The Golden Rule: Theirs and Ours

05/04/13 0 COMMENTS

Gary Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain(New York: Springer, 2012)

Think of the values and ideas we left progressives tend to identify with and defend and advance against those rapacious “1%”’ masters of capital, for whom the Golden Rule is that “those who have the gold deserve to rule.” Words that first come to mind probably include solidarity, democracy, the common good, equality, justice, peace, and dignity. Other terms might arise: human rights, socialism, freedom, liberty, the commons, people over profits, and people’s power.

Here’s one you might not think to mention: empathy. Empathy, which Gloria Steinem once called “the most radical of human emotions,” means the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes – to understand and sense what that other is experiencing and feeling. In Christian terms it refers to the decision to “love your neighbor as yourself,” yielding the original Golden Rule:  “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In Buddhist terms, empathy means exchanging oneself for others, subordinating ego to what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” It means abandoning the standard reigning Western sense of a solid, separate self apart from other sentient beings and the earth we share.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is perhaps the ultimate example of what the left political scientist and teacher Gary Olson calls “dangerous empathy.”  Having dedicated his life early on to “agape” – to a sense of “redeeming good will for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return (emphasis added)”[1] – Dr. King was moved to protest the U.S. racist and imperial slaughter called “the Vietnam War” when he saw photos of Vietnamese children killed and burned by American “liberators.” His civil rights colleague Bernard Lee never forgot King’s response:

“When he came to Ramparts magazine he stopped. He froze as he looked at the pictures from Vietnam. He saw a picture of a Vietnamese mother holding baby, a baby killed by our military. Then Martin just pushed the plate of food away from him. I looked up and said, ‘Doesn’t it taste any good?’, and he answered, ‘Nothing will ever taste any good for me until I do everything I can to end that war.’ …That’s when the decision was made. Martin had known about the war before then, of course, and had spoken out against it. But it was then that he decided to commit himself to oppose it.” [2]

King’s decision came with no small risk. He was assassinated (or executed) on April 4, 1968, one year to the day after he gave his famous “Time to Break the Silence” speech, in which his sense of what he called “the true meaning of compassion” compelled him to openly oppose U.S. war crimes abroad and to acknowledge that the U.S. was “the leading purveyor of violence in the world today.” On behalf of “all of us….bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism,” King said that “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.” [3]

The word “empathy” no doubt strikes some angry, aggression-attached radicals as soft and “touchy-feely” – as something for sappy, “bleeding heart liberal” social workers and school psychologists. It’s the stuff of sentimental bourgeois moralists like Charles Dickens, who specialized in the fantasy of the good rich man who helps poor people he comes to care about (e,g, Mr. Bownlow’s rescue of the street orphan Oliver Twist) but who (contrary to the British Communist Party’s Popular Front-era effort to claim him as a “proletarian” writer) never embraced the working class struggle and revolutionary change required.[4] “Empathy” is not for serious, tough-minded revolutionaries, who know that the profits system needs to be overthrown and that “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Or is it? How can solidarity and camaraderie (not to mention comradeship) in shared struggle for democracy/liberty/ justice/ the common good/protection of the commons/socialism/peace etc. form and endure among people without basic empathy for each other? Serious popular movements have always depended and thrived on the embrace of a core rejection of individualistic and narcissistic ego, trading in “I, me, me, mine” for the notion that “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

For what its worth, empathy for the plight of others is written all over the famous first volume of the legendarily tough- and revolution-minded Karl Marx’s Capital,  which contains long and evocative passages on the dreadful damage done to British workers’ health and happiness by capital’s “voracious appetite for surplus labor.” Consistent with the horrific reports in Frederick Engels’ Condition of the English Working Class (1844), Capital is loaded with lengthy quotes from factory inspectors on the terrible price imposed on working class individuals, and communities by the bourgeoisie’s relentless quest to squeeze as much profit as possible from those who toiled in their despotic and “hidden abode of production.” From his partly Engels-funded perch in the British Museum, Marx recoiled at how the worker “emerges from the process of [vicious capitalist] production looking different from when he entered it.” As he wrote in his chapter on “The Working Day”:

“In the market, as owner of the commodity ‘labor power,’ [the worker] stood face to face with other owners of commodities, one owner against another owner. The contract by which he sold his labor power to the capitalist proclaimed in black and white, so to speak, that he was free to dispose of himself. But when the transaction was concluded, it was discovered that he was no ‘free agent’, that the period of time for which he is free to sell his labor power is the period of time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited” (emphasis added).[5]

