Right or wrong, the association of wealth and riches with individuality continues to have a strong hold on us. The things we have, what we drive, where and how we live, the clothes we wear, they all seem to define us. They are extensions of our personality, we take it for granted; a symbolic extension, to be sure, but an extension nonetheless. “Clothes make the man,” so the saying goes. And however much we may be aware of the fact there are plenty of “empty suits” out there, we can’t help but being impressed by the outward.
Trivial examples, you say, especially in this day and age of celebrity worship and the cult of the personality, exacerbated besides by the fact that our ordinary lives are dreary? Of course! And some of it has surely got to do with daydreaming, with our imagining ourselves to be living the lives we can never live, with being the kind of person we can never be. What I’d like to argue, however, is that this picture of what it means to be a person, for some of its superficiality, is deeply rooted in our psyche: it determines in major ways how we think and act, our deepest hopes and aspirations.
It’s doubtful whether the founders of this new conception of man could be accused of the kind of trivialities we moderns tend to associate with it today. They certainly weren’t into flaunting, nor were they believing in ostentatious display of wealth on the part of some of their contemporaries. Quite the contrary, the picture they were proposing was far more important to them, far more serious and real.
How they came by such a picture, and what was the impetus behind it – this is another set of questions we might want to ask. Chances are, they came by it honestly, by observation: they noticed significant changes taking place within the society, new patterns of behavior which, if not altogether supplanting the traditional ways of humans acting and relating to one another, stood a good chance nonetheless of becoming a permanent feature of everyday life from hence on forward, the old alongside the new; and that required re-conceptualizing the subject. But whatever the empirical grounding of their project, make no mistake about it: the resulting definition is as analytic and concept-laden as it gets. “Humans are entitled to the fruits of their labor” was the starting point.
Indeed, even today we can’t seem to find fault with this, apparently self-evident, proposition. Marx himself could not. In fact, Marx’s very call for re-organization of the capitalist mode of production is based on this very premise: since the workers are performing the labor, the workers should be entitled to their just rewards – the gist of the communist idea. Needless to say, the original proposition was but a starting point (otherwise, we should have to re-write history with Hobbes and Locke as precursors of Marx). It was posited right after, via the concept of ownership, as the prerequisite of full personhood.
But even this attempt at making the connection was thoroughly conceptual in intent. Though it, too, may have empirical bearings, merely reflecting the conventional wisdom of the day, whereby property rights and the right to vote were inextricable, the intent was to posit the relationship as though a necessary and eternal truth.
The die was cast.