Among the less famous quotes of Marshall McLuhan was his declaration “affluence creates poverty.” Under our current usage of the word, many would have no choice but to agree with him. Most western cultures consider an individual affluent if they have accumulated substantial wealth relative to the majority of citizens in their society. In the modern context, the unfortunate side effect of the accumulation of wealth is that the top one percent of Americans have 15 times the total wealth of the bottom 50% of their countries population. Though McLuhan’s logic is clear; one wonders, is this really what it means to be ‘affluent?’
Let’s consider the etymology, the history of the word, ‘affluence.’ Its current usage became popular in the 15th century England. This was when ‘affluence’ became associated with having a great deal of wealth. Believing that wealth ‘rightly’ flowed to them, the word fit nicely into the aristocracy’s myth that they ruled by heavenly will.
Going a bit further back to the Latin roots, we find ‘affluence’ had a very different meaning. The archaic Latin root of the word ‘affluence’ is ‘affluens,’ which means “to flow abundantly.” It lacks the association to wealth. Some would argue that the changes in meaning in these two definitions is part of the natural evolution of language. This is not untrue. What is suspect is that the current definition comes with a built in socio-economic limiter. If we view ourselves as not being affluent, the implication is that wealth doesn’t flow toward us because we weren’t chosen.
If we shift to the Latin usage, then the word has nothing to do with receiving the flow, it’s about the quality of the flow and direction it is flowing. ‘Affluens’ is a word used to describe something that is in motion, not those who are receiving it.
The truly ‘affluent’ person don’t even consider the idea that things must flow to them. They are artists, producers, creators; they are the source from which things flow. The artist or entrepreneur, who prolifically create things of value, creates an affluence in their life. Their expressions flow abundantly out into the world.
It is an unfortunate side-effect of the politics of language that we believe that wealth flows to people who are affluent. Nothing can be further from the truth. From my perspective, ‘wealthy people’ aren’t necessarily ‘affluent’ people. Yes, having wealth and half a brain does insure that you can create more wealth. Though, in terms of human evolution, that just makes you a good gatherer.
If affluence is determined by ‘divine right,’ as much of the worlds aristocracy would have us believe, then those who are affluent are receiving what amounts to a “metaphysical handout.” The quality or richness of their wealth is determined by an outside agency.
Though, if we stick with the older, maybe more authentic definition, then those who are ‘affluent’ are in control the flow of their affluence. The richness of their lives is a product of their own efforts. If they want to produce more or less, they are in control of the flow. There’s an inherent freedom in creating your own destiny that invades those who are waiting for heaven to grace them with affluence.
The politics at work in the meaning of this word are clear. One definition restricts, the other encourages us to create. It’s interesting to speculate what McLuhan would have thought of ‘affluence’ if Latin meaning had been more in vogue. Would he have declared instead that ‘affluence could end poverty?’
Photo by Daniel Chekalov.