Wealth and Privilege

By any global index, we lucky cardholders of first-world citizenship are among history’s most satiated actors. And while there is still gross inequity in modern life, we take for granted treasures of security and access never dreamed of by our predecessors: year-round fresh food, high-speed transportation, publicly-funded arts, the worldwide libraries of the internet. Moreover, we anticipate our situation to continue to improve by the season, as technology contrives yet more convenience. If any lingering wants remain, we justifiably expect them satisfied in our immediate future, with every whim consumed in king-like repose.

We have even adopted the royal tradition of hoarding. Filling storage lockers with VCR-television combination units, and last year’s unfortunately non-metallic coffee-makers (awaiting transport to landfills and cottages, respectively.) These caches are a reliable marker of having crested the fulfillment of basic needs, and continued into the ostentatious territory of accumulating goods for status.

Material excess remains the prevailing measure of achievement as citizens, conferring prestige and desirability–although at the expense of both the natural environment and our own better nature. Eclipsing latent desires for the greater good, with the dark shadow of self-worship.

Ironically, it is this perpetual demonstration of high-status–of presenting ourselves as modern kings and queens–that prevents us from any actual noble enterprise. In times past, the acknowledged rank of high-birth freed the aristocracy to the pursuits of noblesse oblige. But as yet, we seem unable to stand behind our own claims to the throne, else we might engage in the ensuing responsibilities of charity and high-mindedness.

Facetiousness aside, our pursuits on the whole, are idle. This during a time of great need, and our comparatively great resources. Our powers to communicate, organize, study, and manipulate our surroundings have never been more potent, yet the instinct to improve our condition has been highjacked by a selfish trap of materialism that impoverishes our experience and dramatically worsens our long-term prospects.

Consumption appears a victimless lifestyle. It is not burdened by cooperation, by agreement or disagreement. Its pleasures accrue to the individual without liability to our neighbour. We find comfort and no one suffers. But this seductive formula contradicts our innate moral understanding of how the world works. Life will never submit so peaceably to so little sacrifice.

Much of environmentalism is presented in the reductive language of giving up, going without, lessening, cutting back. There is an implied diminishment of our situation. It is no wonder then the demands of sustainability are not met, when they appear so contrary to our aspirations for status.

But what of noblesse oblige, this last luxury of the wealthy, this obligation to a noble life? How better to define our material success, than with acts that surpass material expression? Would then not restraint and remediation be the fulfillment of materialism, and not its antithesis? A moment of ascendence from the bonds of what we own, to the full dimension of who we might be?

Our culture long ago perfected extravagance. Can we now not also afford the indulgence of grace?


2 comments on “Wealth and Privilege”

  1. Well, now … as Karl Marx said long ago: “The more you have, the less you are.”

    Cogent critique, James.

    Have never done FB etc. But I can actually tell friends about you.

  2. It’s most definitely not a bad thing to want to pass down one’s wealth to one’s children, but considering the disproportionate access to wealth in this country both historically and today, to have wealth to pass down is the literal definition of privilege.

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