Calvinism, feedback and the Third Depression: Why the elite are both clueless and malevolent

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

In trying to understand the abject failure of the power elite in the United States to properly respond to the crisis of unemployment, I can conceive of two possible explanations:

  1. The elite are preoccupied with success as defined on Wall Street and are not merely disinterested in the problems of the unemployed but in fact bear us ill will. In this understanding, the problems of small business become practically irrelevant. Evidence for this explanation includes Diane Feinstein’s opposition to an extension of unemployment benefits for the long term unemployed even when there are five job seekers for every job opening:

    “We have 99 weeks of unemployment insurance,” Feinstein said. “The question comes, how long do you continue before people just don’t want to go back to work at all?”

    It also appears in Obama’s statement which I find unforgivable, that after having bailed out the banks, “We all know there are limits to what government can and should do [for the unemployed] even during such difficult times.” And it appears in an elite preference for reducing the deficit over a serious jobs program that could restore economic growth that would raise revenue to pay down the federal debt and reduce real suffering.

    It even appears in the Federalist Papers, particularly No. 10, by James Madison, who makes clear his disdain for the masses, whom he thinks would, if empowered, deprive property owners of their property. His view of minority rights functions to preserve social inequality and it is for this reason that he prefers a republic to a democracy.

  2. The alternative view seems to amount to naïvete, that the elite are unable to apprehend the reality of life for the unemployed.

  3. Before you laugh off that second explanation, owing to my own unemployability, I have the summer off and I have been trying to get a head start on the readings for my classes this Fall in the Transformative Studies Ph.D. program at California Institute of Integral Studies.

    One of the books I’m reading is by Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural Systems (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1995). Among other things, Macy describes systems theory in the way I have come to understand complexity theory, and while I understand that there is a difference between the two theories, at this point, I do not know what it is.

    This book is proving extremely useful, catching me up on concepts I didn’t get (but should have) the first time around. What systems theory and complexity theory have in common is an image of systems wherein the whole is not merely greater than the sum of the parts but possesses emergent properties which cannot be adduced by analysis of those parts. Such systems can be that of atoms, or of living cells, or of solar systems, or of galaxies, or of living beings, or of societies, or of lots of other things. One of those properties is homeostasis, a functioning that seeks to preserve the status quo. Homeostasis relies on feedback, of which there are two kinds. Quoting Macy,

    Negative feedback loops stabilize the system within its current trajectory. They reduce deviation between goal and performance, producing “homing-in” behavior and reestablishing the status quo. Positive feedback loops reinforce or amplify the deviations, each change adding to the next. Producing both novelty and instability, they can generate runaway growth or collapse unless stabilized anew within more inclusive negative feedback loops. (p. 75)

    Macy believes that systems theory can apply to economic systems. She quotes Kenneth Boulding:

    If one is looking for an explanation of economic cycles, or fluctuations, either of particular speculative markets, such as the stock market, or in the economy in general, the feedback model is extremely useful. It is capable of explaining not only regular fluctuations, in the case of equilibrating (negative) feedback, but is also capable of explaining disequilibrium processes, as in the case of destabilizing (positive) feedback. Yet there has been astonishingly little use of this model. . . perhaps as a result of the failure to take a significant intellectual tool simply because economists have not made it themselves. (quoted, pp. 79-80)

    A number of people have perceived economics as not merely the dismal science, but as the most ideological. Economists generally treat a peculiar notion of free trade, which is in fact only free for the elite, as gospel. It is rare to see an economist who will take seriously any other means of ordering an economy besides capitalism. And economists generally do not challenge notions of efficiency that disproportionately burden workers and of property and exchange that enhance gaps between rich and poor.

