Happiness & Plutocracy
I used for dramatic example the modernized expression of terrorism, a method which itself is nothing new, because, despite being a relatively minor national security problem even when ugly and tragic, it preoccupies people and has been latched onto by what passes for our national leadership for reasons that obviously have nothing to do with its degree of danger. And more to the point, it surely arises as a cri de coeur by people who suffer more even than Americans from the hollowness and oppressiveness of the gospel of capitalism (and Euro-American colonialism and imperialism past and present) with its ripples and off-shoots and side-effects—opiate of the people that is losing its anodyne effectiveness and creating violent antibodies. Furthermore, like so many symptoms of the modern malaise, it has received too little in-depth analysis among either the political class or the public.
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network report mentioned above is an annual publication called most recently the World Happiness Report 2017. Speaking of the U.S. it notes that the problem of diminishing happiness is a “…multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust…” The “…US showed less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations [signs of generosity], and more perceived corruption of government and business…America’s crisis is, in short, a social crisis, not an economic crisis.” This is so even though “The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth…and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach.”
This analysis seems indubitable. One way to illustrate the power of the economic narrative that dominates our thinking, and especially our thinking about national leadership, is this: Humans come in a wide variety of types, styles, and levels of ability and intelligence. Every human endeavor is inspired by the best people who engage in it—there are excellent artists, physicians, craftspeople, teachers, accountants, psychologists, lawyers, scholars, authors…and there are those who excel and/or are lucky at amassing money, some of which is expended to arrange for the tilting of the American system in such a way that even more of it slides their way and stays there once slid. They dominate not just the economic system but the political as well and societally are treated as if their form of excellence is superior to that of those who excel in other areas, which is part of the reason they dominate politically and why they are permitted to possess such prodigiously excessive quantities of society’s wealth. There is nothing to be said in favor of this treatment and much against, but it persists, since the coin of the American realm is money, not excellence or integrity or public spiritedness. The average net worth of a Congressperson is over one million dollars. The net worth of Donald Trump’s original cabinet is said to exceed that of approximately one third of the American population combined, about 100 million people. That wealth does not translate as wisdom, virtue, or effectiveness in doing the work of governing on behalf of all the people is another indubitability. We do not expect philosopher kings at the helm but surely there are many people with less money and more practical, public-spirited intelligence than the pretenders we have.
Societies’ dominance by plutocracies is one half of a two-part rhythm that apparently goes back as far as when humans settled into communities where agriculture provided sufficient surplus for hierarchy and oligarchic dominance to arise. This was 8-10,000 years ago. The rhythm has gone back and forth between degrees of oligarchy/plutocracy and proto democracy. Today’s version in the U.S. displays the forms of democracy huddled tenuously within implicit rule by the few. There’s nothing new or unusual about this. What strikes me as curious is the power of circularly rationalized dominance (i.e., they are rich because they are superior, the evidence for which is their wealth) by moneyed interests within what claims to be an exceptional democracy. As mentioned, excellence comes in many forms and there’s no reason to believe that those good at making money are innately superior in any of the skills of governance to those with excellence in other realms. In fact, since money-making is usually an ego-centered pursuit, we might assume that its practitioners are less well-suited for governance, if what we seek are people with deep concern for the common welfare.
Dominance by economic interests, concerns, and activities along with assumptions and consequences that follow in their wake seem to me the major part of explaining missing meaning, missing happiness, and missing solidarity among American people today, which combine with intense bigotry, violence, disrespect for life, and delusion that go back to the nation’s founding to foment our unfortunate condition. And through our actions on the world stage, the misfortunes of many others. Without a remarkable capacity for self-deception, we couldn’t be who we are.