Here is my comment to today’s Freakonomics column* in the New York Times (where the conductor of the column explores the novel idea that there might actually be some views of the world that should trump economics):
“Throughout all the ages there have been Masters and servants.
The Masters prosper because they are (or their ancestors were) willing to use other people without compunction or pity. The useful servants are deployed, whether to fight feudal wars or to labor out their lives in cubicles, in whatever way is deemed necessary to give the Masters the emblems of power necessary to have high status.
We simply live in a very large monkey troop, whose status games are played out with total, deadly seriousness because we, unlike the monkeys, are aware that death will come along soon and take away all the status and all its tokens.
To the extent that politics can erode some of the awfulness of this pitiless struggle it is good. Government has to be used carefully though, or it will turn into just another kind of heartless struggle for status.
To the extent that economics studies the mechanics of the modern version of this perpetual status war, and goes on to declare the war perfectly OK and in fact THE paradigmatic, natural way to live, it can be and is used by the Masters to keep the servants from asking troublesome questions.
Every prior age had its equivalent theory of society that justified its particular set of Masters’ having their master status. In ancient Rome it was essentially, “Hey, Romans rule! ‘Nuff said.” In medieval Europe and later, up to the time of the Enlightenment, it was the “great chain of being”. That was the theory that God had ordained for all the beings in heaven and earth a universal hierarchy of power and status, with him at the top, then angels below him, followed by kings, then various levels of nobels, then serfs, and finally animals. A place for everyone and everyone in his place! No one questioned that. It was deemed self-evident.
That’s how unfettered capitalism, as described and analyzed by the “science” of economics, is thought of in the USA today — as simply a given that cannot be questioned or changed despite all the wealth disparities and miseries it gives rise to. Economics, in short, is the supine legitimizer of the power and privileges of the Masters of this particular age. As such, I am sick of hearing about it and its endless pretensions to explain everything.”
*Steinbeck on the Crisis http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/steinbeck-on-the-crisis/#comment-454511
P.S.: In Europe during the last half of the 20th Century most societies actually tempered this ancient monkey-status-struggle with mercy, in the form of programs designed to make the servants’ lives somewhat pleasant. Perhaps the Europeans had inflicted so much suffering on so many of each other during their two World Wars that in the end they all began to feel more like servants than Masters, and so learned to have a bit of pity for the weak.
Whatever the reason for the brief European social democratic hiatus, the century to come will most likely be dominated by the USA and China. Expect no pity from either.