(Why) The Best Way Exploit a Society is to Get it to Exploit Itself
A society built on the cult of selfishness cannot stand
You don’t have to look too hard to see it. There’s an American President…marking up maps with a Sharpie…like an infant…so he’s not humiliated by a foolish lie. LOL. Yet there’s the British PM, lampoonishly wrecking democracy. What the? America, and it’s little brother, Britain, are currently in a heated competition to win first place for being the incredibly dumbest country in the world. It’s neck and neck, my friends. Nobody knows which nation of idiots will edge out the other, and win the gold medal for sheer head-pounding stupidity.
Perhaps you think I exaggerate for effect, so let me anticipate a few objections. I don’t mean “dumbest country in the world” the way pundits might mean “smartest” — the average level of education and so forth. Clearly, all those degrees haven’t translated into much. Nor do I mean it in the simplistic way of “not having schools and universities” — sure, we’ve got schools universities. They don’t seem to be educating people much, though, do they?
I mean “dumbest country in the world” in a simpler — yet more humane and nuanced — way. I’ll define it precisely shortly. First: do you see any other nations committing social suicide on these epic scales? Where else do people put up with mass shootings and not having insulin? Who else wants to shred democracy for the sake of…feeling “great” again? Where else do people constantly, consistently vote against their own “best interests”…their own happiness, prosperity, safety, stability…so much so, so predictably…that merely trying to point out that they act like fools has become a whole subject of national debate in itself?
Those things don’t happen anywhere — anywhere — else in the world. Sure, we make iPhones. So what? As I often point out, America and Britain are the only two places in the world where life expectancy, incomes, and savings are falling in tandem. Yet they’re also two of the richest and most powerful countries in the world. Both those things can’t be true…unless these have somehow become nations of colossal idiots, who think backward is forward, up is down, and dumb is smart. Pardon my French.
(Maybe North Korea (sic) and Saudi Arabia currently outdo us — but that only proves my point, I think. And sure, there are plenty of countries that struggle to become wealthy and powerful. But that doesn’t make them dumb. It just makes them poor and powerless. Only we’re dumb enough, it seems, to squander our immense wealth and power.)
So. How did it happen? How did we become the dumbest country in the world? I think the reason is hidden in plain sight. The incentives for knowledge and thoughtfulness and reason and decency have been corroded and corrupted — so much so that they’ve turned upside down. Hence, what “dumb” means precisely is that capitalism has made societies that don’t even need to exploit anymore — they are too busy exploiting themselves.
How much does a teacher make? Barely enough to earn a decent middle class living. I read the other day that teachers are paying an average of about $500 from their own pockets…because our educational system is so impoverished. But that’s money they can scarcely afford to begin with. How much does a professor make? The ugly truth is that our higher education system is full of “adjunct” professors — aka intelligent people who’ve studied long and hard to earn PhDs…but are something like the Uber drivers of academia…earning minimum wage or less for piecework. Do you see the theme yet? We undervalue knowledge as a society profoundly, systemically, chronically, catastrophically.
But that’s hardly all. If we undervalue knowledge, how can there be any accountability or responsibility for truth versus falsehood, wrong versus right, reason versus folly, wisdom over sheer idiocy? When we undervalue knowledge — the real thing — we must also be overvaluing puffery, folly, stupidity, and superficiality, to put it bluntly.
Hello and welcome to the nightly news! Hence, we have a pundit industry now. People who masquerade as experts, constantly giving their opinion, on TV, in the papers…and yet have no basis for having an educated opinion to begin with. Just open the NYT op-ed page. It’s full of people — Bret, Ross, David — who’ve literally been wrong about every major event in our adult lives, from endless war being righteous, to economic stagnation ensuing, to middle class implosion, to the rise of authoritarianism as a result of all that.
