Gordie Fellman: Letter to the 1 percent

[Editor’s note:  At the top of this post is the shorter version of Gordie Fellman’s letter to the 1 percent, and the longer version is below.  Please see the previous post for Gordie’s introduction to this letter and the letter to the 99 percent, which is the next Waltham Review post in this sequence.]


To survive threats to our species and our planet, we need to do some very fast, clear thinking. And this is exactly the time to do it.

I see our society locked into a paradigm that threatens to destroy us. The basic rule of the adversary paradigm is this: winning takes precedence over everything else. And what is to be won? Wealth, fame, power, comfort, success, esteem. Those of you with great fortunes have in your hands the option to use your wealth and experiences primarily for your own gratification. Yet you also have before you another option: to take the power you have and use it to benefit the well­being of others,  and of our planet.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Occupy movement. The lasting legacy of the Occupy movement is its 1%/99% analysis of US society. What the movement called the 1% is also called the upper class, or the rich and powerful, or the power elite. People in this group, your group, are remarkably heterogeneous.

Some of you have made money from manufacturing and selling and others by providing services. There are those whose successes are in real estate, financing, and investing. Others own insurance companies, operate casinos, sell mortgages. There are those who extract, refine, and market oil. Some make money domestically, others globally. Some have gained great fortunes from your own efforts.  Others live off inherited money or have used it as a base to acquire still more.

There are those of you in the 1% who finance liberal or radical causes and would welcome higher taxes on your income and that of your fellow 1%’ers. You might favor ending poverty and making sure all citizens receive first class health care. Others put their money to political use supporting conservative or reactionary causes, with gaining and retaining maximum wealth and power the prime goal.

With money comes power. Whatever power is, many of you have it in spades. We know the range of what you have done with it in the past. Right now, we face a moment in history when Donald Trump – a man who even many fellow 1 percenters like Michael Bloomberg and Mark Cuban consider a bombastic charlatan who owes his success much more to inherited wealth and a talent for media manipulation, as opposed to real business smarts – stands a very real chance of becoming our next President. Faced with this distinct possibility, those of you among the 1 percent have an opportunity without parallel in human history to re‐examine and re‐direct that power.

The Occupy movement was born out of frustration and anger over the reckless financial activities that have devastated billions of lives and dozens of nations’ economies. The one- time assumption that bankers were cautious and respectable has given way to the painful realization that bankers and other finance workers have shamelessly exploited opportunities they themselves created to make money in the most unprincipled ways, including suckering poor people into buying homes whose mortgages they could not pay. Trust in the banking and financial industries rather quickly plummeted to an all‐time low.

The time of white male elites running the world is on the verge of being almost over. The global power of China and India, gigantic societies neither of which is white, Western, or Christian, and both of which have long since left the status of the subjugated, is on the rise. Women head more and more countries; the US in a very few years has seen three women secretaries of state and increasing numbers of women in the Senate and the House of Representatives. It would surprise fewer and fewer people if the next US president is a woman.

Questions raised by the 99% about the legitimacy of the 1% have never been greater or more widespread. Some of you 1%’ers can and will continue to bankroll politicians who will do everything they can to keep you in your positions of wealth and power, and you will count on their persuasiveness, backed by armed force, to do so. You will, through your influence in media, education, and just about all other institutions, continue to hold off viable challenges toward greater comfort and justice for all.

But in the immortal words of a Bob Dylan song, “something is happening here, But you don’t know what it is, Do you, Mister Jones?”

What is happening, and what can you make of it?

How did wealth and power structures so long lasting, so obviously durable, become unexpectedly vulnerable to massive criticism?

The majority of economists are not ready to question the usefulness, validity, and successes of the free market system or the premises on which it is based. This even though the system has failed billions of people on our planet, and even though there are societies that take care of their citizens more compassionately than ours.

Consider the difference between a profit economy and a human/planetary economy. In a profit economy the goal of business is to make money as an end in itself. In  a human/ planetary economy, the object would be to enhance human life and preserve as best we can our fragile planet. It’s not only war and gun murders that suggest the primacy of the profit economy over the human/ planetary one. Let’s look at a few more. Money is made off fossil fuel exploitation even as it imperils a quarter of the species on our planet and threatens to flood islands and coastal cities like no other human action ever. We know now that renewable energy can displace oil and gas and all they imply, but there remain short sighted businessfolk who appear literally unable to see the forest of doom for the trees of profit.

As part of the 1%, you have great financial resources and gigantic power. The structures in which you act make it clear to you, even before you were born, what is expected of people who start out with enormous privilege or are brought into it as promising candidates for the guild, so to speak. Status, standing, esteem—all this is part of what is in it for you to be of the 1% in our society. Even people who resent and dislike you often admire your style, your tastes, yourpurchases.

Yet despite your success and wealth and power, things will continue to crumble. Climate change will deepen, and the discontents and anger of tens or hundreds of millions of people will continue to escalate. You will deny things are falling apart, and as the disintegration proceeds, you will be puzzled and yet determined to keep things as they are for you in the top echelon of the social order.

As travel grows, as countless societies become increasingly heterogeneous, as films, music, and the internet reveal more and more of the similarities among people, it is time to release our familiar strangleholds on compassion. Add to those our growing challenges to universal threats of global climate change, massive and widespread economic failures, and the incapacity of some nations to bring war to an end. Recognize and celebrate the logic of replacing fear and hatred of “the other” with recognition of the full humanity of “the other.” See that movement, not new in history, expand, intensify, and grow. This is exactly the time for compassion to join with empathy to become political categories necessary for survival. From now on, empathy and compassion are central to ratcheting humanity up a notch on that ladder that has, at its top rung, Full Humanity and Harmony among Humans, Life, and Planet Earth Itself.

Things are changing. Empathy and compassion are emerging as essential political categories essential to constructive change. Why don’t you 1%’ers get on this leading edge of history and help move it forward? You have the smarts, resources, and energy to join with countless of the 99% in pushing that gigantic boulder of “paradigm shift” up the hill of survival, which we might also call the secular version of salvation. I am talking here about rethinking wealth as something for you to indulge endless wants and whims and extravagant fantasies that are just too self‐involved for words. In some odd way, the bulk of you in the 1% seem rather stuck in a stage of childhood narcissism where the environment is manipulated so as to maximize the fulfillment of desires. Yes, some of these desires are reasonable. But many of them not, and countless of them are childish.

The complement to the adversary paradigm is the mutuality paradigm.

Where one assumes striving for power over others, the other assumes gratification in working with others toward solutions that satisfy everyone. One paradigm takes competition for granted, the other favors cooperation.

Among the misfortunes of concentrating on who has how much wealth is the pressure that exerts on people to ignore a far more loaded and perplexing problem: Who has the richest and most fulfilling emotional life? Who is able to be in command of their feelings and find great gratification in them?

Without being fully aware of it, many of you have been taught to restrict your imagination to gaining and holding wealth and power, rather than seeking truly original solutions to gigantic problems facing not only the 99% or just the 1% but all of humanity. This is the time in history to let your imaginations soar, to free your creative side that sees beyond limited “self-interest” to focus on “common interests,” the needs and potential of our planet and all its species.


[Editor’s note: the longer version of the letter to the 1 percent is below.]

I know you are not homogeneous. Some of you have made money from manufacturing and selling and others by providing services. There are those whose successes are in real estate, financing, and investing. Others own insurance companies, operate casinos, sell mortgages. Still others run agri-businesses. There are those who find oil and extract, refine, and market it. Some make money domestically, others globally. Some have gained great fortunes from your own efforts.  Others live off inherited money or have used it as a base to acquire still more.

There are those of you in the 1% who finance liberal or radical causes and would welcome higher taxes on your income and that of your fellow 1%’ers. You might favor ending poverty and making sure all citizens receive first class health care. Others put their money to political use supporting conservative or reactionary causes, with gaining and retaining maximum wealth and power the prime goal.

With money comes power. Whatever power is, many of you have it in spades. I know your power only from a distance, but I had an experience not long ago that gave me a momentary if tiny whiff of what it must be like.

I was in Washington, D.C. for a board meeting of an organization one of whose members belongs to a very fancy private club in the capitol. That member arranged for other members of the board to rent rooms there.

The meeting was to start early on Saturday. I arrived late Friday afternoon so I’d get a decent night’s sleep. I assumed other members of the board did likewise and hoped to run into one or more at dinner in the club’s elegant dining room. Alas, when I arrived there, I saw no one I knew. Anticipating this might happen, I brought a magazine to read while waiting for my meal.

At the entrance to the dining room, the maitre d’ informed me I needed a jacket and tie, neither of which I had brought with me to DC. Such places are ready for people as awkwardly prepared as I, and within minutes I was fixed up with a properly fitting jacket and a gorgeous necktie. Now I was ready for dinner.

Well, not so fast. As I stood properly attired on the threshold of the dining room, the maitre d’ had a further instruction: no magazines allowed. In my surprise and naiveté, not to say gaucherie, I asked why. He told me that there was a room in back that allowed people to read until their food arrived.

It took just a moment to realize that the action I could witness—details of upper class dining—would be clearer and more gripping in the no-read area, so I promised I would put my magazine aside and entered the hallowed room. Trying not to salivate openly while reading the dazzling menu, I chose, I ordered, and then I, a sociologist trained in field observation, began to look around the room. I quickly settled on a table about ten yards away. It was just distant enough that I was certain the people there would not notice me observing them. Two white haired men in their late sixties or early seventies, and two women pretty close to those ages. All were white, needless to elaborate. Perhaps two married couples. I had no way of knowing.

I watched the bodies and body language of those four people, lighting on the one whose face I could see most clearly, full on. I became fascinated by that man’s face. Even from ten yards, I found his features remarkably expressive. They radiated confidence and composure, as did the posture and movements of his entire body. At one point, he stood up and started moving toward someone else at the table. Again, I felt a sweep of utter aplomb and self-assurance. I imagined that man finally noticing me watching him and walking jauntily to my table, where he would smile at me and say, “Hi. I am Power.” My quiet reply would be, “I know. I’ve been watching you.”

The corridors of the first floor of the club are graced by photographs of famous members who are or were major political figures and entertainers. Whether I was projecting or not I don’t know, but what I saw in the eyes and faces of those pictures was Power on the grand scale. That incident, plus countless scenes from movies, come to mind as I imagine who you 1% are.

This much I know: You have mastered the challenges of making money and have thereby created an abundance of goods and services without historical precedent that contribute to comfort and security among at least a billion people on Earth. You know how to organize incredibly complex endeavors, whether banking, finance, the gathering of materials, designs, and talents to manufacture and sell clothing, food, toys, appliances, pharmaceuticals, electronic devices, airplanes, guns, armaments, and just about anything else. You finance candidates and political parties. You own media and control their content. You shrink our sense of distances on the planet by promoting in all its glories and limits, that 21st century concept, globalization.

My father had a small neighborhood grocery store in Omaha, Nebraska. I marveled, as I reluctantly worked with him during my childhood and adolescence, at what it took to keep the shelves stocked; buy fresh dairy, produce, and meat; maintain the store as neat and attractive; and deal with suppliers and customers. And this was just a minuscule business. When I try to imagine the daring and talents required to run an automobile company, a giant electronics operation, agri-businesses, a chain of restaurants or supermarkets or hotels, media, internet companies—I am in awe of the courage, organizing skills, vision, imagination, determination, confidence, risk-taking, and hustle required to succeed in business.

What many of you have accomplished is astonishing. In terms of prestige, power, and wealth, you are the rulers of the earth far more than royalty of yore and heads of state today. You are able to shape domestic and foreign policies of governments. You can, in the United States, make vast amounts of money off health care, electronic devices without end, armaments, financial risks, entertainment, sport, prisons, guns, and much, much more. You have a Midas touch. Much that comes your way turns to gold, for you.

UNDEALING THE NEW DEAL

Eighty years ago, during the Great Depression, the super-rich were roughly where you are now, and vast numbers of people were jobless, homeless, and without much hope. It is ironic and now coming back to haunt you that a certain section of the 1% hated Franklin Roosevelt and his social programs Social Security, the Works Projects Administration, a federal arts program, welfare benefits, unemployment insurance, and banking regulations and were determined to roll them back. Beginning with the presidency of the somewhat charismatic and disarming Ronald Reagan, the rollbacks began. Loosen controls on banking. Create out of thin air a story that a “Welfare Queen” drove her Cadillac to get her welfare check. Generalize from that lie in a charming enough way that people who wanted to believe in “welfare cheats” had presidential authority to do so. Cut back social security benefits for disabled adults. (I remember news reports about disabled people whose social security benefits were cancelled committing suicide when a federal government under Reagan decided to jettison compassion in favor of hard-nosed fiscal conservatism, human lives wasted or no human lives wasted.)

