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Why So Little Empathy and Compassion Within American Culture?

The circle is rapidly closing

Human Sociality

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas; the class which is the ruling material force in society is at the same time the ruling intellectual force.
— Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels

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Setting aside the 3-4 percent of the U.S. population that can be classified as psychopaths (‘snakes in suits’ at the highest levels of government, business and the military) what can we say about an entire society that displays an anethetized conscience towards the suffering of others and towards the ecological commons itself?

We know that many hear the “cry of the people” but the moral sound waves are muted as they pass through powerful cultural baffles. I submit that neoliberal capitalist culture in the U.S. deadens feelings of social solidarity, pathologizes how we view ourselves and stunts our natural feelings of empathy and moral responsibility.

Massive belief systems tend to override our neurobiological, evolutionary heritage as our brain’s plasticity conforms to corporate capitalist ideology.  We come to view our “selves,” our identities, as based primarily on market values, especially “Only care about yourself and a few persons close to you.” One advances in society via rugged self-reliance and individuals are basically hypercompetitive, perpetual consumers.

How does this cultural information access our brains? Simply put, culture is invented by institutions that serve particular interests. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that it’s all about class and power as the ideas of the ruling class take on the everyday status of common sense, of universal truths. These include “truths” about human nature and how the world works.

It would be incorrect, however, to assume our rulers are a coven of diabolical conspirators who gather at Davos to consciously devise their wicked schemes. There’s actually a remarkable symmetry between neoliberalism’s ruling ideas and the convictions held by elites. And whereas they might be “nice guys” in their private lives, in their institutional capacities they’re moral monsters.  Why? In part, because they must do so to be successful but they also believe their behavior is synonymous with society’s best interests. The fatal flaw in “speaking truth to power” is that psychopaths will always sleep well at night.

In any event, to the extent these ideas are internalized by working people, we police ourselves, thus reducing the elite’s need for visible coercion. And make no mistake, there is nothing more dangerous to ruling class interests than people getting in touch with their inborn, wired sense of empathy and then acting as their sisters’ and brothers’ keeper.

To reiterate, ideas do not have an independent existance apart from economics.  As my old friend Mike Parenti once wrote, “...whenever anyone offers a culturistic interpretation of social phenomena we should be skeptical.” Why? Because “cultural explanations are closer to tautologies than explanations.” It’s culture itself that needs to be explained and political analyses that neglect or refuse to account for class will have little explanatory value.

Why is this topic so important?  First, as Peter Kropopkin, the Russian revolutionary, geographer and naturalist, noted in his famous book Mutual Aid, the predisposition of helping one another — human sociality — was of “prehuman origin.” And those societies that willingly abandon cooperation “are doomed to decay.”  Everything we’ve learned about this from evolutionary biology, neuroanthropology, cultural studies and neuroscience reinforces Kropotkin’s assertion.

Second, people act the way they do for reasons that we can study and comprehend. Yes, “Those who have the gold, make the rules!” But those “rules” also give shape to our emotional life and sense of self.  Finally, exposing the class power behind culture points up the absolute necessity for basic structural changes in our dominant economic system and its empathy-enervating ideology. Piecemeal, cosmetic reforms won’t cut it.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that the elite’s attempt at cultural hegemony is complete. If we lived in such a hermetically sealed system, impervious  to challenge, we couldn’t be engaging in this dialogue. But the circle is rapidly closing.

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Gary Olson

Gary Olson

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (NY: Springer, 2013.) Contact: olsong@moravian.edu

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