The Poverty of Affluence, by Paul L. Wachtel (1983)

Everything I hoped it would be — a validating examination of the issues that have arisen as a result of our current economic model and the feelings of discontent that accompany them.

It both blows my mind and saddens me to think that this book was written in 1983, before the age of the internet and online shopping. Many of the patterns and behaviours the book rightly berates have been taken to new heights. Our wastefulness, our tendency to seek security and meaning in material wealth, our reluctance to acknowledge the psychological and environmental damage our consumer habits cause, and our employment-oriented culture that generates busywork and serves as a poor basis for our social identity are all aspects of society that we seem to have doubled down on.

The vapid soullessness of our current arrangement is laid out plainly in this book. The erosion of our communities, of our rootedness in a place and context, and our meaningful human relationships as a result of our growth-oriented mindset and consequent aspirations of upward social mobility is highlighted as a particularly damaging part of the cycle. In aspiring to move upwards and away from families and friends, and in turn accepting that we will be left behind by others, we have lost a deep sense of security that has left us neurotically trying to plug the hole with more and more material possessions.

Without a steady community surrounding us and providing us with an identity, we each have to earn our identities. Friendliness and sociability fall off as affluence increases because our time becomes scarcer and more economically valuable, and we’re less dependent on the people around us.

We have created inhumane economic conditions in which we must compete and move upwards constantly in order to fight against the discontent and misery that is pushed down upon us. As a result, we are lonelier and more vulnerable, searching for meaning and security in increased ownership and social status, actively perpetuating our current condition in the false hope that having more stuff will make us happy.

Changing things will require alternate structures that support the mental shift from growth based expectations to ones of acceptance and contentedness. These do not currently exist, which makes it hard to live in any way that differs from the economic mainstream for very long.

I thought this book was excellent. I am not optimistic, however, that a meaningful change in mentality or behaviour will ever take hold. As the author points out (no fewer than forty fucking years ago), our current way of living has us racing towards environmental disaster — literal extinction — so I guess we’ll find out sooner rather than later if we’re willing to consume ourselves rather than change our ways.



An economy primarily driven by growth must generate discontent.


A mood of pessimism and a sense of imminent decline have become increasingly evident. Sober warnings that the era of affluence is drawing to an end resonate with the daily experience of millions. It is not really affluence, however, that is threatened, but growth; we have confused the two for reasons that go to the heart of our national psychology.


Even with regard to the middle class, it is not very useful to argue that their complaints are based on needs that are not “real”. The way we have set things up, people really do experience a need for the things they buy (or wish they could buy).


Much of what we produce we neither need nor really enjoy.


A rich material life is in our grasp, and I hold no brief for poverty. But riches that do not yield satisfaction are worthless. By failing to understand our experience we make ourselves poorer than we need to be.


It is ironic that the very kind of thinking which produces all our riches also renders them unable to satisfy us. Our restless desire for more and more has been a major dynamic for economic growth, but it has made the achievement of that growth largely a hollow victory.


Our entire economic system is based on human desire’s being inhexhaustible, on there being a potential market for almost anything we can produce.


I do think that advertising stirs desires that might otherwise not be there, and often to our detriment. But it does not write its message on a blank state. We are all primed to receive its messages, and our priming, our state of mind, plays a critical role.


So immersed are we in the assumptions of growth, so inured to what we actually have and preoccupied only with whether it is more than we had before, that our ability to make certain basic logical distinctions has declined; for many of us not having more has become equivalent to having less.


By seeking to maximize goods rather than other amenities such as leisure or clean air, we are required to manufacture each item in the cheapest way – that is, the way that leaves the maxmimum amount of money available for other purchases.


But there is an odd phenomenon accompanying the accumulation of these goods. One might label it “the fallacy of the individual commodity”. Somehow, as we examine the experiential impact of all our acquisitions, we discover that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Each individual item seems to us to bring an increase in happiness or satisfaction. But the individual increments melt like cotton candy when you try to add them up.


For it is out of own flesh that the rewards of productivity are coming. It is we, as producers, who are straining and distorting our lives in order to satisfy ourselves in our other incarnation as consumers.


