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Charles C. CamosyJanuary 05, 2024
Photo by Alexander Mills, courtesy of Unsplash

(RNS) — For almost seven years, since I first saw it in The Washington Post, the headline has stuck in my head: “Being Rich Wrecks Your Soul: We Used to Know That.”

What followed was a tour de force opinion article by two University of Virginia religious studies scholars who considered the principles of ancient philosophy and Christian theology and what they had to say about the spiritual health of those who worshipped at the altar of Mammon.

Drawing a poignant contrast between what wealth did to the soul of one Donald Trump and the vow of poverty taken and lived out by Pope Francis, U.V.A. professor Charles Mathewes and his co-author, Evan Sandsmark (who has since gone to become publications coordinator at the Academy of American Religion), cited study after study showing that the lives of the rich are worse than the lives of those who are not.

Among other things, the rich give proportionally less to charity, they are worse tax evaders, and they exhibit less compassion toward suffering people. Some studies suggest that even just being around people of great wealth may make regular folks less willing to share with others—a power the authors compared to the effect of the Ring of Sauron in terms of its ability to change those who are exposed.

The article struck such a nerve with me, I mentioned it in my 2019 book, “Resisting Throwaway Culture,” as a classic example of how consumer capitalism affects not only those who are exploited by it but, from a certain perspective (even when hell is left out of the equation), may even be worse for the perpetrators. It contributed mightily to my argument that our consumerist throwaway culture has severe and palpable noneconomic effects, driving the resort to abortion, assisted suicide, and even the way we treat animals in factory farms.

Our consumerist throwaway culture has severe and palpable noneconomic effects, driving the resort to abortion, assisted suicide, and even the way we treat animals in factory farms.

The idea of the rich promoting throwaway culture came to mind again when I saw Jennifer Wilson’s social media teaser for her recent New Yorker piece: “I wrote about the gentrification of polyamory, Park Slope open marriages, and the people who’ll share their lover but not their wealth.”

The article makes a strong case that (so-called) “consensual nonmonogamy” has become au courant in elite and wealthy circles. Monogamy is seen as “symptom of scarcity culture” while open couples, throuples and polycules represent “an abundance-oriented mind-set.”

But in fact it is monogamy that creates abundance, especially among the most vulnerable. The amount of evidence for the steadying force of the traditional family—grounded in a permanent marriage between one mother and one father—is so overwhelming that monogamous marriage should by now be understood as a human right for children. In more ways than one, economically vulnerable communities simply can’t afford the “abundance-oriented mind-set” of the rich.

The rich have long been willing to discard what gives the rest of our lives value if it makes them richer. The company EctoLife is in the middle of a business plan designed “to grow 30,000 babies a year” using donated sperm and ova, to put together in a massive baby factory, if only they can find investors.

The libertarian CATO Institute, which resists nearly all forms of taxation and spending on social programs, recently championed the idea of “external wombs” in an article about infertility among “older, same-sex, and fertile peoples,” saying the technology “may one day become advanced enough to outsource the entirety of pregnancy, thus allowing many women to have biological children without the health risks, pain, or other physical and psychological inconveniences often attendant to pregnancy and childbirth.”

The eminent Notre Dame theologian John Cavadini pointed out in the pages of Church Life Journal recently that this concept is eerily reminiscent of what Aldous Huxley predicted in his dystopian novel “Brave New World.” 

The only ones seemingly unconcerned about A.I. are the billionaires, who expect the coming generative A.I. revolution—some are calling it a fourth industrial revolution—to create “big gains.”

As our consumerist, technocratic culture finds more and more ways to separate sex from procreation, it is also bent on devaluing the other validating function of our bodies: work. One can hardly go on the internet these days without encountering a story on artificial intelligence. Most everyone in these pieces seems to be queasy about the prospect of AI’s future dominance, often asking what A.I. will do to good blue-collar jobs. There’s already a hidden epidemic of joblessness among U.S. men. A.I. is set to make that already bad problem even worse.

The only ones seemingly unconcerned about A.I. are the billionaires, who expect the coming generative A.I. revolution—some are calling it a fourth industrial revolution—to create “big gains.”

That is, of course, without regulation. Can our culture be made to see how our consumerist mindset deforms our souls and puts us on a destructive path? Having seen this, can we muster the political will to regulate our social relations with an eye to how they affect the most vulnerable? Offering a preference for the least among us? For those who are discarded as collateral damage in the service of consumer throwaway culture?

In the immortal words of the Magic 8 Ball, “Signs point to no.” At least for now. History demonstrates that backlashes can and do form against dominant cultures, especially when those cultures so obviously wreck our souls. As we head into a new era of the privileged enriching themselves at the expense of the poor, such a backlash is needed now more than ever.

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