Stream of Consciousness

Monday, August 11, 2008

Altruism in America

Excerpts from an article by David Graeber in Harper's (Jan 2007):

Imagine, for a moment, that the United States as it exists today were the creation of some ingenious social engineer. What assumptions about human nature could we say this engineer must have been working with? Certainly nothing like rational choice theory. For clearly our social engineer understands that the only way to convince human beings to enter into the world of work and the marketplace (that is, of mind-numbing labor and cutthroat competition) is to dangle the prospect of thereby being able to lavish money on one’s children, buy drinks for one’s friends, and, if one hits the jackpot, spend the rest of one’s life endowing museums and providing AIDS medications to impoverished countries in Africa. Our theorists are constantly trying to strip away the veil of appearances and show how all such apparently selfless gestures really mask mine kind of self-interested strategy, but in reality American society is better conceived as a battle over access to the right to behave altruistically. Selflessness–or, at least, the right to engage in high-minded activity–is not the strategy. It is the prize.

When we are dealing not with strangers but with friends, relatives, or enemies, a much more complicated set of motivations will generally come into play: envy, solidarity, pride, self-destructive grief, loyalty, romantic obsession, resentment, spite, shame, conviviality, the anticipation of shared enjoyment, the desire to show up a rival, and so on, These are the motivations impelling the major dramas of our lives that great novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky immortalize but that social theorists, for some reason, tend to ignore.

...we are so used to operating inside impersonal markets that it never occurs to us to think how we would act if we had an economic system in which we treated people based on how we actually felt about them.

One might put it this way: if value is simply what one considers important, then money allows importance to take a liquid form, by enabling us to compare precise quantities of importance and trade one off for the other. If someone does accumulate a very large amount of money, the first thing he or she is likely to do is to try to convert it into something unique, whether it be Monet’s water lilies, a prizewinning racehorse, or an endowed chair at a university.

The problem, of course, is that a higher education system cannot be expanded forever. At a certain point one ends up with a significant portion of the population unable to find work even remotely in line with their qualifications, who have every reason to be angry about their situation, and who also have access to the entire history of radical thought.

More thoughts on this later.

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