Three terms at the heart of our predicament. We struggle with defining them and have a hard time grasping their significance. At first glance they sound simple enough. Value is good, wealth is good and poverty is bad. Yet on further scrutiny these judgments break down.
Value is a term lost in a variety of meanings with all sorts of connotations. The way it’s used in pop parlance has pried it clear of any potential. “Values” has become a list of likes to add to a broad catalog of cheap consumables. Whether secular or religious, the holders of a set of values are convinced of their utility and of their ease. There’s always a wink and a nod at some way in which their particular values trump, not because they are reflections of a deep ethic but because they are convenient. The ultimate version of this is the quid pro quo of religious values held as badges for a club of the select. Their usefulness comes not in being right – that is just the justification for never questioning them – but from the bargain with the deity they seal, giving their holder the keys to the kingdom and everlasting advantage.
Confusion of value with wealth, and then the complete misunderstanding of what wealth represents, feed off each other, maintaining our inability to see a way through our difficulty. The term wealth has become the repository of positive regard. We use wealth and the good almost interchangeably – if not openly proclaiming the connection, then burying it behind the screen of “Providence.”
We find it almost impossible to believe that founders of America, huddled cold and hungry in the pitiless expanse of a New England winter, spent most of their time and all of their energies on gauging their worthiness for a stingy God’s allotment of salvation. Their greatest aim was to survive long enough to show themselves worthy before dieing in a torment of doubt to only then find out if they’d been successful. This narrow and mean existence, closer to the fevered contortions of faith and self-sacrifice perverted into mania that we now ascribe to our latest bogeyman and his fanatical followers, was there at the birth of the “Pursuit of Happiness” we pledge our allegiance to today. Remember that “happiness” was a last minute replacement for the more to the point, term, property in earlier drafts….
It’s really a fairly logical progression once we add in their notion of Providence. Their children and grandchildren streamlined the process. While maintaining the fashion of a harsh and demanding faith, they shifted the field of their salvation and ultimate worth to how well they were able to accumulate the rewards of a divine providence. Wealth was good because it was a sign of favor from God. No need to go any farther than that! In a culture that had never given much thought to giving any value to quality of life so long as at the end one had some meager chance of salvation; when the standard of value was the avoidance of eternal damnation by the skin of one’s rotten and bleeding-gummed teeth; what difference did it make how we spent this short and miserable life?
Their zeal for what they accepted as valuable, and their disdain for the worldly, they passed on to us. As in any evolution, the transformations caused by slightly imperfect reiterations has modified their credo to the point where they would never recognize the kinship, and we find them hopelessly archaic and barely concede their role in shaping us. Yet we’re still trapped with their legacy of willfully blinding ourselves to the life we are born into, chasing after future lives – if not in their Puritan Calvinist Heaven then on Mars or Alpha Centauri. Ambitions now spread across most of the world, we’re all “Americans” now, if not in our yearning then in our reaction to its hegemony.
Their other long standing legacy has been their confusion of wealth as a sign of ultimate good. As with any deeply acclimatized cultural truism, we don’t question the reasons why we give wealth a supreme value – even if we were to untangle what value might mean if we cleared it of mere wishes and knee-jerk desires. This is where poverty comes in. If wealth is a sign of God’s favor whittled down over the centuries to simply the keys to “happiness.” Then poverty, as its antithesis – in an age that has given great store to the cataloging and assessment of binary opposites – must be not only bad, but a sign, THE sign of unworthiness.
Today as we struggle with the limits of a way of life built on the necessity of exponential growth on a finite planet, we find it hard to escape the need to grapple with our current and future impoverishment. Notions of progress tied inexorably to the dynamic of finding our value only through wealth hold us within a process that takes anything with any other sort of potential value: ecological, social, or simply personal; and grinds them up in its maw spitting out wealth for ever fewer and poverty for all in varying degrees.
Those still caught in this juggernaut’s thrall are ever more frantic to hold onto whatever wealth they can manage to scrape together with little concern for the cost – even to themselves. The rest of us are falling into deeper and deeper poverty and trying to cope. Yet for something that has engulfed a greater percentage of the total of human life than has ever existed, we fail to understand how poverty arises or what the alternatives might be.
Wealth, ask any economist, is the accumulation of surplus. Our great “Engine of Growth” “generates” “Wealth” by the wonder of its “Efficiencies.” Anyone who’s read this blog for long will have some notion of what I think of these verities! Let’s just go down the list. The engine of growth is a Ponzi scheme that strip-mines a narrow set of utilities from out of the living fabric of our world. Wealth is a tilted measure of what is of value on a scale that’s evolved out of a deeply skewed and perverted notion that nothing on this Earth is of value. And efficiencies are not the unquestioned measure of what is the right thing to do in any particular case, but the result of a deeply impoverished mindset that can only see in disconnected dualities.
For those of us looking for ways to minimize the damage, we try to find ways to make the idea of our inevitable impoverishment more palatable. We find this hard to do. Our instincts, even in their twisted and homeless present condition attempting to maintain our sanities and health within a deeply perverted system. They rebel at the thought that we should embrace something so inimical to the values of life as voluntary impoverishment.
Poverty has been the inevitable outcome of this system. It is its true goal. The chimera of wealth has been the motivator keeping it going, but its only possible result has always been an implosion of an ever more damaged and deteriorating world into a devolved state of universal poverty. The Puritans would have understood this, and not cared. To them the end of this world was the same “necessary” precondition to their ultimate salvation as it now is for fanatics on all sides of the religious wars – including the fundamentalist atheists.
We compound our difficult position by maintaining ourselves in this state of confusion. Unless we look clearly at the loss of meaning that has hidden the true natures of these three decisive terms we cannot get on with unraveling our condition.
