Iconoclast – Why We Need The Humanities

Privatize the press and education system, disenfranchise the working class, corrupt the legislative process, and debase electoral politics, and society will plunge itself into a moral void. Canada is far advanced down this path already, but it is certainly more pronounced in the US.

Our universities face mounting pressure to cut programs that do not appeal to corporate revenue. They gut departments like the humanities—but you can be damn sure they won’t touch robotics, a useful field for defence contractors. Elite universities build gleaming new business schools designed to pump out competent systems managers, those who are largely responsible for trashing the global economy. Morally-neutral disciplines remain virtually untouched since 2008.

The highest educated elite, with their economic degrees from Toronto, Paris, or Cambridge, are organized around serving established corporate hierarchies. They are regimented into minutely specialized fields that advance a global economic regime which is directly responsible for destroying the ecosystem upon which all life depends. They speak in incomprehensible language that locks the average citizen out of the debate—jargon like “credit default swaps,” and “structured investment vehicles”. And when society is configured around narrow disciplines that serve as barriers to communication, the vital relationship between morality and power breaks down.

A specialist functions as a minor part in a power structure he or she is taught not to question. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the managerial elite who run the US and Canada are illiterate, in the real sense of the word. They know nothing of the moral traditions of Western civilization, or about human nature. In fact, they do not even know, as Michael Albert and others have pointed out, how to effectively distribute resources to suffice the basic needs of citizens. Their purpose, as with all elites, is to perpetuate their kind.

In an unfettered free market, morality is an impediment. According to this bizarre doctrine, human beings are commodities. They are objects, like consumer products. They have no intrinsic value beyond commercial value. Their individual worth is determined by a sort of monetary relativism. And those who are successful, like Wall Street speculators and the priesthood of corporate CEOs, are self-justified by wealth and fame. Money is its own moral justification—it is irrelevant how one gets there.

This is the perverted ethic of an unregulated market place. Fraudulent mortgages and investment scandals are not some anomalistic flaws to be overcome, but are symptomatic to the structure of capitalism and the inherent incentives it produces.

Chris Hedges, who has written wisely on this issue, argues that a culture that does not grasp the “interplay of morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death”.

The inevitable result is moral nihilism. Modern universities, with their standardized test scores and blind deference to authority, disdain true intellectual inquiry, which by its very nature is distrustful of authority and about challenging popular assumptions. They instead attempt to prepare students to compete in the new ‘global market place.’

It is incumbent on us to start rejecting, through small and often incomprehensible acts of resistance, the instrumental rationality of economics. The paradigm of “Empire” and limitless growth is over. The only imperative left to harness is community-based living, forms of sustainable agriculture, and local organization that seeks to keep alive the moral traditions that came before us.

Tristan A. Shaw was the Cultural Affairs Editor for Urban Garden Magazine. He is a regular columnist for a number of magazines and websites, and is currently studying cultural anthropology.

Article originally published in the Flying Shingle, May 2011.