I came across the phrase not long ago while reading Eric Cheyfitz’s book The Disinformation Age: The Collapse of Liberal Democracy in the United States. The title of the introduction—“The Limits of Capitalism’s Imagination”—struck me as not only a deeply evocative way of thinking about the times we live in but also as the core element of the questions a growing number of people are asking about the threats we face as a society and as a planet.
There is no doubt that the United States is well into our second gilded age. Just beneath the glittering surface of the extraordinary wealth accrued by the very few, the middle class in the United States is eroding and, according to economist Thomas Piketty, the level of income inequality is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” We have the highest youth poverty rate among developed nations, the highest incarceration rate in the world by far and among the highest child mortality rates. Add to this considerable inequality and instability the fact that we have no coherent plans for dealing with global climate collapse, and the consequences of the limits of capitalism’s imagination begin to stand out in stark relief.
The chasm between rhetoric and reality
The sense of urgency surrounding those limitations is profound when looked at through a generational lens. How else do we explain the fact that a 78-year-old self-described socialist beat his nearest Democratic competitor by a two-to-one margin among 18- to 44-year-old voters in Iowa and won more young New Hampshire primary voters than the rest of the field combined? Clearly change is occurring on a fundamental level. Our youngest cohort of voters is opting for a radical political departure because they have seen the future we have imagined for them, and have found it wanting.
A similar spirit animates The Economy of Francesco, a convocation focused on young adult professionals that Pope Francis will convene in Assisi on March 26-28. The event will bring together 2,000 economists and entrepreneurs under the age of 35 from all over the world to meet with the pope, Nobel Laureates, economists and experts in sustainable development. The event is designed to bring young economists and entrepreneurs together to make a pact to develop an economy that models St. Francis of Assisi’s example to care for the needy, the weak, the poor and the earth itself.
Our youngest cohort of voters is opting for a radical political departure because they have seen the future we have imagined for them, and have found it wanting.
This movement among young people is not about their open hearts as much as it is about their open eyes. It is no accident that the youngest among us see things differently. Millennials (25-39 years old) and Gen Z (born after 1997) are the most media-savvy adult generations the world has ever known, and they are able to see the huge chasm between the rhetoric of our political discourse and the reality they are living. Senator Bernie Sanders’s plain-spoken authenticity and desire to change the way Washington works speaks so powerfully to younger voters because unlike other Democratic challengers in the past, he is articulating an explicitly Democratic Socialist approach as an alternative to unbridled capitalism. He sees the same reality they do in terms of a future of low wages, crippling student debt, broken healthcare and a deteriorating environment. In their eyes, the rest of us might as well be chain-smoking dinosaurs blithely unaware of our impending extinction.
“The American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion,” said Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in a 2018 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The equality of opportunity, which is so prized in theory, is in practice a myth, especially for minorities and women, but also for many middle-class white workers.”
This disconnect between rhetoric and reality is a foundational element in Cheyfitz’s diagnosis. In The Disinformation Age he argues that the notion of American exceptionalism has been a dominant narrative since our founding and that after World War II—when there was an expanding middle class, labor unions were strong and there was some movement toward economic inclusion of women and minorities—that narrative still had some credibility. Since the Reagan administration, there has been an exponential increase in income inequality that has skyrocketed through six presidencies, Democratic and Republican alike, right through President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.
The false narrative we need
For Cheyfitz, the distinction between the two parties has become illusory. “The two-party system has become in fact a one-party state, a shadow play of corporate interests,” he writes. “If there is a difference between the parties it is this: while the Democrats have a finger in the hole in the crumbling dike that is holding back the tidal wave of predatory capitalism...the Republicans are trying to tear the dike down.”
From this vantage point, the musician/activist Frank Zappa’s comment in the late 1980s that “politics is the entertainment branch of industry” sounds depressingly accurate. It is also why, Cheytifz writes, “the most incisive political commentary we have had in the mainstream media has been on comedy programs like The Daily Show.”
For Eric Cheyfitz, the distinction between the two parties has become illusory.
Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, why does this American exceptionalism narrative persist? For Cheyfitz, it is no longer necessary that disinformation hew to its original meaning of a coercive plan of propaganda from an outside agent. Instead, we have now brought the operation in-house, and disinformation has now become the false narrative we need to tell ourselves to distract us from reality. This phenomenon in which our rhetoric no longer bears any resemblance to reality is at the dark heart of disinformation.
