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.


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Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

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