In 1973, A.O. Hirschman, with his characteristic, concealing modesty (it covered up the fact that he was touching on big themes that economists liked to avoid), wrote an essay about envy and the egalitarian impulse in developing economies. For two decades, Hirschman had been at work as an economist and policy maker dealing with foreign aid and plans to elevate the poorer national economies into the league of the developed nations, as they were called back then. This was the era of multi-year plans and the fad for shrinking agriculture and favoring export industries, which often, paradoxically, called for putting barriers on imports. All of this, by now, has been swept away by the Washington Consensus and the aggressive syndicate of international institutions, multinationals, and neo-liberals.
In Hirschman’s time, third world countries were experiencing unprecedented growth. He observed that the profit from that growth largely accrued to the wealthy. What puzzled him was that this did not stimulate the kind of envy that was feared by the anti-communist establishment everywhere. Instead of revolution, for the most part, third world populations seemed patiently to be waiting. Hirschman devised a model to capture what one might call the dynamics of social envy. In this model, growth and the enrichment of the richest was tolerable as long as the larger population believed that the growth would eventually make themselves and their children richer. In other words, Hirschman believed that there was a larger tolerance for inequality than was reckoned with by the leftist agitator. This was puzzling if one took into account the work of George Foster, whose studies of peasant society in Mexico convinced him that traditional society is penetrated by what he called the “image of the limited good”. This means that the peasant views goods in terms of a zero-sum game, in which x’s possessions are viewed by y from the standpoint of scarcity – what x possesses, y does not possess. Like people in a lifeboat with limited rations, a careful watch is placed on the village populaton to make visible who has what. This is a situation in which savings is hidden, rather than invested.
What Foster calls the limited good, I would call nemesis. In my opinion, the great effect of the enlightenment and of the growing economies of the 19th century was to suppress nemesis – the social and human limit which demands respect in societies in which growth is sporadic and subject to decay. In such societies, time is cyclical; the myth of progress has no footing here.
I think Hirschman was right to tackle the theme of envy, but his model, it seems to me, lacks an important feature that one finds in success societies – societies, that is, where an ethos of success replaces the ethos of sacrifice. In the former, envy inevitably increases as the success of the wealthiest creates a larger and larger positional gap between the top and the rest. Here, however, an interesting, unconscious mechanism intervenes to protect the wealthiest. This mechanism inverts the direction of envy, the direction of the evil eye. Instead of the wealthiest being subject to the violence of envy, the poorest are subject to it.
This inversion of envy at first seems incredible. How could the poorest be an object of envy? However, anyone with ears to hear in America’s dining and living rooms, or in American work places, will here the tale of the high living poor. The poor don’t work. They luxuriate on welfare payments. The government only works for the poor. The Great slump was caused by the poor cheating the naïve banks who were forced by the government to give them mortgages they couldn’t pay. This story and variations of it are told over and over. We sometimes wonder over some savage custom, thinking, how could it be believed that, say, a woman who has a miscarriage causes drought – one of the thousands of such beliefs recorded in the Golden Bough? But the inversion of envy in success societies, the most pure of which is the US, should teach us that the unlikelihood of a belief, its grossly ridiculous nature when laid out in cold logic, is no bar to its being held true. Although newspaper sociologists like to insist on the hopeful, aspirational beliefs of Americans as the sort of national glue that keeps down radicalism, I would say that, more powerfully, it is the inverted envy, its manipulation and thousand and one uses (inverted envy is deeply associated with racism in America, for instance) that makes it very hard to achieve any kind of lasting social justice in the US