After the End of History: The Curious Fate of American Materialism

After the End of History: The Curious Fate of American Materialism

by Robert E. Lane

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Overview

"Robert E. Lane is one of the most prominent and distinguished critics of both the human impact of market economies and economic theory, arguing from much research that happiness is more likely to flow from companionship, enjoyment of work, contribution to society, and the opportunity to develop as a person, than from the pursuit of wealth and the accumulation of material goods in market economies. This latest work playfully personalizes the contrast through a dialogue between a humanistic social scientist, Dessi, and a market economist, Adam. It is all too rare to have the two sides talking to each other. Moreover, in Lane's witty and literate hands, it is an open-minded and balanced conversation, in which neither side has all the answers. His unparalleled grasp of interdisciplinary social scientific knowledge is brought to bear on the largest questions of human life: What genuinely makes people happy? How should human society be organized to maximize the quality of human lives?"
--David O. Sears, Professor of Psychology and Political Science, UCLA

"Lane's deep knowledge of the sources of human happiness enables him to develop a powerful critique of economic theory."
---Robert A. Dahl, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Yale University

Robert E. Lane is the Eugene Meyer Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University. His previous publications include The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (2000) and The Market Experience (1991).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472024179
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 11/16/2009
Series: Evolving Values For A Capitalist World
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 585 KB

Read an Excerpt

After the End of History
THE CURIOUS FATE of AMERICAN MATERIALISM


By Robert E. Lane
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS
Copyright © 2006

University of Michigan
All right reserved.


ISBN: 978-0-472-09915-3



Prologue Adam, a tall, angular economist with a high forehead and a low threshold for foolishness, confidently entered Clark's, the local Greek hash house, and seated himself at one of the red leatherette booths by the window. He looked around for his friend, Dessie (named after Desiderius Erasmus), and sighed. What nonsense would this paraphilosopher and semi-social scientist offer today? It was hard to say what discipline Dessie represented: he taught in the political science department, but what he taught was some combination of political psychology and philosophy in his own idiosyncratic mix: a humanist social scientist? Whoever heard of such an animal? But that's what Adam liked about him: his irreverence for what was "known" and reverence for the humanly possible-or what Dessie thought was possible. And in return, Dessie cherished Adam for his strong-minded realism, his good sense penetrating both Dessie's illusions and (sometimes) the silly superstructure of his own discipline.

Then Adam spotted Dessie, puffing his bundled-up way in from the cold while allowing the icy wind to sweep by Adam's legs.

"Sorry I'm late," said the portly Dessie, adding in a confidential whisper, "I think I know the answer."

"As Gertrude Stein said 'What is the question?'" asked Adam with a sober face.

"Well," said Dessie, "Given the recent pronouncements about the 'End of History,' the silly term referring to the endless reproduction of our market and democratic systems-that is, the status quo-I have been wondering what happens when, like everything else, the status quo actually comes to an end. Now I think I know." Dessie paused to give a theatrical effect to his revelation. "If things go well and the constellation of forces is in our favor, we will have a society that puts people, rather than God or money, at the center of things. In a word, it will be the New Humanism." He smiled as though he were the angel reporting the Annunciation.

"Is that all?" said Adam, disappointed.

"Don't you see?" said Dessie, "Under the new circumstances, we must drop the pilot who brought us into the harbor and find another. You economist chaps have done a wonderful job, but perhaps, like so many others in the labor markets you somehow justify, you have worked yourselves out of a job. To put it most simply," he smiled in an embarrassed way, as though explaining to an adolescent how babies are made, "the materialist world of which you are an interpreter and priest is no longer satisfying. When people realize the cause of their hunger, they will turn to other interpreters and priests." He beamed his benign smile at Adam and everyone else within sight.

"Are you prepared to officiate?" asked Adam without a trace of priestly jealousy.

"Not yet," said Dessie, "but when called, I will be ready." He paused and went on with his conception of "post-end" societies. "I have been wondering if this civilization is devoting its very considerable resources and talents to what is most fulfilling and enriching. A text on consumer behavior imagines Rip Van Winkle's observations on waking from his very long sleep: he would, says the text, 'come to the conclusion that selling, buying, and consuming lie at the very core of life in most of the developed countries of the world.' An anthropologist calls this preoccupation a 'rage to consume' and attributes it to an outgrown 'logic of scarcity,' the 'logic' that converts yesterday's concept of plenty into today's scarcity. Calling modern humans Homo consumens, Erich Fromm claims that 'we, as human beings, have no aim except producing and consuming more and more.' I dabble a little in philosophical and historical concepts of the right and the good, and I must say that this preoccupation with buying and selling and with material commodities has no resonance with that literature."

"'Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,'" muttered Adam. "Don't tell me you see Proteus rising from Lake Whitney and hear old Triton blow his horn on Whitney Avenue." He paused to listen for Triton and, not hearing him, went on. "Not only Wordsworth (1770-1850) but also Tocqueville (1805-59): 'It is strange to see with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue their own welfare.... A native of the United States clings to this world's goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them.' This alarm over consumption is hardly new," continued Adam. "Recall that both of these authors were writing about primarily agricultural societies, and their alarms may say more about human sensibilities than market societies."

