satisfactions we obtain through the nobility of our ideals, the truths we uphold, the expressions of our goodness, and the wonder of our existence. Freedom and dignity are enriched where capitalism can’t go.
A realistic analysis of the coming economic and social turbulence is missing from The Times because a full accounting of the failures of capitalism is ideologically repugnant to the corporate media. Even so, the media, despite being corporate publicists, are blind to their own spin. They’ve drunk from the inkwells of their poisoned pens and reduced themselves to true-believers of the romantic illusion of capitalism as a bastion of freedom and guarantor of progress. We all can get brainwashed from the toxic ink on our fingers after reading their analyses of life.
Our brain connections and neural pathways are hard-wired by the metaphors, slogans, and enticements of capitalism. Its marketing and technological wizardry has us stranded in the fog of propaganda. With just a scanty knowledge of capitalism’s orthodoxy, and without an awareness of being its adherents, Americans are its fundamentalists.
For these reasons, an economic collapse, should it happen, would likely be accompanied by a national anxiety attack. Unbalanced by top-heavy debt, American capitalism is falling on its face. We don’t know whether it will have a severe concussion, a serious heart attack, or a fatal stroke. We do know, however, that we’ll impede the dawning of social reformation if economic depression is accompanied by our collapse into emotional depression.
Money is not oxygen and being broke is not the end of life. Early Americans lived on this continent for more than two centuries with little money to spend and very few bills to pay. We can’t afford to be overly fearful through the coming challenges and possible chaos. Otherwise, instead of spearheading reform we’ll be herded into revamped systems that will still be destructive or exploitive. If we take some deep breaths, stay united, and display civic courage, we can make our government transform the economic system to reflect our ideals of justice and opportunity.
Capitalism is a hanger-on from a time of global colonialism, when slavery was thriving and women couldn’t vote. Its followers haven’t been able to tear themselves away from cold-blooded bottom-line self-aggrandizement. It has pandered to our worst instincts. It finances the pollution of our free air and free water. Its relentless expansionism is too toxic, its promises of heaven on earth too corrosive to our moral fiber. Something new and greener is coming.
Solzhenitsyn said that, if the world has not approached its end, “it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.” It’s an exciting time to be alive, perhaps the beginning of the good times.