Passions, Political and Otherwise

I ended my last post with the observation that the left should be more passionate than the right because the left includes all those being trashed by the current arrangements.

That, of course, is hardly true.  The populist right includes many of the “losers” in contemporary society—and various analyses of their “anger” have been produced over the past three, five, ten years.

It is, however, the passion of the winners that perplexes me.  Where does their anger, vindictiveness, and general nastiness come from?  To cite just current news, what motivates someone who is doing quite well to vote for tax relief for the wealthy but refuse to extend health insurance to poor children?  What story could you possibly tell yourself that would make such an action virtuous?  Partisan passion, the need to get a “win,” overrides all other values (it would seem) in voting for a tax bill that is manifestly, in fact quite absurdly, a bad deal for the country and most of its citizens.  And laziness, the disinclination to do anything that requires a modicum of effort, might explain the inaction on renewing the children health insurance program.

Certainly, the indignant outrage the privileged feel when their privileges are threatened—or when others clamor for access to the same privileges—should not be underestimated.  But the tax bill, after all, is not a response to a threat.  It is just piling more privilege on top of already extreme privilege.  It looks much more like greed than self-protection from the rabble.

Greed, yes, but greed disconnected from any sense of reality.  There is, quite simply, nothing that could be done with that extra money.  You couldn’t spend it all if you had four lifetimes.  Even an idiot as big as Donald Trump, with his basketful of bad business deals, couldn’t spend himself into bankruptcy given the massive amount of money with which he started.

So then the greed seems connected to a different pathology: the comparative sickness that boils down to some male game about having a bigger one than the other guys.  Crude.  But there it is, and Donald Trump is nothing if not crude.  The depressing thought is that there are millions more like him, driven by the same need to dominate through accumulation.

But let’s outsource this discussion to a true misanthrope: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Here is his description of the pathologies of civilized man (the use of “man” is well-advised here).  The source is the long footnote IX in his Discourse on Inequality:

“For man in society, there are very different concerns [then for the savage as Rousseau portrays that mythical figure]; there is, in the first place, the matter of providing for the necessities and then for the superfluities; next come the luxuries, then immense riches, then subjects and slaves; he does not have a moment of respite.  What is most remarkable is that the less natural and urgent his needs, the more his passions grow, and, what is worse, his power to satisfy them, so that after lengthy prosperity, after having swallowed up many treasures and having destroyed many men, my hero will end up by slaughtering everything until he is the sole master of the universe.  Such is, in brief, the moral picture, if not of human life, at least of the secret aspirations in the heart of every civilized man.”

Later in the same footnote, Rousseau writes:

“Luxury, which is impossible to prevent among men who are greedy for their own conveniences and for the consideration of others, soon completes the harm done by societies, and under the pretext of supporting the poor, who need not have been created, it impoverishes all the rest, and sooner or later depopulates the state.”

The illness, in Rousseau’s view, goes back to the loss of self-sufficiency.  Let’s grant that Rousseau’s notion that humans in the state of nature were self-sufficient, had no need of others, is completely absurd.  (Rousseau himself admits that the “the state of nature” describes “a state which no longer exists, which has, perhaps, never existed” [p. 5 in the Norton edition of Rousseau’s Political Writings].) However, even if we are materially dependent on others in order to survive, i.e. if we grant that no person in isolation could actually produce the necessities for sustaining life, that doesn’t necessarily entail our deep psychological dependence on others’ opinions of us.  It is that vulnerability to what others think that is the real poison that Rousseau sees society as introducing.

It is civilized man’s terror of contempt—and his resentful and vengeful—response to perceived contempt that underwrites his fury toward his fellows.

“Anyone who sang or danced the best, who was the most handsome, the strongest, the most skillful, or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded, and this was the first step toward inequality and, at the same time, toward vice.  From these first preferences vanity and contempt were born on the one hand, and shame and envy on the other; and the fermentation caused by these new leavens finally produced compounds fatal to happiness and innocence.  As soon as men had begun to appraise each other and the idea of esteem was formulated in their minds, each claimed a right to it, and it was no longer possible to deny it to anyone with impunity.  In that way, the first duties of civility arose, even among savages, and in that way, every intentional wrong became an open insult, because along with the injury which resulted from it, the offended party saw in it a contempt for his person, which was often more unbearable than the injury itself.  Thus, as each person punished the contempt shown to him by others in proportion to the degree to which he valued himself, vengeance became terrible, and men bloodthirsty and cruel” (p. 38).

The vindictiveness of the tax bill is direct.  The coastal elites and the over-educated (produced by universities) are deliberate targets.  The Republicans know that such people hold them in contempt.  What we might say that Rousseau misses are two additional factors: one, those who seek esteem often can only enjoy it if they also know that are others are being denied their privileges, their marks of status.  This is a game that requires the existence of losers to assure me that I am winner.  All the better for my sense of self-righteousness is those losers can be characterized as lazy, corrupt, immoral etc. (which is where racial stereotypes prove so useful.)

Second, those afflicted with status anxiety of this type don’t only need to punish those who withhold their approbation, but must sycophantically seek out the approval of their betters.  I don’t think we should underestimate the extent to which Republican members of Congress want to be counted among the “real men,” who can be identified as either the party leaders or the rich donors.  Those are the guys with “real power,” the ones who are self-evidently the big winners—and I want to be in with that “in crowd.”

All of this is so crude, so reductionist in a Bourdieu type fashion, that I want to repudiate it even as I articulate it.  Of course, such status anxiety afflicts academic life just as pervasively and perniciously as it does politics or the business world.  But I 1) think lots of other motives are at play, so hate suggesting the search for status is some kind of master motive and 2) am daily impressed with the extent to which people don’t let their lives be ruled by the search for status and have devised any number of ways to be content with their lot, with where they have landed after their struggle to find a foothold in this cruel society of ours.

Which is a way of saying that ambition comes in all sizes.  Lots of people don’t aim very high—and all honor to them.  All the more praise since I am inclined at this point to ascribe the lion’s share of our society’s ills to those with outsized ambition, to those who play the status game with deadly intent.

I have heard businessmen say that “money is only a way of keeping score.”  It’s not really about the money, it’s about proving something else, although they usually fight shy of describing just what that something else is.  What I object to is their insatiable need to run up the score.  When is enough enough?  Especially if it’s a game where the actual money is secondary.

And, finally for today, there is also the question of how you play the game.  If the money reveals your competence, your innovative chops, your managerial skills, OK.  It’s something like an objective scorecard, albeit (can’t we admit this?) an imperfect one.  But if the money comes because you gamed the system, along with buying a few politicians to write in your favorite tax loophole, what exactly is being measured?  Not anything that should win you esteem—unless “sharp practice” is esteem worthy.

Once I start thinking that way, the whole value system, the whole scale on which esteem is measured and won, seems so utterly out of whack, that some fundamental perversity becomes the only explanation.  Maybe Rousseau is right to locate the causes of that perversity in the human animal’s social being.  But the fact that some people do seem immune to the illness makes me suspicious of any claim that the fault lies in our nature or our society, since such general accounts leave the actual perpetrators off the hook.



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