Friday, November 9, 2012

Clarifying the concept of envy & The Inevitability of Envy

This is a quick post providing some supplementary information to another article I wrote for Students for Liberty entitled "Envy and Libertarianism". The book I cite is entitled "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior" by the late Austrian-German sociologist Helmut Schoeck. You can find a copy through Liberty Fund

Clarifying Envy

            Citing a careful definition provided by William L. Davidson in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Schoeck writes:

Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him [the envied]... There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied… He who has got what I envy is felt by me to have the advantage of me, and I resent it. Consequently, I rejoice if he finds that his envied possession does not give him entire satisfaction – much more, if it actually entails on him dissatisfaction and pain… (Schoeck, pg. 20-21)

With this definition, we see that envy is complicated. It is generally a painful emotional state, but can give rise to pleasure if the envier subjectively perceives that the envied person is in some way set-back or dissatisfied. Typically the object of envy is something material, but it need not be, as in the case of fixating on the envied persons “good looks” or “superior intelligence”. Schoeck elaborates that “envy very often denies the asset itself” (pg. 19). By this, he means that the envier fixates more on the perceived level of satisfaction of the envied person than the actual object of envy, in some cases preferring the loss or destruction of the object to the perceived detriment of the envied person. Even dissatisfaction suffered by the envied person unrelated to object can please the envier.
Shoeck goes to great lengths to distinguish what he perceives to be some misconceptions about the concept of envy. One of these misconceptions is the idea of envy as emulation. When advertisers use a phrase like “Be the envy of all your friends with Product X!”, they’re probably not trying to invoke the destructiveness which typically characterizes envy proper. They’re attempting to awaken the “animal spirits” (to basterdize a Keynesian phrase) by ingeniously tapping into our deepest desires for admiration and respect.
Another common misconception is the conflation of envy with jealousy. Where with envy, one would ignore/destroy the object of envy, the coveted asset in the case of jealousy is the prize to be won. Additionally, Schoeck writes: “…the jealous man is often in doubt as to the nature of his antagonist: whether he is a genuine, honourable rival on his own level or an envious man… intent merely on destruction” (pg. 19). The sense of inferiority is implied with the experience of envy, not necessarily so with jealousy. Jealousy differs from envy also in that it typically requires competition between two individuals over a prize: “Jealousy arises out of an opinion of what is one’s due…” (Schoeck pg. 21). It’s not clear that envy requires this competition, as we can imagine the envious person dreaming up all sorts of violent fantasies directed towards the envied person who remains totally unaware of their existence.

The Inevitability of Envy

            Can there be such a thing as an envy-free society? If by envy-free we mean “a social reality in which nothing is left that is enviable” (Schoeck pg. 341), then as we have seen from our definition of envy, this is seemingly impossible – the object of envy can very easily transfer from distributions of wealth to intangible personal attributes. The presumption that envy emerges because of unjustifiable economic inequalities has led some utopian dreamers to the conclusion that a strictly egalitarian society, where all are thought to be treated exactly the same, can solve the problem of envy. The “socialist” experiments in the Soviet Union are a tempting example of the failure of egalitarianism, but the USSR’s hierarchical decision-making and bureaucratic nature make it a poor sample of strict egalitarian societies. Instead, Schoeck cites examples of life on the kibbutz (an Israeli communal settlement and deliberate experiment in strict egalitarianism first pioneered in the early 20th century), discussing some of the serious challenges that kibbutzniks face.
In the case of electing leaders for important tasks, the artificial expectation of intense mistrust of anyone with an elevated social status, even if democratically imposed, leads to a ‘refusal pattern’, where “all seek to evade nomination or acceptance wherever anyone has to be chosen for necessary office” (Schoeck pg. 347). As natural divisions of labor emerged due to the unique talents of individuals, Schoeck recounts an experience that kibbutznik Melford Spiro encountered when he lived on a kibbutz: “One man told Spiro that he found it impossible to develop his poetic gift because he could not help thinking of his comrades, capable only of manual labour, who, as children, had sat next to him in the latrine…” (Schoeck pg. 351). The kibbutznik come as close as any modern society to establishing strict egalitarianism, but the problems of envy continue to persist. It would seem then that envy is an inevitable part of social life. 


Schoeck, H. (1969). Envy: A theory of social behaviour. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Government and The Psychological Need for Autonomy

This was an essay I wrote for the California Review, an alternative newspaper at UC San Diego, some time ago. It published under the name "No! End Government Worldwide!", which was in response to another essay. Modified it a bit for publishing on this blog.