Reckless financial activities in most of the world have devastated billions of lives and dozens of nations’ economies. The one time assumption that bankers were cautious and respectable has given way to the painful realization that bankers and other workers in finance have shamelessly exploited opportunities they themselves created to make money in the most unprincipled possible ways, including suckering poor people into buying homes whose mortgages they could not pay. Trust in the banking and financial industries rather quickly reduced to what has surely become an all-time low.

And layered over these momentous changes is a reality coming into clearer focus: For the last couple centuries or so, rich, white, sexually straight (or ostensibly) Western Christian males have more or less run the planet. Colonialism and imperialism were their modes of operation. Elites in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Belgium, allied with elites in the plundered countries, reaped fortunes while undermining economies, political and social systems, and entire cultures on every continent outside Europe except Antarctica.

The time of these elites has come and is on the verge of having gone. The global power of China and India, gigantic societies neither of which is white, Western, or Christian, and both of which have long since left the status of the subjugated, is on the rise. Women head more and more countries, the US in a very few years seen three women secretaries of state and increasing numbers of women in the Senate and the House of Representatives. It would surprise fewer and fewer people if the next US president is a woman.

Questions raised by the 99% about the legitimacy of the 1% have never been greater or more widespread. You, the 1%, can and will continue to bankroll politicians who will do everything they can to keep you in your positions of power, and you will count on their persuasiveness, backed by armed force, to do so. You will, through your influence in media, education, and just about all other institutions, continue to hold off viable challenges in any serious ways, toward greater comfort and justice for all.

But can it last? Something has gone awry in the jewel box of your power. Precious stones and gems are sliding out. Water and sludge are seeping in. What is happening?

In 1919 Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in a poem called Second Coming, wrote

…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

By now we can interpret “the blood-dimmed tide” as pollution and environmental devastation as well as the gore-soaked rush of the First World War and subsequent wars. As for the “ceremony of innocence,” contrast the simple love ballads of the thirties, forties, and fifties with music that arose from the sixties on. Rock and rap have brought into popular culture all the drug, sex, war, and race issues once denied in public or simply squelched but are now on the table in countless societies. While bright people still shine in politics and business, it is increasingly true that most of them in one major political party lack all conviction for anything but profit, power, and fame, for which they do indeed exhibit their full passionate intensity.

Passionate intensity engorges terrified people who yell and scream and seem to prefer destruction of what they do not understand to careful recognition of vast social and planetary changes that are unstoppable and potentially liberating even for the yellers and screamers. One section of the 1% cynically uses the inchoate anger of masses to fuel movements whose bottom line is the ever continuing push of wealth upward.

All of this is of a piece with the sudden and astonishing emergence of Occupy Wall Street in September, 2011. Dim employment prospects for college graduates morphed into a broader critique of social and economic inequality, corruption, corporations’ vast reach into US society, and bankers’ and financiers’ powers and actions. The slogan claiming that 1% of the US population disproportionately owns and controls what is experienced in political and economic life by the remaining 99% caught on like wildfire. The encampment model of taking over public space to declare vast discontents joined with a consensus model of democracy, and this caught on so quickly that within weeks it had spread to hundreds of cities in the US and beyond.

Federal and local governments felt threatened enough by these developments that a few months of increasing public attention to protests and critical analysis were followed by a centrally coordinated police sweep of all Occupy encampments out of existence. Occupy has continued in the form of miscellaneous protests against banks’ power, squatting in vacant housing, and the like, but the movement discovered, implicitly but rarely consciously, as have their corresponding numbers around the world, that anger, good will, and massive protests facilitated by social media are no substitute for leadership, representation, and short and long term strategies for fundamental change. All this was lacking, finally, in the Occupy movement.

Yet how did wealth and power structures so long lasting, so obviously durable, become unexpectedly vulnerable to massive criticism? How could so much that lies behind that wealth and power suddenly be open for scrutiny by anyone who cares to investigate?

US society provides vast structures and ideas that assure you one percenters that you are entitled to your fortunes and power. The main structure is a two party political system that is democratic, sort of. I say “sort of” because unlike most democracies, our party system excludes—often brutally—challenges to the two main parties, neither of which questions the basic injustices and inequalities of our society. One party tries to ameliorate the harshness of those conditions, and the other seeks to increase it, but neither addresses the fundamental problems surfaced by recent protest movements. Except for Bernie Sanders’ challenge to the status quo of the Democratic Party, Democrats, particularly since the presidency of Bill Clinton, have segued into favoring Wall Street over Main Street.

Our system as a sort of democracy includes the practice of state legislatures designing electoral districts in Byzantine ways that guarantee electoral success by manipulation of district lines. The point is not, as it would be in a real democracy, to have honest consideration of compelling issues but simply to win by chicanery. Add to this an apparently cynical Supreme Court majority, all of them appointed by Republican presidents, deciding in Citizens United that it is fully democratic for millionaires and billionaires to buy elections for candidates pledged to work on their behalf rather than that of the larger society. As if those contributors with their piles of money have no more influence than I with my occasional fifty dollar contribution to a political campaign. Throw in for good measure Supreme Court declarations that corporations have the same rights as people and that money is a form of free speech. Do you believe this?

“FREE MARKET” ECONOMICS

The ideas that shore up your class domination are patriotic rhetoric about democracy and US exceptionalism. Reinforcing that, you have entire institutions that celebrate the economic system that makes your accomplishments possible. Although some serious rethinking has appeared in the last few years, most economists at most colleges and universities appear to continue to praise the “free market” and examine its endlessly fascinating workings. They are not above criticizing it, but the criticisms are for the most part minor. The majority of economists are not ready to question the usefulness, validity, and successes of the system or the premises on which it is based. This even though the system has failed ever more billions of people on our planet, and even though there are other societies who take care of their citizens far more compassionately and completely than does ours.

It is perhaps surprising that an economic system that serves the power and wealth interests of perhaps a billion of the seven billion people on Earth is considered by its ideologists successful. Consider this: would you celebrate as superior a health care system that failed 6 out of 7 of its patients? I think not.

On the upside, the “free market” system brings abundant food, comfortable housing, decent health care, education, and recreation for that minority able to afford all this. That’s not all bad, as even millions of people living at low incomes and low standards of living in some societies live indoors with heat and electricity. Why, though, is comfort and security for all not a prime social goal?

Let’s pause for a moment and consider the difference between a profit economy, where the goal of business is to make money as an end in itself, and a human and planetary economy, whose object would be to enhance human life and preserve as best we can our fragile planet. It’s not only war and gun murders that suggest the primacy of the profit economy over the human and planetary one. Let’s look at a few more. Money is made off fossil fuel exploitation even as it imperils a quarter of the species on our planet and threatens to flood islands and coastal cities like no other human action ever. We know now that renewable energy can displace oil and gas and all they imply, but there remain short sighted businessfolk who appear literally unable to see the forest of doom for the trees of profit.

The nicotine in tobacco is a poison responsible for nearly half a million deaths in the United States each year. That’s about one in five deaths annually. When called to testify before a Congressional committee about this fact in 1994, tobacco executives of seven major corporations, under oath, lied. They claimed, just as climate change deniers insist about the effects of fossil fuels, that there is no evidence linking nicotine to deaths. How about that. I find it irresistible to note that many of the tobacco executives said they hoped their own children would not smoke. How about that.

Agri-businesses damage land through opportunistic use of fertilizers often not good for soil or food grown on it, befoul waterways with millions of tons of animal feces, and through mechanization unemploy vast numbers of people who could make their living off farming. Imagine if gigantic agri-businesses ended and land reverted to small scale organic farms that might bring millions of under- or unemployed young people from cities to the countryside. Thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of healthy small communities would arise to sustain human well being in terms of food and social satisfaction. Fuel consumed by shipping foods long distances would end in favor of food consumed by people living within say a hundred miles of where it is produced.

Single car transportation wastes vehicles and fuel. Careful development of mass transit for tens of millions of people would reduce the resources going into car production and also lower the amount of energy needed for transportation. The gigantic use of fuel for air movement of people and goods could be lowered by efficient use of very fast (“bullet”) trains like those in Japan and China. A society organized around human and planetary well being would promote bicycle travel (healthy as well as efficient) and walking as well as non-polluting ways of fueling vehicles.

Big pharma would give way to efforts to charge as little as possible for pharmaceuticals. A medical system organized around reducing needs for drugs more than making money off them would benefit everyone but the profit-seekers in big pharma today.

Someone wrote years ago that our economic system takes a woman’s self-esteem away and sells it back to her in the form of cosmetics, jewelry, and clothing. Material things do not improve self-esteem, and those products which claim to do so become narcotics where the woman believes she needs to keep spending money to find the best or right things to augment her appearance rather than learning to enjoy and celebrate how she naturally looks.

One of the greatest scams in our society is the insurance industry. Even with Affordable Health Care, insurance companies make huge profits off our medical system. In many US cities the tallest buildings house insurance companies. Customers’ premiums of course pay for the buildings as well as the operations therein and the profits thereof. A sensible insurance industry would guarantee from regional or national funds health care as well as compensation for buildings and cars damaged and destroyed. Basing insurance on human needs before profits would drastically reduce the personnel and buildings needed for insurance. Imagine if the people thus unemployed were to shift instead to teaching and social support services.

A rational banking system would limit profits and end the scandalous speculations that created the 2008 financial crisis. Replace big banks with smaller ones whose eyes would be on meeting needs of people and the planet more than gigantic salaries and bonuses for clever if ruthless manipulators of banking and insurance institutions as they are now constituted.

Reduce arms spending drastically by funding peace proposals higher than war proposals. Education, which could be as it is in a number of countries free up through undergraduate and graduate and professional study. The assumption that some conflicts can be resolved only through war is a scam and usually a lie although so familiar that few people think to question it.

Reward producers for creating products that last many times longer than most do now. We can make appliances, including cars, that last for fifty years rather than ten, durable clothing, and lasting housing. A sane government or private sector might reward companies for every year added to a product’s average life span. I.e., end planned obsolescence. It could be done.

And so on. Again, the idea is to rethink economy in terms of making the meeting of human and planetary needs of greater urgency and importance than profit for its own sake.

K through 12th grade schools, public and private, promote your/our economic system as if our species can do no better than that and that is good enough. They train future workers and bureaucrats how to be reliable and inventive in their work, how to collaborate in teams, how to defer to institutional authority, and how to praise the economic system of which they are a part. Neither the educators nor the media ask what is “free” about the “free market.”

What the “free market” means is that you in the 1% are free to create industries, trade, and financial schemes and make as much money as you can. Workers are not free to take part in decisions about their work, are not free to take for granted that the market system will provide them jobs and healthy, safe work spaces, health benefits, and a pension, and are less and less free even to organize unions to act on their behalf. Consumers are not free to know that the products they buy are healthy and sound and that no one has been exploited in producing them. The global population is not free to believe that free market advocates and practitioners will treat workers fairly and are not free to assume that the 1% will treat our species with respect and assure the sustainability and renewal of our planet.

THE SOCIOLOGY OF THE 1%

Media glorify you, and perhaps not by chance you own most of them and encourage the adulation they promote. Because of the vast wealth you pour into political campaigns and advertising, you can influence public opinion and voting tendencies far more than people with fewer financial resources can dream of doing. Most of the time—not always to be sure—the political system can be counted on to do your bidding. And does. All US presidents are brought into the corporate-friendly world once in office and even before then, for your wealth would not possibly take a chance on an elected leader who would seriously challenge your bidding.

All this makes sense. You have great financial resources and gigantic power. Of course you use it as you do. Who would expect otherwise? The structures in which you act make it clear to you, even before you were born, what is expected of people who start out with enormous privilege or are brought into it as promising candidates for the guild, so to speak.

What motivates you to work so assiduously and successfully? It is, I think, certain rewards that accompany financial success. Several come to mind as especially appealing and understandable: status, comfort, and appearances. And of course power.

I look at photo stories in the Boston Globe or the New York Times and see members of your 1% class celebrating the opening of something important, or an anniversary of something big, or the birthday of someone really significant. I see in those pictures people who radiate self-esteem and success.

For four years in the late 80s and early 90s, I was one of four faculty representatives to the Board of Trustees of my university. We faculty reps were allowed full participation and voting rights in committee meetings but in general Trustees’ meetings, we were not to vote, and it was understood we were not to join board discussions unless asked to do so.

It was my practice, like that of virtually all faculty who represent their colleagues on that board, to hold my piece in those meetings; but as a sociologist, I was more than fascinated by what I observed. The Trustees were, with few exceptions, white men. Most of them were from your class, the rich and powerful, the 1%. What I saw was some very decent, bright, earnest people who seemed flattered and glad to be on a university’s board of trustees. I sensed real seriousness of purpose and a strong desire to see the university run well.

