Obscene Wealth

Aristotle’s notion of virtue is built around the concept of moderation. Virtue, for The Philosopher, is defined as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. Indeed, extreme behavior of any kind was anathema to the Greeks generally, though their behavior often lent the lie to the ideal. But at least they paid lip service to the notion, whereas we seem to have lost sight of it altogether.

In 1995 Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to a number of times in these blogs, published a rejoinder to Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses which Lasch called Revolt of the Elites. In that book he took exception to Ortega’s notion that it was the masses who would drag down democracy and eventually destroy it altogether through their “radical ingratitude” and their “incredible ignorance of history.” For all the masses know, or care to know, history started when they were born and will end with their death: they have no obligations to anyone. Lasch is convinced that it is the elites who will bring this about because they are so much like the masses whom Ortega describes and because they have lost their sense of community and, indeed, lost all touch with reality. Their “community” is one made up of “the best and brightest of contemporaries, in the double sense that its members think of themselves as agelessly youthful and that the mark of this youthfulness is precisely their ability to stay on top of the latest trends.” Note here the absence of any sense of belonging to a place and any group to bond with, a total immersion of self into self.

Lasch defines the elites as the opinion-makers, the “thinking class,” which he defines as “those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate.” These folks, feeling “no obligation either to their progenitors or their progeny,” are lost in a world of abstractions; they belong to no nation.

“The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

Certainly not to this democracy. They have dissociated themselves from what was their parents’ country and become non-involved citizens of the world, as it were. Traveling the world and taking their millions with them. And here’s the rub. The new elite control the wealth in the country and are in the process of destroying the middle class on which the capitalist economy and a vital democratic system have always depended. They are, above all else, the greatest threat, in Lasch’s view, to the preservation of this democracy. In fact, they don’t care much about the preservation of Western Civilization either. As Lasch points out, the “thinking class” who people the universities have turned their backs on Western Civilization which they traditionally pledged themselves to preserve. For these people

“. . . the very term ‘Western Civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of bourgeois values [which keep] the victims of patriarchal oppression — women, children, homosexuals, people of color — in a permanent state of subjection.”

Preoccupied with minor concerns like political correctness and cultural diversity, they ignore such things as the dissolution of the family, the intrusion of the market into all phases of human life, and “the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy; and a suffocating cynicism, the moral paralysis of those who value ‘openness’ above all.” But above all else, outside the academy the new elite have been enabled to amass great fortunes with the approval of the very class they seem determined to eradicate. Capitalism has traditionally frowned on the amassing of wealth beyond a person’s needs. For John Locke and Adam Smith, for example, capitalist accumulation was tempered by a sense of community coupled with a strong feeling of restraint from accumulating unnecessary wealth which might otherwise go to those in need; this tradition has been lost. These convictions are reflected in the words of Horace Mann who, two hundred years later, helped us recall that “The earth was given to mankind for the subsistence and benefit of the whole race, and the rights of successive owners were limited by the rights of those who are entitled to the subsequent possession and use.” No one, according to this way of thinking, has a right to unlimited wealth and possessions they cannot possibly ever use. But those restraints are no longer with us. In light of these changes, Lasch expresses the hope that

“boundaries are permeable, especially where money is concerned, that a moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any defense of the free market, and that a moral condemnation must be backed up with effective political action. . . In the old days Americans agreed, at least in principle, that individuals cannot claim entitlement to wealth far in excess of their needs. The persistence of this belief, even though it is admittedly only an undercurrent in the celebration of wealth that now threatens to drown all competing values, offers some hope that all is not yet lost.”

But that “undercurrent” has grown very weak, not to say feeble, in the twenty years since Lasch wrote those words. And with it the hope that our democracy will survive grows weak as well. The infamous 1% who control more and more of this nation’s wealth, who do not see themselves as part of this nation or its people, who, indeed, see other people as simply exploitable, have taken this country so far away from the ideals envisioned by our Founders that we will assuredly never find our way back. And augmenting this demise is the full support of those mindless masses whom Ortega identified; those who see no reason why people should not accumulate wealth far beyond their needs because in their own shrinking minds they see themselves as at some point joining the group; those who have also lost any sense of moral restraint, who do not recognize how obscene — in the full sense of that word — is the accumulation of great wealth in a society where many have no food to put on the table or roof over their heads; those who are lacking in the moderation that Aristotle long ago insisted is the core of human virtue.

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7 thoughts on “Obscene Wealth

  1. Well-said, Hugh! It’s especially important that people heed your concern about why the rest of us are almost complicit in letting the elite keep gathering more and more wealth and accelerate the decline of democracy: “But above all else, outside the academy the new elite have been enabled to amass great fortunes with the approval of the very class they seem determined to eradicate.” In most instances in the American past, and elsewhere, conditions like we have now have led to revolution or serious reform. We keep going the other way! I’ve been reading a biography of William Jennings Bryan, who aside from his his misguided viewscin evolution, was the standard-bearer. – along with Theodore Roosevelt – of a substantive campaign against similar veering toward oligarchy 120 years ago. They were great populists and enacted a lot of reform on behalf of labor, and reined in the big-money people. They created a great legacy, and boy havecwr failed it.

  2. Well done Hugh. I was struck by the term “tourist’s view of the world.” That is so profound. When you have money, no matter where you travel, you tend to get a tourist view of the world, from the nicer hotels. It is a sanitized version. Then, if you watch only “news” that tells you what you want to hear, you do not see the suffering. I will call it the Marie Antoinette effect. Right now, the two biggest threats to our planet are corruption and climate change, as they effect everything else. Our solution in the US electorate, is we gave the keys of Congress to the fossil fuel industry.

    On the flip side, we should see the positive minimum wage votes in five states and one municipality as voters standing their ground. We now have 29 states with one pending with minimum wages larger than the federal one. Maybe this will be a trend. Great post, BTG

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