Capitalist Utopia

If Extreme Capitalism is What Connects America’s Problems, Why Can’t Americans Figure it Out?

By Umair Haque

February 23, 2018 "Information Clearing House" -  Here’s a tiny question. What links kids massacring each other at school, no functioning healthcare or retirement, no safety nets, no mobility or stability, the average person having less than $1000 in savings?

They’re uniquely American problems, of course — and what connects them is extreme capitalism. No, they’re not the results of capitalism alone, as in sole cause and effect, of course culture and history play a role — but we’d be foolish not to see that capitalism is the thread weaving them together.

(Imagine that in any other rich nation, there was an a product, available in every town, that was linked to an epidemic of child deaths — but whose manufacturers banded together, and kept it from being regulated, banned, or outlawed, with lobbying, persuasion, influence, and manipulation, no matter how people cried out, or how many kids died. Does that sound remotely plausible? Probably not. Only in America does such a situation exist — the product, of course is called a gun, and the group is called the NRA. But the NRA is only doing what manufacturers’ organizations do, when there is nothing to counterbalance capitalism: band together to sell things, no matter their destructive effects.)

Now here’s the strange thing. I read countless laments and jeremiads every single day — articles, columns, editorials, about these various problems — but not the underlying thread. This difficult week, for example, endless condemnations of the NRA. But. Why do I never read anything addressing the underlying thread? What does it tell us?

Capitalism today has become a kind of utopianism. A magical way of thinking that Americans cannot seem to think about, reflect on, or question — only accept, just as communism was for the Soviets. Perhaps it always was — but I will leave that for scholars of abstruse social theories. In the first part of this essay, I want to discuss what that means — and then I want to discuss why utopian societies like America are inevitably bound to implode (unless they grow beyond utopianism).

What do we mean when we say a social project has become utopian? We mean three things, generally. That it hopes to reach perfection, an ideal state. That through it, human beings, too, can be perfected. And that because it is perfect, soon enough, it will conquer the globe, spreading perfection in its wake.

Haven’t we seen such utopianism at work almost precisely regarding capitalism in America? It will create a perfect society — one that is perfectly free. By being perfectly free, in turn, people wil be perfected — they will be perfectly virtuous. And because they are perfectly virtuous, they will rise to the top of the natural order of things.

Only it didn’t turn out that way.

Capitalism didn’t create a perfect society. It created something like the rich world’s first failed state — a place where kids massacre each other in schools every few days, when they’re not busy killing themselves with opioids, no retirement, the average American having less than $1000 in savings, falling life expectancy, and the average person is perfectly powerless to change it.

It didn’t create a perfect breed of human being. Americans have become meaner, nastier, more misinformed, brutish, afraid, and angry than their peers elsewhere. They are a hair trigger away from taking out their rage on one another, by denying each other the basics of life, on someone else, by starting a war, or even on their kids, by letting them simply kill one another. We can hardly ascribe much virtue to Americans today.

And it didn’t create a world where America rose to the top of the natural order. Instead, it trapped America in something like a half-century long crusade, to spread the gospel of capitalism. Only the world didn’t really want it, and so America fought unwinnable war after war — in Vietnam, throughout Latin America, in Iraq, and so on. But by fighting these wars, America depleted itself of the very resources it might have used to rebuild its own broken society.

But perhaps you know all this. It is easy enough to see that capitalism is a kind of utopianism. Perhaps what you really wonder is this. Why do Americans go on believing in the myth of utopian capitalism, when the rest of the world, shaking its head in horror, wonders why they can’t see what it has reduced them to — their kids to killers, their elderly to beggars, and their middle class to paupers? That’s the more interesting question, isn’t it?

Well, throughout history, societies built upon utopian ideals are the ones that crash down the hardest — implosively. Rome. The Soviet Union. Nazi Germany. America today. Why is that?