Government and The Psychological Need for Autonomy

END GOVERNMENT WORLDWIDE! Or rather, encourage and practice self-government and personal accountability. What is really meant by such a statement? Why should government end? Doesn’t government provide for us some of our basic human needs, like safety, subsistence, and social order?  Many people today would respond with a resounding “Yes!” Governments produce roads, provide clean water, generate, adjudicate, and enforce law – if government doesn’t provide these necessary social services, who or what will? The answer to this question is at once simple and extremely complicated, far too complex to be translated into effective public policy. The people who will provide for our basic needs will be (and has always been) none other than you and me, us and them… every single being, together

            As an individualist anarchist, it may seem strange that I arrive at this conclusion of the power of collective action. Perhaps it is imagined that the typical individualist suffers from some sort of solipsism, a tyrannical ego, or some combination of the two. I contend that my fascination with individualism, as a relatively new intellectual tradition, is a reflection of my fascination with the source or foundation of life. My perceived experience of life is all that I have; the concepts which populate my mind are formed by the activity of my own brain. When it comes to the formation of personal identity and self-concept, or all concepts really, all social or endogenous exchanges are factors. This fact, however, does not negate the deeply personal experience of life. Now, what does all of this have to do with ending government and social harmony? Quite a lot!

 The basic human need which is expressed by individualists worldwide is that of personal autonomy, independence and freedom. It is important to consider the ways in which governments, defined as groups of people who participate in the centralized planning of a larger society within a geographic region, are unaware of or outright deny this basic need. Plans require means, economic or otherwise, and governments typically acquire these means in a variety of ways. One harmful method, in terms of providing for this basic need for autonomy, is the practice of taxation. Taxation is a compulsory levy imposed on a population by its government. It is argued that taxation is unavoidable, a necessary evil of any well functioning society – but if the stated goal of a government is to increase social harmony and to provide for basic human needs, it has failed from the start. When the means contradict the ends, or the ends are used to justify some means, there is dissonance. To claim that something created and imposed by human beings is unavoidable is essentially to undermine the human capacity of choice. A whole host of internal contradictions, bizarre psychological dilemmas, are the product of denying one’s own personal choices. The consequences of self-denial can be devastating (e.g. self-destructive practices like drug abuse, unrestricted consumerism, violence, self-imposed isolation or even suicide). I leave it to the reader to consider the ways in which the U.S. government and its multi-million dollar corporations have encouraged or discouraged the practice of self-affirmation and personal choice in the average American.

According to the Humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, human beings are subject to a unique hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy, physiological needs like subsistence, safety, and procreation motivate action. As people gradually satisfy each tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, they approach the highest need – that of self-actualization. Self-actualization is described by Maslow in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation as “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially” (pg. 10). His hierarchy is a good starting place; however it says nothing about the means to achieve such needs.  Should we depend on the generosity and benevolence of others to accomplish our lower-tier needs until we have reached a point where we can finally begin to create a healthy self-concept for ourselves? I argue that self, or ego, is an ever-present element of our existence and is formed by all of our actions, even those that contribute to lower-tier needs like subsistence. Therefore, it is important for people to act in their own interest and to understand their actions as contributing to, or detracting from, the health of their egos. 

            The plea of the anarchist is not to ignore basic needs but to find a non-hierarchical, fair, or voluntary means of meeting those needs, a social organization which does not depend on an unquestioned authority. Many, many minds, men and women from cultures all across the globe at different periods throughout history, have wrestled with the possibility of sustaining such a society.  It is arguable that human history, Western or otherwise, has been nothing but a cyclical process of achieving anarchy then escaping it into an unsustainable government. What compels a government, initially established to satisfy basic needs, to turn on its people, its goal, and itself by increasing its use of force, seeking to increase its own power over others? Perhaps it has something to do with autonomy and freedom of choice – the basic human need it frequently overlooks. Implicit in this desire to increase power over others is the assumption that others can be perfectly manipulated, managed, or molded. It is easy to identify this assumption in the reasoning of all governments, from nation states to tribal/family heads – the superiority of one individual or groups choices over another’s, and the subsequent justification of the use of force. But this is not reason at all, nor is it in service to the basic needs of life. With that said, it is very likely that an anarchist society will be one of plurality, reflecting the complexity of human choices and the variety of human thought. But the consequences of an action should always lie with the actor; this is the best basis for personal growth as well as the growth of a society. In the words of the American libertarian author Albert Jay Nock in his book Memoirs of a Superfluous Man: “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” (pg 307).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Some poetry samples

I'm posting some sample poetry for my own pleasure!

Me and I by James Paul Gonzales

Stretched and wound between
The Silent Space, a vivid place,
Where once we faced each other.
Canonized, none could devise
A simpler way to waste our lives.

In looking back, I can't abstain,
My myth and madness are in sustain.
You have taken me by name and health!
Just how may I reclaim myself?

Dare you speak yourself from stillness,
As I reach to strike the illness
Of our shrill, begotten past?
You just cannot understand,
With any clarity or brevity,
The confrontations that have easily amassed.

For from the quiet crept the willing,
Crept the abled, who kept instilling
A morality too rigid to define.
And by leaving marks of might and carry,
Would one, compelled to fight the wary,
Rise from silent spaces, vivid places
To win aside our humbler faces.

And what of this dark, profound omission of yours,
Shaken by the roots as my fruition pours
Floors and floors... of virtue and contentment?
So I recognize that I alone,
In any way, cannot condone
The lying self in all its shame,
The intemperate soul bewitched by fame.

Now it is your dimness and your pomp
Which split-cast shadows as I walk.
Stay behind me, that the hindsights of purity
Frail and derail you.

Stay behind me
In a still submission,
In sweet division.

Turn About by James Paul Gonzales

I often wonder
Of our turning points and adaptations.
Only paraphrasing milestones;
A simple expression of progress.

Are we moving, you and I?
Or do our endless victories,
Endless defeats,
Belong in photographic memory.
As relative isolations make a history whole.

In an evolution of thought,
Change continues along a narrow line.
We are corridors, ever sectioning
This indefensible spirit.

By the collapsing sand
Through the mouth of the hourglass,
Our alterations protect something infinite.
Oh! These brittle appearances will fight like no other
The roaring substance in me!

But though I often wonder
Of Time's pivots and revelations,
I'll embrace the nature
And toss the narrative aside.

Analogous, Autonomous by James Paul Gonzales

Alike enough to hold hands;
We are gentle binaries, or
Twin sets of information.
Factual exposures,
Collating toes beneath the covers,
Perpetual association
From the fever of skin on skin.

Sound identities in a disparate blur;
One of me, one of you,
As two solutions authored to dissolve the
Instability of wondrous experience.
We hold ourselves in our arms,
Lift ourselves high unto the Source
So that others may rely on our operation.

Analogous... Autonomous...
Analogous... Autonomous...
Us together... You and I.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Self-Affirmation and the "Participatory Culture"

This is an essay that I wrote for an scholarship contest provided by Templeton Press

The essay is a critique of an original essay written by Lee Siegel: "Participatory Culture and The Assault on Democracy"

My critique was definitely sloppy. I wrote it amidst other responsibilities and did not manage my time well. There are some good ideas, however. Please, leave your comments and thoughts!

Self-Affirmation and the "Participatory Culture"

It is not difficult to perceive the fear and frustration emanating from the words of Lee Siegel in his essay Participatory Culture and The Assault on Democracy[1]. With emotionally driven phrases like “the most serious threat to freedom in America”[2] or “there is no escape from culture into a personal space,”[3] Siegel’s essay is a genuine expression of dismay directed towards the dramatic changes that have been occurring in large, industrialized nations since the major world wars. The essay discusses several important themes: the emergence of mass-produced culture in America, the Frankfurt School interpretation of this mass-produced culture, self-concept and individualism, interactive media and internet technology, and American democracy. Well-read readers will certainly chuckle at the quips Siegel makes about mass culture’s treatment of Tolstoy or Flaubert, those familiar with online cultural phenomena like YouTube and Facebook are likely to get a laugh as well. While Siegel and the thinkers he acknowledges are absolutely correct in identifying a problem with contemporary American culture and political-economy, he proceeds to paint an unreasonable portrait of a grim, dystopian future. Young Americans, inheriting an economic and political system that is simultaneously collapsing under its own weight and rife with opportunity for restructuring and radical innovation, are compelled by Siegel to adopt a view of culture that is fundamentally alienating, hierarchical, and hopeless. By evaluating the various dichotomies and theories of culture, interactive media, individualism and self-concept presented throughout Participatory Culture, there is a glimmer hope for those willing to think and act for themselves.