And yet…there they are. They’re untouchables — a mafia of smug, unbelievably stupid white dudes, who’ll never pay any price whatsoever for being so incredibly wrong that they ended up leading a society hurtling off the cliff edge of ignorance into the abyss of jaw-dropping stupidity. In any sane society, a Bret Stephens — a denier of climate change, fascism, stagnation, inequality — would have been exiled from being a columnist years ago, publicly disgraced, a national humiliation. In ours, a Bret Stephens fails upwards to the august pages of the NYT. In any sane society, a Morning Joe — who spent all election long supporting Trump — would have paid a price for his astonishing mistake. In ours — because he’s a good ole boy — he’s right where he was, only even richer. Tucker Carlson makes millions for spewing the most vile kinds of thoughts straight into half a country’s brain every night. [But he’s sometimes just about the only man at Fox who says badly needed things.—Eds]
So the guys that self-evidently don’t know anything…not a thing…make millions — while a teacher can barely scrape together a middle class living…and even so, takes care of the kids in his or her charge on his or her own dime. Do you see a little bit what I mean by “incentives for knowledge being corroded so badly they’ve been twisted upside down”? I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m speaking quite literally. The Bret Stephenses and Morning Joes of our society are paid colossal amounts. The teachers and adjunct professors of our society can barely make ends meet. The “hedge fund managers” and “traders” of our society are paid massive fortunes. The teachers and adjunct professors can barely raise families. Real incentives. Real money. Real lives. Real social outcomes, too.
It’s often said — especially by people from collapsed societies — that you can judge the fortunes of a society by how it treats its teachers. That’s because such people have seen firsthand that teachers and how they’re treated are perhaps the ultimate leading indicator of social collapse — they point to incentives for knowledge turning upside down. I digress — this essay isn’t just about teachers. But I think it’s a telling observation. About what, precisely?
(Now, American pundits will point out the obvious at this juncture. Educated Americans make more than uneducated ones! How can you say incentives for knowledge have been corroded!! Calm down, Ezra. It’s true that educated Americans make more. Why is that, though? It’s largely because kids with Ivy League degrees head off to Wall St and Silicon Valley…where they rake it in. For…doing precisely nothing of any real value to society. Targeting ads more finely…finding cleverer ways to pump and dump stocks…these things have no benefit whatsoever, they just accrue profit. It’s not “education” per se that’s being employed here. It’s just that a specific kind of technical knowledge is worth more to capitalism than anything else.
Hence, if you have a PhD in physics, Wall St will pay you a fortune. But if you have a PhD in English…nobody will pay you much at all. But hold on: it’s the PhD in English that might have helped explain how the rhetoric of authoritarianism erodes the norms and values of a democracy, how today’s demagogues echo yesterday’s dictators, how to fight back against them using words and concepts. See my point? Nobody will reward you for having a PhD or even a Masters’ in our society outside a set of very, very narrow disciplines — mostly mathematical, mostly technical, all corporate. That’s because that kind of narrow skillset can be employed to maximize profit, to write more efficient algorithms, to optimize the code. Of what?)
Capitalism. That’s what we’ve really been talking about. Of the predatory kind — not the bars-and-restaurants-in-my-neighborhood kind. Capitalism the Goldman Sachs way.
What unites all the following observations? Teachers and adjunct professors make a pittance, while pundits make a killing. That most PhDs in subjects society desperately needs can’t make a decent living — because only by being a hedge fund manager or a trader or a corporate VP can you get there. That making it for a kid in America today means becoming a boat-shoed Ivy League frat-dork who sells out to Wall St at the first opportunity to slaver like a starved Doberman. That our society is totally incapable of any accountability or responsibility for getting basic facts or truths about anything right or wrong anymore so our President wields Sharpies like a four year old. That Tucker and Bret and Ross and David make millions for spreading sheer ignorance if not outright hate. That nobody much has an incentive anymore to act like a decent, civilized, reasoning human being — what else does it mean when teachers are paying money they can barely afford out of their own pockets to keep our kids educated? What does that say about the rest of us?
