Economic Struggles and Healthy Communities

I think everyone would agree that the news stories around the world are pretty startling. The battle over union rights in Wisconsin and the challenge to despotic governments in the Middle East and Northern Africa lead the list. While there are many perspectives that people use to understand and comment on these events, my perspective is that of healthy community. Very often political conflicts get framed as a battle between factions over the distribution of the economic pie. Clearly, that is a significant factor in Wisconsin as well as in Egypt, Libya, and other nations and states that find themselves in turmoil and upheaval. I certainly agree that economic distribution is a vital topic and a meaningful perspective, but it is not the only one, and ultimately it might not be the most important factor to consider as we try to figure out a healthy response to present conflicts.

Given the scope of this essay, I will confine my remarks to the situation in America (presently being played out on the Wisconsin political stage), although some of what I have to say may translate into other arenas as well. The distribution of wealth is important, but it sometimes causes people to confuse “standard of living” with “quality of life.” Quality of life requires healthy community and ample tolerance, if not respect, for the diversity within that community. I think that the rise of the American middle class has promoted healthier community and diversity, but their contribution to community has been far more than just their increased power as consumers. They have promoted creativity and myriad opportunities for people to be creative and relate to one another.. When we focus too much on economics and not enough on the elements of healthy community, we lose our most potent motivating force, and our lives become impoverished in every way. But let’s talk first about the economic situation.

My particular bias is that the economic disparity has swung way too far in the direction of corporations and the super wealthy, but even if political pressure eventually results in swinging the pendulum back towards the people, we are still left with a highly adversarial situation. If power to get one’s way is the only consideration, then the “other side” will always be preparing to push back. I think it is fair to say that since Franklin Roosevelt responded to the Depression by enabling the populous to get an economic foothold, thereby allowing the rise and empowerment of the middle class, the corporate wealthy have been pushing back. Certainly since the Reagan era, the middle class has consistently had its economic foundation undermined. And now, the economic right wing is planning to put the final “nail in the coffin” of middle class power by destroying the unions. If that is successful, then all the power will be with the corporate interests of the wealthy. It seems likely that those who are impoverished by the unrelenting tyranny of the wealthy will probably be motivated to respond in some way. Remember, push-back can go in both directions, but I question if the push for economic fairness alone is enough to restore a healthier community.

While I think the complete victory of corporate interests would be a dire outcome, most obviously in economic terms, my greater concern is that it virtually eliminates the possibility of having a healthy community. It makes ordinary working families, the ones that used to make up an educated and engaged segment of the community, into mere cogs in the corporate machine, with the benefits accruing only the wealthiest people. As bad as impoverishment is (and it is very bad, indeed,) it seems to me that dehumanizing and mechanizing people is much worse and can only act like a cancer, destroying the very body that is necessary for survival.

In Northern Africa and the Middle East, the political upheaval is fueled by people who have been systematically mechanized by their despotic leaders. I am embarrassed to say that America has benefited economically from our support of those despotic governments. (It’s about the oil, remember.) And, now the cancer of economic despotism is targeting us as well. Unless we can restore the sense of community and mutuality than any healthy body needs, we are doomed. Already, money has turned a large proportion of the political world against the very people they are presumably elected to serve. How long can it be before the “community’s immune system” reacts or even over-reacts. Violence is often the last resort of those who have no power and no hope. Please don’t interpret my last remark as promoting or justifying violence. In my opinion violence seldom if ever helps. Usually it makes matters worse. But if you remove all other means for people to survive, violence may be the only response left.

Given this scenario, do you think we will be able to go back to treating one another with the respect that is appropriate for fellow human beings, or are we doomed to be mechanized economic consumers whose only fate is ultimately to be consumed?

I am worried. What about you?

Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”
Community of Promise

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