17. POLITICAL LIFE AND MORAL DISCOVERY
“Money is the Root of All Evil”
When I was a child, my father taught me that money was the root of all evil. I believed him because I saw him suffering from the stresses of his business life. He died of heart disease at 53. I no longer take the evil at face value, but I do think money causes us much grief and confusion, whether we have it or not. Deep psychic resonances go along with it. Our most confounding moral problems come from money. It is a pervasive source of suffering. Economic concerns trigger the stress response. The rhythms of love and wisdom break down under chronic stress. The aggression set loose in the wake of the breakdown hurts us in central ways.
You could say that money is the medium of exchange for suffering. We transfer more than goods, services, debts, equities, wealth, budgets, gifts, legacies, priorities and choices through money exchange. We transfer want, injustice, and oppression too. Marriages are broken, family friendships destroyed, crimes committed, even murders perpetrated for money. Whole neighborhoods disappear, cities are torn down and rebuilt for money, with little regard for what was there before or what will be needed next.
And you cannot ignore money or retreat far from it. Money makes constant demands on us. Jacob Needleman insisted that our relationship to money is the principal value challenge of our time. “The outward expenditure of mankind’s energy,” he wrote, “now takes place in and through money… Therefore, if one wishes to understand life, one must understand money—in this present phase of history and civilization.”7
There’s no pathway into the near or middle future that will circumvent monetary value as the basis of material exchange. Whatever else we do to ameliorate our social problems, money anxieties will still be there to haunt us.
We would be hopelessly naïve to think that we could make deep social changes without bringing in new attitudes to money.
But if the ethical mind can overcome its subordination to the technical mind in other areas, why not here? Why not new culturally learned ways of valuing, using and understanding money? What would have to change to allow it? What would change afterward? Would the aggressive energies tied to money flow into other purposes? Could the motivations behind aggressive expression shift away from zero sum games? Could we do without winners and losers? Maybe the systems by which goods and services move could “shift itself in ways amenable to new purposes. Perhaps we would have to devise new forms of corporate governance to let it happen. Or perhaps they would come along as the actual exchanges developed.
Needleman noted that “in other times and places, not everyone has wanted money above all else; people have desired salvation, beauty, power, strength, pleasure, propriety, explanations, food, adventure, conquest, comfort.”8 Our present forms of money exchange may be the most effective and flexible we have devised so far, but there have been others and there will be others in the many scores of millennia left to us. There has always been considerable variability in what has been exchanged and why. The Northwest Indian Potlatch giveaways were as much a product of human nature as predatory capitalism. And competition drove both of them. Can we do it without competition? Or can the nature and cultural meaning of competition itself change?
My own coming to terms with money has been long and mostly peaceful. I understand my relationship to money as one part of all that I do to “make a living“. My living includes not only the cash transactions I get and give, but all my labor and all the goods I exchange and all of the ways I exercise my values to give and receive in the world. Money is a part, but not the whole of it. From my vantage point it counts for less than half (whatever your income.)
We must factor every kind of giving and receiving into our livelihoods. The actual balance between overall giving and receiving, with its monetary, non-monetary, bartered, and traded and freely given components, always has been the basis of our livelihood. Giving/receiving shows how we live. The real meaning of “making a living” then is the balance between all that you give and all that you receive. It’s a Cabalistic concept. If you are receiving more than you are giving, you are “eating the bread of shame.”
The poor and oppressed always give more than they receive, some-times even in conditions of outright beggary. To be underpaid and under-served is to give more than you receive. Only the criminals among the poor eat the bread of shame. The rest, though they may be “shamed” by the rich for their neediness, and come to shame themselves and consider themselves uncouth and dangerous, eat what bread they can as civilly as they are able. To my observation, they share what they have more generously than the rich do. On a deep level, they maintain their self-regard; they are saner. Mainly the prosperous eat the bread of shame while keeping the shame hidden from themselves.
