Materialism in Latin America

 La gente más exitosa es la que tiene más dinero

In one of his essays, Jorge Luis Borges provided a quote from Léon Bloy: "There is no human being on earth who is capable of declaring who he is.  No one knows what he has come to this world to do, to what his acts, feelings, ideas correspond, or what his real name is, his imperishable Name in the registry of Light ... "  (L'Ame de Napoleon, 1912).

In the context of the history of the universe, each human lifetime is smaller than a tiny flicker.  What does a person hope to accomplish during his/her lifetime?  This is a matter of values that arise from cultural, familial and personal factors.  Here are some possibilities:-

Such goals and values are necessarily controversial.  What is one person's mission in life may be considered beneath contempt to another.  The subject of this article will be about the pursuit of materialistic goals, specifically the accumulation of money.  We are interested which (if any) Latin Americans believe that money defines success in life.   

We will now cite some data taken from the TGI Latina survey.  During this survey, the respondents were presented with this statement, "Successful people are those with more money." ("La gente más exitosa es la que tiene más dinero") Of the 46,244 survey respondents between the ages of 12 and 64 years old in seven Latin American countries, 16.7% said that they completely agreed with this statement.

The following table provides the demographic breakdown of the responses.  Perhaps the most distinguishing feature is that the agreement rate is an inverse function of socio-economic level --- the rich is least likely to agree and the poor most likely to agree.  This is particularly true for those people who are the principal wage earners and caretakers in their households.

Demographic Characteristics % Completely agree with "Successful people are those with more money"

Socio-economic Level
     Top 10%
     Next 20%
     Next 30%
     Bottom 40%

     Male 12-19
     Male 20-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-44
     Male 45-54
     Male 55-64

     Female 12-19
     Female 20-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-44
     Female 45-54
     Female 55-65



(source:  TGI Latina 1999-2000)

The most famous Latin American discourse on esthetic and philosophical sensibilities is the essay Ariel by the Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó.  Drawing upon characters in William Shakespeare's play Tempest, this essay contrasts Ariel (truth and beauty) against Caliban (materialism and positivism).  About the materialistic North American society, Rodó wrote (in 1900, and things have not changed much since):

Is that society achieving, or at least partially achieving, the concept of rational conduct that satisfies the legitimate demands of intellectual and moral dignity?  Will this be the society destined to create the closest approximation of the "perfect state"?  Does the feverish restlessness that seems to magnify the activity and intensity of their lives have a truly worthwhile objective, and does that stimulus justify their impatience?

Herbert Spencer, voicing his sincere and noble tribute to American democracy at a banquet in New York City, identified this same unrestrainable restiveness as the fundamental characteristic of the lives of North Americans, an agitation manifest in their infinite passion for work and their drive toward material expansion in all its forms.  And then he observed that such an atmosphere of activity exclusively subordinated to the immediate proposals of utility denoted a concept of life that might well be acceptable as a provisional quality of a civilization, or as the preliminary stage of a culture.  Such a concept, however, demands subsequent revision, for unless that tendency is curbed, the result will be to convert utilitarian work into an end, into the supreme goal of life, when rationally it can be only one among numbers of elements that facilitate the harmonious development of our being ...

North American life, in fact, perfectly describes the vicious circle identified by Pascal: the fervent pursuit of well-being that has no object beyond itself.  North American prosperity is as great as its inability to satisfy even an average concept of human destiny.  In spite of its titanic accomplishments and the great force of will that those accomplishments represent, and in spite of its incomparable triumphs in all spheres of material success, it is nevertheless true that as an entity this civilization creates a singular impression of insufficiency and emptiness.  And when following the prerogative granted by centuries of evolution dominated by the dignity of classicism and Christianity we ask, what is its directing principle, what its ideal substratum, what the ultimate goal of the present Positivist interests surging through that formidable mass, we find nothing in the way of a formula for a definitive ideal but the same eternal preoccupation with material triumphs.

Of course, it is easy to take the moral high ground by railing against the emptiness of materialistic values.  But it would be obscene (read: Marie Antoinette, who actually did not say "Let them eat cake")  to suggest to someone who is unable or barely able to provide for their families that money is less important than other loftier spiritual and aesthetic goals.

(posted by Roland Soong, 4/14/2001)

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