Monday, September 28, 2009

The Evil of Banality: American Morals in Decline

Perhaps Americans were never really that moral and American exceptionalism was only a hope. Perhaps John Winthrop's "city on a hill" was a pipe dream. It is true that America was never perfect. But it is also true that there always were Americans like Henry David Thoreau who protested injustice and believed in freedom from the state. Initially, much of the impetus for the "Progressive" reaction to big business was moral indignation at its corruption. But the Progressive response was to establish institutions that were even more corrupt than the trusts and cities at which Americans, mostly rural in the late nineteenth century, were aghast.

By the the 1930s industrialization and the expansion of the state had eroded the Christian moral values of many Americans. In Germany, birthplace of the university, the welfare state led to what Hannah Arendt termed "the banality of evil". Adolph Eichmann, a bureaucrat who oversaw the German extermination of Jews and Gypsies, claimed that he acted in accordance with Kant's categorical imperative in that his "duty", which all men should follow, was to obey orders.

The pattern of moral flexibility molded to the dictates of large organizations has been characteristic of American Progressivism as well as German statism for the two have the same origin. One of the ways that Progressivism leads inevitably to authoritarianism and then totalitarianism is the erosion of moral sense that occurs as people relinquish independence in exchange for security and begin to depend on "their betters" to do their thinking for them. This has a great deal to do with the dependent psychology that urban Americans have developed because they work for large organizations and spend most of their lives obeying their bosses and following orders. The concepts of organizational control and organizational culture are tightly linked to Progressivism. Other-directedness, the psychology of reliance on popular opinion for one's own views, is also a function of government authority, large organizations, and tightly configured belief systems under the control of one's boss, the media and the state. Conformity, other-directedness and ethical decline all reflect the economic structure that the large-scale economy has created.

The argument in favor of scale is that it produces consumerism. But since 1970 the real hourly wage has been stagnant. Thus, the large-scale economy has been an economic and consumerist failure as well as a moral failure.

In his classic work on management Functions of the Executive, Chester Barnard, president of New Jersey Telephone, described his success in changing a telephone operator's moral sense around so that she placidly watched her mother burn to death while on duty. He felt justified in having ingrained in the woman the dominant moral belief that her first duty was to the telephone company and that she could not leave her post even if it meant trying to help her mother as she died in her house across the street. Likewise, the notion of organizational culture advocated by William Ouchi in Theory Z and numerous other management books is one of sacrifice of moral sense in the interest of corporate values. Enron is one example of the end result of a century of corporate brainwashing, Progressive economic policies and government expansion. The only reason that Enron was able to exist was credit expansion by the Federal Reserve Bank that was deposited in the money center banks which in turn knowingly provided Enron with the funding it needed to commit ongoing fraud.

Recently in the small Town of Olive in which I reside, population about 3,500, there has been a series of embezzlements. A woman stole $40,000 from a Mobil Mini Mart in Shokan, NY and used it to reopen the West Shokan General Store. Another woman stole from the Onteora* High School Student fund. Another burnt down a local hotel. In fact, there were two cases of arson involving local hotels in the past few years. I checked out the Kingston Freeman's website for "embezzlement" and found the following:

-An obese New Paltz woman was arrested last week for allegedly stealing $700,000 from a local attorney

-In July, a 55-year-old Kingston woman was convicted of stealing $390,000 from a "professional office".

-In April, a store manager was forced to return $25,000 he embezzled from CRSR Designs.

These crimes were not committed by big business or by government. But in a society where taxation, wealth transfer via monetary expansion and the brokerage of special interests have become the chief avenues of success for such professions as law, the judiciary, investment banking, government employees, hedge fund operators and corporate executives, it is not surprising that moral corruption has seeped into the mainstream of American life.

*Onteora was the Native American name for the Catskills. It means "land of the sky".


Phil Orenstein said...

Very refreshing to read your blog. It's like taking a deprogramming pill!

Mitchell Langbert said...

Thanks, Phil.

Raquel Okyay said...

It's in the height of moral decline, that moral heroes emerge. That gives me hope.

Very interesting post, thanks!