2001 : WHAT NOW?

geoffrey_miller's picture
Evolutionary psychologist, NYU Stern Business School and University of New Mexico; author of The Mating Mind and Spent
Assistant Professor of Psychology

Why does the rest of the world hate Americans so much? I agree with Roger Shank that we must face this question.

One reason surely concerns the unthinking zeal with which we export our brand of American consumerist capitalism ‹ a zeal comparable in irrationality and intensity to fundamentalist religion. Luyen Chou has observed that “We seem to conflate our technological supremacy, our consumerism and exultation of the free market, with moral supremacy and military imperviousness." Likewise, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote "We are perceived increasingly as a country willing to trample underfoot anyone who interferes with our God-given right to the latest appliances and diversions. I don't see us solving the problem of anti-American hatred unless we find a way of including the hopes of the rest of the world in our plans." They have touched the heart of our problem.

As an evolutionary psychologist researching a book about the roots of consumerism, I feel increasing confidence that contemporary American consumerist capitalism (CACC) is not the only possible form of reciprocity open to intelligent social primates such as us, nor the only possible form of a free market economy.

Rather, CACC is a particular cultural development that includes many historically contingent features, such as:

(1) Until very recently, the ability of pension funds and mutual funds to invest ethically, by taking corporate social responsibility into account, was severely limited by laws regarding fiduciary duties, and by accounting standards. Thus, the largest blocks of capital available to CACC were explicitly forbidden to use ethical criteria in deciding which companies to invest in, and how to vote as shareholders. The result has been a peculiar amoral sort of capitalism, in which individual Americans had no idea what evils their pension capital might be funding, while they simultaneously gave generously to ineffectual pro-social charities.

(2) The military-industrial complex has acted as a Keynesian employment booster since WWII, largely through resource-wasting vanity projects such as manned space flights and Star Wars programs, and through massive arms exports that destabilize other countries. People in the destabilized countries tend to resent this. Other, less harmful Keynesian employment-boosters could have been favored instead, such as France's innocuous waste of manpower in trying to out-compete the Australians in wine-production.

(3) The doctrine of corporate personhood, under which limited-liability corporations have all the same rights granted to human individuals under the Constitution. This doctrine was introduced by U. S. Supreme Court Justice Morrison Remick Waite, without argument or explanation, in a bizarre 1886 ruling in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The doctrine of corporate personhood in turn allowed corporations to corrupt the political system (through their "right" to give campaign contributions), the media (through their "right" to free speech, i.e. advertising, and their resulting tacit control as advertisers over the editorial content of national media), and the public interest (through their "right"to life ‹ i.e. unlimited persistence even if convicted of corporate malfeasance).

(4) Lack of any high-quality, state-supported television or radio system (analogous to Britain's BBC) that could offer critically incisive, internationally oriented news and analysis. Instead, we have local TV news, local newspapers, and local radio that pander sensationalism, reinforce provincialism, and never question the culture's domination by their advertisers.

(5) The ideological legacy of a Cold War against Communism, which corrupted the ability of American intellectuals to engage in nuanced, constructive argument about alternative ways to run our economy and our society. We know something is amiss when both Ralph Nader's calls to end government subsidies to corporations, and his calls to improve government subsidies to PBS, were dismissed as "socialist" by conservative pundits.

These five features of CACC, and many others, were not original with the American Revolution and could not have been anticipated by the Founding Fathers. Rather, they arose from about 1880 through about 1940 with the development of specifically American forms of mass retailing and mass advertising. In attacking the World Trade Center, I believe the terrorists were attacking not so much the free market or secularism per se, but America's arrogance that CACC is the only way any country could be run in the 21st century.

Although I think Darwinian principles illuminate a great deal of human behavior, our American problem is more cultural than biological. We need a serious, cultural self-examination of CACC ‹ not a vague, superficial debate about the importance of spiritual values in a materialist world, but rather, a historically informed examination of specific ways in which power, money, and culture have intersected to corrupt our democracy. If the rest of the world sees us undertaking this self-examination, we will have much less to fear. But if they see us persisting in our blind arrogance that CACC is best for everybody, the blood will be on our hands next time.