Original photo by Martin Schoeller for Forbes

Capitalism and the free-market economy are based on the exchange of value and the key freedom of participation.  One is free to work; one is free to pursue economic ends; one is free to do and create things in exchange for compensation or other value.  On its surface this is simple.  It is in many ways the commodification of doing.  But the ethics of the free market slide into another realm when we look at the fact that this same system in the United States also accommodated slavery.  In slavery, not only is the capacity to work, or produce goods commodified, but ones very existence becomes a tradable, marketable value.  The capacity to procreate, to express (or suppress) emotion…i.e. docility, malleability…even basic human will becomes of value in the marketplace.

The ethical horror of American slavery includes many ills: rape, torture, family separation, etc.  But the great sin (and I use that word deliberately here) that sits at its heart is the non-humanization of human beings.  Slavery in the United States is* based entirely on the commodification of being.

Democracy has tried in the past to be a stopgap to this tragedy.  The early failures of the original framers of the constitution to erase the commodification of being, were given some course correction by the combination of executive action followed by legislation…after a vicious and tragic war.  Sadly however, the poison runs deep.  It is evident in how there continues to be a lively trade in anti-blackness, both domestically and abroad.  No amount of legislation seems capable of fixing the sickness of anti-blackness that is held both by those who are not black and sadly (and I say this as a very proud black man) by those who are.  Still democracy tries.

More importantly, activists, organizers, legislators, teachers, businesspeople, children, most of them black and some who are not…try daily to portray blackness through lenses of pride and worthiness; dynamic expression and ingenuity; creativity, beauty and brilliance.  It is not that the people who were brutally brought here from the African continent starting in 1619 didn’t have any of these same qualities…one need only to look at the list of technological and other advancements for which they were responsible to recognize that.  The problem is that their being as opposed to their doing was turned into value.  If you do not outright own your own being, you have nothing.  You are nothing.  This is what sits at the heart of anti-blackness.

I am not against a free market or capitalism. However, I do believe capitalism needs to always be checked by ethics.  Slavery and its progeny anti-blackness are the best examples of this.  The Civil War was a bizarre ethical conundrum: white men fighting white men over the power of their whiteness over black people.  A war over the “freedom” to commodify being that summarily denies freedom to others.

Now THAT is meta.

I encourage everyone who engages this brief reflection I’ve written to think carefully about the technology that Mark Zuckerberg has used to create wealth.  The means and technology are different, but the ethics are the exact same as what created the slavery industry and subsequently led to the deep seeded anti-blackness we live with today.  My greatest concern is not just the damage that is done by any kind of commodification of being (Zuckerberg’s business model is based on algorithms that do exactly that) but as a theologian and someone invested in the ethics of being, I worry what equivalent of anti-blackness will result from this failure of our democracy to act?  Anti-Asian? Anti-woman?  Anti-elder (think Logan’s Run)?  Anti-faith?  Anti-poor?  Anti-disability?  In truth, if you have engaged Zuckerberg’s work at all, you have probably experienced the potential for any of these already.

How quickly we forget that the abuse of freedom has consequences.  The freedom to put people’s being in chains against their will is a lesson I thought we had learned.

Apparently not.


*I refer to slavery in the present tense because we continue to live with its shadows and echoes in anti-blackness.

There IS evil…

Betsy DeVos, during the 2019 Education Budget Request Hearing

Children around the world are taught basic lessons as they learn language, culture and how to navigate among their fellow embodied human beings.  Children are taught that harming others is bad and inflicting harm can result in others wanting to harm them in retaliation.  For some reason, this lesson seems not to have stuck or maybe it has been neutralized by the intoxication of rampant unchecked capitalism among Republican leaders in our government.

Recently, totally-unqualified Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos put forward a proposal for budget cuts to her own department that would include more than $17M in cuts to Special Olympics.  Without going into the vast reach of this program, the loss or scaling back of Special Olympics would mean a move back toward some of the darkest days of marginalizing people with disabilities, not only by making their achievements and their abilities invisible but by assuming that the private sector will miraculously step up.  It was exactly that inequity that prompted Eunice Kennedy Shriver to found the program in the first place.  DeVos’ budget also includes cuts to after school programs that provide supplementary education and activity for children (mostly under served) whose regular schools are underfunded to begin with and also provides important programming for children where parents have to work full days to support their families beyond the hours of school.  I would compare Ms. DeVos to Cruella de Vil, but Ms. de Vil is a fictional character and a comparison would diminish the violence of these kinds of budgetary cuts.  Ms. de Vil also has more dimension.

In addition, the Senate has quite suddenly voted on the Green New Deal, stopping the measure with a 0 – 57 vote (all but four Democrats voted ‘present’ in protest).  This was a purely political tactic taken by Sen. Mitch McConnell to stop any serious consideration of the measure in its tracks.  The Senate Majority Leader basically took the Green New Deal and actively made it into a procedural footnote for the current Congress as a way of expressing a sentiment held by many of his Republican colleagues. For them, anything that aspires to change the status quo of capitalism for capitalism’s sake, must be stopped.  It is also the obvious agenda of this administration to willfully deny the impact and the sources of climate change, writing it off as left wing radicalism.  This despite the fact that some of the hardest hit by climate change already are farmers and residents of the great plains states and low lying delta regions that continue to vote against their own interest by returning people like McConnell to office because of some mysterious affinity.

There is only one word for this: Evil. We are hearing less and less in political discourse about ways to be united and more and more about one side versus the other and what it means to be right.  If our political system was broken by the 2000 election, it became infected after the 2008 and 2010 elections.  2016 was the beginning of organ failure and sepsis.

The vision shared by DeVos and McConnell is wholly one sided.  One might be quick to claim that this is the same for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, but the difference here is diversity.  Republicans of all types are currently represented by the language, interest and priorities of politicians who are almost entirely white men even though the party and the nation does not share those exclusive traits.  This is not the case of the Democratic representation in Washington, D.C.  The Democrats have begun to look more like the diverse constituents they represent.  Both situations pose challenges.  For the Democrats this means learning to corral the wide-ranging and sometimes conflicting ideas of what justice and equity mean to different segments of the population; it is a challenge of expansion.  For Republicans, this means that there is an expectation to tow a narrow party line, or face expulsion into an unknown abyss; it is a challenge of exclusion.  If we are to have any hope of a peaceful and inclusive future, the mechanism that we have to create a shared public order, our government, cannot be dominated by one group of people who would prioritize wealth and entitlement for a limited few ahead of the human right to existence.  Those were the same priorities that allowed slavery to be written into the Constitution, enabled the forced removal and genocide of native people and kept women disenfranchised from voting.  Any child can understand the harm in that.