Everyone is talking about wealth these days. Some want to continue to amass it without constraints. Others want to find ways to get theirs. And still others want to spread it around more equitably. All these efforts lead to so many infamously “unintended consequences.” Except they’re not so mysterious if we look at what wealth is instead of what we keep insisting it is.
In a subsistence way of life wealth is in relationships, both with other members of the group and with an abundance ready to hand. This form of wealth collapsed when our lives became compartmentalized and our existence atomized, and when the faunas and floras that had provided a relative abundance began to collapse due to the increasing pressures resulting from exponential human population growth.
A new conception of wealth, that persists to this day, has been to find it through the domination and concentration of the fabric of life reduced to commodities, as seen within the use of the term “resources.” What had been the world, with its own stories and agendas with their own validity outside of human desire, became resources; a de-natured listing of things that could be taken to meet our desires while we grew blind to any countervailing legitimacy. The City/country, then Empire/colony model has gone on chewing through the fabric of the world so as to “generate” this form of wealth ever since.
Except, what this has accomplished has not been an increase in wealth, even according to its own internal measure, but the invention and proliferation of poverty. The pressure to take from a surrounding area and accumulate benefits in a center while forcing the damaging consequences of these actions to be concentrated outside that center invented poverty. Before this there had been bottlenecks of unmet needs, but these were transient, whether fatal or not to those it affected. Poverty is different. It is a chronic state of worsening conditions that spreads to engulf more and more of the world. Not just people, but whole realms of nature, and at this point the entire biosphere suffers from an ever increasing poverty.
Poverty is not an “unintended consequence” of wealth concentration it is its engine. As much as those benefiting have tried to hide this, the actions of the powerful in search of wealth have always been to go out and create poverty and thus concentrate “wealth.” This is certainly true of Capitalism, it is its reason for being and it has been the most efficient at producing results, but the impulse goes back to when populations expanded enough so that a few began to look for ever more sophisticated methods of predation upon their fellow beings and this way of dominating life became “profitable.”
So today when we have negotiations around notions of redistributing wealth, let’s not get caught assuming that this is in some way to reduce poverty, to right any injustice. So long as these efforts don’t challenge the conception that wealth is a series of commodities stolen from peoples or the world itself; then these efforts are merely another in an endless series of power-plays to maintain, or replace, certain parties in a position where they are relatively better off than the expanding mass of the poor. These efforts also ignore that the trends for “wealth generation” have, beyond certain narrow pockets for short periods of time, increasingly impoverished everyone. The possibilities for genuine wealth have consistently declined throughout the ages of wealth generation. The conclusion of following its precepts will be the general collapse of all possibility of anything but a radical poverty taken to the level of general extinction.
This begins to appear inevitable as we familiarize ourselves with what is going on around us. This perception is an example of the distortions within any exponential graph that is based on the uninterrupted indefinite continuation of present trends and conditions. The lesson of such curves is that actual results will never match their end points. Something will intrude to obliterate the conditions that led to such an over-reach.
This is as true of the causes of all the scary trends we are witnessing as it is for these trends themselves. There is a distinct possibility of reaching tipping points that set everything back to “zero,” the way a mass-extinction event does, but there is also the chance that something unexpected will change our conditions in a beneficial way as well.
We cannot know.
The question then becomes, “What do we do?”
The answer to this is no different from any existential question humans have ever faced. After all, we are incapable of experiencing extinction, all we can experience is the approaching boundary of our own deaths.
This simplifies matters. It removes the last gasp of exceptionalism that claims, “These are the worst of times!”
Possibly, but again, we can’t know that.
So how do we respond to the question of wealth?
To begin, let’s be clear of what is meant by the term, and what is at stake.