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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Wealth is the Ultimate Crime

Wealth distorts the relationship of living things to the biospheric systems upon which life depends.  Great wealth distorts the human relationship with this Reality in two primary ways: first, the accumulations of material that underwrite the wealth must be sustained and grown without regard to other conditions of wellbeing; and second, the accumulations of wealth limit the general human (and other) population’s access to essential materials supporting life and so confer power on those who control those accumulations.  Combining these two statements: wealth arrogates power to act in the world without regard for the wellbeing of other entities or systems; wealth is only responsible to itself.

The idea of, and the word, wealth has had a long run as positively valued.  The idea of being wealthy tends, in most people, to create a ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling.  For some it would be relief from the anxiety of insufficiency, for others it is the opportunity to live without the caution required by “just enough,” for still others it is the chance to ignore many restraints and for an important group it is the chance to seem to live with complete impunity.

Belief in the value of, and the desire for, wealth is ultimately the desire for impunity.  Impunity is the “freedom” from the consequences of and responsibilities for actions.  This is completely obvious in the statements of why people wish to be wealthy with almost all such statements translating into, “so I can have and do whatever I want.”

Each of these levels of “freedom” from responsibility is, however, a denial and a rejection of Reality “purchased” by wealth.  Accumulations of material excess allow those in control to avoid Reality in favor of the machinations of sustaining and growing the excess – machinations that are then called economic reality.  

Once the wealth accumulation process begins it becomes self-perpetuating – a positive feedback system (positive in this application does not mean “good”, but only that each iteration of action adds to rather than subtracts from the next iteration).  Wealth is accumulation; there is no standard that establishes what is enough.  This is unlike Reality based living in which it is straightforward that certain levels of use and accumulation are required for health and safety, accumulations beyond those levels are gratuitous; the only reason for a general need for excess accumulations is as protection from the actions of those who are driven to accumulate greater and greater excess at the expense of their neighbors.

And so, a small group of people driven to wealth accumulation and uninhibited by their communities move this process from a marginal issue for a community to making it a most important and dangerous process.  Once wealth reaches the level that some community members can act with true impunity, then the society is doomed to a convulsive end. 

Impunity of action is a powerful and destructive motivation.  When we observe it in others it is clear that we need some degree of similar power as protection, an observation that can quickly turn to the destructive uses of our own impunity should we acquire its capacity. 

We are at this moment in history in the most extended form of this process.  The tiny number of the most wealthy have accumulated the control of material to such an extent, and have come to live with such levels of impunity, that they no longer recognize any connection with either the great mass of humanity or ecological reality – beyond some recognition of the need to control them.

Large numbers of people in the “developed” countries who have accumulated enough material excess that they can imagine true impunity have come to act in the support of those with great wealth on the (utterly unwarranted) assumption that they too have a substantial chance to “have it all:” again, we must be clear, it is the impunity of action that is desired.  While the middle classes (especially corporate and political middle classes) in the developed countries do not have the wealth to actually do whatever they wish without responsibility for actions, their identification with the truly wealthy confuses them as to their real standing and power.  However, once they have ‘the taste of impunity,’ they are often driven by the same process of thoughtless acquisitiveness.

The idea of wealth must become anathema. Mores precede law, so while it would be useful for laws to be passed that regulate the accumulation of material excess, this will not happen so long as the majority of people in general and the vast number of people in power glorify both wealth and the wealthy.

I hear and read arguments in progressive media that go something like this: “The great concentrations of money are ruining the American political system, but there is nothing wrong with being rich; I know many fine rich people.”  Think about that for a moment: since concentrations of wealth are the source of plutocracy, then either we can only allow the “good” people to be wealthy or wealth itself must be seen as an inherent danger.  Those good people who are wealthy will be just fine with a socially comprehensible level of accumulation, and might even find a more vibrant community with which to engage.  And, if wealth were generally disallowed by social pressure, those whose impunity of action would damage human life and the ecological future would be mitigated.

We can reject wealth and the wealthy.  Only a few years ago it was unthinkable to criticize a smoker and yet today they are outcasts huddling around the dumpsters out of sight.  Only a few years ago people spoke with a strange sort of pride about driving drunk and the scrapes they got out of and into; today, people who try that are looked at with considerable distain.

We need to understand that pride in wealth is pride in theft.  The community combined in its efforts to accumulate material and the wealthy person finds a way to take an excess share, either by avarice or accident – and most often both.  I knew a man who discovered a trove of valuable objects in the possession of an old woman – things that her deceased husband had produced.  He cultivated her, eventually buying the collection for a few thousand dollars and then selling the objects for 10s of thousands of dollars each.  He was very proud of this.  His friends were envious.  He was unafraid to tell this story to strangers.  Multiply this impunity by the millions of people in this country and it becomes unlivable by any standards of civility and dignity.

There are two parts to this reunderstanding, a proper understanding, of wealth.  We must realize and make public our rejection of the accumulation of great wealth.  People who collect great excess must be criticized, not lauded; the person who arrives by Rolls Royce shunned, the person who arrives by bicycle applauded.  My acquaintance should never feel comfortable telling the story of his theft from the old woman.  The lie must be given to the argument that the rejection of those with wealth is envy; it is the understanding of the dishonesty of wealth and the inherent theft it requires.

Secondly, rejecting wealth means that one cannot become or desire to become wealthy – even by accident.  The goal must be to accumulate a level of wealth that confers safety and a minimum of the distress from want.  But, everyone should have regular times of caution and consideration with how they allocate their wealth resources.  No one should be so wealthy that they never have to make choices between items of desire and items of necessity.

The allure of impunity is powerful, but it is easy to see that no one should be able to act without being responsible for the consequences of their actions.  It is exactly this easily understood connection that is ruined by wealth – with the consequence that society itself becomes inhumane and unlivable for all but those whose impunity dominates the rest (and even these people are diminished as members of the species).  There is no alternative: wealth must be properly understood and rejected as we have done with other socially disbeneficial behaviors.