Book V of Homer’s Odyssey contains one of the most evocative scenes in Western literature. Here the reader is first introduced to Odysseus, who, waylaid on his return voyage from the Trojan Wars, has been marooned on the isle of the nymph-goddess Calypso for seven years.
At first glance, Calypso’s isle seems like a wonderful place to be held captive, as the island is indulgently opulent and promises immortality. And yet, the reader finds Odysseus on the island’s edge, “racking his own heart groaning, with eyes wet scanning the bare horizon of the sea” (V.87-89). For all the luxury, pleasure, and gratification that Calypso’s isle can provide Odysseus, it is not home.
Spring 2021 finds the American people in a condition much like that of Odysseus. The United States’ Gross Domestic Product had never been higher than in the final quarter of 2019, prior to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even after the coronavirus recession (which most economists believe will be short-lived), the stock market is at a record high. We are enjoying a higher standard of living than that of any other human society in history. But just as with Odysseus, wealth and bounty have not brought happiness.
Citizens of the United States are undergoing a pervasive, excruciating loss of “home” that has reached a fever-pitch after five decades of decline. Home is an ethereal concept, difficult to pin down. Yet we can all discern when we are experiencing it. To be home is to feel a sense of belonging with one’s physical surroundings and a sense of kinship and connection with those around oneself. What has caused us to lose this sense of belonging? There are multiple culprits (not the least of which is COVID-19), but one central irony is that the economic gains America has accrued over the last four decades, the gains which have fashioned our Calypso’s isle, stem from an economic regime – globalized capitalism – that is corrosive to the cultivation of home.
Beginning in the 1970s, American policymakers began to deregulate and privatize many sectors of the American economy. They opened up international free trade by tearing up tariffs that had previously privileged American companies. They also removed a significant amount of economic decision-making from the American people and vested it in bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
According to geographer David Harvey, the motive behind this economic restructuring was the belief that “human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” In other words, proponents of globalized capitalism believed the key to human happiness was making economic capital as mobile and liquid as possible. This compelling idea remained politically ascendant from Ronald Reagan’s presidency through that of Barack Obama.
The proponents of globalized capitalism were partially correct – their laissez-faire policies have turbocharged the American economy, which has grown relatively consistently over the past four decades. But they were also wrong, for economic prosperity did not bring unmitigated happiness and well-being. Rather, the widespread liquidation of capital had serious downsides, including the dislocation of millions of Americans.
By promoting frictionless trade with countries with lower wage standards and labor protections, many American industries were doomed to be overwhelmed by foreign competitors that could (often unethically) produce goods for the lowest possible prices. Production largely moved overseas, forcing Americans to acquire jobs in the service sector. Finding these jobs usually requires leaving hometowns and families behind for an itinerant, city-centric lifestyle. Those who refuse to or cannot do so must live in communities, such as those in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest, that have shriveled into hulls of their former selves. In these places, the decline in local economic opportunity has produced a loss of stable community and an accompanying sense of spiritual despondency.
Some true believers in globalized capitalism might shrug their shoulders at these corrosive results. “That’s what the market does,” one might say. “It pays to be flexible: Why don’t the people living in these dying towns just move?” Because of home. Because for many people, staying put and holding out hope for the return of that elusive sense of belonging outweighs the upward mobility that could come from moving to one of the few mega-cities where the “American Dream” is still possible. Like Odysseus, these citizens sit on the seashore, backs turned to Calypso’s calls, seeking a reunion with the home that once was.
Those of us who embrace the lifestyle of service sector mobility can feel a sense of inner homelessness too, even as we benefit materially. Having cut ties with the places where we grew up, we spend our twenties (and increasingly thirties and forties) as economic nomads, routinely moving across the country in pursuit of the next job with a higher salary, usually to cities where anonymity and independence reign, where it is not only financially costly but sometimes structurally impossible to settle down and join a community. We too are like Odysseus. We indulge in the bounties of Calypso’s isle, but still our hearts ache for something richer and deeper beyond the horizon.
How do we solve this? How do we free ourselves from the allure of wealth and pleasure and set out across the tempestuous seas for home?
First, we must look inward. We must discern how our routines and life choices have discipled us into rootless isolation. We must take stock of the time we spend scrolling through social media instead of building friendships with those physically around us. We must keep our eyes open for those among us who are lonely and excluded and invite them into our lives with hospitality. We must identify where our neighborhoods, towns, and communities are hurting and seek to address those pains. And as those of us approaching graduation ponder our next steps, we ought to consider how we can leverage our futures to rebuild communities in the neediest parts of our country, rather than chase after the empty allure of upward mobility.
Measured but meaningful political action can help as well. The Great Recession and the coronavirus have shown the fragility of globalized networks. In recognition of the weaknesses that come from maximizing efficiency (such as fragility and interdependence), some countries are pulling back from the international scene and reinvesting in their homelands. We need not wholly discard globalized capitalism and the benefits it has accrued us, but we should recognize its many downsides and reform it so that it actually benefits our citizens. As young Americans interested in the common good, we should support those on the Left and Right working to protect and rebuild American communities.
Finally, for those of us who are Christians, we should look upward. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul told the faithful at Philippi. The promise of a final, heavenly home does not excuse us from seeking to cultivate a sense of home on earth – indeed, that is part of the Church’s mission. But this promise does give us something to hold onto in this unstable world. As we journey into the 2020s and beyond in search of an earthly Ithaca, we can rest in the knowledge that the City of God will be our ultimate destination.