That was during the meetings. It was the moments before and after, though, that captivated me most. Not only did I see poise and self-confidence beyond what I am accustomed to as a professor, I felt a tingle of mutual congratulations among those trustees from the the 1%. (There were also some trustees who are faculty elsewhere and others who serve as alumni of our university. Those two groups usually overlap and are a small minority of trustees.)

I felt among these people a completely understandable and even enviable sense of we-have-made-it-ness.  I am guessing that in any society, people at the high rungs of whatever is defined as success recognize and honor each other and thereby acknowledge and venerate their own status and accomplishments. It’s a bit as I imagine great athletes relating to each other, great musicians, great artists, great writers, great architects. Societies have values, and the people who realize them most nearly fully inhabit places of esteem defined by the highly successful and also by others who admire them, partly by appreciation and partly by envy and even resentment.

The heads of religions may also drink from the cup of success. Cardinals and the Pope in the Catholic Church, the elders in Protestant denominations, the chief officers of rabbinical associations, highly placed imams—all feel the light of their successful peers shining upon them and vice versa.

These are people who have made it. Not surprisingly, they sometimes gather at leisure as well as at work with other people who have made it. For reasons they may or may not understand themselves, these triumphant people learn how to pull away from the pack and ride ahead of it. And for completely understandable reasons, they do everything they can to stay there.

It is probably taken for granted by such people that there is a natural hierarchy of talent and success and that at the top you are convinced you deserve to be there. Although few of you would probably call yourselves Social Darwinists, many of you appear to share the conviction with those who use that term that life is indeed about the “survival of the fittest.” By definition you are fit and bask in that fitness and its celebration by your peers. You do not know, nor do I suspect would it interest you, that Darwin warned against using his concept of survival of the fittest to explain differences in rank and privilege in society. He emphasized that he was talking about how species come about and survive, not how individuals and groups within the human species make their marks in their societies. (It is, I am embarrassed to point out, a nineteenth century sociologist named Herbert Spencer who insisted on incorrectly extending Darwin’s insight about species survival to societies’ workings.)

Status, standing, esteem—all this is part of what is in it for you to be of the rich and powerful in our society. And there is more. There is comfort and appearances. Your wealth makes it possible to live very comfortably. Even people who resent and dislike you often admire your style, your tastes, your purchases. Driving very extravagant, well crafted cars, living in mansions barely distinguishable from palaces, with elegant furnishings, household staffs, sumptuous gardens, and great wine cellars and liquor stashes must be nice.

There is an aesthetic to feeling good, and that feeling can be enhanced by beauty and abundance. Many of you have well-refined tastes in furnishings, in architecture, in paintings and sculpture, in clothing and cosmetics and jewelry. Some of you have summer homes, homes on other continents, homes on beautiful islands. You can afford to furnish them elegantly, pay for their upkeep, and enjoy deciding which one to live in for whatever period of time.

You fly first class and may even have private airplanes; you eat at exceptional restaurants and may have expert kitchen staff of your own. You send your children to the finest private schools, to the best summer camps, to other parts of the world for vacations and safaris, and to elite colleges and universities. You hire for your children’s benefit highly skilled tutors if needed.  Not only can you employ help in reading, writing, and arithmetic, you can also afford private instruction in sports and dancing and nannies who not only take care of your children but also teach them the style and spirit that inform growing up in your social class. You can employ consultants who help your children plot their high school careers to impress admissions staffs of elite colleges and universities, and then guide the writing of their college application essays. You probably know that the biggest and oldest “affirmative action” program in higher education is the preferential treatment your children and grandchildren get especially at colleges and universities—likely those you attended—to whom you give significant amounts of money.

You live well, and that is extremely important to you.  And you even die well. I teach, I assign students in a class I teach to visit Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the classiest cemetery around. Its rolling hills, its perfect landscaping are bliss to enjoy in a New England spring when flowering trees and bushes join with lush flowers to play a symphony of floral color for the pleasure of the spirits of the dead rich folks in the crypts and beneath the elegant headstones, and the delight of their survivors. This annual spring display is matched in beauty only by the painting-perfect riot of autumn leaf changes six months later. Mt. Auburn Cemetery is open to the public all day every day and functions as a lovely park as well as a burial ground.

Across the street from this elite cemetery is a public burial ground for the lower middle and working classes in Cambridge. The land is flat, the headstones are simple and close together, the landscaping is minimal.

Thus even in death social class differences persist, as if it matters to those bones beneath the ground whether they disintegrate in the company of elite peers or that of commoner people. Of course the cemetery is not only for the departed to know they remain in death in the 1% but also to remind the public of the social standing of the deceased and their heirs.

So for the most part, your status is secure, and your children and grandchildren will probably continue in it. You will go on delighting in the creature comforts in abundance. You are admired for your taste and elegance as much as for your financial prowess.

And despite all your success and wealth and power, things will continue to crumble. Climate change will make for droughts, massive flooding, hurricanes, forest fires, and other  catastrophes at unprecedented rates. The discontents and anger of tens or hundreds of millions of people will continue to escalate. You will deny things are falling apart, and as the disintegration proceeds, you will be puzzled and yet determined to keep things as they are for you in the top echelon of the social order.

You will try to hold on as best you can, even if that means impoverishing billions of people, destroying species at an accelerating rate, ensuring that police break up major demonstrations, and keeping turmoil in motion that is an unintended and ghastly consequence of globalization. And for the most part, so steeped are you in the money ethic of your social class, you will be oblivious to the calamitous consequences of your societal myopia, or engage in active, militant denial that you have any power over the changes, or scramble ever more frantically with your 1% peers to hang on by your fingernails to the status quo and oppose changes—either gruesome or liberating or both—that you seem to think you can forestall.

The “free market” in our society is not simply an economic theory or practice, it is a secular religion. Politicians assure their audiences as well as their backers that they “believe” in the “free market.” How can anyone “believe” in a set of economic arrangements that make a small number of people extremely rich, keep billions dirt poor, and ravage the environment and imperil the integrity of our planet itself?  The Mafia defends its practices, I assume, but does it claim to “believe” in them? Why not be honest and say you defend and support inequality and privilege. Surely that is what it means to “believe” in the free market system, no?

Yet not all is lost. You can capture the moment and transform it for yourselves and everyone else into something creative and successful beyond anything that has preceded it.

First, though, you will need to rethink what it means to pursue “rational self interest.” That vein of ore runs through your political and economic decisions, and it turns out to be a vein that may just be playing itself into oblivion.

THE IRRATIONALITY OF “RATIONAL SELF INTEREST”

It is assumed by economists from Karl Marx on and by public common sense that the very rich are rational in pursuing wealth and power. I want now to suggest that the matter may be not that simple.

I’ll address wealth first. It is one thing to want to be comfortable: to delight in the design, space, comfort, and character of your surroundings. This is the material gratification of wealth and, I think, needs no elaboration.

It is another thing to want to be admired for one’s wealth. There is an aura about what is called financial success. It generates envy and resentment as well as awe among many who neither have it nor realistically imagine ever gaining it. It is probably hard for most people not to have a tingle of respect and jealousy for the very rich. What would it be like to drive that car, live in that mansion, wear those clothes and jewels, fly in that private plane, relish the vacation home in the Caribbean, the apartment in Paris, the penthouse on Park Avenue for weekends in New York? Ah the time one would have if hired help did the shopping, the cooking, tending to children, cleaning, gardening, driving and looking after cars. However anyone came into all that, it is hard to begrudge it entirely. After all, with the grace of God that could have been me.

One of the characteristics of wealth in societies that prize it is that there is no assumed upper limit and little attention to what is reasonable and responsible when others sleep on park benches or in doorways, scrape by on one meal a day or less, and have no place to shower and no way to clean their clothing. The disconnect between those who suffer ill fortune and those whose touch turns things to gold is such that although the former can mightily covet the condition of the latter, the latter are taught to ignore the former.

It is over half a century since I was at the home one afternoon of a very wealthy couple I knew. Their daughter, who was around eleven at the time, rushed in from her very fine private school and shouted, ‘Mother, Mother! We learned about poverty today! There are people living only ten miles from here who can’t go to good schools and who don’t have enough money to live comfortably! Mother, that’s terrible! I didn’t know about it before!’

How, I wondered silently, is an upper class woman going to respond to her child’s discovery of social class? She has to say something. I knew the mother well enough to assume she would not tell her daughter that poverty is unnecessary and insufferable and that society ought to be reorganized to abolish it. No, I thought, she has to gentle this girl into accepting poverty as real but somehow unavoidable, but how was she going to do that?

I remember the reply exactly: “It’s all right dear. You’ll get used to it.”  And that was the end of the exchange. The girl left the room, and my friend and I continued our conversation.

That mother was in effect telling her daughter to turn off her shock at learning about suffering. The jolt, sustained, could lead to compassion, and that could lead to sadness and even despair on the daughter’s part or to action to change the situation. Not in so many words, the mother was telling the daughter to stifle empathy she might feel for the poor. The subtext of that subtext is to limit compassion to people in the favorable life into which the girl was being inducted, or socialized, to use a slightly stiffer word.

So far in history, it is the usual case that wealth trumps compassion. Even if it can be argued that Social Darwinism does not describe reality but is for the 1% a self-serving defense of inequality in life chances and pleasures, the argument can be easily dismissed as excessive carping or “class warfare,” or something of that sort. And that is often the way it goes.

The compassion issue is different. Compassion comes naturally to most people. (Psychopaths seem genuinely to lack it, but most uncompassionate people are probably not psychopaths. In them, lacking compassion is not a deeply embedded pathology but a class-learned response to conditions which if acknowledged could lead to radical analysis and changes liberating everyone). It is a refined way of connecting with people. To be social necessarily means recognizing common humanness. Children who do not bond with anyone may lack essential emotional strengths to be able to live fulfilling lives. Infants who do not attach to caregivers not infrequently die. Most people have relied on social ties all their lives, and the wealthy are no exception, but they are instructed, as was that eleven year old girl, to limit compassion to people of their “own kind,” in this case, people of the same social class.

That practice of limiting compassion to members of one’s group applies the same way to people who feel the humanness of their gender but not that of the other, or of their race but not others, or of their religious or ethnic group but not others. Through most of human history, compassion has been thus limited to groups defined as one’s own. But at the same time another path was alive and breathing (even if barely some of the time). Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Muhammed said what all those religions say: “As you would have people do to you, do to them; and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.” Compassion is also a basic, essential element in Hinduism and Buddhism.

It is part of the role of religion to prod the consciences of elites and commoners alike, to remind all of the glaring distance between practices of opposition, hatred, and war and the eternal advocacy of peace. The Messiah. The Prince of Peace. The Heavenly Kingdom. The City on a Hill. The End of Days. The Kingdom of God. It’s all about calm and love and community finally pulling down the curtain on that prolonged human drama where lying, dehumanization, mass rage, and war define the confusion and tragedy of humans on Earth. So far.

Our species is fairly young on earth. Our minds have excelled in studying sciences and creating technology. We know a lot objectively about how things work, but we understand very little subjectively about how humans work. Our grasp of our behavior is about where science and technology were when the wheel and the lever were discovered. We live with gross clichés about who we are, such as: people are greedy, or people are cruel, or people are competitive. We have anecdotes and historical trends to support those assertions, but only that. It’s a bit like saying, It is in the nature of people to have auto accidents. We have countless anecdotes to support that assertion, and they all are oblivious to human agency in designing and using cars and other forms of transportation. Soon, we are told, we will have self-driving cars that will end accidents. By similar logic we can have food systems that feed everyone and social systems that end war. We just have to understand more about ourselves before we can accomplish these feats.

As travel grows, as countless societies become increasingly heterogeneous, as films, music, and the internet reveal more and more of the similarities among people, it is time to release our familiar strangleholds on compassion. Add to those our growing challenges to universal threats of global climate change, massive and widespread economic failures, and the incapacity of some nations to bring war to an end. Recognize and celebrate the logic of replacing fear and hatred of “the other” with recognition of the full humanity of “the other.” See that movement, not new in history, expand, intensify, grow. This is exactly the time for compassion to join with empathy to become political categories necessary for survival. From now on, empathy and compassion are central to racheting humanity up a notch on that ladder that has at its top rung Full Humanity and Harmony among Humans, Life, and Planet Earth Itself.

