In figuring out the core weaknesses of our troubled financial markets, there is far more than meets the eye. On the surface, Wall Street’s seemingly interminable wild ride is the obvious outcome of purely economic factors. Yet, at a deeper level, the problem of market weakness and volatility is not really fiscal, but human. Sure, the interrelated banking and housing and credit crises have played havoc with securities, but these crises are themselves epiphenomenal. That is, they are a mere reflection of something “underneath” and much more fundamental.
At its heart, the ups and downs of Wall Street are the product of largely engineered and distorted human needs. As Americans, we are what we buy. Our status and self-worth correspond closely with what we own. This palpable celebration of inauthenticity and hyper-consumption is an incessant message received by everyone – again and again, day after day. More than anything else, it has created our broken economy. This economy, like the fragmented society from which it has plainly sprung, lacks any firm foundation. It is built upon sand.
Surely this is not what we hear from the “experts.” It is not their task to go beyond hard economics to soft psychology. But if we should look more closely, it will become absolutely clear that we may have as much to learn about core market crises from Freud and Jung as we do from Adam Smith and Karl Marx. So long as we Americans accept expanding debt and a decidedly negative savings rate as the price of appearing successful to others, all government “stimulus” packages will be utterly beside the point.
Soon we Americans shall have to get a handle on the unceasing public need for more and more things, for tangible goods that can seemingly validate us as individuals. Wall Street’s wild ride will never slow down meaningfully with the arrival of more money to spread around in stores. And even if we could actually fix core market problems by expanding consumption, exactly what sort of society would we be encouraging?
Ralph Waldo Emerson once spoke of “self‑reliance.” He understood that a foolish “reliance upon property” was the result of “a want of self‑reliance.” Today, living amid a humiliating barrage of advertising jingles, delirious collectivism and relentless imitation, the individual American desperately wants to project a “correct” image.
The demeaning consumer message of our American mass society is everywhere, even in the universities. Here, for the most part, mimicry and repetition define “excellence.” Today, almost all higher education is vocational. We generally graduate newly‑minted Ph.D.s, MDs, JDs and MBA’s who know almost nothing but how to progress in their own fields. They may turn out to be perfectly good teachers, doctors, lawyers and accountants, but they are nonetheless trained, not educated.
Do we want a genuinely robust economy and a stable stock market? Then we must first reorient our society from its cheapened ambience of mass taste to a more cultivated environment of thought and feeling. There is great beauty in the world, but it is best not to search for it at the bank, the video store or the shopping mall.
Even in that very large segment of Main Street that still knows little of Wall Street, there is deepening anxiety and considerable unhappiness. Taught that respect and success lie in high salaries and corollary patterns of consumption, the American public dutifully worships the commonplace. Why should it be otherwise? Galvanized by mostly patronizing and vulgar entertainments, this lonely American crowd thoughtlessly follows a flamboyant but impotent ringmaster. However well-intentioned and capable, our newly-elected president can never save us from ourselves.
Wall Street remains a thoroughly corrupted product of mass society. This mutually destructive dependence between Wall Street and Main Street can never bring us any success. Soon we must create conditions whereby each of us can feel important and alive without surrendering to manufactured images of power and status. Without such conditions, millions of Americans will continue to seek comfort in crime, mind-numbing music, mountains of drugs and oceans of alcohol.
Despite all the noise, we are now a largely joyless society that finds little or no authentic meaning within. This plainly human problem of a socially crushed individualism must be understood before we can fix what is actually wrong with Wall Street. It may seem reassuring to count on the next “stimulus package,” but the real benefits will be altogether illusory.
Copyright © The Jewish Press, January 23, 2009. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., Politics, 1971) and is Professor of International Law at Purdue University. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.