Ain’t Capitalism Grand?

July 4, 2011

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?
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by Jim Culleny, 7/3/11

More by Christia Freeland
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