"An English nature poet and a French aristocrat -" Dessie left the sentence unfinished. "It is not easy for people living in a period of transition to diagnose it accurately," he continued plaintively, "but I sense a possible transition from a 'creed outworn' to something new. I have been reading some of the 'posts' (postindustrialism, postmaterialism, postmodernism, posthistoricism), and although I reject much of their content, I accept their belief that we are on the threshold of a major transformation marked by a rapid change in communication technology and information overload (the cybernetic revolution); the collapse of what many thought was the main alternative to market democracies, communism (the Marxist God that failed); the struggle with Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and Christian fundamentalism in the American and Italian South; the whimpering end of Freud's human tragedy where the big red libido and the remorseless superego hammer mercilessly on that fragile little ego crouching in the middle of the ring. In academia, the sporadic popularity of depersonalizing, cultic theories of human behavior, such as learning theory and rational choice, diminish the human personality. Nietzsche's death of God came to life when Sartre translated this as confrontation with 'nothingness.' One unhappy prophet of the 1960s found that 'people are dejected and disheartened by a vast meaninglessness that seems to have insinuated itself into their lives, a lack of purpose, irrelevancy.... We reach out and no one is there, turn inward and find nothing inside. There is a sense of nightmare, and there is real madness.' Okay, that's self-pitying hyperbole, but it is hard to falsify President Carter's sense that there was (and is) a sense of malaise abroad in the land. What Carter couldn't know is that the approved goals of American society-getting richer and having more things-were no longer satisfying. The job of social scientists is, as it always has been, to make articulate the inarticulate grievances people have. Perhaps the surge in discussion of well-being means that social scientists are finally doing their job."

Adam smiled, recalling the anti-intellectual hysteria of the children of the 1960s and 1970s. He wondered what their contribution to GNP had been but was wise enough not to ask. "You want to find a watershed in history so you can guide the waters to the promised land. But the periodization of history always seems different in retrospect, so perhaps we are going through what has become normal change in a technological age, or perhaps, as you suspect, we experience only the small waves on some larger cycle that we cannot now understand. Or," he smiled again, "perhaps you are merely experiencing the disappointment of continuity as we face that 'end of history' you mentioned. Does Fukuyama distress you? The worldwide convergence in basic institutions around liberal democracy and market economics forces us to confront the question of whether we have reached an 'end of history.' I know you never expected the wrenching 'closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of human society' that Marx predicted, but you are an idealist and inevitably discontented with the benefits of a commercial society that satisfies so many others."

"A better historian puts it this way," said Dessie, trying to disguise his contempt for the silly phrases about history having an end. "Like communism, 'capitalism will someday pass from the stage of history, as feudalism did earlier.' This is not the day (der tag!), however, and my so-called idealism has nothing to do with it. From many sources-some in quality-of-life research (such as the long-term shift in what people find satisfying), some in the conflict within your discipline, some from assorted environmental and anticonsumption organizations and publications-I sense a cultural shift that future historians might refer to as the struggle between the materialist's view of the world and the humanist's view of the world. We did not live through the earlier struggles between feudal and industrial societies or the late-nineteenth-century battle between science and religion, but most of us have seen the struggle between capitalism and communism now whispering its extreme unction. That battle is over. What takes its place? Certainly not the end of ideology; rather, I think, the struggle between the materialist and humanist visions follows the ideological fault line of this cultural shift-though humanism is hardly yet an organized force. Permit me to call this period, still in utero struggling to be born, the New Humanism." Dessie paused for a moment and continued. "Whether or not we stand on the shoulders of giants, our job is to see farther than others, isn't it?"

"You are an alarmist. Your giants should be ashamed of you," said Adam. "From where I sit slurping my soup in Clark's"-he looked around at the slurping and munching secretaries and professors-"I do not see this malaise; indeed, I see no evidence of major cultural shifts whatsoever."

Dessie looked at Adam with concern. "Here is a pair of glasses provided by a playwright turned president of a small middle European country, Vaclev Havel: 'We all know that civilization is in danger: population explosion, greenhouse effect, holes in the ozone, ... the expansion of commercial television culture.... What is needed is something different, something larger. Man's attitude to the world must be radically changed.' Is what is visible from Prague not visible from where you sit?" asked Dessie.

Adam paused to digest his food and thoughts. "Thirty years ago," he said, "the Club of Rome saw world devastation by the end of the twentieth century. Do you feel devastated-I mean, more than normally devastated?" he asked. "Anyway," he added, "we have markets and democracies to correct our faults."

"Confidence in self-correcting processes for societies has historically been misplaced," said Dessie. "For example, among the natives of Dobu, an island in the western Pacific, belief in sorcery created such mutual suspicion that those friendly relations that in other societies make people happier and life more rewarding were missing. Dysfunctional societies abound in history. There seems to have been no set of endogenous forces to bring these societies around to a more felicitous way of doing things. I fear," said Dessie with a sigh, "that our market-dominated, consumer-oriented society is similarly bereft of restorative forces."

