“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves…. It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Our self-delusional blind spot for massive wealth accumulation by the very few—ironically through our own labor, productivity, and industry—has diverted us from a golden path that could otherwise lead to a better life for us all, including those already enjoying the spoils of our toils. Not coincidentally, it is the same social and economic engine that drives this incredibly efficient and effective wealth production system that can provide each and everyone of us with a better, more stable, more satisfying, and more fulfilled life. We just need to use that engine to drive ourselves and our society in a different direction.
The primary change required to harness this amazing socioeconomic force, and to redirect it such that all may benefit from its awesome power, demands a subtle shift of social attitude and a renewed commitment to democratic compensation and recognition. To bring our society into balance once again—and perhaps into a new era of social and economic prosperity and personal happiness never seen before—we require a paradigmatic shift of social and economic focus to what is truly important to each and everyone of us at our very cores: a foundational shift to what truly nourishes humanity, not just what fills someone’s coffers.
We need to create a society and an economy based on one simple concept: being in service to one another.
We need to merge morality with economics. We need to merge my doing the right thing with my doing the thing that is economically advantageous for me. We need to establish and nurture one cohesive system of economically democratic action. We need to create a society and an economy based on one simple concept: being in service to one another.
In our increasingly secularized, ever-progressing society, we are faced with a daily challenge: how to live a moral life. Though we may not struggle through our days in constant trepidation—always questioning our every action in order to test and verify that we are acting in an ethical way—we do, nevertheless, face moral decisions and dilemmas on a regular and recurring basis. We just tend to act upon them automatically through habits we have learned and assimilated into our conscious and unconscious awareness over the years to help ourselves navigate through the countless ethical choices we make each day: Should I take the last piece of cake, knowing some have had none? Should I lie to my boss to say I am home sick, when I am actually lazing by the pool? Should I return the extra $1 bill the cashier gave me by mistake?
In the constant stream of mini ethical dramas that play out throughout our normal day, our internalized “parent” takes over, and we simply do what we have internalized as right (or not right, as the case may be when “Mr. Id” wins the battle). But our autonomic, subconscious moral/immoral/amoral actions notwithstanding, we do still pause to reflect now and again (some more than others) on whether we are on the right path or making the right decision at any given time, particularly, but not limited to, intense and influential situations. It is during these pensive, introspective times that we often find ourselves seeking some sort of guidance in our decision making processes. We reach out—or we reach in—to find answers to these pivotal questions. We pray. We contemplate. We meditate. We ask for advice. We go for a walk in the woods….
As religious conservatives within any given organized faith, we have the moral certainty of scripture to guide us, as proscribed by the given religious authorities and texts of our church. Morality, for the devout, is not such a difficult question, because it is defined as the word of God; and the word of God is provided through our church and the writings of our given religion. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Morality: QED.
As progressive, spiritually-minded people of faith, however, we rely less and less on authoritarian texts and dogmatic religious doctrines to guide our moral decisions. The word of God has become somewhat problematic for us, since we have begun to question the authority of traditional, fundamentalist religious institutions, texts, and ideologies, in favor of more personal exploration of our own understanding of our own internal beliefs. We have paradigm-shifted the focus of our primary belief system internally into our own consciousness. Here, we struggle to define our own moral center, apart from that certain, yet circumscribed, ethical model of organized religion that may have once provided us with absolute moral authority, but is no longer valid, or perhaps no longer welcome.
From what universal truth can we derive, nurture, and engage compulsory human morality? What is our rational moral imperative?
But as free-thinking people of reason, we have already dispensed with the need for organized religion and external moral authorities to direct our thoughts and actions toward “the light.” The word of God cannot guide us—nor can even internalized, personal religious beliefs guide us—because we have rejected all such external authorities and personalized articles of faith, in favor of reason, intellect, and our own moral compass. We are thereby faced with an immediate and essential challenge: for as intellectually and spiritually liberating as that courageous personal journey may be, it can create a chasm of confusion in our hearts, as our minds valiantly search for noble and ethical grounding and direction. We struggle everyday to understand what is right, to know what we should do, and to then actually do the right thing. We are constantly faced with a central moral challenge: for how can we know what morality is without the traditional direction and certain guidance of authoritarian religious doctrines and rigorously defined moral laws? We “killed” God; so, with what do replace him? If God and religion and faith cannot tell us what is right and just and good and moral, then what can? Who can? From what universal truth can we derive, nurture, and engage compulsory human morality? What is our rational moral imperative?
In our quotidian ethical struggles, we are also faced with another perpetual, yet more practical challenge that has lately come to define our place in society in rather unsatisfactory terms: How do we navigate an increasingly divisive and inequitable socioeconomic system without falling into destitution and despair? Everyday, we find ourselves falling farther and farther behind, even though we are working harder and longer than we were before. Our incomes are flat, yet costs rise. We seek valued work, but find low-paying, part-time jobs with dwindling or no earned benefits. Now the new standard, families rely on two bread-winners who sometimes work two or three jobs each just to break even, or maybe to just fall behind a little bit more slowly. Many struggle to merely exist without any job at all, while millions of jobs are shipped overseas to foreign countries with lower pay rates, but without fair labor standards. Students leave school with degrees that do not lead to fruitful employment, rather with burdensome student loans that take decades to repay. Debt is a resigned fact of life. Labor has become a semi-precious commodity with a weak market position. Once rewarding careers have become fruitless toil with diminished compensation; and our government often makes things worse. We—the workers, the builders, the creators, the innovators, the truly productive members of society—have become replaceable cogs in a cruel and indifferent economic machine. We have become exploited means for materialistic ends.
