meliora sequamur: let's keep striving for better

The Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 2 February, 2001


In a world divided between wage lords and wage slaves, the consequences for the latter were clear from the start. Writing at the dawn of the industrial age, Adam Smith captured the disastrous impact of the division of labour upon working people:

The man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations...has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him, not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any judgement concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.

This was not a surprising development, given that like fruit and vegetables, workers had become just another commodity in search of a buyer. Only the intervention of the state held out any hope of deliverance from the depredation of laissez-faire capitalism. According to Smith,

In every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

These less well known passages from Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations are quoted here, not to explain the immiseration of life for the working poor, nor to remind neo-liberal hagiographers of the importance Adam Smith placed on state intervention in all "civilised" societies. Rather, they serve to describe, 200 years on, the conception of human existence favoured by the modern world of commercial advertising. It's a remarkably dismal view of the human condition.

As early as the 1920s US business leaders explained the need to impose on their population a "philosophy of futility" and "lack of purpose in life," to "concentrate human attention on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption", or what today we call sport, movies and the fashion industry. According to critics, the optimal business vision is a fragmented and atomised society, where people who live in isolation from each other consume artificially created wants. Cable TV, internet shopping, home delivery and video games are indicative of just how close this troubling view of how humans should ideally function is to realisation.

Australia has travelled a good distance down the same track. Corporate values have been extended into almost every facet of human life, notably the commodification of everything from information, sport, entertainment, religion and education to sex, blood and body parts. In the eyes of government, only organisations which exist to make profit are now considered legitimate unless they serve the "non-profit sector" such as the homeless, the aged and the disabled - people who represent little in the way of commercial value.

And we have the same ubiquitous advertising - sports stars as mobile advertising hoardings, "sponsorship" of the SBS, the commercialisation of public spaces - and will soon have ads during 'free' long distance phone calls, at ATMs and, apparently, even at urinals.

fm world

A conspicuous manifestation of this vision is well known to those trying to explain high levels of social and political alienation amongst young Australians. Tune into commercial FM radio aimed at the "youth demographic" and you receive a vivid demonstration of the simultaneous impoverishment of cultural life and the imposition of capitalist values in contemporary Australia.

It's a depressing and disturbing medium. This is a world of very limited horizons, lower ambitions and immediate sensory satisfaction at only the crudest level. The message to listeners is 'don't aspire to anything beyond the consumption of alcohol, the abuse of drugs and the pursuit of sex.' Work is the dreaded interval between chemically enhanced weekends. There is nothing worth reading or writing, no thoughts worth thinking and no culture to explore or contribute to. Moral and ethical debates never take place and in FM world there are no libraries, museums, art or music which challenges or inspires the heart and mind. But there is consumption. Lots of it.

In FM world, compassion, empathy and goodwill have no market value and therefore don't count. Hardly surprising when you remember that the privately owned media are first and foremost, profit making corporations. As Noam Chomsky has argued,

they sell a product to a market: the product is audiences and the market is other businesses (advertisers). It would be surprising indeed if the choice and shaping of media content did not reflect the interests and preferences of the sellers and the buyers.

If you are superfluous to profit-making you are invisible. Advertisers implore the rest of us to spend every last dollar on cars, clothes and night clubs, beer, junk food and simulation games which can be played without the need for conversation - a virtual but not a virtuous reality. Listeners are induced to hear advertisements which are indistinguishable from the station's playlist. Even the news is "fresh", just like milk and bread each morning, and always brought to us by a corporation. Nihilism, it seems, sells.

the dismal science

It's worth recalling that economists have erected an entire academic discipline upon assumptions of this kind about the human condition. Ever since the industrial revolution, liberal economists have assumed that the pursuit of material self-gain is the natural condition of the species. In the words of Adam Smith, society comprises individuals with an innate propensity to "truck, barter and trade".

On the other hand, in his seminal account of the evolution of modern capitalism, Karl Polanyi argued that the pursuit of material self-gain was anything but innate, and in fact an institutionally enforced incentive specific to industrial society:

Only in the nineteenth-century self-regulating market did economic self-interest become the dominant principle of social life, and both liberalism and Marxism made the ahistorical error of assuming that what was dominant in that society had been dominant throughout human history.

According to Polanyi, for capitalist economies to function properly, everyone is required to make the pursuit of their own interests - the accumulation of material wealth - the primary goal of their lives. The system depends on egoism. Despite being historically specific to the rise of industrial capitalism, Polanyi argued that:

the pursuit of material gain compelled by laissez-faire market rules is still not seen as behaviour forced on people as the only way to earn a living in a market system, but as an expression of their inner being; individualism is regarded as the norm, and society remains invisible as a cluster of individual persons who happen to live together without responsibility for anyone other than kin.

So, instead of being seen as a behavioural response to specific economic conditions imposed upon them, the capacity of people to adapt to capitalism - their liking for competition, their preference for markets, their desire to accumulate wealth and maximize profits   - have been mistakenly internalised as 'natural' expressions. This is an error that has been ruthlessly exploited by the advertising and public relations industries.

The greatest danger in a world where no higher state or purpose is imagined is that people come to accept this outlook as a permanent and natural condition of their increasingly meaningless lives. No alternative visions of a richer and more fulfilling existence are permitted: unsurprisingly none are pursued. Consuming more than we need - shopping till we drop - is now celebrated for its therapeutic properties.

"Time is linear, memory's a stranger, history's for fools." We are, in the words of Neil Postman and the music of Roger Waters, amusing ourselves to death.

The vicissitudes of market life, first identified by Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, have intensified. Capitalism has never been sensitive to the requirements of civil society and a decent human existence for all. "A man of low condition", said Smith, can easily be "sunk in obscurity and darkness" and "abandon himself to every sort of low profligacy and vice..." One of the few remedies available to the state which might arrest this decline is "the frequency and gaiety of public diversions." To dissipate the "melancholy and gloomy humour which is almost always the nurse of popular superstition and enthusiasm", Smith thought the state could "amuse and divert the people by painting, poetry, music, dancing: by all sorts of dramatic representations and exhibitions." He couldn't have foreseen that popular culture would perform this diversionary service instead, but without the risk of enriching public life.

Capitalism has too frequently regarded people as "stupid and ignorant", incapable of "rational conversation" or of "conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment." Accordingly, it has done little to raise the human spirit. Instead of culture it has offered market idolatry, with disastrous consequences. As Polanyi has warned, "to allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment...would result in the demolition of society."

However, this barren landscape hasn't always been the fate of the privileged, whose creed, which Smith so eloquently described, remains all too familiar two centuries later:

All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.


Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations (University of Chicago, Chicago 1977).

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Methuen, London 1985).

Roger Waters, Amused to Death (CD: Columbia/Sony 1992)

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, Boston 1944, 1957).

Karl Polanyi, 'Our Obsolete Market Mentality', in G. Dalton (ed), Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies (Beacon Press, Boston 1969).

F. Block & M. Somers, 'Beyond the Economistic Fallacy: The Holistic Social Science of Karl Polanyi', in T. Skocpol (ed), Vision and Method in Historical Sociology (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1984).

(with thanks to Noam Chomsky )