The irreconcilable choices that are presented to the reader in Participatory Culture can be a little overwhelming, many of them seem unnecessary. Consider Siegel’s interpretation of music in contemporary culture:

Indeed, the participatory turn accounts for the way rhythm has overtaken melody in popular music: it’s easier to assimilate rhythm’s sameness to your fantasies than to step out of yourself and follow melody’s different changes. Rhythm is music’s first person, as the close-up is film’s.[4]

This claim speaks to the toe-tapper in all of us; rhythm is immediately engaging for any organism and is most certainly the oldest element of music. The emergence of popular musical genres like R&B, drum and bass, techno and hip-hop may suggest that rhythm is becoming more important to musicians today, but the melodies and harmonies of Classical Beethoven do not occur in a rhythmic vacuum – rhythm and time provide the context for all music. Some might also suggest that mass culture has not forgotten the great musicians of yesteryear[5]. More importantly however, Siegel is using this claim about the shift in musical development as proof of the existence of mass culture’s negative preoccupation with itself and encouraging the reader to choose between his interpretation of culture and the imaginary shame that comes from enjoying a funky beat. Siegel also cites other trends in the arts – a growing interest in first-person fiction, three-dimensional cinematography, and video games – as indicative of some essential moral dilemma. Despite his subjective aesthetic value-judgments, readers should not be deterred from gleaning the greater truth from his arguments about mass culture.

Another dubious dichotomy which relies on aesthetic prejudice and moral condescension is that of old versus new art. Siegel attacks contemporary artists when he offers these straw men arguments: “the hallmark of great popular art used to be the way a performer put an original twist on a standard genre of formula,” “…it used to be that performers strove to create excellence and originality within a popular style, in order to become popular,” and “In today’s culture, you strive only to be popular – in order to become popular.”[6] The examples he provides of today’s popular art range from talking cats on YouTube to American Idol and James Cameron’s Avatar, a film so formulaic that the Internet can’t resist making fun of it.[7] An extensive list of innovative and genre-bending artists in the 21st century could be provided as evidence against Siegel’s claims, as if the utility or beauty of aesthetic values could be objectively defined and cardinally ordered; suffice it to say that young American artists exist, are self-inspired and are not toiling away in vain. Siegel may be reacting to the sheer volume of stuff produced and shared as a result of the advanced breakthroughs in Internet technology in the last decade (e.g. YouTube); undoubtedly, there are many more people sharing media with each other than ever before. To claim that an interactive platform like YouTube is somehow threatening to art is simply nonsensical; an environment where artists can share freely and easily is the first place that someone should expect to find a New Renaissance in the arts.[8] The political-economy that many Americans are enduring now, one filled with astronomical government debt, wars, and an attack on basic human rights at home and abroad, also inspires the artist to create in novel ways.[9]

The disdain that Siegel expresses over interactive media and the growing cultural interest in participating in the creation of media should be immediately alarming to the reader, young or old. Having the essential desire to contribute – to discover one’s own creative power – and the technology to make that happen is absolutely a boon for contemporary society. The potential to apply this technology towards positive social change is limitless.[10] When Siegel criticizes the spirit of Wikipedia, claiming that its creation was motivated by “a more fundamental principle: the more people who were allowed to participate in Wikipedia, the more people who would read Wikipedia,”[11] one might conclude that Siegel would prefer the generation and dissemination of knowledge to be controlled by a “more qualified” class of working intellectuals, or that the common desire to contribute is somehow negative. To be clear, the context of this criticism, along with his criticism of popular art and music, is just the wider interpretation of mass culture as being motivated by the pursuit of nothing more than popularity for the sake of popularity. Does it occur to Siegel that the average person might take advantage of the opportunity to contribute to the production of media and information because he or she genuinely feels powerless against corporate media monopolies and the governments which grant them power?[12] Given this question, Siegel’s understanding of mass culture deserves some scrutiny.

