The Fairy Tales Capitalists Tell Themselves

The new book The Wisdom of Money amounts to morale-boosting capitalist agitprop.

Chris Lehmann June 27, 2017

Pascal Bruckner soothes capitalist feathers ruffled by Thomas Piketty: “What does it matter that the rich are getting richer?” (Ryger)

Four years ago, a lead­ing French intel­lec­tu­al pro­duced a wide-rang­ing study of wealth inequal­i­ty that cleared away much of the con­fu­sion sur­round­ing the steady finan­cial­iza­tion of the West­ern polit­i­cal econ­o­my. Thomas Piketty’s Cap­i­tal in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry laid bare the deep struc­tur­al forces that have made our brave new neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic order so dan­ger­ous­ly topheavy and unstable.

When the argument descends to specific cases, Bruckner goes from irksomely smug to actively offensive.

Now, anoth­er renowned French intel­lec­tu­al has stepped for­ward to pub­lish a con­found­ing, evi­dence-chal­lenged account of eco­nom­ic life designed to calm the fears stirred up by any clear-eyed look at our jit­tery, unset­tled glob­al­ized polit­i­cal econ­o­my. Pas­cal Bruck­n­er, an all-pur­pose Parisian pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al in the vein of Alain de Bot­ton, has pro­duced a string of best­selling book­length essays on sub­jects such as demo­c­ra­t­ic melan­cho­lia” and the unat­tain­abil­i­ty of hap­pi­ness. Now, he pro­fess­es to lay out The Wis­dom of Mon­ey.

He means it, too. It isn’t mon­ey that pro­duces nar­cis­sism, the will to pow­er, reli­gious or polit­i­cal pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, class inequal­i­ties or self-inter­est­ed motives,” Bruck­n­er pro­nounces. The mar­ket enters our lives with our com­plic­i­ty, it doesn’t con­quer our souls; they wel­come it as a lib­er­a­tor.” Small won­der, then, that it is wise to have mon­ey, and wise to reflect crit­i­cal­ly on it.”

If you’re think­ing this is clear­ly not the sort of writer who’s ever found him­self on the short end of a mar­ket trans­ac­tion, you’re right. I was spared the injury of pover­ty,” he says in his intro­duc­tion. As he found his intel­lec­tu­al voca­tion, I didn’t wor­ry about mon­ey, cer­tain that luck would always be gen­er­ous to me.” And it seems luck did pro­vide, in the form of book royalties.

As The Wis­dom of Mon­ey goes on to tra­verse all spheres of human endeav­or, from inter­na­tion­al rela­tions to mar­riage and sex, Bruck­n­er stout­ly breaks down every ques­tion along these same basic struc­tur­al lines: Eco­nom­ic thinkers and humor­less ide­o­logues may insist that mon­ey rep­re­sents X‑bad thing (social injus­tice, eco­nom­ic pre­car­i­ty, orga­nized pil­lage of the pub­lic sphere), but from my wis­er, more Olympian remove, I can con­fi­dent­ly report it is but a pas­sive ves­sel for all pre-exist­ing fea­tures of the human expe­ri­ence, and in near­ly every con­tentious sphere of debate, a pos­i­tive virtue.

Bruck­n­er lays out his case in a series of chap­ters tak­ing aim at straw man indict­ments of the cash-nexus, e.g., Mon­ey, the Ruler of the World?” Has Sor­did Cal­cu­la­tion Killed Sub­lime Love?” and the mock-hero­ic Get­ting Rich Is Not a Crime (and Falling Into Pover­ty Is Not a Virtue).” But when the argu­ment descends to spe­cif­ic cas­es, Bruck­n­er goes from irk­some­ly smug to active­ly offensive.

In assess­ing the role of mon­ey in het­ero­sex­u­al inti­mate rela­tions, for exam­ple, Bruck­n­er, in the tra­di­tion of all-too-many French intel­lec­tu­als, is dumb­found­ing­ly sex­ist. For a major­i­ty of women,” he main­tains, cit­ing zero evi­dence, it is still men who have to pay the bill, even after lib­er­a­tion,’ where­as many men con­sid­er it degrad­ing when a woman pays.” Prenups for the alpha-male over­class are not a means of raw eco­nom­ic pre­da­tion that ben­e­fits the rich­er con­tract­ing part­ner; no, they’re just yet anoth­er finan­cial con­trivance that avoids confusions.” 

For all this ghast­ly faux-real­ism around mat­ters of sex, Bruck­n­er shows an eager def­er­ence to our plu­to­crat­ic bet­ters that’s down­right sen­ti­men­tal. He cites with admi­ra­tion Andrew Carnegie’s sto­ried career as a phil­an­thropist with­out men­tion­ing his mur­der­ous break­ing of the 1892 Home­stead Steel Works strike. (Indeed, Bruck­n­er bare­ly men­tions labor actions or labor orga­niz­ing at all, only paus­ing to note that dis­sat­is­fied ser­vice work­ers, thanks to the market’s thought­ful min­is­tra­tions, can always leave.”)

Those who deride the char­ac­ter of the wealthy have sim­ply for­got­ten their his­toric role: In every age, the rich have incar­nat­ed and borne an exem­plary art of liv­ing.” If they appro­pri­ate an out­size share of the world’s boun­ty, why that’s mere­ly in line with their out­size virtue: What does it mat­ter that the rich are get­ting rich­er — it’s nor­mal that those who take risks should be well remu­ner­at­ed — pro­vid­ed that oth­ers do bet­ter as well.”

That last rushed dis­claimer, like vir­tu­al­ly every claim in The Wis­dom of Mon­ey, is acute­ly bereft of empiri­cism: Through­out the cap­i­tal­ist West, real wages have been stag­nant for the mid­dle class and in decline for the poor since the mid-1970s, while return on invest­ment has wide­ly out­paced more gen­er­al­ized eco­nom­ic growth — a cru­cial point deci­sive­ly demon­strat­ed in, yes, Cap­i­tal in the Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry.

Then again, Bruckner’s genre of morale-boost­ing cap­i­tal­ist agit­prop doesn’t intend to mount cred­i­ble empir­i­cal claims or spur us to seri­ous reflec­tion of any kind. No, the idea in The Wis­dom of Mon­ey, as in its count­less coun­ter­parts in the Amer­i­can mar­ket­place of ideas, is to instill in its read­ers a sooth­ing state of meta­phys­i­cal com­pla­cen­cy, where­in unen­cum­bered avarice is noth­ing less than the ful­fill­ment of a cos­mic mis­sion. And any­one who says oth­er­wise is foment­ing a mil­i­tant neopau­perism” found­ed on the pro­hi­bi­tion on liv­ing bet­ter.” So yes: If Bruckner’s book can teach us any­thing, it’s that, as fath­om­less­ly wise as our mar­ket may be, it will always make more room for unadul­ter­at­ed bullshit.

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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