Society pays high price for adopting materialism


FOLLOWING THE rioting and looting in British cities this week, the analytical field broke down into what the Guardiancalls “right wing” and “left wing”: those who blame the breakdown in family and educational values, and those who blame a societal failure of “inclusion”.

There are many deeper and intertwining factors: misplaced notions of multiculturalism and, more fundamentally, of human dignity; the cultural murder of the father; the extraction from culture of transcendent values; the sheer ideological stupidity that has governed Britain since the 1960s, imported here since by a process of mimicry.

You would expect that, seeing the damage wrought by such phenomena, our cultures would be reacting to restore the disappearing elements. Instead, we seem to read every development as a further affirmation of our new guiding ideas. No matter how much evidence piles up concerning the disastrous path we have cut for ourselves, some collective inertia appears to prevent us resisting the persistent nudging of the ideologues, who shush and shunt us along to the next level of ruin.

One reason is that, at the very heart of the driving ideology is a seemingly irrefutable and irrefutably virtuous idea: that all human beings should be equal.

In our societies nowadays, held right in front of the citizen’s gaze, virtually minute to minute, is the aspiration to equality, characterised as something like an automatic entitlement. Around this discussion floats a radiation cloud of righteousness, which persistently implies that the failure to achieve equality is a moral one, an idea by no means lost on those who, understanding themselves to be less than “equal”, consequently come to believe that society has failed them in a way that entitles them to feel angry and hard done-by.

And yet, anyone with sense knows that equality is impossible this side of heaven. It is not simply that, at the level of global ideology, this apparently worthy ambition has several times been demonstrated a practical failure.

Nor is it merely that a moment’s thought conveys that even approximate equality is impossible, given the differing capacities and appetites of human beings. Moreover, the very mechanisms required for the generation of activity and wealth depend for their propulsion on the existence of inequality: this being what “motivates” and “rewards” those who participate in the communal effort to master the given resources.

We have found, too, that – beyond certain marginal interventions – attempts to interfere with the driving mechanism by “redistributing” wealth from the producers to the non-producers seem to misfire.

Attempts to even things out by, for example, social welfare transfers, fail to confer any sense of dignity on the beneficiaries, and thus have the tendency to provoke disgruntlement on the part of both the recipients and the “donors” whose wealth has been “redistributed”.

And yet, the pursuit of equality continues to dominate virtually all our discussions on social cohesion. Despite the evidence, we insist we must do more and more of what has already failed.

There’s another way of seeing everything. A friend of mine this week posed an interesting question: have we in Ireland spent the past three years frantically seeking to put things back together so as to arrive at the kind of society that spawned the riots and looting of this week?

In 2008, the wagon came off the rails, and since then our efforts have been directed at putting it back on, rather than looking at what it had been delivering to our lives. If you stop for a moment and listen to the subtext of that discussion, you immediately pick up that, even when things were going well, people were not happy. What makes them even more unhappy now is not simply the disappearance of what they had, but the removal of the promise of what might have been. In other words, what was taken by the economic meltdown was a fantasy, a sustaining fantasy but a fantasy nonetheless.

Our capitalist cultures have “successfully” reduced human aspiration to the material level only, insinuating some nebulous sense of a paradise in front of the human gaze, which attracts, seduces, obsesses, but never satisfies. Thus, for “the poor”, happiness resides in getting what “the rich” have. For “the rich”, happiness lies in pursuing the fantasy even further so as to hide from the fact that paradise is as far away as ever.

Not only do we dangle before ourselves the idea that some kind of combination of material resources and circumstances will deliver our hearts’ desires, but we animate this idea with the status of moral imperative, holding as a principle something that is, in fact and in practice, impossible.

In our neighbouring country this week, we observed looting as a kind of shopping without money, a defiant act of participation followed, inevitably, by a destructive one. Having stripped the Mosque of Mammon, the looters burned it down.

Should we be surprised when those who were told that paradise is around the corner take a midnight trip to the Eden they have been banished from, and, having stripped it of designer runners, raze it?

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