Beyond Scarcity: Reinventing Wealth in a Progressive World
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The current economic crisis is causing a massive redistribution of wealth across society. With a newfound capacity to shape our nation's destiny, progressives can take this opportunity to redefine ourselves - especially our ideas about wealth and prosperity - as we seek to build a flourishing society.
It is often the case that people who dedicate their lives to the betterment of society are hindered by a particular obstacle - what I call the scarcity mindset.
This mindset can be described in several ways:
- The belief that a person has to compromise his or her values to make money.
- Harboring an impoverished view of wealth as merely money or accumulation of material stuff - and seeking to avoid being identified with this activity.
- A recurring feeling that there just aren't opportunities to do something meaningful and satisfying.
- A cynical view of collaboration.
- The belief that people who seek wealth are selfish or greedy.
This mindset can be explained in several ways. One mechanism comes from the study of system justification, a theory developed by New York University psychologist Jon Jost. Jost observed that people in oppressed groups often internalize negative stereotypes that the dominant group perpetuates to justify its superiority. An example of such a stereotype is the "gangsta thug" that frames inner-city black young men as violent thieves who peddle drugs and guns. This stereotype has been internalized by many inner-city youth and reduces the aspirations and self-confidence necessary to engage them in the process of rebuilding their communities.
Progressives are in a similar situation with our political views. Conservatives have set the terms of debate for decades, introducing their ways of thinking about government, markets, human nature, and yes, prosperity. Their view of prosperity should be familiar. Just think of the glorification of wealth in our media-saturated, celebrity-worship society and you'll get a solid impression. Conservatives typically view wealth as material accumulation within a rampant form of capitalism. A "good" business person exploits everything possible to increase the riches of his estate.
This view of wealth is appalling to progressives. Our sentiments are motivated more by the empathetic bonds we feel with other people and the natural world. So, what happens when we recoil with disgust at this exemplar of selfishness and greed? A negative stereotype is introduced - that the progressive businessperson or political activist must oppose the accumulation of wealth. We must "take the moral high road" and sacrifice personal comforts for the sake of our communities. In short, we are to be ascetics, "hair shirts," hippies, low-wage teachers and social workers, and so on.
We project this negative stereotype onto ourselves, thus defining our identities in opposition to that which we detest - the conservative elites' view of exploitation for personal gain. This is what one might call a " reactive trap," because the dynamic is one of reacting to the views of another group. What we need to do instead is empower ourselves with a proactive position on prosperity. More on this in a moment.
Starving Our Own for the Greater Good
These stereotypes are not merely internalized at a personal level. Our scarcity mindset has been built into many of our institutions, as we can see with progressive philanthropy and the hiring practices at nonprofits. The guiding principle of the progressive world is to starve our own for the greater good.
While conservatives lavish young talent with communal supports and lucrative careers, we refuse to invest in our own. Progressive foundations are only willing to fund projects that are "accountable" and "cost effective" - understood as "accountable to higher authorities" (the funders) and "minimizing waste" by treating workers as an expendable resource. These ideas should sound familiar. They are foundational concepts in the conservative attack on government and the governing philosophy that dominates the corporate world.