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Founding Documents #3

Imagination is the goad that forces human beings into restless exertion after their primary needs have been satisfied. Most of us have known very few moments when we could have said:

If it were now to die,
‘Twere now be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

And in our rare moments of perfect happiness, it is natural, like Othello, to wish for death, since we know that contentment cannot last. What we need for lasting happiness is impossible for human beings: only God can have complete bliss, for His is ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory’. Earthly kingdoms are limited by other kingdoms; earthly power is cut short by death; earthly glory, though we build pyramids or be ‘married to immortal verse’, fades with the passing of centuries. To those who have but little of power and glory, it may seem a little more would satisfy them, but in this they are mistaken: these desires are insatiable and infinite, and only in the infinitude of God could they find repose.

While animals are content with existence and reproduction, men desire also to expand, and their desires in this respect are limited only by what imagination suggests as possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility. These men are framed after the model of Milton’s Satan, combining, like him, nobility and impiety. By ‘impiety’ I mean something not dependent on theological beliefs: I mean refusal to admit the limitations of individual human power. This Titanic combination of nobility with impiety is most notable in the great conquerors, but some element of it is to be found in all men. It is this that makes social cooperation difficult, for each of us would like to conceive of it after the pattern of cooperation between God and His worshippers, with ourself in the place of God. Hence competition, the need of compromise and government, the impulse to rebellion, with instability and periodic violence. And hence the need of morality to restrain anarchic self-assertion.

Of the infinite desires of man, the chief are the desires for power and glory. These are not identical though closely allied: the Prime Minister has more power than glory, the King has more glory than power. As a rule, however, the easiest way to obtain glory is to obtain power; this is especially the case as regards the men who are active in relation to public events. The desire for glory, therefore, prompts in the main, the same actions as are prompted by the desire for power, and the two motives may, for most practical purposes, be regarded as one.

The orthodox economists, as well as Marx, who in this respect agreed with them, were mistaken in supposing that economic self-interest could be taken as the fundamental motive in the social sciences. The desire for commodities, when separated from power and glory, is finite, and can be fully satisfied by a moderate competence. The really expensive desires are not dictated by a love of material comfort. Such commodities as a legislature rendered subservient by corruption, or a private picture gallery of Old Masters selected by experts, are sought for the sake of power or glory, not as affording comfortable places in which to sit. When a moderate degree of comfort is assured, both individuals and communities will pursue power rather than wealth: they may seek wealth in order to secure an increase of power, but in the former case as in the latter their fundamental motive is not economic.

The error in orthodox and Marxist economics is not merely theoretical but is of the greatest practical importance.

Bertrand Russell
Power, 1938


About AC Stewart

This poor yeoman follows humbly in the footsteps of his masters.

One response to “Founding Documents #3

  1. Peter Patton ⋅

    Marx’s great mistake – the self-realization of which led me away from leftism – was to define “exploitation of surplus value” as first and foremostly a moral wrong. It isn’t. It can be, but in no way is it, by definition.

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