Or: Why Economic Prosperity as an End-in-Itself Is an Unmitigated Evil
My father’s family was large. This is an understatement. He was the fifth child and second son in a family of fourteen children, twelve of whom survived to adulthood. Holiday gatherings — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter — were massive convocations, with dozens of children making merry and wreaking havoc in the basement, and the adults sat in the dining room, circling the table as if it were Camelot as grandpa held court, with clouds of unfiltered cigarette smoke in the air, and two bottles of Scotch positioned strategically at the North and the South ends.
Once I was 15 or so, I was invited — more or less ordered — to take my place with the grown-ups to dine on the turkey, ham, or leg-of-lamb and watch the gradual inebriation ritual take place. I did not mind the inebriation — as something of an Aristotelian, I believe that everything should be done in moderation, including moderation — and while I did mind the massive cloud of unfiltered tobacco I could endure it. It was the conversation I could not stand.
It was always about money. What was a good stock, who is making what, how the richer you were the more worthy an object of envy you were. Even when talk veered off into other topics — e.g. whether Frank Sinatra really was a better singer than Tony Bennett — it always returned to who was doing better financially than whom (“Tony is good, don’t get me wrong, but come on, Frank has far more bucks than he does”).
It would be beyond silly to understand such chatter as a harbinger of Neoliberalism, the idea that the interests of capital and its free-flow should dominate, and that monetizing everything, including tenors and baritones, is overall a very good thing. Nevertheless one could see at least a slender connection between what was said and the burgeoning age of Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton and Bush-2. After about a half-hour of this, I made sure I gobbled down my main course, and then repaired to the younger kids, whose loud laughter about farts and Bugs Bunny I preferred over this babble. “Please save me some dessert!”
I have lots of anecdotes like this in my memory banks. As a philosopher, I see both the value and the limitations of anecdotes. While they may be invitations to overgeneralize on the basis of a small example, the examples can also work as concrete illustrations of a general truth. Such is the case of my holidays, banal as the illustration may be. My father’s family spanned the upper-working class of skilled welders and ironworkers and the lower-middle class of small(ish) business owners. Other than my grandfather they could not be described as wealthy, but they were well-off enough not to need to worry much about the pangs of deprivation. They did not have a lot of money, but certainly enough to get by with a surplus to enjoy. Yet money for them was something, it seems, that they could never have enough of. “There’s no such thing as having too much money” they would quip, as if this was a truism whose validity was self-evident.
They were wrong, though. You can have too much money for your own good. Having too much money, and the surfeit of power that follows in its train, is clearly what afflicts our president Donald Trump, alias Darth Realtor, even if it’s a safe assumption that he has nowhere as much money as he says he has, which itself is an emblem of his obsession with accumulating it. Mark Zuckerberg has too much money for his own good and, transparently, ours as well. He defends the cavalier attitude of his beloved Facebook towards privacy, and the unintentional promotion of political evil in the form of Right-wing nationalism, as part of its business model, without concluding that, maybe, just maybe, it’s the business model itself that’s the problem. The Koch brothers have too much money. The Mercers have too much money. The Waltons have too much money. What their constant purchase of political influence does to damage the rest of us is clear. What it does to them is less immediately apparent but just as clear upon inspection. It fuels their arrogance and self-satisfaction. It disfigures their character, perhaps beyond redemption.
This is not a new insight. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, speaks of the vice of pleonexia as opposed to the virtue of justice, dikaiosunē, and develops the account of dikaiosunē begun in his mentor Plato’s Republic. Pleonexia is often translated as “greed” or “avarice”, and while this translation is not exactly wrong it does not catch the full flavor of the original Greek. Pleonexia is not just “desiring more than one’s share or more than what one deserves.” It is acquisitiveness as such: accumulation, possession, and consumption for its own sake, as if it were an end in itself. It was what Marx, himself influenced by Aristotle, thought was behind the “commodity fetishism” analyzed in Capital vol.1, the reification of money into a glorious thing-in-itself rather than an abstract means to an end, a mere medium of exchange that signifies the social relations of work that went into making the product. Marx thought that this was not only the engine of capitalist accumulation, and the ultimate agent of its downfall, but the prime source of human alienation in modern industrial society. If everything is monetized, the only value is exchange value, and value in itself — enjoying a beautiful sunset, a string quartet, reading Aristotle, loving friends and family — is only as good as its dollar value. After all you need time to enjoy intrinsic goods like the above, but time is money and time used “unproductively” is money wasted. Get back to work.
Marx was wrong about communism (to the extent that he even had an idea of how to bring it about, which is far from clear). But he remains a sage critic of capitalism, whether industrial or post-industrial, and not just as a matter of political economy, but as the acid dissolving the worth and worthiness of human life. Where Marx was right, he was quite right, and right for the same reasons that Aristotle was.
I am not arguing that economic growth and material prosperity is bad, any more than Marx or Aristotle would. Indeed, Aristotle made a significant criticism of Plato when he opined that a degree of wealth is absolutely necessary for an excellent, flourishing human life, the absence of which leads to the wretchedness of poverty and the inability to flourish and be happy. For this reason, Aristotle championed a strong middle-class as the best guarantor of human flourishing — he would be as disturbed at present-day America as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are. And Marx’s takes about the immiseration of the proletariat are well-known and still striking. But it is wrongheaded to think that we can grow our way out of every problem we face, and even more wrongheaded to think that an increase in the quantity of exchange-value will inexorably lead to an increase in the quality of lived-value, the value characteristic of ends-in-themselves, the value of human flourishing, or happiness. True as it is, it’s not enough to claim that the rich society is not necessarily the good society, a society worth having. That does not get to the heart of the matter. A rich society, imbued as it is with pleonexia, is necessarily not a good society. It is a society of hoarders, of penny-pinchers, a society of mass consumers, of rich aesthetes like Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan who ruin lives and then retreat into their vast wealth and carelessness, or those whose categorical imperative is “he who dies with the most toys wins.” It is a society of assholes.
John Steinbeck may or may not have said “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” But whoever said it might have given us a glimpse at why Donald Trump — ignoramus, Right-wing nationalist, grifter, con-artist, and racist — is now POTUS. He has lots of money. What’s not to like?
There has been lots of speculation about why white rust-belt working class white males, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, switched their allegiance to Trump. There is the standard Right-wing blathering about “family values”, the Tom Frank thesis about the failure of liberals to address bread-and-butter economic issues, and the observation that racist attitudes die hard and still persist. There is certainly something to the latter two theses, but the idea that Trump won because of under-employed Midwestern white males ignores the fact that most of Trump’s support came from stalwarts in suburbia and exurbia who have been voting Republican since the 1980s. What all these groups have in common — and in fact what they share with many upper-economic-tier suburban and urban liberals — is the idea that growth is the solution to the problem. More is better. Conservatives believe that this “more” should flow to wealth-producers and “the deserving” (which almost always means themselves and excludes, usually, black and brown people). Liberals believe that this “more” could be distributed more equitably, but that growth, especially “green”, environmentally sustainable growth, is just as important as distributive justice if not more so. But this thoroughly American commonplace is the problem. “Poor” is bad, unquestionably. But “rich” is not therefore better. “Enough” is — enough to flourish, to achieve ends-in-themselves, to make for human well-being, happiness. And the more we focus on getting richer, the less capable we are at discerning just what constitutes “enough.” That’s our predicament, and we suffer mightily for it.
It is unclear whether Steinbeck, child of the Depression, authored the quote about “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” But he is responsible for this one:
“It has always seemed strange to me…The things we admire in men [sic], kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” (Cannery Row)
Neither Aristotle nor Marx could have said it better.