The St Sinatra path

Poor Richard's Principle
November 15, 1996

Hardly a day passes without some newspaper report on managerial stress, workaholism, tension about balancing family responsibilities with the demands of employment, and a whole range of other insecurities and confusions of people in a society that has never been richer. Survey after survey documents the anxiety most relatively comfortable people are expressing about the quality of their lives.

What has gone wrong? Of course people want more money and material possessions - but not at any price. There is evidence from economically advanced western societies of a growing awareness that those who can afford it are seeking more balanced lives. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the Thatcher years was to push consumerism and materialism to their limits and hence provoke a reaction. Robert Wuthnow provides a well-informed introduction to the issues exercising the minds of the chattering classes.

Is it still true that western values have accommodated themselves so effectively to expanding capitalism so that, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, "man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life". Wuthnow believes Max Weber was mistaken in his analysis of the Protestant ethic and now the American dream has to be revised in a form that accommodates moral restraint. The problem is to discover a morality so that people themselves will choose to hold back from the endless pursuit of fame and fortune. The very idea of success in modern America has to be redefined and reinterpreted.

In introducing his theme, Wuthnow gives an example of an entrepreneur in his late thirties at the height of his career. He has accumulated much wealth, manages his time carefully and lives relatively frugally. He may seem to epitomise the Protestant ethic in practice. Nevertheless, this man puts aside time each day for reading and thinking, his evenings are devoted to the arts and he is active in community affairs. Only a few years later, at the age of 42, he retires from business to engage in scientific, political and charitable work. The man was Benjamin Franklin, who was prudent Poor Richard, as well as an active citizen and an enthusiastic lover of life. It is this search for a new balance that Wuthnow sees as the basis for a new American dream.

Much of the book is a judicious review of the literature that provides evidence for cultural distress and an argument for the rediscovery of a lost ambivalence in American culture. Wuthnow draws on his own 1992 national sample of 2,000 men and women in full or part-time employment who were asked about such issues as the uses of and attitudes towards money and material possessions, family relationships, community involvement, religion and moral understandings. A further 200 in-depth interviews were conducted to add ethnic diversity and the experience of unemployment. Material from these illuminate the general themes of the book and make the text more accessible to a wider readership. This interweaving of quantitative data with what purist social scientists call "stories" could lead the book to fall between the two stools of professional social science and imaginative investigative journalism.

If Wuthnow is to be believed, materialism is in retreat in US society. His surveys show 84 per cent of the public agree that "too much emphasis on money'' is a serious problem and 89 per cent that "our society is too materialistic". In one respondent's words, "as long as you're being materialistic, it's difficult to find room in your thoughts and in your heart for people and relationships and love''.

So far, so good: people are now seeking more elusive goals. While Wuthnow's description of unease, illustrated by accounts about the meaning of work and success is excellent, he becomes less sure-footed when discussing "The precarious sources of human values''. That old-time religion cannot provide the firm coordinates for creating a more balanced life for which people are seeking is clear. All that Wuthnow reports about the naivety and sentimentality of American Christian belief offers little hope. He describes believers as resembling tourists at Disneyland more than the pilgrim in Vanity Fair, in The Pilgrim' s Progress, since, "the guidance they receive from the spiritual realm consists mainly of easily digestible formulas and results in feelings of reassurance''. His analogy of a guided tour is apt, since popular American religious literature tells its readers how to live their lives, much in the style of advice columnists.

Yet Wuthnow is determined to end optimistically. He claims the ascetic moralism of early capitalism is giving way to a new expressive moralism. The former was articulated in simple dictums: waste not, want not; honesty is the best policy, etc. Expressive moralism, on the other hand, may be illustrated by the person who "goes out in search of the self, hoping to escape boredom, but also wanting to indulge something inner that is struggling to find an outlet. The expressive moralists of today need not go out in search of fortune because they can always find a secure income if they wish, or even if the worst happens, go live in their parents' suburban palace and cash out some securities from a trust fund.'' A garbled mixture of "eastern wisdom'' and therapeutic literature produces cringe-making quotations from earnest social workers and similar. The "moral responsibility'' that gets bandied about does not seem to have roots deeper than those of St Sinatra (doing it my way), although Wuthnow cites Thoreau and Emerson as the enlightened ones, who saw that inner feelings may serve as a standard for ordering one's life and one's values, and not simply as moods or sensations to be followed without thought or self-discipline.

Wuthnow's analysis of the problem is acute and well written, but his approach to morality is feeble. Western capitalism needs its own autocritique now that the evil empire has gone. A form of moral rearmament based on reflexivity will not do: it is not enough simply to hope that human goodness will prevail. Durkheim devoted his life to the ultimately unsuccessful search for the social and moral restraints that might limit unbridled appetites. If only Wuthnow and the communitarians could begin where he ended.

Ray Pahl is research professor, ESRC Research Centre on Micro-social Change, University of Essex.

Poor Richard's Principle: Recovering the American Dream through the Moral Dimension of Work, Business and Money

Author - Robert Wuthnow
ISBN - 0 691 02892 3
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 429

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