Though the fullest suffering belongs to the poor, prosperous people suffer too, from emptiness. To overcome the shackles of emptiness they need a stronger hold on inwardness. Inwardness puts money in its place. It helps us balance giving and receiving. And new ideas about exchange might come from it, opening new areas for moral discovery.
We are living in a time when the forcing conditions for historical change are more likely to come from failure than from success. And this pushes the dominant classes into an ironic posture, because though they have taken success as their highest virtue, failure is pushing them through changes. They’ve been in a chronic emergency for decades. Empty Suffering
Not that human life is ever without suffering; there is too much that is intrinsically problematical in our mortality to allow that. But poor and rich people don’t suffer in the same way. They have different needs and dissatisfactions.
Prosperous people experience empty suffering. Its distinctive pains come from the frustration of higher needs by competition, greed, money-lust, power, prestige, and position. The emptiness they suffer is endured in the presence of surfeit. It’s a tribulation on nothingness in the absence of meaning. Successomania is its Mephistopheles. The prospect of failure haunts it.
The suffering of emptiness does not call for massive deliveries of food or shelter or medicine. Instead, it aims for absorbing distractions. It tries to hold on to the outward measures of success by blaming others for every failure. High-class empty suffering doses itself with a subtle armamentarium of psychiatric drugs, cosmetic surgery, life extension therapies and discretely hushed-up crimes. It prefers to whisper to the judge instead of crying out for justice. Its emptiness is not alleviated by food and shelter, but by diet spas and addiction recovery clinics.
The best-situated people, those afflicted most thoroughly with the emptiness of suffering, try hardest to hold on to their power and privileges as proof of their worth. In doing so, in clinging hard to greed or fear, they lose their aptness for the times. They think too much about themselves and too little about the world. And because they see themselves mainly from outside, they lose their creative vigor. They no longer lead, they follow. But they hide this from themselves by hiring experts who toady and deceive them (and the experts, as they rise, increasingly fool themselves.) These advisors stay employed by seeming to have “good track records.” “Seeming” is the operative concept here. They maintain their edge by blurring the transactions by which others can judge their performance. Acceleration is their sleight of hand. A short-term investment lasts a few seconds, a long-term investment a few days to a few months. The financial managers who “bought and held” are gone.
The top people coast along on the seemingly safe assumption that wealth equals power and power equals leadership, an equation that works well enough in good times. And even when things go bad for the very rich, they can buy their way out. They can afford to make mistakes and pay for more mistakes to cover the old ones up, unlike the rest of us. However, their shortsightedness has thrown the larger economy – the economy of goods and services, giving and receiving – into turmoil.
In this historical moment, many people realize that the equation “wealth plus power equals leadership” is a self-soothing fiction of the moneyed classes, a form of masturbation, an anti-depressant or tranquillizer.
Like other substance abusers, (they truly are quintessential abusers of the substance of the earth,) the sufferers of emptiness build up a tolerance to their own remedies. They need to feel and feed their power in ever more extravagant ways. A psychosocial analysis of monetary inflation would probably show that inflationary fiscal policies have been significantly driven in hidden ways by the need for psychological compensation. We went from multi-millionaires to billionaires in the wake of the malaise of the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, the oil shock, Reaganomics, loose money and inflation. I would not be surprised if we come out of our present debt crisis with inflation-created trillionaires who affirm their self-regard with fiat scrip.
Poor and oppressed people endure the fullness of suffering. In full suffering, the losses come from deprivation of basic needs: for food, shelter and safety, for respect and self-respect, and for meaningful action. Full suffering is endured in the midst of tangible pains. Through the fullness of suffering, hundreds of millions of people lose the chance to become themselves.
Full suffering creates wounds to love in the breaking of the family, in the forced relocation of populations, in the threats to intimacy, in poverty and despair, in oppression, in the degrading relation of the slave to the master. The wound to wisdom, in full suffering, suppurates not over the loss of trivial choices, but over the crushing of the capability for a self-directed life.
The fullness of suffering has an authentic cry lacking in empty suffering. Writing in the 1850’s, Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave, remembered hearing the cry in actual songs.