Either by working harder than is optimal, or more generally by defining their lives and their self-worth in terms what they achieve in the sphere of work, many people shorten their lives, decrease their overall pleasure in living, and enrich all those — from brewers to therapists to pharmaceutical firms — who make their living in dealing with tension and instability.


Although the advantages of being able to set one’s own working hours, to determine when and how much one will work, are obvious, there is a compensating price to be paid as well — having continuously to face the question “Am I doing enough?” and, for many, never quite having the sense of one’s work being done and it being time to relax.


Technology is a two-edged sword. It is true that only technology can get us out of the environmental fix we are in; we have already done so much damage that we couldn’t go back to “the simple life” even if we were psychologically capable. But technology is also the direct cause of the problems we are now hoping technology will solve. It is the prodigious capacities with which our technological expertise provide us that create such a threat to the environment. Those of us in the industrialized countries produce 50 times the amount of pollution per capita as those in the less developed nations.


Economic growth, I have argued, does not work for us the way we think it does. Having more and more does not really leave us feeling fuller or more fulfilled. Though we have come close to the asymptote in the relation between material goods and a sense of satisfaction with life, we are nowhere near one with regard to desire. The less we get out of what we get, the more we seem to want. Now we are recognizing that the pursuit of this ironic cornucopia is literally poisoning us, that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat are being contaminated. And still we persist, still we say we must have more. Why?


This is by no means to suggest that all desire for more is neurotic. Aspirations to improve, to transcend one’s condition, to explore new directions and expand one’s knowledge and powers are certainly part of any reasonable definition of mental health. Indeed, their absence can be a sign of neurosis. But when this (or any) dimension of our psychological life becomes too dominant, when it leads to irrational and self-defeating choices and to the inability even to recognize that there are effective alternatives to those choices, then such a term as neurosis is merited.


Today our place in the social order is less clearly demarcated and less securely held. We have no reserved seats. We must win our place. We are unlikely to live and die in the town and neighborhood in which we are born, to have neighbors who have known us all our life — and who have an unthinking stake in us just because we are “us” and therefore a part of what they are a part of (and because they know that they can unquestionably count on our having a stake in them in the same way).


In one way or another we must impress people today in order to have a claim on them. As I shall discuss in more detail shortly, this does not necessarily mean we must impress them with our talents or accomplishments. Our faithfulness, undemandingness, or even insignificance (and hence lack of threat) may be what we offer. But in one way or another, we must find a place in the social network. It is not given for us to nearly the degree in was in prior times.


Our present stress on growth and productivity is, I believe, intimately related to the decline in rootedness. Faced with the loneliness and vulnerability that come with deprivation of a securely encompassing community, we have sought to quell the vulnerability through our posessions. When we can buy nice new things, when we look around and see our homes well stocked and well equipped, we feel strong and expansive rather than small and endangered.


We chase around frantically filling up the holes we have just dug, with little recognition or understanding of what we are doing and still less ability to stop. And all the while we tell ourselves that this is simple what we “want”.


Deprived of roots, traditions, and secure ties to a community in which a place was guaranteed, men began to try to reduce their anxity by identifying with our increasing power over nature. The accumulation of wealth and material comforts, rather than a secure rooting in a frame and context, began to form the primary basis for quelling the feelings of vulnerability that inevitably afflict us.


The economist Fred Hirsch noted that a decline in sociability and friendliness has been characteristic of modern economies. In a droll yet serious application of the economist’s perspective, he noted that friendliness “is time consuming and thereby liable to be economized because of its extravagent absorption of this increasingly scarce input …. It has been widely observed, both in casual impression and in some survey data, that conern for the wider family is greater among the lower income groups than among the higher”. Hirsch attributed this to both a reduced need for mutual aid among higher income groups and a tendency to set a higher valuation on their time, including time needed for consumption of all that has become within economic reach. Hirsch suggested that both of these factors may “reduce friendliness and mutual concern in society as a whole as it becomes richer in material goods and ever more pressed for time”.


In our pursuit of efficiency and productivity, we have promoted the expectation that each will view his home, school, and community primarily as a launching pad for the purpose of rising to his appropriate level, and that he will thus leave many former friends behind (and be himself left behind by still others).


