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The Great Recession of 2007-2009 was more than a financial and political crisis. At root, it was a moral crisis.
Bernie Madoff and a handful of other racketeers were prosecuted, but all those actively or passively involved in the financial scam were not exposed, let alone legally dealt with.
The harm inflicted on the American people by the venal practices of those who orchestrated, implemented and/or facilitated the Great Recession is incalculable. Millions of peoples’ lives were turned upside-down, if not destroyed; America’s long-term future put in doubt.
Those morally culpable for the crisis involved many more than those who masterminded the vast plunder and got away with it. Truly, one can expect little in terms of moral leadership from the conspirators hidden in their Wall Street corner offices. A new car, an expensive bottle of wine or a couple of zeros on their paychecks is all that is needed to assuage the qualms they might have felt about the immoral if not illegal practices they consciously engaged in.
The Great Recession’s true moral crisis goes deeper, involving all those down the chain of greed that unites the system of plunder. This chain links the CEO of a major hedge fund or bank to the lowest mortgage broker or loan officer. It reaches out to still others, including credit rating agencies, government regulators and the self-serving financial media. It involves all those who knew and not only did nothing but joined in to get their own.
This shared greed is a distinguishing expression of America’s new moral order. It is rooted in a return to the all-American morality of Social Darwinism that ruled during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, a period that Mark Twain disparagingly called the Gilded Age.
Gilded Age values were rationalized in a simple dictum: I’ll get mine; screw the next guy. It’s the morality of the huckster, those who know how to artfully con the uninformed, get-rich-quick schmuck; in America, as the 21st century version of the old adage proclaims, a schmuck is born everyday.
Social Darwinism defined morality during American capitalism’s first stage of global ascendancy. The question haunting America today is whether it defines today’s deepening crisis and thus the nation’s historical eclipse.
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Social Darwinism was a late-19th century belief system that applied Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human existence. It was especially popular among the American and British elite because it placed them, the white Christian male, at the top of evolutionary scale.
The first rule in this misreading of Darwin’s theory was a self-serving moral assumption: Humans occupy the highest rung in the evolutionary of animal life. Some went further, arguing that consciousness separated humans from animals and, thus, from natural life itself. Once this fundamental break with Darwin’s belief in nature’s interconnected integrity was made, humans could easily further legitimize fragmenting themselves into still more hierarchical structures, whether based on age, gender, race, geography, belief, class, sexual orientation or whatever.
Proponents of Social Darwinism, particularly Herbert Spencer, popularized concepts like “the struggle for existence” and “the survival of the fittest.” This belief system took different forms in different countries, sometimes with horrendous consequences. In Germany, the biologist Ernst Haeckel divided humankind into races with “Aryans” at the top and Jews and Africans at the bottom.
In the U.S., notions of racial identity were augmented by concepts of personal purity and global conquest. Teddy Roosevelt was the prime representative of this all-American belief system, turning it into a national policy. Proponents of Social Darwinism championed a moral belief system based on three interrelated principals. First, self-hood was represented by the rugged individualist, the masculine warrior who achieves his full human realization on the battlefield of laissez-faire capitalism. Second, to function at its most optimal, this social system required “social purity” of sexual repression and a eugenics-breeding program. Finally, this new American value system assumed that the globe was a terrain of conquest; it embraced an international, imperialist outlook proudly called manifest destiny, the “white man’s burden.”
These principals fashioned a moral outlook that linked the truth of one’s conduct to the social position one occupied. If one was rich, socially prominent and white one could get away with almost anything. Thus, the “crimes” of the rich and the poor were both legally and morally different. For Social Darwinists, morality was based on class privilege.
No one was more a proponent of Social Darwinism then John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil trust and America’s grandest robber baron and Christian philanthropist. He argued that his efforts were the result of “a survival of the fittest, … the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.”
Rockefeller, and others who shared his belief system, engaged in a great intellectual trick. They artfully suppressed the fundamental contradiction between Christian theology and scientific rationality. They collapsed Darwin’s theory, grounded in empirical observation, into Christian doctrine, a faith in Adam and Eve.
This rationalization of religion and science, of God and Darwin, facilitated the rationalization of still other intellectual and political practices. Rockefeller and many of the other titans of American capitalism of his generation felt no moral discomfort over the murderous suppression of strikes in Ludlow or military interventions in Cuba and the Philippines.
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The Great Recession ushered in the immoral morality of a new, 21st Social Darwinism.
This immorality is legitimized by the growing income inequality. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson analyze this phenomenon in their compelling book, “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.” The popping of the housing bubble was the result of not simply a financial crisis, but the victory of a decades-long political campaign waged by the rich against the rest of us. The authors make clear that the Great Recession was a great diversionary smokescreen so that the financial sector and the rich could seize increased control of the nation’s wealth.
One remarkable dimension of this new Social Darwin morality is the widespread willingness to suspend disbelief. This is a lesson to be drawn from the series of crises that U.S. has faced over the last decade.
The attacks of 9/11 by foreign terrorists took place because the U.S. intelligence services failed to connect the dots.
The Iraq invasion was undertaken due to false claims of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
New Orleans’ suffering was due to nature run wild, not the failures of the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers.
Global market forces caused the financial crisis of 2007-2009.
The Gulf Oil Spill of 2010 was an accident and BP was an inadvertent casualty of a fluke occurrence.
The Tucson shooting was the act of a psychopath; the shooter’s target was chosen arbitrarily, with no voices whispering in his ear.
Except for the Tucson shootings, no actual person/s has been held accountable. Sure, Jared Loughner, like Bernie Madoff, got busted, but each is the exception that proves the rule: No one is responsible for national crises; forces beyond human control determine events. Like 9/11, Katrina, the Iraq war, the Recession and the Gulf spill, unknown forces conspired and no one can be held accountable.
Today’s new Social Darwinist morality is one additional knife in the heart of the remarkable half-century of American egalitarianism that defined the 1930s through ’70s. From the Depression and World War II period through the post-WW II consumer revolution and the revolutions of the 1960s-70s, America struggled to fulfill its democratic ethos. It was an era in which America shared a deep moral vision, one expressed by John Steinbeck in “The Grapes of Wrath” and many other creative works.
The last three decades have witnessed the systematic erosion of this spirit of egalitarianism and the re-imposition of class tyranny. Like a dictatorship or police state, class rule requires the complicity of a world of enablers. This complicity is the true moral order that characterizes today’s America.
Preachers, politicians and pundits may prattle on about the nation’s virtues, but anyone screwed daily by the system of greed knows firsthand America’s new immoral morality. How they deal with it as social life continues to erode remains the unanswered question.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.