VGR thread on Wealth & Success in USA


The US is a society that fetishizes wealth and success. It takes its societal organization cues almost entirely from the dynamics of wealth and success. Much can be explained by people either idolizing or demonizing wealth and success.

There’s no such thing as a centrist in the US when it comes to wealth/success. Believing that wealth/success are neither essentially good/evil, or virtuous/sinful, is not an option. You must construct a totalizing view of society as an extension of wealth/success views.

This is something I cannot grok deeply. I can only run American “wealth/success calculus” in emulation mode. I know many wealthy and/or successful people as well as many destitute and/or unsuccessful people. W/S has low correlation with whether I’ll find someone interesting.

To me wealthy or successful people are simply people who set out to solve for wealth or success in some sense, and succeed. Others who try, fail. It is what it is.

Their stories reveal very little about the nature of the human condition beyond the nature of wealth/success.

This is a thought many Americans seem incapable of thinking, but it is possible to live a life based on solving for other things: service, happiness, spirituality, adventure, thrills, family, etc. Most societies in history have had people solving for all of these.

What makes the US unique is the extent to which wealth/success monopolizes life scripts and contaminates even other scripts. You can’t just set out to be a nurse or a monk, you must set out to be a rich and successful nurse or monk. Even if that’s an incoherent thing to want.

Wealth/success monoculture has specific effects . On valorization side:

1. Horatio Algerism (assuming the wealth/success = wisdom, integrity, enlightenment

2. Fascination with half-assed Big Man theories

3. Crippling phobia of anything that even has a hint of socialism

On the demonization side:

1. Conspiracist fever dreams about the Bond-villainy of wealthy/successful

2. Socialist leanings oriented to a true north of ressentiment rather than compassion

3. Delusional recoding of mediocre prole lives as “wealthy and successful”

Second-order effects:

1. “I’m not a billionaire... yet” life scripts 2. A “waiting to arrive” life posture 3. Desperate insecurity around differentiation of individual identity 4. Distortion of justice into identity politics 5. Aestheticization over mitigation of poverty/misery

Note that obsessive focus on wealth/success is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. More individuals will be wealthy and/or successful as a fraction of the population and the society in aggregate will also be more wealthy and successful. But median is not the same as maximum.

All countries have their share of transient problems, acute crises, chronic structural problems, and existential paradoxes. But the US probably has the most severe collective mental health problem among countries I think I grok. And the root cause is a wealth/success monoculture.

All this just makes me sad.

The hard part is that America is highly attached to its wealth/success orientation as both a great national strength and the root of its exceptionalism narrative.

It is hard to accept that your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness.