The Violence of the Rich

Second article in a series . . .

The great religious systems of the world – and many indigenous regional strains – weave a harmonious montage against greed and materialism. This blog post is the second in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. The following is excerpted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.

Judaism prohibited lending money for interest, called usury. The Hebrew Bible book of Deuteronomy disallowed lending for interest within the Israelite community; outside the community – with foreigners – it was permissible. Usury was prohibited within the community mostly so that the poor would not be exploited by those with money to lend. The financially well-to-do lending to poorer members within the community was seen as a form of philanthropy, ultimately supporting the communal common good. An interesting historical note: most all the competing religious systems and secular codes from the ancient Near East, from which Judaism emerged, did not forbid usury. Israel, a smallish community dwarfed by Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia, forbade usury most likely to protect and unify a poor community that needed to do all it could to stay together and survive. Demanding interest on a loan to a neighbor was understood to be an act of hostility. The Hebrew word anawim, a plural noun translated “the poor” or “the marginalized,” can be understood to have an unexpected antonym: brutality, untamed anger, the violence of the rich. The expected antonym – the rich – is not specific enough; the actions of one group directly affect the state of another within the community. Their fates are united, for better and for worse.

(Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014. All rights reserved.)

Addendum: “The violence of the rich” is obviously a provocative statement and blog post title. Let’s be clear: it’s not an indictment to be rich nor is it a sin to enjoy earthly blessings. Expensive items accessible only to a few of us – Mercedes-Benz automobiles, Beaufort Alpage cheese, Thos. Moser furniture – merit higher prices (mostly) due to superior quality and workmanship. High-caliber quality and exceptional workmanship make the world a better place and do not contribute to its demise. What does contribute to the world’s demise is the sense of disconnection that can exist between those who are rich and those who are poor.

The religio-cultural system emanating from a small ancient Near East community accentuates the close connection between its richest and poorest members. The Hebrew prophet Micah excoriated the rich of Jerusalem for taking economic advantage of the city’s working class, calling their actions “violent” (Micah 6:12). This religious system still speaks an important word of caution to the well-to-do: be aware and active to temper the injustices suffered by the poor. To not do so is an act of indifference that can stray toward violence.

Remembering Ambrose of Milan

The great religious systems of the world – and many regional indigenous strains – weave a harmonious montage in their admonitions against greed and materialism. This blog post is the first in a series highlighting religious unity against the type of values seen in the dominant religion of the land: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. These posts are adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available in May 2014.

Ambrose served the populace in good manner as the governor of Milan, by appointment of the Roman emperor. When the bishop of Milan died in 373 CE, popular acclaim demanded Ambrose take the seat of bishop . . . except Ambrose had no interest in the ecclesial appointment. He even tried – unsuccessfully – to escape Milan to avoid the appointment. He quickly acceded however, and was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as bishop in a whirlwind eight-day process. A rare moment in church history: quick movement.

Ambrose wasn’t perfect (like Martin Luther later, he was involved with indiscretions against Jews) but he was adept at speaking truth to power. A riot in Thessalonica (modern day Greece) led to the death of the appointed Roman governor in that city. Emperor Theodosius, incensed at this outburst of disorder, ordered swift retaliation – even though Ambrose counseled the emperor toward patience and investigation. The bishop’s advice went ignored; retaliation came with the massacre of 7,000 Thessalonians. Later on, when Theodosius travelled to Milan, he attempted to enter church to celebrate mass. Ambrose stopped the emperor at the door and confronted him: no communion for the emperor until he repented of his sin. Remember, these were the days before widespread understanding of democratic sharing of power; Ambrose’s position was most vulnerable. Ambrose stood his ground, communion was withheld, and the emperor eventually repented. Theodosius later decreed a thirty-day wait period before executions were carried out in sentences of death.

Ambrose had an innate sense that clergy were called not only to confront abusive power, but to seek justice in support of the weak against the strong. From his Duties of the Clergy: “God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few” (italics mine). Rush Limbaugh, modern-day free market fundamentalist and bard of inequality, recently described the teachings of Pope Francis as “pure Marxism.” Sorry, Rush – Ambrose pre-dates Marx significantly and Pope Francis is simply propounding the historic social doctrine of the church. Ambrose helped to formulate it more than 1600 years ago: the church feeds the hungry and seeks to influence those whose decisions affect the greater common good.

Remembering Ambrose of Milan – who died Easter Sunday, April 4, 397 – teacher, preacher, composer of hymns, who stood for social justice in the face of inequality.

What Happened to Egalitarianism? Part 1

Market values, when left unchecked, turn into a type of religion that exalts individualism over and against societal common good. Its defenders claim, rather, that individual pursuits comprise the best method of achieving common good (albeit as a secondary by-product of market activity). While there is some legitimacy to this claim, when pushed to the extreme, it becomes an ideology that creates detrimental social effects. Egalitarianism – all humans accorded equal worth and social status – is thoroughly eroded by the ideology of market values. We live in a day and age where the value of egalitarianism, a grand construct of American society, appears to be increasingly forgotten.

The following is an excerpt from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, to be published in May 2014.

