Our Impoverished, Pathological Society

If asked what’s intrinsic to human happiness, most people in consumer societies will offer up answers such as money, status, a nice house, etc. But as Sebastian Junger observes in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, what’s actually intrinsic to human happiness is: meaningful relationships within a community (i.e. a tribe); opportunities to contribute to the group and to be appreciated; being competent at useful tasks and opportunities for authentic experiences.

If we assess our society by these standards, it is impoverished and ill. In the present-day economy, there are only two ways to contribute: 1) earn a profit for some entity in the private sector, usually a large corporation, and 2) perform some task for the state (government) that lives off the wages and profits of the private sector.

If you can’t generate a profit or satisfy the state, you’re tossed on the trash heap and offered disability, minimum guaranteed income or some other form of subsistence survival.

But in a consumerist society, the only way to become a real human being is to consume. if you lack the means to consume on a daily basis, you have no personhood.

So we end up with a society that worships individual self-absorption and self-glorification as the empty and anxious consumer attempts to find authenticity, purpose and meaning in tattoos, selfies in exotic locales, eating in fancy bistros, wearing hip brands, etc.–in effect, trying to define a tribe by sharing brands and being fans of some form of consumerism.

This sort of commercial “tribe” does not offer what we actually seek: meaningful relationships with others in a common cause, and social connections within an authentic community.

If you set out to design a society that drove people to self-medicate with self-destructive drugs, you’d end up with our society. In a pathological, dysfunctional society, the answer to painful impoverishment is of course to criminalize some drugs and pass out others like candy, in a haphazard, crazy-making fashion that sends hundreds of thousands of people to prison, further destroying their lives, while others get immensely wealthy from selling the legal drugs.

The terrible irony is that the pursuit of wealth and status via self-absorption and self-glorification not only makes the individual ill, it destroys the foundations of actual human happiness. The impoverishment of our society has been documented by numerous books, for example Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam and Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray.

Historian Niall Ferguson’s review of Coming Apart is insightful:

“They will have to ignore one of Coming Apart’s most surprising findings: that race is not a significant determinant of social polarization in today’s America. It is class that really matters.

Murray meticulously chronicles and measures the emergence of two wholly distinct classes: a new upper class, first identified in The Bell Curve as “the cognitive elite,” and a new “lower class,” which he is too polite to give a name. And he vividly localizes his argument by imagining two emblematic communities: Belmont, where everyone has at least one college degree, and Fishtown, where no one has any. (Read: Tonyville and Trashtown.)

The key point is that the four great social trends of the past half-century–the decline of marriage, of the work ethic, of respect for the law and of religious observance–have affected Fishtown much more than Belmont. As a consequence, the traditional bonds of civil society have atrophied in Fishtown. And that, Murray concludes, is why people there are so very unhappy–and dysfunctional.

What can be done to reunite these two classes? Murray is dismissive of the standard liberal prescription of higher taxes on the rich and higher spending on the poor. As he points out, there could hardly be a worse moment to try to import the European welfare state, just as that system suffers fiscal collapse in its continent of origin.

What the country needs is not an even larger federal government but a kind of civic Great Awakening–a return to the republic’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.”

So what we have is a society in which the top 10% who have reached the heights of self-glorification serving corporations and the state are convinced they’ve made it. This well-educated and well-insulated technocratic elite chronicles the culture from the perspective of those who’ve reached the top of the pyramid, and they find that it’s darned wonderful because they’re not buried in the human trash heap below.

The next 10% below this self-satisfied elite believes they are in the same elite group, minus a few items such as assets that can be passed on to future generations and wealth that will survive the next bubble bursting.

The bottom 80% are simply trying to avoid being dumped on the trash heap, with diminishing success.

If you have to buy your personhood and value via consumption, only the top 5% get to be “real people.” This system is the acme of pathological impoverishment.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We could have a society that encourages meaningful communities with economic and social purpose, a society that offers a wealth of opportunities to contribute authentic work to opt-in “tribes” with shared purpose.

I lay out exactly how such an alternative way of living and producing would work in my book A Radically Beneficial World: Automation, Technology & Creating Jobs for All(which will soon be issued in Spanish-language and Chinese editions; an audio version is already available).

Our inner impoverishment has blinded us to our social impoverishment. In terms of authentic opportunities to contribute and belong, we are poor indeed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to worship unlimited self-aggrandizement, self-absorption, self-glorification, the maximization of profit as the primary goal, gross domestic product as the measure of “happiness,” and all the rest of a sick, impoverishing economy and society that drives everyone to self-medicate as they try to convince themselves they’re happy, or should be happy, when the truth is they can never be happy in such a pathologically perverse and impoverished society.

My new book is #8 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition)For more, please visit the book’s website.

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  • Tyler Healey

    The decimation of the power of labor unions over the past half-century may have had an effect on the overall well-being of Americans, but you won’t hear such an argument from right-wingers like Charles Murray and Niall Ferguson.

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