American Depressions Series: The Crisis in Morality and Social Ethics

Posted on November 14, 2011 by

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Editorial Note: Socialist Agenda is running a week-long series. The series was originally published on tikkun.org in January 2010.

By Harriet Fraad

Let us begin with the first of our contributors: American ethics, morality, and spirituality. The same forces that decimated our economic, psychological, and social landscapes have transformed our sense of morality and social ethics. The shared dream of an ethical, moral society that dominated the United States until the 1970s has systematically eroded. In the 1960s it was common to believe that morality and spirituality include a concern for all human beings, rich and poor alike. The biggest push against those social ethics began with Reagan’s presidency in 1981. It continued in Reagan’s second term and was reinforced by each president until its (we hope) final act in the presidency of George W. Bush.

Reagan’s basic ideology was that people are poor because they lack incentives. He claimed that poor people’s noble drive to get rich is eroded by social programs that permit them to survive or, in his term, “freeload.” In this framework, income tax cuts increase the incentive to work and get rich, so all are expected to benefit from them. In 1980 the highest incomes were taxed at 73 percent. In 2009 those same high incomes were taxed at half that rate, 35 percent. Of course the percentage of tax on the highest incomes is actually even lower, since the wealthiest Americans can hire tax accountants to help them evade taxes. Reagan used his famous veto power to cut a huge range of social programs from biomedical research, to social security for disabled Americans, to clean water, to expanded Head Start. At the same time, he increased the military budget while decrying big government.

That pattern has been repeated ever since, which is how, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States went from being the most egalitarian western industrialized society in 1970 to the least egalitarian in 2009.

In addition, the Soviet model of socialism failed. It did not provide the kind and ethical societies that are part of a socialist vision. The mass of people believed that the Soviet Union was communism. Left-wing class analyses of the failure of Soviet Communism, such as Bettelheim’s in the late 1970s or Resnick and Wolff’s in 2002, were not widely read or embraced. Both of those analyses demonstrate that the USSR and its satellites exemplified class societies in which a bureaucratic class appropriated wealth and made crucial decisions affecting the lives of the mass of people. They explain that the USSR failed because it was not a communist society. It was not a society in which the people in each workplace decided what to produce, and also collected their own profits and decided together how to distribute those profits. Because these left-wing class interpretations were few and largely unembraced, a socialist or communist dream seemed doomed to end in rigid, bureaucratic, and undemocratic societies that were rejected by their own people. People lost faith in a secular dream.

Slowly there has been a transformation of our morality and ethics. Where our morality once required the United States to embody our ethics in the world and empower all citizens, it has shifted so that our morality now consists of requiring conservative personal and sexual behavior. Within that morality Clinton committed an impeachable crime by lying about having sex with an intern, while Bush and Cheney did not commit impeachable crimes by lying about the threat from Iraq and thus causing the deaths of over four thousand U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, or by torturing prisoners. It is not considered immoral to spend between six billion and twelve billion dollars a week on the war in Iraq while cutting school and social programs for needy families because “there is not enough money.” The secular morality that made America a proudly democratic and egalitarian nation has deteriorated. We are experiencing a national moral, ethical, and spiritual crisis.

Editor’s Note: Harriet Fraad is a psychotherapist-hypnotherapist in practice in New York City. She is a founding member of the feminist movement and the journal Rethinking Marxism.  For forty years, she has been a radical committed to transforming U.S. personal and political life.

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