How do we navigate an increasingly divisive and inequitable socioeconomic system without falling into destitution and despair?
This woefully inequitous state of socioeconomic affairs is not new to America, nor even to other societies throughout history. We have seen this dynamic occur throughout history in a myriad of times. Most analogous to our own contemporary situation, a new Gilded Age of America has returned to the political and economic theaters in all our cities, towns, and neighborhoods—rural, urban, and suburban. With some incidental differences, this New Gilded Age matches its predecessor in three key aspects: intense concentration of wealth and power among an extremely small minority; a contemptuous attitude of management toward labor; and entrenched political corruption through unbridled corporate influence.
Through social, political, and economic pressures created by its own corrupted and avaricious qualities, actions, and consequences, our former Gilded Age fell to its own ruin, descending America into The Great Depression. But while we have not yet reached that critical tipping point in our current age of rampant avarice and conspicuous acquisition by the very few—garnered from the arduous toil of we the many, we the makers, we the workers—that fateful movement toward that same doom nevertheless looms on the horizon. The signs are there; but do we see them?
The Great Recession of 2008 saw a massive collapse in key markets and the general economy that left most Americans in dire, or at least remarkably painful, loss. But while some of us muddled through with our retirement accounts battered, yet still intact, and our credit scores still respectable enough to retain good credit, a great many of us saw our lives shattered as we lost our jobs, our homes, our life savings, and our self-esteem in the process. Steadily over the coming years, job growth returned, but never the same quality as we had come to expect and enjoy before. For working people, things had changed…and not for the better. Low-paying, part-time jobs had replaced the robust careers that were once plentiful long before our economic bubble burst. But for the investment class—for the owners, for the buyers, for the financial “Wizards of Wall Street”—the money flowed even faster and steadier and in greater amounts than ever before into their already swollen accounts, as it continues to do so today. All their significant losses have been returned to them, rebuilt and redoubled as they continue to enjoy record growth, record profit, and record accumulated wealth through the efforts of you and me. For the very, very wealthy, economic conditions could simply not be any better, despite obvious social and economic suffering throughout every other strata of the population.
We have become passive patrons of the arts of self-denial and self-deception as we have come to idolize and admire the self-same people who have deftly picked our pockets while dangling shiny objects before our eyes…
It would appear that we have temporarily staved off, or at least mitigated, our own Gilded Age-generated economic crash that might have lead to the same type of resurgence of middle class growth we saw in the coming years after the Great Depression. But our current milquetoast working class economy bears nothing similar to those heady years of shared economic and social expansion we enjoyed for four decades after the Crash, and that built the greatest democratically balanced economic force the world has ever seen. Our Great American Middle Class has been decimated, disintegrated, and demoralized by systematic economic and political attacks that have siphoned all growth and all profit from those who do the work to those who pay us to do the work. No longer do we share the fruits of our labors in equitable balance with our employers. Rather, we watch them longingly from our sofas and armchairs on television and the Internet as they are conspicuously hoarded and consumed by The Real Housewives of Consumption County, Agents of Avarice, and Lifestyles of the Rich and Entitled.
We have become passive patrons of the arts of self-denial and self-deception as we have come to idolize and admire the self-same people who have deftly picked our pockets while dangling shiny objects before our eyes, only to swell their own accounts and portfolios with such style and panache that we stare in wonder and amazement at the shameless expression of their ersatz royal claims to revel in their wonderful lives; all while we struggle and toil in dull and tedious subsistence to allow them to do so. We are oblivious to the fact that we are the reason they can be so prosperous, pampered, and entitled. If only we could win the lottery, or play in the NBA, or write a hit song, then we could taste that life that we don’t deserve, but that they, by virtue of the simple fact that they have it, have thereby earned it.
We need to stop acting like a country of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and begin working together in service to one another.
We are living in an immoral system that harvests the fruits of our labors and provides little to us in return. We are in service to our owners, our keepers, our captors. We need to stop acting like a country of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and begin working together in service to one another. Rather than working in service to those who only seek to profit from our efforts at our expense, our focus needs to be on serving those who appreciate, respect, and reward our efforts accordingly. Instead of idolizing the ultra-rich for what they only can pretend to deserve, we need to admire our own collective and individual works, how they benefit others, and demand fair compensation for those efforts. Only then will be begin to share in the vast wealth we have already been generating all this time.
We’ve earned it. It’s time to claim it.
~Brian Scott Archibald
Excerpts from In Our Service: Moral Action in an Ends-based Society