In recent days, protests have erupted across the United States against evident police brutality and unjust killing of an unarmed black man. Similar gatherings have taken place in increasing number of cities around the world. While many restrict their attention to the racial issues in the United States, Prof Cornel West, in a piercing interview on CNN, pointed out what I believe is the fundamental issue that democracies across the world must address: unrestrained materialism.
Materialism and the Loss of Purpose
Capitalism has evolved to this day with its own successes and failures. While it has uplifted many out of poverty through increases in productivity, it has also relinquished the purpose in life of the public as the price. Since the neoliberal takeover of the 1980s, inequality in all its forms, perhaps with the sole exception in the case of sexual identity, has worsened in pursuit of ever-growing profit.
I explained in an earlier article that we have fallen into a trap whereby growth must continue, if not accelerate, just so we do not fall into an abyss. Besides the immense environmental toll, there is an incessant race to the bottom. Deteriorating working conditions and outsourcing to the laxest slave-labor market are the results.
In one of the most extreme examples, if not the most extreme example, common people in the United States work their whole lives in their pursuit of materialism: Bigger and newer houses, bigger and newer cars, bigger and newer everything become the center of the universe for many. Life, thereby, has completely lost its purpose.
Without Purpose There Is No Caring
Life without purpose leaves many hyper-individualistic. As I wrote in another article, it is freedom without duty; me and not anyone else.
Unsurprisingly, when everyone else is either a nuisance (for “my freedom”) or a competitor (for “my money”), in a life where the pursuit of absolute freedom and material comfort is the goal, there can be no caring for the weak, for those in need.
In this environment, many have grown up desensitized to the need of others or, worse, see the world as “us and them” in competition for “supremacy”.
Violence Happens When the Façade of Civility Falls
In this context, empty souls whose lives have not turned out the way they hoped become easily resentful. When the façade of civility fails to contain the hatred, the hatred takes over.
This could well be behind the original police killing of George Floyd. This, I believe, is behind the looting during the protests: Us and them, the division is not merely across “racial” lines. It is much deeper. It is the symptom of a fundamentally unfair, unjust, and inequality system taken over by materialism.
* Please note that the common noun democrat refers to “adherent or advocate of democracy”. Originated from the French Revolution, the word is formed from democracy on the model of aristocrat, to whom the democrats (also known as republicans) were opposed. The word has nothing to do with the neoliberal political party (big ‘D’) in the US.