The first reason is that utopian societies tend towards authoritarianism. In societies where many values are balanced, there emerge healthier and truer forms of democracy. In France, liberte, egalite, fraternite — hence, a democracy emerged whose purpose was to balance these three competing, often conflicting objectives. But America’s only value was, and remains, freedom. A more sophisticated democracy, working to balance competing values, never emerged, or had to be built.

When a society only has one real value, what happens? It stagnates intellectually, socially, and emotionally, not just intellectually. Let me illustrate that to you backwards. Why has America’s notion of freedom never evolved beyond guns, gods, and subjugation — as in Europe, where it means healthcare, dignity, and education, too? Well, for a value to evolve, it must compete too, against a conflicting value. “Freedom” can only grow to mean something more than “guns” if it is conflict with, for example, equality, or fraternity — then we can debate it, reframe it, reorient it, and so it becomes a little more sophisticated, resonant, meaningful. But if there is only one value to begin with in a society, what reason is there for that society to ever think? To ever consider, reflect, mature, or grow?

So the second reason that utopian societies implode is that that the very definition of utopianism is perfection, but perfection can only ever contain, mean, hold one value, in America’s case “freedom”, in the Soviet Union’s case “equality” — and so they grow incapable of thought, growth, or development.

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Now what happens when a society has just one value, that must be defended, shielded, and protected? Well, the world becomes a threatening place, doesn’t it? In such a society, there is no real room for ambiguity, ambivalence, dissent, difference. So utopian societies pretty soon become places not just of rigidity and conformity, too — but places where the utopian ideal must be defended at any cost, because nothing else can really be allowed to exist — which is the third reason they collapse.

In American, “freedom” has essentially come to mean my right to harm you — but that is what “equality” mean in the Soviet Union, too. How funny. How strange. But how can that be? Utopian societies must defend their ideals at any cost — and those costs are always the same, ultimately, though the ideals differ. Their kids, elderly, neighbours, democracies, economies, societies, futures. The ideal soon comes to outweigh any semblance of reason, decency, humanity. Any shred of truth or reality.

Do you see the irony of all this yet? The Nazi ideal was power. The Soviet ideal was equality. The American ideal is freedom. Ah, but — and here is the tricky part — the ideal of a utopian society doesn’t matter at all. It will never be attained. All that matters is that a utopian society has only one ideal — that it will then sacrifice anything for. Once that terrible anchor is laid, the rest is history. Let me put that another way.

Utopian societies think that they are different, each one from the last. “We are not like them!”, each cries,”we are the chosen ones!!” The Americans think they are different from the Soviets, who thought they were different from the Nazis.

But in the end, the dynamics are precisely the same. The single-minded pursuit of a one-dimensional ideal causes a society to be unable to tolerate anything else. First, difference. Then, dissent. Then, its neighbours, its social bonds. Then democracy. Its weak — young, elderly, infirm. Then truth itself. Then decency, humanity, reason. Finally, in the end, reality. That is when the utopian project falls. Hubris, at last, meets nemesis.

America, of course, is not so far down this path as its utopian forebears. But the writing on the wall is clear to see. The only question left is if Americans can still read the tragic, ironic words of history.

It is not an easy task for a utopian society to understand these lessons, you see. Every utopianism becomes a kind of sacred myth that, because it contains seductive illusions of perfection, is often hard to surrender, to dislodge — precisely because it is so much easier to go on believing in these grandiose dreams.

What would Americans have if they didn’t the myth of utopian capitalism? They would have nothing at all. They don’t have healthcare, retirement, leisure time, incomes, savings, a working society, safety, stability, opportunity. Easier, then, to cling to the myth. At least in it there is solace.

So perhaps you see how dangerous utopian myths are: they are all the more necessary to cling to, as a kind of emotional salve, the more precarious that they make life, creating a kind of trap. But it is when one is falling into that trap is when one needs to read the writing on the wall of history the most — because it contains the instructions on how to stop the fall brought about by one’s own tragic hubris.

This article was originally published by "Medium" -


The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Information Clearing House.

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