In 1899, Octave Mirbeau wrote a book called Torture Garden. I do not recommend the book, except perhaps to someone doing an in-depth study of French literary culture.
Mirbeau's message is one that, today, seems little more than your typical liberal tripe, with its attempt to metaphorically skewer capitalism (and many other things) with overly graphic representations of violence and sexual fetish. Whether that critique had any merit during the late 19th and early 20th centuries does intrigue, especially considering the opinions of other well respected authors (GK Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc come to mind) who were also often critical of the prevailing economic attitudes and practices of that era. In retrospect, his frank assessment, though not necessarily the crudeness with which it was expressed, may be forgiven; but given over a century of observation, western capitalism is largely vindicated.
One scene from the book, however, has always stuck with me -- and not likely for the reasons intended by the author. The protagonist sits on a train, opposite a morbidly obese and disgusting man, and fantasizes about reaching across the train and choking the man to death. While I am not typically prone to such visions of homicide, I greatly empathize with the feeling of disgust. Mirbeau's fat man might have been a poorly veiled caricature of the fat cat, representing greed and the general repugnance of character with which he viewed the capitalist. His villain is vile in every respect, from the smell emitting from his body to the sounds emanating from his mouth and nose; not only his size, but his sloven appearance in personal hygiene, clothing, even his luggage - all are an assault on the senses.
Capitalism may be said to have its evils, though the same might be said about the sun, which shines on the just and unjust alike. Capitalism does not reward deceit and punish honesty, nor does it look favorably upon greed and scorn altruism. If free markets are one thing, it should be said that they are free, in the sense that they allow for humanity to determine value according to its collective whims.
Perhaps this is why capitalism has often been viewed as accentuating the more negative aspects of human nature; it allows both virtue and vice, leaving discrimination to those engaged in economic activity.
Due to the dangers of some vices, societies employing a capitalistic system have always demanded legal structure and some nominal regulation, inasmuch as economic actors are punished for things such as fraud and theft. But this is hardly indicative of a flaw in capitalism, which, after all, cannot exist without rules; in fact, capitalism without rules eventually devolves into totalitarianism. That fact, however, constitutes a poor indictment of the system in favor of others that begin totalitarian.
Human nature prefers to avoid introspection when it is critical of human nature itself. If that sounds like a truism, it is one that yet manifests itself in the immense popularity of blame shifting. When capitalism permits humanity to value immorality, humans opt for castigation of the system that allowed them to make the choice, rather than the choice itself. Incidentally, capitalism can always be given a face, but that face is typically a lie, as capitalism is more often a mirror. The irony is that had Mirbeau's narrator actually choked the fat cat, he would only have assaulted his own reflection. Since that time, we have been choking the fat cat, and the United States is beginning to feel a bit woozy, while much of Europe lies passed out on the ground.
I sympathize, however, with that man's repulsed glare, as I find myself often staring with a similar disgust at faces that seem to represent something equally disturbing. My feeling toward individuals is more rightly described as sadness, but those individuals are the face of something that I have every desire to reach across the train and violently end. Unfortunately, those collective faces are also a mirror; if not of my reflection, than of my country.
Yesterday, a man came into my office to discuss a driving offense that would result in six months of jail time. He already knew this, as he had previously served the same amount of time for a similar charge. During our 30 minute conversation, which constituted complaints mounted upon complaints, the single notion that conspicuously failed to escape his lips was any acceptance of personal responsibility for his actions.
His ravings were not limited to interactions with law enforcement, but touched upon many other aspects of his life. His feelings could be summed up in a simple concept: you are not doing nearly enough for me. He used "you" in the collective sense, even after I pointed out that he really should not be including his own free attorney in that category. But as I sat in silence, thinking of Mirbeau, I understood that I must necessarily be included.
After all, this man's only concern was himself, and regardless of what people on the outside actually did, they were not adequately doing their jobs if they were not catering to him. Incidentally, as his court-appointed counsel, I actually was catering to him - and at the expense of a community of taxpayers also effectively catering - but I was not doing so in the manner that best suited his wishes, and therefore I was also to be blamed for all of his problems.
This man did not merely fail to accept responsibility for his criminal actions; he failed to accept responsibility for his own personal well being, his own happiness, his personal relationships, and his health (he was about as well groomed as Mirbeau's quarter-ton metaphor). He likely blamed society for even the grease in his hair.
If I were to focus my energies on finding the positive side of this man's humanity, I might have seen it deep in his eyes. I often return home emotionally exhausted from the constant necessity of that very effort. But I fantasized about reaching across my desk and choking the life out of something; not this man, but what he stood for. The stench that seemed to secrete from his very being. That was not born with him. It grew. It was fostered and encouraged by the condescending mercy of those who assured him that there are people who will care for him better than he can care for himself, if only he relinquishes the power to do so; those who told him to always look inward; and those who told him that, if he lacked happiness or contentment, there was always someone better off to blame.
That man who sat in my office is also a mirror. He walks around flashing a stark reminder of what happens when we institutionalize blame. That is the tool of the statist; if slowly, it always tends toward totalitarianism, and it can only end in misery. It truly is disgusting, and I long to reach across the train and suffocate it.