Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt
What Is An Economy For?

December 2013

I had a clashing of texts recently: How Much Is Enough? by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, two opposing reviews of the book (in The Nation by Jackson Lears and The New York Times by Richard Posner), and the magazine Good Housekeeping.

The Skidelskys' book is, in the end, about happiness -- more specifically, dealing with the question "Is happiness anything that can be created by a capitalist economic system?", something distinguishable in kind and degree from pleasure, contentment, satisfaction, "maximization of return," and so on.  Their answer is mostly "no" since happiness, defined by the duo as a good life well-lived, is antithetical to capitalism's constant self-devouring drive towards growth fueled by the manufactured instability of desires.

Posner disagrees with their critique, seeing the leisure created by increased productivity being squandered by a species more likely to engage in bloodsport than cultivate their humanities. Capitalism, as iniquitous as it is, is a discipline, a governor on human frailties, and as such a great producer of inventiveness and abundance -- even if much of the latter does not go to the producers of it.

But even Posner can't explain away the irritating ache that the Skidelskys provoke by asking the question - the ancient, pre-modern, pre-market question - that has driven much philosophical inquiry: what is the purpose of all this human motion and ingestion and respiration and inquisition?  This is a question that capitalism cannot answer, founded as it is on open-ended want and the imperative to never say no.

Good Housekeeping, which the Marvelous Maria Beatriz and I get as a free something for doing something we no longer remember doing, and which resides usually in the bathroom within easy reach for a quick skim, is a capsule of these strains.  On the one hand, it equates happiness with laser-focused self-fulfillment through cosmetics, exercise, positive thinking, fashion, freedom from clutter, workplace etiquettes - simple things that help one make the calibrations necessary to keep oneself in harness in order to continue being a productive consumer and laborer in the capitalist order.

On the other hand are the articles and fictions about emotional bonds to family, deep and deepening loves, the "thingness" of Hints from Heloise and good food lovingly prepared - actions and items whose value resides in part in the haven they provide from the onslaught of consumerism and the acid dissolve of constant advertisement.

On the one hand, be a good citizen of the capitalist regime; on the other hand, resist the dissolution of things held close and dear that create a thickness of self and a narrative with heft.

Is there a way out of this jam?  Aside from shunting oneself off to the monastery or nunnery, the only solution is constant resistance to the Borg of capitalism. Resistance is not futile - in fact, it's the only thing that will save the soul.  Perhaps we need to reconfigure Timothy Leary's "tune in turn on drop out" for our desperate age as _______________ - I'll let you fill in the blank. 
Just be sure to fill it in.

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Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife,

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