“He Was the God of Abundance,” Research Time, 16/07/2018

Here’s a really interesting idea about how the concept of prosperity has developed in Western thinking. It’s an idea that I really wanted to work into my review of The Quest For Prosperity,* but that couldn’t quite fit the general direction.

* Forthcoming in about a couple of weeks.

A prominent idea in one concept of prosperity that you can perceive in Western culture over the last few centuries is to define prosperity as abundance.

There's a complex relation of our visions of abundance with our anxieties and fears. To live in abundance is to never want again – more than that, it’s the security of never having to worry that you’ll want again. Not only do you live in a situation where you’ll always have comfort, but you know that this comfort will continue – that it won’t end.

Pictured: A succinct expression of ethical, psychological, and cultural
economic anxiety.
This is the dream of abundance. But it was popularly believed, and as a popular image still exists in our culture.** The image functions as a response to individual anxiety, showing that anxiety is a central component of the concept.

** Probably also in a bunch of other cultures as well. The title is a way-too-layered joke about how abundance imagery operates in many non-Western contexts. Sassower sticks with the Western context, because that’s the tradition he knows best.

The concept of prosperity as abundance expresses anxiety – depending on the context where we analyze how the concept plays out in thought, it’s an individual anxiety, or a cultural anxiety. Anxiety is your motivation to achieve prosperity, and abundance is the dream of an end to the torture of daily life.

The anxiety of poverty – whether you live it or have to avoid it – fuels the intensity of how a person or a public discourse conceives of prosperity’s abundance.

This image of abundance has painted the goals of socialist movements from the 19th century to today. Raphael Sassower draws from the recurring image to understand this driving concept of abundance – prosperity as the achievement of comfort. As a political movement, socialism aims for the basic dignity of comfort for all, that no one need live in poverty, penury, misery.

It’s admirable. But I can’t roll with this concept in my own approaches to progressive activism anymore. Basically, it’s because the concept turns out to be more destructive when it animates our current political priorities. When you make universal prosperity your political goal, and you understand prosperity as abundance, then you presume that your world can be made to create that abundance.

Is this really all that matters to you? The temptations of consumerism are
pretty intense, but the question remains of whether this is even
something you can achieve without facilitating a disaster.
Karl Marx himself thought this way about the ultimate goal of socialism. As he conceived the material achievement of communism, it was a world where technological industry would produce prosperity and comfort for everyone. But we have to move beyond the thought of the 19th century.

Environmentalist political movements being as mainstream and powerful as they are, we largely have. If we think of prosperity as everlasting abundance for all people, then we rapidly run up against the carrying capacity of the Earth.

I don’t mean this in some cheap Malthusian sense – no simple ratio of resources to population to consumption intensity. I mean it in the larger sense that the exploitation of material resources for economic prosperity will destroy the means of physical comfort. We may relieve our monetary anxieties, but our health and quality of life anxieties will be worse.

If the ecological side effects of the technology to create abundance makes life a torture, that’s no prosperity. Just look at the water quality in cities that prosper economically from the high-paying secure jobs of oil or metal extraction, or steel foundries and oil refineries.

This continues to be a conflict in our society. Obviously from the extremist extraction politics of state leaders like Hugo Chavez, Stephen Harper, and Vladimir Putin. These people who’d build an entire economy around spreading the wealth of oil money inevitably and quickly come into conflict with environmentalists.

But the most telling – and depressing – such conflict among priorities of extraction and ecology is among the progressive set. Take the Canadian case.

Right now, the provincial leadership and membership of the New Democratic Party in Alberta and Saskatchewan support prosperity-by-extraction with similar zeal as Chavez. In each case, they’ve come into conflict with Indigenous activists and their settler environmentalist allies, who refuse to accept the bargain of the land’s utter destruction for the economic abundance of consumerist values.

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