Wealth and Morality

In the years after WWII, a remarkable shift occurred in American economic life. For the first time in history, we reached a stage of prosperous development in which we could produce far more goods and services than anyone needed. Various factors combined to create this new situation, including advanced industrial technology, wartime expansion of the economy, the destruction of Europe’s industrial base while our own remained unscathed, and women added to the workforce.

To sustain all this growth, to continue paying wages and continue expanding profits, it was necessary to excessively stimulate our habits of consumption, to artificially increase the public’s appetite for what was being produced. No longer were manufacturers content with simply determining what people wanted and needed. Thenceforward, to a degree never witnessed before, it became necessary to learn effective ways of persuading people that they wanted and needed all sorts of things that they had never wanted or needed before. As a result, the public was soon being bombarded with non-stop messages to fall into line and do what we were being told: the duty of Americans, it became clear, was to go shopping.

Just as advertisers were beginning to seek out scientific advice to help them develop more effective procedures for what was casually dubbed “engineering consent”, television appeared on the scene. Soon the nation became practically catatonic. Consumers became targets rather than individuals, and the professional persuaders began using heavy artillery. Rather than explaining a product’s quality or usefulness, they concentrated on ways to manipulate our suggestibility, our fears, our least becoming motivations. Using every technique they could garner from science, advertisers soon computerized vast amounts of information about our personal lives and buying habits as discerned from focus groups, psychological interviewing, brain-wave measurements, etc. But it continued to become increasingly difficult to reach people amidst of the exploding carnival of marketing and promotion, so as consumers became more jaded the marketers became more aggressive. To accommodate the ever-increasing number of things to be sold, advertisements had to become briefer and briefer. The effect of this was to shorten the public’s already meager attention span: the image had to hit home deeply and instantly or it would never be noticed. It soon became apparent that this is best accomplished by evoking negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and envy – a far cry from simply distributing useful information about products, which required time and thoughtfulness. The goal was clear: consumers needed to think less and buy more.

With the general public virtually hypnotized into supporting these trends, more and more wealth was accumulating into fewer and fewer hands, giving big American business immense power to determine conditions here and abroad. This awesome financial power linked up with exuberant postwar feelings of patriotism and manifest destiny, and soon the American public was convinced that anything that interfered with the expansion of American corporate power was un-American, and thus began the incessant and peculiar identification of Capitalism with Freedom.

To maintain this fantastic public support for corporate America, public relations experts were brought in. The public needed to receive the appropriate messages, not just from advertising, but from the arts, entertainment, government, schools, museums, libraries – in short, from all avenues of modern culture. Now, in consequence, our lives are immersed in a steady stream of repetitive, continuous propaganda, perpetuating the various myths of economics, politics and science, and steadily eroding our individuality.

Propaganda is not concerned with what is best in men and women, it is not concerned with noble feelings or admirable goals. “Propaganda”, writes Jacques Ellul, “does not aim to elevate man, but to make him serve.”

“It must therefore utilize the most common feelings, the most widespread ideas, the crudest patterns, and in so doing place itself on a very low level with regard to what it wants men to do and to what end. Hate, hunger, and pride make better levers of propaganda than do love or impartiality.”

For these and many other reasons, we now live in a culture in which style has achieved primacy over substance. Although the original conception of democracy meant that social equality was more important than a social elite, and therefore the symbols of an elite were rejected, we now take the contorted alternative view that the symbols and styles of elites should be mass produced and made available to everyone! Of course, mass production implies mass standardization, and thus any genuine uniqueness which was available when production meant handicraft has now been replaced by the ‘sameness’ of what is available to us all. In response to this, there are always some people whose need to be noticed causes them to present themselves in a manner so bizarre as to stand out in the crowd. This never lasts long, however, since whatever stands out in the crowd typically becomes the next trend, the next standardized fashion.

We see the powerful mesmerizing effects of advertising, public relations, and fashion, in the pursuit of the perfect car, the perfect body, the perfect house, the perfect mate. We see it in our participation in certain activities, and our passive adherence to certain beliefs, that make us acceptable to whatever crowd we wish to join. We continue to speak sentimentally of our great respect for ‘rugged individualism’, but large-scale contemporary production, trade, and consumption require centralized authority, massive planning, and a willingness of so-called individuals to become cogs in the economic machine. A community of genuine individuals, held together by love, is thus transformed into an efficient ant hill, held together by money and power.

The responsibility for all of this does not lie with Madison Avenue or the lords of corporate power. The responsibility lies with us, with our own ‘suggestibility’, the astonishing ease with which we abandon all efforts to think and reason for ourselves, and believe whatever we are told. This is all a consequence of an inverted soul: the demanding Body is in charge, making acquisitiveness the only goal of life; the Mind remains passive and aloof, benumbed by all the images and messages; and the Heart is shut down, the victim of pornography and brutality. As a result, the appetites have taken control of our souls rather than supporting our sousl, and Plato’s ‘Merchants’ have likewise become the usurping rulers of our political and cultural life, while the ‘Guardians’ remain silent and asleep.

This is not how a soul is supposed to be governed, and it is not how an economy is supposed to be conducted.

As Jacob learned from Laban, and as Christ taught in his parables, it is good to increase material wealth and abundance (to be ‘fruitful and multiply’), it is necessary and honorable to learn how to take care of ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our posterity. But the impulse to do this cannot come from what is lowest in ourselves, it cannot come from meaningless greed. The impulse has to come from ‘Above’, from the creative Mind, from the Spirit.

When massive corporations seek only to maintain their own power by artificially stimulating consumer demand and then stuffing the consumer’s face with everything they now imagine they want (while nickle-and-diming them at every turn), our souls and our civilization continue to devolve and decay. But when entrepreneurs, through shrewdness and innovation, create wealth by benefiting others as well as themselves, this increased prosperity improves all of life and serves both human and divine purpose. This is why the Master in Christ’s parable welcomed the slave who had turned five talents into ten back into His joy, but threw the slave who merely maintained the status quo back into the outer darkness.

Prosperity is the goal of economics. But for society as a whole, economic prosperity is a means to an end – and we have perverted this ideal by making the accumulation of wealth an end in itself, by making it the cold relentless motive for all the decisions we make as a nation and as individuals. The result of this is the emptiness and drudgery of the human ant hill, increased poverty and misery, and ever more violence in our cities and across the world, rather than the magnificent cultural flowering of Beauty, Wisdom, and Spirit, that was the dream of the American Founders.