Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Trouble With Prosperity

Unlike birds, who keep building the same nest over thousands of years, we tend to forge ahead with our projects far beyond any reasonable bounds."--W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

As our day job is in the financial markets, we have spent the past several months watching the slow-motion train wreck in Europe with a mix of fascination and bemusement. (If you are wondering how we can possibly find such a difficult situation "bemusing," well...welcome to our blog!) Indeed, it is not just the Europe debacle we find interesting, but also the "Occupy" camps that have sprung up around the world.

We find ourselves can so many current human beings, the majority of whom (particularly in the developed world) have luxuries unimaginable to the richest kings of a few centuries ago, be so unhappy? How do we square the unprecedented abundance of "stuff" with increased angst...and even anger? We read a story this morning of a well-paid US financial advisor who got so far in over his head (even as he advised others on what to do with their money) that he couldn't figure out how to get "connected to the simple ordinary stuff of my family’s life." Meanwhile, one of the more surreal quotes we have seen from the Occupy protests featured a protester angry about her $5500 laptop being stolen. (We were not even aware such an expensive machine existed...)

Again, the question is it that the most privileged group of creatures in the history of this so freaking unhappy?!? Consider that up until about 100 years ago, humans did without electricity, medical care, mechanized transportation, and any sort of safe food delivery system. Human life was indeed "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Forgot about iPhones--for the vast majority of humans, life was, as it remains for other animals, a constant struggle for survival, preoccupied exclusively with acquiring food and protecting oneself from predators.

Had you queried such people about the prospect of a world where food is not only readily available, but so plentiful that one of the biggest problems is overeating; where transportation from city to city can be accomplished within hours, if not less, and travel halfway around the world takes about half a day; where one can communicate instantly with people worldwide on a device that fits in one's pocket, and is affordable to large swaths of humanity; well, we dare say they would have predicted a virtual utopia, with people not only spending much of their time relaxing and enjoying a life of leisure, but free of the tensions and anxieties that consume one when there is not enough to eat.

And yet.

Mystifying as this seems, we have a theory. Indeed, it is a remarkably simple one--freed of the daily struggle for survival, humans find themselves at a loss for how to do something "meaningful," due mainly, if not exclusively, to the nagging suspicion it is all futile anyway. Other animals--which do not, so far as we know, imagine their own deaths--do not suffer such existential angst, which explains why it is far more common to see a content lion than a content human.

Interestingly, it seems the wealthier people become, the more problematic this is, as they spin ever more elaborate wheels designed to distract from the one thing that "matters"--i.e., that none of it does. Thus, we have friends who speak fondly of their younger years, when they had far lower incomes and much less stuff, even as they spend and spend and spend, and work and work and work...all in pursuit of some mythical brass ring. As Chuck Palahniuk put it so eloquently in Fight Club: "you're trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you."

This, we would argue, is the fundamental paradox of human nature--our sentience frees us from the worries of daily survival, only to supplant them with fears of our eventual demise. A cruel joke, indeed...


  1. Many people Occupying personally have enough but are deeply concerned about the growing number who don't. It's called Love.

  2. While your post has its point, it's well known that satisfaction in a consumerist society is not measured in absolute terms, but rather strictly in terms of what one has compared to what those around one have. The trick is to stop looking at one's neighbor to find meaning, and of course the irony is that the absurd position is so much more "meaningful" than such a pathetic index.

  3. Laura-

    Really? Taking from people by force to give to love? The demand that one's student loans be motivated by concern for others?

    To be honest, we don't care one way or the other--that was not the point of the post (nor of this blog). But perhaps "occupiers" should consider whether their actions are truly motivated by what you say...or by a deeper, more complex angst. Of course, it's a whole lot easier to rail against "social injustice" than to face one's own mortality (not to mention it fits better on a cardboard sign...;-)


  4. I am a supporter of the Occupy Movement and my motivation is to make sure that people who aren't the very richest still have a voice in our so called democracy. I can't speak for every person in the movement, of course.

  5. Not to get off track (or perhaps we should say further off track), but this is the part of the movement that mystifies us. We agree completely that both political parties are bought and paid for by large interests (big corporations on one side, and labor unions and trial lawyers on the other). And yet the Occupy movement calls for...higher taxes! Which will, of course, provide yet more funds to be doled out by the corrupt system. Wouldn't it be simpler to reduce the gov'ts role by cutting spending, and allowing people to pursue their interests free of interference?

    We would ask exactly what you mean by giving such people a "voice." We fear it means the power to transfer wealth from others to their own pockets, rather than simply the freedom to live and let live.

    But perhaps we are mistaken...

  6. The bit that attracted me to OWS in the first place and spurred me to attend three local general assemblies was the core belief that consensus or direct democracy is the way to go. Everyone has a voice.

