FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Politics of Envy

by ROB URIE

One of the theories of the practice of psychology encountered in college is “egoism,” the argument that all people at all times act in their own self-interest. The theory is circular in that once the premise is accepted, any argument that runs counter to it is presumed to result from self-interest.  People are at times altruistic? Yes, but only when they want something in return. The theory seems simplistic and reductive? Yes, but only because we are more comfortable seeing ourselves as complex and self-determined rather than as we really are.

At its core the theory is economistic in that it reduces the breadth and complexity of life to a set of simple motives. Economist Gary Becker won a Nobel Prize for expanding the economistic conceit that all decisions in life are driven by economic self-interest including choosing a mate and having children. Imagine the clarity at finding the Rosetta Stone of life, the tool that translates the building of the pyramids to a single drive that unites Pharaoh with slave. Pablo Picasso painted because he wanted to sell paintings. Bach, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Rotten all made the music that they made because they thought it the best way to earn a living. The same factor that built Stonehenge caused the financial crisis.

Not that it ever strayed very far, but Becker’s conceit just made a public appearance in of all places Zuccotti Park, AKA Liberty Plaza, home of Occupy Wall Street. It seems that the reason that people are sleeping on concrete in the rain, being beaten and abused by the police and stating publicly and loudly that the whole system is rotten and needs to be changed is because they are envious of the rich and powerful. Wouldn’t John Coltrane have tossed his saxophone in the trash if he could have traded derivatives from the bowels of Bank of America? Wouldn’t Pablo Picasso have forgotten about painting if he could have convinced unsophisticated and vulnerable people to borrow more money than they could afford to pay back for Goldman Sachs?

The question then back is: when did life get reduced to the singular goal of getting and having money? Could it be that the rich and powerful might have been envious of how much more their lives could have been if they hadn’t internalized the most self-limiting of the narratives they were handed and chose not to question? Here I don’t mean the accidental rich like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett,  people who were you to ask probably see their wealth as a coincidence of the ride, not its central driver. But the narrative of envy is one of primary drivers, not coincidence.

So could it be that life consists of a continuum of haves and have-nots with all competing for the top spot that only one can hold? Is there a difference in the degree of envy between the person holding the number two spot and the person holding the eight-billionth spot? The necessary answer is no because if so the person holding the eight-billionth spot might only want to move one spot up. This would mean that they aren’t envious of the rich and powerful at all, but rather only of the poor schmuck whose life is only microscopically, invisibly better than theirs. In that case, the only people envious of the rich and powerful are the rich and powerful just one step below them. There are a few people who fit that description that I’ve seen at Zuccotti Park, but they seemed neither driven by envy nor are they representative of the movement.

Without envy, its seems that the Occupy folks might have something that has never occurred to the envious rich and powerful—lives without envy, not of wealth and power at any rate. And once envy of wealth and power are out of the picture, who knows what can happen? To show my bias, my bet is that Martin Luther King had fewer regrets than the average corrupt politician. And Pablo Picasso enjoyed painting more than the average graphic artist working in the bowels of Boeing. And the Sex Pistols like the music that they made more than the people writing jingles for Burger King. But none of them knew whether or not what they did would be financially rewarding until after they had done it.

And so here we are. I don’t know where it’s going but I do know that the possibilities are greater than they were. When you talk about envy, take this to heart; I don’t want to be you, not even a little bit. And I bet a lot of other people feel exactly the same way. Sorry if this hurts. But really, keep all that crap that you have. I’m joining the brothers and sisters at Liberty Plaza because with them at least there’s a chance. With you there’s none. So enjoy your stuff. It looks like a wonderful tomb.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.

 

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist.

Weekend Edition
February 12-14, 2016
Andrew Levine
What Next in the War on Clintonism?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Comedy of Terrors: When in Doubt, Bomb Syria
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh – Anthony A. Gabb
Financial Oligarchy vs. Feudal Aristocracy
Paul Street
When Plan A Meets Plan B: Talking Politics and Revolution with the Green Party’s Jill Stein
Rob Urie
The (Political) Season of Our Discontent
Pepe Escobar
It Takes a Greek to Save Europa
Gerald Sussman
Why Hillary Clinton Spells Democratic Party Defeat
Carol Norris
What Do Hillary’s Women Want? A Psychologist on the Clinton Campaign’s Women’s Club Strategy
Robert Fantina
The U.S. Election: Any Good News for Palestine?
Linda Pentz Gunter
Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget
Michael Welton
Lenin, Putin and Me
Manuel García, Jr.
Fire in the Hole: Bernie and the Cracks in the Neo-Liberal Lid
Thomas Stephens
The Flint River Lead Poisoning Catastrophe in Historical Perspective
David Rosen
When Trump Confronted a Transgender Beauty
Will Parrish
Cap and Clear-Cut
Victor Grossman
Coming Cutthroats and Parting Pirates
Ben Terrall
Raw Deals: Challenging the Sharing Economy
David Yearsley
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Formation: Form-Fitting Uniforms of Revolution and Commerce
David Mattson
Divvying Up the Dead: Grizzly Bears in a Post-ESA World
Matthew Stevenson
Confessions of a Primary Insider
Jeff Mackler
Friedrichs v. U.S. Public Employee Unions
Franklin Lamb
Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions
Pete Dolack
More Unemployment and Less Security
Christopher Brauchli
The Cruzifiction of Michael Wayne Haley
Bill Quigley
Law on the Margins: a Profile of Social Justice Lawyer Chaumtoli Huq
Uri Avnery
A Lady With a Smile
Katja Kipping
The Opposite of Transparency: What I Didn’t Read in the TIPP Reading Room
B. R. Gowani
Hellish Woman: ISIS’s Granny Endorses Hillary
Kent Paterson
The Futures of Whales and Humans in Mexico
James Heddle
Why the Current Nuclear Showdown in California Should Matter to You
Michael Howard
Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse
Steven Gorelick
Branding Tradition: a Bittersweet Tale of Capitalism at Work
Nozomi Hayase
Assange’s UN Victory and Redemption of the West
Patrick Bond
World Bank Punches South Africa’s Poor, by Ignoring the Rich
Mel Gurtov
Is US-Russia Engagement Still Possible?
Dan Bacher
Governor Jerry Brown Receives Cold, Dead Fish Award Four Years In A Row
Wolfgang Lieberknecht
Fighting and Protecting Refugees
Jennifer Matsui
Doglegs, An Unforgettable Film
Soud Sharabani
Israeli Myths: An Interview with Ramzy Baroud
Terry Simons
Bernie? Why Not?
Missy Comley Beattie
When Thoughtful People Think Illogically
Christy Rodgers
Everywhere is War: Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead: Stories
Ron Jacobs
Springsteen: Rockin’ the House in Albany, NY
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“The Martian”: This Heroism is for Chinese Viewers Too
Charles R. Larson
No Brainers: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail