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Upside Down: The Profit Motive’s Inversion of Values

— March 2, 2016

What was once unspeakable is now being said.

In pre-September 11th America, no president or politician could have so much as hinted at an all-encompassing electronic surveillance program, yet now the White House and intelligence leaders speak calmly about finding a “balance” between security and privacy. In 2007, George W. Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, told a Senate committee that the Constitution grants “no express right” of habeas corpus. Under Bush and President Barack Obama, the United States has become a country that tortures its prisoners both foreign and domestic, calling it “enhanced interrogation.” The judge who oversaw the Detroit bankruptcy swindle, Steven Rhodes, declared that Americans have “no fundamental right” to water.

As the country has careened down the chute toward the dumpster of oligarchic totalitarianism, those in power have become careless, in both senses of the word, about revealing their true colors. Their remarks, on the record, are less and less guarded, less polished for a citizenry that once expected and demanded more in the way of freedom, of humanity and of decency.

But as the elites’ gloves have come off, to borrow from Dick Cheney, so must we dare to speak our own truths. And the greatest of these truths, the most fundamental and urgent, is that it is time for us to outgrow the profit motive. As a basis for society, as the determining factor in the individual’s quality of life, as a principle of life, it is killing us. And now that we learn that 64 families own more wealth than three billion of us, we seem to be finding our voice. While Bernie Sanders is no socialist, the fact that he has referred to himself as socialist and can make a plausible run at the presidency indicates as radical a break from our past in one direction as the NSA’s universal surveillance makes in the other.

So let it be said, the profit motive—the effort, the necessity of taking more than one gives—is at the back of almost everything that is wrong with us. It has, in the short lifespan of industrial capitalism and the corporation, knocked us off our feet and stood us on our heads. Consider the inverted order of things to which it has led us.

The men and women who rule our country openly speak of nuclear war with Russia and China. Only last week, the Obama administration launched two ICBM’s in a display of force intended to intimidate these two nuclear powers. The test firings were “a signal,” said Robert Work, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, “…that we are prepared to use nuclear weapons in defense of our country if necessary.” U.S. General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe has declared that the U.S. military must ensure that “we are using all elements of our country’s power.” It seems increasingly likely that death mongers like Work and Breedlove view nuclear war as a viable strategy in their struggle to maintain U.S. domination of the Middle East’s oil, if not the world. And although all science insists we must commit ourselves to forms of energy that do not doom us to extinction, the men and women who rule reply that the profits to be had of that oil, and every ounce of fossil fuel the earth will yield, weigh more heavily in the balance than humanity itself.

While those who rule spend billions of our tax dollars on the tools of war–$598.5 billion for the Pentagon in 2015, not counting “black” budgets—our cities crumble. Flint, Michigan, an hour’s drive from the clean waters of Lake Huron, must now live with the consequences of lead poisoning.

In impoverished cities and rural communities throughout the country, those places abandoned by capital and dubbed by journalist Chris Hedges “sacrifice zones,” infrastructure deteriorates, public services are privatized or eliminated, and youth are offered training for a life of menial service in lieu of education. Immense wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and the vast majority of ordinary people strain under poverty or near poverty, or they hold on desperately to the trappings of a middle class life by assuming debt in the form of mortgages, car loans and student loans.

Work, in which we should provide for our community and experience joy and self-discovery, is an ever more demanding burden. The machines that could ease the burden have always served primarily to put us out of work or to increase our workload and rate of production. This is because we do not make shoes so that people will have shoes, we make shoes so that they can be sold at a profit. We do not grow food so that people may eat but so that an owner will profit. Our drug companies harm people with off-brand labeling for the sake of profit, education is handed over to corporations in order to make it profitable, prisons are privatized with the absurd result that an increase in crime becomes incentivized, a source of profit. This is a society that is living upside down.

In the twilight of our dying capitalism, work becomes still more degraded. Work that had benefited from a degree of dignity and permanence increasingly falls to the category of piecemeal “contract” work. From radiologists to teachers, more and more workers must now monitor their phones and computers for potential jobs, racing each other to be the first to enter a bid when a job appears. The logic of this system drives down wages, if not of each bid then of the kind of work itself. It reduces or eliminates benefits and leaves workers in a state of perpetual uncertainty. It is a race to the bottom. And in an unmistakable way, it turns worker against worker, which is to say brother against sister or, if that is too corny, neighbor against neighbor.

This competition, direct and subliminal, colors every almost aspect of our lives. By denying us the cooperative and mutually nurturing lives we can have and instinctively want, it is an arrangement of human life that erodes our selves even as it erodes our relationships wit5h each other. We are a society that suffers anxiety, depression, self-medicating addictions, not because we are weak or genetically disposed to illness but because we struggle with and against an existence that is itself an illness.

We know this to be true, we feel it. We have moments of joy, of calm, of transcendence, of fellowship that leave us certain that our days should be lived differently. These are not fleeting illusions or foolish dreams. They are moments of clarity, and we all have them. Or at least the vast majority of us, we who are struggling and drowning and sane.

What would that world look like? What work would be done, and who would do it? Certainly better minds than mine will take up those questions. But I suspect the dirty jobs that must be done will be shared, and I know without doubt that the 40-hour week will be a discarded shackle.

But for now we must talk. We must counter the mad talk of war, of exploitation, of totalitarianism with our revolutionary good sense. We must help each other see that we are upside down.

Sources: “Gonzales: There Is No Express Grant of Habeas Corpus in the Constitution” “Military Spending in the United States” “U.S. Launches ICBM’s in Show of Force”

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