Why the have-nots covet the haves

Dr. Helen reviews a book which explores a vexing social problem of long fascination to me, and what I appreciate the most is the author's contribution of a new word to describe the phenomenon: "UNDERDOGMA."

I am reading a new book by Michael Prell called Underdogma: How America's Enemies Use Our Love for the Underdog to Trash American Power. The title pretty much describes the book which defines Underdogma as "the reflexive belief that those who have less power (underdogs) are good, and that those who have more power (overdogs) are bad."

This sort of thinking has long been dominant on the left, but I hardly think they invented it. It might reflect a natural tendency of those who have less to resent those who have more, exacerbated by another unfortunate natural tendency of people getting together and sharing their grudges, which tends to result in the collective "realization" that their resentments are entirely legitimate. 

Innumerable human interactions are increasingly being measured, judged, and penalized by the extent to which it is determined that there is some sort of "power imbalance."

What ought to frighten the more rational among us is that psychological research has shown that people are quite willing to destroy the wealth of others -- even when they have to expend their own wealth in order to do it.

Author Prell notes that the researchers called this Phenomenon "the dark side of human nature." He calls it Personal Underdogma.

Whatever name is used, it is a problem that needs a solution because as long as jealous citizens and politicians are willing to sabotage success even at expense to themselves, and thus society, losers will prosper and winners will lose. This can't be good for any society.

The phenomenon of resenting what belongs to others is at least as old as the Bible. They even have a commandment against it which everyone thinks is ridiculous. When I learned the commandments as a kid, I remember there was unanimous agreement over the impossibility of obeying "Thou shalt not covet." While this is ostensibly a very wise commandment (and the world would truly be a better place if everyone followed it), the very impossibility of obeying it tends to fuel resentment directed towards whatever wealth is desired. After all, if children are told it is bad to covet, it is quite natural for them to start thinking that what is coveted must be bad. But is not the goal of Christians to be generous and good? So this natural childish desire to have -- and if not have, destroy -- the coveted wealth becomes further transformed into a stated goal of attacking the wealth in an "unselfish" manner. Not for one's personal benefit of course, but for the benefit of everyone else. The Robin Hood syndrome. Jesus's condemnation of the greediness of rich people has doubtless supplied a considerable religious rationalization, and of course where religion left off, Marx picked up big time. 

The evil Nietzsche (who is of course blamed by certain moralists for Hitler and Stalin and nearly every modern wrong) criticized the religious aspects of this process as amounting to rule by the weak, and a slave morality. A graduate student in philosophy offers this explanation:

Nietzsche begins with a story of how the terms 'good' and 'bad' got their meaning: Originally, there were two kinds of people--"the noble, the powerful, the superior, and the high-minded" and the "low, low-minded, and plebeian." The former had an unquestioning hold over the latter--they had a feeling of ruling and superiority that was justified by the fact that they were ruling and they were superior. Nietzsche calls this feeling of the superior over the inferior the pathos of distance. He thinks that it is through the pathos of distance that 'good' and 'bad' first acquired their meaning. That is, 'good' was associated with those who were superior, noble and privileged, while 'bad' was associated with those who were common, plebeian, and low.

However, descendants of the lower class began to resent being so powerless; they began to resent being bad. Their hatred toward the superior class resulted in a "radical transvaluation of their values." That is, 'good' and 'bad' began to reverse in meaning such that 'good' now applied to the common, low, poor and powerless, while 'bad' now applied to the superior, privileged, rich, and powerful. In this way, the deprived, poor, sick, and helpless become pious, whereas as the powerful, noble, and rich became impious. This transvaluation of values is possible when the ressentiment of the lower classes for the superior becomes so great that they find compensation only in imagining or creating a different moral code. It is this creation of an opposing moral system that Nietzsche calls the slave morality. So in order for the powerless to feel better about the situation that they are in, they create for themselves a morality--a slave morality--where they, the powerless, are 'good,' while their superiors, the powerful, are 'bad.'

That certainly sounds like underdogma to me.

I'm glad to have a new word for it, because if you run around invoking Nietzsche, you will be condemned as an evil and selfish Nazi.

Talking politely about "underdogma" also strikes me as preferable to citing the demonized Ayn Rand -- even though her criticism of altruism strikes at the heart of the underdogma creed:

Why did capitalism, the truly magnificent benefactor of mankind, arouse nothing but resentment, denunciations and hatred, then and now?  Why did the so-called defenders of capitalism keep apologizing for it, then and now?  Because, ladies and gentlemen, capitalism and altruism are incompatible.

     Make no mistake about it -- and tell it to your Republican friends: capitalism and altruism cannot coexist in the same man or in the same society.