    There are people discussing taxes inside and outside the Occupy movement. Many of them want to abolish all income taxes. I think there are some who call for higher taxes but the discussion continues. I saw someone on (i think) one day saying that there are 65,000 lobbyists in D.C. who are only there because of our tax code. It seems that it is way more complicated than it needs to be but I don't know much about taxes so I won't comment any more on that.

    Giving everyone a voice regardless of how much money he or she happens to have is participatory democracy. It's horizontal instead of vertical. By the People, for the People. Basically, in my mind, it is not the 1% that is the problem. It is the .01% who has too much power because they buy our politicians and use them like puppets to make more and more money, not caring much about what happens to everyone else in the country (or the world). And power corrupts some of the nicest people so they probably can't help it but something has to give. The imbalance is causing pain.

    How can we make sure every single person has at least a little power? Direct Democracy or Consensus. That's what the Occupy Movement is about, in my mind.

    Without a little bit of power, a person finds it difficult to live and let live. This site helped me see what the core or root of the OWS movement is about:

  7. Ah - now here is something we can work with. Our first question is...what do you mean by "power"? We assume it means authority to force others to do something. If not, then what? So we are truly mystified by your assertion that we need to make sure "every single person has a little bit of power." Over whom? To do what? Why can people not be content without forcing others to do their bidding?

    Further, your statement about democracy is...well, consider the following. What if 51% of the people voted to imprison all the redheads and appropriate their assets? Under your system this is perfectly all right since people voted for it.

    We believe you are a well-intentioned individual, but your methods will only lead to more of what you abhor. Think of the worst, most repressive regimes in human history--Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Nazi Germany, North Korea--every single one organized under some sort of collectivist banner. As you say, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The answer is not to give everyone a "little" power, but to abolish the concept altogether...


  8. I think it is a dialectic of progress; the problem of prosperity is also the opportunity of prosperity. Once we have our basic needs met, we are faced with meeting our higher needs, that is, our self-actualization needs. It is a better problem to have, but also a far more complicated one to solve. Few people fortunate enough to have this problem can understand or name it, partly because it's hard (much harder than, say, finding food) and partly because we live in a society that places little value on understanding and naming it. Some would even say that there is no solution, that we are stuck with our existential angst. Maybe so. And yet, people throughout history DO seem to have come to terms with it without resorting to comforting fantasies about the afterlife and such, so I do think it is possible to do so...From my own research and experience, this coming to terms invariably seems to mean embracing our humanity and our mortality as fully and deeply as we can, on as many levels as we can. It is not a prevalent or popular message, but it's out there, and if we can learn to put the material world into a proper perspective and focus more on our internal worlds, answers do seem to emerge...And just as prosperity is an opportunity to live a deeper, more meaningful life, thoughts of our eventual demise present a similar opportunity. What at first looks like a cruel joke might be the beginning of something pretty cool. The thoughts you share here are certainly some evidence for this view...

  9. Ah, rearranging the chairs on the deck as the Titanic sunk . . .

  10. Rick,
    You asked what I meant by 'power'. I mean freedom to assemble, freedom of speech and dissent.

    It is meaningless in the grand scheme of things but everyone chooses how to fill the hours of their life and while the Titanic is sinking, I'd like to listen to all points of view and consider them in a free society.

  11. Kitty-

    Well said! We obviously agree...

    Laura- already have these rights. This is not Iran or North Korea (or Michael Moore's favorite - Cuba) - no one is stopping you from assembling or dissenting. Indeed, most protesters are flagrantly breaking the law by assembling either on private property or in violation of clearly stated rules (eg pitching tents, refusing to let others assemble, etc.). And how do such actions help those you profess to really care about? Would it not be better to volunteer at a soup kitchen, or pass out blankets to homeless people? Ah, but such actions lack the excitement and cache of "saving the world" (and are unlikely to score major network coverage).

    Again, it seems what you really want is to force others to conform to your view of how things should be. There is, we would venture, nothing absurd about that...

  12. It's diverse and inclusive so some of the occupiers *are* the homeless and volunteers at soup kitchens. I am participating to address real problems and help generate solutions. I feel that I'm rebelling against an elite few who are forcing 99.9% to conform to *their* view of how things should be.

  13. Rick -
    Surely, as someone who seems to take a lot of influence from the great man himself, Albert Camus, you recognise the need for any human being to revolt against any system of injustice - in this case, namely that of global capitalism? Capitalism promotes conformity, it distorts and sucks the life out of human potential and true happiness.In other words, it does not allow for humans to be content with themselves, for how can any such contentment truly exist when capitalism is constantly telling us that we will be happier if we buy this or that, that if we keep on working in underpaid, unskilled jobs we may eventually get a "slice of the pie". I agree that humans should acknowledge and live in spite of their mortality, but surely you cannot denounce the revolt against something which arguably prevents humans from recongising their own absurd fate in the first place?

