money & politics
A LOOK BEHIND THE NEWS
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press).
the final months of a presidential election campaign, the prevailing
political talk, amid an ambience of cynicism and indignation,
turns unhesitatingly to money. American voters understand that
economics and politics remain interpenetrating. Whatever happens
in either one of these seemingly discrete realms, especially
when money is involved, more or less substantially impacts the
if scholars and politicos were to look behind the talk, beyond
the ritualized economic and political orthodoxies of the moment,
they could uncover something genuinely vital, stunningly obvious,
but somehow also still neglected. The core problems of generalized
economic weakness and expanding social inequality, they would
discover, are not truly fiscal, but human.
consumption comprises an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount
of the GDP growth rate. By itself, however, this is not newsworthy.
Yet by simple deduction, Wall Street’s volatility and
fragility, and therefore America’s politics and elections,
are ultimately a product of a society that ‘requires’
the tangible surfaces of timeless and widespread manipulations,
America’s underlying market difficulties are rooted in
a deep dependence upon Main Street’s craving for goods.
From the standpoint of any needed economic recovery, and therefore
also the political fortunes of our current presidential candidates,
this skilfully choreographed pattern of desire will always prove
to be relevant, or even determinative. Depending upon the particular
candidate and political party, of course, it will turn out to
be more or less helpful.
Americans are presumed to be what we buy. There is nothing remotely
controversial about this demeaning assertion. Earlier, Adam
Smith and Thorsten Veblen, among others, established the blurry
nexus between money and self-esteem as an integral part of their
respective economic theories. This corrosive linkage is now
indispensable to our political campaigns, both at the utilitarian
level of successfully marketing each candidate to the most voters,
and also with regard to each candidate’s explicitly wealth
enhancing or income-related promises.
crude orientation to money and politics isn’t distinctly
American. Rather, the universal problem of hyper-consumption
is the embarrassing foolishness of linking feelings of self-worth
to ownership of shiny goods. In any society where one’s
perceived value is determined by observable consumption, the
derivative economy and polity are inevitably built upon sand.
"'Everybody does it' - the national excuse" by Albert
Levering in Puck, 1910. Source: Library of Congress.
this is not what we hear from the candidates, “experts,”
learned economists, bankers, or ever-twisting corporate chiefs.
Assuredly, after all, it isn’t in their job description
to inquire beyond hard, measurable, and quotable fiscal calculations.
Still, if we should care to look more closely, it would become
plain that the American voter has as much to learn about money
and politics from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as from Karl
Marx and John Maynard Keynes.
we can finally get a handle on the insatiable public need for
“stuff” as validation, our economic and political
problems will not go away. And even if we could somehow “fix”
current problems by further encouraging consumption —
a stance now taken by both presidential candidates — exactly
what sort of society would we be sustaining?
kind of economy and society must rely on crude coaxing and engineered
purchasing to preserve its life-saving buoyancy? In the 19th
century, Ralph Waldo Emerson had spoken prophetically of “self-reliance.”
American Transcendentalist thinkers had readily understood that
a foolish “reliance upon property” was the devastating
but still-avoidable result of “a want of self reliance.”
living insecurely amid a humiliating barrage of advertising
jingles, delirious collectivism, and embarrassingly empty witticisms,
the apprehensive American voter sorely wants to project a “correct”
image. Each tentative claim to self-worth must be founded upon
having the “right stuff.” Hyper-consumption, hence
politics and money, are never fundamentally about greed; rather,
they are about the pleasingly enhanced image of personal importance
that can presumably be conferred by glamorous houses, cars,
and assorted electronic toys.
demeaning consumer message of our polity and mass society is
everywhere, even in the universities. Today, almost all higher
education in America has become fiercely-commercial, proudly
anti-intellectual, and openly vocational, obsequiously dumbed-down
by faculties who are running scared from no-longer literate
university administrations. In America, we ceremoniously graduate
newly minted Ph.D.s, MDs, JDs and MBA’s who know only
how to progress in their own chosen fields. They may, of course,
turn out to be perfectly good teachers, doctors, lawyers, and
accountants, but they shall always remain no more than trained.
Through no fault of their own, they will never really have been
educated. On the Capitol steps, Washington, D.C. Under the auspices
of the Bureau of University Travel and the National Capital
School Visitors' Council, over 200 high school students chosen
for their intellectual alertness visited Washington for a week.
Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. Source: Library of Congress.
Do we want a genuinely fair and democratic society?
we prefer that our presidential candidates be animated by more
than a visceral political inclination to pledge greater personal
wealth to every voter? If so, then we must first reorient our
American system from its thoroughly corrupted ambience of mass
taste, and toward a more conscientiously cultivated environment
of thought and feeling.
Smith had argued, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes
of the Wealth of Nations (1776), that a system of “perfect
liberty” could never be based upon “mean rapacity”
and “needless” consumption. On the contrary, said
Smith, who remains a fashionable mainstay of conservatives,
the laws of the market, driven by competition and a consequent
“self-regulation,” demand a principled disdain for
all vanity-driven consumption. For Adam Smith, “conspicuous
consumption” — a phrase that would be used far more
devastatingly later by Thorsten Veblen — could never be
a proper motor of economic or social improvement, yet it is
now offered as a solution to economic woes and an inducement
for political support.
Street and Washington remain wholly dependent upon the self-destructive
imitations of mass society. Such a mutually corrosive dependence
can never succeed, either in economics or in politics. Instead,
we must first create conditions whereby each American can somehow
feel important and alive without abjectly surrendering to manufactured
images of power and status. If we fail, the most blatantly injurious
connections between money and politics will continue to proliferate.
appropriately altered conditions, millions of Americans will
continue to seek refuge from the excruciating emptiness of daily
life in mind-numbing music, mountains of drugs, and oceans of
alcohol. Insidiously, without any political impediments, the
resultant brew will swell and overflow, drowning entire epochs
of political theory, art, literature, and even sacred poetry.
the endless infusions of money into politics, America is now
a palpably unhappy society, one where the citizens can rarely
find authentic meaning or personal satisfaction within themselves.
Only this socially crushed individualism can become the starting
point for repairing what is fundamentally wrong with our politics
and society. All else, including fiscal contaminations of democratic
politics, is epiphenomenal. All else is merely what philosophers,
since Plato, have called “shadows of reality.”
he alive today, Plato would recognize our problems of money
and politics as a “sickness of the soul.” The solution
to these problems, he would have understood, is not simply to
elect new leaders, or identify additional statutory limits on
political contributions and donations. Instead, it must be to
make the souls of the citizens better.