A somewhat similar situation existed during the Great Depression of the 1930s when novelists, philosophers, politicians and others decried the values of the 1920s. There are similarities between those historical periods and the economic contraction and diminishing of the Western middle class that started during the Reagan-Thatcher era and continues to the present. The universal topic of values served its purpose when the Industrial Revolution was causing socioeconomic problems, and it serves its purpose today when Western Civilization is captive to banks and corporate capital that are concentrating capital while weakening the social fabric and democratic institutions.
The very elites suggesting to the masses redirection toward reexamination of values are the same ones that:
1. do not practice the values that they preach;
2. they are responsible for the widening socioeconomic gap and sociopolitical instability that ensues;
3. they benefit by deflecting the focus of the masses from the essential problem in the systemic flaws of the political economy to values.
Naturally, there is the salient question of the vast differences in value systems between societies and individuals; differences between religious and secular values within a pluralistic society, or the differences/nuances of values within a community whether it is predominantly religious or secular. That scholars, politicians, businesspeople. priests, and the laity have been concerned about western civilization’s decline is a story as old as Oswald Spengler who wrote about the topic after the German Empire lost the First World War and Europe as the world's global power center began to give ground to the US and USSR.
But are the values of Bismarck and his generation of imperialist politicians and business titans the ones that Spengler's generation lamented against the background of the Bolshevik Revolution and its global impact? Is it the Western values of imperialism, nationalism and militarism that led to global war in 1914 that were lost along with the decline of Western Europe? Spengler focused on Western decadence, but the question is one of the underlying assumptions of what constituted decadence and what constituted ascendancy, the degree to which humane and communitarian principles rested behind assumptions. Was it dreadful that imperialist Europe of the old elites began to decline as a result of militarist confrontation, or was it tragic that millions of people died, injured, displaced, impoverished as a result? If one values power, then one laments the decline of Europe's power. But what if the value system is human-centered, instead of power-based?
When the Great Depression erupted to cripple societies across most of the planet, why was there a sharp turn to a discussion of values, whether by US President Roosevelt who favored a quasi-communitarian orientation that mirrored the New Deal, or ultra-nationalist one that Hitler advocated who was interested in ethnic cleansing as a means of restoring the purity of the mythological Aryan race as Alfred Rosenberg conceived it and the NAZI party practiced it. In a very strange way, the NAZI regime's populist ethnic collectivist approach intended to achieve the same goal as that of FDR and for that matter Josef Stalin who advocated superimposed collectivism.
The Third Reich manufactured a value system that a large percentage of Germans, and Austrians, accepted and lived under with the hope that it would propel them to greatness as the NAZI party defined the concept. Why did millions of people accept an utterly barbaric and inhumane and racist value system under Hitler, and why did they not retain humane principles based on the wider philosophical framework of the Enlightenment that revolutionized European culture in the 18th century? Is it merely a question of brainwashing - no matter how good German propaganda was - or one that a large segment of the population actually embraced values because they perceived benefits accruing to them - everything from keeping their jobs to feeling great that the ruling party told them they were 'superior' to other races.
From the end of World War II that marked the end of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and militarist-imperial Japan until the end of the Vietnam War Western and non-Western (Communist regime) societies operated on broader values - in theory and certainly not in practice - of communitarian principles as part of an ideological mix. Certainly in Western societies, led by the US, the value system of individualism, business progress, consumerism, commercialism of culture, and hedonism were prevalent, but the existence of the welfare state entailed tangible evidence that communitarian values mattered. The beginning of the breakdown of that value system comes when the US and the West in general begin to gradually eliminate the communitarian aspect in the societal mix because it interferes with finance capitalism and the neoliberal model of capital accumulation.
More than political trends, material conditions influence evolving value systems, something that is evident in the consumerist values (to which we must add hedonist and atomistic) of much of the world in the last fifty years. After all, values too are class-based. The relative decline of compassion for humanity, and a rise of alienation which many try to cure by going to therapy, and with legal and illegal drugs, has been sharply on the increase in the last half century to the degree that we now have a Western culture of therapism thriving.
Ethical ambiguity naturally translates into ambiguity of values, thus reflecting cultural relativism. In a recent public opinion poll, the vast majority of the people in Finland agreed that if their close friend committed murder, they would notify the authorities. In the same poll, the vast majority of Greeks agreed they would not turn in their friend. Not surprisingly, Greek elites, including academics praised the virtue of honoring friendship, while the people of Finland stressed the virtue of social conscience. What accounts for the absence of convergence in the values of the two societies? History, tradition, religion, culture, etc., and what does this example teach us about the values of ambiguity? How could any human being with an once of moral fiber not report a case of murder? How could someone betray their friend, even in case of murder?
Beyond values of ambiguity, there is a much clearer case regarding basic values that are time-tested and transcend time and place.
1. Lying is clearly immoral. Not the kind of lying involving little lies that cause no harm, but big lies that bring about great harm to a great many people. Yet, lying is at the core of both business and politics, but it is passed on as public relations. Lying to an entire nation about the reason for going to war is acceptable, because it is a matter of national security. Lying to consumers about a product is acceptable because it is in the name of peddling a product or service.
2. Stealing is clearly immoral. I was hardly surprised to read stories about people across southern Europe actually stealing food because of the current hard times. However, stealing in the framework of institutionalized 'appropriation' of government subsidies to make banks stronger, is morally acceptable. Yet, this is a process that forces people to steal food. Are we back in the era of Victor Hugo's Jean Val Jean?
3. Killing is clearly immoral. However, mass killings of collateral damage victims in time of war is just fine.Why do human beings categorically reject the individual who kills her husband that abuses her, but accept mass killings in wars? What does this tell us about our values and how they are molded?
How does a politician, a journalist, an academic much less a leading businessperson tell the masses to reexamine their values against the background of austerity economics that benefit those preaching reexamination of values? For more than half a century, the same elites now preaching reexamination of values were advocating consumerism, commercialization of culture, hedonism, atomistic proclivities, all in the name of an open society when in reality the only interest was the thriving of the market economy. Having conditioned citizens as consumers steeped in that frame of mind and value system, how do elites now try to tell them that embracing everything from nature to God, everything from family values to community values filter down and even if it did, what exactly does that do for the high structural unemployment and underemployment, the low wage structure, the lack of opportunities for college graduates, the lack of job security?
When Ronald Reagan was beginning to dismantle the welfare state and strengthen the corporate welfare state, his administration, various think tanks, journalists, academics, clergy and business leaders began to speak of values, namely 'family values'. One odd thing about many of the people advocating 'family values' is that they themselves were not practicing them. Another odd thing was that these values advocates were interested in pushing society in the direction of conformity to the changing status quo, so value discussion was one tool they used.
Of course, there was a contradiction between 'family values' rhetoric, and policies - government and business - that were contributing to undermining the family by forcing both parents to work, in some cases second jobs to make ends meet. At the same time, reorientation to values discussion did not mean that workers must stop shopping, given that the population remained under the spell of increasingly intrusive advertising that helped to shape consumerist and atomistic values. Are we witnessing a Western moral decline or merely a decline of the capitalist system and its apologists trying desperately to distract the masses by shifting the focus to values?