Sinful Longing: To maintain the economic, social and political hierarchies of structurally unequal societies, envy is cast as a deadly political sin.
"THE politics of envy". Seldom has so much social disdain been packed, by so many privileged people, into so few words.
As working families compare their daily struggle to pay the mortgage with the hefty taxpayer allowances currently subsidising Cabinet Ministers’ accommodation costs, apologists for inequality reach instinctively for the Politics of Envy argument.
Devote a few moments to unpacking the term, however, and the self-serving maliciousness of the expression’s theological, ethical and political assumptions stand revealed.
Theological? Yes. Because "envy" is one of the Seven Deadly Sins – though biblical authority for the inclusion of this particular human frailty is difficult to locate. The nearest approximation is the Tenth Commandment: "You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."
But to covet something is not quite the same as envying it. Covetousness involves lusting after a specific individual or object, as well as planning to satiate that lust. Envy, on the other hand, is all about drawing unfavourable comparisons between one’s own condition and the condition of others.
To the rich and powerful such comparisons have always been "odious". Which is why the Church Fathers, with one eye on their need to retain the patronage and protection of society’s rulers, deliberately conflated the meanings of covetousness and envy. Only by linking envy with the behaviour described in the Tenth Commandment could the property of the powerful, and the tranquillity of the state, be safeguarded against the righteous anger of the poor and oppressed. Christ may have blessed the meek, and told them they would inherit the earth, but the religion bearing his name moved swiftly to make sure it never happened. For Christianity to thrive as an official state religion, it was vital that the lower orders defined "meekness" not only as the uncomplaining acceptance of their lot in life, but also as resisting the temptation to compare their own wretched condition with the exalted status of their rulers.
Never mind that the entire moral force of both the Old and New Testaments is drawn from the prophetic comparison between what God wills and Man does. And just ignore Jesus’ numerous warnings about money’s power to corrupt both those who possess it, and those who lack it. To maintain the economic, social and political hierarchies of the societies in which the Christian Church established itself – envy had to remain a deadly sin.
But the Politics of Envy accusation is not only theologically suspect: its ethically bankrupt character remains clear, even when viewed from a secular perspective. Wealth and status are inevitably presented by their defenders as the products of entrepreneurial talent, scrupulous honestly and unstinting toil. The probability that, as Balzac shrewdly declared: "behind every great fortune there is a great crime" is never acknowledged – though any study of ancient, feudal or capitalist history amply confirms the French novelist’s observation. All too often, the documents of provenance offered up as proof of the rich and powerful’s right to rule turn out to be a thieves’ charter.
Almost inevitably, therefore, the accusation that someone is practicing the Politics of Envy will be as self-serving as it is self-protective. Because, in the eyes of the powers-that-be, the only sin more blameworthy than envying your betters, is organising politically to challenge their privileged position. No matter how outrageous the comparison between what the ordinary citizen is expected to bear unaided, and the lashings of taxpayer support lavished upon the businessmen and politicians who set the terms of his existence, it is deemed unacceptable to employ the democratic process to alter the balance between wealth and poverty; privilege and disadvantage; strength and weakness.
Do those of us earning a modest income envy those whose taxpayer allowances amount to more than we earn in a week? Of course we do. The sense of safety and security that must come from owning several freehold rental properties, and earning close to quarter-of-a-million dollars a year, is something most of us can only dream about. And, is it really a sin to compare our own take-home pay with the salary package of a Cabinet Minister? No, it isn’t.
Those who ride on the backs of their fellow citizens, and over-eat, must anticipate the occasional crash-diet.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 7 August 2009.