    Here, Boulding criticizes economists for failing to employ the feedback model. In fact, I’d argue that in a sense they do use it, but only consider negative rather than positive feedback. Negative feedback, which seeks to preserve the system, appears in the economic notion of efficiency, in which laid off workers and the proprietors of folded businesses will invest their energies and resources in other, more profitable enterprises. If this re-purposing happens reasonably quickly (though the notion glosses over training and education time), suffering is minimal and no one is hurt too badly. Economists thus consider recessions as essential to preserving a vibrant economic system.

    If, however, economists considered positive feedback, they might recognize the destabilizing effects of deindustrialization, of increasing corporate profits, of declining wages, and of a growing gap between rich and poor. I see no evidence that, on the whole, they or the elite do. Hence, explanation number 2, above.

    My own inclination, then, is to attribute our present political failure to respond with alacrity to what Paul Krugman has labeled a Third Depression to both explanations. Certainly it is possible to derive the malice in the first explanation from Calvinism which Richard Tarnas, in The Passion of the Western Mind (New York: Harmony, 1991) explains:

    The Protestant affirmation of moral discipline and the holy dignity of one’s work in the world seems to have combined with a peculiarity in the Calvinist belief in predestination, whereby the striving (and anxious) Christian, deprived of the Catholic’s recourse to sacramental justification, could find signs of his being among the elect if he could successfully and unceasingly apply himself to disciplined work and his worldly calling. Material productivity was often the fruit of such effort, which, compounded by the Puritan demand for ascetic renunciation of selfish pleasure and frivolous spending, readily lent itself to the accumulation of capital. . . .

    Within a few generations, the Protestant work ethic, along with a continued emergence of an assertive and mobile individualism, had played a major role in encouraging the growth of an economically flourishing middle class tied to the rise of capitalism. (pp. 245-246)

    This is a more nuanced explanation than the one that most often gets transmitted, specifically that the god of Abraham rewards the combination of hard work and active religious faith. And in a secular society, a concept of merit–never mind that merit in a vast majority of cases refers to inheritance rather than talent–substitutes for or supplements religious faith. And the corollary to this received view is that anyone who is poor has not worked hard or lacks merit (or active faith) and therefore deserves neither aid nor sympathy but rather suffering. Certainly when politicians expect the unemployed to find jobs which do not exist, they are expressing a moral rather than a rational view–a moral view which derives from received Calvinism.

    So it isn’t just malice that casts the unemployed off on an iceberg to die but a vicious and self-serving naïvete which treats corporate profits as an unquestioned good. Those profits, however, form their own kind of negative feedback. For the elite, they appear to preserve the social order with its privileges for the powerful.

    One might expect the unemployed to protest this treatment en masse. I no longer believe that will happen in any positive way. Glenn Greenwald asks “whether the American public is too apathetic and trained into submission for [too-large riots] to ever happen.” Firedoglake’s CarolynC sees an uprising as in fact occurring but against so-called illegal immigrants. She’s right, which means migrants are being exploited yet again to divert the ire of the unemployed away from the elite who have exported jobs and effectively written off the United States.

    And to the extent that Greenwald is right, I have explained the apathy and submission in terms of football. Charles Reich, in The Greening of America (New York: Crown, 1970), explained it another way:

    The process by which man is deprived of his self begins with his institutionalized training in public school for a place in the machinery of the State. The object of the training is not merely to teach him how to perform some specific function, it is to make him become that function; to see and judge himself and others in terms of functions, and to abandon any aspect of self, thinking, questioning, feeling, loving, that has no utility for either production or consumption in the Corporate State. The training for the role of consumer is just as important as the training for a job, and at least equally significant for loss of self. (pp. 141-142)

    Since the unemployed have no function, and have internalized the training Reich writes of, they judge themselves harshly. They internalize the stigma which the elite express, leading to the psychological distress which many report. A quest for self-validation can too easily be expressed against those who are even more vulnerable, like so-called illegal immigrants. Firedoglake’s CarolynC wrote from observation but what we are seeing is a manifestation of a fascist state, in which the dispossessed are turned against an easily stigmatized “other.”

    I’m probably not going to sleep well tonight. I’m feeling ill.