For his part, King ended his life in agreement with Marx on some key matters. “The black revolution,” King wrote in a posthumously published essay, was “forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws – racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced” (emphasis added).[6] Consistent with the often harsh and quick-tempered ole Mole and contrary to sentimental middle-class moralists and reformers before and since Dickens, King determined that, in his words in 1967, “only by structural change can current evils be eliminated, because the roots are in the system rather in men or faulty operations” (emphasis added). [7]

For King as for Marx and generations of serious radicals before and since, one did not act sufficiently on one’s concern for others through isolated acts of charity and assistance. A serious believer in the Golden Rule worked to eliminate the underlying structures of inequality and oppression that gave rise to the need for charity in the first place. “Philanthropy,” King wrote in The Strength to Love (1963), “is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which makes philanthropy necessary.” [8]

The U.S. ruling class understands the dangerous power of empathy quite well. As Olson shows in his important new book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain, the reigning neoliberal culture that the rich have promoted with great success over the last four decades is dedicated among other things to the eradication of human beings’ capacity for empathy. Consistent with the vicious neoliberal pioneer Margaret Thatcher’s claims that “there is no such thing as a society” and that “there is no such thing as collective conscience, collective kindness,” the dominant doctrine promotes a “feral” society in which life is all about personal gain and the primary concern of serious adults is “mine, mine, mine.” Neoliberal ideology and culture attacks the bonds that connect humans to each other – and to their shared natural environment and other sentient beings. It might be termed “the political economy of narcissism. Once people are brought around to the belief that society is a chimera,” Olson observes, “a perverse ‘rational pursuit of self-interest’ favors the commodification of the self as a survival strategy,” leading to “a commodification of morals” and “an incapacity for empathy” as “people are increasingly valued only for their utility, their market value.”[9]

The authoritarian implications are chilling. A democratic political culture cannot last or take root in a society whose members are simply out to serve their narrowly defined self-interests. It cannot flourish in a society where people have been turned into “disconnected, apolitical individuals,” as Latin Americanist scholar Cathy Schneider has described the shell-shocked Chilean people after a U.S-sponsored military coup overthrew the democratically elected government of Chile’s Marxist president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973 ( “Latin America’s 9/11,” ushering in a mass murderous and proto-fascist dictatorship that instituted neoliberal economic policies designed by American academicians from the University of Chicago’s “free market” economics department). Under the reigning neoliberal doctrine of what we might call the post-Allende era, the populace must be “taught,” in the British global justice activist Susan George’s words:

“to believe that we are not citizens or members of a social body but discrete, individual consumers. We are entirely responsible for our own destinies and if we fall by the wayside for whatever reason—illness, job loss, accident, failure, whatever—it’s our own fault….We have no responsibility for other people either. Solidarity is a banished word. …. That’s the essence of the neo-liberal spirit: ‘You’re on your own’….If you are well-schooled in neo-liberalism, you will never join a social movement, never engage in a struggle against an unjust action of the government, never contribute to an effort to protect the natural world….”(emphasis added). [10]

Look at the longstanding Wall Street campaign to dismantle Social Security. It’s about more than the billions of dollars in profits the leading financial institutions expect to result from privatizing the nation’s successful and popular public old age retirement system. Also relevant to that system’s rich and powerful enemies is the dangerously empathic and egalitarian rooting of Social Security in what Olson calls “the principle of caring about others who are living on the margins.” [11] As Noam Chomsky has noted, “The preferred doctrines” promoted by the corporate and financial elite “are just to care about yourself; don’t care about anyone else…The very idea that we’re in it together, that we care about each other, that we have responsibility for one another, that’s sort of frightening for those who want a society which is dominated by power, authority, wealth, in which people are passive and obedient…” (emphasis added).[12] “You have,” Chomsky has told the Canadian law professor Joel Bakan, “to drive out of people’s heads natural sentiments like care about others….the ideal is to have individuals who are totally disassociated from one another; who don’t care about anyone else.”[13]

