[Another in our series of selections from Daniel’s Letter to My Generation:]
“Life is not a having and a getting, but a being and a becoming.”
~ Matthew Arnold
All of the things we’ve talked about so far hang together—or perhaps it would be better to say that all these things work together: all of these social trends, all of these spiritual pressures, all of these existential tensions converge into one overwhelming force, resulting in the creation of a very specific type of man, to the exclusion of all other human types.
I’ll call this distinct type of man the “economic man,” or homo economicus. I believe this term is appropriate because the type we are discussing is a man devoid of any concerns, dimensions, passions, and pursuits, beyond the acquisitive and material—which is to say the economic–ones. Nothing else matters, either for him or his society.
Other pursuits, such as the religious or moral, may be proclaimed in the streets, in the pulpit, or on the political campaign by this type of man—but we are not concerned with his hollow rhetoric. We are concerned with what this man and his civilization actually does pursue and actually does practice; and in this respect it is appropriate to speak of a purely “economic man” as the general type fostered by our present civilization.
That is the world into which we have been born: a society far advanced in all forms of material wealth, but working actively toward the exclusion of all extra-economic values.
For this society—our present society—anything which cannot be reduced to purely economic terms is denied the right to exist. Everything is judged in terms of efficiency, affordability, functionality, production value, “standard of living,” etc. This strictly economic framework dictates the nature and direction, not only of society as a whole, but even of our own individual aspirations.
I’m not talking about the superficial desire for material possession, dear reader. Greed is included here, but it is just one symptom the disease which lies at the heart of homo economicus.
The true essence of the problem is an economic experience of life and everything within it, from “relationships” to sex and even to religion. We are taught to judge and experience our own goals, truths, beauties, and pursuits in light of and through this dead, cold, mathematical, transactional framework, which is to say, by using the measures that are purely economic.
Think about the problems we’ve explored. Remember the abstract and imaginary entity called the “person” which has come to replace the concrete and colorful realities of “men” and “women?” There is only one place in which this sterile, gender-neutral thing can actually exist, and that is in economics. Economics can deal with persons—in fact, it must deal with persons, because it cannot deal with men, women, and children.
This is what I mean when I say that our own mentality, down to our deepest perceptions of ourselves and others, has been impoverished into conformity with an all-encompassing economic worldview.
Man has reduced his understanding of himself to his role as economic participant: he is producer, consumer, employee, employer, or party of a contract. No needs are valid beyond those directly related to his physiochemical machinery.
Again, we are not just talking about money and business!
Remember what we said about “relationships?” The word itself is an economic term. It is something that can only be accounted for and judged within the economic framework.
In future histories they will say that homo economicus came after homo sapiens. If they are wise, they’ll also say that, although he came after, he was below homo sapiens. They’ll say he was a degraded form of humanity which forced man to summon all his power in order to overcome.
It is incredibly ironic that some people are outraged when evolutionists link them to primates. Those men feel that being placed next to an animal on some evolutionary chain has removed their dignity as human beings. And yet how many of these same indignant men and women wake up every day and embrace this baser role as homo economicus, the “physiochemical actor” whose pursuits are perhaps even more predictable and one-dimensional than those of the apes.
Homo economicus is perfectly predictable, in spite, or perhaps because of, all his productivity. He is predictable like a productive ant building an ant hill, working hard but for no higher purpose than to make the hill bigger.
Remember “mass man” and his grand hives a hundred stories tall?—men piled on top of one another in their towers? They touch one another without meeting, and hear one another without speaking. That’s homo economicus—living with spectacular efficiency—just like the ants.
The more we explore this phenomenon, which is the slow elimination from society of every pursuit that is not economic, the more we see how deeply it has penetrated the spirit of our era.
What place does beauty have in our civilization? It certainly isn’t reason enough to care for the environment. For that we need threat of death and extinction. But even that set aside, beauty still has no role and no power of determination in our pursuits.
Look at the architecture of the past. Everything is beautiful. It is as if men couldn’t so much as build a stairway without embellishing it in some fashion, leaving the accent of his human personality on the finished work. Everything reflected a concern for the beautiful. Everything we build is ugly. It’s all squares and boxes. It’s efficient.
Art has no role in the life of homo economicus. It can only be found in special “galleries” where you go to see beauty divorced from use, which is an inferior type of beauty. Galleries might be best understood as paradoxical museums of the now, where we put things which, although they were created today, are already anachronisms. All art in our age is an anachronism. That’s why we must go to galleries to see beauty, isolated and protected as if it were a curiosity for an interested and sometimes eccentric few.
Homo economicus also develops his own language, wholly of external relationships and transactional logic. For example, when we say someone is “successful,” what do we mean? We mean that he has made lots of money, and usually nothing more. That is the language of homo economicus, and we use it daily.
This mentality shapes our very notions of the mind and of knowledge. Homo economicus is not wise—he is “smart” or he is an “expert” at something. You see, he cannot be “wise” because wisdom is not reducible to a quantity of facts that can be accumulated and then judged. Wisdom is therefore meaningless. “Smart” and “expert,” on the other hand, denote quantities of data. That’s what we economic actors need: quantities of data. Our education has been shaped accordingly. Gone is the philosopher, the Galileo and the Archimedes, whose knowledge ranged across all subjects. Today the only path to “success” is to be “specialized,” so that you can “market” yourself in a certain field for which there is a “demand,” depending on “scarcity” in that profession.
And so we follow the path of homo economicus, many of us, because we do not know what else to do. We live this out our entire lives, but part of us remains aware that the whole program is without meaning, just an organized chaos with nothing underneath but the dust to which we must eventually return. We feel the complex structure of our industrial society, precisely arranged and calculated, and yet we simultaneously sense something a little insane and ominous about it. We feel that it moves towards some imminent destination, but we aren’t sure if that destination is paradise, or just a longer shift at the assembly line, and so we are more than a little anxious about the situation.
But that’s all underneath, in our depths. As for what we can see with our eyes, it’s all just about making the ant hill bigger.
What do we hear every day in the news, every board meeting at work, and at every State of the Union Address? We hear about how we need “growth.” And what do we need to grow? The “economy.” That is our perpetual project, because the economy, that abstract thing which has proven more mysterious than any of the old gods, feeds all the “persons.”
We are the “persons”—the “individuals.” We are homo economicus, and we work our whole lives to feed and fatten the great Sacred Cow, the economy. Nothing that threatens the primacy of the Sacred Cow has a right to be, or at least not to be in any meaningful way, and neither are we allowed to pursue such things. No extra-economic value can stand in the presence of this god.
Perhaps it’s time we turn the tables. Instead of worshipping the fat cow so that it will give us silver spoons with nothing on them, I say we toss the spoons and eat the cow. We’ve been feeding it long enough. Tear it down from the pedestal and have at it, and we might even find that, contrary to all of our fears, that there is plenty to go around. Then we can turn our eyes to new pursuits—more human pursuits. With the false god dead and our stomachs full, we can go forward and decide what type of men we really wish to become.