Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are careerists the root of all evil?

Many years ago, when I was in college, I remember that I believed that most of the evil in the world was done by self-righteous zealots who were completely convinced that they were on the side of the Good. I thought that Hitler, for instance, understood himself to be conducting a great moral crusade, and this belief in his own goodness allowed him to perpetrate unspeakable evil.

Later, I abandoned this idea as simplistic. After all, many "moral crusades" are orchestrated by cynical manipulators to further their own ends. Thomas Frank has famously argued that ultra-wealthy Republican strategists have used the "culture wars" to convince white working-class people to vote against their own economic interests. Do those strategists even think about morality when they're planning those strategies?

Yesterday, thanks to Grandmothers Against Bullshit, I saw a provocative post by Chris Hedges that explores the idea that those who are really the most evil are the minor functionaries who do the mundane dirty work of those with the most power:
These armies of bureaucrats serve a corporate system that will quite literally kill us. They are as cold and disconnected as Mengele. They carry out minute tasks. They are docile. Compliant. They obey. They find their self-worth in the prestige and power of the corporation, in the status of their positions and in their career promotions. They assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. They sit on school boards. They go to Rotary. They attend church. It is moral schizophrenia. They erect walls to create an isolated consciousness. They make the lethal goals of ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs or Raytheon or insurance companies possible. They destroy the ecosystem, the economy and the body politic and turn workingmen and -women into impoverished serfs. They feel nothing. Metaphysical naiveté always ends in murder. It fragments the world. Little acts of kindness and charity mask the monstrous evil they abet. And the system rolls forward. The polar ice caps melt. The droughts rage over cropland. The drones deliver death from the sky. The state moves inexorably forward to place us in chains. The sick die. The poor starve. The prisons fill. And the careerist, plodding forward, does his or her job.
It seems to me that Mr. Hedges is on to something. But he leaves unanswered the question of how these functionaries turn off their moral sense. And he doesn't look beyond the bureaucrats to the masters they serve. There is something that doesn't quite ring true to me about his analysis, but I can't quite articulate it at this time of night. Maybe it has to do with the ways that the very concepts of "good" and "evil" have been leveraged to justify oppression--as the philosopher Sarah Hoagland has pointed out.

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