A Plague of Dichotomies

Pope Francis’ recent visit to the US unleashed for this non-Roman Catholic a plague of unsatisfying social mediated debates. Francis is arguably the most interesting and controversial Pope in recent times. Some folks see him as electrifying, while others would call him factious. One label used quite often characterizes the Pope as a “critic of capitalism.” And, during his visit to American centers of power, that label was enough to unleash a torrent of contentious comments and equally combative replies on all manner of social media.

I, of course, jumped into the contention with both feet, rhetorical guns a-blazing and a wit sharpened for polemic and insult. “Capitalism,” I asserted out of nowhere, “causes poverty. It is arguably the biggest cause of poverty over the last 500 years.” Yet there was an unstated context for my causticity. I had just finished leading my anthropology undergraduates through the much anthologized article by Richard K. Reed, “Forest Development the Indian Way.” Reed recounts how the Guaraní Indians were losing their long successful and sustainable livelihood as foragers and horticulturalists as their Paraguayan rain forests were felled by the bulldozers of capitalistic developers. In the aftermath of our class discussion, and without bothering to provide nuance or explanation, I exploded onto social media with this unqualified critique of capitalism. In its inexorable drive to produce profits for some, unbridled capitalist exploitation of our natural environment inevitably and always brings poverty to others.

I stand by my argument.

But a friend and colleague would not stand for it. If I may quote her: “Poverty is the base state of humanity . . . Before capitalism, there was only poverty and more poverty . . .” In her view, capitalism was an ideologically-inspired restructuring that produced sufficient wealth to allow human economy “to develop beyond basic subsistence farming.”

I, of course, countered with the extravagant claim that “anywhere poverty exists, it is not because of a shortage of resources but because of unequal distribution.” That led to an extensive and intensive exchange of fully-committed assumptions, half-baked conclusions, and sketchy historical factoids. It was maddening, stimulating, exhausting, and fun.

I stand by my extravagant claim. But later on I thought of what I should have said: Subsistence is wealth. If you cannot appreciate true and full subsistence, how can you meaningfully value whatever surplus you may generate. Joni Mitchell was right:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone

Still, if the Pope’s visit to the US Congress proved anything, it is this. A critique of capitalism automatically triggers a discursive comparison to communism. The essential capitalistic apology seems to be, “Well, communism is worse.” The way I see it, however, is that communism, like free-market capitalism, is a theoretical construct that has been of limited utility and has left behind a scant measurable record. Actual human societies have been ordered, not by ideologies, by a mixture of sovereign practices and governmental policies. Any real political economy is most likely a mixed bag.

Yet capitalism, unlike communism, is an actual force that continues to play out on the world stage, most often in the form of the unregulated exercise of power by a privileged elite. The same is true of socialism (not the same thing as communism), which engenders those structured practices that aim to guard and promote the common good. Most Western polities enable and rely on some of each: capitalism and socialism, that is.

Our American experiment, declared and constitutionalized, has been to consent to a government that both represents and responds to the will of the citizens. In that vein, both capitalistic ventures and socialistic regulations should be and, in fact, are subject to criticism in our public discourse.

Sadly, our American discourse seems to thrive on dichotomies. Some dichotomies are theoretical. Some are rhetorical. Most dichotomies are false. This might be an inherent fault of symbolic communication. I suspect, however, that the fault is cultural. We Americans have little patience for, and even less understanding of consensus. We would rather count votes and declare a winner and a loser. When we can’t find a clear winner, then we idealize the middle of the road–the so-called independents–that avoids the extremes. At times, a centrist position might serve as a balanced compromise that reflects consent. At other times, the middle of the road is nothing more than an uneasy capitulation to an asymmetrical distribution of power or privilege.

Consensus requires hard encounters with truth. And while truth may be impossible to pin down in objective terms, while it may take on contrary visages, truth can ultimately be discerned. Consensus can only be achieved through conversation in which all parties are allowed to speak their truth, and in which all parties are counseled to listen to each other, to listen for wisdom.

True consent comes when wisdom enters the conversation.

The vision that I have struggled to construct in this blog post is not a political program or proposal. It is nothing more than a plea to break the existing patterns of dialog and thought. I will continue to expound political positions that can easily be identified as liberal, Democratic, or progressive. But I am never happy defining myself by any of those terms (though I am now finding ‘progressive’ to be satisfyingly flexible). Although, if you really want to anger me, call me a centrist. I’d rather call myself a consensualist, but that is a position that is not understood, a movement that does not yet exist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *