When things go badly, everyone would like someone else to blame. And that’s why scapegoating seems more prevalent than ever.
We live in a rapidly changing world, and by some very important measures, it’s not changing for the better.
Consequently, whether people are educated or not, there is a growing sense of unease among many — “things are not the way they used to be.”
If we could simply wave a magic wand to solve our economic, social, and ecological problems, everyone would, of course, be quite happy. But since these problems are not going to disappear anytime soon, one of the most reassuring psychological responses to the problems we face is scapegoating.
Being able to identify a certain group of people who are “responsible” for the problems we face is psychologically comforting — but it is also false.
My sense is that scapegoating has become increasingly widespread in both private and public discourse these days and is a major contributor to the breakdown in intelligent, civil dialogue. Sometimes, I feel, it is one of the most defining characteristics of the articles and comments I read online — including articles from the press.
The problem with scapegoating, though, is that it turns us away from reality, and the problems that really need to be addressed, by offering a psychological fantasy solution of “the people who really are to blame.”
One of the crudest examples of this phenomenon is the idea that “Mexicans and illegal immigrants are ruining America.” How ugly and irrational this rhetoric can become is reflected perfectly in some of the statements from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Latino immigrants, Trump has generalized, are “rapists” and “criminals,” “killers,” and the Mexican government intentionally sends its criminals to the United States!
Now, if we could address this problem, we would once again make America great!
A similar yet less obvious type of scapegoating arose from the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its well-known theme of “the One Percent” (now capitalized) versus “the 99 percent” — surely a stark dichotomy if there ever was one.
While there are real issues of financial injustice (and criminal acts perpetrated by the banking industry) that we need to consider and respond to seriously, one of the terrible effects of “the One Percent” theme is the way that it operates as a perfect scapegoating mechanism.
But instead of “immigrants and Mexicans are destroying America,” it’s now “the rich are destroying the world.”
Like all scapegoating mechanisms, the effect of this is to shut down genuine thought.
And one of the most bitter ironies of this situation is that the people who are most vocal about the evils of the “One Percent” are actually members of the One Percent!
In other words, if you make $35,000 a year, you actually belong to the top 1% of all wage-earners on a global basis. And it is precisely this super-rich group (on a global basis) that is most critical of the super-rich.
To some people, criticizing the super-rich is so psychologically comforting they overlook the fact that they themselves are part of the same elite. And instead, they complain about how even more wealthy people have “stolen” their wealth and are destroying the social fabric simultaneously.
A further part of this narrative is that “capitalism is evil” — even though the people who make this claim are, for the most part, the primary beneficiaries of capitalism.
Could some more benign economic system save the world?
Well, perhaps — but all economic systems at work in the world today are based on the foundations of capitalism, including the economies of the most highly taxed social democratic countries:
In short, people everywhere have private property, they have bank accounts and money, and they can start and run businesses.
This infrastructure is unlikely to change anytime soon, and the differences in economic systems are mainly in the details: some forms of capitalism are more friendly, and others less so. Some countries have much better social safety nets, medical systems, and so on. And, as most would-be reformers would agree (myself included), there are many improvements that can be made.
What is Being Overlooked in the Real World
It’s not my intention here to defend capitalism, aside from making a very important point that virtually everyone else has consistently overlooked when they say that “capitalism is destroying the world.”
So please try to consider the following point with as open a mind as possible:
Capitalism is not inherently destructive. What makes capitalism destructive in practice is the vast scale on which it operates today.
And this fact applies to any other economic system you could invent in today’s world (aside from an economy that is ecologically regenerative, which is still not a widely known idea).
What this shows, in the end, is that the people who scapegoat capitalism and the One Percent are missing the real issue at hand.
While they might now feel better in having found someone to blame, they are overlooking the fact that all economic systems are going to be destructive at this point in time, simply because of human overpopulation and the scale of any world economy.
Because of overpopulation, any economic system as a whole will now place too many demands upon the biosphere.
Take a look at the chart below.
During the entire history of our planet, human population never exceeded the level of 1 billion people until around the year 1800. Since 1800, we have added 6 billion people. But during the twentieth century, human population quadrupled.
The problem with scapegoating is that it diverts our attention from the most pressing issues we need to face. But no one wants to face these issues because they make people feel uncomfortable and helpless.
A recently released study shows that over the last 40 years, human population on the planet doubled and the number of wild animals declined by 50 percent.
Yet no one really wants to discuss this or analyze what the real implications of these figures are.
In the end, it’s so much easier to blame immigrants, Mexicans, migrants, capitalism, the One Percent, or fill-in-the-blank, for our various troubles.
Because once you have a scapegoat, your world becomes so much simpler, and you no longer need to think about the real issues that are destabilizing our world, and the continuing effects they will have in the coming decades.
But at least you will have a target for your anxiety, unease, and anger — and the uncomfortable feeling that “things are no longer the way they used to be.”