     Tell it to anyone who attempts to justify capitalism on the ground of the "public good" or the "general welfare" or "service to society" or the benefit it brings to the poor.  All these things are true, but they are the by-products, the secondary consequences of capitalism -- not its goal, purpose or moral justification.  The moral justification of capitalism is man's right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; it is the recognition that man -- every man -- is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others, not a sacrificial animal serving anyone's need.

     There is a tragic, twisted sort of compliment to mankind involved in this issue: in spite of all their irrationalities, inconsistencies, hypocrisies and evasions, the majority of men will not act, in major issues, without a sense of being morally right  and will not oppose the morality they have accepted.  They will break it, they will cheat on it, but they will not oppose it; and when they break it, they take the blame on themselves.  The power of morality is the greatest of all intellectual powers -- and mankind's tragedy lies in the fact that the vicious moral code men have accepted destroys them by means of the best within them.

There's much truth in what Rand says, but if you cite her in polite communitarian society, some self appointed moralist of another will start injecting distractions about what an evil, atheistic, abortion-loving woman she was instead of focusing on the merits of what she said.  

So I'm intrigued by the underdogma meme, and I can't wait to read the book.

It's nice not to have to rely on demonized figures from the past.

A lingering question, though, involves the new power imbalance that results from the weak underdogs defeating the strong overdogs. Wouldn't the dispossessed former overdogs tend to become the new underdogs? (Little wonder the Communists thought to kill the expropriated, formerly productive classes.)

I would hate to think that the process might become a vicious cycle of dogma eat dogma.

If only human psychology weren't the culprit....


OK, that should have been the end of this post. But for reasons that elude me, I feel obligated to add a personal anecdote.

Much as I hate being honest with myself, I have to admit that I have been guilty of coveting those with less supposed "power" in this racket we call life. Years ago, I worked in a law firm I absolutely hated, doing the worst kind of drudgery which gave me nightmares by night, and having to keep track of "billable hours" which was a much worse nightmare by day, for I am one of those unfortunates who cannot perform mental work (which litigation is) if I have to simultaneously handle keeping track of time blocks and putting pricetags on it. I was miserable. And one day, a young guy about my age came in to fix the light fixture in my office. This was something I could have done myself, of course, as I am a very handy person and I love to work with my hands. But the guy was so happy and unperturbed -- after all he was doing real work, which is its own reward -- and I simply envied him. I knew that he would not only be able go home at the end of the day, but that he would not be awakened by litigation nightmares. He would not have his vacation weekends nullified by the last minute manueverings of opposing counsel, and he could not be forced to put in 80 hours a week. He was doing work which I saw as preferable to the work I was doing, he got paid a good wage (no doubt with full benefits) and at the end of the day his work was actually done (which mine never, ever was). Yet if normal people had compared us at the time, he would have been the "underdog." Far from seeing him as that, I coveted his life in the way that others might covet the life of Bill Gates. Whether that was my personal form of "underdogma," I don't know. Did I envy someone for having "less" than I did? Under the circumstances, he seemed to have more. Far more. Can less be more? I don't know, but I do know that I coveted what I did not have.

MORE: Speaking of the cyclical nature of haves coveting have-nots and vice versa, Glenn Reynolds links Mark Oppenheimer's "The Unholy Pleasure -- My life-long recovery from snobbery."

An admitted snob who has spent his life trying to recover, Oppenheimer attempts to explain how it originates:

It is not unusual for snobberies to begin as self-defense--they are almost necessarily the province of minority groups worried that they might any day be vanquished: The landed English were surrounded by the peasants, the educated Ivy Leaguers by hoi polloi. Beneath the airs of superiority one can quickly discern the grounding of insecurity. After all, if the war comes, sheer numbers dictate that the snobs will lose. And given how much of the snobs' privilege is unearned, their snobberies can also be seen as strategies of obfuscation, enabling them not to see the important injustices that their cherished order perpetrates. Consider the banker who refuses to hire people with working-class accents: Because they sound as if they lack money, he deems them unworthy of making money.

But self-protective armor can be used in the offensive, too; judgment nearly always turns judgmental. Nobody likes to relinquish a snobbery, even when it becomes safe to venture forth without it....

Snobbery requires reinvention. Unbearable snots have to start anew, by pretending to be original and pretending to reject their origins, while actually repackaging themselves in a way that perpetuates the class they supposedly disdain.

(Makes me wonder whether the experts will discover a "snob gene.")

It is no exaggeration to say that this is complicated stuff, and probably worth a Ph.D. thesis for some self-hating Ivy League snot.

Don't think for a moment that I am exempting conservatives or libertarians (populist or otherwise). We all tend to be unbearable snobs -- especially once we have displaced the ruling snobs.

I especially include those with a studied disdain for snobbery (like yours truly). I have not learned much in life, but I have learned that trying to escape its clutches can make it worse. This stuff is a no-win. You are a snob if you do, and a snob if you don't. Even humility becomes an affectation.

