- comfort is an illusion, that this illusion is a commodity, and that
- any commodity is itself an illusion, the purchase of which confers comfort upon its purchaser.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, staunch opponent of labor strikes and noted exponent of laissez faire governance is famous for having said:
The chief business of the American people is business.Now, the fact is that Coolidge has gotten a bit of a bum rap, because this remark is actually taken from a lengthier piece of speechifying that argued that the generating of wealth and profits is virtuous and useful only insofar as it is applied to the funding of measures that further the public good (like education), and that when wealth is not so applied, it bespeaks nothing more than the selfishness of those who accumulate it.
This caveat notwithstanding, the mythologies concerning the assumed virtuousness of hard work, productivity and profit have been ubiquitous in America since the aphorisms of Benjamin Franklin (as noted specifically by the German sociologist Max Weber, who was the first thinker to expound the Protestant Ethic).
Whatever the origin of this 'ethic', the functions it has served have been manifold. Among the most obvious ones are the legitimation of America's pervasive socioeconomic stratification -- think, everything from the oeuvre of Horatio Alger to the ascent of Social Darwinism. This function of legitimation applies, by the way, both to those at the top of the ladder -- for whom the myth of meritocracy (or a kind of biological determinism, beyond the purview of man) is a bulwark against pangs of guilt about the socioeconomic disparities -- and those at the bottom of the ladder -- for whom the myth of meritocracy encourages them to chalk up their lot in life to their own faults (or those of their families and loved ones) of laziness, stupidity, drunkenness, insufficient religiosity, or just plain old everyday lack of industriousness.
But, let us return to our consideration of the advent of the present global economic crisis, with its various peculiarities, such as the specter of the declining wealth, access to social and cultural capital and education and economic opportunity available to wide swathes of the nation's population, including large parts of the middle class. This is accompanied by the likelihood of a continued sharp decline in upward social mobility, a trend totally unheard of among Baby Boomers and the generation of their parents.
It seems to me that in the bleak geopolitical and global-economic era upon which we are likely embarking, the so-called 'Protestant Ethic' and the corresponding myth of meritocracy perform a function whose salience will supplant those associated with mere legitimation.
This new function is a much more basic one: rootedness within a seemingly fixed structure of social relations. American/Western-capitalist human self-perception will come increasingly to depend for its sustenance upon its ability to perceive itself as being somehow embedded in a framework that provides some semblance -- even if it's chimerical -- of predictability.
In other words, people will -- and have already begun to -- pay huge amounts of treasure (whether it's in the form of cash or in the form of the human soul) for the illusion of comfort. As Crib From This has surmised in the past, the ability to see the world as it is turns not upon your intelligence -- and certainly not in the vulgar/scientistic sense of this overused word/concept -- but upon your bravery.
Most of us -- particularly in the West -- aren't brave.