Perhaps it's a telltale sign of elitism not to rejoice when an arcane but serious field of study -- psychology, history, economics -- is born again in "popular" form. Perhaps we should be proud that in our democratic society, ideas and drugstore paperbacks circulate more widely than Susan B. Anthony dollars. Perhaps it's even a bit fussy to object to jargon, undisciplined thought and platitudes being gussied up to pass as wisdom. Perhaps, perhaps; not much is certain.
What is certain, amid this wistfulness and lament, is that if you liked pop psychology, you'll love popular economics. Because judging from Philip Slater's "Wealth Addiction,"the two aren't just similar: They're identical.
It seems we're addicted to wealth -- and let's not distinguish wealth from money or income, since Slater doesn't -- because of an imbalance between our egos and our constituents, "Ego," you'll understand, is that "special component" of each "human organism" that concerns itself with "individual survival and external threat." The "constituents" are everything else: "the body, impulses, desires, feelings, moods, dreams, trance, telepathy, fantasy . . . everything that doesn't involve will or calculation."
The ego is like a "political leader," and like a political leader, "it wants to be obeyed." The ego is also a money-grubber: It never knows when enough is enough, and when the constituents should be allowed out to play. (Keeping the peace is a lonely vigil, but the ego finds support in the "Ego Mafia," a brotherhood of all the egos in society, each a fellow wealth addict).
Anxiety -- for those who wondered -- is the ego's "fear of being deposed [by the constituents]," which the ego cleverly disguises as "fear of an outside threat," such as having too little money. And fear is nothing more than our "failure to recognize our participation in the fabric of life," the "unity" of all "organized living matter." The source of addiction is the ego's feeling that something is missing, "and what it's missing is one of its own Constituents that it refuses to listen to." Fortunately, however, "we are connected with all of life and can draw on the strength of that life within us." We just need to do a little fence-mending with our constituents.
Our goal should be "Voluntary Simplicity" -- the shedding of unneeded material goods and financial craving. But the path cannot be cleared entirely without political change as well. For example, we need a "truly" progressive income tax to serve as a "Methadone program for the rich." And so on.
It's easy -- too easy -- to conclude from all this that if love means never having to say you're sorry, popular economics means never having to say anything. Yet Philip Slater is a successful writer -- his "Pursuit of Loneliness" (1970) sold 350,000 copies -- and, as his publisher reminds reviewers, he enjoys "a decent-sized following, primarily among left-oriented people under 40."
Part of that appeal is certainly simplicity. A familiar analogy (heroin addiction) or an extended metaphor of the individual as a polity (replete with despotic ego and repressed constituents) seems to lay life's mysteries bare. But there's a peculiar form of simplicity at work in "Wealth Addiction" -- a simplicity that reverses causality and like conspiracy theories, provides in the guise of thought a satisfying alternative to thought's demands.
There's a hint of this early in "Wealth Addiction," in a passage asserting that obsesion with money is the source of hollowness in our lives, instead of the other way around. Later, the phenomenon of yachts sitting idle in a harbor -- a phenomenon Thorstein Veblen might elucidate with care -- is explained by Slater in two sentences: The yachts exist "to create wealth addiction in others" and the "real function of owning such a boat seems to be to prevent other people from enjoying it." Very subtly, causation is made to stand on its head.
After this, it's not surprising to learn that our society is organized to make "a few people very rich," that inflation results from people trying to receive greater value than they give, or that "greed, duplicity, ruthlessness, self-centeredness, and a kind of narrowness" constitute our "official ideology," the traits our society "wants to reward." Like the ego, society is personified as a malevolent being whose purpose is to make our lives -- the lives of distinct and harmonious constituents -- as miserable as possible
Perhaps ideas of this sort have some therapeutic value, making life easier to accept, just as the universe was easier to accept when the heavens revolved around the earth. Perhaps this is the social function of any "popular" discipline -- to dispel the terrors and mystery of complexity, to establish reassuring and manageable-sized myths. Perhaps Western civilization is simply in decline. Perhaps, perhaps; who knows for certain?
You can know for certain, though, that if A. E. Housman -- a "popular" poet in his time -- had lived to confront pop psychology, popular economics and "psychobabble" as popular culture, he would simply have opened "A Shropshire Lad" and shown us the appropriate lines: "Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink, for fellows whom it hurts to think." It's all just a matter of taste.