When considering personal wealth, we can all too easily fall into the trap of measuring wealth through the top-down definition of the particular society in which we find ourselves living. For some time, every country has adopted one form of capitalist outlook or another, from the state-capitalism of the psuedo-communist nations to the corporate capitalist oligarchies of the other dictatorships and psuedo-democracies through the various shades in between.
In all these nations, the more money you control, the more wealthy you apparently ‘are’.
However, all this assumes that control of money directly corresponds to wealth, and therefore reduces the definition of wealth to nothing more than the number of points scored in some form of capitalist game. If things were really that simple no-one would desire wealth at all, except for a few obsessed games players who accumulated a high score for nothing more than the pleasure of it. I think instinctively most of us all ready feel this definition feels at odds with our subconscious understanding of wealth.
When we desire wealth, we don’t simply desire to see a large number on an otherwise meaningless scorecard. Instead we desire the control over our resources we imagine the money can give us access to. We desire this ultimately for no other purpose than because we desire to increase our experience of well-being. Poverty then we can define not as a lack of money, but lack of ability to experience well-being.
But having the ability to experience well-being doesn’t guarantee that you will. You can be ‘rich’ in the sense of having more money than everyone else, but still lack well-being. How come?
One answer may come from the concept of illth. This term was created by the Victorian art critic John Rushkin. The opposite of wealth, this represents all those misuses of resources that serve not to increase the experience of well-being but to decrease it or prevent it. Whilst initially conceived of in terms of the contribution of the rich on society, who may as well cause wide spread devastation as likely as serve to increase the general wealth of the nation, we can also apply it to our own life-styles to see where we adversely impact our own well-being through our own poor choices.
Does the collection of gadgets, furniture, clothing and other objects we count amongst our possessions really enhance our experience of life? Or do they detract by creating mess, cluttering our living space or even requiring more time in maintenance than they actually save as a useful tool? Sometimes wealth comes not from greater amounts of money, but from living a more simple life more tightly focused on those activities and possessions that we actually enjoy.
Robert Anton Wilson wrote much about illth, and Dan Clore has explored and expanded on these writings in the article ‘Wealth, Illth, Money and the Financial Crisis‘.