Success and status
Underlying the capitalist model is an implied assumption that those who contribute the most must gain the most. In other words, it is assumed that to become say, a billionaire, you must have done something important and helpful for society. Of course, this is clearly untrue. The vast majority of extremely wealthy people originate their wealth out of mechanisms that are not socially contributive on any direct, creative level when broken down and analyzed. The act of engineering, problem solving and creative innovation almost always occurs on the level of the laborer in the lower echelons of the corporate complex, only to be capitalized upon by those at the top (owners) who are skilled at the contrived game of generating a “market”. This is not to discount the intelligence or hard work of those who hold vast wealth, but to show that the rewards of the system are displaced, allocated to those who exploit the mechanisms of the market, not those who actually engineer and create. In fact, one of the most rewarded sectors of the global economy today is that of investment and finance. This is a classic example as to be a “hedge fund” manager, moving money around for the mere sake of gaining more money, with zero contribution to creative development, is one of the highest paid occupations in the world today.
A value system disorder
The very notion of “success” in the culture today is measured by material wealth, in and of itself. Fame, power and other gestures of attention go hand in hand with material wealth. To be poor is to be abhorred, while to be rich is to be admired. Across almost the entire social spectrum, those of high levels of wealth are treated with immense respect. Part of this has to do with a system-oriented survival mechanism, such as the personal interest in gaining insight into how to also become such a “success” - but overall it has morphed into a strange fetish where the idea of being rich, powerful and famous, by whatever means necessary, is a guiding force. The value system disorder of rewarding, in effect, generally the most ruthless and selfish in our society, both by financial means and then by public adoration and respect, is one of the most pervasive and insidious consequences of the incentive system inherent to the Capitalist model. It not only works to bypass true interests in types of innovation and problem-solving which inherently do not have monetary return, it also reinforces the market system's own existence, justifying itself by way of high status attainment for those who “win” in the system, regardless of true contribution or the social and environmental costs.
Sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote extensively on this issue, referring to this value “virtue” as predatory:
“As the predatory culture reaches a fuller development, there comes a distinction between employments...The “honorable” man must not only show capacity for predatory exploit, but he must also avoid entanglement with occupations that do not involve exploit. The tame employments, those that involve no obvious destruction of life and no spectacular coercion of refractory antagonists, fall into disrepute and are relegated to those members of the community who are defective in the predatory capacity; that is to say, those who are lacking massiveness, agility, or ferocity...Therefore the able-bodied barbarian of the predatory culture, who is mindful of his good name...puts in his time in the manly arts of war and devotes his talents to devising ways and means of disturbing the peace. That way lies honor.”
William Thompson, in his An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness restates the reality of this associative influence:
“Our next position is, that excessive wealth excites the admiration and the imitation, and in this way diffuses the practice of the vices of the rich, amongst the rest of the community; or produces in them other vices arising out of their relative situation to the excessively rich. On this point, nothing is more obvious than the universal operation of the most common principle of our nature – that of association. The wealth, as a means of happiness...is admired or envied by all; the manner and character connected with the abundance of these good things, always strike the mind in conjunction with them...”
Classes and class warfare are a natural outgrowth of this as the value associations to wealth and power, manifest by the current system, become an issue of emotional identity over time. The status-interest begins to take on a life of its own and it generates actions of self-preservation on the part of the upper class that seek to maintain (or elevate) their status in ways that might not even relate to money or material wealth anymore. Self-preservation, in this case, extends to a kind of drug addiction. Just as a chronic gambler needs the endorphin rush of winning to feel good, those in the upper class often develop similar compulsions in relationship to the state of their perceived status and wealth.
The term “greed” is often used to differentiate between those who exploit modestly and those who exploit excessively. Greed is hence a relative notion, just as being “rich” is a relative notion. The term “relative deprivation” refers to the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to others and realize that they have less of what they believe themselves to be entitled to. This psychological phenomenon knows no end and within the context of the material success incentive system of capitalism, its presence as a severe value system disorder is apparent on the level of mental health.
Wealth imbalance and mental health
While maintaining a needs meeting, quality standard of living is important for physical and mental health, anything beyond that balance in the context of social comparison has the capacity to create severe neurosis and social distortion. Not only is there no “winning” in the end when it comes to the subjective perception of status and wealth, it often serves to decouple those figures from the majority of the human experience, generating alienation and dehumanization in many ways. This empathic loss has no positive outcome on the social level. The predatory reward values inherent to the market system virtually guarantee endless conflict and abuse.
Of course, the myth is that this neurosis of seeking “more and more” status and wealth is the core driver of social progress and innovation. While there might be some basic truth to this intuitive assumption, the intent, again, is not social contribution but advantage and financial gain. It is like saying being chased by a pack of hungry wolves ready to eat you is good for your health since it is keeping you running. While certain accomplishments are clearly occurring, the guiding force (intent) again has little to do with those accomplishments and the detrimental byproducts and larger-order paralysis inherent nullifies in comparison the idea that the values of competition, material greed and vain status is a legitimate source of societal progress.
In fact, epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson has extrapolated a comparison of wealthy nations oriented by the income disparity present in each population. It was found that those nations with the least income disparity actually were more innovative and when we consider that the competitive value drive has a large role with respect to how severe the gap between the rich and poor is, it is axiomatic to consider that the values of egalitarianism and collaboration have more creative power than the traditional economic incentive rhetoric would claim.
As a final point in this subsection, the subject of materialism and status can be extended to the similar issue of vanity as well. While a mild deviation from our point, the vanity-based culture we have today finds a direct relationship to these drives for status and measures of “success” rooted in the psychological value incentives inherent to the capitalist system. Given that the value system of “acquisition” is, in fact, necessary for the consumption model to work, it is only natural that marketing and advertising generate dissatisfaction continually, including in the way we feel about our physical appearance. In fact, a study was conducted some years ago on the island of Fiji, in which Western television was introduced to a culture that had never experienced the medium before. By the end of the observation period, the effect of materialistic values and vanity took a powerful toll. A relevant percentage of young women, for example, who prior had embraced the style of healthy weight and full features, became obsessed with being thin. Eating disorders, which were virtually unheard of in this culture, began to spread and women specifically were transformed.