The billionaires of the One Percent see climate change coming just as we do, bringing economic chaos, social mayhem, floods of refugees and ecological breakdown. But while we see it as a threat to our families and communities and the world we love, they see our alarm and activism as the real threat, and tighten their control – while escalating their investment in fossil fuels. Why? Perhaps the rise of the ruthless and unscrupulous to the top was not the result of civilization, but its cause.
In countless myths and folk tales, a peaceful kingdom is menaced by a bloodthirsty monster which the hero must overcome to save the day. For many, the mythological monster of our day is Capitalism. If we can only take down Capitalism, goes the chant, we can restore peace to the kingdom.
For others the monster is Communism, and the heroes are the champions of “free enterprise” and the market economy. The founding patriarch of Capitalist mythology is Adam Smith, and its sacred text is The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776 – coincidentally or not, the year the founders of American democracy launched their attack on British colonial rule.
But Smith’s notion of a “free market” bears no resemblance to the Capitalism of today with its global corporations and billionaire CEOs. Smith envisioned an economy of farmers and family businesses trading among themselves without interference from governments – in his day, royal monarchies – or from corporations, established by the monarchs as instruments of colonialism.
Yet as private corporations gained power and gradually eclipsed their royal patrons, ruthless and unscrupulous men found ways to twist the ideology of Capitalism to their own ends and rise to the top. Step by step they retrofitted Smith’s egalitarian ideal into an engine of greed and control.
Giving unbridled license to the greediest has certainly been disastrous. But the problem goes deeper than an economic system that rewards the greedy. Within a century after Karl Marx identified Capitalism as the monster menacing the kingdom, Communist revolutionaries established the promised proletarian utopia in the former empires of Russia and China. But in both utopias, ruthless and unscrupulous men found ways to twist the ideology of Communism to their own ends and rise to the top.
When the Soviet Union fell, Russia’s privatized state industries ended up in the hands of the same people who had ruled under “Communism” – the notorious Russian oligarchs. They just changed their ideological disguise and became Capitalists overnight.
Neither Smith’s ideal “Capitalism” nor Marx’s ideal “Communism” has ever existed in practice. But just as Communism was a reaction to the injustices of Capitalism, Capitalism itself was a reaction to the feudal injustices of the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church was the unquestioned power behind every throne. Medieval Europe was founded on the mythology of a hero who exalted the poor, condemned the rich, and overcame Original Sin by sacrificing himself. Yet in that society too, ruthless and unscrupulous men found ways to twist the ideology of Christianity to their own ends and rise to the top.
In every age, on every continent, as civilization advanced, the ruthless and unscrupulous merely changed their ideological disguises to stay in power.
Who Was the Original Sinner?
At the very dawn of civilization stands a mysterious figure: the tribal chieftain who craved the power of a king. We might logically assume he was a descendant of the alpha males of earlier primate species. But the role of the alpha male, like the tribal chieftain, was to protect his clan, not to exploit them for his own ends. The armies who conquered at the emperor’s command, the slaves who harvested his fields and built his palaces were not members of an extended tribal family but expendable peons.
Where did such an outsized ambition spring from? Was that first king simply greedy, the Ur-capitalist who decided his own selfish interests outweighed the good of the tribe? Was he the very first sociopath or narcissist, a mutant born without a conscience? Was he himself the mythological monster, the serpent in the Garden, progenitor of all human evil, or just an accessory after the fact?
The royal lineage of Pharaohs, Caesars, Khans, Kaisers and Czars leads directly to America’s 19th-century “Robber Barons,” to Stalin and Mao, and finally to the ultrarich of today: the One Percent, who are systematically stripping the world’s economy and the Earth itself of every scrap of wealth to fatten themselves.
The deliberate destruction of the global biosphere for profit is clearly a criminal act, on an unprecedented scale. But why? What can the kingpins of Capitalism buy with their wealth beyond comfort and luxury? Nothing but power: the better to bend governments to their will. But what is such power good for? Nothing, except to eliminate regulations that hinder their drive for more wealth.
The victims of the crime include not only expendable peons and uncounted nonhuman species, but the criminals’ own children. Yet you can’t call them stupid. Under Bush II, the ultrarich profited from the real estate “bubble,” then from the crash, and then the recovery, pocketing billions in taxpayer bailouts – the largest recorded transfer of wealth ever. It takes intelligence to plan a swindle like that, not just once, but repeatedly as the boom-and-bust cycle roller-coasters along.
