Some Questions Answered about “The Demise of Virtue”
What is “Virtual America”?
Although our nation’s geographical coordinates are essentially the same as they were in 1946, we are now living in a dramatically different place: all humanly built or composed, our days increasingly spent inside an allied set of physical and digital architectures. As exemplified by our host of office cubicles, enclosed malls and amusement parks, surround-sound videos, and online simulated realities, this Virtual America is highly indoctrinating. But because the temper of its ideology is so often seductive rather than coercive—because it is usually presented as either harmless entertainment or unambiguously “good” economic progress—we do not easily recognize its pernicious effects, nor personally acknowledge the power of its persuasiveness. And insomuch as this new place superficially touts traditional American values even as it relentlessly undermines the conditions necessary for their survival, “virtual” also refers to the inherent duplicity of its self-presentation.
Who has designed this new American place, and to what end?
David Bosworth makes a strong case that this ongoing enclosure of the American experience is being directed by the most central and conventional of institutions: corporate commerce, as empowered by decades of privatization. Although decorated by the arts and delivered by science, Virtual America has been designed primarily to generate profits. Chapter by chapter, The Demise of Virtue in Virtual America details how the economic values narrowly associated with production and consumption—ruthless efficiency in the workplace and seductive salesmanship in the marketplace—now dominate the spaces we inhabit daily.
What are some examples of this domination?
Since the mid-fifties, we have witnessed the conversion of nearly every corner of our living space into a new niche for the marketplace, every activity into a leasable service with accessories for sale. Under this regime, the civic center has been replaced by the enclosed mall, and the Olympics have been reduced to a global trade fair. The charitable “volunteer” at your door is just another salesman working on commission, taking 30 percent of each donation toward saving the whales, and the shoes, shirts, and hats that we wear have been hijacked to serve as corporate billboards. Worse, our storehouse of memories is also overstocked with the logos of commerce. Where poems, parables, and patriotic songs once whispered in our ear to steer us through our lives, we now hear the adman’s rhyming jingles and the banal maxims of management gurus.
What is meant by the “demise of virtue” inside this Virtual America?
The phrase describes the ongoing conversion of traditional American values—in both their republican and Judeo-Christian accents—to the ways, means, and ruling ideals of the postmodern corporation. Under this moral regime, honesty gives way to salesmanship, friendliness devolves into networking, generosity is reconceived as productivity, heroes are replaced by celebrities, and faith is reduced to “prosperity theology.” In practical effect, this corporate ethos has been usurping the authority of church and state, even while shirking the social responsibilities that normally attend them.
But doesn’t participation in the free-market economy induce responsible traits such as self-reliance and delayed gratification?
To a degree, it does. But the development of character is far more dependent on the moral health of families, neighborhoods, schools, and civic and religious associations, all of which are being undermined by the current regime of monetizing and marketizing virtually everything. And, too, we no longer live in an economy of independent farmers and shopkeepers; most workers are, instead, wage employees necessarily subservient to the moral order enforced inside their corporate offices, factories, sales rooms, and call centers. Furthermore, the spirit of capitalism changed when it aggressively turned to consumer products. As the economy became dependent on inducing mass consumption, the old traits associated with the Protestant ethic, including thrift, self-reliance, and delayed gratification, became incompatible with the marketing required to boost consumer sales.
What is the “spirit of capitalism” in our era, then?
Bosworth calls the ruling spirit of our times Evangelical Mammonism. That spirit is evangelical in that it is constantly touting the “good news” of one or more final solutions to the human predicament: economically, the elimination of the boom-bust cycle; politically, the happy “end of history”; personally, the permanent erasure of physical pain and mental anguish via one of its products. And because the path pursued to achieve this utopian news focuses so fiercely on material improvements and acquisitions, it is aptly classified as a latter-day form of Mammonism. Its core belief is the crude moral premise, nowhere true in the natural world, that more must equal better—more efficiency in the workplace and more consumption in the marketplace for more profits in the ledger. Under the sway of Evangelical Mammonism, all higher meanings, sacred or secular, are made to submit to the measures of money.
What are the consequences of our submission to this Evangelical Mammonism?
On a national level, the consequences were made painfully evident in the delusions that authorized the invasion of Iraq and in the astonishing scale of fraud and folly that characterized the housing bubble. On a personal level, this ethos is also punishing, however. Its moral regime is extremely stressful, and insomuch as it enforces two opposing sets of ideal behavior, one for behind the desk and the other for browsing in the mall, it is also deeply incoherent. Each of us is supposed to labor like Sisyphus and consume like Falstaff, the sum of which (as calculated by the fuzzy moral math of free-market ideology) will also produce a naturally virtuous citizenry. But robotic efficiency plus sheer avidity cannot lead to either personal happiness or civic righteousness, and no democracy can long survive a conversion to the service of such dehumanizing lies.
How did we arrive at such a state?
When designing our democracy, the founders focused on prohibiting the two institutional enemies of freedom that they knew best, a centralized church and a monarchical state. Although uncommonly prudent for revolutionary thinkers, they never fully imagined, and so didn’t “check and balance,” the political threat posed by the modern corporation. These highly specialized institutional “bodies” can produce economic goods in astonishing quantities. Yet their internal governance—strictly rationalized methods serving narrowly materialistic ends—is neither Judeo-Christian nor democratic in nature. Consequently, the primary moral challenge to the American experiment other than slavery has been whether the productivity of these essentially amoral money machines—unimagined and so unrestrained by our Constitution—can be yoked to serve the same democratic purposes and Judeo-Christian values that they internally refuse. Not just the subprime scandal that led to the Great Recession but also the broader monetizing of our artistic, scientific, and religious practices highlight our current failure to pass that test.
What can be done to address that failure?
In the seventeenth century, it was the rise of an intellectually empowered, but also estranged and amoral, individualism that threatened the moral order of the day. Today, the danger of the Machiavellian man has been replaced by that of the sociopathic organization. And just as the successful emergence of the modern democracies required the moralization of the emancipated individual, so will a reprise of democratic virtue in the postmodern era require morally refining the postmodern corporation, along with the many social spaces it now commands. We will need to imagine a public and extraverted equivalent to the private and introspective voice of conscience that once converted the rogue individualist into the Protestant self, preparing the way for democracy.