Friday, November 28, 2014

Lots of effort, but toward what?

Thanksgiving has David Brooks wondering why people work so hard when they don't know what they are trying to achieve:
The real contradiction of capitalism is that it arouses enormous ambition, but it doesn’t help you define where you should focus it. It doesn’t define an end to which you should devote your life. It nurtures the illusion that career and economic success can lead to fulfillment, which is the central illusion of our time.

Capitalism on its own breeds people who are vaguely aware that they are not living the spiritually richest life, who are ill-equipped to know how they might do so, who don’t have the time to do so, and who, when they go off to find fulfillment, end up devoting themselves to scattershot causes and light religions.
I think "capitalism" is the wrong word here; it seems to me that a socialist society could have this problem, too. Certainly it is just as bad among scientists who disdain the profit motive as among bankers. I would call this meritocratic striving. But it is absolutely the defining misery of our age that we no matter how hard we strive we are vaguely aware that we are not seeking the right things.


G. Verloren said...

I think in this instance "Capitalism" is being used in place of what should be "Consumerism". The complaint isn't so much with how people use and think about money (although that is a contributing factor), but rather with what people value and seek to attain or achieve.

Consumerism tells us to consume - to value novelty and disposability, and to ignore the old and the enduring. It tells us not to be happy with what we have, but to constantly strive to gain what we don't have, regardless of the actual merits of doing so.

Your current television isn't good enough, you need the 70 inch plasma widescreen with a pricetag that could feed a family for two months. Your current clothes aren't good enough, you need the name brand designer fashions which show how much of an independent trendsetter you are through conforming to this month's latest style. Your current car isn't good enough, you need the new model sports car with the turbo charged engine which you'll never be able to put to proper use outside of a race track; or the macho-man pickup truck with 600 horsepower and a reinforced bed which you'll never use to haul anything except a spare tire and the occasional piece of new furniture; or the luxury sedan dripping with opulence and absurd extras because if you've got the six figures to throw away, you might as well spend it on heated leather seats and voice operated power windows.

Capitalism, of course, gets along very well with Consumerism, because selling people things they don't really need is a great way to make money. Sure, selling people useless crap without regard for anything other than profit might be spiritually and morally bankrupt, but it's certainly not financially bankrupt!

That's not to say the same thing can't also happen with Socialism, but it's certainly less likely. Capitalism is all about personal gain at the expense of others, whereas Socialism is concerned with the wellbeing of the community as a whole. This of course doesn't mean that groups can't also become obsessed with mindless consumption - and even do so at the expense of other groups - but there is a larger "inertia" to be overcome in getting an entire community to act in such a manner compared to individuals.

John said...

I think consumption is only half the problem, and that achieving just to achieve is an equal contributor -- like professors who publish thirty books and hikers who want to hike the AT in both directions or bloggers who want 10,000 page views a day and so on. We have lots of energy that we exhaust in multiple strange directions.