Why don’t you 1%’ers get on this leading edge of history and help move it forward? You have the smarts, resources, and energy to join with countless of the 99% in pushing that gigantic boulder of “paradigm shift” up the hill of survival, which we might also call the secular version of salvation. I am talking here about re-thinking wealth as something for you to indulge endless wants and whims and extravagant fantasies that are just too self-involved for words. In some odd way, the bulk of people in the 1% seem rather stuck in a stage of childhood narcissism where the environment is manipulated so as to maximize the fulfillment of desires, some of them reasonable and many of them not and countless of them childish.

This discussion began by suggesting that the problematic straining of relations between the 1% and the 99% is one part wealth and one part power. On now to power.

I hesitate to take up this topic even more than that of wealth. That guy in the DC club exuded wealth to be sure, but my fantasy was not that he’d approach me with his disarming smile and say Hi, I am wealth and power, but rather he would simply say he is power. What IS power? A colleague of mine says we cannot change society adequately until we understand what power is and how it operates. I agree.

Wikipedia offers this: “Power is a measurement of an entity’s ability to control its environment, including the behavior of other entities…Power can be seen as evil or unjust, but the exercise of power is accepted as endemic to humans as social beings…”

Three issues stand out in this definition: control, morality, and inevitability. It cannot be disputed that humans want and need to control their environments. An infant is hungry and yearns for what flows from a human nipple or a bottle. The infant cannot text its mother; “nd mk now” Nor can it yell out, “Hey, I’m hungry!” So it cries. The experienced mother knows the difference between a hunger cry and one indicating a physical pain (such as, The diaper pin is sticking me). The food cry is a power move. It is a gut-based effort to control the environment by bringing the fount of nourishment to the baby’s mouth. It is quite possible that that power strategy, repeated over and over, becomes for the infant a model of how to get what it wants.  Later, crying gives way to asking or demanding, and that commonly gives way to manipulating. The manipulations of adulthood, whether in business or in politics or in romance are on one level grownup versions of that child figuring out how to get the milk or formula delivered to its mouth.

The first observation to be made about controlling the environment is that there are needs to be met and ways to satisfy those needs. Now let’s distinguish between needs that are material (nourishment, physical safety) and needs that are psychological. Truth be known, the infant is not only calling for milk, it is also calling for nurturing. Interestingly, the word nurture, meaning to care for, protect, derives from the Old French noureture ‘nourishment’, based on the Latin nutrire ‘feed, cherish.’

There were studies in the 1940s on orphanages where infants were fed by propping bottles in ways that allowed the child to suck the milk. There were not enough staff or time to hold or even touch the infants, to caress and soothe them. Many of these babies died, not of malnourishment but of what came to be called the “apathy syndrome.” Children need human faces to respond to them, they need voices accompanying those faces, and they need physical touch. That is, the five senses—touching, hearing, seeing, tasting, and probably smelling—need to be stimulated for the baby to grow into a functioning, live, acting human being.

The child reveals physiological needs for food to be met and at the same time, social psychological needs for human companionship. We are, to put it simply and clearly, social from the start. I emphasize here that the child intuits that she has to manipulate the environment in order to get what she needs. A cry may be for milk; it may also be just for someone to recognize the child as there and lovable, or there as frightened or there as lonely, yearning for someone whose voice can be comforting, whose touch can be thrilling, whose benevolent smile can be calming and enriching.

This is, I think, the template for the control maneuvers of the adult, but those are usually much more complicated. Physical needs become transmuted into physical wants. The adult needs to eat, but the food does not have to be prepared by outstanding chefs nor does it need to be served on aesthetically pleasing place settings of exquisite china, silver, and crystal. Needs are biologically determined. Wants are socially constructed. In the world of the 1%, children are socialized into expecting and wanting fine food well prepared, expensive clothing and cars, elaborate homes, up-to-date electronic devices, luxurious travel, vacation homes, classy education, and so on. The environment is manipulated so as to bring that all about.

People in the 1% who have not had money handed to them either invest and make money or hire people to work for them, usually paying them as little as possible. The 1% can live well because of work done by the 99% who usually “deserve” more than they are paid but do not command the power to gain it. When they combine into labor unions, which is a way collectively of enjoying enough power to succeed in gaining better pay, benefits, and working conditions, they too are figuring how to exercise some degree of control over life issues important to them.

The dictionary definition of power with which I began suggests that power is exercised on behalf of the people benefitting from it. It is assumed that they use power to get what they want for themselves and their fellow 1%’ers. It is assumed that power is “zero-sum,” meaning the more one party has of it, the less the other party has.

In the field of peace studies, where I spend a lot of time, we call that “power-over.” It’s also called “win-lose,” as one party wins whatever it is seeking, and the other loses whatever it does not want to lose.

Just as the world seems to be moving ever more fully toward empathy and compassion in relationships between individuals and even societies, so it is time to question whether power-over is worth sustaining. The alternative concept is “power-with.” It is the kind of power that shines in relationships operating at their best. Partners can try to overcome one another for “who is on top,” or they can pool their talents and perspectives and work in ways that satisfy both of them. The growing popularity of mediation as a way to resolve conflicts is based on exactly this principle of power-with. The mediator’s task is to help clashing parties find resolutions that minimize damage and hurt and maximize feelings of gain and satisfaction for everyone involved.

There is something vaguely similar to this in parenting. Some parents insist on molding their children into the shapes the parents envision for them. In another approach, parents use their experiences and understanding to help children discover and enjoy their own strengths, competencies, directions, and satisfactions.

I have the very strong impression that most of you in the 1% take power-over for granted. That’s why you award yourselves, when you can, ever greater salaries, wages, perks, bonuses, benefits. You probably remember a popular bumper sticker from a few years ago, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” Suppose you consider putting that kind of winning aside, the winning of you over others, and replace it with a concept of all of us winning together when we figure how to distribute goods and services and honor and opportunities fairly. And to accomplish that fully urgent and daunting task that can only be done collectively: saving our environment.

To draw on an analogy I hope will be useful: In peace studies, we look upon “national interest” not as something to be defended, because it pits one country’s national interest against that of others, with that old goal of winning something (oil, markets, cheap labor, raw materials) at the expense of someone else. Out of that kind of practice comes gloating, the sense of triumph that one has in defeating someone else.

If nations have to be on their guard against other nations because of  conflicting “national interests,” then continual vigilance, fear, military preparedness, and war are necessary orders of the day. That is the way it’s been for centuries, but it is not the way it has to be now.

The better we understand the intricacies, complexities, and contradictions of conflict and cooperation, the better we are able to think beyond the ultimate implication of tired, draining, life-destroying, environment-devastating practices of power-over: war. If pursuing national interest or national security is a classic example of power-over, then what some of us call “common security” is the way to express power-with. Common security means no one is secure until everyone is secure. It means if we want to live in a world beyond fear and paranoia, we need to figure out how to end conflicts that lead to iron-determined strategies to overcome the other, to win. Ending the practice of war will be a vital, fundamental piece of our move forward.

We descend from ancestors who had to be on their guard against predators that could kill them. Imagine living in a forest or a jungle or on plains where ferocious animals stalk you that they might dine upon you. Many run faster than you, have teeth designed to rip flesh open, and can make off with you or your child in a moment if their preying strategy succeeds.

It is quite possible that for tens of thousands of years, humans had to attune themselves to those dangers as best they could. Cunning needed to be whetted, tools made, gang attacks on predators accomplished. Some animal adversaries were stabbed or beaten to death while others were forced over cliffs to their demise. Humans finally overcame just about all the large predators (the tiny ones, in the form of insects and micro-organisms like bacteria and viruses continue in constant battle with humans for who subdues whom), but the habit of fearing and being in danger may have become so fully ingrained in humans that its locus simply shifted from animals to surrogate animals: fellow humans.

Some people who study religion claim that society advanced when human sacrifice gave way to animal sacrifice. The story of Abraham and Isaac has at its core the substituting of an animal for a human in propitiating a deity who appears periodically to demand blood.

That hypothesis has always made sense to me, but suppose the reverse is also true, that when humans stopped being threatened by animals, they substituted humans for beasts they previously feared. The capacity to sense danger and create tools and strategies to come to terms with it then moved from killing those tigers and mammoths to killing fellow human beings.

It is my claim that traditional masculinity includes paranoia. It is a conviction that someone is out to get you and you’d better get them first. It is this classic male assumption that underlies wars (always rationalized as self-defense), justifies the gun industry, creates cultures of hating athletic teams, and promotes endless political contests where candidates all too easily slip into feeling the need to oppose and destroy the other candidate, party, ideology.

Imagine, by contrast, a politics where people with the talents and energies for problem solving join together to find the best solutions for everyone to whatever besets them. Political candidates claim to be doing this all along, but they don’t. Rather, they use their version of problem solving as a club to smash the heads of someone with other versions.

It is not only compassion and its extraordinary pleasures that are often in short supply among you 1%. Surely not all but many of you have been taught to stifle whole ranges of your real feelings in order to sustain the markers of success, wealth, power, invincibility. Please let yourselves think back on your early years and hurts you sustained then. For the most part, they were likely ignored, or you were taught to stifle them. “Suck it up!” “Get over it.” “Big boys/girls don’t cry.” Admonitions like that. Doesn’t some of this ring true?

It’s not only the rich who have trouble acknowledging hurt, so do millions of people across the social class spectrum, especially males. The same is true with many other feelings. Here are some emotions that men are typically taught to repress: softness, nurturance, passivity, doubt, fear, empathy, affection, love, compassion, gentleness. Indeed they might well be summed up as vulnerability. Men are taught to pretend they are invulnerable and thereby to squelch feelings that would expand and deepen who and what they are. Women of the upper 1% are probably taught the same thing, more or less, as illustrated by my story of the mother telling her daughter she’ll get used to the reality of poverty.

So you pay an amazing and gigantic price up there in the 1%. You sacrifice feeling fully alive to all your feelings in order to maintain power-over and its attendant poses of success, contentment, triumph. I call these poses because I believe they are both genuine and not genuine. They are genuine to the extent you really feel the pleasures of success, contentment, and triumph, steadily and magnificently reinforced by fellow 1%’ers. But ungenuine in that you appear to be taught to settle for these powerful but limiting feelings rather than allowing yourself the human right and privilege to feel it all and deal with it all. All.

A NEW DIRECTION TO CONSIDER

Suppose upon reading this discussion or for other reasons, you decide it is time to re-assess who you are, where you are, and to what you might most effectively turn your attention. Consider that making huge money and living extremely well may not be the pinnacle of what would challenge and satisfy you most. Think instead about how you might apply your talents to exploring two gigantic limits on our economic and social systems as we have known them in the last few centuries.

Rethinking entrepreneurship

Industrial processes in place for three hundred years have finally brought our planet to the point where our oceans, land, and air are increasingly poisoned. Our resources are overly exploited, and as our planetary temperatures rise, much of our low lying lands and islands will be flooded out of existence. Something like a quarter of living species will be extinguished. Why not take on the challenge of bringing your brains and organizing skills together to the point of turnaround, where we use our minds and technologies to reverse planetary degradation that has been a gigantic blowback of industrialization? Do you have the time, energy, daring, and intelligence to do this right? Oh yes, and the courage it would take to try?

The new entrepreneur we are ready to birth undertakes projects not to make money but to enable us all to survive. The challenges there are far greater than those of making money.

Of course you can rise to all the challenges I have outlined here. But there are likely several hindrances in the way of your doing so.

