We are all shaped and molded, influenced and coerced daily by values that comprise our worldview. The process is so relentless, so subtle yet thorough, that we are often not aware of the values we embrace and internalize. Malcolm X said, “They put your mind right in a bag, and take it wherever they want.”
I’m a psychotherapist. My field identifies these dominant values in our society: individualism, competition, dominance over nature, glorification of war, self-reliance, action orientation, strong work ethic, and consumerism and status.
Marxists see these values as helping form an ideological superstructure emerging from the economic base of capitalism. In other words, these values are rooted in capitalism and serve to perpetuate it. Marx said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”
Can the values arising from an exploitative and criminal economic base themselves be healthy? Not likely.
“Rugged individualism,” for example, contributes to inflated egos and promotes relentless pursuit of self-interest. Individualism is glorified in Horatio Alger “rags to riches,” entrepreneurial success sagas. This mythological celebration of anti-social individualism is bourgeois propaganda that obscures the need for working-class solidarity.
Competition, while appropriate on the soccer field, is hardly a basis for a sane and civilized society. Capitalism forces people to compete for survival, for material necessities such as health care, education and jobs. This is social wealth that should be shared. But America has the widest gap between rich and poor of any comparable nation. We also have a larger percentage of our population in prison than any comparable country. Aldous Huxley described capitalism as “organized lovelessness.” A society of competing individuals can never know peace.
Dominance over nature is arrogance that justifies pollution and abuse of animals, reducing the Earth and its splendid creatures to commodities, and eventually leading to ecocide. Environmentalist Edward Abbey compared capitalist development to cancer: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Glorification of war allows the ruling class to persuade the working class, especially the young, that it is meaningful and romantic to die on foreign soil for U.S. corporations. Militarism directs at least 51 cents of each tax dollar to the Pentagon. Lost is funding for human needs.
Self-reliance, admirable to a degree, is a value useful to capitalism because it suggests that it is your fault if you are hungry, lonely, alienated, poor, jobless, depressed or lacking health care. This “blame the victim” ethos encourages us to criticize the individual rather than the society. The psychology profession serves capitalism in this respect by promoting a “medical model” of human distress that locates pathology within the individual. It twists the old worker slogan “Don’t mourn, organize!” into “Don’t organize, mourn!” The greatest, indeed the only, threat to capitalism is working-class solidarity.
The war against Vietnam is a shining example of how an affinity for action, at the expense of the desirable human traits of restraint, reflection and self-criticism, led America into genocide and war crimes. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck commented: “The situation in Vietnam presented us with evidence of the fallibility of our world view… So, rather than rethinking it, we set about to destroy the situation in Vietnam, and all of Vietnam with it if necessary. Which was evil.”
The work ethic is used by capitalism to extract as much labor power as possible from we who toil. Marx taught us that work is sacred, a profound expression of our creativity, imagination and energy. But capitalism degrades human labor to a commodity. It uses the work ethic to destroy workers’ capacity for leisure, spontaneity, balance, personal development, family involvement, health and meaningful citizenship. Remember the sign the Nazis placed above the gate at Auschwitz: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work makes you free).
Emphasis on consumerism and status, fueled by mass advertising, leads us to embrace material rather than relational values. In other words, we come to value stuff over persons and society. A Marxist view suggests that the more you possess, the greater your impoverishment and alienation.
Has your worldview been shaped by these values? It is not your fault. We are immersed in these values from birth, led into false consciousness daily by schools and a corporate media. It is capitalism which produces these values and it is only the abolition of capitalism which will liberate human consciousness and permit the emergence of humane and healthy values.
Only socialism can provide real wealth in the form of control over material and mental production, genuine democracy, full access to social resources, and an end to war and poverty. Socialism will restore us to our healthy, social selves so that we no longer consume to ease the pain of loneliness and alienation. Socialism will permit us to celebrate, as Marx wrote, “the greatest wealth, the other person.”
Michael James is a psychotherapist in private practice.