“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see or hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.”9
More recently, James Baldwin wrote:
“When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know. I have been carried into precinct basements often enough, and I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me.”10
The same authentic cry of full suffering is heard from Native Americans. Chief Joseph, the leader of the Nez Perce, said in his surrender speech:
“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead… It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are – perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”11
In the power of these utterances, you hear not just the bitterness of defeat and the outrage at loss, but a revelatory communication that strives with great dignity to offer the world a healing balm from the soul of suffering itself.
I believe that the fullest suffering has the clearest moral urgency with the least ambiguity. Those among the poor who understand this by having witnessed it close up have the moral lead. Suffering plus insight trumps insight plus empathy. As James Baldwin wrote:
“I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach…”12
Defeat rightly apprehended nourishes the imagination, not only the compensatory but also the creative and the exact imagination by means of which the sciences of the future will emerge. There’s an incalculable richness of imagination waiting to be tapped in the souls of op-pressed people, a wealth that must not be wasted.
W. E. B. Dubois called the ties between failure and moral leadership the progressive hope for American culture.
“Herein the longing of black men must have respect,” he wrote, “the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange renderings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and make their loving, living and doing precious to all human hearts.”13
“…there are today no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes,” he insisted. “There is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore are Indian and Afri-can; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness.”14
Baldwin pursued the same vision:
“This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation…yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful… one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne…It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and clarity not to teach your child to hate. The Negro boys and girls who are facing mobs today come out of a long line of improbable aristocrats – the only genuine aristocrats this country has produced…I am proud of these people not because of their color but because of their intelligence and beauty. The country should be proud of them too, but, alas, not many people in this country even know of their existence.”15
When they recognize the readiness of the moment, the oppressed become a force for change. The moral lead that is due them they take. But not always. They can only exert the advantage of creatively wrought low-mediated intentions in full turnings that bind their aggression to love and wisdom.
Suffering inspires us to draw the remedies for our pains from our pains. The heat draws up elemental forces from the treasury of the neutral traits.
From suffering, we discover new adaptive physiological responses. This deep tissue effort exerts direct pressure from human biology on history. I think of it as the muscle of justice working through time. However, in hard times the muscle of justice brings opposition down on those who use it.
There are no guarantees of success, though eventually suffering and failure reconfigure the content of the turning points of love and wisdom that play out in the signal events. From these changes, new expressions in human nature do make their way into the world.
A Day in Harlem: Musicians, writers, artists
Because of their suffering, the creative energy it has generated, and the moral lead it has bestowed, the American underclasses, nourished by an African-American avant-garde, have become the creative minority with the best chance of transforming Western culture. Certainly, they have a long history of service to the lands of the Western Hemisphere, and the most just claims.
Because they are less enthralled by the dominant cultures, they live less in thrall to them. Their cries are more substantial, more authentic. Because they nurse the fewest illusions they have the soundest intellectual and emotional foundation to achieve the breakthroughs to the next epoch. As they add alloys to the melting pot in mixed ethnic marriages in the heart of Western nations, they have the best chance to bring us healing.
The Black, Native American and Hispanic peoples in the Western hemisphere carry the healing energy. For good reasons they hold the moral lead:
o They know both full and empty suffering. The rich only know empty suffering.
o They are less likely to be deterred by fear of the fragmentation of the self in turning points.
o Most are not shackled to the conceptual apparatus of the “winners”. They know what has disappointed and disillusioned them. They know what needs to be fixed. Losing is their starting place. It’s their route to inwardness. They can get stronger from it.
The black experience in America is greatly shaping global culture through the arts. Its contributions ring with political relevance because the content of their full suffering and the insights and values that come from it are most in touch with the needs of oppressed people everywhere. The African-American population knows the secret crimes in the American heart better than anyone else.