  • Most of you are willing, perhaps even eager, to take risks in business, but you do so in a framework that is familiar to you. Your risks are often shrewd. Investing money in MacDonald’s at the very beginning was astute indeed. Who could have imagined hamburger stands, as the little shops were known earlier, could take such a gigantic and successful leap? Investing in any aspect of the subprime mortgage business was cunning but foolish, indeed disastrous for the home buyers and the larger economy, as it turns out. Some times your risks seem brilliant from the profit point of view, and other times they seem remarkably stupid. I don’t have the experience or data to sort this out, but the gist of my message is that you take for granted a system in which certain risks are worth taking because they might result in profits. But how might you manage in an organizational climate where the goal is not making ever more money but reversing global warming? Your reward would be victory over the awful forces humans have set in motion that threaten our very continuation as a species on our planet. Can you shift your consciousness and values to substitute survival for profit, as the laser beam of your skills and intentions?
  • Collaboration outside your usual comfort zone. Your reward, if/when you succeed in reversing climate change would be the emotional one of sharing delight at this remarkable human accomplishment with billions of grateful people. Your reward would also be the pleasures of collaboration, not this time with fellow 1%’ers but with the scientists, engineers, workers, office people, and everyone else who pool their techniques and talents in overcoming the deleterious effects of humans’ inadequately planned engagement with nature.
  • Primary identification with the entire 100% rather than the 1% of which you are so solidly a part. Imagine all of humanity as your reference group. It’s a stretch, but it’s possible. Imagine the material and emotional consequences for you and everyone else. Imagine not your financial wealth but the survival and health of our planet as the payoff of your work. I have already talked about differences between profit economics and human and planetary economics. Consider both those terms. Where does each take you? All humans? Our planet Earth?
  • Recognition of an orientation point beyond that of a nation or political alliance or corporation. Years ago, in the buildup to the first US war in Iraq, I was asked to speak at a teach-in on my university campus. For the two weeks leading up to the event, I had an odd feeling that I wanted to bring a flag. I had never before owned one or felt any impulse to bring one to any event ever. But I wanted to unravel a flag at the teach-in. My gut said, find a flag that is right for this occasion. But what could that possibly be? I seemed to be groping in the dark but could not let go of the bizarre conviction that I needed to enter that event with a flag. Two days before the teach-in, I attended one at another university, and on a table outside the entrance I saw the banner I sought. That’s it! I realized. That’s the flag I’ve been looking for! When I rose to speak at the teach-in at my university, I told the story of my flag quest. I explained how I had been all but obsessed with showing up with the right flag. I wanted somehow to demonstrate visually that a war with Iraq was not necessary, but I could not convey that by showing an Iraqi flag (I am not Iraqi), an Israeli flag (there was concern among many people that Israel could be damaged by rocket attacks from Iraq, but I am not Israeli) or an American flag (which has for some time been commonly used to promote war rather than careful thought about whether war has to happen at all). I unrolled the flag I brought with me. I heard a slight gasp as people saw the “earth flag,” the one that shows our planet from afar in a picture made possible when space exploration began. ‘This flag represents where I live,’ I said. ‘It is my home. It is Earth.’ I went on to explain that from then on, I wanted to consider political, military, economic, and other issues in terms not of what is good for one nation against what is good for others, but rather what is best for everyone working together to save our planet and to bring peace to the species on it. I meant for that flag to raise the question, What is best for Earth itself? I said I can continue to identify as American and as a citizen of our Earth. Two fundamental points of identification. They overlap. They connect. They inter
  • Redefining yourselves as of nature rather than over This would mean moving past the assumption that as humans we are set apart from the rest of nature rather than embedded in the whole shebang. Today we see people blindly pursuing practices that doom thousands of species to extinction. Once we fully grasp that we and those species belong to the same larger entity, we can reverse our mindless destruction.

These are all stretches beyond the familiar and comfortable, stretches that extend and deepen what “challenge” means and also stretches that, taken seriously and leading to successful change projects, could literally mean the difference between life and death for entire species, islands, and countries that will drown if global warming is not reversed. These are stretches embracing the health and well being of our planet itself and all the peoples inhabiting it.

THE OUTER AND INNER COMPLEXITY OF THOSE IN THE 1%

Like all people, you in the 1% respond to pressures and standards outside you and also, often more mysterious to you and everyone else, to pressures and standards inside. What might both sets be?

The outer self

Wealth and expertise

I wonder what all this power and money do to you. You know so much about manufacturing and marketing and trade and finance and confidence and class. The knowledge and power that accompany your positions lead many of you to believe yourselves qualified to exert great influence on matters about which you might actually not know very much, like climate policy, sexual behaviors, evolution, the creation and distribution of services in our society, and even war and peace.

When I was a kid, it was common for physicians to speak authoritatively about politics and society. The esteem they rightly gained as doctors seemed to go to their heads and make them think that their medical expertise qualified them to speak as authorities on topics about which they actually knew little or nothing.

Physicians are no longer idolized as knowledgeable outside their fields. Their place as supposedly comprehensive knowers has been taken over by business and financial elites. Thus some of you involve yourselves in arguments over Darwin and Marx neither of whom you almost certainly have ever read. Some of you financially support movements trying to limit women’s control over their bodies and everyone’s control over their sexuality although you seem to stake out your positions more on the basis of common cultural clichés rather than serious inquiry and self-awareness.

Some of you—by no means all—believe that you are so good at making money you should have still more of it. The lives and travails of most people in the 99% are opaque to most of you, so that does not stand in the way of your favoring policies that have gigantic impacts on the work lives, health, education, and life chances of that 99%.

Your insistence on ever more money does not make you stupid or narrow or especially mean. It is the logical imperative of a system organized to place making money above universal human well-being and planetary survival.

This is not to say ethical concerns are of no consequence to you. There are those in you 1% who objected to the sale of mortgages to people who could not pay them because in the short term tons of money were made that way. There are too those of you who take a dim view of the opportunism that has run rampant in our “free market” economy, and not only in recent times.

It must be painful to face that the economic system you favor is for the most part amoral. Some of you still insist on selling tobacco in other countries as well as our own even though you know that it contains nicotine, a highly toxic substance responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. You defend this behavior not because you are willing killers but because you accept the mandate that says, Make money any way you can. That also says you are not responsible for the outcomes of your economic activities. Your job is to make money. As for cancer and homelessness and bankrupt towns and gunshot homicides and suicides and deaths in war and afterward that may follow from your money-making, well, that’s the way it goes, or that’s not my department, or that’s life, or caveat emptor—let the buyer beware.

Something, though, has gone wrong that brings our society and numerous others to the brink of economic and climate catastrophe. It is as if a significant portion of you 1%’ers have misjudged and somehow failed, on a very large scale, to keep things going smoothly enough that severe and possibly fatal limits of the very economic foundations of our society are now exposed for ever greater numbers of people in amazement and anger, to understand.

The truths of how the system works are usually obscured by theories that hide them, entertainment that draws attention away from them, and political processes that pretend to deal with urgent social problems but actually shunt focus from them onto amusing and even gripping fake ones. Spectator sport and “reality” television are far more interesting to masses of people than are the facts of climate change and economic disaster. Political candidates preen themselves on the fancy feathers of pugnacity and invented “truths” based on the simple and amoral principle that a candidate needs literally to do anything to win and will far more easily engage in character assassination and out and out lies than raise really basic questions about how society is organized and what might be better ways to do it. (Those who try otherwise are usually exiled from the political process by being marginalized, ostracized, and ridiculed. And occasionally, killed. Sanders tried to do otherwise and was given perhaps 1/10 the attention lavished on a candidate who had nothing to offer in the way of understanding how society is structured and how to change it for the better. The media are for the most part in your hands, 1%, and do their best to distract people from their real issues and concerns.)

Things started going awry eighty years ago, with the Great Depression. There were in the United States a Communist Party and a Socialist Party and labor unions all of which broadcast severe critiques of an economic system that could cough forth the disasters of joblessness and homelessness. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s genius that devised the New Deal that saved the skins of the 1% of that era. The massive public discontents that led to marches and tent cities were countered by programs that pulled just enough of the sting from the despair of the time to nullify major challenges to the system’s foundations.

With World War II came prosperity on the home front in this country. The Cold War insured that vast military spending would go on indefinitely, and consumerism emerged as an endless trough of stuff that clever advertisers could persuade people they needed and wanted.

Military spending and consumerism took up the slack of an economic system so incredibly well organized that it could and just about had to produce anything to keep the 1%’ers in power and wealth. It was taken for granted by the 1% that producing and selling was beyond morality. The profit imperative was assumed to outdo all others.

A lesson of the Great Depression was that banking and financial services must be kept separate and regulated to avoid a repeat of 1929. The ensuing rules and controls were taken for granted as necessary brakes on processes which otherwise could turn into a gigantic tornado that would spin out of control and leave wrecked lives, businesses, and communities in its wake.

In recent years, a majority of national politicians under both Republican and Democratic presidents was persuaded (by whom? Want to guess?) to lift those regulations and constraints. People pressing for the changes would make vast profits even if disaster followed the dollars. Came 2008, and the tornado inevitable after deregulation whirled into our country with furious speed; it mocked caution and hurled it into its vortex.

As I was growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, I took comfort knowing that whatever instability there was anywhere in our society, banks were as solid and reliable as the huge vaults within them. Little did I know.

The deregulations began with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Clinton helped speed them along their way, but it all accelerated under George W. For a while I thought it was remarkable and marvelous that banks could figure out how to sell homes to people who on the face of things did not look as if they could possibly afford them. The subprime mortgage (whose name I never fully understood) seemed to be either a stroke of genius or a sleight of hand that would eventually get a lot of people into a lot of trouble. It seemed to me inconceivable that those staid old banks would risk losing tons of money and ruining people’s lives, but that is exactly what they wound up doing.

Some tricky politics allowed banks and investment houses to scratch each other’s backs and to merge. Financial “instruments” were devised where some people were able to make vast sums of money by manipulating figures. Some even took out insurance guaranteeing they would profit if some of their very own investments failed. It was as if the Liars and Cheaters Express had roared into town and found endless buyers for its snake oil. Stock prices went way up and countless people bought mortgages, even as the momentum toward ever escalating wealth was looked at askance by doubters who warned of housing “bubbles” and other realities that could bring down the entire edifice of what turned out to be financial sandcastles in the sky.

What seems to have happened is this: From FDR on, some elites of one party were split between those grateful to Roosevelt for saving capitalism, and those who resented the growth of government as an intrusion into the purity of making money and possessing as much of it as possible. The first group thought the government services FDR began were small enough a price to pay to keep the entire system going. This group also seemed to share FDR’s compassion for tens of millions of people whose lives had been severely damaged or even destroyed by economic and political forces beyond their control.

Under Reagan and both Bush presidencies, those who wished to negate the New Deal and return to the more jungle-like social conditions that preceded it gained more and more traction. They set up think tanks and spokespeople who joined them in disdain for the “nanny state” (it could just as well be called the “compassionate state”) and most important, for the taxes that supported New Deal services. Somehow it worked out in the minds of that part of the 1% that objected to the New Deal that it was—and remains—okay for government to subsidize the military, agri-businesses, and the oil industries but not ordinary citizens with insufficient resources to eat, sleep in homes, and enjoy adequate medical care and go to school.

There appears to be a dynamic in our society—and not only ours—that leads the wealthy and powerful to want ever more and more. All of this is based on a simple premise: if profit and meeting real human and planetary needs collide, the latter must give way to the former.

Profit first

Your position makes it extremely difficult for you to understand both the theory and practice of democracy. What could be more undemocratic than a Supreme Court decision all the way back in the nineteenth century that allows corporations to be considered somehow equivalent to actual human beings? In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that money is a form of constitutionally protected free speech. What does that bizarre claim have to do with democracy? “Money talks” is an old cliché, but is does not mean the greenbacks have the power of speech and reason. It means, rather, that people with lots of money can buy influence in completely unfair ways. One percenters, riding on a swiftly flowing river of money, can talk. Dollars cannot.

In 2010 the Supreme Court jumped still further in deciding that the rich, corporations, and unions can give endless money to candidates for office and need not account for how much and to whom it was given. While this does put labor and the 1% on the same theoretical level, unions have no capacity to fund candidates and think tanks to match what the 1% can do, and unions do not own entire newspaper chains and major TV channels the way some 1%ers do.

What kind of nonsense is that?  It means that if you have ten million dollars for a presidential campaign and I can put in a hundred dollars, we are both exercising our right to free speech. But who is kidding whom? My hundred dollars doesn’t have one thousandth the influence that your ten million has. So really your money gives you more free speech than mine does. This undercuts entirely the democratic idea of us as full equals as citizens. It means you can buy and sell candidates while I cannot even rent one.

By claiming that corporations are persons and have the same right to free speech as persons, you (or, I suppose more accurately, your lawyers) mock the very idea of each citizen as equal in dignity and in the right to influence public affairs. Many of you have made it absolutely clear that you will have vastly more power than the rest of us, the 99%, and will stop at nothing to maintain it. It appears not to be hard to find political candidates with such stunted senses of morality and public service that they will kiss your rings in exchange for money they need to run for office. Do we want such sycophants in politics? Wouldn’t we expect and get more—as we indeed already do—from people with integrity welded to smarts?

Please think about that. In our system, it takes just two talents to be elected. The candidate has to speak well enough to be heard by audiences and has to raise lots of money. Notice that intelligence, compassion, empathy, being informed and thoughtful, understanding theories and practices of democracy are not on the list. It is no great surprise that in our legislatures and high offices, we have scores of uninformed people. Do you expect the rest of us to thank you for the strong-arming that goes with huge money contributions to political campaigns? Is it possible that the candidates you thus buy can do other than support your views and prejudices to the best of their ability, even though those views and prejudices may run counter to the well-being of the 99% excluded from that candidate-buying game?

