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Herb Rothschild Jr.: How we really live

In my previous column I identified our oppressor as our culture, shaped by laissez-faire capitalism, which posits competition as our natural condition and the iron law of winners and losers. I urged us to disengage from that culture at the personal level and contest it at the political level. My focus here is on disengagement.

Our first step must be to discredit those twin assumptions, to deny that by nature we humans, individually or collectively, must regard each other as competitors for the good things in life. We must realize that those assumptions distort our true nature, and that they mask from our awareness how differently we live most of our lives.

Regarding the latter, consider driving our cars. When we get on the road, we join a cooperative enterprise based on trust in myriad people we’ve never met. This occurred to me when I got behind the wheel after learning the evening before that my near neighbor had killed a 25-year-old on Interstate 5 south of Medford. Apparently there had been a road rage episode between them lasting for several miles, then my neighbor swerved his pickup truck into the young man’s motorcycle, pushing him into the cable barrier on the median. My neighbor was charged with manslaughter.

Incidents of road rage make news, and that’s because they occur infrequently. Oregon State Police Public Information Officer Jeff Proulx told the Mail Tribune reporter covering this story that road rage incidents ending in deaths are “highly unusual ... I’ve been on the job 22 years and cannot think of one that I saw or heard of that resulted in a fatality.”

What do we assume when we drive? That either we or the other drivers will win? Of course not. Regardless of whether we’ve ever thought about it, our assumptions are that all other drivers share with us the goal of getting to their destinations safely, and the best chance of achieving that common goal is for all of us to observe the same rules. It’s impressive how law-abiding we are, and not primarily from fear of being cited for violations. We know there’s no winning by driving uncooperatively. Just to know the rules largely suffices for us to abide by them. It’s also impressive how courteous we are. For every driver who won’t slow to let us into a lane if we ask, there’s at least one who will.

How representative of general human activity, and how demonstrative of human nature, is driving? Granted, it obviously rewards cooperation, so one might argue that drivers act from individual self-interest. But what follows from that? To carry the argument against Social Darwinism, that pseudo-scientific justification of self-aggrandizing behavior, we need not maintain that humans are basically self-sacrificial. We need only establish that we fulfill our needs best by fulfilling them together. The great majority of our individual actions indicate that we recognize that truth.

As an economic system, capitalism does a marvelous job generating enough goods to meet our material needs. But that’s not its goal. Its goal is to generate capital, which in turn requires ever-expanding production. Thus, capitalism must reduce all of us to consumers, and re-cast our needs into insatiable desires for private possessions and corporeal sensations. Our distorted conceptions of self and society follow from this dynamic.

It takes only a little individual and group self-examination to toss these conceptions onto the ideological trash heap where they belong.

— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.