Projecting Pathologies: Materialism

photo-1443110189928-4448af4a2bc5If you've been paying attention at all to the increasingly radical rhetoric of the Left––whether on college campuses, in the BLM "protests", or the SJW crowd––you know that they are convinced that there is something deeply and psychologically wrong with "The West" in general, and with American Capitalism, in particular. This isn't the old-school quazi-liberal rhetoric that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. The new guard will not be satiated with tinkering around the edges. To them, the system, itself, is fundamentally immoral. Of course there are all sorts of ways to analyze and answer these allegations of immorality––the best of which is to question their fundamental moral premises––but beyond the fact that, at the end of the day, their self-righteous moral high-ground is grounded in nothing but their own emotions, I've noticed something interesting about the very way they posture in presenting these supposed moral crises of our time: they seem to be projecting their own (pathological) assumptions on the culture. You could likely make this case with many of the modern topics of the "outrage culture", but here I want to focus in on one particular topic: Materialism.

I recently came across an article on my facebook feed entitled "Neoliberalism has hijacked our Vocabulary". In it, the author complains that our "neoliberal" lingo––comprised of such oppressive labels as 'customer', 'growth', and 'investment'––implicitly imposes materialistic value judgments on all the people interacting in "the market". The following quote serves as thesis for the article:

The mandatory exercise of "free choice" – of a GP, of a hospital, of schools for one's children – then becomes also a lesson in social identity, affirming on each occasion our consumer identity.

Never-mind the insane contradiction (and loaded assumptions) of "mandatory free choice" (that's a whole other article). Focus in on the rest of the quote. What the author is driving at is this: the free-market determines your identity, such that each transaction reinforces your "consumer identity". The market, she wishes to argue, forces this identity upon you. Because of the free-market, you are nothing more than what you do in that market: a consumer. The market is all, and your role in the market is your identity. You're nothing but a slave to the market. Capitalism, this article insists, is nothing but vulgar materialism, where your personal worth as a human being is determined by nothing but your material economic value.

Sounds pretty horrible, right? I don't want to be a 'vulgar materialist' who has no value outside of economic forces. No one does! That's why this charge against Capitalism is so powerful. The only problem is: it has nothing to do with Capitalism––or economics. Think about it. The only way this lands home with you is if you already are a materialist at heart. Capitalism makes no automatic correlation between your 'economic value' (i.e. your material wealth) and your personal value. In a free market, your 'economic value' is in many ways subjective: it's subject to the value that others place upon your goods or services. But this says nothing about your personal value. In fact, most influential people throughout history have been those who, because of their immense personal value, labored in lonely obscurity on their passions, while the "market" of their day passed them by in silent contempt. If you don't believe me that Capitalism isn't ultimately about your personal worth, then trust the famed arch-nemsis of the Left, herself: Miss Ayn Rand.

“Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision. Their goals differed, but they all had this in common: that the step was first, the road new, the vision unborrowed, and the response they received — hatred. The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. The first motor was considered foolish. The airplane was considered impossible. The power loom was considered vicious. Anesthesia was considered sinful. But the men of unborrowed vision went ahead. They fought, they suffered and they paid. But they won.” Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

So, if free-markets don't speak to your personal value, why do so many modern liberals feel so horribly oppressed and abused by the free-market system? Why do they feel like they can't find any personal worth apart from economic transactions? Why do they feel like their material wealth determines their personal value, and their role in the economy determines their identity? Because, deep-down, they're the materialists. The only way to feel like the amount of money in your wallet is a direct reflection of your character is if you already assume that money is everything. The only way to feel like your economic status defines your identity is if you already have no identity outside of it. The only way to feel oppressed by the supposed "materialism" of Capitalism is if you are already a materialist at heart. In other words, when the liberal whines that free-markets promote "vulgar materialism", they are projecting their pathological materialism on everyone else––and in doing so, they are able to convince themselves that it's the 'culture of greed' to blame for their lack of self-worth. In reality, the reason they feel oppressed by "the system", the reason they feel like they are "slaves to the almighty dollar", is because they are––because of their own materialistic world-view.  They are the vulgar materialists.

No wonder they hate the free-market! Their whole identity is wrapped up in their activity of the market. If they have to compete in the market for material wealth, then, because of their materialistic pathology, that means they're forever competing for their own personal value. The freer the market is, the more enslaved they are. But it isn't the market that has them in chains. It's their own pathological materialism.

One thought on “Projecting Pathologies: Materialism

  1. Great article. Rand agreed with your assessment. She pointed out that the liberals and conservatives each try to control the realm they consider most important: conservatives want to control moral choices while liberals want to control economic ones.

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