One of the effects of the penetration of money into every realm of life is the corruption of human values. The growing tolerance for, even blindness to, corruption in politics seems obvious. But it seems to pervade both everyday life and business as well.
Corruption is not new. Neither are bribes, theft, or betrayal. Americans used to cheerily compare our public institutions and business practices with those of ‘less developed’ nations considered endemically corrupt in their imputed ‘backwardness.’ When parking on the street anywhere in Mexico, U.S. tourists begrudgingly paid a small fee to a semi-uniformed “policeman” to guard their car. This “protection money” assured them that their car would be there, intact, on their return from shopping. In many “underdeveloped” countries, such services are typically offered by the otherwise unemployed. Americans look down on such activities as reflecting a corruption of the public function, nevertheless are grateful for the service. In the U.S., we prided ourselves for being ‘above’ such petty corruption. In our naiveté, we expected our public servants to perform their functions for a salary and never take bribes. Yet we quietly acknowledge much bigger backroom deals.
The disintegration of naturally formed communities in industrial society has been largely completed. Now we have “gated communities” where nobody knows their neighbor, and “sacrifice zones” where public agencies have abandoned the population. Individuals face a complex world of economic dependence on large institutions. They look forward to a fate based solely on their ability to navigate an economy uncommitted to anyone. With little or no social support, we each confront faceless institutions at work and in public. Sociologists have talked for decades about the ‘atomization’ of social relations.
Society is fragmented into a collection of individuals, each of whom has little if any relationships of commitment over time. We are urged to be committed solely to ourselves as “economic actors” seeking the best advantage in any situation. After all, that is the model of human behavior that has been promoted throughout the industrial era. These conditions of personal life, of course, make people most vulnerable to the power of the elites that control employment along with the rest of the economy. It’s a perfect environment for self-dealing.
Before money became the measure of everything, social norms and values were important – yet non-economic – factors that affected the decisions individuals made. People were morally bound to manage their behavior in certain ways that often served a public interest in sustained community cohesion. Sure, crimes were committed, people cheated, etc. But non-monetary norms of human conduct prevailed in most communities.
The elevation of markets as the paragon of progress imposed heavy costs on human morality and compassion. The virtues of normative communities are not cultivated by markets; the only “market virtue” is the goal of selfish gain. That breaks down bonds of affiliation and caring.
The assumed good resulting from the “invisible hand” that Adam imagined, does not exist in the fossil-fuel driven industrial era. Giant banks and corporations control both markets and government. Human values are sent to the back of the bus and are simultaneously declared attained. Adam Smith proffered the “invisible hand” as a metaphor to reflect the interaction of merchants and tradesmen in a local community. They bargained and produced goods and services on equal footings. They were also cognizant of community needs, standards, and judgment of their practices. Business conducted in real time in real communities occurred under conditions quite different than in today’s corporate state.
The crowning achievement of the industrial era is the monetization of everything and everyone. You are only as human as the purchasing power your employment or business dealings can demonstrate. That is the social measure of the person. But as Michael Sandel has so clearly shown in his book, What Money Can’t buy,* a full range of the most important of human dimensions from civic virtue to interpersonal honor to community solidarity, cannot be monetized except by the corruption their very essence.
This corruption of human values, of course, is a windfall for the financial, military, and industrial power elites running the corporate state. Community fragmentation and personal selfishness allow them to more easily manipulate populations by mass media indoctrination and massive distortions of the meaning and practice of justice.
Yet, the power of people recognizing the destruction of human values, cannot be overcome by advertising or the phony patriotism of war hysteria. Attention can be diverted temporarily, but people are waking up – as Occupy and the Climate March have powerfully demonstrated – especially as the elites charge headlong like lemmings as if their actions had no bearing on the destruction we all experience more and more.
* Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.