Indeed, though not always conscious of what we are doing, we try to assauge these feelings of smallness and helplessness in the way that has now become standard for us: by attempting to see to it that if we can’t feel really in control at least we have “more”; by reassuring ourselves with the larger house we just bought, or the new car, or the stereo, or the new dress, or whatever our particular economic level allows us to buy in order to declare to ourselves and others, “I’m alright, Jack”. And again, the results are sadly ironic. For the consequence of this effort to make the bad feeling go away is to strengthen the forces that create the bad feelings.


The argument presented thus far suggests that having more and newer things each year has become not just something we want but something we need. The idea of more, of ever increasing wealth, has become the center of our identity and our security, and we are as caught in it as the addict is by his drugs.


Today, when our pursuit of material gain no longer brings much satisfaction and threatens to drown and choke us in industrial wastes, we are unable to let go — unable because we have cut the ground out from under us and are afraid to relenquish the one thing that props us up, that gives us some sense of security: our posessions and our productivity.


For the present, what I want to stress most of all is the problem posed by our anxious reliance on the production and accumulation of goods to compensate for the decline in other more traditional sources of security.


Our overriding stress on productivity and growth and the toll it takes on our health and well-being are part of a tragically unnecessary treadmill on which we run, ever more desperately, with ever more strain, committing more and more of our lives to the hopeless chase to keep up.


Throughout the modern world, to greater or lesser degree, men and women are faced with the push to leave parents and siblings, home and tradition behind in order to “get ahead”. Empty pieties such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day help to disguise the reality, while a celebration of success serves to disguise the price.


The consumer way of life is deeply flawed, both psychologically and ecologically. It fails to bring the satisfactions promised and its side effects are lethal.


“When a person spends his day surrounded by power-driven equipment and vehicles to help him save effort on his every move, at work, at home and at play, and he then proceeds on doctor’s orders to squander the energy he has so carefully saved on jogging around the block or riding his exercycle in the bathroom, he gives clear evidence that he realizes the irrationality, if not of his personal behaviour, at least of the patterns of behaviour society imposes, the pressure of which he is not strong enough to resist”.
— Tibor Scitovsky


Few people would explicity endorse the idea of being away from their children and then making it up to them by buying them things, nor did this man, in fact. The way it is experienced is that there are things which, because of economic necessity, one simple “has to do”. There is no experience of having made a choice. The tradeoffs between economic criteria and personal, experiential criteria are not really in our awareness.


What many people are beginning to realize is that now time is more precious than goods, that indeed we hardly have time to consume what we already can afford.


The lives of all of us — not just those who are ordinarily labeled as in need of psychological treatment — are limited both by restrictions and inhibitions that reflect social custom and by a key feature of human development: our prolonged dependency in childhood. This dependency, added to the fact that for years our congitive capacities are so much more limited than they will be when we grow up, has a profound impact on our development. Our view of the world and its possibilities is largely shaped when we are helpless and uncomprehending, and this view is then acted out in our adult years, when many more possibilities are in fact available to us. Indeed, the differences between the cognitive capacities and life situation of the human child and the human adult are far greater than between many species. It is as though we learn how to live as one creature and then apply that lesson when we are something quite else.


The Vietnam War, of course, was the galvanizing central event of the period. It was both monstrous and stupid, and it mobilized the moral sense of a generation. But the protests of the period were not merely protests about what “we” were doing to “them”; they were protests as well about what we were doing to ourselves. The superego played a role in those protests, but so too did the ego and the id. It was not just the guilt that motivated the young; it was a sense that the lives toward which they were being programmed seemed so empty and unappealing.


The war was the catalyst, but more basic was a failure of identification, a recognition on the part of many young people that their parents’ affluence did not bring the satisfaction and contentment they were led to expect it would.


The young rebels of the Sixties sensed that the life they were being groomed for was hollow at its core. But they had been groomed for it, and their very way of rejecting it reflected that grooming. In addition to the expectation that total newness could be achieved, they showed their grooming in their expectation that achieving it would be easy — and fast.


So for the moment the economic vision of life is again ascendant. But the custodians of this economistic revanche face a ticklish task. To succeed they must fail. To keep our eyes glued to “the bottom line” they must convince us we are in the red. If they dare to let us see our affluence, we must seek the source of our discontent elsewhere, and our vision of the good life can liberated from its economistic blinders, as it was in the 1960s.


One of the central erors of the Sixties was a failure to appreciate the importance of structures in maintaining any way of life or cast of mind. In some respects the negative implications of structures were in fact grasped; the way, for example, that roles can trap us and make it almost impossible to live out values that one held before immersion in the role’s demands. Recognizing that taking a job that was part of an ongoing social structure might dull their idealism, many young people delayed entering careers and similarly put off traditional commitments to marriage and family. But in many cases they failed to appreciate sufficiently that they had to live in some structure, that an autonomous existence guided only by the lodestar of their inner promptings and true selves is a myth. As a consequence, they failed to create alternative structures that could sustain them in their desire to work for change.


Lacking alternative structures, the majority of dissident young people were inexorably edged into the only structures there were — those of the economic mainstream.


The larger socioeconomic system creases powerful negative feedback that sustains the present equilibrium. It is extraordinarily difficult for the individual to resist those forces for very long. In order to do so, continuing mutual encouragement and mutual reaffirmation of commitment are essential.


The problem [of the emphasis on youth in the ideals of the Sixties generation] is poignantly illustrated by an Op-Ed article that appeared in The New York Times after the election of Ronald Raegan. The author had been a member of the Sixties geneartion, had worked for Eugene McCarthy and other peace candidates, and had “never missed a peace march”. When she married in 1968 she vowed never to abandon her commitments and never to be like her parents. Writing in 1980, she lamented the life-style she was living. She was “furious” with herself for but felt “trapped in the labyrinth of our consumer-oriented society” and a “slave to [her] possessions”.


Her story struck a chord in me. Though she in some ways fitted the media image of the Sixties activist who had sold out to the consumer society, she clearly was still struggling with the choices she had made, as are, I suspect, the great majority of those now being written off as safely settled in suburban conservatism. I felt sympathy for her and hope that she might still rejoin the effort to make it a better world.


One of the most crucial lessons we must pass on to the generation now coming of age is that they must not equate idealism with youth. For they too will grow up, and anything they achieve in working for better world will be ephemeral if it must disappear with their youth.


I believe we can best understand our present situation as the result of a pattern of self-defeating choices and actions in which we all are caught. The system works better, to be sure, for the rich and powerful, but in the long it works poorly for all. Even the winners are losers compared to what life could be like under different ground rules.


All are ultimately deceived and cheated by the short-run gains or protections the system provides. Some fare better than others, but all have a tiger by the tail and fear letting go.


Our continuation of a way of life that places accumulation of commodities ahead of enjoyment of living (and obscures the distinction between the two) is a result of our joint participation in a system that seems to have a life of its own.


There are many features of American life that make it difficult to persist for very long, and even more difficult to thrive, in an alternative to the consumer culture — the structure of our cities and suburbs; the nature of the expectations and temptations our children encounter daily; and so forth.


Indeed, to be quite frank, this is a time when selfishness is elevated and concern for others’ welfare derided, when cumulative intelligence of decades of insights into our interdependency is being submerged in a tide of the most unenlightened self-interest.


By being exaggerately nice, by bending over backward in order not to be hostile, the person sets up situations in which his own needs are ignored. He encourages others always to call on him without giving anything in return, or to treat him with disdain as harmless but insignificant, or to expect from him none of the contentious give and take they expect from others. In dozens of large and small ways — always going to the restaurant or movie others want instead of sometimes getting his own preference; helping someone out with school work when he himself has an exam the next day; reassuring a friend it is all right to ask out a girl he himself is interested in — this sort of person creates a social world that frustrates him. And, significantly, because of that frustration, it is almost inevitably a world that infuriates him.


The fury is mostly not experienced consciously; this is a person, after all, who cannot bear to be angry. Rather it is defended against in his characteristic way. He tries to push it down by being even more cooperative, nice, gentle, helpful, and so on. And in doing so he sets the stage for still more generation of rage, still more overly helpful and cooperative behaviour to defend against it, and a continuing circular trap. Ironically, the impulse he defends against can be seen as itself the product of that very defense. Were he not trying so hard to be so much of the opposite of angry, he would not generate the experiences that now make him angry.


The imperative to express has also encouraged in some an ethic of self-indulgence. Sexual exploitation, unhesitating venting of anger, or simple laziness are manifested not only without qualms but with an actual moralistic fervor: One must be true to oneself, to one’s inner nature, and therefore this behaviour is more honest and helathies than the Victroian hypocrisy that used to pass for morality.


The compulsion to spill all is based on a misunderstanding of what modern psychological analysis has revealed. Freud did find that people could pay a very high price for not being honest with themselves. Moreover, he did require them to “tell all” to another — the analyst — in order to be cured. In the analytic situation nothing — no matter how trivial or offensive — was to be held back. But Freud never intended for the analytic situation to be a model of all human relationships. For everyday purposes there is still a great deal that ought to be recogonized as trivial or offensive, and sometimes as both.


One important function of work in our society is to help provide a sense of identity. In the preindustrial world the first question one was likely to ask a strange in order get a bead on him was, “Where are you from?” Now we are more likely to ask, “What do you do?” Place no longer gives us the same sense of a person, nor is it for many people the core of their sense of who they are. One’s work, rather, is one’s badge of identity, indicating the kind of person you are likely to be and your position in the social order as well.


Moreover, people today move around far more than they once did, and their personal horizons are much less determined by the family into which they were born. This means that work is not only a better indicator of one’s characteristics and position but also the vehicle for creating an identity. And since our position in the social order is no longer guaranteed by place, family, or station, and our connections to a particular community are more tenuous and transient, work must serve to provide our identity and sense of belonging. Thus the personal meaning of work is greatly increased in a society such as ours, and the loss of a job means far more than just the loss of the income it entails. Consequently a great deal of anxiety is stirred not only by the prospect of a decrease in income but by the threatened loss of a place in the social order.


As things now stand, if everyone suddenly stopped buying everything except necessities, the necessities too would begin to disappear, as the buying power to purchase them dried up.


Every society requires a means of distributing its product that is experienced as legitimate and that does not undermine the incentive system or the guiding mythology of the culture. For us that is achieved primarly by pay for work performed.


This system, reasonable (though not necessarily equitable) when it first evolved, has now become acutely problematic. The tail now wags the dog.


We could not survive for very long if everyone stopped working. But our problem today is really how to keep the requisite number of people working to produce the optimal (rather than the maximum) product and still retain a sense of fairness; how to live in a society where less work is needed than what can be provided by the labor force. This is a new problem in human history, and we have yet to face it, have yet even to acknowledge its existence.


Central to our economic system is the constant generation of desire, envy, and discontent. So long as that desire is what keeps the economy moving, we cannot rest content or we will rest entirely. Our system is not set up to run a steady-state economy. According to the common economic wisdom, the economy must expand or it will collapse. We have achieved a level of affluence beyond the wildest dreams of the founders of the capitalist system. But we cannot enjoy it. We are not even able to see that we have succeeded so. For the very way of thinking that enables us to do so also prevents us from appreciating it.


We have also, in achieving our level of material productivity, paid a price in other sources of security and satisfaction, such as our sense of being rooted in a community. Up to a point that price was reasonable; increasing levels of affluence compensated for what was lost. But as we saw in Chapter 4, we are now caught in a vicious circle in which we keep sacrificing those things which could really make a difference in our lives for those which no longer do.


Our problem, then, is not, as we have been told so often recently by those mired in old grounding assumptions, that we are insufficiently productive. It is close to the opposite. We have organized our lives and our society around maximizing production at any cost. And the cost has mounted steadily. We are drowning in our own effluents and in our discontents. What we need now is not still “more”. What we need is a way off the treadmill. What we need is a way to come down from our reckless high without crashing, a way to maintain an affluent way of life without compulsive commitment to growth. We need to learn to enjoy and savor instead of “moving up”, to learn how to reestablish our roots, how to conserve instead of wasting, and, most difficult of all, how to give a new place to work and jobs in our lives, one that does not compel us to put people to work first and consider the damage they are doing second.