Nothing will prevent the world’s great shudder from reestablishing an equilibrium. With so much damage done, and the long lag times and immeasurable histerisis of the systems involved, we will all get to know the consequences of impoverishment.
When faced with an intractable situation of impending danger we have three possible alternative responses. We can react wildly out of frustration and anger that our illusion of will has been torn; or we can respond from a sense of presence with a series of right-actions that let us meet the situation at our best, and make the tangle of adjustments and exertions that give us the chance of continuing our survival out the other side; or we can be open to the realization, on an instinctive level, that we’ve met the moment when our powers have been overwhelmed, and we can bear calm witness to the way these immense forces will have us.
All our potential responses fit into one or more of these categories – not a dualistic binary, a trilogy, that perennial stand-in for the multitude.
There is little value in the first choice. Yet this is where we expend most if not all of our energies. The other two seem strange, either impossible or just downright odd unless we let ourselves open to their possibility and look for examples of when we’ve found ourselves in moments or even mere instants of their existence.
We spend most of our time within a cocoon of a sufficiently smooth confirmation of our illusions of permanence and continuity. The construct we call our conscious experience of “reality” heals itself from minor shocks and gives us little reason to question the show. It’s only at moments when forces impinge from out of our scales of perception, either because of their tremendous power, their unforeseen qualities, their speed, or simply their propinquity; they collide with our seamless reality and give us a shock. These can be slight and only mildly unnerving or they can overwhelm us in instantaneous obliteration. We’ve all had examples of this of some kind, and its only through looking at how we managed to deal with them, or not deal with them, that we can gain insights into this normally hidden set of conditions.
These conditions are only ever hidden, they are always there in some form or another. This is the lesson of humility, having a respect for what we cannot see. Knowing that what we cannot see not only exists, but has the greatest chance of coming along and biting us on our proverbial asses!
How does this relate to value, wealth and poverty? In part it gives us clues to how our consciousness can “heal-over” significant aspects of our existence without entering our awareness in some obvious way. There are limits to the comfortable acceptance of any cultural frame, and those limits are ultimately tested when that culture has spun-off into irrelevancies long enough and with enough energy to destabilize its world. The other important lesson such moments of discontinuity we’ve survived give us is that we are far more capable than we’re led to believe.
By capability I don’t mean invincibility. The Optimist Brigade push for some flavor or other of imperturbable hubris: the assurances that our wills are paramount, everything else a delusion. By capability I mean the capacity to engage in reality and come to some terms with it, whether that be a more or less seamless return to our “normality,” or a mere instant of wonder at the might of all that has come to reclaim us for some other use obliterating our consciousness along with our bodies for whatever unknowable afterward.
A first step in this process for us today is to begin to disabuse ourselves of the accepted beliefs of the meanings of value, wealth and poverty. Value is absolute, though not in the simplistic dualistic forms we currently see it fought over. Value is also extremely contingent, though not as an excuse for throwing up our hands in defeat with the nihilism of any flattening notion of relativity. Wealth is a delusion, a mechanism that leads those who accept its premise to destroy all that is of value in a race for total destruction.
This seems so hard to believe, to truly hold onto the concept, beyond some platitude of received morality. The specifics are all there to be seen in their incontrovertible power. Wealth has always been a trade-off of actual benefits for chimera. So-called benefits of wealth have always come at far greater cost than reward, if we are willing to account for them all.
Poverty is the inevitable outcome of a pursuit of wealth. This comes from the fundamental lie, the belief in the existence of “surplus.” Everything is already of use to someone somehow in a tangle of relationships that cannot be unraveled without increasing the hold of entropy on our world. Life has evolved as a way to ride the inevitability of entropy and take every bit of nourishment, and delay the inevitable, in as much nuance and variety as can be accomplished within a given set of conditions. Stepping in and taking from this web is always going to impinge on it the risk of greater dissolution. To live we must all take, but humility is the recognition that every time we take we add risk and we close off other possibilities.
The inevitability of poverty is as an outcome, not the condition returned to after wealth has been “destroyed.” Wealth is the destroyer and poverty its result. In a condition of evolutionary flux there are momentary imbalances that could be perceived as benefits to some if we take an extremely narrow view, but the conditions for all are not conditions we would call poverty. Hardship, handicap, deprivation all are part of an ongoing web of conditions but they only coalesce to form poverty if a segment of life has been deperadated by another seeking to strip its “wealth” for temporary advantage. If this happens on a large enough scale, the result is the impoverishment of all as the system collapses to a higher order of entropy. (For more on this, look at Ivan Illich‘s work.)
We have those three choices. Unless we strive to see through the confusion around value, wealth and poverty, we are stuck with that first choice: to rail at the unfairness of a cruel fate and lash-out in anger and desperation. We know instinctively that isn’t bound to lead to a good result. Even so, without using the tools available to work our way out of this trap, we know we cannot break free of this dynamic, and we will inevitably crash and burn spectacularly with nothing to show for it.
Either of the other two is preferable. If we listen to our inner core and suss out what a billion years of life experience has bred into us, we can see that value, and find ways to meet our predicament with some blend of these other potential responses. It’s all there in what we mean by value, in how we measure the true cost of wealth and see the condition of poverty for what it is, not the straw-man that wealth will save us from, but the ultimate and inevitable end of an unceasing striving for wealth.
That fevered, other worldly look in the eye we have been led to believe only exists in the enemies of America, was there in the twisted lives of our founders. We choose to accept the wonder and gift of this world, or we doom ourselves, and much else of real value, to destruction beyond the scales of any we have seen in humankind’s short existence. The choice is ours. As with any moment of decision, it cannot be made without a clear assessment of how it impinges on our values. Unless we clarify the relationship between wealth and poverty, we cannot see where true value lies.