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A conversation with Michael Lerner

October 22, 1995|Itabari Njeri

Njeri: How do you mobilize a critical mass of Americans, significantly in despair and alienated, to act in their own best political interests in the face of an intransigent government?

Michael Lerner: From my standpoint, the critical fact is that most people are in pain in this society, and that pain stems from the ethos of selfishness and materialism. It permeates the economic order. That creates a consciousness that is oriented toward "me first" and finds its expression in the terms of a best-selling book of the 1980s, "Looking Out for No. 1." And that is reinforced by the bottom-line consciousness of the marketplace that tells us that productivity and efficiency are to be judged solely by the degree to which institutions maximize wealth and power.

So, when people live in a society in which that is the dominant consciousness, it has tremendous consequences for the rest of their lives. And those consequences are, first of all, manifested in the epidemic crisis of huge numbers of people who feel very insecure about loving and caring relationships. They don't often understand that this is a political issue. You know we have a 50% divorce rate. But even those able to sustain families feel that at any moment they could collapse, because there is a marketplace consciousness in relationships. People treat each other as though they are replaceable commodities. They don't know whether their partner has made a good exchange. Maybe they'll find a better exchange relationship later in life, maybe next week. They feel similarly about friendships. People experience their friends as less there for them than in the past.

Njeri: The market knows the price of everything and the value of nothing?

Lerner: Right. Similarly, there's the whole way of looking at the world from the standpoint of rip-off. How do I get as much as I can for myself without regard to the consequences for others. From the top, corporations feel that it's perfectly appropriate to rip off the resources of a planet without regard to the future sustainability of the environment or the planet itself, to the bottom, where a small section of poor people think it's OK to rob you in your house or on the streets. Now, the Right came forward and articulated all of this pain that people were feeling in the form of a pro-family perspective, an anti-crime perspective, an articulation about the ethical and spiritual crisis in American society. They were correct in noticing this, but they blamed it all on the African Americans, feminists, gays and lesbians, Jews.

Njeri: You're saying they scapegoated the convenient "other"?

Lerner: Exactly. But they got away with that because liberals didn't even notice the pain that so many people are in. How do you mobilize people to challenge this kind of a social order? You have to address this pain that [the majority of] people are in. And they are getting hurt by the very ethos of selfishness and materialism that is also hurting the poor. So the key is to be able to link the pain of the poor with the pain of middle-income people.

Now, the Right says: We want is an alliance between the ruling elites of the society and middle-income people. And the way we do it is to screw the poor. What the liberals want is an alliance between poor people and middle-income people. But the way they try to do that is by saying: We'll do it on the basis of what people really care about--money. That is mistaken in my view. Not that people don't care about money, but that's not the central issue for most people. During the Depression, but not today.

Njeri: You're saying they want their humanity acknowledged in the most profound sense?

Lerner: They need loving and caring relationships, a spiritually and ethically grounded world. And if they don't get it, for the reasons I've just talked about, then they face crime, an ethical crisis, family dissolution. They face a lack of love in their life, and that really does matter to them.

So what the liberals did, they came forward and said: We'll give middle-income people another economic entitlement. We'll expand the economic realm for them. And they'll see that having an expansive public sector can deal with some of their economic needs as well. And then they'll be in favor of having that expanded public sector in place and support it when it comes to the poor. But that doesn't work, because the ruling elites turn around and say: Wait a second. We can get you a better deal, because these liberals are only able to carry out their plan by raising your taxes. We can do it by lowering your taxes, putting more money in your pockets and cutting these poor people out altogether, [deleting] the whole social support system.

Njeri: How, in practical terms, do you organize people to implement an agenda that comprehends people's need for value when the very people targeted, you assert, are alienated and in despair? And how does it fit in with the multilayered strategy that you and Cornel West say leads to structural change?

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