Some of you finance candidates from a political party that officially denies the reality of climate change or if it reluctantly admits there may be something to it, rejects in the face of massive evidence to the contrary the idea that human activity has anything to do with it. This means that some of you find the passion for profit so compelling that it blinds you to the widely available evidence that we are at a terrifying precipice, with you and your commitment to profits before everything else about to push us all over the edge.

Some of you subsidize candidates who scorn the First Amendment separation of religion and state. Others of you, who idealize government not dictating public decisions about health and insurance matters important to all our population, somehow thrill to government intruding into the privacy of people’s sexual practices. Why?

That party to which I refer has a remarkable characteristic in a society that was the first on Earth to offer free public education to everyone, for that party has in recent years developed a knee-jerk opposition to education. It scorns science, about which it knows virtually nothing.  This suggests that many people in political office do not understand what science is, what the word “evidence” means, and how to apply dispassionate, careful objective scrutiny to climate change, creation, or anything else. That is to say, the very public school system that could be a badge of honor in our society fails something like half the public that prefers slogans and clichés from political opportunists to serious, careful, systematic thought. And some of you in the upper 1% support this nonsense. Why?

Can it be that leaders of the party in question are so poorly educated that they really do not understand how the scientific method reveals more reliable information than do prejudices stoked by political candidates trying to gain a following in any way they can? I don’t think so.

This is where the life against death issue becomes crucial. It is transparent that the party that wants to turn over ever more wealth and power to the 1% cannot possibly gain mass support for this program. Wisely, it does not even try. Imagine a candidate who admits, ‘Let’s make the super rich even richer at the expense of the other 99% of us.’ That dog would not hunt.

Yet the people for whom that project of making the super rich ever richer must find a number of strategies for gaining electoral support anyway.

  • Promote obsession with so-called “social issues.” Let’s see, if I want someone who cannot possibly share my passion for wealth to vote for my candidates, suppose I announce that person finds homosexuality abominable (they actually probably find it both repulsive and attractive, but that is a topic for some other discussion). I will jump on that bandwagon and say, Vote for my candidates; they share your distaste for homosexuality. Will you vote for my candidates if they are against the rights of women to control their own bodies? OK, if you will vote for our candidates, we’ll make sure they take that position too. You want to make sure you have easy access to guns? OK, we favor whatever it takes to get you to vote for us.

 

  • Those social issues really are important to some of you in the 1%, but surely not as many as claim that to be so. (Whether or not abortion is legal, I will bet the farm I don’t have on my suspicion that rich people who get pregnant and do not want to or have wives and daughters or sisters or granddaugthers in that position will find ways to get abortions in this country or elsewhere.) In other words, some of you in the 1%, like so many politicians, opportunistically support whatever they think will help voters find them appealing. This is why “social issues” become electoral issues.

The practice of displacing attention from real economic and political issues onto peripheral social ones makes no sense at all. Let’s face it: there is no logic other than opportunism for insisting that anyone’s private sexual behavior should become a concern to people who don’t engage in it. Or that men, who can be raped but cannot be made pregnant, have any business telling women how to behave once they have been raped and impregnated.

  • Lie as much as you can. There is a practice of “public relations” that slams those social issues onto front pages and sweeps the real ones of economic, political and climatological reality under the rug. There are—and our republic has a long history of such people—“consultants” whose job it is to lie about lots of issues. Defame opponents. Claim they said things they never said. Claim they have deep, dark motives to destroy the US. Claim entire countries have menacing weapons they do not have. Tap into fear and the latent paranoia most men—and countless women too—so take for granted they do not even recognize it as such.
  • Favor death over life. Political leaders have known from time immemorial that the best way to bind a nation together is through the threat of war and war itself. Take people’s attention off their real woes and struggles and pretend they are threatened unto extinction by someone else. Tease out the paranoia latent in us all to invent enemies to be ridiculed, demonized, hated, and then killed. Here is one of the most astute observations of all time about this standard practice of how to beat the drums of war in order to stay in power:

 

It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that that line is from Hermann Goering, one of Hitler’s principal aides who founded the Gestapo and later headed the Luftwaffe, the Nazi air force. Without being self-conscious about it, your approach to starting and defending wars pretty much fits Goering’s claim, doesn’t it?

In effect favoring death over life, many of you give an enormous boost to war industries which command a gigantic share of national wealth. The war profiteers are among you 1%. Anything that promotes war rubs the backs of those billionaires who live so well off the profits of war making and the cleanup afterward.

The party that thus prefers government as killer to government as life-enhancer, that distracts attention from bread and butter issues to  remote “social issues,” and that employs lies to get its candidates in office thus blinds itself to one of the most powerful mandates in the US Constitution: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States…”

“…and general Welfare” has to mean it is for the well being of the public that government involves itself in water and sewage systems, roads and highways, train and air travel, police and fire fighting, and education itself. And more recently, in helping retired people have at least a minimum of financial resources, and helping everyone to enjoy good medical care when needed. The concept that we are all in life together and obligated to help one another whatever anyone’s limitations and even failures, runs head on into the desire for as much money as possible based on the tragically flawed Social Darwinian conviction that those with talent are rewarded and that the rest deserve neither consideration from the talented nor collective power with those in the same less favored position. (As the 99% are the majority, government obviously should be composed of people elected to meet their needs as well as those of the fabled 1%.)

  • Keep as many people as possible who would not vote for your party from voting at all. It was a breathtaking illustration that the Supreme Court is in the pocket of the 1% on issues of urgent importance to them that justices on the court appointed by Republican presidents voted to gut a provision of the Voting Rights Act that prevented unscrupulous politicians from excluding from voting rolls people (mainly African Americans) unlikely to vote Republican. That Supreme Court justices use their power for partisan political ends is not new but for all that no less alarming.

Solipsism and Greed

It is likely too that the very rich suffer from what philosophers call solipsism: the only reality I can know is my own reality. This conviction gets me off the hook of human connection and responsibility with and for other people. It appears that some—nowhere nearly all—very rich people think of themselves as the center of the universe. Equally rich others may be worth knowing, but anyone else’s existence simply does not have to be taken seriously.

I think it is all the same time to stop trashing the very rich or disdaining them or idealizing them (all three are serious forms of dehumanization) and instead to try to imagine what extraordinary wealth and power do to people. Through empathy and compassion, any of us can imagine that given the same chances and circumstances, we might have gone the same route as those overpaid, money and power-obsessed bankers and corporation executives.

There is a way, though, to make sense of what such people do. When one-time presidential candidate John Edwards was asked how he could be so clumsy as to have an extra-marital affair while running for office and then to try to bribe the woman in question into silence, he offered an explanation I thought was completely plausible. Edwards said when you get to a certain level of fame and recognition, you take for granted that you can get away with anything. More recently, Roger Ailes might testify to his experience with that supposition.

Though the circumstances differ, I imagine that super-rich CEOs of corporations, banks, and financial houses make the same assumption. It is as if huge success in conventional terms insulates them from accountability and responsibility. Let’s be clear: any of us might fall for that temptation. And we might also be sucked into the supreme comforts and indulgences that accompany great wealth.

To look at it another way, this behavior is called “entitlement.” It is based on the idea that one is entitled to anything they can imagine getting, in any ways they can get it.

In this respect, the very rich are like two other groups of people who are classically pampered. One is certain women in 1% settings where “sugar daddies” provide housing, jewels, clothing, fine food, cars, vacations, and the like in return for sex and either genuine or feigned respect and love. The other group of traditionally pampered people is children, who have adults at their beck and call to meet their slightest whims. As they age, children are expected to take more responsibility for meeting their needs and those of the adults (parents and others) around them. This is an essential part of what it means to come into adulthood.

When children do not outgrow the belief that they are owed every imaginable service and unending deference, we call their behavior “entitled,” meaning that it just does not occur to them that maturity includes recognizing the universality of needs and the obligation to strive to meet one’s own needs in the larger framework of helping others to meet theirs too. There is a tiny fraction of the 1% that wants to end Social Security and Medicare for the masses, wants to end public education and public housing, and wants in effect to reduce nearly everyone outside their small group to a kind of serfdom. That does not reflect mean, evil inclinations (although sometimes those too) so much as the sad, warped, fearful, angry insistence that the lives of that minuscule fraction of the 1% are the only lives worth recognizing and honoring.

The very, very rich then are like kept women, except that they are both the keepers (through their wealth hiring others to guarantee their whims and needs are met) and the kept. And they are like children in that remarkably unreasonable claims can be insisted upon through the 1% equivalent of screaming and insisting: manipulating the political process so as to be able to make things happen just because one wants them to happen.

It is exactly here that I ask all of you to ponder this: you are brilliant at making money and keeping it. You are brilliant at employing managers for your banks and businesses who guide by the lodestar of maximum profits. And you are brilliant in funding political candidates who will enable you to retain and hold your riches and your power.

This has been established. The 1% know it, the 99% know it, everybody knows it. And although it may make many of you uncomfortable to have this so blatantly on the front burner of our society, there it is. Unless the US economy turns around dramatically in a very short time, and unless some contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal blossoms to take the edge off ever growing discontent with the 99%/1% divide, you are going to be in ever deepening trouble. You will either have to create a repressive state to undermine democracy by squeezing out freedom of speech and assembly, or throw some bones to the very angry dogs of discontent.

There is a third option, an alternative I ask you to take seriously. Were you to do so, the meaning and consequences could be unprecedented in history.

It is this last possibility that I would love to explore with you. Here is the way I see it: you in the 1% know how to make money and hold onto it. You know it takes certain technical skills, certain personality traits, certain organizational talents, and certain kinds of intelligence to succeed at what you have so ably accomplished. To move in this direction, you would have first to come to terms with severe obstacles. All relate to maintaining your 1% advantages.

1) your social class peers, your fellow 1%’ers. Sociologists talk about “reference groups.” The idea is that members of those groups of which you feel a part that you want most to impress with the worthiness of your lives, accomplishments, and style. It’s not your age peers in street crowds you hope will regard you favorably but equals comfortable in exclusive clubs and resorts, high price restaurants, elite neighborhoods, and expensive cars and private airplanes. Can you imagine moving past this limited orientation?

2) discontents of the people who work under you, the people who work under them, the customers who buy the goods and services you provide, the people who serve you as private employees or public servants, or commercial providers of whatever you want to buy. These are the 99%.  Some of you have assumed the right to take advantage of blue collar workers and clerks by paying as little as possible and providing minimal or no medical and retirement benefits. Correspondingly, you assume the right to influence them as customers, by getting them, through incredibly vigorous advertising, to buy things and services they may not need or even want. Can you imagine moving past this limited orientation?

3) other countries, each of which sports a 1% that not only corresponds to you but works with you in your very earnest and imaginative project of “globalization.” The 1% is now globalized, and it became rather suddenly clear in 2011 that just about every society on earth now sees the 1%/99% divide and that the 99% chomps ever more forcefully against the bit that the 1% holds in the mouths of the 99%. Can you imagine moving past this limited orientation?

4) planet Earth itself. Whether you were born into the 1% or recruited, most of you have taken for granted an assumption that underlay industrialization from its very beginning, that Earth offers endless inert resources there for the taking. It has been assumed that animals, vegetables, and minerals are there forever, a self-regenerating cornucopia whose wear and tear need not concern you. As farmland is damaged by chemical fertilizers and is improperly monocropped, as oceans are polluted by toxic runoffs and oil spills, as air is contaminated in cities whose respiratory problems grow, as melting icebergs and glaciers threaten huge rise in the seas and untold calamities, you can pretend that none of this is happening or face it and with your enormous talents help us all surmount these problems. Which choice is better for all of us?

Now suppose you were to accept this my claim: Since you really have mastered the arts of making money and getting whatever you need from employees, staff, customers, and the planet itself, why don’t you simply and grandly consider that you came, you saw, you conquered. You won. You did it. Everyone recognizes that. Finito. Sure, you can keep on doing it, and lots of you are committed to that project as the only worthwhile one before you. But in the words of a famous song from the 1960s, Is that all there is?

the inner self

Violence and the 1%

The very, very rich can be violent directly, through encouraging war (and for some, profiting financially from it) and also indirectly, by taking part in what some thinkers, referring to institutions and institutional practices that violate people’s rights to have their needs met for employment, adequate income, health care, education, dignity, and respect, call “structural violence.” All systems of domination like racism, patriarchy and sexism, social class, and homophobia are examples of structural violence. It simply means violating peoples’ rights to respect, dignity, and opportunity. Actively supporting those systems of violence is not monopolized by the 1%, but they rarely denounce them either.

The resentment among some of the very rich at paying taxes for social services for the 99% is a consequence of structural violence and also a reason it keeps going. The 1% are insulated from struggles for employment, food, housing, education, environmental safety, health, and dignity that are daily realities for growing numbers of the 99%.

