Altruism and Materialism
The careers advisory board has revealed that young people at present prefer to seek work that will principally make a difference. Work with a purpose greater than simply serving one’s self. This is at odds with what the generally accepted wisdom currently is. We have recently lived through an era marked by Thatcher’s privatisation of public services; Milton Friedman’s assertion that the greater good is best served by companies always seeking growth and the benefit of their shareholders above all else; Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is good’; and Ayn Rand’s philosophy that through devolution of responsibility to our own selfish interests the greater good of the whole is served by all members of society focussing on the mote in their own eye.
In a world where we are all surrounded by materialism proclaimed on every billboard, and the quest for the latest and greatest technology as soon as it is released, it seems surprising that those who are now entering the job market have their attention focussed on a more altruistic end than earning enough money to take part in the 20th century model of consumerism. Over time a pattern has been revealed whereby times of prosperity are marked by self interest, and times of recession are marked by altruism. Naturally the committed capitalists will cite this as evidence that self interest causes prosperity and altruism leads to recession but living through the current economic downturn it is plainly obvious that altruism is a response to the uncertainty of a world in which there is not enough to go around.
Go back further to World War 2 and we are all familiar with the tales of the blitz spirit. As everyone was forced into terrible conditions by the constant barrage of doodlebugs sent over from Germany the city dwellers of England drew together with such bonds of camaraderie that many people have looked back fondly upon the war. Our basic humanity will not allow us to sit idly by while others suffer. Likewise our basic understanding of justice will not allow us to give excessive pity to those who exhibit their failure to contribute during good times because they are drunk on cheap cider in the doorways of derelict houses. We are well able to tell the difference between those who are undeserving of poverty and those who should be able to escape it by an effort of will power. There may be some who do not care at all about the poor under any situation and there are also those who will go out of their way to help others no matter what the situation but these are the outliers. The vast majority of average people seem to react by helping those in need during hard times and helping themselves during good times.
It would seem that there may be something in the philosophy of selfishness, but only in times when society is running on an even keel. When society is experiencing times of hardship then the philosophy subconsciously followed by average people is far closer to the ideals of Marx. The pattern is observed not because people have made a conscious decision to follow one economic model or another but because it is inbuilt at the most basic evolutionary level. If society is ok then we do not need to worry about society; we can focus on our own well being. When society is falling apart then we had better start worrying because we live in society and society surrounds us; if society goes then we all go. This is something with which we have had to live for millennia. We know it is a tendency and need that has been constant for millennia because that is what is necessary to cause it to become part of our psyche.
Intellectually there may be many reasons to ignore the sea change in popular consciousness that has been recognised by the careers advisory board but it is hard to ignore the similarity with the flux of the cycle of revolution outlined by Crane Brinton in his anatomy of revolution (1938). Without the change in thought and approach that has been shown by jobseekers the financial breakdown would lead to the organisation of the discontented before impossible demands were made on those who rule. The shift in popular consciousness may well be a safety valve protecting this from being an inevitability. The mass consciousness becomes a hive mentality that has evolved to seek the survival of society as a whole.
Where until recently happiness has been sought by the satisfaction of material desires the goal posts are continually moving. It has been proven that in countries with greater economic equality there is a greater sense of happiness but in those where there is a great gap between the rich and the poor there is far greater dissatisfaction. Satisfaction of material desire is relative. Mankind strives to keep up with the Jones’s to satisfy their desires. This is what the entire conspicuous consumption supporting our consumer society depends upon. This is the greed that Gordon Gekko and more recently Boris Johnson have been telling us is good. This is the driver that has propelled our economic success thus far. The reason it is dying now is because it is futile.
Just as someone suffering from depression has simply given up under the futility of fighting the slings and arrows of ebbing fortune, the mass of popular society has given up on trying to reach the unattainable carrot that is being pulled further and further out of its reach. The wealthy are now known as ‘the one per cent’. They are separate from the rest of us and they have decided the way to maintain society’s wealth is to allow us, the 99 per cent, to have less of the wealth. Society is no longer wasting its energy trying to reach a dangling carrot; society is scrabbling in the dirt for whatever crumbs have fallen with which it may sustain itself. There will still be some of the poor who will attain wealth but for most people there will never be the attainment of anything close to the kind of wealth that exists within gated communities and marble towers. For some people the attainment of enough wealth to buy a week’s worth of food is out of reach.
That is why happiness and fulfilment is being sought in altruism. Happiness through satisfaction of material desires is no longer practicable on a societal scale. The vox populi is singing a different tune. The old order will either be forgotten or if the dinosaurs do not listen it may be overthrown. Whatever happens, there is definitely change ahead.