The Politics of Envy


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.


December 01, 2015
John Wight
From Iraq to Syria: Repeating a Debacle
Conn Hallinan
Portugal: the Left Takes Charge
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Revenge? The Fight for the Boarder
Sami Al-Arian
My Ordeal: One of America’s Many Political Trials Since 9/11
Bilal El-Amine
The Hard Truth About Daesh and How to Fight It
Pete Dolack
Solidarity Instead of Hierarchy as “Common Sense”
Dan Glazebrook
Rhodes Must Fall: Decolonizing Education
Colin Todhunter
Big Oil, TTIP and the Scramble for Europe
Eric Draitser
Terror in Mali: An Attack on China and Russia?
Gilbert Mercier
Will Turkey Be Kicked Out of NATO?
Linn Washington Jr.
Torture and Other Abuses Make Turkey as American as Apple Pie
Randy Shaw
Krugman is Wrong on Gentrification
Raouf Halaby
Time to Speak Out Against Censorship
November 30, 2015
Henry Giroux
Trump’s Embrace of Totalitarianism is America’s Dirty Little Secret
Omur Sahin Keyif
An Assassination in Turkey: the Killing of Tahir Elci
Uri Avnery
There is No Such Thing as International Terrorism
Robert Fisk
70,000 Kalashnikovs: Cameron’s “Moderate” Rebels
Jamie Davidson
Distortion, Revisionism & the Liberal Media
Patrick Cockburn
Nasty Surprises: the Problem With Bombing ISIS
Robert Hunziker
The Looming Transnational Battlefield
Ahmed Gaya
Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice
Matt Peppe
Alan Gross’s Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes
Norman Pollack
Israel and ISIS: Needed, a Thorough Accounting
Colin Todhunter
India – Procession of the Dead: Shopping Malls and Shit
Roger Annis
Canada’s New Climate-Denying National Government
Binoy Kampmark
Straining the Republic: France’s State of Emergency
Bill Blunden
Glenn Greenwald Stands by the Official Narrative
Jack Rasmus
Japan’s 5th Recession in 7 Years
Karen Lee Wald
Inside the Colombia Peace Deal
Geoff Dutton
War in Our Time
Charles R. Larson
Twofers for Carly Fiorina
John Dear
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Weekend Edition
November 27-29, 2015
Andrew Levine
The Real Trouble With Bernie
Gary Leupp
Ben Carson, Joseph in Egypt, and the Attack on Rational Thought
John Whitbeck
Who’s Afraid of ISIS?
Michael Brenner
Europe’s Crisis: Terror, Refugees and Impotence
Ramzy Baroud
Forget ISIS: Humanity is at Stake
Pepe Escobar
Will Chess, Not Battleship, Be the Game of the Future in Eurasia?
Vijay Prashad
Showdown on the Syrian Border
Dave Lindorff
Gen. John Campbell, Commander in Afghanistan and Serial Liar
Colin Todhunter
Class, War and David Cameron
Jean Bricmont
The Ideology of Humanitarian Imperialism
Dan Glazebrook
Deadliest Terror in the World: the West’s Latest Gift to Africa
Mark Hand
Escape From New York: the Emancipation of Activist Cecily McMillan
Karl Grossman
Our Solar Bonanza!