Article 43

 

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Capitalism Short Circuits Our Moral Hard-Wiring

By Gary Olson
Common Dreams
December 18, 2008

In a recent New Yorker piece, Naomi Klein astutely observes that “The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology.” One hopes so. The financial system’s collapse in 2008 offers a rare opportunity to question certain underlying assumptions about our state capitalist economy and its neoliberal ideology.

For the last few years I’ve been writing about neuroscience research which shows that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. This is the discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS, a finding some scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant for biology. The technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down from on high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an exponential rate and it’s compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni’s superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible to the lay public.

However, this is not to underestimate the barriers to the public’s appreciation of these findings. At the apex of misunderstanding is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, certain intrepretations of human nature have functioned to override EMPATHIC RESPONSES. In the words of famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.”

We know that cultures are set up to reward some people and disadvantage others. Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society’s prevailing cultural norms. Antonio Gramsci’s writing reminds us that this control is achieved through the mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as “common sense.” It isn’t that individual deviations don’t occur within the interstices of society but generally they don’t threaten elite control.

If we assume that the human brain or more specifically, the aforementioned mirror neuron system, is the implicit target of elite propaganda, then the current economic meltdown provides an almost unprecedented opportunity for us.

Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom about our socioeconomic system. That is, the carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity and its assumptions about human nature are now thrown into sharp relief.

Not only has economic reality made a shambles of the canonical model of Homo economicus but robust empirical evidence offers promising alternative responses to basic questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly regarded cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior predicted by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the norm.

Of course there are also predatory and cruel URGES within our nature, complete with their own neural correlates and evolutionary origins. But now we know that organizing an alternative to our vicious system of “natural” hyper-individualism will enhance the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish. Social historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her insight that “No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence.” Therein lies both our challenge and responsibility.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact: olson at moravian.edu

SOURCE

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Unchallenged by Craven Labour, Britain Slides Towards Ever More Selfishness
We need a Labour that reminds the country to care, not one that embraces market values and entrenches inequality

By George Monbiot
The Guardian
June 12, 2014

Any political movement that fails to understand two basic psychological traits will, before long, fizzle out. The first is shifting baseline syndrome. Coined by the biologist Daniel Pauly, it originally described our relationship to ecosystems, but it’s just as relevant to politics. We perceive the circumstances of our youth as normal and unexceptional, however sparse or cruel they may be. By this means, over generations we adjust to almost any degree of deprivation or oppression, imagining it to be natural and immutable.

The second is the values ratchet (also known as policy feedback). If, for example, your country has a public health system that ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it, without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them. If you live in a country where people are left to die, this embeds the idea that you have no responsibility towards the poor and weak. The existence of these traits is supported by a vast body of experimental and observational research, of which Labour and the US Democrats appear determined to know nothing.

We are not born with our core values: they are strongly shaped by our social environment. These values can be placed on a spectrum between extrinsic and intrinsic. People towards the intrinsic end have high levels of self-acceptance, strong bonds of intimacy and a powerful desire to help others. People at the other end are drawn to external signifiers, such as fame, financial success and attractiveness. They seek praise and rewards from others.

Research across 70 countries suggests that intrinsic values are strongly associated with an understanding of others, tolerance, appreciation, cooperation and empathy. Those with strong extrinsic values tend to have lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders, and less concern for global justice and the natural world. These clusters exist in opposition to each other: as one set of values strengthens, the other weakens.

They tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression than those at the intrinsic end. Societies in which extrinsic goals are widely adopted are more unequal and uncooperative than those with deep intrinsic values. In one experiment, people with strong extrinsic values who were given a resource to share soon exhausted it (unlike a group with strong intrinsic values), as they all sought to take more than their due.

As extrinsic values are strongly associated with conservative politics, it’s in the interests of conservative parties and conservative media to cultivate these values. There are three basic methods. The first is to generate a sense of threat. Experiments reported in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggest that when people feel threatened or insecure, they gravitate towards extrinsic goals. Perceived dangers such as the threat of crime, terrorism, deficits, inflation or immigration - trigger a short-term survival response, in which you protect your own interests and forget other people’s.

Second is the creation of new frames, structures of thought through which we perceive the world. For example, if tax is repeatedly cast as a burden, and less tax is described as relief, people come to see taxation as a bad thing that must be remedied. The third method is to invoke the values ratchet: when you change the way society works, our values shift in response. Privatisation, marketisation, austerity for the poor, inequality: they all shift baselines, alter the social cues we receive and generate insecurity and a sense of threat.

Margaret Thatcher’s political genius arose from her instinctive understanding of these traits, long before they were described by psychologists and cognitive linguists: “Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.” But Labour and the US Democrats no longer have objects, only methods. Their political philosophy is simply stated: if at first you don’t succeed, flinch, flinch and flinch again. They seem to believe that if they simply fall into line with prevailing values, people will vote for them by default. But those values and baselines keep shifting, and what seemed intolerable before becomes unremarkable today. Instead of challenging the new values, these parties adjusting. This is why they always look like their opponents, with a five-year lag.

There is no better political passion killer than Labour’s Zero-Based Review. Its cover is Tory blue. So are the contents. It promises to sustain the coalition’s programme of cuts and even threatens to apply them to the health service. But, though it treats the deficit as a threat that must be countered at any cost, it says not a word about plugging the gap with innovative measures such as a Robin Hood tax on financial transactions, a land value tax, a progressively banded council tax or a windfall tax on extreme wealth. Nor does it mention tax avoidance and evasion. The poor must bear the pain through spending cuts, sustaining a cruel and wildly unequal social settlement.

Last month Chris Leslie, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, promised, like George Osborne, that the cuts would be sustained for “decades ahead”. He asserted that Labour’s purpose in government would be to “finish that task on which [the chancellor] has failed”: namely “to eradicate the deficit”. The following day the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, sought to explain why Labour had joined the political arms race on immigration. In doing so, he revealed that his party will be “radical in reforming our economy” in support of “a determinedly pro-business agenda”. They appear to believe that success depends on becoming indistinguishable from their opponents.

It’s not quite as mad as the old tactic among some Marxist groups of promoting inequality and injustice in the hope that popular fury would lead to revolution, but it’s not far off. Quite aside from the obvious flaw (what’s the sodding point of voting for a party that offers no substantial change in policy?), it evinces a near-perfect psychological illiteracy. When a party reinforces conservative values and conservative ideas, when it fails clearly to expound any countervailing values, when it refuses to reverse the direction of the values ratchet, what outcome does it expect, other than a shift towards conservatism?

SOURCE

Posted by Elvis on 12/20/08 •
Section Spiritual Diversions
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The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest. They always did...they always will. They will have the same effect here as elsewhere, if we do not, by the power of government, keep them in their proper spheres. - Gouverneur Morris - (1752-1816)

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