The Crisis of Success

    “In the same way we regard our personal qualities and the result of our efforts as commodities that can be sold for money, prestige, and power. The emphasis thus shifts from the present satisfaction of creative activity to the value of the finished product. Thereby man misses the only satisfaction that can give him real happiness–the experience of the activity of the present moment–and chases after a phantom that leaves him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it–the illusory happiness called success.”
-Erich Fromm
Escape from Freedom

 

Throughout the course of human history several words have been used to articulate mankind’s concept of the highest good. The Platonic Idea,  the actualized self, utopia, the promised land, Providence, and series of other theological and philosophical terms have been employed to stir the imagination of peoples with the ultimate goal to spur them into action, to inspire them to reflect upon these mystical estates and frames of mind. Of all the terms employed one stands out as the most detrimental to the mental, moral, and psychological character of contemporary culture. Above all others, the word “success” has come to reflect the endemic materialism, emptiness, and indifference of the modern state capitalist enterprise. These pervasive characteristics has left the individual in a state of crisis, a crisis which is only exacerbated by the relentless onslaught of propaganda, false-promises, and blatant deception. 
 
 This growing dominance of capital gain over the intellectual, ethical, and physiological states of the individual, this malady of the spirit which has embittered our interpersonal relationships to the extent that we no longer look at each other as “brothers and sisters” but “consumers and customers” threatens the very lifeblood of not only all functioning democracies but the lifeblood of all meaningful and edifying modes of discourse. And what is a democracy without a vibrant and rational discourse but a precursor to the despotic state? Alas, “success”, that daemonic light which looms over all human  activity as the new end in itself, as the supreme virtue, is none but the whited sepulcher of true freedom, individuality, and wisdom.              

 Uncompromisingly, the supreme end for all who have a stake in the social, economic, and political realm of today’s society attribute the whole of their dreams,  aspirations, and ambitions to an insatiable desire to be “successful”. While this desire for success is often accepted as an affirmation of the most guarded and cherished motivations of man, upon careful observation, the spectacle, relative comfort, and material abundance of the “successful” individual soon collapses under the weight of unvarnished and unexpurgated realities. For under careful examination, what is the “success story” in reality? Is it the emergence of the Aristotelian soul as a synthesis of man’s reasons and his will? Is it the manifestation of agape, that burgeoning metamorphosis of the heart that Dr. King classified as “the overflowing love” which draws meaning from the “redemptive goodwill of all men”? Is success Odysseus’ refusal to abandon the corpse of Ajax, upon realization that recognition of the humanity which lies dormant in all of us is an ethical act that would appear “humane in the sight of all Greeks“?   

When these questions are asked in the context of our current infatuation with material gain, the answer is a emphatic rejection of all that these great notions represent. I am thoroughly convinced that success for the individual of the 21st century is the maximization of assets, the dividends of a well-placed investment, the purchase of a beautiful house by the sea, the acquisition of a considerable amount of fame, the subsequent power that accompanies fame, and a variety of other favorable but entirely superficial advantages. One cannot deny the favorable advantages that come with material, political, and economic influence yet these advantages become potently dangerous when their value as mere means to attain an end are interpreted as ends in themselves. The horror of the modern man is that he can see no further into the meaning of his life than the figures of his paycheck or the potential for an increase in his salary. This is essentially a poisonous form of intellectual poverty.

Nevertheless, one must not confuse my objection to the rewards of economic ambition as an argument for a medievalist brand of asceticism which culminates in the ever so masochistic resignation of the self. To the contrary, my opposition to the industry of “success” is an expression of my characteristic inability to accept that which denigrates the value of the human being as someone who has the potential to bring about far-reaching and substantive changes in their community and the world abroad.  We must not submit ourselves to monsters of our own construction. There is a hunger in our society for a revolution in the way we communicate with, educate, and support each other, a departure from the quantitative mentality that has stultified so many generations with the belief that the prime measure of the worth of a nation’s people is its gross domestic product. I refuse to accept this trend of thought! We are more than this, we are more than automatons in service of the unbridled market. Immobility on this problem will only plunge us deeper into the psychological abyss of insecurity, alienation, and nothingness. For this reason, it should be our responsibility, as individuals at the forefront of this technological generation, to mount some degree resistance to this assault. If this is carried out, if we are willing to organize social, economic, and political capacities in an attempt to curtail the overarching inequities of the public sphere, we will surely reap consequences beyond our greatest expectations.

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