Income’s It

Imagine a board meeting in the 1960s: an executive with a square chin and narrow black tie gapes at an out-of-breath, garrulous presenter who is jabbing his wooden presenting stick at a chart on a display board. “But what’s the point, Frank?” asks square-chin to the presenter, whose name is ‘Frank’. Frank’s name has, from birth, tied him, in the minds of others, to the virtue of frankness — so square-chin thinks that Frank ought to have a point. Square-chin is not interested in the nuances and distracting details. He just wants to know if his car company is going to pay out a dividend this quarter.

In any business meeting or technocratic political melange one finds difficult moral thought conveniently missing. Thoughts of what is right and good and worthy have been quietly shunted out of the way and replaced with an expedient, an almighty and easy-to-follow governing principle of society: make more than your neighbour. Sell more cars than that other company. Make more money from exports than that other country.

This is a wonderful system and it should be praised for two reasons. Firstly, we have now organised the available resources of Earth to such an extent that there is an awe-worthy amount of excess. We have never before had more food, or more advanced machines, or faster means of transport, or better pain relief medication. There may be some problems with how this excess is distributed amongst ourselves, but even the most anti-capitalist pre-modern fetishizer must see these developments for what they are: amazing and unprecedented.

The second reason to praise the system is this: it generates activity without needing any real reason. The auto executive only wants to make and sell more care. Perhaps, in the recesses of his mind, he assumes that society is ultimately benefited by his actions. After all, if there are more cars then more people can get around faster; this, in turn, will make it easier for other businesses to compete to sell the most of whatever they’re making.

And this is how we organise billions of people to go about their lives helping to create all the excesses of modern civilisation. This is how we keep everyone so busy. And we are very clever to cut off the question of ‘why?’ at its root by replacing its meaning. When executives or technocrats ask ‘why?’ they want to know how an action is going to increase sales or exports. Thus, paralysing questions such as ‘what ought we to do?’ have been replaced by the manageable arithmetical task of calculating which actions optimise revenue. Indeed, more revenue means more activity. And more activity is good.

But, to use that lazy and commonly misappropriated phrase, what is the point? Why should we occupy ourselves in this way? What ought we do with the excesses we are producing? Genuine answers to these questions cannot be found in the many hymns of those who worship economic activity!

In case you did not yet know, there is no point. That’s what makes the pursuits of higher leaning so bountifully fun. Some of us are curious about the origins of the universe; or how cells differentiate in the body; or the astronomy of the ancient Greeks. There is no homogenising ‘point’ to ever silence these enquiries. These pursuits of the mind do not sit within a calculus of maximal revenue, and so they will never cease to be various and interesting.

Most people do not have the privilege and luxury of the higher pursuits — what of them? The example of industrialised civilisation suggests that society functions most impressively when there is some base principle to orchestrate everyone’s activities. People once pointed to God — civilisation organised itself to build cathedrals, strained-glass windows and the printing press. People pointed to economic activity — we organised ourselves to rape the Earth of all its resources; and inadvertently raised living standards. Despite its flaws, the industrialised world is doing very much better than feudal Europe, but many of us are not content with the society we have created.

So we ask: what society do we want? And what principle, what organising motif, can we imbed in civilisation to achieve our aims? These questions are beyond the expedient of economic reasoning — one must ask oneself what one wants. The astonishing thing is that, even though there is no ‘ultimate point’, the human heart still has a habit of wanting something. We must never stop arguing about what that something might be.