  14. Anon-

    In point of fact, we have recently taken issue with Camus' idea of rebellion. We lean more toward Nagel's view that life "need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics…betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation."

    Such is the case with the rebellion against, as you put it, "global capitalism." As we said in our first reply on this thread, we don't really care one way or the other. We could, of course, point out the irony that it is capitalism that has provided all the food, shelter, and electronic gadgetry so beloved by the protesters, but the bigger issue is your contention that capitalism "does not allow humans to be content with themselves." Really? Because of advertising?

    (And to be frank, your beef is not really with capitalism, but the crony capitalism that has come to define the modern welfare state. Thus the irony of OWS protesting such arrangements...even as they argue tribute to the perpetrators--i.e. the state--should be raised!)

    But more to the point--true absurdity, in our view, comes from a recognition that all is meaningless. Thus, as Richard Feynman cheekily titled one of his books, why do you care what other people think? Look, we agree that modern society is very anti-absurd. That said, it is the worst kind of cop-out to blame one's own anti-absurdity on "the system."

  15. Suspicions confirmed, Rick lives in his financial markets bubble and takes offense that people being gauged by an economy that doesn't produce anything, but charges poor jobless people for doing so, should be offended. Easy to sit back all philosophical in your Monday morning QB chair when it isn't your ox that's being gored, eh? What, tax break too low for you this year, no corporate subsidy for your firm?
    OWS is tired of wealth being funneled from the middle class to people idle people on Wall Street for the past 30 years. Offshoring jobs, exorbitant interest fees, unaffordable college tuition that force students into life-long debt in an economy that can't produce a job for them, creating a housing market that was bought, sold and traded on the backs of the working poor for the racketeers on Wall Street. This is a mystery for your Rick? Is your laptop a measure of your net worth? Gee, those people in OWS who had their jobs taken from them must be some lazy M'freakers, eh? Should they all get jobs at McDonald's?
    This economy needs a demand side of the ledger and the people who took the money out of the economy by way of fraud need to be prosecuted. Are you the problem, Rick, or do you have a solution? Do you really think the OWS folks want to be in the streets risking police brutality, arrest, exposure to the elements, and to each other, for that matter, would rather be there than working for a living and a future they can make?
    Does the Rick that writes this blog sit on a comfy chair in a Manhattan office and shoot spitballs from his window and the ignorant proletarians below between sips of champaign and platitudes on the absurdity of it all? Where are you Rick? Don't make me regret my comment - give it all you've got.

  16. Fascinating. We must say, this comment is very non-absurd with all its fury and frustration and angst at the world. It's the exact sort of worldview we stand in contrast against - and hence it is worth commenting on just to highlight it for others to examine, like a bit of twisted driftwood from a dying civilization washed up on absurd shores.

    The comment shows, in full flower, an attempt to make something so trivial - OWS, the economy, Rick's "place" - sound so important. As if one must be in the fray somehow. "Whose side are you on?!?" it seems to shout. It uses all these distinctions - "proletarians" "working poor" "racketeers on Wall Street" - as if they were real things, not just imagined identities.

    We resist all this kind of thing. Nothing matters. And so it is hard for us to get worked up over such conflicts. They are interesting in an intellectual way, but otherwise we don't care a whit for the world or what happens to it.


  17. Tsk tsk, Inigo. True, suffering is for other people, not for those of us living in comfort. How dare anyone defy our authority to comment on suffering from the sideline, for it is only those who can't see that starvation and physical pain is simply a state of mind that suffer. As long as we have our shit and things are going our way, nothing matters. When we don't have the shit we want and things are not going our way, nothing matters. You are certainly one thoughtful motherfucker. Pass the caviar!

  18. Sorry, I forgot it was the standard thing for anyone living on the street to recongise "the cosmic insignificance of it all". I'm sure you would think exactly the same Rick if YOU were the pilot being paid 19 K a year while the smug manager of Taco Bell across the road was being paid double that. Theoretically, yes, everything is meaningless, but this does not warrant fatalism. In fact, in claiming that everyone occupying Wall Street should give up essentially runs parallel to the feudal attitude that the poor should not question their religion so that they can find reward in a supposed "afterlife". In other words, your smug wisdom on the "absurdity of it all" may as well be advocating any tool of oppression.

    “It's a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.” - Camus. Maybe you should consider replacing that display picture of yours with someone a litle bit more bourgeois like Nagel.

