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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Crime of Wealth

Just as we have concentrations of wealth, which imply concentrations of poverty, we have concentrations of security, which imply concentrations of insecurity.  Of course, these are not amounts of fixed-quantity objects, but there is a strong general tendency to put effort in one place and relax in another; leading to the implication that ‘if more here, then less there.’  “More” everywhere has proven to be a myth in service of having only localized concentrations of “more.”

The idea that both wealth and security have been increasing in the world is largely an illusion of truncated measurement; it comes from measuring only how high the stick (or building) goes and not bothering so much with how deep it goes on the other end (the real and full costs).  Measuring the developed world, calling that world standard and ignoring the rest as aberration, incompetent, unnatural and even sub-human is the great biological crime of the post-Medieval Period; it is perhaps the greatest crime ever committed on the earth [1].

Apparently humans have been exterminating competing species, as well as competing cultural traditions of our own species, for a long time – at one time there were at least 3 and perhaps 5 species of the genus Homo on the earth at the same time.  Any one of those species probably had significant adaptive advantages in its environment and would have done very well without the marginal pressures of another aggressive form of the genus reducing, even ever so slightly, their range and resource base.  But this was evolution in action – a particularly rapid evolution driven, as it was, by the incipient Consciousness System of Order (CSO) energizing adaptations to greater and greater environmental detail: biological evolution none-the-less.

The transition from a Homo sp. world to a Homo sapiens world was, and is, as ‘tectonic’ an event as the break up of Pangaea, the K-T event or even the recovery of liquid water surface temperatures following the snowball earth of 700 million years ago.  Nothing has ever changed the surface of the planet so much in so short a time.  These changes have been driven primarily by the way that wealth accumulation has interacted with the present iteration of human nature and process [2].

I make the assertion that there is no more degraded or damaged (and damaging) condition of the human species than an individual or a collective entity that has accumulated from the environment and the labors of their fellows more material wealth than is required to allow them to be reasonably safe from the most basic challenges of life.  Regardless of the rhetoric used by those who take solace in wealth, such accumulations always come at the expense of others: other humans, the living world or biophysical integrity.  I make this assertion with some considerable trepidation since, in such stark form, it is not well supported by the accumulated wisdom of human thought.

There is a vast literature, complex and interwoven systems of belief and behavior and a physical, economic, political infrastructure – a Gordian Knot of cultural tradition – supporting and energizing “wealth creation” and accumulation.  I prefer to visual it all as a giant hair and bone pellet strangling us as we both try to retain it and expel it from the body-humanity [3].

But this strangely comforting image does nothing – beyond tying together the loose ends of the cat-o’-nine-tails flogging clear thinking – to actually ease the torment of human lives delivered by the distortions of wealth values.  They are inescapable; they are insidious.

Wealth accumulation has been questioned and argued over from its earliest iterations: Buddhism recognizes, quite simply, that in the normal course of life some people will accumulate material goods and some will not; it speaks not to the accumulation, but to human spirit and potential and the positive and negative role both wealth and poverty have on that potential.

Present day interpretations of these ideas, steeped as they are in a wealth besotted society, often focus on statements like: “Clearly, the Buddha saw prosperity and financial security as a good and appropriate activity for laypeople;…” (Lewis Richmond, Buddhist teacher)  What fails to receive sufficient attention and understanding in much of our present interpretation is that wisdom must guide (regulate) abundance rather than the remarkably self-serving belief that abundance will both create and guide wisdom.

Taoism (which strongly influenced Indian Buddhism as it traveled north on its way to Japan all those many years ago) produced this argument from the Tao Te Ching (The book of the Way and Virtue):

Ch 46 (translation of a very early version by Robert Henrick [4])
Of crimes – none is greater than having things that one desires;
Of disasters – none is greater than not knowing when one has enough.
Of defects – none brings more sorrow than the desire to attain.
Therefore, the contentment one has when he knows that he has enough is abiding contentment indeed.

It should be noted especially for the narrowly capitalist reader that the writing of the Tao Te Ching began about 2500 years ago as both an observation of the psychology and ethics of Chinese society and an attempt to construct the Way (Tao) for how human beings should most effectively behave, act with virtue (Te), in the world.  The writer(s) was (were) not driven by envy!

The early Greek view, from the same period of time (and, I think, from very similar motive forces), is more analytical while the Chinese are more prescriptive, though they both deal with the same issues.  Wealth is treated as a behavior requiring understanding and limitation.  For the Greeks wealth is based on desire; it is the desire that is suspect rather than wealth.  The way that the polity organizes and uses wealth is a major issue for Plato and defines political states as plutocracies, tyrannies and democracies.

H. P. P. Lötter makes the case for Plato arguing in The Republic (1) that justice, in the sense of the morality of individuals and societies, is far more important than the acquisition of wealth.  (2) that moderate wealth is important for its function to enable humans to live a moral life.  (3) that poverty and excessive wealth have negative consequences for both individuals and societies, and  (4) that desiring and possessing excessive wealth disrupts and destroys moral integrity and internal harmony in individuals and societies. [5]

The ideas around wealth were remarkably similar in that seminal period when human beings were forming the first Neolithic/bronze age societies out of the Neolithic agricultural communities of the last several thousand years.  These people, east and west, were confronting many of the same forces of population growth, technological change, the formation of governing institutions (in both domestic and military forms) and the possibility and actualization of the accumulation of material goods.  These forces and changes were more starkly contrasted with long established human community and social tradition than ever before or since.

The basic elements of the issues have been in human thought, therefore, for millennia, but wealth has been changing in its relation to both humans, their institutions and the ecosystems from which it ultimately derives.  For most of post-agricultural civilization the “average” human economic unit (family, extended family, clan) and the wealthy economic units (religious order, political entity) had functional wealth differences of the order of perhaps 10 or 20 to 1.  But also during these times most places in the world had an underclass or a slave class to do the really dirty and dangerous work; those people have always tended to live in poverty.

