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Why the World Seems to Be Getting Better and Worse at the Same Time

Originally Published 12-31-96

New America Media, Commentary, Franz Schurmann Posted: Dec 01, 2006

Of the three great revolutionary -isms of the past two centuries, it is capitalism that has managed to secure a level of material affluence that has improved even the condition of the world's poor from where it was fifty years ago. Yet there is a widespread sense that things are getting worse. Capitalism's great failure is to create or sustain a moral order that is essential to people's well being. PNS editor Franz Schurmann, a professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of "American Soul" (Mercury Press).

The world can get either better or worse, revolutionaries have always told us. But these days, the world seems to be getting both better and worse at the same time.

Most observers would argue that things are getting better for some but worse for others. And that's certainly the case with one world trend: the growing gap between rich and poor. But even as the rich get richer, there is plenty of evidence that the poor are also better off than they were a half century ago.

The most telling data on this is longevity. United Nations data show that from 1950 to 1990 human life expectancy at birth rose almost 30 years, despite some 150 bloody conflicts.

Other data show that human fertility is rapidly falling, suggesting that the population time bomb is going to defuse itself.

And finally money, virtually inaccessible to vast areas of the world only fifty years ago, now circulates everywhere. There is almost no place so isolated or backward where a family cannot access money and the life-giving remedies it affords.

A century ago when poverty was seen as virtually irresolvable a few visionaries -- especially Karl Marx -- predicted it could be resolved. Ironically, with the spread of money, it has been resolved. Just about anything can be manufactured or grown in almost unlimited quantities and even, in one way or another, distributed.

Environmentalists charge that nature sets absolute limits to consumer capitalism's capacity. But the eager minds of capitalism's designers are already plotting to use nature's limitless energy -- like the sun's -- to make even more commodities available for centuries to come.

At the recent Rome food conference Marxists joined the Pope in denouncing maldistribution of wealth as the main reason for persisting hunger and poverty. But capitalism has also learned how to make limitless quantities of seemingly inflation-proof money that buys ever greater quantities of goods and services.

Longer life, stabilizing populations and magic money are big reasons why the world's condition is getting better. Yet for all the advances in material affluence, there is a growing sense that something is wrong. Post-modernists argue that progress has lost its meaning. The real answer is that while capitalism has succeeded in improving people's material condition, it has failed to produce a moral order. And without moral order people feel deprived of the three human values essential to their sense of well being -- love, work and justice.

From its beginnings, capitalism has preached one fundamental value -- greed. Its main philosophy, utilitarianism, argues that universal greed will produce universal affluence. What it failed to account for is the destructive power of greed.

Where love recognizes the existence of another being outside oneself, greed pivots on the self. Where work finds its ultimate value in creating community, greed forswears any and all communal ties. Where justice accords everyone a place, greed envisions no place other than for the self.

In the last two centuries revolutionary socialism and communism arose as violent reactions against the massive tilt by capitalism towards the self. Now the revolutionary torch has passed to fundamentalist religions -- especially Islam and Evangelical Christianity. Whether from the left or the right, the revolutionary impulse is to wrench the pendulum back to some communal imperative.

But revolutions, as history has shown, don't in themselves resolve anything. As revolutionary communist and fundamentalist regimes alike have discovered, as soon as morality comes into power, greed -- the hunger for material affluence -- comes right back in through the back door.

The world today takes its direction from forces at the bottom as well as at the top -- proof that its condition is getting both better and worse. Only when material affluence and moral order are available to all will the world grow better and not worse at the same time.

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