Yet even as it works to wipe out our capacity for empathy, the business elite also and at the same time exploits that capacity for selfish purposes. As Olson demonstrates in a chapter titled “Neuromarketing 101: Branding Empathy,” corporations widely deploy sinister neuroscience-informed marketing strategies that utilize fake empathy. “How to Empathize Your Way to Profits” reads the title of a business article that shows its readers how “wearing [potential customers’] skin” gives their business an edge over the competition in taking advantage of consumers’ “emotional triggers.” The notion that corporations “care” and “feel for” for people, other sentient beings (a recent example is Coca Cola’s advertising campaign identifying itself with the fate of the Polar Bear) is ubiquitous in American advertising and public relations. [14]

The notion is a lie. Beneath the pretense of concern, American corporations, Olson notes, are “empathy-devoid psychopaths.” In 2003, the Canadian law professor Joel Bakan published his widely read volume The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Noting that the U.S. judiciary defined corporations as legal “persons” by the end of the 19th century, Bakan posed an interesting question: what kind of “person” is a modern corporation?  His answer: a sociopath, consistent with the corporation’s judicially certified mandate is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its investors’ selfish economic self-interest, regardless of – and without any guilt or conscience about – any injury it may cause to others and the common good along the way. Bakan asked the internationally recognized psychologist Dr. Robert Hare to evaluate the modern corporation against his globally acclaimed diagnostic tool The Psychopathy Checklist. The results were instructive:

“Hare found there was a close match. The corporation is irresponsible, Dr. Hare said, because ‘in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk.’ Corporations try to “manipulate everything, including public opinion,’ and they are grandiose, always insisting ‘that we’re number one, we’re the best.’ A lack of empathy and asocial tendencies are also key characteristics of the corporation, says Hare – “their behavior indicates that they don’t really concern themselves with their victims’; and corporations often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse: ‘If [corporations] get caught [breaking the law], they pay big fines and they continue doing what they did before anyway. And in fact in many cases the fines and penalties and the penalties paid by the organizations are trivial compared to the profits they rake in.’….Finally, according to Dr. Hare, corporations relate to others superficially:  ‘their whole goal is to present themselves to the public in a way that is appealing to the public [but] in fact may not be representative of what th[e] organization is really like.’  Human psychopaths are notorious for their ability to use charm as a mask to hide their dangerously self-obsessed personalities. For corporations, [claims of] social responsibility may play the same role.”[15]

It goes back a long way. The modern corporation’s cloak of personhood provides a great shield of invisibility for capitalists who reap enormous benefits from the economies of scale and the barriers to competition afforded by their freedom to combine assets while avoiding liability beyond their individual investment for the harm their agglomerated entities cause. “The basis of a corporation,” Chomsky casually noted last year, “is limited liability, meaning as a participant in a corporation you’re not personally liable if it, say, murders tens of thousands in Bhopal.”[16]

Despite its cautionary title and harsh findings, Olson’s powerful little[17] book concludes on an optimistic note. The author is convinced on the basis of recent neuroscience findings (particularly Marco Iacoboni’s path-breaking work on “mirror neurons”) that human beings are “wired for empathy” by an evolutionary process that selected mutual concern for the common good over atomization and selfishness as key to human survival. The reigning neoliberal (really bourgeois) notion that human beings are basically selfish and competitive is a great lie promoted for selfish reasons by the disproportionately sociopathic capitalist elite.[18] Our task as “dangerous Samaritans” and revolutionaries is to more properly align our institutional and ideological order with our underlying human and caring nature. Given the currently “ecocidal” level of capitalism’s threat to a livable environment,[19] that task would now appear to be nothing less than a life or death matter for the species.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, fall 2013).

Iowa City, IA, April 4, 2013.

Postscript (April 5, 2013). A television advertisement for an insurance company during the Iowa-Baylor basketball game last night proclaimed the following: “Everythng we do, we do for you.”  The company apparently has no capitalist investors with selfish profit motives. This claim of selflessness is of course ubiquitious in corporate advertising and public relations. In its many commercials on the “public” broadcasting system  (“P”BS, which claims during its membership fundraising drives to have “no corporate sponsors to answer to” —-a brazen lie), the leading war contractor The Boeing Corporation boasts of its selfless service to Americans, including “our troops,” who are of course employed in purely humanitarian and altruistic operations around the world.  British Petroleum’s (BP’s) ads on “P”BS purport to portray that company’s noble commitment to a clean environment, making sure to show pictures of windmills and clean Gulf Coast beaches and so on.  Individual sociopaths are notorious for their ability to elicit sympathy and to appear altruistc and concerned as they commit their crimes.  Corporations are experts of this deception on a monumental scale, with dire implications for our and other species.

