Capitalism, empathy, and punishment

February 23, 2019 (1173 words) :: Capital has many weapons at its disposal, but it takes a profound lack of empathy to actually pull the trigger.
Tags: class-struggle

This post is day 54 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

In The Faraway Nearby, a book of interconnected essays by Rebecca Solnit from 2013, there’s a chapter called “Wound” which discusses Che Guevara’s early experiences trying to help leprosy patients. There are some really beautiful meditations on the nature of empathy:

Empathy makes you imagine the sensation of the torture, of the hunger, of the loss. You make that person into yourself, you inscribe their suffering on your own body or heart or mind, and then you respond to their suffering as though it were your own. Identification, we say, to mean that I extend solidarity to you, and who and what you identify with builds your own identity. Physical pain defines the physical boundaries of the self but these identifications define a larger self, a map of affections and alliances, and the limits of this psychic self are nothing more or less than the limits of love. Which is to say love enlarges; it annexes affectionately; at its utmost it dissolves all boundaries.


If the boundaries of the self are defined by what we feel, then those who cannot feel even for themselves shrink within their own boundaries, while those who feel for others are enlarged, and those who feel for others are enlarged, and those who feel compassion for all beings must be boundless. They are not separate, not alone, not lonely, not vulnerable in the same way as those of us stranded in the islands of ourselves, but they are vulnerable in other ways. Still, that sense of the dangers of feeling for others is so compelling that many withdraw, and develop elaborate stories to justify withdrawal, and then forget that they have shrunk. Most of us do, one way or another.

Empathy is love, and connection. It’s an alternative to the urge to revert to a lonely solipsism, the sort where you’re in the driver’s seat and everybody else is mere traffic. It’s part of what makes us sentient beings, existing on a planet with other beings.

Lack of empathy, then, seems monstrous. But what happens when there’s an underlying power structure where those on top get there by virtue of having no empathy for those on the bottom?

Empathy ceases to be universally tenable under any system of power differentials, where the more powerful use that power to hurt those without much. It’s especially thwarted under capitalism, which structurally incentivises one class of people to feel no empathy toward the other class. What is a mass layoff despite record profits (see: Activision), or right after an acquisition (see: Travis CI), but an institutionalised lack of empathy, the embodiment of a worldview where the human beings who create all the actual value are seen as “other” - separate, different, not worthy of compassion? Or Doordash, which plans to stick by its tip theft policy despite having just raised another 400 million dollars? Or literally any story about what it’s like to work at an Amazon warehouse? Or, looking outside the direct realm of production, the Sackler family’s role in precipitating the opioid crisis, catapulting them to almost cartoon levels of villainry?

I think it’s safe to say that the people in charge of these decisions made them deliberately, with full understanding of their impacts on the people affected. They can’t really claim ignorance when making informed decisions is supposed to be the whole reason they’re being paid so much. The only conclusion I can draw is that they just don’t care enough to find an alternative path that causes less suffering. And why should they? If they don’t have empathy for the people they have immiserated, then there’s no reason to treat their suffering as real suffering, because it doesn’t hurt the people on top. There’s a boundary between self and other, and the pain of the other just isn’t real enough to matter.

Now, on the one hand, the theoretical explanation is obvious, so obvious it hardly bears mentioning: that boundary is the empathic equivalent of the Marxist class divide. On the other hand, Marxism can only ever be a descriptor of general trends, reporting the asymptote rather than the specifics. You can describe the general interests and behaviour of a class under capitalism, just as you can for an army on the march or a school of fish, but the individuals in that class will all behave slightly differently. They may be incentivised to behave a certain way due to structural factors outside their control, but they are also complex individuals, imbued with a whirl of conflicting interests and tendencies. There’s always room for agency within the structure, even if it’s limited (this insight is essentially the core of sociology). And where there’s agency, there’s the possibility of empathy.

I struggle, sometimes, with the political implications of the whole structure-vs-agency debate. Structures can be very powerful, and you can’t entirely blame people who are merely behaving as incentivised by the structures they’re part of. But to blame abuse of power entirely on the structure would be to engage in a troubling moral determinism, evacuating all moral considerations from the discussion while providing a convenient excuse for those most likely to be held responsible. And it’s just not true, at least if you believe in free will; those with the power to ruin others’ lives also have the power to change tack (or at least put a fight) rather than sailing happily along untroubled waters. That they so rarely do says something about the strength of the system, but also about the limitations of the people who succeed within the system.

There’s another word for those who lack empathy for the people over whom they have power: monsters. I’m not inclined to sing the praises of capitalism as a system, but even if you do believe that private corporations - governed through strong hierarchies - are the best candidates to drive society forward, it’s hard to see why our current ruling class is a good fit for its role. Most of the people who have gotten to the top of the wealth rankings have done so through personal decisions that betrayed a marked lack of empathy for other people. Why should we trust them? Why should they be entitled to stay in power, when their moral compasses are clearly tainted? Even if we kept the system, we’d at least want to rotate the people in charge, in recognition of the corrupting effects of power.

What should happen to these people after they’ve been removed from power? If you believe in punishment as a means of delivering justice, then it’s not unreasonable to say that those in power should be punished for their abuses of said power. This is kind of a pipe dream, since the currently existing legal apparatuses for “justice” are reluctant to indict those in power (that’s kind of the definition of power). But, you know, after the revolution and all, I don’t see why there wouldn’t be a version of the Nuremberg trials for capitalists.

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