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Economic Man

by Uri Zohar

Editor's Note: In the 1970s, Uri Zohar was an iconic figure in Israeli culture: movie star, talk show, host, comedian. Life was one big party. Zohar then embarked on a serious examination of Judaism, and he found something, well, even more interesting. He writes:

At the core of man's view of himself today is his image as an economic entity. For example, when asked either, "What do you do?" or "What are you?", the vast majority of people under most circumstances would respond with the name of their trade, occupation, or profession. Granted, there might be people who would respond by citing either their religious affiliation or nationality. However, those responses would be statistically exceptional or might be given as a result of the question's having been posed against the background of an exceptional setting, e.g., in a foreign country or by a member of the clergy.

The automatic nature of this marketplace-oriented response is, to say the least, somewhat puzzling. Most people work (or at least they can be found at their places of work) on the average eight hours a day (minus coffee and lunch breaks), five days a week (minus sick-days, vacation time, and the Mondays of three-day weekends). Furthermore, they may also have hobbies or interests which they regard, in many ways, as more stimulating or rewarding (albeit not in monetary terms) than the activities in which they are engaged at their places of work. We thus have a marketplace-oriented description of what a person does, or what he is, which takes into account his activities during little more than one-quarter of the week.

In ignoring the other 75% of life, such a description averts its eyes, as it were, not only from our non-economic hobbies and interests, but from a whole host of familial relationships which are generally far more enduring than one's relationship to work. After all, carpenters, lawyers, and salespeople are also mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands. Can it be said that the importance of one's occupation or place of work is so much greater than that of the family in which one was raised or is now helping to raise? Can we suggest that the former merits the kind of pervasive and positive recognition which modern society gives it, while the latter is regarded as a necessary but hardly significant activity, deserving only an occasional and condescending nod? I think not.

Now it is not my intention to underestimate in any way the importance of the economic side of life. I merely wish to call our attention to a situation in which the same mentality that places such a premium on economically productive and professional services (expressed in the language of monetary and social prestige) is compelled, by the logic of its very narrow worldview, to classify non-paying activities in such a radically different fashion. At best, as necessary, time-consuming, and unavoidable; at worst, as demeaning, denigrating, and barely worthy of mention, let alone positive recognition. These activities include being a good husband, wife, mother, father, son, or daughter.

Most people would agree that the sweet success of being a lawyer, doctor, or businessman with a six-figure income would be greatly diminished, if not completely soured, by the realization that one's children are seriously maladjusted. The hierarchy of values which places such a disproportionate amount of emphasis on one's marketplace activities must be seen as seriously flawed.

Since such activities have the image of being unstimulating, non-productive, and unfulfilling, is it any wonder that very few people consider the possibility that becoming a good father, wife, husband, or mother requires work, study, and even training in the form of close and intelligent observation of successful role models? Given such attitudes is it really surprising that one out of every two marriages fail?...

Specifically, that which is the raison d'etre of the modern-day marketplace has established an almost tyrannical hold on the mentality and life of contemporary Western man. No one is questioning or attacking the need to work in order to acquire the money necessary to purchase the necessities and even a moderate amount of the luxuries of life. I am, however, bemoaning a state of affairs in which man has allowed himself to be firmly put in his economically functional place as a full-time consumer by the marketplace. Lacking a sufficiently broad perspective, he has failed to put money, work, and consumption in their proper places. Life has consequently come to be viewed, more or less, as one big supermarket grab-bag.

"Okay, Mr. Zohar. Let's review the rules one more time. You have 75 or 80 years (that's part of the fun, you know, you can never know exactly when you'll have to stand in the check-out line) in which to fill up your life with any item in the store. Frozen foods, cars, spinach quiche, children, diapers, prestige, houses, vacations, marriages, identity crises, fine wines, good literature, careers, divorce, jacuzis, psycho-analysis (our Freudian department is having a sale this decade if you're interested), anything you see is yours -- if you can afford it. Understood? Huh? What's that you ask, Mr. Zohar? 'Are you allowed to take the items with you when you check out!? Look, Mr. Zohar, this is a supermarket. Ya wanna shop? Then shop. Ya wanna play dumb and ask cute questions, then take your business elsewhere -- understood? Good. Okay, let's try it again. I got other customers waiting, ya know. Ya ready? Ready, set, and... Shop!!"

When a customer purchases something, what is he really doing? He is indicating that he is not content with either the quantity or quality of what he already has. He is attempting to fill a need by acquiring something which he feels he is missing. He is looking for something (satisfaction, stimulation, fulfillment, a sense of achievement, call it what you will) in order to fill a certain lack, a certain emptiness in his life with material acquisition.

Simple observation indicates that it is a never-ending quest. The poor envy the lower middle class who envy the upper middle class, and everybody aspires to gain entry into the select circle of the wealthy. But do those at the top of the socio-economic scale seem any happier for their wealth? More importantly, now that they are wealthy, do they refrain from consuming? If they did, that would be an indication that there is, after all, a point where you have literally filled all your needs. You are missing nothing and therefore have no further need to acquire anything else.

On the contrary, the greater one's wealth, the greater the urge to acquire (because it is all the more realizable), and the more exotic and expensive the purchase, the more attractive its acquisition.

Once we understand the pervasiveness of the mentality of the marketplace and the primacy of man's self-image as a consumer, we can begin to understand what vacations and the flight from the everyday are all about. Not content with what he has, he is convinced that the excitement and fulfillment which he is missing are not to be found on the easily-accessible shelves containing the familiar bargain-priced goods of his everyday life. Our consumer reaches for the exotic, expensive, and novel package of experiences called a vacation.

As with most purchases, however, the initial feeling of excitement and pleasure which reached their peak at the moment of purchase soon dissipate. Within a short time, the contents of the package which seemed so novel and fresh when first opened will soon become as familiar and stale as the contents of everyday life. And so next year, instead of a vacation in Barbados, our vacationer will try the Greek Islands on for size, and after that...

Reprinted with permission from



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