The Banality of Capitalism

Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in the early ‘sixties when she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker.  The phrase was in response to how Eichmann had matter-of-factly claimed to have only been “doing his duty.”

The phrase applies  in many countries today, but each in a unique context.  As for the United States, with the 2016 election, our country managed to elect as president an individual who personifies much of our culture–its superficiality and the worship of wealth, power, and privilege. During the first two years of his tenure, the former reality TV star and red-toothed capitalist has shown us ourselves (not all of us, but enough of us) and the result is so lacking in virtue of any kind, that it can only be described as “banal.”

the former reality TV star and red-toothed capitalist has shown us ourselves (not all of us, but enough of us) and the result is so lacking in virtue of any kind, that it can only be described as “banal.” 

Here are some of the examples of how neither virtue nor traditional American values play a role in the decision-making of this administration and his dominant political party:

  • This country allows mass shootings to become an almost daily part of our social landscape with no talk of gun control legislation.
  • The constant positive references–both explicit and implicit–to patterns of bigotry  that belong to our tarnished past make it clear that American was “great” if you had been a straight, white, Christian male.  The terrible message is that America could be great again, but only for those who defer to straight, white, Christian men.
  • The environment has been relegated not only to the back seat in favor of energy and extraction companies (often led or owned by cronies), the environment has been thrown out the window.
  • A US resident and respected journalist who had planned to apply for citizenship, was brutally murdered in the foreign embassy of a totalitarian regime. Our CIA believes it was ordered by a head of state, but because of significant financial interests with that country–and their strong personal financial ties with the first family–we will condone the barbaric assassination of a respected Washington Post journalist.
  • One of the first acts of the new administration was to pass a trillion-dollar tax break that would mostly benefit the wealthy and powerful despite a ballooning budget deficit and a national debt of more than $65,000 per person.
  • The absences of compassion, tact, or decorum in the pursuit of an agenda that serves the  few or the one such that the White House itself should turn a much darker shade. . .

I want to give due credit for the present banal condition of “life as transaction” to the decades of capitalism (neo-liberalism) that took firm root with Reagan/Thatcher Era and sprouted to cover the rest of the world after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Most economics textbooks are quick to introduce the famous concept of “rational self-interest” as the driver of market systems–and this driver often operates in markets that exhibit “perfect competition.” Those gems usually come right before the chapter where they explain the concept of “equity versus efficiency,” the tradeoff that has to be made because capitalism does not equitably distribute the wealth: the rich get proportionately richer. It is also worth noting that economics textbooks seldom mention ethics or morality.

But sociological texts do.

Those texts talk about how contact between social groups (by sex, race, ethnicity, religion, class, etc.) with power differentials creates discrimination. Globalization and free markets have increased contact and competition between groups–almost exactly as they did one hundred years ago under similar conditions and with dire consequences–because the capitalist system has not distributed wealth evenly.

Now the bottom two-thirds of the income spectrum is wondering whom to blame. The increasingly richer and more powerful billionaires and corporations don’t want to lose their hold on power (and be held to account), so they foment division (hate propaganda) among the majority working class groups. In so doing, they manage, despite their minority status, to maintain enough political influence to retain power. In other words, the hate propaganda (and violence that stems from it) is mostly only a transaction: the result of a lot of powerful people acting in their own rational self-interest or perhaps “doing their duty.”

Somehow “banality” doesn’t cover it.




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