Cheyfitz is the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters at Cornell University, but my first encounter with him was several decades ago when I was an undergraduate in his classes at Georgetown University. His teaching focused on literature by and about Native Americans and African Americans that ran counter to traditional American narratives. The American Dream begins to sound downright hallucinatory when we consider that it is only possible through the suppression or outright erasure from our consciousness of the Native American genocide and African American slavery upon which it was built.
It was while taking his classes that I decided, for some now-forgotten reason, to read Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. It was not an assigned text in any of my classes, which made it an unusual choice for me. Coming across Cheyfitz in class and Day’s autobiography at the same time was like finding a couple of missing pieces to a puzzle that I did not realize I had been working on for quite a while. Suddenly there was a sense of political, moral and spiritual coherence that had not been there before.
I had known nothing about Day or the Catholic Worker movement up to that time but her story was a complete revelation. She was a gifted writer whose passionate connection to the world and commitment to justice was not thwarted by her embrace of faith. Instead, it was deepened. Coming to faith had not dulled her mind with false piety; it improved her vision and enabled her to have a more incisive and profound view of the world and the systems and conditions underpinning it.
Coming across Cheyfitz in class and Day’s autobiography at the same time was like finding a couple of missing pieces to a puzzle.
I was not certain I could lead the life the Catholic Worker required, but I had little doubt that Day’s example collapsed the distance between the rhetoric of Christianity and its lived reality in ways that convicted us all. Dorothy Day seemed to live out a Christian faith that lived up to its radical pretensions.
Cheyfitz did not share Day’s religious impulses, but his thinking, like hers, was incisive and cut through standard American tropes. At the core of this mythology, he argued, was the dangerous American assumption since our founding that democracy and capitalism were synonymous and essentially one and the same. If nothing else, over the intervening decades—the Citizens United Supreme Court decision being one of the more recent examples—economic and political forces have made it increasingly difficult to maintain that fantasy.
Like Day, these were ideas that made me uncomfortable in what felt like an important and constructive way. If this was “radical” thinking, it was only because it so clearly evoked the original meaning of the term from the Latin word “radix,” meaning “root.” These critiques were only radical because they forced us to think deeply and critically about our assumptions and look clearly at the roots of injustice.
Property, profit, production and progress
Cheyfitz refers to this as “thinking from a different place.” In order to see our own culture clearly, we must first try to deeply understand another culture and then attempt to look at ourselves from that vantage point. This requires an education in critical thinking that he believes is largely absent in the United States. “First, you need to have a real historical sense of what’s going on,” he told me. “And second, you need to be able to spot contradictions in the discourse and figure out why the discourse is contradicting itself.”
In order to see our own culture clearly, we must first try to deeply understand another culture and then attempt to look at ourselves from that vantage point.
Nowhere is that contradiction more pronounced than in America’s insistence that we are a virtuous Christian nation—“a shining city on a hill.” Cheyfitz recounts the work of William Apess—a 19th Century Pequot Indian, Methodist minister and activist—who challenged his white Christian countrymen with the truth of the earliest encounters between the Pilgrims and Native Americans. Apess, the Indian who became a Christian, uses the faith tradition brought over by the colonizers to lay bare the reality of that encounter. “It will be well for us to lay those deeds and depredations committed by whites upon Indians before the civilized world,” he writes, “and then they can judge for themselves who is the savage and who the civilized.”
It is the “savage” who has learned his colonizer’s religion so well that he now draws on that tradition to reveal who truly behaved as Christians and who as savages in those first encounters. The Indians suffered “the most daring robberies and barbarous deeds of death that were ever committed by the American Pilgrims with patience and resignation borne, in a manner that would do justice to any Christian nation or being in the world.”
Though his writing is deeply academic and at times dense, Cheyfitz’s thinking moves well beyond the purely theoretical and is grounded in the historical, political, social and moral issues facing us today. Our inability to address the catastrophic issues we face is rooted in the fact that “we have trapped ourselves within the limits of capitalism’s imagination,” he writes. In the United States, the boundary markers of those limits are found in our sacred devotion to the concepts of property, profit, production and progress. “These four terms in conjunction with each other,” he says, “produce and guarantee the perpetuation of wealth inequality and environmental disaster.” It is a critique I can imagine Day herself making and one that also resonates with Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’.”
The path to breaking free from those limits in Cheyfitz’s analysis can be found in “the theory and practice of Indigenous communities.” The traditional foundation upon which native life is built is “based in the idea of balance (kinship, reciprocity and sustainability)” not competition and productivity. Given what is at stake politically, morally and ecologically, failing to recognize the moment we are in and the opportunities available to us will have consequences far beyond a simple failure of the imagination.