Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Money and Power

This evening on my way to work I had the following conversation with a Bangladeshi taxi driver.

Taxi Driver: Where are you from, Boss?

Jonathan: England. You?

Taxi Driver: Bangladesh…

Jonathan: Ah, Dhaka.

Taxi Driver: You know Dhaka?

Jonathan: No.

Taxi Driver: Bangladesh is a beautiful country. Very nice weather. Bangladeshi people are poor. We are a poor people. Very poor.

Jonathan: Yeah, I’m sorry about that.

Taxi Driver: We are poor. And so we are happy.

Jonathan: Ahhhh….?

Taxi Driver: Poor people are happy. Rich people are not happy.

Jonathan: Interesting.

Taxi Driver: Poor people eat and have a roof and work. Everything is simple…everything is good. Rich people are not happy, Kuwaitis are not happy. Rich people always problems, not simple - with food, with life.

I suspect he wasn’t trying to state in some kind of categorical, definitive way that it’s always good to be poor, however poor poor is; or implying that all rich people must inevitably be unhappy. All kinds of questions might also want to be asked, about what he meant by happiness. As a Bangladeshi earning perhaps 800 dollars a month here in Kuwait (so about twenty five times the average Bangadeshi income), it might also be pointed out that in relative terms he’s pretty rich.

In any case, a noteworthy exchange – summoning all kinds of cliché-questions and cliché answers about what the ‘really important things in life’ are. Yet clichés are not invalid just because they’re dull, or places we’ve been before.

It put me in mind, moreover, of something I’ve often wondered. Something I specifically ask myself when I encounter vitriol fuelled invectives against the ornately wealthy, denunciations diabolising them as callously evil, selfish swine. In an attempt at their defence, seeking understanding, I don’t want to join the deafening chorus of leftbeam opprobrium. I suspect too much that this scorn is motivated, too much of the time, by mere covetous envy, and not much else. It is not the wealth that they hate, but that the wealth is not theirs. Instead I want to ask – why do the rich want to be quite that rich, quite as rich as they are? Why must there always be, as it might be put ‘yet another yacht, yet another penthouse’. Or why is enough not enough? These are not questions, mind, motivated by a Socialist’s passion for redistribution (though it’s true I do want everyone to have enough). They are reflections of a certain vertiginous curiosity about how such an indigestion can be stomached. How it can be lived with. Doesn’t it lead to a heady bloatedness? Isn’t it self-alienating? Is it really quite that important, all that wealth? Are you sure? Don’t you lose yourself, scatter yourself, fragment yourself in your attachment of such an incrustation of material wealth onto the carapace that is your ego, beneath which you hide your soul? Only asking, Guvnor.

A related question regards power. Why do people want power? Or why do people who have power, want even more of it; or, at the very least, want very desperately not to lose the power that they have. This is the question that comes to mind when I hear about the conspiratorial cabals that, so we’re told, control and oppress the world in the name of power. Ok, though I question (though do not dismiss) the truth of what’s alleged, I also wonder: ok, supposing you’re correct – so what? Again, are you as incensed as you are because you’re envious? If not, well, I can agree: power lusts are unrighteous, unbecoming to the dignity of man. But isn’t pity as appropriate as condemnation, if not more so? The slave owner, after all, is not less enslaved to his role than the slave is to his. He’s just another kind of slave, as enslaved as the slave, only differently. Ok, I grant, he sleeps on more comfortable sheets.

Are these curious individuals who covet wealth and power; are they evil, or are they just, well, boring, a bit or a lot limited in their interiority; shallow, lacking in imaginative, metaphysical flair?

It is time for me to make some honest statements:

Firstly, that I myself don’t know, as friends or relatives, any of these seriously wealthy, seriously powerful people. I could indeed, therefore, be barking up a host of erroneous trees. Secondly, that I myself, yes, would definitely like to be richer than I am (though power, understood as ‘coercive potentiality’, will always, I hope, leave me cold). And thirdly, that, yes, I could well imagine that, on achieving a degree of wealth significantly greater than that which I currently possess (I could probably keep myself going, sans income, for about two to three years, at a stretch), I myself might very well be persuaded to feel partial to a little bit more….? I am indeed ‘only human’, or so it’s said.

But what I yet want to ask myself, in soul interrogatory mode, is this: what would I do with such wealth? Speaking now, as one not yet (presuming I ever would be? Ha!) put in a position to be open to the temptations of soul-corruption that wealth presumably carries, I know only what I would want to do. Which is:

First, be free of ‘the system’. We all know what I mean by this, do we not? Suffice it to say, the phrase ‘wage slavery’ sums it up nicely. The condition of being free of the need to work, as opposed to the condition of desiring to work, which, in the face of the limited joy attaching to ‘lounging around’ in the Roman manner, would, I trust, endure.