Selected Endnotes


[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” Christian Century 74 (February 6, 1957), 165-167.

[2] David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (New York: Harper Collins, 1985), 543.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr. “A Time to Break the Silence” (April 4, 1967), 234 in Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed.. James M. Washington (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1991).

[4] George Owell, “Charles Dickens” (1940), An Age Like This, 1920-1940 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), 413-428.

[5] Karl Marx, Capital, v. I (New York: Penguin Classics, 1990), 415-16, quoting Engels at the end..

[6]  Martin Luther King Jr, “A Testament of Hope” (1968), reproduced in King, A Testament of Hope, p. 315.

[7] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (1967), chapter two reproduced in King, A Testament of Hope, quotation on 642. .

[8] Quoted in Gary Olson, Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (New York: Springer, 2012), 3.

[9] Olson, Empathy Imperiled, 45.

[10] Susan George, “A Short History of Neoliberalism” (Conference on Economic Sovereignty in a Globalizing World , March 24-26, 1999).

[11]  Olson, Empathy Imperiled, 9..

[12] Olson, Empathy Imperiled, 9.

[13] Olson, Empathy Imperiled, 54.

[14] Olson’s analysis of capitalists’ manipulation of empathy would profit (a poor word choice, perhaps) from extension to corporations’ industrial relations and “human resources” (workplace) strategies of labor/worker control and also to the nation’s corporate-managed and candidate-centered electoral politics, which seem to function to no small extent as an extension of the advertising and public relations industries and are notoriously rife with fake statements of caring and concern.

[15] Joel Bakan The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York: Free Press, 2004), 56-57.

[16] Noam Chomsky, Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 174.

[17] There is more moral, analytical, and empirical wisdom packed into Empathy Imperiled’s slim 108 pages than you will find in countless volumes of disengaged and careerist “social science” literature currently gathering dust in college and universities and academicians’ offices and dens across the land

[18] Olson, Empathy Imperiled, 53-54. See also Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York:  W.W. Norton, 2012), 37-38, 314n13 and (as cited in Stiglitz) Paul K. Piff et al., “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 27, 2012. Part of what makes and keeps the rich rich is their willingness to put aside moral qualms about such harsh realities. “Modern capitalism,” Stiglitz notes, “has become a complex game and those who win have to have more than a little smarts. But those who win at it often possess less admirable characteristics as well: the ability to skirt the law, or to shape the law in their own favor; the willingness to take advantage of others, even the poor; and to play unfair when necessary.” Stiglitz quotes a leading capitalist who says that “the old adage ‘Win or lose, what matters is how you play the game’ is rubbish. All that matters is whether you win or lose.” More importantly, he cites an important recent experimental study (Piff et al., 2012) showing that people of higher income are far more likely than others to be driven by self-interest, far more likely to cheat, far less likely to have misgivings about breaking the rules, and generally more prone to behave in ways that are widely viewed as unethical. The nation’s sociopathic 4% (see below) would appear to be significantly overrepresented among the nation’s economic 1%. Part of what gets and keeps the rich rich is the hardly universal desire to become and/or stay rich, along, often enough, a willingness to bend and break rules and bend ethics to achieve or sustain hyper-affluence. Stiglitz mentions the important case of Tim Berners-Lee. Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web but has never appeared on the Forbes list. He “could have become a billionaire but chose not to – he made his idea available freely, which greatly speeded up the development of the Internet.” As the noted clinical psychologist and Harvard professor Martha Stout observed six years ago, “The presence or absence of conscience is a deep human division, arguably more significant than intelligence, race, or even gender. What differentiates a sociopath who lives off the labors of other from one who occasionally robs convenience stores, or from one who is a contemporary robber baron….is nothing more than social status, drive, intellect, bloodlust, or simple opportunity. What distinguishes all these people from the rest of us is an utterly empty hole in the psyche, where there should be the most evolved of humanizing functions…..For something like 96 percent of us, conscience is so fundamental that we seldom think about it.” (See Martha Stout,The Sociopath Next Door ([New York: Broadway Books, 2007]). Things are very different with the socio-pathological 4%, a disproportionate number of whom are found in “the 1%,” who sit a atop a conscienceless profits system whose underlying purpose and leading institution (the modern corporation) are fundamentally socio-pathological irrespective of the moral character (or lack thereof) of its chief owners and managers.

[19] Olson, Empathy Imperiled, 21-30.

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