Although I can claim no kinship with McGill University Professor R.T. Naylor, whom I have never met, I am an admirer of his work as an economist, a historian, a criminologist, and a political journalist. Even though he tackles very weighty problems, Thomas Naylor skillfully manages to find the humor and the irony in the dark side of life. His latest book, Crass Struggle: Greed, Glitz, and Gluttony in a Wanna-Have World, is no exception to the rule.
Crass Struggle is about how the ultra-rich respond to the human condition, namely, separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, and fear of death, as well as the devastating global social, economic, and environmental consequences of their behavior. For those in the top 1 percent of the world’s population who own 50 percent of the world’s wealth, life is all about having – owning, possessing, manipulating and controlling money, power, people, and things – very expensive things such as precious metals, gemstones, diamonds, art objects, historical artifacts, rare coins, fine wines, Cuban cigars, scarce fish, exotic birds, wild animals, and elephant tusks.
To cope with meaninglessness and fear of death many of the super-rich spend their entire lives pretending they are invincible. One of the ways in which they try to convince themselves that they will live forever is through conspicuous consumption. They think they can spend their way into a state of never-ending self-actualization without paying any psychological dues for a life of unrestrained pleasure. They live by the slogan, “I’ve got mine, Jack, and the rest of the world be damned.”
And damned it is, the world which supplies the super-affluent with their expensive toys, playthings, food, and drink. Naylor describes it as “the low side of the high life, the bad side of the good life, or, more poetically, the underbelly of the potbelly.” It’s all about the dark underworld which supports the world’s fat cats through debauchery, deceit, bribery, smuggling, fakery, forgery, tax evasion, and virtually every other known form of human criminal activity.
Through a series of well-documented riveting stories Thomas Naylor takes his readers on a global tour of toxic gold mines spewing arsenic and cyanide, diamond fields destroying lives and spreading human misery, purveyors of upscale seafood indifferent to dwindling supplies, operators of disgusting trophy-hunting expeditions, and dealers in exotic pets high on endangered species lists. The combination of big money and affluenza gone amok yields very troubling results. To his credit Professor Naylor does not conclude his book with a “happy chapter,” outlining a number of inane policy recommendations aimed at fixing the plethora of problems described in his book. Rather he leaves us with the following somber assessment of the grim situation:
“Public exhibitions of gross self-indulgence by the ultra-rich lead not to general outrage and demand for serious political action but to a populace of electronically lobotomized consumatons hopping into their 4x4s to exercise what has become the ultimate human right – the freedom to shop at the discount mall for what they are told is a bargain. From class struggle to crass struggle: that is the defining feature of the times. And the genius of today’s political economy has been to convert what used to be a potential life-and-death conflict between haves and have-nots into a minor disagreement between have-lots and wanna-have-mores.”
Through a collection of poignant, sometimes dramatic, authentic tales, Thomas Naylor enables his readers to peer into the soul of globalization, and it is not a pretty sight. It’s not what the Chicago Boys promised us. Or is it?
Thomas H. Naylor
May 20, 2011
Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning. www.vermontrepublic.org.