Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Of economics and morality

Chris Hayes is surprised that Martin Luther King, Jr. was not revered in his own lifetime:

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Which is a little funny (and no slight against Mr. Hayes, we all have the same historic myopia. The world was a simpler place before we were born, and the attitudes we learned were the ones everybody had before it all got complicated....), since earlier in the show Mr. Hayes cited King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail." To many Americans, including those journalists in the NBC archives, Dr. King in his lifetime was a criminal and a troublemaker. "I have a dream" was quickly eclipsed by the anti-war sermon at Riverside Church; and almost no one supported King's efforts, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and decisions like Loving v. Virginia (which removed "miscegenation" from our vocabulary, in 1967), to go after issues of economic justice. King was in Atlanta in his last days supporting a sanitation worker's strike. One of Mr. Hayes' guests, a young black man born long after Dr. King was dead and safely canonized, opined that Dr. King, had he not been killed, would have moved into the position of "elder statesman" before the '70's began; a revered figure, but irrelevant. One does wonder what effect a living Dr. King might have had on the public discussion of economics and economic justice in the '70's and '80's. Clearly what might have been the changed course of that conversation is almost unimaginable, especially to the generation who grew up thinking Dr. King was universally revered in his lifetime, and his most important speech was about a "dream."

This, in fact, actually captures the situation of Dr. King's efforts during his lifetime quite well:

The critics of the civil rights movement in America said much the same thing. Yet pre-eminent oral historian Studs Terkel, for his epic book RACE, interviewed dozens of African Americans for this seminal work, and suggested this ragtag element was one of the underpinning strengths of the civil rights movements. In fact, as one protester said, it really wasn't about 'blackness' or being allowed to sit in the bus or use the same toilets, it was about poverty and about class. " They play off one race against the other. That white kid on the picket line got the same problems as that black kid who don't have a job. He's on strike because his wages aren't what they supposed to be," said Union steel worker, Joseph Robinson.

And says Little Dovie Thurman, heavily involved in the civil rights struggle: "At first I couldn't understand why they hated Dr King so much. Then I began to see he wasn't just working with poor black and white. He was talking at unionizing, and against the war, all kinds of issues. That gave him a force of power that they didn't want him to have. They had to get him. He know that black power, white power, wasn't going to work. As long as he (King) was saying, "Let the black eat at the counter, let them go to the washroom," that was fine. But that didn't get at IT."

Little Dovie realised, as Martin Luther King did, that the struggle and the civil rights movement wasn't just about race, but rather a far bigger issue of understanding power and class distinction.
We forget that, just as we forget that morality and economics have been joined at the hip since economics was first identified as a subject for public discourse. The original impetus of economic theory was not to scientifically examine systems of exchange for insights into their function, as if they were natural forces like weather or tides; the original impetus was moral. Economic theory grew out of moral theory, and the idea that a just society should order its public affairs along lines that create a moral society. Utilitarianism, the philosophical underpinning of all economic theory, was originally intended to create a moral society by establishing a public morality that provided the greatest social utility to the greatest portion of society possible. Of course, if that didn't extend to everyone in society, it was either because no system was perfect ("Sucks to be you") or because the poor and the suffering deserved their fate, a proper consequence of their immorality. "Morality" often applies to thee and not me, especially when it is considered as a public concern. How I conduct my private affairs is less important than how the public is controlled and coordinated, whether the control is "incentives" or the control is imperatives. You can hear this in the advice Andrew Mellon gave Herbert Hoover when Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury: "liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… it will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up from less competent people." You can hear it in what Herman Cain said at the most recent GOP debate:

Herman Cain recently criticized the Occupy Wall Street protesters, saying, "Don't blame Wall Street. Don't blame the big banks. If you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself."

At Tuesday night's CNN debate, Cain stood by his comments -- to loud cheers from the audience.

"I still stand by my statement," he said.
And the GOP crowd that night went wild with approval; nothing we like more than blaming someone else for their moral failings. After all, economics is really about morality; the worthy are rich, the sinners are poor. It's not really a new attitude, either: "Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The Gospels either record or reflexively assume that beggars and whores and the lame and blind are being punished for their sins, or their family's sins, and deserve the impoverished state they live in. One of the greatest scandals of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the proofs that he could not be a holy (unscathed, pure) man, was that he didn't revile the poor and rebuke the lame, and treat them as people who should learn to live a more moral life.

Economics has just come along to give us a more acceptable basis for our hardness of heart. The poor are poor because they have failed in the marketplace, and the failure is their own fault. The market is fair, just, and rewards the pure in heart. These are still the standards which guide our public discourse. The critics of "Occupy Wall Street" almost all do so from a position of moral superiority, a position proven by their elevated financial (and so social) status. Martin Luther King spoke eloquently from a jail cell. Martin Luther King spoke so eloquently from the pulpit of Riverside Church even the Washington Post turned on him. Dr. King spoke eloquently, and the people who refuted him and rejected his message spoke eloquently from positions of power and privilege and economic comfort, sure that they deserved to be there, just as sanitation workers deserved no more pay than would cost those privileged persons as little as possible. The people with moral superiority, the people with the white churches that had the social and economic power (the journalists ask Dr. King how many white people attend his church; they don't ask if white people would be welcome there, which is a different matter altogether), sneered at Dr. King's efforts, and so prompted his famous letter:

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leader era; an too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: "Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother." In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: "Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern." And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unBiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
There it is. 1963. Birmingham. "Racial and economic injustice." Dr. King didn't pick up the latter after he'd solved the problems of the former. They were never separated; and they still aren't.

In fact, the greatest injustice is thinking that economics has anything to do with morality. It is how we continue to justify the market as a strong green god, sullen, untamed, intractable. And how we continue to justify the "punishment" the "market" metes out on those who "deserve" it. After all, one doesn't come between the god and the object of the god's wrath; not if you don't want some of that wrath on you. But if our god truly was God, and all men and women our brothers and sisters; or if at least we recognized that the market is a human construct and not a "god" at all, and we are all in this together...ah, what then?

Tedious historical footnote:

This is the photograph, made into a billboard, that Dr. King was questioned about in those clips Chris Hayes assembled. I remember it from my childhood:

The scene is the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, established in 1932 by a student of Reinhold Niebuhr's. It was a "communist training school" because it was teaching about race relations and was a center for training civil rights activists. As you can tell from the tenor of the questions of Dr. King, it's pretty clear this is a subversive place: blacks and whites, men and women, are sitting together as equals.

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