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Money and politics: A look behind the news

By Louis René Beres


In the final months of a presidential election campaign, the prevailing political talk, amid an ambience of cynicism and indignation, turns unhesitatingly to money. American voters understand that economics and politics remain interpenetrating. Whatever happens in either one of these seemingly discrete realms, especially when money is involved, more or less substantially impacts the other.

Still, if scholars and politicos were to look behind the talk, beyond the ritualized economic and political orthodoxies of the moment, they could uncover something genuinely vital, stunningly obvious, but somehow also still neglected. The core problems of generalized economic weakness and expanding social inequality, they would discover, are not truly fiscal, but human.

Personal consumption comprises an overwhelmingly disproportionate amount of the GDP growth rate. By itself, however, this is not newsworthy. Yet by simple deduction, Wall Street’s volatility and fragility, and therefore America’s politics and elections, are ultimately a product of a society that ‘requires’ hyper-consumption.

Below the tangible surfaces of timeless and widespread manipulations, America’s underlying market difficulties are rooted in a deep dependence upon Main Street’s craving for goods. From the standpoint of any needed economic recovery, and therefore also the political fortunes of our current presidential candidates, this skillfully choreographed pattern of desire will always prove to be relevant, or even determinative. Depending upon the particular candidate and political party, of course, it will turn out to be more or less helpful.

We Americans are presumed to be what we buy. There is nothing remotely controversial about this demeaning assertion. Earlier, Adam Smith and Thorsten Veblen, among others, established the blurry nexus between money and self-esteem as an integral part of their respective economic theories. This corrosive linkage is now indispensable to our political campaigns, both at the utilitarian level of successfully marketing each candidate to the most voters, and also with regard to each candidate’s explicitly wealth enhancing or income-related promises.

This crude orientation to money and politics isn’t distinctly American. Rather, the universal problem of hyper-consumption is the embarrassing foolishness of linking feelings of self-worth to ownership of shiny goods. In any society where one’s perceived value is determined by observable consumption, the derivative economy and polity are inevitably built upon sand.

"'Everybody does it' - the national excuse" by Albert Levering in Puck, 1910. Source: Library of Congress.

Naturally, this is not what we hear from the candidates, “experts,” learned economists, bankers, or ever-twisting corporate chiefs. Assuredly, after all, it isn’t in their job description to inquire beyond hard, measurable, and quotable fiscal calculations. Still, if we should care to look more closely, it would become plain that the American voter has as much to learn about money and politics from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes.

Until we can finally get a handle on the insatiable public need for “stuff” as validation, our economic and political problems will not go away. And even if we could somehow “fix” current problems by further encouraging consumption — a stance now taken by both presidential candidates — exactly what sort of society would we be sustaining?

What kind of economy and society must rely on crude coaxing and engineered purchasing to preserve its life-saving buoyancy? In the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson had spoken prophetically of “self-reliance.” American Transcendentalist thinkers had readily understood that a foolish “reliance upon property” was the devastating but still-avoidable result of “a want of self reliance.”

Today, living insecurely amid a humiliating barrage of advertising jingles, delirious collectivism, and embarrassingly empty witticisms, the apprehensive American voter sorely wants to project a “correct” image. Each tentative claim to self-worth must be founded upon having the “right stuff.” Hyper-consumption, hence politics and money, are never fundamentally about greed; rather, they are about the pleasingly enhanced image of personal importance that can presumably be conferred by glamorous houses, cars, and assorted electronic toys.

The demeaning consumer message of our polity and mass society is everywhere, even in the universities. Today, almost all higher education in America has become fiercely-commercial, proudly anti-intellectual, and openly vocational, obsequiously dumbed-down by faculties who are running scared from no-longer literate university administrations. In America, we ceremoniously graduate newly minted Ph.D.s, MDs, JDs and MBA’s who know only how to progress in their own chosen fields. They may, of course, turn out to be perfectly good teachers, doctors, lawyers, and accountants, but they shall always remain no more than trained. Through no fault of their own, they will never really have been educated.

On the Capitol steps, Washington, D.C. Under the auspices of the Bureau of University Travel and the National Capital School Visitors' Council, over 200 high school students chosen for their intellectual alertness visited Washington for a week. Photo by Marjory Collins, 1942. Source: Library of Congress.

Do we want a genuinely fair and democratic society? Do we prefer that our presidential candidates be animated by more than a visceral political inclination to pledge greater personal wealth to every voter? If so, then we must first reorient our American system from its thoroughly corrupted ambience of mass taste, and toward a more conscientiously cultivated environment of thought and feeling.

Adam Smith had argued, in his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), that a system of “perfect liberty” could never be based upon “mean rapacity” and “needless” consumption. On the contrary, said Smith, who remains a fashionable mainstay of conservatives, the laws of the market, driven by competition and a consequent “self-regulation,” demand a principled disdain for all vanity-driven consumption. For Adam Smith, “conspicuous consumption” — a phrase that would be used far more devastatingly later by Thorsten Veblen — could never be a proper motor of economic or social improvement, yet it is now offered as a solution to economic woes and an inducement for political support.

Wall Street and Washington remain wholly dependent upon the self-destructive imitations of mass society. Such a mutually corrosive dependence can never succeed, either in economics or in politics. Instead, we must first create conditions whereby each American can somehow feel important and alive without abjectly surrendering to manufactured images of power and status. If we fail, the most blatantly injurious connections between money and politics will continue to proliferate.

Without appropriately altered conditions, millions of Americans will continue to seek refuge from the excruciating emptiness of daily life in mind-numbing music, mountains of drugs, and oceans of alcohol. Insidiously, without any political impediments, the resultant brew will swell and overflow, drowning entire epochs of political theory, art, literature, and even sacred poetry.

Despite the endless infusions of money into politics, America is now a palpably unhappy society, one where the citizens can rarely find authentic meaning or personal satisfaction within themselves. Only this socially crushed individualism can become the starting point for repairing what is fundamentally wrong with our politics and society. All else, including fiscal contaminations of democratic politics, is epiphenomenal. All else is merely what philosophers, since Plato, have called “shadows of reality.”

Were he alive today, Plato would recognize our problems of money and politics as a “sickness of the soul.” The solution to these problems, he would have understood, is not simply to elect new leaders, or identify additional statutory limits on political contributions and donations. Instead, it must be to make the souls of the citizens better.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. The author of ten major books on world affairs, his columns appear often in major American, European and Israeli newspapers. Dr. Beres was born in Zürich, Switzerland, on 31 August 1945. He is a frequent contributor to OUPblog.

To learn more on this subject, check out The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, edited by David Estlund. Even though political philosophy has a long tradition, it is much more than the study of old and great treatises. Contemporary philosophers continue to press new arguments on old and timeless questions, but also to propose departures and innovations. The field changes over time, and new work inevitably responds both to events in the world and to the directions of thought itself. The latest edition includes new issues in political philosophy, such as Race, Historical Injustice, Deliberation, Money and Politics, Global Justice, Human Rights, and Ideal and Non-Ideal Theory.

Oxford University Press USA is putting together a series of articles on a political topic each week for the next four weeks in anticipation of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and American presidential race. This week our authors are tackling the issue of money and politics. Read the previous post in this series: “The Declaration of Independence and campaign finance reform” by Alexander Tsesis, “Money for nothing? The great 2012 campaign spending spree” by Andrew Polsky, and “Five things you may not know about leadership PACs” by Kristin Kanthak.

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