It says we’ve become something like capitalism’s greatest fools. What does capitalism want from society? It wants a pool of pliable, manipulable proles — who can’t figure out what’s good for them, or not. It wants violent idiots, greedy dummies, self-interested fools, pinheaded ignoramuses quicker to draw a gun than read a book. Yes, really. People who are constantly not just at each others’ throats — but at their very own. Why? If you’re holding the knife to your own throat…well, nobody needs to crack the whip, do they? They’re the cheapest, most disposable labour of all. They’re not capable of democracy. You don’t need to work very hard to exploit them — they exploit themselves for you.
And that’s exactly what happened to Americans. They internalized capitalism’s most toxic lessons — so much so that there isn’t much else left in the American mind. Maybe you yourself didn’t — but America as a culture certainly did. So much so that those lessons are part of everyday culture now, as little homilies.
Let’s recite a few of capitalism’s commandments. Greed is good. The only point of human life is to maximize one’s acquisitions. Weakness and vulnerability can’t be tolerated and must be punished. People who show any humanity, like compassion and empathy, are liabilities. A strong person is ruthless and violent and power-hungry. Any price to anything else is OK as long as one’s own profit is maximized. A person who is not totally “self-reliant” is a burden and a parasite. The strong should survive, and the weak should perish. See how close to fascism we’re getting? And isn’t fascism history’s ultimate form of stupidity?
Americans — enough of them, anyways — really believe these strange myths. They’ve become their own slavemasters, in a very real sense. Having internalized capitalism’s commandments…they constantly vote against their own interests…deny each other healthcare, medicine, education…they put capitalists and capitalism first…and themselves last. Why else does America’s discourse always ask: “how can we save capitalism?!” — not, say, “how can we save our democracy, society, middle class, planet”?
And the reason Americans internalize capitalism’s lessons is that their society mostly only consists of capitalism — and capitalism has no interest in making an educated, decent human being out of anyone. So there sits the hedge fund trader…earning hundreds of millions…for playing with the shares of a media company like a toy…the media company employs the pundit…who earns millions…to repeat the commandments of capitalism over and over again…the average person is bombarded with all that a thousand times a day…and their only escape is into the arms of more megacapitalist dreck, Facebook, Tinder, and so forth. Meanwhile, the teacher and the professor are barely able to feed their kids. It’s hardly a fair fight.
Capitalism has created a structural set of incentives for knowledge that are broken and corroded. Even that’s putting it kindly. It’s truer to say that capitalism has created incentives to replace truth, beauty, goodness, kindness, and decency with misinformation, disinformation, poverty, greed, despair, hate, and trauma. Nobody much has any incentive, really, in America, to create healthy minds: ones rich in knowledge, truth, happiness, reason, sanity, wisdom, intelligence. Where those incentives exist — like for our teachers and our professors — they are so weak and diluted that they are feeble. They barely stand a chance against the huge machine that spends billions to keep Americans dumb, ignorant, violent, and afraid. And so that’s exactly what Americans still are.
America doesn’t understand, I think, even at this late juncture, that the reason it’s the dumbest country in the world is that capitalism made it so. Capitalism’s commandments — greed is good, never show any empathy or compassion, the purpose of life is to profit, and so on — are so jaw droppingly repellent and wrong and foolish that literally nobody else in the world believes them. But nobody has much of a reason to want to believe anything else in America. To do anything else. To enact, express, live anything else. The alternative to living out capitalism’s commandments is poverty, disgrace, squalor, and probably an early grave. And so mostly, we do.
And that, my friends, is how we became the dumbest country in the world. What I mean by that should now be clear. We’re the only country that doesn’t even need to be exploited by capitalism — because we’re too busy exploiting ourselves. We had to bomb much of the rest of the world into acquiescing to that. But ourselves? We only had to go on believing the lies.
“Capitalism has created incentives to replace truth, beauty, goodness, kindness, and decency with misinformation, disinformation, poverty, greed, despair, hate, and trauma…”
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