Egalitarianism – where economic and political opportunity are accessible to all – is a grand human-societal achievement. In the last five thousand years of civilization, purposeful egalitarianism is the best hedge against the natural human tendency toward uncivil hierarchy that has produced slavery, monarchies, and plutocracies. Egalitarianism is not a naturally occurring reality. It needs advocates; we need to struggle for it and continually lift it up lest it disappear in our midst. Egalitarianism is what helped end slavery and welcome American minorities and women to voting booths; egalitarianism generates social progress. We are constantly challenged by the first of Thomas Jefferson’s self-evident truths in the preamble of the Constitution: “All men are created equal.” We haven’t fully reached our destiny; as a matter of fact, the farther we travel the more we see what is in need of amendment. The current struggle for egalitarianism has a formidable foe in the cohabitation, since the time of Rockefeller and the Gilded Age, of business and government. The struggle has seen advances for egalitarianism after extreme social crises, such as the age of Rockefeller and his cohorts and the combined traumas of the Depression and World War II. The battle is on for egalitarianism to advance once again after the 2007-08 economic swoon.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing. All rights reserved.

Click here to read What Happened to Egalitarianism? Part 2.

What Happened to Egalitarianism? Part 2

We’re all familiar with the concept survival of the fittest. Have you ever heard of reverse dominance hierarchy? In his research on the origins of egalitarianism, evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm coined the phrase and describes it: the weaker members in a community unite to thwart alpha-types from dominating.* Boehm witnessed it in primates, and concludes that egalitarian practice is not natural, but a learned behavior. Understood as such, egalitarianism has deep roots – a survival not necessarily of the fittest but of the united.

Nature displays hierarchies (ant colonies, for example); hierarchical organizations are not only natural and good, they accomplish manifold tasks. Hierarchy, however, can breed dominance. Egalitarianism – a group or community engaged in the struggle for self-determination and equal opportunity within a larger community or with a competing community – confronts subordinating dominance. Justly engaged, egalitarianism can permeate not only politics and social policy, but market economy as well.

Western philosophers and social commentators, going back to David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, assent that extreme inequalities can only have a destructive effect on society. Social dissention and fragmentation are the inevitable manifestations in a society that tolerates great disparities between its richest and poorest. The American Civil War was, in essence, a battle between egalitarianism and hierarchical domination. The (relatively) new nation was not to be like their European counterpart nations with their monarchies, aristocracies, serfdom, and church authority. American society has fought to put egalitarianism into practice – all the while struggling with what it has meant and means for its indigenous, ethnic minority, female, minor (children), foreign working, disabled, and gay populations.

Some libertarian voices, advocating personal liberty first and foremost, deride egalitarianism as a “revolt against nature” (Murray Rothbard). Might does not always make right – even though the laissez-faire market system has lifted millions from poverty and made others extremely rich, it doesn’t mean the market system can operate with impunity as concerns social outcomes. Egalitarianism is vigorous social progress; we’ve worked hard at it for generations and now is not the time to succumb to such an ardent antagonist. The just reversal of domination is a learned social skill naturally liberating.

*Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press (1999).

Click here to read What Happened to Egalitarianism? Part 1.

Common Good – Present yet Elusive

The following is adapted from the book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, to be published in May 2014.

Ever think about how things could be worse? Without going into extensive details – yes, things could be much, much worse . . .

Consider Russia’s twenty-five year run with capitalism. Author Chrystia Freeland tells us (in her book Plutocrats) that contemporary Russia has more economic disparity than it did during the time of the czars.* Crony capitalism, created by the fire sale of state-owned entities in the early 1990s and dominated by Russia’s oligarch class, is described by the word prykhvatizatsiya – translated as “grabification.” Moscow has more billionaires than millionaires, with its ratio of billionaires to GDP (gross domestic product) the most unbalanced in the world – by far. Russia lacks not only a millionaire class, but also a sufficiently sized middle class. Capitalism’s uneven debut in Russia, characterized by excessive wealth garnered not by industry but by political connection, can largely be blamed on its lack of social capital.

Social capital, the potential or actual resources related to social networks and structures leading to cooperation and mutual benefits between actors, is essential for the existence of a well-ordered capitalism. Common good is always a communal or shared actuality – whether defined sociologically, politically, religiously, or ethically. Common good owes its very existence to social capital. The United States has a long history of egalitarianism (although mitigated by slavery, racism, sexism, and other deficiencies), which has fueled and enabled its healthy social capital. Russia’s history is decidedly different. Russia is not principally made up of bad actors; as a society it has few egalitarian traditions and a fragile concept of the common good.

Civil society, as we know it, would not exist if people always engaged in opportunistic behavior. The egalitarian values of American society are some of the strongest in the history of the world, yet the current competition with the market values-infused religion of self-interest increasingly hastens the depletion of America’s precious social capital. Common good has been and is a present reality in American society, but we run the risk of making it an elusive reality.

Economists have told us for a long time that there is no free lunch; getting something for nothing is a pipe dream. Common good does not magically result from individuals simply seeking our their own best interests. The maintenance and creation of common good requires purposeful attention and effort. Are we still willing to make modest sacrifices for common good or have we arrived (as has Russia) to a place where individuals and small groups selfishly protect their own benefits?

*Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and The Fall of Everyone Else, Penguin (2013).