Second, do with my wealth all kinds of fine and dandy things for the betterment of my fellow man (and woman). No, not with the caveat that I myself would derive no self-gratifying frissons of meaningfulness, self-respect or delight from my largesse (why, oh why, do we think that giving has to be self-denying?) but with, nevertheless, the defining characteristic that what I did with my wealth would in fact, and not in merely spinned out appearance, actually have to be for their betterment. Not, mind you, with all my wealth – I’d need to keep some back for myself (shit, this man is so human). After all, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be free of the system now would I?

As to what I would do exactly – that’s another story, though the thought of the University I wrote about continues to interest me. Another might be a genuinely independent, self-funded if necessary, source of media revelation, in a manner reminiscent of Citizen Kane’s undertaking. People need to be fed and clothed and housed, too, and healed from all manner of nastiness.

Yeah, you’re right, it’s a pipe dream. You’re right, I’d get corrupted. Yachts and penthouses and decadence would prevail – a thoroughgoing kneeling at the foot of Moloch ensue.

Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. Hmmmmm.

If anyone out there with ‘an awful lot of wonga’ wants to put me to the test, they should feel assured that they should go right ahead. We could even work some sweet little disclaimers into the deal, such that you’d get your money back if yachts were witnessed!

And if you don’t (don’t worry – I do understand, I’m not that mad), could I maybe just ask you a favour?

Could you consider spending a little less of your money on yachts and penthouses, and persuade your friends to consider this too?

Don’t worry, I’m joking.

Are you?


Selena Dreamy said...

Max Weber puts it well: "Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose in his life." Nor, as an attribute of the instinct for self-preservation, can 'greed' be anything but entirely to the taste of the masses with their insatiable appetite for procurement, if not as powerful as the need to love. "We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love," the astute Adam Smith did not fail to note, and as the causality principle of a capitalist economy the egotistical drive of the human personality seems perfectly healthy to me.

Can we condemn it realistically?

Though Max Weber was also to write that "unlimited gree for gain is not in the least identical with capitalism, and is still less its spirit,", the economic function of greed nevertheless subserves a profound necessity in the political enonomy of the West which has never intended to forfeit the benefit of its drive out of mere considerations of morality.


Jonathan said...

Interesting that you think of the masses when you think of greed. I accept that, of course, we are all greedy, even poor little ole Oliver Twist.

But isn't there a sociological difference, by way of their effects upon society, between the greed of the masses, who at best will have little in excess of what they need, and quite possibly less than what they need, and the greed of people whose bloatedness might suggest the virtue of a salutary course of asceticism, even if only a mild one - and for their own good and edification too, not just in view of the good this could do to help others.

When Adam Smith wrote, the context of society was different, surely? Not as atomised, disenchanted and dechristianised, or vapidly meaningless, as ours is now. People still felt communal bonds of solidarity and belonging with one another, methinks. How do we know he would approve of the deracinating, alienating consequences of contemporary interpretations of what are, indeed, many of his wise insights into how wealth can be created?

And wealth created for whose benefit is always a question in any case, even if you embrace Smithery entire and whole. Once you've got it, what to do with it?

Pause for thought moment: why must we take people out of context, generally?

I was shocked that they put Adam Smith on the 20 pound note, by the way, given that he has become such an ideological symbol of post consensus national-cohesion-hatchery. Still, in an age in which Mammon is the UberGod beyond all UberGods(ironic in an age which so often prides itself on having gone beyond monotheism), what else could we expect other than to locate national identification in an economist?

Bring back Florence Nightingdale is what I say. I guess you recall the one pound note, axed in 87? Nostalgia moment.

Egotistical drives are all well and good if they can defend one from oppression or rouse one to focus ones energies on creative deeds (I think of Ayn Rand etc). But in themselves they can reveal nothing about the meaning for which we might be applying them ultimately; and besides they can obscure the deeper timelesss self, the home of our peace, which the ego can always threaten to obscure.

Oh, sorry i forgot, you don't like peace:)....?

Well, condemn is a strong word, and not one I'd want to use against an integral aspect of the human condition, such as greed or ego, since they are too fundamental. You'd have to be a Politically Correct Stalinist type, I think, to want to take on the human condition through condemnation, I think.

Such traits I think should rather be lovingly coaxed and inspired into choosing an expression of a higher splendour:)

Specific egotistical deeds, on the other hand, I have less worry about condemning, and yes this wheels us back to the old 'hate the sin, love the sinner' cliche (infinitely wise though it be).

Even though I’m obviously an idealist, I’m not an unrealistic one. I don’t expect people not to be greedy. But saying its an ideal, or necessarily vital - I wouldn’t want to go there. Quite apart from greed's appalling aesthetic crassness.

Maybe you conflate greed with the vital principle of 'elan', or the desire to produce and thrive and expand in-itself. These things are not necessarily bad at all. But the thing about greed is that it flies in the face of a stomach that says I’m full.

I'm loving these chitchats we're having, by the way, Dreamy. Most engaging. Much appreciated. I wonder if we'll ever talk face to face.

Or will you ever remain just shoes to me...albeit such nice ones.