Sunday, August 10, 2008

A response to Michael Caseys Article on Wealth and Values in the Irish Times.

Killing the myth that Ireland's wealth has poisoned its values - a response.

Michael Casey, a former chief economist today wrote an article in 'The Irish Times' entitled "Killing the myth that Ireland's wealth has poisoned its values" in which he attempting to dispel the 'myth' that wealth has poisoned Irish peoples values. In response, he is most certainly correct in believing that wealth cannot 'determine' a societies derision of values, but neglects to paint a clearer understanding of how wealth and values converge. In response, it could be argued that wealth opens the door to new 'negative' value thinking as it can close the door to others. Furthermore, as I will show, some of his own comments in the article require further careful consideration.

Firstly, in defence of Casey's belief that wealth and affluence does not deteriorate values, there is the argument of the rise of post-materialist values (the silent revolution) which has been popularised by Inglehart. It professes a transcendence of material values to that of more ethical and asesthetical values when material needs have been met or are not at issue. This would certainly throw positive light on the values of a wealthy, affluent Irish society. If material well-being is not an issue, other positive values can flourish. Unfortunately, one could argue that material values can be difficult to shake off or avoid, particularly for those who have made the 'transition' to wealthier circumstances. They can remain as a point of reference, a familiar habit, which doesn't necessarily diminish quickly. In addition, it can again be argued that material values are not in themselves illegitimate values, the issue again is the threat of their all pervasiveness. In anycase; material values exist regardless of social class to some degree.

Casey's deriding as (largely) nonsense those puritanical ideas, such that wealth creates commodification (leading to us valuing ourselves and others by what we have); requires further analyses. Casey, through the article, seems to rightly object to determinist thinking (and by use of the term 'puritanical', he also objects to 'blanketed' or 'extreme' outlooks). However, to present money as 'neutral' seems to miss the point that 'money' forces 'action' on the individual. Choices are never unlimited, some people can choose inaction as their response, for others, that choice may not have been 'learned' or may not be an 'option'. People are to some degree constrained by their past, in terms of their knowledge, their experiences, their 'worldview' or 'meta-narrative'. Thus, for some, 'wealth' becomes a causal link to a pervasive commodification of life and the tendency has been for class climbers to fall in this myopic trap. In sum, Casey rightly ojects to negative 'puritanical' outlooks on wealth and values but fails to stress that such concerns are legitimate, albeit overestimated to the extreme.

Of particular interest was his view that money 'doesn't change anybody: it allows people to express their individuality more fully.' Again, this requires further careful elaboration as Casey wrongly seems to imply that 'individuality' is a static entity. People have a tendency to adapt to their circumstance, their environment. Money, manifests a new set of circumstances for the individual and their prior 'self' influences (but does not determine) how they respond. In other words, 'money' may change the individual or it may not. Thus, suggesting as Casey does, that it is unlikely that money will change ones preferences and priorities; 'is' determinist thinking' and out of sync with his general argument.

His belief that a 'keeping up with the Jones' mentality, 'living beyond means', 'inconspicuous consumption', 'expenditure on appearance' and on designer goods; is but due to the speed with which one becomes affluent, seems to me to be an ill fit. Many of these trait are endemic at all societal classes and are a general feature of social life as a result of unshakeable stratification in various facets of life coupled with ones 'worldview'.

It seems to me that a more balanced analysis overall is that wealth can open the door to negative values as it closes the door to others. For example, it can open the door to new forms of hypocrisy and self-righteousness; for example those who can afford to live cleaner and greener lives make veritable but (overall) superficial changes to their lifestyle; such as buying organic and fair-trade though continuing to splurge on every other aspect of their life such as energy in heating and lighting of homes etc. At the same time, they may frown on those without the knowledge or capital to have the same choices. Indifference to the situation of individuals from poorer backgrounds is another poignant example. The standpoint epistemology (or outlook) of individuals from wealthy backgrounds ,means they may not possibly grasp, empathaise or understand the life path and situation of those from unprivileged backgrounds. The same is true at the opposite end of the spectrum.

In addition, Wealth may open the possibility for a pathological emphasis on vanity, status, material wealth. This is not to say that fashion, food and retail are not legitimate forms in the lifeworld, the issue is the all-pervasiveness with which they can take hold of the individual because of the increased availability, ease of consumption and greater pervasiveness of the market into the individuals life, particularly in the absence of little else. In otherwards, wealth can bring the market closer into the individuals life.

Overall, what Casey fails to explore in his article are the issues surrounding capitalism and of in-equality; the pervasiveness of capitalism into modern life (for example advertising, short life cycle of products, shopping as a pasttime) and the rising gap between rich and poor. In a meta-physical vacuum, individuals find meaning in the market and the values of the economic sphere, in science and its methodical reasoning away of the world. The economic sphere triumphs the assigning and 'exchanging' of differential value and worth above all else. The sciences triumph reductionist and narrow empirical based scientific results; attempting to find single causal explanations for everything. These spheres hold values other than love, giving, kindness, friendship as values in them selves. In a scientific-capitalist orientated society, wealth facilitates the integration of individuals into such a way of life. Wealth brings new possibilities and compels choices, not all these will be positive.

Related Link:

Copyright © 2006-2008 Shane McLoughlin. This article may not be resold or redistributed without prior written permission.

No comments: