Ideologies at War

Discourse:  Formal and orderly
 and usually extended expression of thought on a subject.

Merriam-Webster

I finally figured out why there’s no discourse in economics. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

I started researching and writing about economics and the workplace three years ago. Right away, I noticed the topic was as polarized as everything else these days. I confess, I was surprised — I was a newbie, idealistic about my new course of study. I figured everybody would want to talk about it. But the pros? No. They talked past each other, nobody convincing anybody of anything they didn’t already believe.

And now I know why.

At first, I thought the divisions — right vs. left, capitalism vs. socialism, conservative vs. progressive, free market vs. Keynesian intervention, etc.  — were the result of opinions logically and studiously debated. Three years later, I can see it’s not so — those opposing positions are rationalizations after the fact, justifying prior beliefs grounded in ideology. When a topic — any topic — is dominated by competing ideologies, a fundamentalist dynamic takes over. Fundamentalism has no place for “formal and orderly and usually extended expression of thought.” Instead, it stifles discussion, damns doubt, brutalizes dissent. If you’re not with us, you’re against us — so choose sides, and the other side can talk to the hand.

We’ve seen, for example, how the Mont Pelerin Society and the Chicago School of Economics pursued their capitalist free market beliefs with fundamentalist zeal, and how the Democratic Socialists of America party has responded in kind. This, and other similar ideological standoffs have banished discourse from the field of economics.

The Berlin Wall fell because Soviet communism failed as a fundamentalist belief, leaving American capitalism the winner of the Cold War. Since then, political leadership in the U.S. and the U.K. has supercharged capitalism into its current hyper- competitive, hyper-privatized form, to the point that free market ideology has become not just economic policy but a cultural norm, and supporting it has become a patriotic duty.

Now in its fourth decade, the post-Cold War model of capitalism has failed in the same way Soviet communism failed before it:  it has neglected and alienated the “Public” — the res publica, the things that belong to the people, the things that assure citizens the basics of life and health, satisfying work, opportunity for educational, social, and economic betterment, and the sense of meaning, purpose, and well-being those things engender.

Fundamentalist ideologies wage war, and win at all costs. When free market economics became a fundamentalist ideology, it went to war. One of my daughters recently gave me a book published in 2007, at the height (depth?) of the Great Recession. The copyright date made me inclined to dismiss it as outdated. Now, as I read it, I wonder, how it is that we never knew these things, and most of us still don’t? This is from the book blurb:

“In this groundbreaking alternative history of the most dominant ideology of our time, Milton Friedman’s free-market economic revolution, Naomi Klein challenges the popular myth of this movement’s peaceful global victory. From Chile in 1973 to Iraq today, Klein shows how Friedman and his followers have repeatedly harnessed terrible shocks and violence to implement their radical policies.”

The Shock Doctrine:  The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein (2007)

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges wrote about the cultural dynamics of war in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2014). As you read the following, substitute your ideology of choice — political, economic, religious, etc. — in place of war as armed conflict:

“War, in times of malaise and desperation, is a potent distraction.

“The cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict. It is studiously crafted by the state. All cultural life is directed to broadcast the injustices carried out against us.

“The goal of such nationalistic rhetoric is to invoke pity for one’s own. The goal is to show the community that what they hold sacred is under threat. The enemy, we are told, seeks to destroy religious and cultural life, the very identity of the group or state.

“Patriotism, often a thinly veiled form of collective self-worship, celebrates our goodness, our ideals, our mercy and bemoans the perfidiousness of those who hate us.

“War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought.

“Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuring suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seeks not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

“Before conflicts begin, the first people silenced — often with violence — are [those who] question the state’s lust and need for war. These dissidents are the most dangerous. Such voices are rarely heeded.

“Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.”

Thus the Public has been “murdered” by economic policy as carried out under the current model of capitalism.

When the Public dies, so does public discourse.

It takes moral strength to dissent. The Business Roundtable recently took a step in that direction. According to its website, “Business Roundtable is an association of chief executive officers of America’s leading companies working to promote a thriving U.S. economy and expanded opportunity for all Americans through sound public policy.”

We’ll look at what the CEOs have to say next time.

The Lost Joy of Working (It’s Worse Than I Thought)

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to
answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Albert Camus, An Absurd Reasoning (1955)

The last few posts had a lot in them about suicide. I really didn’t plan to write about suicide. I meant instead to talk about happiness and meaning in our work, particularly for lawyers and the legal profession — nice, safe topics. I mean, who can argue with enjoying our work?

Trouble is, as I did my research, suicide kept coming up, along with other topics I didn’t plan to write about. Some were predictable, like globalization, technology, and disruptive innovation. I’ve written about those before, although they came up in new ways that merit re-examination. But then a whole lot of uninvited, touchier subjects jumped onboard. such as income and wealth inequality, poverty and the welfare system, nationalism and immigration, and more.

Uh oh. If last year’s election taught me anything, it’s that public discourse has been largely displaced by what this Aeon Magazine article calls “moral grandstanding.” As a result, if you write something, it’s likely to be slapped with an assumption that you’re on mission to convert other people to a point of view. and thus the fight begins. I learned that the hard way when a Facebook “friend” pounced one of my shares, and before I knew it our other “friends” were cheering us on like students making a circle around us in the high school cafeteria after I accidentally stepped on his potato chips.

How about we don’t do that? At least not here.

I recently shared some of the economic research I’ve been doing in connection with these posts with a friend who’s a hedge fund manager. He immediately demanded that I define my terms. Whoa! I replied that I wasn’t pretending to be an economist, I’m just trying to figure out how the world of work is changing, and how that affects human beings. (If you’d like a book list of what I’ve been reading, you can check out my Goodreads page. Or email me.) Guess I won’t bring up economics again, I thought. And yet here I am, risking it in this column. Why?

joy of cookingMainly, because my research keeps linking all those touchy subjects to the safe ones I started with, and because all of them — controversial or not — seem to be symptomatic of a worldwide clash of social and economic narratives. And that interests me, very much. Work as a life-giving human activity has been an enduring passion of mine since college, when I cut a headline out of a magazine that was based on the iconic “The Joy of Cooking” cover, except it substituted “Working” for “Cooking.” I pasted it on a bookshelf I lugged around for decades until it got lost in a recent move.

The headline was lost, but not the interest. I plan to keep writing about The Joy of Working because I care about the human beings getting squeezed by the cultural and commercial shifts that are currently revolutionizing the world of work. I care that the legal profession is at Ground Zero for many of these developments, with its endemic high levels of career dissatisfaction and related loss of personal wellbeing. And I care because my research shows that things are worse than I thought:  feelings of a lack of meaning about our work aren’t just a complex and difficult social and economic phenomenon, they’re a plague that too often ends in self-inflicted death.

I also believe that, if anyone is positioned to steer public discourse toward constructive outcomes, it would be those directly engaged with how the law is learned and practiced, created and applied. We’ve already sailed some stormy seas together in this series, and we’re heading for more. I think we’re up for it.

One last that thing:  I have no illusions about my own objectivity; I am as prone to cognitive bias as anyone. (We’ll take more about that, too.) Thus I invite you to remember that I intend this be about conversation, not conversion. Plus, I’ll make the customary disclaimer that I write my own thoughts, not the CBA’s.

I will brave the discourse if you will.