I had a mini-meltdown this week, fueled by five working weekends in a row (for which I don’t get paid), reaching the end of my paycheck 10 days before I get paid again, mental and emotional exhaustion, and general angst about my declining life circumstances in the second mid-century of my life. As I lay sleepless after banishing the cat who woke me — the only warm body in my bed these days — I berated myself for everything I was doing wrong. I figured this must be karmic payback for something evil I’ve done in this life or another. I couldn’t understand how I could still be living paycheck to paycheck (and barely getting by) when I make twice as much as I made before my daughter was born.
And the truth is, I’m relatively fortunate. So if I feel this bad about my situation, how do those who are jobless, homeless, addicted, mentally ill, incarcerated, without family or truly alone feel? Why couldn’t I count my blessings in the dark despair of the wee hours of that cold morning?
The answer lies in the realities that are true for most of us: we are struggling more to make ends meet than we were ten years ago, not because of anything that we are doing differently, but because of the political and economic conditions that favor the growth in wealth of the elite über-wealthy and rely on the diminishing resources of the middle class to foot the bill for public services.
This was clarified for me by two articles I came across this morning as I wait (still) to make my coffee so as not to awaken my daughter, whose “bedroom” in this supposed 2-bedroom apartment is the dining room off the kitchen, with a curtain for a door. (10 years ago I lived in a true 2-bedroom flat, for $700 less than I’m paying now.) It isn’t just me nor is it karmic payback — it’s everyone like me, and most of the people on either side of my socio-economic bracket who are suffering.
To understand more: French economist Thomas Piketty debunks the myth of capitalism’s success, while columnist Jason Linkins puts it all in perspective in sometimes offensively but relevantly macho terms. The machismo in the realm of capitalism is apt because this is a patriarchy, afterall, so leaving women out of the perspective highlights part of the fundamental problem.
So what is the solution? Up until a few weeks ago I didn’t think there was one. But Berkeley professor john a. powell (he prefers his name be lower case) posits a solution that resonates for me: the end to what he calls the “Enlightenment Project” and individualism, and a new paradigm for society that includes a sense of universalism and connectedness. He argues that it is not humanism because it is not only about we humans, but also about the world we share with other living creatures that we have dominated and exploited. Climate change is an outcome of the old paradigm: humanity thinking it can control and harnass the natural world for its own greedy ends.
The Enlightenment was needed in the 18th century to overthrow monarchies and oppressive religious structures, to create more voice in government, to give way to individuals who valued reason and science over dogma and superstition. It made sense at the time. Three hundred years later, the Enlightenment has done its duty. We are overdue for a new way of thinking, where we recognize the limits of empirical evidence (there’s a lot we can’t observe) and the importance of community, factors that were perhaps lost due to the much-needed focus on science, reason, and individual rights.
In democratic capitalist societies, we’ve got our individual rights, and those individuals who have climbed to the top are sitting on the heap scoffing at the rest of us. The political influence their money buys guarantees the continued growth of their ridiculous sums. Now corporations are individuals (Citizens United), and there is no limit to the political power money can buy (McCutcheon). It is interesting to note that the three women on the Supreme Court were among the dissenters on the latest ruling. They have a clearly united voice that should be heard more in politics.
What we need now are community rights — where money is not the only issue: rights to healthy food, clean air, pure water, and forests, plains, and oceans that can sustain the life within them. These things cost “too much” in the mind of capitalists because they are not considering the cost of maintaining the status quo: the dire circumstances for our future generations.
Dr. john a. powell’s research and writing is in the area of social justice and racial inequalities, and in my mind that is all part of the dysfunction of our present situation. In fact, racial inequality is a horrific example of the effects of exploitation — in this case human exploitation — and how long it can take to make things right after a path of wrong has become embedded in society. If you have any doubt about this, just look at the rhetoric that is still leveled against President Obama and tell me if it isn’t inherently racist. These roots run deep.
I look at the camouflaged-garbed gunmen who took control of yet another town in the Ukraine, and I wonder what could happen here if American zealots felt threatened by the kind of community I am supporting. Yet I can’t let fear stand in the way of change. That’s not the way evolution happens.