Saturday, March 15, 2014

Optimism is the Opium of the People

One of the reasons why I favor European writers over American writers is that, because of Europe's complex history, a simple ideological viewpoint is less likely to be taken seriously. Although I don't think Milan Kundera is a great writer, I enjoyed the concept of The Joke, in which the protagonist says in jest "Optimism is the opium of the people" in Communist Czechoslovakia and gets himself into big trouble. Of course, Kundera became popular in the U.S. not because of that book but because of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which had a lot of sex in it and was also made into a movie. Optimism is one of the characteristics of Americans, and I don't think The Joke could be popular here, especially without sex scenes.

Even so, many Europeans and others across the globe look naively at the U.S. and are still taken in by its allure. I think they are attracted by the prosperity, the apparent social equality and the Hollywood illusion that it's a fun place to be. Many don't see that beneath the exuberant veneer lies an unpleasant capitalist oligopoly run by people like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, the Walton Family and Rupert Murdoch. Less conservative capitalists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are ideologically similar with the exception that they leave room for higher taxation on the wealthy in order to support economic equality sufficient for the maintenance of social stability. Between these groups, pro-business political candidates are assured of election in most cases. The majority of Democratic candidates are backed by business interests too, thus you end up with presidents like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who may as well be Republicans.

For most of its history the U.S. has been physically and culturally isolated from outside influences. Thus, with only a skimpy conceptual framework pieced together from Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Adam Smith, religious settlers infused with the Protestant work ethic gradually transformed an agrarian society into a major industrial power. They were aided by religious fervor, however ridiculous, and an abundance of natural resources. The basic idea here has always been to work hard and get ahead financially. Liberals in the U.S. are deluding themselves if they think that sharing the wealth was ever popular. Tycoons have been viewed favorably most of the time and are still admired as long as they don't commit crimes or willfully abuse workers. Many successful businessmen reflect the same simple optimism as poorer Americans, and the assumption is that those who succeed simply worked harder. This naive optimism is exemplified not only by vacuous, intellectually bankrupt politicians such as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, but also by better-rounded politicians such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who, externally at least, are just as pro-American, pro-business and optimistic about the future as anyone else.

Kundera's phrase is an apt description of the U.S. We are living in a period where capitalism is the dominant ideology, and it is running its victory lap. From my vantage point, this is only a transitional phase, and there is a serious shortage of thinkers who publicly define how to proceed from here in light of the fact that the present system is ephemeral. Almost everything in the media reads like a pep rally for capitalism, because it is funded by capitalism.

For the optimists among you, I am not saying that there are no grounds for optimism. I am only saying that the branded optimism in the U.S. looks ominous and sinister. I encourage you not to start your own business. As a Darwinian thinker, I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic, and only know that change will occur. However, the less thought it is given, the less desirable the future is likely to be.

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