Adam Smith suggested that one major tactic of business was to deceive and oppress the public. Smith (1723-1790), has been called the father of modern economics and capitalism. His idea was that in pursuing one’s own good a person unintentionally contributed to the good of society. With that awareness all business had to do was to manipulate an individual’s intention to pursue his or her own good in order to herd the mass of people for its own monetary advantage.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner,” Adams said, “but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”

“… never talk to them of our own necessities…”  In other words, never talk to them of the fortunes we can make by our manipulation of them. With the prevalence of phenomena such as death-by-Philip Morris we can see that Smith knew what he was talking about.

In a conversation between Noam Chomsky and Robert Trivers at Seed Magazine Chomsky noted a well-known and accepted instrument of deceit employed by corporations.  He said, “… one of the striking features of the modern period is the institutionalization of (deceit), so that we … have huge industries deceiving the public …— the public relations industry.”

Of course this is not exactly earth-shattering news. The practice of public relations is so common we’ve come to accept corporate deceit as a given, as a result it goes pretty much unnoticed and unremarked. It’s as invisible and comfortably sleep-inducing in American life as carbon monoxide in a closed car.

In fact, Chomsky and Trivers suggest that self-deception is a significant condition of modern life; death-by-Philip Morris is just one example (death-by-fossil-fuel burning is another). The interplay of deception and self-deception required to induce a person (usually a young one) to start smoking, especially now when the effects of smoking are so well known, is founded upon both poles of deception.

In death-by-Philip Morris the gamut of deception and self-deception range from cigarette manufacturing execs to consumers. Manufacturers deceive themselves into thinking it’s morally acceptable to accumulate fortunes selling a product known to kill —of luring children into addiction to their product thereby potentially killing them— and to lie for years that their product was safe. While at the other end of the self-deceit spectrum are those who begin smoking out of ignorance and continue with an unrealistic certainty of invulnerability summed up in the idea that “it won’t happen to me” until reality kicks in with a diagnosis of lung cancer.

As Chomsky observes, “I mean, I think we all know from personal life, if there’s something you want to do, it’s really easy to convince yourself it’s right and just. You put away evidence that shows that’s not true.”

It was just this kind of deception that led us into a war of choice that has cost huge loss of life and billions of dollars and contributed to the financial debacle we now find ourselves in. And it’s been this kind of deception (served up by Wall Street through the mouths of conservatives) that has produced the highest unemployment rate in the last twenty years. It’s a deception so deep that politicians like Eric Cantor, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell keep repeating the tax-cuts-bring-jobs mantra despite the absolutely clear evidence that the Bush tax cuts (which are still in effect) have not created jobs but have instead sucked them right out of the country!  If tax cuts created jobs so many Americans should not be un-voluntarily out of work.

Finally, it’s the kind of deception and self-deception (of myopic ideologues like Cantor, Paul Ryan, and their hostage, John Boehner) that has for weeks had the government of the U.S. focused not on job creation but on putting one man out of a job, namely Barak Obama. If, by means of refusing to raise the US debt ceiling Mitch McConnell believes he’s found the modus of  his primary function as a senator: to run Obama out of the White House (which he has proudly avowed) —  if he believes that’s more important than creating jobs he’s one self-deluded dude.

Though deception and self-deception love to tango, and have through the ages, and have with wild passion most recently in the U.S, there are hopeful signs that self-deception is becoming exhausted.

Though deception persists in the likes of politicians such as Mitch McConnell and Governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Warner; and in the board rooms of Wall Street and freak shows like Michelle Bachmann, there’s a sense that the people are tired of lying to themselves. In Wisconsin, for instance, Republican maneuvering to confuse voters in state elections to recall Republican reps has proven a failure. Wisconsin voters have rejected Republican efforts to dirty-trick the vote their way.

Before we as a nation can climb out of the political swamp we find ourselves in we’ve got to dump the self-deceit that leads us to believe what the evidence clearly disproves. If, for example, a politician says that cutting taxes for the wealthy creates jobs, and taxes for the wealthy were cut in 2001 but since then unemployment has risen; and if those cuts are still in effect and corporation heads are pocketing billions while the unemployment rate goes up, then it’s time to stop lying to yourself that such politicians are honest brokers for your interests.

“Above all,” Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night they day, thou canst not be false to any man.”

