Yesterday’s post questioning the validity of the American Dream grew out of the discomfort and sadness I feel watching the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in this country open wider and wider. I was already wondering how it could come to this, when the Occupy Movement pointed an angry finger toward the greedy (and sometimes nefarious) dealings of investors and speculators on Wall Street. I think Occupy is right, but I don’t think it started in the United States.
The bifurcation of human society into a relatively few wealthy and powerful people, on one hand, and struggling masses, on the other, apparently happened thousands of years ago. And it must have raised concern even then. The Torah (600 BC?) cautioned the Hebrew people against narrow-minded pursuit of wealth, with a concomitant disregard of everyone else. A life of decency, said the writers, would seek justice and compassion for all human beings. (See World Religion: An Indispensable Introduction) When Christianity arose around 100 AD, writers extended the same message to the whole world: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” (New Testament, 1 Timothy 6:10a)
Some folks paid little heed to that moral teaching. I’m not sure how they got it (maybe they had a bigger club than anyone else so they could take what they wanted) but by the 1300s, wealthy Venetian moneylenders had accumulated enough dough to finance entire governments, including their wars. (That practice continued in the New World–banker J.P. Morgan financed millions of Allied debt in World War I). In the 15th and 16th centuries, wealthy European investors (cashing in on monopolistic charters granted by kings and queens) set ships afloat to plunder the riches of the East and West Indies and North America (the people already living in those places did not share in the profits, they were often killed, frequently enslaved).
When the industrial revolution really got going in the 1800s, the wealthy could speculate (thanks to creation of stock exchanges) on corporations, and make even more profit. As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, the titans of Wall Street came to control the entire American economy. Corporate managers risked firing if they failed to maximize investor returns, no matter what it cost their workers.(We know what that led to, again, in 2008!) In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement protested the destructive and impoverishing impact of avarice, while the denizens of Wall Street watched calmly from their glass towers, a cup of designer coffee in hand.
Over the centuries, some (maybe most) of these wealth accumulators have been (are) Jewish or Christian or adherents of some system of religion or spirituality. Can’t help wondering if they ever think about themselves as moral agents. Do they ever think about justice and compassion? Of course, they are under no obligation to do so. Because, as we know, being wealthy makes being moral strictly optional.