Americans Were Told to Put the Economy Before Society. But Their Challenge Now is Putting Society Before the Economy.
In case you haven’t heard, the owner of Equinox and Soulcycle was revealed to be a major Trump supporter and donor. A fact which caused shock and consternation amongst the customers of these businesses, who tend to be if not gays and women, then at least the city-dwelling urban elites so despised by Trumpists. People called for a boycott. And in response, the GOP declared it all “harassment.” It’s verging on comedy, isn’t it? It raises the question — to me, at least: why don’t Americans care more who they do business with?
Let me put that to you a different way. One of the things that mystifies Europeans about Americans is that Americans, well, happily do business with terrible people. That’s not to say that Europeans never do — but there’s certainly a more conscious attitude to shopping, buying, the act of being a “consumer.” Where there’s happiness, there’s a kind of grudging reluctance — if there’s business at all. In other words, we might say that Europeans put being citizens before being consumers. Or at least they try to. In Europe, if a business is a bad actor, it will be hit with boycotts, protests, quiet but stern government intervention. Attitudes change, and change fast. Such a business will pay a real price — so European business are far better behaved, by and large.
Every society has norms and attitudes. And one of the attitudes that makes America really genuinely different from almost anywhere else in the world is that the average American doesn’t seem to care very much — not nearly enough — who he or she does business with. That company’s pillaging the planet? That one’s killing the dolphins? That one’s using child labour? That one’s corroding our democracy? Never mind! That’s not my problem. I just want my stuff. I need my stuff. Give me my stuff! Now!! I don’t care who else pays the hidden price!!
That matters. Because capitalism’s hardly going to be able to survive if people go on acting like brain-dead zombies of pleasure — that just proves all it’s fiercest critics right. So how did Americans get here? Americans don’t care enough about who they do business with — at least historically — for many reasons, I think.
The first one is the most obvious. Caring about who you do business with is a luxury — and America’s a nation of bew poor people. Yes, really — the average American struggles to make ends meet, can’t pay his bills, and therefore dies in debt. No, it’s not abject poverty like the Congo — it’s the weird paradox of poor rich people. Yet that poverty carries real costs with it: you’re too poor, in terms of time, money, attention, and emotion, to afford anything but the cheapest thing. But the cheapest thing is also usually the most exploitative thing. Bang! A vicious cycle. A race to the bottom. That’s how the heart got ripped out of the American economy. Cheap stuff..bad jobs..giant monopolies…a bought democracy. Catch-22.
The second reason Americans don’t care enough who they do business with is that they’ve been told not to, over and over again, their whole lives long. The impersonal, anonymous market is the answer to all society’s problems — so generations of American economists, and the crackpot politicians who’ve believed them, have told people. It’s true that markets are tremendous forces of creativity and commerce — but it’s also true that personal relations matter in markets a very great deal, to weed out the bad apples, to enforce basic norms of decency and good behaviour. So Americans don’t care enough who they do business with because intellectually, they’re not supposed to — it’s something of a thoughtcrime in America to imagine that people should care about anything than the Everyday Low Price.
In other words, American thinking, which puts economics on a weird, deified pedestal, puts being a consumer before being a citizen. How’s that worked out? Disastrously, I think it’s self-self-evidently fair to say.
The third reason that Americans don’t care enough who they do business with is that it’s historically been hard to do so. Even when the North was imagining that it rejected slavery — it was quite happy to enjoy the fruits of the South, which is to say, slave labour. Northern stock markets traded in Southern companies, and Northern speculators got rich. Upscale Northern department stores were stock full of the latest Southern products — as were the grocery stores and liquor stores and so on. For Americans to care who they did business with, because their economy was powered by slavery the way ours is powered by oil today, would have meant that they couldn’t have consumed much at all. And who would’ve wanted to do that?
All three of those reasons are powerful enough. But I think there’s a fourth one, which is hidden in plain sight.
Americans don’t care enough who they do business with because the central belief of American society has always been in a kind of individualistic freedom taken to an absurd extreme. Hey, you want to buy stuff made with child labour? Stuff that destroys the forests and the oceans? Not my problem, buddy! Yours! But what if the kid being exploited is mine? What is the forest being ripped down is in my yard?
But you can’t have a society of extreme individualists, my friends. It’s impossible. To have a society, you need to have citizens, and to be a citizen means putting the common wealth, the public interest, at least on par with your own — if not above it. If each of us is only ever looking out for ourselves — we are not a society, and this is the part that American still don’t seem to get.
