Right or wrong, the association of wealth and riches with individuality continues to have a stronghold 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’re extensions of our personality we take 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 that there are plenty of “empty suits” out there, we can’t help but be 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 by comparison 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 tend to act and think, our deepest hopes and aspirations.
It’s doubtful whether the founders of this new conception of man subscribed to the associations that we, moderns, tend to associate with the concept. They weren’t into flaunting, nor did they believe in an ostentatious display of wealth. Quite the contrary, the picture they were proposing was more important than that, more serious and more real.
How they came by such a picture, 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.
The original proposition — “Humans are entitled to the fruits of their labor “ — was 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.
Indeed, even today, we can’t seem to find fault with this self-evident proposition. Marx himself could not. His very call for re-organization of the capitalist mode of production is based on this very premise: Since it is the workers who are doing the work, they should be the ones who are entitled to their just rewards – the gist of the communist idea!
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.