I emphasize that those members of the 1% who are insensitive to the needs of the majority of citizens are neither stupid nor evil nor excessively mean. It is, rather, the cocoon handed them at birth or granted upon entering the ranks of the 1% that provides protection from the agonies and discontents of the 99%. The violence in which they take part to defend their profits and life style is structural violence. So shielded are they from day-to-day pains and fears of the majority of the 99% that they are either honestly clueless or defend themselves against taking responsibility for their role in structural violence. They are hardened enough to exclude from their own emotional reality the lives of people in the 99%.

The culture of the 1% allows them directly or through politicians they have put into office, to sustain structural violence (the social class system paramount among its many forms, along with race, gender, and sexuality violence) and overt physical violence against those who doubt their legitimacy. Challenges to their wealth and privileges, even when nonviolent, as in recent Occupy encampments and actions, can be undermined, at the command of the 1%, through armies, police forces, and the national guard.

There is among the 1% no critique of violence—direct or structural—but rather an assumption that it is justified in order at all costs to maintain the social order in their favor. That order can be rationalized in dozens of ways as somehow natural or as including inevitable clash between the envious failures and the rousing successes. It can be seen as part of nature or simply as a piece of the eternal struggle between the haves and have-nots, with the haves bending every effort to insure that their having vastly more resources than they need will remain the lynch-pin of privileges they will, if they deem it necessary, kill to maintain.

Once again, this strategy is purchased at the price of dehumanizing others and also the price of self-dehumanization. It flows not from “rational” choices about defending one’s “self-interests” but rather from stifled fears and confusions that the 1% agree to layer over and deny rather than face and overcome. It is more than ironic that the commitment to opulent life style both stifles the humanity and aspirations of those not in the 1% and also limits, rigidly and tragically, the imagination and potential growth and exuberance of 1%’ers who would dare to find fulfillment outside the bounds of wealth, power, and comfort and appearances.

Sex and the 1%

Whether their sexuality is monogamous, promiscuous, straight, gay, bi, trans, kind, or brutal is the business of nobody but the person acting on their sexuality (unless the rights and dignity of others are violated as in rape and other forms of abuse). In most mammalian species, sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction are fused and occur only during periods of heat. Humans are almost unique in being able to be sexually excited whether or not their bodies are ripe for reproduction at the moment of arousal.

Sex is all over the place. Pornography is extremely widespread, especially on the world wide web.  Sex has been used in advertising for over a century and continues to be featured in ads for products having nothing to do with sex or gender. The covers of supermarket tabloids commonly drip with celebrities’ real or invented sex scandals. Candidates for office can be ruined by news of their sexual indiscretions. (In many countries, these behaviors are considered private only, but in a sex-preoccupied and -confused society such as ours, countless people are all but commanded to obsess over sex, whether their own or anybody else’s.) This does not stop the very rich from patronizing high class prostitutes. (See the sequence on this in the documentary Inside Job detailing the actions and personnel of the 2008 financial meltdown.)

Consider how much of our society’s consciousness is caught up with sex. There is a way to reduce unwanted pregnancies to close to zero. The way us so obvious and easy as to be embarrassing even to have to mention. But certain parts of our society object to it vehemently. What is that way, and why does anyone find it offensive?

The way is a combination of good sex education and easily available birth control. Sadly, there is in US culture, widespread and deep confusion about sex. On one end of a continuum is the conviction that sex is there only for reproduction. If someone believes that, it is of course their business and no one else’s, unless they try to force others to accept their views. By depriving people of sex education, sex counseling, and contraception, though, one paves the way for countless unwanted pregnancies.

It would be one thing if there were very few people on Earth and reproduction had to be mandated in order to assure continuation of our species. In truth, though, we do not need billions more people on earth, and it could be argued that in this era not reproducing is as much a gift to our species as is reproducing. It makes fullest sense to honor both decisions and to agree that advocates of either position not try to force those in the other one to leave it.

In this respect, although some homosexuals do reproduce, fewer do so than heterosexuals, and it should be added that growing numbers of heterosexuals decide not to have children. Reproduction can be seen as purely an option, not a requirement for anybody.

If it turns out that sex is for far more than reproduction (news flash!), then sex for its intrinsic body and relationship pleasure can be added (as it has been among many for millennia) to our sense of who we are as human beings. Part of the contribution to human potential of same sex relationships is the absolute recognition of body pleasure as an end in itself.

It is this immersion of bodily pleasure that so called straight people seek in pornography whether of straight sex, gay, or both. It is also part of what drives sex scandals on those supermarket tabloid front pages. And let us not forget what is probably the most fully developed and fruitful form of pornography of all: the endlessly inventive, imaginative, and surely often kinky sex dramas in peoples’ hearts and minds and genitals, the vivid and vibrant sex of night dreams and day dreams that surely engage countless millions of people.

Why is sexuality such a central and sore spot in our society? There is no other polity on earth where women’s rights to control their bodies and everyone’s rights to act on the sexuality that feels best to them could dominate election campaigns. What is it about sex in the US that arouses such passionate defenses, fears, confusions, rages, delights, thrills, and satisfaction?

One way to look at sex is that it is so exciting, so tempting, so potentially disrupting that it must be controlled as fully as possible by forces (laws, norms, customs) outside people and also by forces (conscience, guilt, shame) inside people, lest they give way to their most lascivious impulses. The allure of sex is so powerful that it sets off alarms that take shape in the form of taboos such as women and men, in some religions, having to worship without each other’s immediate company. In some cultures, menstruating women have to live apart from men for the full five days. In others, men and women are forbidden to walk on the same side of the street or even to sit next to each other on buses or airplanes.

Such processes can be ridiculed, but they need not be. A genuine concern must be taken and respected as a genuine concern. The reason for forbidding sexual contact even of the mildest sort (shaking hands, for example) is the not altogether absurd fear that one thing can lead to another. Beneath all the taboos and restrictions is an assumption that may have held water earlier in history, that sexual attraction could wreak havoc with social order. If that was the case, this condition stems from a time when it was not well understood that people can internalize cautions and limits without their being imposed by a heavy external hand.

It is surely true that some people respond more easily to external constraints and others to internal ones. It is equally true that sexuality promises pleasures far greater than most others. I remember back in college days a conversation with a swimmer who loved riding waves. I had never done so, and his excitement peaked in his shouting that although he had never had sex he could not imagine its being as thrilling as riding a wave. I wonder if he did wind up having sex later and if his comparative judgment continued to hold.

Perhaps the issue is not so much the enormous pleasures of sex as the confusion and disappointment among many people that they seem unable to rise to its occasion. Magic potions and drugs like Viagra testify to the reality that many people seem unable to enjoy sex naturally.

It is not likely that many bodies are unable to thrill to sex, but it is likely that inner confusions and torments, all the way from rigidly imposed external rules to neurotic confusions interfere with joyous sex in countless people. Then in come not only the chemicals but the films, the novels, the orgies meant to stimulate them to move past their inner and outer constraints.

For many people, sex is confusing and fearful. Those are learned responses, they are not innate. Sex is one of the most powerful of human experiences and human motivations. It is likely, I imagine, that some people in the 1%, like some people in the 99%, have terrifically exciting, fulfilling sex. It is equally likely, I imagine, that some do not. I wonder if feelings of disappointment and failure in one part of a life lead to efforts to “overcompensate” such as becoming rich and extravagant and such as becoming powerful and famous.

Sex that is really, truly, thrillingly fulfilling threatens the established social order including the 1%/99% divide, for several reasons. For one, fully gratifying sex does not cost money. The economic system that profits off selling endless stuff demands frustrated people who are drawn into fantasies that their dissatisfactions have to do with their consuming styles rather than their comfort with themselves, their bodies, and their capacity to build open, vulnerable relationships. The tingles of delight in sex, in expressing and enjoying human feelings, in thrilling to nature in its variety and health and glory, have relatively little to do with consuming.

To put it another way, healthful sex can be so radically destabilizing that it can lead to criticisms of society’s ways of diverting desires for real body fulfillment to scandals, things, vendettas, and the like. Obsessing over contraception and pregnancies are diversions from the deep issues of sexual attraction and pleasure.

The self deprived of emotional wealth

What I am about to suggest is one of the murkiest areas of the 1%/99% divide. Sociological studies make it clear that the percentage of people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs, who abuse other humans, who are sexually reckless and cruel, who divorce, and who are messed up emotionally is probably about the same in all social classes. To put it another way, you can be poor and emotionally stifled, and you can be rich and emotionally stifled. You can be poor and physically abuse other people, and you can be rich and physically abuse other people. You can be poor and have suffered a childhood with ungiving, distant, unloving parents, and you can be rich and have suffered a childhood with ungiving, distant, unloving parents.

Among the misfortunes of concentrating on who has how much wealth is the pressure that exerts on people to ignore a far more loaded and perplexing problem: Who has the richest and most fulfilling emotional life? Who has greatest access to all their emotions? Who is able to be in command of their feelings and find great gratification in them? Who in frustration and seeming helplessness turn away from emotional realities which are subjective and sometimes painful to objective concerns like wealth, power, and possessions? It is easier to dwell on the objective than on the subjective. In many people, including the 1%, what is interior and rich is denied, ridiculed, or ignored in favor of what is external and emotionally flat even if in dollar and life style terms it seems rich.

It is possible to define courage as the capacity to gain wealth, to overcome enemies in sport, business, and war, and to be seen as strong, emotionally silent, and effective in conquering everything in sight. It is also possible to recognize that that form of courage is purchased at the price of stifling emotions that can be exhilarating. Tamping down most feelings is a price commonly paid in the name of achieving “success.” An alternative definition of courage is the capacity to recognize, feel, and deal with all emotions and to manage challenging situations head-on and to deal with all people with understanding and compassion.

Striving for success is, though, not the only reason 1%’ers disown so many of their feelings. There is a simple key to identifying one huge range of feelings denied by countless people, rich and otherwise: they are painful. There is zero evidence that what it takes to accept and bear the pain in order to get past it is any clearer or more fully developed among the rich and powerful than among anyone else.

I take it as a given that we all have the full range of human emotions and that we—especially males—grow up in ways that teach that some feelings are okay to express and many are not. Until the modern women’s movement, most women were led to believe that they must not exercise their feelings of strength and capacity, their feelings of creativity as artists, musicians, professors, painters, architects, chefs, athletes, heads of institutions, heads of governmesnt. Women were supposed to be in charge of the “softer” feelings like nurturance, caring, empathy, compassion, and love and to limit their venues of expression to the home and charitable work. Men, by contrast, were supposed to be in charge of hardness, ruthlessness, anger, envy, self-righteousness, self-confidence, and rage. Among the 1% it is most likely that women learned to emulate men in their severe constriction of emotions, lest they question the social order that not only distributes food and comfort unevenly but that also delivers permission to feel the entire range of human feelings in just about the same severely constricted way. It can be seen as ironic that to gain and hold wealth, status, and power means to sacrifice very intense, serious, and potentially gratifying parts of the self.

Every emotion constricted is a like a little death, depriving the self of something that could be wondrous to experience. To be taught, for example, to love jewels more than humanity is to squelch natural feelings of connection with other people. What religions mean by mystical feelings of oneness with God or with the entire order of living beings hints at depths of emotion and recognition that are outside almost the entire education system and beyond emotional training in countless families too. And certainly completely foreign to the “free market” system.

Much emotion is sacrificed on the altar of wealth and power. The conspiracy to shift ever more wealth upward is on the one hand a way to make ever fewer people prosper and ever more people suffer. On the other hand, this obsession with wealth and power is a desperate effort to conceal from others and from yourselves the emotional turmoil, confusion, ecstasies, and yearning you have learned to block out of your consciousness. At one crucial level of reality, then, the courage to face and deal with your entire emotional being is smashed on that altar of wealth and power. We live, after all, not through our bank accounts and cars so much as through the emotions that play in and through us all the time. It is that fear of emotion, the fear of pain associated with confusions and terrors and disappointments, many of them seared into selves from early on, that runs through the lives of the 1% no less than the lives of the 99%.

Masculinity and courage

How do men feel their masculinity? By lording it over others? Commanding them? Subduing them? Enslaving them? Forcing sex upon them? By muscular development? By walking with swagger and cockiness? By making others fear them? By having more money and power? By killing them?

Who is more “masculine”— aggressive, muscular movie stars or Martin Luther King, Jr.? Churchill or Gandhi? Is masculinity fulfilling to a man when he feels superior to others? When he works with them as equals? Does it lie in feelings of grace, rhythm, and ease in your body? In  mutual sexual connection with a partner rather than possessing or dominating that person? Do you feel your masculinity in walking with confidence and pleasure?