To thine own self at least
be no stooge
and things may change

by Jim Culleny
for The Shelburne Falls Independent, 7/21/11


Art is life. Even bad art is life. But the better art is a lever that lifts even the heaviest flat rocks of life to bring to light what scurries beneath and holds it to a mirror.

In his review of Dante in Love by AN Wilson, Robin Kirkpatrick says:

“… insofar as Dante may be credited … with having invented that modern ‘self’ – compounded of quirks, follies and interesting secrets … (Dante’s) Commedia is full of celebrities from Dante’s own time, vividly three-dimensional in voice, gesture and passion.”

“Vividly life-like,” he might have said. Kirkpatrick continues that, having been a politician, Dante’s Commedia is as much about the secular world’s politics as with “celestial fantasies”. He continues:

“Yet Dante also questions the conception of self that now underlies our appetite for biography. He recognizes that the economy of Florence, where modern capitalism was arguably invented, could generate, through an appetite for possessions, a conception of individualistic self-possession – all flounce, swagger and, correspondingly, envious gossip – that threatened the very basis of human community.”

How accurate.  When thinking flounce, swagger and envious gossip think Donald Trump and you get the gist of the Commedia of Kirkpatrick’s understanding. On what circle of an epic poem would a 21st century Dante place The Donald?

Considering the excesses of which capitalism is not only capable, but which it now embraces ever more aggressively and blatantly (and which is ironically validated by certain American Christians), Kirkpatrick adds an important observation:

“Dante’s Christian understanding reveals an alternative. Confronting the ultimate questions (God’s questions?), all human beings must collaborate and thus recover what humanity and social harmony truly mean. The name for that collaboration, as Wilson’s title suggests, is “love”.

And there’s the rub. You will not find the word “love” populating the conversations or policies of the growing plutocracy that today swallows the wealth of nations to an alarming degree.

Flipping a quote attributed to Jesus on its head Christia Freeland, in the current Atlantic (July/August 2011, The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year), opens with this:

“The rich are always with us …”

Jesus had said “The poor will always be with us,” but though he was brave Jesus was also politic and subtle. In the matter-of-factness of his observation an obvious follow-up question (the most obvious one and probably the one Jesus hoped to elicit) is “Why? Why are the poor always with us, Lord?”

The answer to that question is Christia Freeland’s opening line: Because the rich are always with us.

So here we are twenty-one centuries after Christ either at dead stop in our progress to refute the Lord’s pessimism —to make it a reality that the ranks of the poor disappear or at least diminish— or, worse, backsliding into plutocracy or feudalism.

In her article Freeland reports:

“The reality today is that the rich … are vaulting ahead of everyone else. Between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent.”

She says that means that “…half of the national income goes to the richest 10%.”  If average Americans are wondering what the problem is with the economy they might want to cogitate on that.

But it was not always this way. In the decades immediately following the Second World War the top 10 percent took only a third of the national income. Is there anyone who would argue that the U.S. economy did not thrive with that ratio?  But today, with the numbers as they stand, look at where we are. And this is not merely a national phenomenon. This sink into plutocracy is global.

Someone once said that there’s no such thing as coincidence.  Whether or not that’s true it is certainly not a coincidence that, as Freeland says:

“This international plutocracy is emerging at a moment when globalization and the technology revolution are hollowing out the middle class in most Western industrial nations.”

The global plutocracy of which the U.S. wing is intimately a part, is scooping out our nation’s wealth by shovels-full rather than the demure spoonfuls of the past.  And they are definitely not nationalists, Freeland points out:

“These global super-rich work and play together… many are global nomads with a fistful of passports … They have more in common with one another than with the folks in the hinterlands back home, and increasingly, they are forming a nation unto themselves.”

Segueing back to where we started —to Dante’s Commedia (“… all human beings must collaborate and thus recover what humanity and social harmony truly mean, i.e.”love”), Freeland and Dante hook-up. She notes and wonders:

“These (super-rich) are the winners in a winner-take-all world. Among the big political questions of our age are whether they will notice that everyone else is falling behind, and whether they will decide it is in their interests to do something about that.”

Far from the love of AN Wilson’s conception of Dante, or which Jesus taught, is the self-interest which drives the super-rich in this economy.

Capitalism hangs upon the least cohesive of human inclinations (some might say, and most corrupting) and we wonder why the world’s falling apart?

Ain’t capitalism grand?

by Jim Culleny, 7/3/11

More by Christia Freeland