You know those guys who carry AK-47s to Walmart? Can you have a society of such people? What would it look like? It wouldn’t have roads, schools, hospitals, or universities. What it would have is a lot of guns, a lot of violence, and the rule of the predatory over everyone else. In other words, it wouldn’t be a society as we know it — something much more like a jungle. It would be the ultimate free market, in other words. But markets must have limits. Americans don’t seem to understand this point very well. There are many things that should never be traded in markets. Like what? Like people. Like brides. Like kids. Like slaves. Like democracy, truth, equality, justice.
Now, those might sound like abstractions, but they are not. If I’m willing to buy something that’s built on the back of your kids’ labour, I’m also saying that your kid doesn’t deserve to be educated, just exploited. And the same goes for the planet, democracy, justice, equality, truth, and so on. If I’m willing to buy something that’s made in a way that exploits and preys on these things, I’m also saying that they come last for me. But that’s precisely the same thing as saying I’m an extreme individualist — who believes only in the social atom, the survival of the strong over the weak, in myself, in ego, in appetite. And that’s the equivalent of saying society doesn’t exist for me. Bang! The vicious spiral kicks off. People don’t invest in each other — and soon enough, poverty sets in for all, or most.
(Let me put that to you more formally. In economist-speak, we might say that Americans are now too poor to be able to afford the positive externalities of social goods, like democracy. And yet they’re also too poor now to be able to go on internalizing the negative externalities of things like pollution, stagnation, inequality, corruption, and despair.)
The difference between being a citizen and a consumer couldn’t simpler — or starker. A consumer looks out for themselves. Using a simple equation: do I get the most pleasure for the least money? Do I get the most status, the biggest rush, the most necessity, the most use — for the lowest amount I can possibly spend? I might be willing to pay more some things — a designer pair of shoes — if I know it will give me kinds of pleasure I crave more, like status. But the equation remains the same: it is an infantile narcissistic one, concerned with egoistic pleasure, in a simplistic way. To make this system go, capitalism must forever make people feel like they’re not worth very much to begin with.
Being a citizen is the polar opposite. It means I have to think about what’s best for everyone — not just me. And this is the part Americans haven’t gotten for a very long time. Most Americans think voting is about expressing what they want for themselves — not what they want for everyone. But being a citizen is squarely about me defending the common wealth, the public interest. Expressing it. Enacting it. Living it. It means that I must believe everyone in society — including me — has intrinsic, inalienable, inherent worth, that must be nurtured, carefully nourished, protected, delicately cultivated.
Now. What happens to a nation that’s a set of consumers before it’s a set of citizens — if it bothers to be citizens at all? Well, everyone looks out for themselves — in an infantile way. They maximize their pleasure, their consumption, and minimize their investment. And that’s exactly what happened to America. It has had a severe, chronic, shortage of investment for decades now — precisely because people have reduced themselves to consumers. Money trickles upwards to terrible people, who then use it to fund extremist causes — but it never gets invested back in society in a positive way that reflects any notion of a common wealth.
Americans have been — have reduced themselves to being — mere consumers far too long. It’s economy has been driven by consumption, it’s society has been withered away by consumerism, why people feel so depressed and hopeless, and it’s democracy has imploded as a result of those three things — because when you don’t care about who you do business with, bad guys will get rich, and spend their money ripping apart the foundations of decency, humanity, and sanity, by selling you back the self-worth they took from you in the first place. They install demagogues, they buy influence, they build monopolies, they shred norms and values, they corrode and twist. Soon enough, a whole society comes to be just a pale reflection of their greed, vanity, violence, ignorance, and egotism.
I can put that in a simple way. Americans have long been told to put the economy before society. Consume, consume, consume. But now their challenge is to put society before the economy. Invest, invest, invest. In the big sense: society, meaning democracy, civilization, modernity, decency, humanity. That’s because a functioning society is the point of an economy — the point of society isn’t the economy. If we put “the economy” first — which is just an abstraction — there’s no solid basis for the foundations of prosperity in the first place, whether hospitals, schools, or well-behaved businesses…there’s just aggressive individualism, which grows more extreme, until we’re all carrying AK-47s to Walmart.
It’s an old story — as old as time. Are Americans finally learning its lesson? Are they going to finally be citizens before consumers? Let us hope so.