The pursuit of wealth is an omnipresent and consuming theme in Western culture. The drive of individuals to acquire more, to extract profit where they can, and even to sacrifice happiness, time, and personal choice in its pursuit are considered by a large cross-section of our society to be virtuous behaviors. While the ostensible goal of the acquisition of wealth is for individuals to improve their life situation, the means with which profit is sought are frequently perverted and often fail to be justified by their ultimate goal.
But what is wealth? Why are people slavishly devoted to its pursuit? Why are many of us willing to sacrifice the other areas of our lives for it? It is necessary to answer these questions through the theoretical lens of commodification, the idea that human activities undertaken in a capitalist society are assigned monetary value based on their utility to generate more wealth, either for the individual undertaking the activity, or for those who purchase the labor power of the individuals undertaking the activity.
Stripping away commodification, we uncover the two core rationales for why individuals seek wealth: wealth is a means to power, and a means to freedom. In a capitalist system, power and freedom are necessarily commodified and linked to the generation of wealth, but there is no natural law that forces the commodification of these concepts. Socialism facilitates the exercise of power and freedom through cooperation and a shared responsibility with each other for political and economic goals. The need to be rich is thereby rendered meaningless.
Wealth is Power
The rich rule the United States. This has always been true in our country, and in the vast majority of the rest of the world. The overlordship of the capitalist class that began in the 19th century and continues to this day is no different in its stratifying effect on society than the rule of feudal lords over their vassals and serfs for much of prior history. In both of these systems, wealth has been the means to power. Wealth under feudalism meant the ability to influence political decisions through preferential access to kings and emperors, and the legally protected right to utilize the labor of millions of semi-enslaved serfs to generate further riches.
Under capitalism, the focus of power has changed, though the means of exercising power would be recognizable to any 18th century aristocrat. The capitalist exchanges money for preferential access to senators and congressmen, while utilizing the surplus value of the wageworkers under their employ to generate an ever-increasing supply of wealth. The primary difference between feudalism and capitalism is the transfer mechanism of wealth and its inherent linkage with social position, though the differences are very small.
Under feudalism, wealth and social position were passed through hereditary transfer under the so-called primogenitor principle; allowing first-born male heirs to retain their father’s power by virtue of their gender and birth. Capitalism reproduces this transfer mechanism, though due to social pressures that even its practitioners cannot ignore – not to mention the isolated victories of progressive political movements – the method of transfer cannot rest solely on birth order and gender.
The key difference is that under feudalism, membership in the aristocracy was, except for a few rare cases, a closed system. Those born outside the system would never have a chance to enter it, and the very idea would never be considered. There was, under feudalism, not even a fiction of socio-economic mobility.
Under capitalism, that fiction not only exists, but it serves a critical function toward the maintenance of the class system. Rags-to-riches stories tug at our hearts and paint a picture of a fair and egalitarian society in which hard work pays off and the meanest among us has a chance to be the next billionaire. While this does indeed happen from time to time, the ubiquity of the narrative belies the rarity of the experience.
Under capitalism, wealth remains a source of political and economic power exercised by a few over the masses, and just like under feudalism, it is a closed system, only this time there is a persistent hope that those outside might one day enter the golden halls of the inner circle.
Wealth is Freedom
Imagine not having to go to work on Monday. Instead, you decide to go with your family off on your private jet for a tour of the Bahamas. What would you do? You might stay in the most exclusive, luxurious hotel right on the beach. You might order the most decadent foods and drink the finest wines at restaurants where you rub shoulders with actors, footballers, and corporate elites.
The real luxury in your dream vacation is not the wanton consumption, but it is that you are free. The freedom not to go to work, the freedom to experience luxurious living, and the comfort of security that you can afford all of this represent wealth’s great attraction, that through it, an individual can break away from the constraints of everyday necessity and experience what their heart desires.
In the United States, freedom is a concept held near and dear to just about every one of us. Freedom is enshrined in our nation’s founding documents, invoked from podiums and pulpits, and chanted by children in the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” every morning at school.
Freedom, however much we cherish it, isn’t for all. Let’s consider what freedom actually is in a day-to-day, practical sense. It is the ability to decide how you will spend your time and with whom you will spend it. It is the ability to say what’s on your mind in the forum of your choosing. It is the ability to decide how you will live and where. And of course, freedom includes what you will do with your wealth.
In all of these factors, there is an enormous disconnect between the freedom of the capitalists and that of the proletarians. The capitalists are able to utilize their surplus wealth (i.e. money not used for essential purposes such as housing, food, healthcare, and education) toward greater personal enjoyment and greater political participation.
Let’s take an illustrative example that relates directly to our most cherished concept of freedom: elections. A working person supports Candidate A and has $50 to spare. The working person chooses to contribute that money in order to further their political interest. A capitalist, meanwhile, supports Candidate B and has $50,000,000 to spare, and contributes that money to further their political interest. Who is more free?
Similarly, if both the capitalist and the proletarian support Candidate A, to whom will Candidate A give more time and attention? To whose preferences will Candidate A give more consideration when drafting policy?
We can think of numerous examples of the linkage of wealth and freedom, from the bail system to education and job opportunities, all of which paint the same picture. The freedom promised by our founding documents and invoked by civic and political leaders is linked inseparably to how much money you are able to spend on it.
Freedom and Power are only Commodified under Capitalism
The commodification of freedom and power through possession of wealth creates vastly unequal social, economic, and political relationships throughout our society. The linkages of freedom and power to wealth, however, are no more natural concepts than heredity aristocracies were under feudalism. While they seem entrenched and even logical, they are gone within a generation.
The next logical step on the scale of human evolution, after the infancy of feudalism and the turbulent teenage years of capitalism, is the adulthood of socialism. This new stage of human development will change the relationship of individuals to freedom and power by delinking them from wealth and linking them to solidarity and community expressed through political participation and economic sovereignty.
What does this mean? This is not to say that money as a means of ordering economic activity will disappear. Money is a rational method of facilitating exchanges that occur in diverse situations of production, allocation, and consumption, and is more efficient than barter systems or complex conversions across goods and services. Instead, a socialist organization of production and allocation centers on the removal of the profit motive from those activities, and a reformation of the goal away from maximizing personal gain toward a goal of maximizing well-being for everyone.
Wealth thus loses its meaning in relation to the exercise of power, supplanted by democratic participation based on one’s membership in the political society (i.e. citizenship) regardless of personal financial status. Through participation in mass political movements, access to the means of political decision-making, including the realistic ability to gain election to public office, becomes a right for all, not a privilege of all who can pay.
Similarly, the concept of freedom broadens with the removal of the profit motive. When everyone works and contributes to the common good, everyone is enriched through the democratization of opportunity. Freedom is no longer the province of a lucky few, but of all of us, influencing life from our education, to our jobs, to our ability to influence decisions of policy and economics.
A fair allocation of resources that ensures equal opportunities to succeed removes the influence of wealth as a factor providing advantages and head starts to a select few. Even vacations and experiences previously relegated to a privileged few can become broadly available through the democratic, egalitarian allocation of resources.
Wealth as an end of itself is not a natural condition for humanity. Wealth is only the means of achieving universally desired conditions of power and freedom through the rules of the capitalist paradigm. Through the evolution to a socialist economy and an egalitarian legal framework, a person’s net worth will cease to matter as a determinant for success in life. All that will matter is one’s participation in a society that values work, family, and community, and in such a system, who needs to be rich anyway?