Firstly, no theory of popular culture enjoys complete agreement amongst thinkers, and there is nothing wrong with that – granted the complexity of human behavior and thought, this should really come as no surprise.[13] Siegel describes mass culture as that culture with the capacity for the average person to be at once a producer as well as a consumer.[14] Siegel introduces the reader to the Frankfurt School theory of mass culture via Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, two thinkers motivated by Marxist class analysis and theory of capitalism. According to the Frankfurt School, mass culture or the “culture industry” is the product of industrialization and the division of labor in the 19th century, the emergence of a working class, and the subsequent mass-production of art and entertainment.[15] When it comes to political and economic discourse, the Frankfurt School identifies a true threat in media monopolies, as Siegel quotes Marcuse: “Under the rule of monopolistic media – themselves a mere instrument of economic and political power – a mentality is created for which right and wrong, true and false are predefined…”[16] However, the theory begins to take a turn towards authoritarianism and elitism; Siegel shares Adorno’s belief that the “commodification” of culture is a threat to the properly exclusive “high” culture (e.g. Michelangelo and da Vinci) and “popular” or folk culture (e.g. storytelling amidst grinding poverty) – to merge the two would destabilize what they perceive as prerequisite moral and aesthetic values for the emergence of either a socialist revolution or a true American democracy.[17] In in his book An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Dominic Strinati explains that elite values are first assumed and then unquestioningly applied to the criticism of other cultures.[18] The simple truth is that high, popular and mass culture are all high-level abstractions which vary from person to person; clearly, some people have never even considered a theory of popular culture. Aesthetic values are truly the last thing to be considered when facing real-world problems like poverty and war.

What is especially bizarre is Siegel’s contradictory identification with the elitist sentiment of the Frankfurt School theory and his intellectual divorce from it:

For Adorno, Marcuse… the answer to brutish, dehumanizing culture and politics was dismantling of “the rule of monopolistic media” and the establishment of participatory culture, in which, presumably, access and transparency would be the order of the day.[19]

The contradiction lies in the fact that Siegel employs the Frankfurt School theory of culture industry and mass culture in his analysis of contemporary American culture, identifies the emerging trend of interactivity in media production, unreasonably condemns the trend as negatively contributing to the decay of the American political-economy, and then suggests that the Frankfurt School theorists and others ultimately advocated this decay. This misrepresentation of the Frankfurt School seems outlandish; it is entirely possible that Adorno and others would have agreed with the elitist claims that Siegel advances and would have seen interactive media as some new form of capitalist exploitation.

Compared to Siegel’s inspired theory of mass culture, his ideas of individualism and self-concept are very meaningful to the discussion of social progress. Describing the individuals of mass culture as simultaneously being “extra vulnerable to approval,” lacking in self-awareness, and with “egos… both larger than their environment and entirely submerged in it,”[20] the reader begins to see mass culture as modulating between utter self-doubt and unyielding arrogance – an inconsistent view of self-concept. Siegel is absolutely on to something when he identifies in mass culture a genuine problem with self-esteem[21]; this discovery is truly at the core of all personal and social problems. Nathaniel Branden – the former disciple of Ayn Rand and successful Objectivist-inspired psychotherapist – describes self-esteem:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as being competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and of being worthy of happiness. It is confidence in the efficacy of our mind, in our ability to think… it is confidence in our ability to learn, make appropriate choices and decisions, and respond effectively to change.[22]

With a reasonable definition of self-esteem provided, one can see the contrast in the understanding of self-esteem between Siegel, who uses of the term “amour-propre[23] or self-esteem dependent on the opinions of others in and Braden, who points out that self-esteem is not fundamentally a function of how others see and evaluate us.[24] Looking at individuality, Siegel trips over his words when, evaluating the views of the Frankfurt School, he claims that “the ‘monopolistic media’ left a great deal of room for the cultivation of individual taste and freedom”[25] and in a later passage makes the claim that “no spaces for the cultivation for our individuality exist between us and the media monopolies...”[26]. An Objectivist or rational egoist, after reading Participatory Culture, might dismiss Siegel’s views of self and individuality as contradictory, but would certainly agree that the values and virtues of individual actors in mass culture contribute to the sort of socio-political climate they generate.

The view of mass culture that Siegel and the Frankfurt school share, one of total obsequiousness to the elitist agendas of corporations and governments, is simply not true. Art and culture are not dead, the Internet is powerful tool for social change, and the self is something to be cultivated, not restrained. Views of culture that treat millions of people as homogeneous blobs are counterproductive to meaningful change. This is the task set forth for young Americans today: to participate in the creation of their freedom, online or off, and to place that value at the center of their society, as an ever-present ideal.

[1] Siegel. (SOURCE)

[2] Siegel. (SOURCE): Final ¶

[3] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 24

[4] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 6

[6] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 8

[11] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 10

[13] Hinds, Motz, and Nelson. Popular Culture Theory and Methedology: A Basic Introduction (pg. 274)

[14] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 3

[16] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 16

[17] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 21

[18] Strinati. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (pg. 36)

[19] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 18

[20] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 15

[22] Branden. On Self

[23] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 13

[24] Branden. Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation (pg. 5)

[25] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 19

[26] Siegel. (SOURCE): ¶ 23