  19. Furthermore, Inigo, as anon rightly pointed out, has it not occured to you that the reason you're so indifferent towards the efforts of OWS is that you personally have nothing to struggle against? Clearly you haven't read "The Plague" - the struggle may be the only thing that gives one's life meaning in an absurd universe. The whole point of absurd philosophy is yes, to acknowledge that life is meaningless and accept that all efforts to change the world are perhaps futile, but to nonetheless struggle against any injustice thrown at you.

    In addition, Rick, since when did being anti-capitalist logically lead to support for a "powerful state"? That's exactly the kind of response I'd expect from anyone in the Tea Party, and thus it appears you have contradicted your fellow bum-boy Inigo in affirming some sense of identity.

  20. A couple of thoughts inspired by these comments.

    In theory, the OWS protests could have absurd participants. There is nothing that says an absurd man can't be a protester, a politician, a Wall Street racketeer or whatever. The absurd is all in mind. It's a way of looking at life and the world. It is not clear to identify what is an absurd act and what isn't, as we've discussed before. An OWS protester could realize the futility of it all, but still enjoy the movement just for the sake of the experience itself (one must still do something with one's time).

    Also, we write under aliases because we thought it would be better to try to erase our identities in the spirit of the blog. But it's interesting how people make many assumptions about who we are, how well-off we are, etc., and then, off those assumptions, go further to say what we must necessarily think.

    We have thought a lot about whether or not we'd be absurd if we were, say, in abject poverty. We can't know, of course. We can say that through our wide reading on the matter, that the absurd tends to come out more in times of duress. We've written about these instances before, where people in dire circumstances have uttered some very absurd thoughts.

    Actually, in our experience, people who are comfortable or at least "in the rat race" are much less likely to be absurd or be receptive to absurd thoughts. Their "things" become important, their goals become consuming, and status drives them to do certain things they might not otherwise do if they weren't so wrapped up in that societal vortex.


  21. A People’s Congress: From Occupy Movement to a Permanent Political Force
    Experiencing the emergence of a People's Congress would be immensely enjoyable.

  22. "In theory, the OWS protests could have absurd participants. There is nothing that says an absurd man can't be a protester, a politician, a Wall Street racketeer or whatever. The absurd is all in mind. It's a way of looking at life and the world."

    Just a question: Is it not the height of absurdity to care about who qualifies as absurd or not?

    EG: "Damn, I'm not sure I'm trying hard enough to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. I slipped and was a bit dramatic there. Better get back on track." Etc.

  23. Or perhaps the height of 'anti-absurdity'... unless labelling an awareness of absurdity as 'the absurd' and implying it's the path to follow is conscious irony?

  24. To whom it may concern,
    I'm a high school senior who is studying the philosophies of Absurdism and Existentialism in my English Class and has read the works of Albert Camus.
    I must say this topic is incredibly engrossing, and has led me on a search of greater knowledge which has landed me on this site. I'm a moderately devote Catholic, so the concept of the Absurd affects me in a more diluted sense as I believe that human life is just a moral testing ground for life in the kingdom of God. I still have my lapses in faith and I have suffered the question of the Absurd before but have recovered and strengthened my faith.
    There is a question that I must ask because I'm curious as to your response, ignorantly judging that you must be atheist or agnostic if you run this site.

    Suppose happiness is difficult for a person to achieve and suppose this same person does not believe in religion. I'll use the non-religious poor who are suffering in Africa as an example or an atheist who is suffering from cancer.
    If there is no need for life, why must one continue to suffer in order to maintain it?
    Wouldn't it be better just to cease to exist than continue to torment one's self? Cannot one "nip it in the bud"? I see a large portion of the 3rd world is suffering from strife but there are no reports of mass suicides. Why does the suffering human continue to have a will to live? Is it fear? hope?

    It must be psychologically excruciating to be atheist and also be forewarned of a potential expiration date.

  25. and as for absurdists showing effort.... May I remind you that Albert Camus himself was a member of the French Resistance in World War II. Obviously, he thought the German oppressors were worthy of his retaliation. Also have in mind that you are writing a blog about The Absurd, a paradox, as you seem to find this topic in itself purposeful enough to continue its discussion.

  26. It seems to be something like a hedonic treadmill. And that strikes me as making perfect evolutionary sense. However much you better your situation, there never comes a point where happiness itself becomes beneficial for survival. It seems that it would always be beneficial to be unhappy enough to cause continued activity to better your situation still more. Our ancestors who were too content probably got outcompeted by greedy bastards who were more like us.

  27. Looks like the world's no longer absurd . . . hahahaha . . .

    1. I hope not. This blog is (or...was?) one of the few sane projects on the Web. Come back to us, oh Inigo and Rick! Our meaningless lives need your affirmations!

  28. Oh dear, you won my attention with your latest blog entry and then lost me as I trawled through the comments related to this post. You are both truly, absurdly smug twats... but good for you!