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The Poverty of Affluence

Creating Livable Alternatives to Wage Slavery

Book Review

The Poverty of Affluence:
A Psychological Portrait of the American Way of Life

by Paul L. Wachtel

Writing in straightforward and accessible language, Paul Wachtel captures in The Poverty of Affluence the essential underlying sources of our discontent in America. Our growth-oriented economy, cult of individualism, and endless quest for "more"--whether in jobs, relationships, or any other sphere of life--has not brought us contentment, and this book explores the complex web of forces that got us here as well as promising alternatives to our current ways of thinking and structuring society.

Wachtel's book is not overly academic or inaccessible. In fact, his goal in writing it was to make it as accessible as possible:

"Most of all I want to make my arguments accessible to the general reader. I believe the topic to be too urgent for scholarly discourse alone. I have no quick and easy remedy for the disillusionment and confusion that have gripped so much of our citizenry, but I think I can offer the first step toward such a remedy--a diagnosis of some of the basic assumptions that have led us astray."

Wachtel theorizes that "psychological factors weigh at least as heavily as the actual output of the economy in determining how people feel about their standard of living", and goes on to explain how these factors relate to the dilemmas we are facing in the modern world.

Here are some choice quotes:

Competition and our choices
"The key to forging a future that we can look upon with hopeful anticipation is not in making us more 'competitive'. It is in making us more perceptive, more able to realize what we have, what we need, and the longer term consequences of the short-term choices we are making."

The consumer life
"The concrete realities of our society as it is today make it difficult for all but the most extraordinary individual to extricate himself from the temptations of the consumer life on his own."

Social and political context
"Understanding how our present choices are self-defeating is a crucial step in the process of change, but so too is understanding how the social and political context makes such self-defeating choices seem almost inevitable."

Economic well-being?
"So long as we persist in defining well-being predominantly in economic terms, we will remain unsatisfied."

Social class factors
"Initially, I address considerations that bear most clearly on the experience of the middle class. I argue that most of us are considerably more affluent than we are able to recognize. But real poverty will not go away by magically redefining it as affluence. There are many millions in America who really are poor, and there are still more for whom the considerations in this book seem sadly irrelevant. I hope to show how the changes in thinking I am hoping to foster can play a role in relieving the plight of those who go to bed hungry or who lack jobs, decent housing, or the luxury of being able to reflect on whether or not their deprivations are real."

Creating discontent?
"Our entire economic system is based on human desire's being inexhaustible. Without always recognizing what we are doing, we have established a pattern in which we continually create discontent. This is not just something perpetrated by people in the advertising industry, though they are hardly innocent in it. And it is not the simple result of a deliberate conspiracy by the corporations, though they do indeed attempt to manipulate us to their advantage. Rather, it reflects a mentality we all share, something we all participate in."

Growth, material goods, and well-being
"The reason why economic growth no longer brings a sense of greater well-being, why the pleasures our new possessions bring melt into thin air, is that at the level of affluence of the American middle class what really matters is not one's possessions but one's psychological economy, one's richness of human relations and freedom from the conflicts and constrictions that prevent us from enjoying what we have. In a Harlem tenement, or a village in India, one might well expect improvements in the material basis of life to be strongly associated with improvements in feelings of well-being. But the middle class in the US, Western Europe, and other industrialized nations constitutes what one might call an "asymptote culture", a culture in which the contribution of material goods to life satisfaction has reached a point of diminishing returns."

A growth economy
"Most economists do not fully appreciate the degree to which our pursuit of continuing economic growth is self-defeating."

Do you love your work?
"I have seen too many driven people claiming they love their work to accept such claims at face value very readily. There are some rare individuals who enjoy their work so thoroughly and genuinely that it represents a wise choice consistent with their true best interests and deepest satisfactions. But for a far larger number, loving their work is at best making a virtue of a necessity."

Defining ourselves by our achievements
"By defining their lives and their self-worth in terms of what they achieve in the sphere of work, many people shorten their lives, decrease pleasure in living, and enrich all those--from brewers to therapists to pharmaceutical firms--who make their living dealing with tension and instability. Yet to work less hard, to relax more and reflect on what one really finds rewarding, is not very easy to do. It may seem to many an appealing goal but a naively utopian one. For we live in a highly competitive and individualistic society, and the pressures on us to strive, to achieve, to 'get ahead' are enormous. There is a price to be paid--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 its being time to relax."

Changing both the 'inner' and the 'outer'
"A change in consciousness can change society, but when pursued without an understanding of the reciprocal influences of consciousness and social structure on each other, [this idea] can be puerile and even dangerous."

Activity and distribution
"It is difficult for us to respond appropriately to the situation we face because our system requires people to keep busy in some economic activity in order to have a rationale for distributing to them those things which are valuable. Thus, even if what is being produced by a given worker is not needed--indeed even if its production is harmful--we need to keep him working in order to have an excuse for providing him with a share of that portion of the economic product that really is valuable."

A new problem we face
"Our problem today to live in a society where less work is needed than what can be produced 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."

Let's get off the treadmill of 'more'
"Our problem is not that we are insufficiently productive. It is close to the opposite. We have organized our lives around maximizing production at any cost. And the cost has mounted steadily. What we need now is not "more". What we need is a way off the treadmill. We need to learn to enjoy and savor instead of 'moving up', to learn how to establish 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."

Valuing leisure
"Many of our best social critics are as rooted in the assumptions of scarcity as are those who run our corporations and government bureaucracies. The creative and rewarding use of leisure should be at least as central a concern as the need for meaningful work."

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Introduction

Part I: False Profits
Chapter Two: The Illusions of Growth: Economic Abundance and Personal Dissatisfaction

Chapter Three: The Unperceived Realities of the Consumer Life

Chapter Four: Vicious Circles

Chapter Five: The Cultural Context of the Growth Ideology

Part II: Beyond the Consumer Society
Chapter Six: Economic Growth and Personal Growth

Chapter Seven: New Alternatives

Chapter Eight: Strategies and Pitfalls

Part III: Against the Tide
Chapter Nine: The Dilemmas of Psychological Man

Chapter Ten: Misunderstanding Narcissism

Chapter Eleven: Jobs and Work

Chapter Twelve: The Myth of the Market

Insightful, rich in wisdom, and full of social consciousness, this book is on top of the CLAWS recommendation list, and with good reason. We've given it an enthusiastic five rating.

Sadly, this book is out of print. (Unfortunately, the really radical and subversive books often are). Look for a copy of it at your local library or search used bookstores--it's well worth it.

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