By Jeremy Seabrook
09/27/07 “The Guardian”
The substitution of wealth for freedom in modern society is, perhaps, the greatest impoverishment of all.
Something is wanting in all the descriptions of poverty in rich societies. Necessities foregone by the least well-off do not appear to the majority of poor people in the world like terrible privations – a holiday, a mobile phone, the privacy of a room of one’s own; yet to call this “relative poverty” misses the point of the exposure and insecurity of being poor, when this has been reduced to minority status. We should also be wary of those who claim to despise “materialism”, and insist upon a “spiritual poverty” that plagues the rich, as though this compensated for the humiliations of its material counterpart.
At the same time, calculations of poverty in developed countries – whether set at 60% of average income or an inability to participate fully in the life of society – remain incomplete. A disturbing question arises. If monetary measurements fail to convey the depth and intensity of what it means to be poor, perhaps money is also a far from adequate indicator of what it means to be rich.
It is possible to become richer and less free at the same time. Because to be deprived of basic necessities is most certainly to be rendered less free, it is easy to conclude that freedom increases in direct proportion to rising disposable income.
But perhaps other poverties must be endured, in exchange, as it were, for a growing income? Because money has always been “reward” – for labour, for talent, for skill, for shrewd investment – this does not mean that all gains to humanity can be counted in dollars. Perhaps pecuniary advances are accompanied by regression in other areas of human experience. This disagreeable proposition runs counter to everything that we know about the wisdom of our society and civilisation.
How could we be said to have become less free as we have become richer? Is there a dynamic relationship between the accession of the “fruits” of perpetual economic growth, and certain losses, which leave us feeling powerless, when faced with the social and moral evils that accompany even the most successful economies?
There are many ways in which an increase in wealth may be attended by a subjective feeling of deprivation. Because these poverties are less tangible than the gleaming new car, the four-bedroom house, the second home or designer brands, they are not therefore “unreal”, a product of the puritan conscience of do-gooders or the thin laments of the archaic religious. They are felt as profound absences, poverties of the spirit, heart, mind and imagination; and they haunt the gilded edifice of our prosperity like ghosts; the evicted soul, so to speak, of humanity.
Because “poverty of the spirit” is sometimes used as a cliche by tired ministers of religion in their dull sermons, it does not follow that no such thing exists. It is not without significance that the word “spirits” has come to indicate alcohol rather than holiness. A growing dependency upon mood-altering substances, and the terminology that accompanies them – “getting high”, “out of one’s skull”, “mind-blowing”, “spaced out”, the appropriately-named “angel dust” or “ecstasy” tablets – suggests that exaltations of the spirit are not engendered within, but depend upon industrial inputs.
While some evangelicals still know the art of collective excitement, who now experiences passionate delight in ideals, in words, in physics or poetry, in youthful commitment to changing the world, in collective endeavour to make what an older generation called “its own fun?” Is it by chance that the noblest spiritual strivings in Christian tradition have all been redefined: faith is now vested in the power of money; hope resides in its transformative power, while charity means giving money, the coin in the box or the cheque in response to a natural disaster?
What is a poverty of the heart? Is it the supreme selfishness of individualism raised to ideology that sees the fate of each separated from that of anyone else: is it the fragility of human attachments, frail bonds, provisional loves and transient involvement that fill the world with the human wreckage that provides so much material for counsellors, experts, advisers and leaders of other people’s lives? What’s in it for me? This is the first question in any relationship or transaction; what do I get out of it? What are the returns, is it a sound emotional investment, where is the pay-off?
The “poverty of the soul”, of which some speak, is harder to assess, although there is evidently something in the criticism of a “soulless” building or a “soulless environment”. If religion was once the opium of the people, opium has now – literally for some – become religion and the heart of a heartless world has been replaced, perhaps by heartlessness: you’ve got your troubles, I’ve got mine.
Surely, in a society in which so many people know so much, there can be no poverty of the mind? Yet we hear constantly of “mindless” violence: a man is killed for remonstrating with a groups of teenagers; a boy is stabbed for refusing to join a gang, someone is shot because he looked at another in the wrong way. Given the mindlessness of so many of our activities – mindless entertainment, mindless pleasure, mindless politics – it would surely be expecting too much for the violence in society to be intelligent or mindful.
Poverty of the imagination is more easily definable. No other dreams, no visions, no alternative ways of living remain, all have been eclipsed and captured by the idea of the better life contained within the ample range of capitalist possibility. No other world exists, not even this one, reshaped, as it has been, in a ponderous imagery of burdensome wellbeing: fast cars, yachts, jewellery and furs, personalised jets and guarded islands, exclusive brand names, mansions and beaches and an avalanche of shopping. All that remains of the colonised imagination is industrialised fantasy, all the iconography of which has been pre-selected in the existential hypermarket.
If this exhausted the strange poverties of the contemporary world, it would be damning enough. But there is more. If the admonition “there is no alternative” is no longer heard, this is because it is so self-evident it no longer requires repetition. That there are simply no other ways of organising human society, answering need, providing for the people is inscribed in the powerful iconography of our densely clotted plenty. If this is indeed so, we have undergone a poverty that defies measurement, because it suggests we are no longer free to change.
Wealth as a substitute for freedom is, perhaps, the greatest impoverishment of all. It suggests, even if only as metaphor, that Marx‘s prediction of growing misery in the world has not been nullified by the quasi-limitless expansion of material goods. It hints that some elusive calculus of loss is absent from ideologies of progress. Is it still a zero-sum game, when we balance forfeited liberties against a heap of stuff destined to become tomorrow’s garbage?
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