Anyway, I highly recommend Oppenheimer's piece.

posted by Eric on 01.27.11 at 11:17 AM


Your personal story -- been there, done that.

Two things:

The commandment is not to covet YOUR NEIGHBOR's goods. It has been perverted to not coveting in general, but I think it is a commandment against a sort of destructive envy, rather than a commandment against "greed". Indeed, if people had coveted all they wanted but NOT their neighbor's stuff, Marx would be without power.

In defense of Christianity, Jesus did say he didn't come to supersede the law -- so the commandment against envy should still apply, again voiding Marx of threat and power. (Unfortunately a lot of Christians seem to follow Marx and Lenin rather than Christ. Or are, at the best, muddled.) The pronouncements against hoarding and greed (possibly more understandable in the first century -- I honestly don't know) tie in to something else that fuels humans destructive rage against the "haves".

I think in hominid bands, where our brains evolved and possibly (collective memory and tales passed from mother to daughter and father to son being a long longer than we think, and possibly reaching all the way back) our psyche as humans (see, son's rant about being human and the values we naturally impose on things) evolved, there was a finite pie most of the time. Anyone taking a disproportionate amount of pie, (mammoth, with mammoth filling) would be shorting his relatives (which is what most of these small bands were.) So, anyone capable of commanding a lot more was resented/viewed as bad. There was only so much mammoth. Alternately, the "rich" band that had come up with a new way of hunting the mammoth so successful they grew fat and well dressed in furs and left their neighbors with nothing to hunt were "bad" and eventually got hunted down and eaten.

We've changed ourselves and our environment so fast (a good thing for the species, mind) that our most basic impulses no longer serve the species well. So we have to use our brain instead. Hopefully.

Sarah   ·  January 27, 2011 1:05 PM

Eric - Way back in 2004, I suggested that we needed a new term for the illogical appeal to the underdog. (The Latin term, I learned later and explained in an August post, would be "ad subcanem".)

I think, by the way, that your discussion of envy is a little off topic, though I have yet to read the book. We can be envious of those who have less than we do, though the reverse is more common.

Jim Miller   ·  January 27, 2011 7:26 PM

Eric, I don't think you had underdog-envy. Just... well... when things get intolerable, I often fantasize about being someone else altogether (the last time the days after 9/11. And don't ask me WHY it felt intolerable to be me. It makes NO sense since it was in no way personal.) It's more escapism.
And the "envy of the simple life" is not underdog as such -- look at the Roman poets and their obsession with farmers! (And not necessarily THAT way.)

Sarah   ·  January 27, 2011 10:38 PM

Sarah and Jim thanks!

I'm still worried about what is more and what is less.

We can be envious of those who have less than we do, though the reverse is more common.

But what is less and what is more? I envied the electrician not because he had less than I did, but because he had more. More time, more liberty, more fulfilling work, and more happiness.

Anyway, I never forgot it.

Eric Scheie   ·  January 27, 2011 11:34 PM

When we were having issues with the school and my younger kid (this is a subject for a post, in a couple of years or so) three years ago, I realized something very weird about myself, which might tie in to "he had more."

You see, I've always been fairly ambitious, and, being a decent person (in terms of what I crave) that always meant material rewards to me.

And then when I worried that my kid might never have what I'd consider "proper educational attainment" to have a decent job, I realized it wasn't the decent job I was worried about. What I was afraid of was that he'd be soured on learning and would never realize the FUN of learning something just because you can; never get the background of knowledge that would allow him to have a fun intellectual discussion, or to enjoy a quiet musing on the nature of some historical period.

This is when I started to suspect that I might not be "greedy" for material goods at all, which is such a weird concept that I still refuse to fully give it credence.

I know I don't want money. Being the "lead" in a thousand group projects cured me of that. To have power over a group means to be "owned" by them. I can and will do that sort of thing is something huge is at stake and there's no one else willing, but I'd RATHER not do it. Fame interests me only in the measure in which succeding in my field involves a certain amount of fame. (But I'd rather have more money and less fame.) At any rate, thank heavens, it's not like being an actress or something, where people would recognize me. Being known as a writer means outside "events" I can go "Oh, no. Just the same name." My accent makes that credible, too.

Mostly what I'm "greedy" for seems to be in no particular order: Time with my family, time to write, stuff to read, interesting friends to talk to, stimulating ideas to debate.

Maybe I'm just a slacker and not normal for humans?

Sarah   ·  January 28, 2011 12:38 AM

if you run around invoking Nietzsche, you will be condemned as an evil and selfish Nazi.

Which is really rather hilarious, when you consider that Nietzsche was probably the most pro-Jewish philosopher who ever lived.

flenser   ·  January 28, 2011 2:20 PM

Whew! Nietzsche, Rand, and Jesus Christ.
Where's Adam Smith's invisible hand?
At least for the moral sentiment that is in it.

firecapt   ·  January 30, 2011 9:35 PM

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