My historical prediction is that the influence of Black culture in America, now spreading worldwide, by affiliating with underclass movements everywhere will finally close a circuit of tremendous power. It is most likely to happen on the world stage when Black American soldiers sent to bases in Africa to fight the War on Terror see the suffering of native Africans from close up, and, at home, when urban uprisings reveal the true demographics of life “inside the Beltway.”
Both empty and full suffering ask the “Why me?” question.
“Why me?” fundamentally distinguishes all suffering from pain. Job sitting in the shavings of his boils asked “why me?”
But the “why me” of empty and full suffering have different answers, for though the rich and the poor are broken alike in love and wisdom, their wounds knit and heal differently.
Only those who endure full suffering can answer the “why me?” question rationally, appealing to justice. They know that their oppressors cause the main part of their suffering. In empty suffering the “Why me?” question has no good answer because there is no appeal to justice.
This removes moral parity from the forms of suffering. Between full and empty suffering, only full suffering has unambiguous moral urgency.
In its secret dimension, empty suffering promotes the failure of empathy. It makes the sufferers cruel to each other.
Full suffering has a secret dimension too. The secret dimension to full suffering is that it includes empty suffering. Full sufferers have both.
Only those who have endured full suffering with open awareness, and have not been destroyed by it but have been able to preserve authentic changes in love and wisdom, can recognize and surmount their empty suffering too. And by an internal alchemy, this reaction of full on empty suffering pushes them past the “why me?” question to the “what’s next?” question. They become forward thinking in their suffering.
Full suffering takes precedence over empty suffering, therefore, not as a matter of right or because the prosperous grant the right to the oppressed, but because the moral lead belongs to those whose changes have given them the most relevant creative insights and redemptive visions into the healing process.
To the extent the victims of empty suffering have been misguided by successomania, however, they too may need to experience and acknowledge the failure coming from emptiness before they can change. Here, in this failure, we may find our real transformational power. And here the creative minority reaching across the dominant and underclasses, may find the way back to full engagement.
In his marvelous poem September, 1939, W. H. Auden calls these people “ironic points of light.” He writes
Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages…
The points of light, though few and scattered, carry culture. The illuminated people love and grow wise and reach out to each other. Auden’s wish is that
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Many times before, natural or man-made catastrophes have sown seeds of renewal. Sometimes over-expansion or imperial overreach has provoked economic collapse, as in the Wallbank thesis on the decline of Rome. Sometimes resource depletion has done it, as in the over-grazing and desertification of North Africa following the Agricultural Revolution. The Collapse that Jared Diamond trivializes may open the way to renewal. The Black Death immediately preceded the Renaissance in Europe. The period of the Warring States set the stage for classical Chinese culture. The French Revolution and the politics of modernity rose on the back of a corrupt and bankrupt Old Regime.
To make use of failure for personal renewal, you have to know that you have failed, that you have not held onto the most important things in life, that your turnings have been weak, that your generous impulses have been too sparing, that giving has not been receiving for you, that you have eaten the bread of shame. To fail in the midst of prosperity is to see yourself naked, without cosmetic remediation. Only the people who can see themselves this way while remaining sane possess the power to grow from suffering. Only persons who get access to themselves by rejecting successomania, consumerism, addiction and juvenile arrest can sense how much of their promise they have lost. Only when they experience their present losses with humility will the ethical mind open up in simple neediness and when it does, they will find their way to right giving and receiving.
Giving and receiving (which really turn out to be expressions of love and wisdom) are the rhythms by which goods are exchanged. The means of livelihood that truly undergird “making a living” are distributed along the long legs leading to our turning points. Achieving balance in the rhythms of giving and receiving during approach-separation and withdrawal-return will both require and inspire powers of judgment, courage, kindheartedness and temperance hardly accessible to those engrossed in the four pathologies and afflicted with empty suffering.
We have our best chances for making progress at the fault line where full and empty suffering meet and touch. In the vast variety, even cacophony, of communications along the creases between communities, the creative ferment grows richest. There, carried in the gestural substructure of memes, fan-shaped destiny will open routes to the new human nature.