As regards the rewards that people receive (under any system), the question of success is not just about the rewards themselves, but more fundamentally about the character of the rewards, the personality traits that the pursuit of these rewards engenders, and thus the character of the underlying system that defines what the rewards will be. A large reward might indicate that a person has managed to master particular elements of the conditions that they find themselves operating within -- which is certainly an act worthy of consideration -- but if we abstract away particular details, then what kinds of activity in general do we find that the system is rewarding? What is to be done for those who reject the tenets and conditions of the system, and perhaps are not privy to its rewards? What is to be done for those who are excluded from obtaining the rewards for some other reason? Fundamentally, what is the objective purpose of the system?

With respect to the question of personality traits, under the current system of state-capitalism honorable people may be rewarded, but they are nonetheless forced to work under corruptive influences and constraints (hence, those who remain honest are to be lauded -- and, just imagine how much more honestly a person might be able to live if not motivated and confined by competitive individualism). Therein lies a crucial problem regarding social and political change: by and large, most people living on earth at this time have developed 1) within a capitalist environment, for example the United States, or 2) within an environment that has been shaped by the capitalist acts of another environment, even if indirectly, for example through imperialism, colonialism, trade agreements, the "help" of the WTO, et cetera.

All inhabitants of earth have been affected by first world state-capitalism, and we must not ignore the influence this has had on our beliefs and opinions. Every experience "no matter how small or seemingly insignificant" changes us. "We are the product of nature and of nurture," and our lives are the result of choice and circumstance. Our environment defines our circumstance, and our circumstance defines our choices. As we grow older feedback between choice and circumstance increases; circumstance and choice not only develop together, but they also limit each other. This fact is true independently of our acceptance of it. As a result our choices are both defined and limited by our operational environment, which is currently state-capitalism.

Apprehension and acceptance of the fact that our lives and decisions have been shaped and informed by state-capitalism, combined with a healthy dose of honest introspection, helps us to understand the reasons for our choices, and enables us to begin the task of a realistic evaluation of the consequences of our actions.

"[A] market-based system can result in what we have termed "the ethics of mathematics," where things (particularly money) become more important than people. This can have a de-humanising effect, with people becoming cold-hearted calculators who put profits before people. This can be seen in capitalism, where economic decisions are far more important than ethical ones. And such an inhuman mentality can be rewarded on the market. Merit does not "necessarily" breed success, and the successful do not "necessarily" have merit. The truth is that, in the words of Noam Chomsky, "wealth and power tend to accrue to those who are ruthless, cunning, avaricious, self-seeking, lacking in sympathy and compassion, subservient to authority and willing to abandon principle for material gain, and so on. . . Such qualities might be just the valuable ones for a war of all against all." [For Reasons of State, pp. 139-140] Thorstein Veblen elaborated at length on this theme in The Leisure Class, a classic analysis of capitalist psychology. Needless to be said, if the market does reward such people with success it can hardly be considered as a good thing. A system which elevates making money to the position of the most important individual activity will obviously result in the degrading of human values and an increase in neurotic and psychotic behaviour."

Many theorists posit that capitalism is a "natural" system of economic organization, however the proposition that the profit motive is a natural feature of social life does not entail or make likely the conclusion that the profit motive is the primary principle by which social life should be organized. The profit motive is natural in the same way that racism, love, and hate are natural: all are capacities that humans are capable of developing or repressing as a result of our natural physical endowments. Human nature dictates that we cultivate certain capacities and make certain choices because of our experiences. Capitalism is natural only in the sense that it is a set of choices provoked by experience; capitalism is not a set of inescapable or immutable physical laws. The banal but important observation here is that the question of what capacities and choices are possible is completely distinct from the question of what capacities and choices are beneficial -- a distinction that often goes unconsidered.

"There is no prima facie case then for supposing that because persons crave some particular thing, or behave in some particular way, human nature is fatally constituted to crave that and act thus. The craving and the action are both learned, and in another generation might be learned differently." "To those who object that capitalism is 'rooted in human nature,' we answer: Possibly, but so was cannibalism. We no longer eat each other." Correspondingly, to achieve success in the pursuit of living a financially profitable life is completely distinct from achieving success in the pursuit of living a valuable and rewarding life. "[T]he contrast between what is happening and what you know humanity with its resources and innovation is capable of delivering, if you look at that, which is the central ... contradiction of the system and its potential, I don't believe you're going to say 'this is the best we can do.' "

Answers to the question of success are not merely descriptive analyses. "Success" is an honorific designation that legitimates the framework being examined, and confers a positive value judgement on the system as well as the recipient. Economic success is one component among many when evaluating life success, and we must not make the mistake of considering economic success as an end in itself. The question is not merely "how do I become economically successful?" or "am I economically successful?," but rather "what is the purpose of economic success?" While trite witticisms such as "money is not everything" are often espoused, the deeper question of what money actually is often remains unexamined. "Already accustomed to accept money for commodities, the people ... ceased to look at all behind the representative for the thing represented."

Reflect on the question of success honestly, and ask yourself: what proportion of waking life do you spend working towards earning money, administering your finances, and thinking about wealth? To what extent do economic metrics such as salary and net worth factor into your definition of success? What is the purpose of these metrics? What other metrics factor into your definition of success?

Part of the series: Narcissa

[ commentary :: capitalism, politics, reason, the human condition ]

Last updated January 23, 2013