Money makes the world go round: the case for materialist explanations in social science

I’m a materialist, and I wanted to take a moment to commend the idea of materialism to you. Materialism here doesn’t mean being greedy. Nor does it mean philosophical materialism- the view that only matter exists. Instead by materialism I mean the view that the economy in its widest possible sense- the technology, markets, legal apparatuses, customs and ideas by which we make and distribute the necessities of life- are of integral importance to the whole of society and culture, even as the whole of society and culture in turn influences economy.

The phrase ‘materialism’ used in this sense originates in Marx, but the idea itself is much older. In 1649, Gerrard Winstanley a member of the Diggers -a radical, egalitarian political movement in England around the time of the English civil war- wrote:

“I am assured that if it be rightly searched into, the inward bondages of the minde, as covetousness, pride, hypocrisie, envy, sorrow, fears, desperation, and madness are all occasioned by the outward bondage that one sort of people lay upon another.”

What he meant by outward bondage was primarily differences in property. The abolition of property was the chief concern of the Diggers, because for them it was -perhaps quite literally- the original sin.

Winstanley was articulating an early version of the materialist thesis, according to which the ways in which we make and distribute things and services- the economy- continuously structures, transforms and influences all aspects of social life, even as it is transformed by them in turn.

I especially liked the examples of the evils caused by economic oppression he chose. Sorrow, fear, desperation and madness particularly stood out out to me because I’d just been reading some research that suggests that the magnitude of differences in economic power and advantage- the level of inequality- has a profound effect on the level of mental illness. See this graph from the Equality Trust:

But private suffering is not the only effect of economic structure.

Consider for example this graph showing the relationship between religiosity and income in US states. The wealthier a state is, the less religious it is (the effect is also replicated at a country level, with an incredibly clear relationship between GDP and religiosity between countries.)

Another example was the recent much publicised research suggesting that the rate of sexy-selfies can be predicted by levels of income inequality, and other features of economic institutions and arrangements. While I’d quibble with certain aspects of the author’s interpretation of their results, the core finding that income inequality is linked with volume of sexy-selfies is very interesting from the materialist’s point of view:

Or this Australian study that included work on the relationship between unemployment and opposition to immigration:

It’s important to note that being a materialist doesn’t mean thinking that the thoughts and ideas people have don’t matter- rather thinking about one’s own interests and beliefs is interlaced with economic variables. A recent Swedish study explored this nexus, finding that both the rich and the poor were more likely to support opposition to immigration. The authors argued, on the basis of subsequent experiments, that the link was mediated through expectations- the rich worried that they might lose their privileges, while the poor worried about the loss of their few remaining scraps:

Also though, things go in the opposite direction. Consider for example this fascinating study -part of a large body of similar research- suggesting that nationalism, manifested in being ‘proud of one’s country’ reduces support for economic redistribution across numerous European countries. Roughly speaking- the more nationalist you are, the less you support the redistribution of wealth. Thus a variable which is superficially separate from the economy (patriotism) turns out to be intimately ideologically key to the distribution of wealth in these advanced capitalist economies:

I could go on, but I think the point is clear- a lot swings with the economy, and with the distribution of economic power.

The materialist thesis- that economic structure is at the root of all kinds of evils (and, presumably, goods!)- is a bold one, especially in our period which is rightly sceptical of simple explanations of complex social phenomena. Nonetheless I really think there’s something to it. Part of defending the materialist thesis must be to insist upon the point that it is not simplistic. In particular, believing in materialism does not mean believing that the economy is a sort of separate puppet-master manipulating culture. Rather the sophisticated materialist holds that the economy was never really separable from culture and politics to begin with. The economy is multi-causal and intricately structured like society- because it is not separate from society.

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