Adam saw his opportunity. "Given that we live in an age marked by unprecedented feedback, an information glut demanding interpretation at every stage, we are not quite in the same position as other civilizations whose mainsprings weakened without anyone being aware of what was happening-societies such as ancient Alexandria, fourth-century Rome, or the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Information-rich societies are blessed in this respect. And part of the globalization that exercises so many people is exactly the globalization of this information revolution."

"There is no more information-rich segment of our society than the economic sector, especially the Wall Street region of that sector," said Dessie in sharp rebuttal. "With all that information and talent, how does your profession fare at predicting the changes in the business cycle and the stock market? Or, longer term, in the midst of Japanese prosperity, did you see the signs of a decades-long depression on the horizon?" Dessie paused long enough to see that Adam was missing the main point. "Anyway," Dessie added, "any reliance on the feedback system of the market will fail to correct the problems I'm talking about because the changes are not changes among market goods; the goods I refer to are not priced. In this case, the market is not the cybernetic device that we count on. You and I are that device: we and our colleagues are the feedback information system."

The contrast startled Adam. Comparing the elegant, worldwide, lawful market system to this speculative conversation between two friends in a Greek hash house seemed grotesque. He went back to Dessie's earlier point. "I am not making any prophecies or predictions about sharp changes in the cultural values of our society; you are," he said. Then, seeing his exposure, he added, "In any event, my implicit prediction is continuity or persistence forecasting, meaning that the next decade will be very like this one."

"The end of history," muttered Dessie under his breath; then, more forcefully, he said, "I went to a conference in County Clare, Ireland, not long ago, where, observing the frantic-and successful-economic development of the Celtic Tiger, a certain Father Harry Bohun asked, 'Are we forgetting something?' He meant what is left out when attention is devoted almost exclusively to a people's economic transformation." Injudiciously, Dessie paused-and lost the floor.

"I am a little skeptical of any line of thinking that implies that people, in all their wonderful manifestations, are not better off because of economic growth," said Adam. "The United Nations Development Programme Reports certainly tell that story in graphic detail: higher literacy, lower infant mortality, longer life, and so forth. But, because you are my friend and because we economists are eager to learn whatever you humanist-social scientists think you can teach us (I guess), I'm willing to listen to what you have to say-whatever that may be." Adam's smile was slightly patronizing, but his tone was calculated to suggest that he believed that he was talking to an equal.

Dessie caught the tone and braced himself. Perhaps, after all, tennis was better than discussion for maintaining friendship. Nevertheless, he was a man with a mission. "Let us avoid argument and engage in dialogue," he said.

"My impression of the Socratic dialogues," said Adam, "is that Socrates has all the good lines and his companion is reduced to saying 'How true!' And I don't believe I've been cast as Socrates."

"Nonsense," said Dessie. "Whoever heard of anyone winning an argument with an economist? I sadly fear that you may actually win the dialogue-if a dialogue, like a debate, is winnable. It's every man for himself, and nothing is decided until the very end. As I said, I see this friendly quarrel as a conflict between the dominant materialism of our time, of which you are a high priest, and an alternative vision that, for want of a better term, I shall call a humanist vision. As it happens, you have recorded history on your side, and I have the future on my side- a future fortified with research on the quality of life and human development."

"I've never argued with a visionary before," said Adam. "It will be a new experience, but not one I care to mention to my colleagues."

"What is the correct term for a point of view that assumes perfect knowledge, perfect markets, and perfect rationality?" asked Dessie with an ingenuous smile.

"Tell me about your humanist vision," said Adam, all innocent and wide-eyed. "Can one see it from Clark's?"

"You can see it from any place except Economica, which is located on the Dead Sea," said Dessie. "Indeed, I think for everybody else, the basic elements of my 'vision' lie in plain sight, as I may explain when we meet again. What the vision says is that after having achieved a certain level of economic welfare, one at which the basic needs and certain (changing) amenities are secure, people want other kinds of goods. As I mentioned, for the most part these are not goods that are offered in the market; rather, they are goods such as companionship, intrinsic work enjoyment, aesthetic supplies, self- and social esteem, a sense of accomplishment and of contribution to one's society. Perhaps, people want something like the Stoic (and Confucian) ideal: harmony with nature and with other people."

"The test of what people want is what people seek in a free society," said Adam slipping his comment into a steady flow of exposition. "Propositions are not true by (Continues...)



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Table of Contents

\rrhp\ \lrrh: Contents\ \1h\ Contents \xt\ Foreword by Neva Goodwin Acknowledgments Spanakopita One: Prologue Spanakopita Two: What Should We Be Doing? Spanakopita Three: What's Wrong with Materialism? Spanakopita Four: Humanism: The Value of Persons Spanakopita Five: The Humanist-Materialist Axis Spanakopita Six: Diminishing Returns to Happiness Spanakopita Seven: Better People Spanakopita Eight: Getting Rich the Right Way Spanakopita Nine: After the End of History Notes

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