How much difference is there between ruthlessness in business and ruthlessness in the boxing ring or the football field or at home? I suggest that men in both the 99% and the 1% tend to be unsure of their masculinity and go to great lengths to demonstrate what they think it is rather than to explore its wondrous, confusing, and sometimes terrifying and contradictory components.

Whatever I know about men and their struggles to feel masculine, I know less about women and their struggles to feel feminine, whatever that may mean by now. Although it is increasingly permissible for men to admit vulnerability and reveal their sensitivities, there is still a cultural stereotype of masculinity as muscular, bold, assertive, aggressive, phallic, and a little bit rough. I think that the corresponding cultural stereotype of femininity has among many people lost some of its assumptions about being demure, accommodating, passive, shapely, and beautiful. Yet with the more feminist vision of women being assertive, strong, bold, confident, and competent, even feminists are sometimes still caught up in beauty and elegance images about which they may be more ambivalent than they sometimes admit. I have known feminists who confess that as much as they welcome and prize sensitive, caring, vulnerable men, there remains something compelling about the Clark Gable types who are strong, confident, commanding, and sometimes brutal.

You male 1%’ers, what prices do you pay for hiding your own inner truths—often confusing and frightening? What do you do with your doubts about your masculinity? Double down and deny them and then lord it over others you let stand in for you as doubters of their masculinity?  What do you do with the natural feelings we all have of respect and compassion for people other than yourselves and your families? Like the mother informing her child that she would get used to poverty and should give it not another thought, I assume you assure your children and yourselves that lording it over others is preferable to feeling for and with them and helping us all realize our full selves.

I think it is possible by now to set aside much of the concern about who is more masculine or feminine than whom and instead to fold both images into one we can call adulthood. An adult, in this way of thinking, is bold, confident, assertive, forthright, caring, compassionate, empathic, and loving. And vulnerable. As more and more of us move in this direction, it will no longer make sense to differentiate adult males and adult females by their behavior. We will stop obsessing over whether anyone is adequately male or female and instead express as much as we care to and can of our full range of possibilities as grownup humans.

For many parents, one of the hardest parts of child-rearing is setting limits. The logic of it is all but obvious; the implementation of it can be problematic. Children have to learn to negotiate among desire, wherever it originates; rules, norms, and expectations from their families and their larger societies; and an understandable desire to master whatever has to be mastered in order to gain pleasure and satisfaction in life.

Supporters of “free market” economics pretend that the Earth is limitless in its resources and that economic growth can go on forever. This stance is a denial of the reality limits which climate change, pollution, and resource exhaustion are forcing to our species attention. Can we shift gears and act on the need for limits never honored before?

From profit to sustainability

Shifting from profit to sustainability—from denial of limits to accepting them suggests several major directions:

ONE. Make products ever more durable. If the goal of sustainability overrides that of profit, then products that last as long as possible. (I had a food blender I used for fifty years before it broke and could not be repaired.) Durability would replace profit as the primary determinant of product design and marketing. Concentration on minor changes and slight improvements—at the heart of marketing under the profit system—would give way to emphasis on solid products that last a very long time. Cars could be good for at least 20 years and a million miles. Razor blades would be good for a year. Clothing would take decades to wear out. Probably for environmental reasons, light bulb lives have already been extended to decades.

TWO. Include heft in the specifications of a product. The dictionary says that heft means weight or heaviness. I am going to alter that meaning slightly to focus on what I think is implied in a familiar usage of the word heft: solidity.

I recently bought a pair of cordless phones. They work about as well as cordless phones work these days, but they are very light weight and feel flimsy, slightly tinny, as if the manufacturer figured out the least amount of materials, of the cheapest price and barely acceptable quality, that would allow the phone to function. It does, but there is a crummy feeling to holding it. That is not true of earlier cordless phones we have owned.

And so with cars, many appliances, showerheads and faucets, and countless products. A handyman/craftsperson warns us not to replace a particular bathtub. He assures us that tubs that good are not made any more. Again, less heft in bathtubs than there used to be.

THREE. Advertise products less. One of the truisms of our economic system is that people’s wants come from them, not from pressures on them. Oh yeah?

Imagine this experiment: Stop advertising for two years. Do you think product demand would remain stable? Of course it not. Ah, but how would mass media of communication and the internet exist without endless floods of ads? That’s a problem to be figured out. It might involve minimal advertising of new and altered products. Just imagine places to which the extraordinary creativity that goes into advertising could be shifted. For example, see item 4.

FOUR. Actively promote simpler living. The 1% have vastly more stuff than they need. The next 20% or so have a lot more than they need too. Imagine highly creative minds designing billboard ads that show a person in front of a clothes closet. The caption might read, If you have more clothing than you need, how about giving some to people who have less than they need?

I’ve tried this little game with students: the wife of a Philippines dictator was discovered, after her husband was overthrown in 1986, to have somewhere between 1000 and 3000 pairs of shoes. All my students agree that is too much. They also agree that one pair is too few (never mind that probably half the people on our planet have one pair of shoes or none at all). No one should dictate how many pairs of shoes anyone should have, but wide ranging discussions might settle on a number between 5 and 10 as a suggestion to be thought through by every comfortable consumer. Maybe. The same with sweaters, coats, dresses, suits, and the like. The idea would be to replace the implicit system-wide slogan Buy More with an ecologically more sustainable one like, Pare Down, or Consume Less, or Buy Only What You Actually Need.

Families can set limits on how much to spend on gifts.  Some people would go further and replace buying gifts with making them. Gift purchases are a huge part of our economy. So should gifting be enslaved to profit, or should sustainability become the new bottom line?

FIVE. Rethink the food industry altogether. The near epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes are pretty clear indicators that too many Americans eat too much. We are not hunters and gatherers who need to store up lots of food in our bodies for fear it might be a week or more before our next meal. Yet countless of us act as if that were our situation. Something like half the food of the US is thrown away.

The fuel used to transport food can be reduced drastically by promoting locavorism, eating as much food as possible from very nearby farms and gardens. Moving in this direction would have the added advantage of ending the practice of altering products so as to enable them to withstand long distance shipping and increase their shelf life.

Eating too much as a habit good for profits could give way to eating just enough, a practice that would be good for the health of the eater and the environment. People could learn together, perhaps in neighborhoods, how to eat healthily and how to figure the right amount of food for their bodies. Either at home or in local restaurants or collective dining rooms, people could cook together and eat together. Fast food would give way to slow food. All this could make for compelling topics in schools, from kindergarten on.

Creative minds will find ways to produce more food locally. We could also return to seasonal foods. If the only way to enjoy fresh berries in winter is to import them from thousands of miles away, then make do with canned or frozen ones or substitute something else.

By studying food production people can expand options as to how and what to eat. The idea would be to reveal hitherto unknown facts about the use and distribution of resources. Example: It takes something like 15-18 pounds of grain to produce a pound of edible meat from a cow. By contrast, it takes one pound of grain to make one pound of edible meat from a chicken. Converting the grain into food going directly into the human body rather than through an animal is a still more efficient way to use it. This is not an argument for vegetarianism but rather information with which people can think more fully about what and how they eat.

If  “the market” cannot handle decent distribution of goods and services people need, then some of you might decide to leave your comfort zones to figure out equitable distribution systems. Try to put “free market” ideas aside. Proceed instead from defining a problem and finding ways to solve it. For example, although classical economics suggests it is most efficient that each country specialize in producing what it makes best and most efficiently, that idea disregards costs to the environment of transporting berries or beef or Brussels sprouts from one part of the world to others. Not only would vast amounts of fossil fuels be saved that would otherwise go to transport food across continents, the pleasures of feeling connected to the immediate surroundings and protecting the environment would replace the absolutely alienated feeling of complete disconnection between self and food eaten. Feeling part of a community conscious and ethical in growing food and distributing it would constitute a new facet of identity in the industrialized world.

Some people eat more than they need. More people eat less than they need. Here again the problem facing you 1%’ers so smart and able in countless ways is to take on distribution not in terms of money made but in terms of people fed, nature respected, and communities sustained. This would mean a huge change from How much money can I make? to How can I help create a healthy, clean, safe environment? and How can I contribute most effectively to figuring out how to feed everyone on the planet?

Can sustainability replace profit as the central public human engagement with society?

Capitalism arose in Europe at a time when the feudal social order, as gratifying as it was to royalty, Church, and nobles, had pretty much worn itself out. With the overthrow of all that, the imagination, creativity, energy, and determination of a new class of people—entrepreneurs—took central stage in Western Europe and eventually world history. Whereas in the feudal period, wealth was gained by taking it in wars and working poor people as hard as possible to produce food and crafts, capitalism introduced a brilliant idea: use money to make more money and in doing that, increase the number and breadth of goods and services beyond the wildest imagination of the feudal order. Ships made it possible for capitalists to explore, to discover resources throughout the globe, and to transport soldiers, raw materials, and finished products around the planet. It was those capitalists who had the intelligence and direction to organize great numbers of people to mine minerals and work in factories. They learned how to produce, how to advertise, how to transport, and how to sell.

There are great consequences of this activity. One is money making money making money. But making money became detached from how it was made and for what purpose so that any way of accumulating wealth was considered legitimate, as it more or less is until this day.

Another consequence is the abundance of goods and services undreamt of before capitalism. In countless ways, custodians, grocery baggers, and dishwashers today, who live with indoor flush toilets, hot water, showers, central heating, electricity, television, the internet, modern medicine, dentistry, and public transportation are far better off than kings and nobles were five hundred years ago, castle or no castle. Now remember the lower class people who usually have none of this. Why?

The promise of abundance is the removing of people from drudgery, which by now can be heavily mechanized, so that they can eventually be free to write, sing, play, act, make love, garden, as they wish. But capitalism at this point in its historical development fails in two ways:

1) it is incapable of fair distribution of goods and services. “Social democracies” have, though, actually come a long way in redressing this problem. They have figured out ways to distribute goods and services to everyone who needs them. It’s done through high taxes, but why not everyone living comfortably on a base of high taxes, rather than a small minority living comfortably while most live uncomfortably or even in misery, on a base of low taxes?

Capitalism in its US form so far lacks the desire or imagination to share the bounty with everyone. That is one of its weakest points.

2) Another weak points of capitalism is its indifference to thinking and acting systemically to solve problems other than making ever more money. Our survival now demands attention to the needs and frailties of Earth in ways never necessary before. Caring for the planet means systemically understanding what can be done and what cannot be done if survival and health are goals more important than ever increasing wealth for the 1%.

At this point in history, the 1% has a gigantic choice to make. The new “entrepreneurs” emerging from the messes we are in are environmentalists, experts in nonviolence, people with their eyes on “sustainability,” people who bring compassion to other people, to the planet, and to themselves, people who focus on caring for others (think of the “caring professions” of medicine, nursing, teaching, social work, and library work, as examples) rather than exploiting them or making money off them, people who can apply business knowledge to sustainability, people who know how to behave cooperatively in work, residence, political, and residential settings, people for whom compassion, empathy, caring and—yes—love are more important than conquering others and living more elegantly than them.

Those people are perhaps the “meek” the Bible predicts will inherit the earth. “Meek” because they want to work with others, not against or over them.

Think of this sequence: from feudalism to capitalism to sustainability. It may be that this era will resemble the start of capitalism in that the giants of one age are pushed aside by those of the next. Or it may be that the leaders of the age now in crisis will have the wisdom to apply their incredible talents and energies to the new age, the age of sustainability. Doing so would not mean decreasing your intelligence, your energy, your organizational skills, it would mean applying those to the common welfare rather than to your own fame and fortune. It would mean setting aside profit as the only viable bottom line and replacing that with sustainability and survival of humans, other species, and our planet itself.  Compassion, rather than money, would define the fulfilled life.

Without being fully aware of it, many of you have been taught to restrict your imagination to gaining and holding wealth and power rather than seeking truly original solutions to gigantic problems facing not only the 99% or just the 1% but all of humanity. This is the time in history to let your imaginations soar, to free your creative side that sees beyond limited “self interest” to “common interests,” the needs and potential of our planet and all its species.

Why not take up challenges new for you, tasks that will test your skills and inventiveness even more than what you have encountered so far. If profit—making money at all costs—has been the old edge, the edge that was the only one you identified for the last few hundred years, consider a new edge that could rock you to the cores of your inventiveness and determination.

A couple thousand years ago a Jewish sage named Hillel asked three questions we can see as urgent today: If not I am for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when? Recently, the American poet Adrienne Rich added a fourth question: If not with others, how? And I add a fifth question (although I am not the first to think of it): If not us, who?


(Artwork: Pieter Cornelis “Piet” Mondrian (Dutch, 1872-1944) Composition C 1920)

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