Generational Degeneration

Walk with me for a bit as I wrestle with a thought.

Most people have heard that the Bible is the Word of God — certainly Christians are fond of telling us this. But what does that mean?

A vocal portion of the faithful take this to mean the literal, infallible, inerrant truth of the words, even the punctuation, in the Holy Scripture.

Where did that idea come from?

Well, we have the idea of Papal Infallibility, cast into Roman Catholic doctrine in 1870. That’s based on the infallibility of the Church Councils, a concept batted about in the 1200’s. That harkens back to the original councils, beginning in the year 325, charged to settle the infighting among the hundreds of different early Christian sects: councils which put together the Holy Scripture the Christians call the Bible and defined what Christianity was, and what it was not.

Where did this authority come from? The Emperors of Rome.

So we can see a kind of ossification and degeneration occurring in this process. What began as a pragmatic and flexible political process became rigid dogma which admits to neither error nor change. As that happens, the wisdom of the tradition drains away into utter nonsense.

We see a similar process in the ossification of the United States Constitution among some Libertarians and Tea Partiers. When crafted, the Constitution was envisioned as a flexible political document that outlined the principles of governing a nation potentially as large or larger than any nation had ever been. No one knew what would work, and what would not, and so they left the details to future generations: the Constitution has written into itself a process for modification. For many, now, Constitutionalism is a religion that has already degraded into dogma that says The People are not allowed to create an income tax or a social security network because it is not present in the Holy Writ of Masters Madison and Jefferson. This degeneration hasn’t had seventeen centuries to descend into nonsense, but it is rapidly headed in that direction.

Which brings me to the real subject of this conversation: Capitalism.

Capitalism is a vehicle, like a car. When you decide to take your family on a vacation from, say, Denver to Disneyland, the car is a wonderful thing. But once you’ve reached your destination, you stop driving. If you don’t — if you are so enamored with the forward motion of this sleek, muscular machine that you don’t even slow as you pass Disneyland — you proceed westward into the Pacific Ocean and drown.

What is this “Disneyland?” Nothing complex: just a higher standard of living. For everyone.

No sensible economist in the early days of industrial capitalism ever considered that it would last. Capitalism is fundamentally unsustainable. Like a car, it can take us to Disneyland, but then it has to either stop, or proceed into the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, we humans have this pattern of ossifying our beliefs into inflexible nonsense. Religion. Politics. Economics.

We’ve reached the end of the capitalist ride, and it turns out it has only taken us to Disneyland, not to Heaven. Some might find that disappointing. I happen to think it’s pretty cool. But it’s time to put the machine in Park and stop driving, because the next stop is going to be quite uncomfortable.

It’s fascinating to watch the pro-capitalists scream about comments like this. Their first reaction is always to create the false dichotomy — if you aren’t a Capitalist, you must be a Satan-Worshipping Godless Totalitarian Communist.

If you can get past that reflexive shriek of terrified outrage, you immediately get the false pragmatism that says nothing works better than capitalism. If you’re driving to Disneyland, that’s perhaps true. If you don’t stop when you get there, not so much.

Beyond that lies the shallow moralism of “private ownership rights” and “ethical greed” taken to bizarre extremes: a long list of tiresome excuses defending the world as it is, regardless of how patently immoral and unworkable it has become.

If you can penetrate all of these fuming reeks, there lie stunning vistas of possibility. Gift economies. Patronage. Distributivism. Guilds and Brotherhoods. Social democracies. And more importantly, the things we haven’t yet imagined.

Some ten thousand years ago, people responded to increasing population by abandoning traditional hunting and gathering, to farm. It was an unthinkable transition at the time. The transition to cities, and then city-states, and then national states was equally unthinkable. Every such shift was a way to deal with increasing population, more people living in less space.

We approach another such transition. Capitalism has taken us as far as it can, and now we have to stop the machine, get out, and figure out what will replace it.