CapitulationMay 21st, 2009

“Capitulation” is a term used on Wall Street (but not much heard these days) to describe panic selling in the stock market. In military parlance, it means surrender, and, by either definition, it’s a fit metaphor to illustrate the condition that seems to be afflicting so many of us as we try to cope with failed social institutions.

Capitulation is not so much an abandonment of hope as an abandonment of effort. Once it becomes clear that your best efforts can’t bring peace, justice, prosperity or security, you start to wonder whether you ought to expend any more energy struggling for these things. It seems such a waste of effort, when you could be making jelly or watching your grandchildren play sandbox. Obviously, the forces of decency are too weak ever to prevail, and the public interest can never be more than mere words, and any contribution one person might make will be more than offset by the apathy, complacency and abject fear that govern the great majority of us.

All forces seem arrayed to bring us to capitulation. The future of people who work for a paycheck is bleak, and the outlook for small business is just as bad. Even with the recent devaluation of real estate, home ownership remains out of reach for most wage-earners, and there’s no prospect of upward mobility on the horizon. Public opinion polls say people want these conditions to change, but government seems determined to bail out financiers and not workers. With so much upset, you would think the movement for economic justice would be growing, but it isn’t. In fact, it limps forward with fewer and fewer people every day, as labor and progressive pressure groups contract and disappear.

If you get sick, you could be forced to capitulate, because you could quickly find yourself on the road to bankruptcy. And there’s not much chance that that will change. Ever. Health care is something we all require, and this makes it very profitable for those who know how to extract profit from it. The public can demand government health insurance till the end of time, but we’ll never get it. Our leaders would quickly find themselves ousted from office if they could no longer purchase elections with money from health care profiteers. There’s a lot to be said for giving up that struggle, a string of thrashings stretching back 15 years.

And the republic doesn’t seem to be in any better shape than the citizenry. Here’s a nation that lost two wars to sixth-rate powers and has a quarter of a million men stranded in distant parts. Nobody’s about to bring them home, and it makes no difference what I might do or think. Torturers, murderers and kidnapers walk our streets, and that’s not going to change either, no matter what I might do or think. Citibank’s too big to fail, but social security, Medicare, and the rule of law, not so much. In so many ways, we take the capitulation of the republic for granted. Capitulation is definitely going around, and nobody wants to be the last holdout.

What the holdouts keep looking for is some sign of life in the populace. Some trace of conviction. Some residue of the values that got us all here. Backs seem to be turned all the way around. Generations can’t talk to each other. There seems to be no logic or rationality in public policy or in the new value system it reflects. Most of us seem now to accept that our kids will not do as well as we did, that violence will always be with us, that ignorance will proliferate, that government is irredeemably corrupt, and that justice is unattainable. That’s capitulation.