Intelligent or not, an insatiable itch to plunder the world is clearly not rational – or even sane. Is it an undiagnosed mental illness? A form of addiction? A control issue on steroids? An infantile obsession? People like Elon Musk seem to consider it a game, outscoring one another by collecting yachts, mansions, sports teams, factories, oblivious to its real-world effects. People like the Koch brothers act more like religious fanatics, sacrificing common sense, loved ones, the planet itself on the altar of Mammon.
But in the current Mother Jones, a special issue on “American Oligarchy,” reporter Tim Murphy inadvertently hints at a more sinister possibility. “Campaigning for Abraham Lincoln in 1860,” he writes, “Charles Sumner invoked ‘Slave Oligarchy’ more than 20 times in one speech. They had ‘entered into and possessed the National Government,’ he said, ‘like an Evil Spirit.’”
Senator Sumner was using the term “evil” metaphorically. But he was referring to the One Percent of his day, the slave-owning aristocracy, who owed their riches to the brutal exploitation of Africans. It took a bloody Civil War to exorcise Sumner’s “Evil Spirit,” and the victims of today’s police lynchings can credibly claim that the exorcism failed.
The Question of Evil
We habitually call Adolf Hitler “evil.” But like the Slave Oligarchy, the Nazi Holocaust was a creature of Capitalism – not just Krupp and I.G. Farben but Ford and IBM. Hitler had a cherished portrait of Henry Ford in his study. Stalin and Mao, however, committed equal excesses in the name of Communism, and the Catholic Inquisition and the witch-burnings were no less evil.
The U.S. ended WWII and simultaneously ignited the Cold War by beating Nazi scientists in the race to an atomic bomb. We unleashed it on an already-defeated Japan solely to impress our former Soviet allies with our newfound destructive power. But it also revealed a vastly expanded capacity for evil. By bipartisan consensus, our government has been leading the race toward planetary annihilation ever since.
But these evils are matched or exceeded by the crime of knowingly condemning all future generations of living beings to life on a planet devastated by fossil fuels.
Human evil was the subject of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie, published in 1981 – coincidentally or not, the year Ronald Reagan launched his counterattack on democracy on behalf of America’s oligarchs. Peck was a devout Christian, but as a psychiatrist he also considered himself a scientist. So when he encountered people in his practice who consistently acted in ways that had evil effects, even on their own children, he initially resisted the idea that they themselves were evil. Eventually he concluded that human evil was in fact relatively common, but could be clinically diagnosed and studied scientifically, possibly even healed.
The book carefully distinguishes evil people from sociopaths, who act without a thought for their effect on others. Evil people, by contrast, know right from wrong but hide their wrong-doing – even from themselves – behind a sophisticated web of lies. Dr. Peck cautiously compares this to “narcissistic personality disorder,” in which the afflicted see other people as extras in a drama that’s exclusively about themselves.
He also differentiates human evil from the supernatural evil of Biblical mythology, though in two cases his diagnosis was literal demonic possession, treated by assembling a team of exorcists. Both exorcisms unmasked a cold, inhuman presence he unequivocally names “Satan.” During one exorcism this entity told him, “I want people to work in business so that there will be war” – exposing the monster at the heart of Capitalism.
Evil remains a metaphysical concept, not yet a medical diagnosis. But the web of lies our American oligarchs spin, and their callous disregard of even their own children, dovetails with Peck’s hypothesis. The breathtaking scale of their fossil-fueled crime spree recalls countless Hollywood scenarios, James Bond or Batman battling a villain who is insane enough – and often rich enough – to destroy the world. But insanity is not a sufficient motive. These villains must be portrayed as unconditionally evil.
Applying that formula to real-world villains may seem extreme. But in that same Mother Jones, Ali Breland describes a fad among tech billionaires called effective accelerationism. On the theory that “speeding up profit-driven technological innovation is an inevitability – and a moral good,” some adherents embrace the possibility of AI-generated human extinction as simply “the next phase of evolution.”
Some see this November’s election as a choice between metaphorical evils. To me, only one of them is metaphorical. Donald Trump’s rhetoric of hate, criminal behavior and chronic lies, including climate denial, may only be symptoms of mental illness. But if we can define “evil” as an act with evil consequences, we are clearly facing a monster – possibly a demonic one. And Dr. Peck states firmly what it takes to exorcise a demon. It can only be done with love.
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