Commentators, journalists and even—on exceptionally clear days—their audiences are now beginning to wonder why, as fatal environmental problems bear down on us and global warming threatens agriculture and our minimal ability to feed ourselves, the rich and powerful aren’t more actively seeking to remedy the situation. Worse, why do they so often seem to want to do just the opposite of what is required?
This question is easy to answer if we understand the psychology of the capitalist. Easy and disturbing. The logic of capitalism acknowledges that there will be destructive consequences for its activities. Economists even have a name for this: negative externality. This is also known as “externalizing cost” when it comes time for somebody other than the perpetrator to pay for the damage. It’s a secular form of what generals call “collateral damage,” which means the wrong person got blown up. Or one might say, “We didn’t mean to destroy that river with coal ash. We were only pursuing private prosperity and personal happiness. In the meantime, we’re glad to have someone else pay to fix it.” But what do you do when it’s not a river but the whole world that has been trashed? Are taxpayers going to have to pay for a new planet?
For the present, the oligarchs and their minions—the so-called one percent—aren’t missing anything. They’re not stupid. If they choose to do nothing about looming global catastrophe, it’s because they don’t want to do anything. And they don’t want to do anything because the threat of destruction is, frankly, not persuasive to them. Those who benefit from capitalism understand that it has always depended on suffering, and they have confidence that if someone is to suffer it won’t be them. “Let the songbirds suffer in my place,” they say. “Or those fucking—what do they call them?—manatees? There are only about 10 of them left anyway. And, we admit, the miscellaneous poor will suffer, here and in those faraway countries, but why shouldn’t they suffer? Look at them. They’re rather good at it. Besides, the humans could use a little downsizing.”
Pereat mundus, dum ego salvus sim. (“Let the world perish so long as I am safe.”) This insight is the key to understanding Congressman Paul Ryan’s 2014 Republican budget proposal. It radically cuts all social welfare, especially for food and health care for the poor. Ryan’s budget has the virtue of making it clear who the designated sufferers are to be.
The rich aren’t missing anything. They get it. It’s we who are clueless when we operate under the liberal delusion that no one should have to suffer, that we’re all in this thing together and that once a danger is understood we’ll take steps to protect our fellow citizens. We’ll all pull together, politics stop at the shoreline, and all that palaver.
It’s President Obama who is obtuse when he says of the critics of his health plan, “I have to admit, I don’t get it. Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance?” Folks? He speaks as if we were all just folks, as if the grotesque social inequalities he talks so much about had no psychological reality. Anyone can see we are not one. Not even close. The Republican Party understands and accepts this; they are not “folks.” They imagine themselves to be the winners, and they mean to keep it that way.
For those who will thrive in spite of climate disaster, the future will not be apocalyptic; in fact, it promises to be charming and magical. While “folks” worry about drought, flood, fire, food shortages and bankruptcy over medical bills, their betters can look forward to the coming marvel of virtual money, e-money, digital currency and Bitcoins galore. Disaster? Soon they’ll be able to strap on Oculus virtual-reality goggles, enter a Bloomingdale’s simulacrum and lift wonders from the shelves while a silently grinding device in their purse or on their hip does the math on their purchases. And then in some far-off misty place—the Cloud, as they say—calculations and small deductions will be made (unless Russian hackers get there first and turn the digits into Mercedes-Benzes and swank Black Sea dachas). Finally, for their shopping convenience, Amazon will have their treasures air-dropped by a delivery drone.
I suppose the Mexican landscapers will have to start wearing hard hats.
If someone were to ask these privileged shoppers why they should be allowed to thrive while the planet burns, they will simply turn on their smartphones and open their electronic wallets. See? A thousand, a million, a billion, a gazillion. Now do you get it? As Chico Marx says in The Cocoanuts, “I gotta lotsa numbers.” Wealth will be under no obligation to make sense in relation to the impoverished and frightening hordes that swarm in the dystopian hinterlands. The e-bucks and other virtual currencies will have no objective value, not in gold, not in collateral and certainly not in the good faith and credit of the nation-state—which is now a bit player. But then virtual money is nothing new. Money has always been virtual, a fantasy legitimating the relationship between power and misery.
Is this where evolution has been heading for the past 2 million years? These self-destructive, vainglorious creatures are the “fittest”? The most dominant members of the most dominant species in the long history of life on Earth behaving like a perverse crow that gathers into its nest a treasure of shiny bottle caps, shreds of aluminum foil, a glass earring…and then shits on it? If this is so, then evolution may be a scientific fact, but it is a very bad idea.
Curtis White is author of The Science Delusion.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Playboy.