Sunday, February 10, 2008

Perpetual Desire: Human Nature Under Capitalism

Every once in a while you may come across a lush oasis in that otherwise barren desert known as the Sunday Observer. There, amongst the smug, facile and myopic commentary-on-autopilot churned out by the Nick Cohens, Andrew Rawnsleys and Christina Odones (all of whose weekly output is, somehow, simultaneously infuriating and bum-clenchingly tedious to read) you can stumble across something thoughtful - an article into which the producer has clearly put some degree of time and effort. Jeremy Seabrook's article is, in fact, so bloody good that I felt that I simply must log into my Blogger account for the first time in four months and cut and paste the whole thing in. It doesn't really say anything that those of a socialist persuasion wouldn't have thought about before - but Seabrook says it so well.

The Poverty of Nations

"Why do the richest societies on earth constantly harp on their poverty? There is apparently never enough money to do all the things we would like to do. Every institution in Britain complains about "resources" (a word always qualified by "limited" and now a synonym for money) - the BBC, universities, the health service, educational provision, policing, the fight against crime, and especially, of course, the war on poverty. Scarcely a day goes by without some sombre warning about budgetary constraints, the non-existence of the bottomless purse and the illusion of the free lunch.

To a visitor from outside our market society (an increasingly implausible tourist in a globalised system), the rhetoric of perpetual indigence might come as a shock, given the highly material excesses that accompany it. We are always having to tighten our belts, make sacrifices, go without, cut our coat according to our cloth. There is always some privation to be endured, some penny-pinching measure to take, some curtailment of our plans. Treats must be foregone, merited rewards postponed. The present panic over the impending (or avoidable) "
recession" has expressed itself in apocalyptic terms - this is a time of mortgage famine and credit drought, a tsunami of bad loans, people drowning in debt, "the stench of fear and insecurity" according to one market analyst, an imagery of sickness and debility, of plagues, contagion and collapse.

This solemn perspective is bound to be reflected in people's view of the world. There is never, even at the best of times, enough of anything to go round, and not only money: there is also a lack of recognition, a want of respect, an insufficiency of regard, an absence of consideration, a shortage of appreciation. Celebrities never get quite enough attention; the famous are always in search of more publicity. Even the rich - whose incomes have grown prodigiously in our time - dwell, not upon the power their money bestows upon them, but on all the things they still cannot afford. There is always someone in a better position, with greater prestige, of higher status and regard in the world. A state of chronic wanting, if not want, is now the common condition of early 21st century humanity.

The most privileged people on earth dwell upon the coveted goods, sensations and experiences from which the slenderness of their means estranges them. Why has the wealth of the rich world set up such an unassuagable obsession with what remains always just out of reach? How does our plenty produce such a feeling of penury, our prosperity of deprivation?
Of course, economists, like philosophers, have answers. The satisfaction of basic needs, it is claimed, simply reveals second-order wants and desires, while the fulfilment of these only uncovers new, hitherto unsuspected layers of need. The answering of these, in turn, lays bare yet more abstruse yearnings. It is all perfectly explicable. This, the grim justification goes, is human nature, the one, the only, unalterable in a world in which every other aspect of nature is supremely malleable.

Human longing has always been without limits. Throughout recorded time, the richest have professed themselves unsatisfied, even when their wealth and power were absolute. They lamented that they could not command love or longevity; they could not acquire characteristics they did not possess; could not purchase health or attain contentment. This serves as a useful last word, and sets a term to argument.

Questioning this last resting place of conventional wisdom is overdue. The limitlessness of human desire has rarely been a preoccupation of the poor, whose longings have concentrated on the material qualities of the full belly and protection against the elements. Aspirations towards the infinite have, in any case, usually been taken care of by religion, which traditionally warned against attempts to aim for what cannot be realised in this world; exhortations to which the mighty have usually assented, although this has rarely prevented them from seeking the satisfaction of their own every whim in the here and now.

What are the insistent fangs of insufficiency that gnaw at the heart and psyche of everyone in the rich world, if not the internalised mechanisms of the need for perpetual economic growth? Human need and economic necessity have changed places, so that no one can say with any certainty where the circulation of the blood ceases and the cashflow begins, whether the rhythms of the heart mimic moments of boom and bust, or how the rise and fall of our life's breath follows the seasons of production and consumption. Our version of "human nature" is a very particular one, for it demands conformity with the nature of capitalism.

The universal sense of impoverishment in rich societies is simply the subjective expression of an objective need for more; a need as vast as it is impersonal, for it is the essential characteristic of a system and not of humanity. We are all poor in this scheme of things, for our own frail individuality is pitted against measureless engines of global production. It is now our destiny to gain as much of this abundance as we can cram into one poor limited lifetime. To frame our response in moral terms, as some do, is mistaken. Greed, avidity, eagerness for experience, sensation and novelty are names, not of vices or virtues, but of the urgencies that we inhabit and which inhabit us - the impulse towards perpetual growth and increase; "development" it is sometimes called.

This is the mirror image of a now archaic urge not to lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust do corrupt; for the amassing of treasures in this life is now our human purpose, the using up of as much of the
earth's substance as can be contained in that cramped, overcrowded space that our lives have become; for in this way, we serve the greatest need of all, which is the unstoppable energy of economic growth. The cultivation of continuous dissatisfaction and constant disappointment is the motor of this majestic machine.

"The poor you shall have with ye always" used to be regarded as a sorrowing
biblical comment on the natural state of things. Whether or not it ever was "natural", it has certainly been brought to a high art by human contriving; so much so that we have, through the mysterious alchemy of wealth, all become poor; a poverty destined to remain forever incurable, since it is inseparable from the peculiar dogmas of wealth-creationism; a faith from which few people in the world now dissent."

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