Earlier today I was reading a book called Surpassing the Spectacle by Carol Becker. It’s essentially about the role of the arts and artists in American society, and while that’s well and good, the book (or at least the part that I read – to be fair, I haven’t finished it yet) is undeniably propagandist. That’s not actually what I want to talk about in this post, though. (But for a great exploration of propaganda check this out: http://extra-credits.net/episodes/propaganda-games/ And if you’re at all interested in video games and/or their rising status as a mass storytelling medium and art form, check out all the other videos by the Extra Credits crew. They do a very entertaining and very thoughtful weekly show. Ok, digression over.)
No, what I really want to touch on today is a notion that the propaganda of Surpassing the Spectacle seems to be espousing: that a political or economic system has the capacity to solve society’s moral failings if properly implemented. Becker is quite openly socialist, and repeatedly states her confidence that capitalism and its conservative impulses are to blame for society’s inequality, intolerance, racism, etc. She advocates a government-driven liberalization of society, and laments the decline of socialism saying:
“As long as there was a philosophical alternative to capitalism that held the promise of greater equity,even if it had not succeeded as many had imagined, even if it had disappointed its greatest supporters, its existence allowed for the possibility that a new economic organization of society might someday evolve”
— Carol Becker, Surpassing the Spectacle p. 143
Becker goes on romantically to dream that such a society would be a place for open debate and criticism. Again, I do not mean to deny that Becker makes some good point that should be taken under advisement. Society should have space for thoughtful criticism. But I wonder, if this perfect society of Becker’s ever did evolve, would there ever be need for criticism?
Which leads me, finally, to what I really am trying to get at here. Becker envisions artists moving society forward, but forward to…what? Perhaps the answer to that is in the chapters I haven’t read yet, but I doubt it. Becker wants society to be more open, more accepting, more egalitarian, but to what point? The line has to be drawn somewhere, and probably before we include the actions of serial killers in our definition of acceptable social practice. Becker has no moral basis for her dream of a the perfect society. And economic systems do not create moral people.
As Becker alluded to in the quote above, the USSR, the great opponent to the capitalist United States, failed to live up to its promise. Failed spectacularly, in fact. Stalin violently repressed dissension with the status quo. That’s not a systemic error. It’s a human one. A moral one.
I’m not saying that capitalism is inherently better. Greed, particularly at the expense of others’ well being is rampant, and it’s a problem, among others. But again, that’s not a systemic issue, it’s a human one grounded in the moral failings of individuals.
When it comes to the alleviation of human suffering, which is what Becker’s really trying to get at here, the economic system is irrelevant. The moral system is everything, and Becker’s arguments have no moral direction. If people truly worked for the good of their neighbors rather than themselves, socialism would be completely workable, but then so would capitalism. The question of who should hold responsibility for the dignity and well-being of their fellow man, both socially and economically, would be wholly irrelevant. It would get done either way.
It is only through the lens of a strong moral code that society may be judged and found either worthy or lacking. Without such a foundation, any discussion of the socioeconomic merits of a system is rather pointless.