The lives of the wealthy were distinguished by such luxuries, plainly obvious to everyone, as being carried or riding rather than walking, servants, more abundant food, larger more secure dwellings, more desirable clothing and a variety of ultimately trivial symbols of status.  The lives of the wealthy, however, were part of the direct and daily experience of the ordinary, and vice versa.  The differences, while clear, were not so stark as to be beyond understanding.

Today we have a different set of circumstances.  The dangers of wealth recognized by the ancients have come to pass in their own abundance.  And along with the increasing amounts of difference have come whole industries to both define and hide the differences.  The seemingly benign and even useful ideas associated with property, wealth, economic growth and work have become the tortured servants of the concentrations of power and material: narrow property ideas beget wealth; wealth desire begets growth; growth requirements begets distortions of the idea of work.  And together these movements conflict with ecological and human reality.

A universal desire ‘to be rich’ drives this paradigm and serves especially well those who break out of the average levels of acquisition and actually become rich.  Becoming rich and maintaining wealth requires that many people also want to be rich; because of that desire, which has a small positive probability of coming true, they behave in ways that support the actual rich.  Large wealth requires the constant movement of tiny increments of wealth, from which those strategically placed can extract small amounts from each transaction.  A society in which the great mass of people have no desire for personal surplus abundance and who are self-sufficient and conservative in their uses of material, energy and other people produces lowered opportunity of amassing great wealth.  A society in which the great mass of people feel the desire to be rich and who, therefore, can be led to behaviors that mimic the truly rich are a ripe source of those transactions that produce great wealth for the few.

Such is the reason for the incredible deluge of propaganda in support of riches as the goal of life.  Fifth grade boys no longer want to be firemen; they want to be rich.  We all constantly see and hear in our daily lives the media devised images of wealth’s benefits and persuasions.  Arguments and real data questioning wealth accumulations are credited to ignorance, insanity or criminal political beliefs.

But when we look at the arguments supporting “getting rich” we find them of basically two types, and questionable: 1) I want wealth so that I can do and have whatever I wish (it is a relaxation of responsibility) and 2) wealth is a social good since it functions as a motive for progress, discovery and increases in material wellbeing.  A third argument, based out of the second, is often heard, that wealth is a (the) solution to poverty.  But this one is disingenuous since, in fact, wealth accumulation, more often than not, is about extracting surplus in material and labor from the impoverished under the claim that they are being ‘given’ employment.  Such employment is actually forced by disrupting historical land-based and sustaining cultural economic systems. Finally, the “God says it’s right to seek wealth” and “becoming wealthy is a measure of God’s favor” are variations on the ‘I want it’ argument by asking permission for what is desired to do from an imaginary friend.

The first argument is easy.  It is selfishness, a common human condition that we are supposed to outgrow as we assume adult responsibilities in the community; though this is less so in the infantilizing conditions of modern life.  The human capacity for selfishness-driven sociopathology, especially when formed in intelligent “adults”, is very nearly beyond normal comprehension; it grows, explores and expands as we speak.  But it is ultimate mundane, like plants in the tropics, it simply responds to positive conditions of nurturance.  The second is the big lie, the sophisticated lie.

The calculus is all wrong for wealth building as an indisputable social good: damage the lives of many thousands of people to accumulate a fortune so that the lives of a smaller number can be “improved” to some varying extent; the entropy relation always has to come into play.  And just what do we mean by ‘improved’ or progress, discovery and wellbeing?  I would agree that the drive to wealth is an important engine for the speed of our “progress,” but would also contend that much that we call progress has been so labeled by wealth-drive’s passion for controlling the message as well as the more difficult task of creating new things.

The simple fact is that the discovery and creation of material benefits have not been made from the desire for wealth; only the exploitation of those discoveries is driven by the wealth motive.  In other words, the speed with which we humans change the world around us by our inventions would be reduced by social expectations that wealth be limited and that ecological and community values be held as superior to personal wealth accumulation, but the arts and science would continue, technologies discovered and changes made for the better and the worse, and all at a slower pace.

In total, the kinds of and the way that wealth is held in the control of private individuals and entities may drive our rates of change faster and faster, but also in less and less beneficial and responsible directions.  The vast amount of stuff that we make, the great digging and leveling, burning and cutting, polluting and poisoning is the product of wealth-drive, not real human need.  The collective human intelligence wouldn’t stand for the world having its habitability reduced for the benefit of a few, who driven by greed and especially the competitive greed of the rich, trying to be richer,… if that collective human intelligence still had or could find its voice.

[1] Crimes come with the CSO.  The imaginings of future outcomes, the planning and execution of those outcomes in grievous violation of the “other” principle, better known as the Golden Rule, are the bases of all crimes.  When the outcomes are the wholesale destruction of cultures, ethnicities and genetic traditions (human and non-human), the crimes are substantial.

[2] It is patently absurd to argue that humans do not have a nature derived from their evolution, the complexity of that nature or the role played by the CSO in creating its almost endless constructions notwithstanding.

[3] Birds of prey ‘cough up’ pellets of indigestible materials that accumulate in their stomachs.  My image is of some birds hunting and eating insatiably, trying to rid themselves of the more and more massive pellets and gluttonously trying to hold to them at the same time.

[4] Lao-Tzu Te-Tao ching, translated by Robert G. Henricks from the Ma-wang-tui Texts. Ballantine Books, New York, 1989

[5] H. P. P. Lötter, The significance of Poverty and Wealth in Plato’s Republic, South African Journal of Philosophy, 2003, 22(3)

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