I'm reading Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" currently, but (separately) have also been reminded of Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. Reading this story about a global crackdown on warez, and the associated Slashdot comments has got me thinking about them together though.
"D & P" is currently examining the purpose of punishment, and the almost scientific manner of mapping and matching the seriousness of the punishment to the seriousness of the crime. Many of the opinions against the increasing heavy-handedness of the media industry, and the related punishment for piracy*, question the sensibility and rationality in the disproportion between the 2. But maybe this is looking at it the wrong way.
If, rather than rational and sense - which are mostly relative anyway, we adopt a view that resembles Maslow's Hierarchy, perhaps we can understand better the progress of "justice" in the modern era. Traditionally, the hierarchy refers to the needs of an individual - physical factors, then safety, then love, etc. However, I think this can be scaled up to a societal application as well. We as a society are somewhat "advanced" in that we have food aplenty, and that we are relatively safe (despite what politicians keep trying to tell us). (I would question heavily whether we have achieved anything further up the ladder yet...)
That's not to say that we've 'eradicated' murder and rape and gruesome stuff like that. But we're "safe" as a whole in terms of invasion, in terms of general lifestyle.
So our priorities have shifted - just as the priorities of an individual shift as they mature and evolve. Both society and the individual prioritise threats to the most immediate layer of the hierarchy, and in the West's case, this has moved on from being either survival or chaos, and has emerged as "income". (I suspect this factor is halfway between the "safety" and "love" levels - it has its roots in the former, but aims loftily for the latter. Economy is a security of the mind.)
This would explain the increasing emphasis on things that many consider "unnecessary", and the associated emphasis on avoiding "economic chaos". The question is, is this a necessary step in the progress of society, or are we barking up the wrong tree? In other words, do we need this fascination with money in order to get past it? And if so, should we expect to see much more emphasis placed on things that, traditionally, would be considered "extraneous"?
I think that level 3 - "Love/Belonging" - comes out of a realisation that money doesn't give you everything. We're only now starting to realise that the economic systems we have in place may get things moving/stable technically, but actually do very little in terms of other important factors such as societal and ecological needs. Unfortunately, this realisation also often comes out of loss, and having to face up to what one could only describe as "regret". And if you go down this route, then you realise the only possible outcome for the road we're on is that a whole load of stuff is going to have to be "lost" before we get past our fixation with money.
* from the msnbc article: "...Bush signed a new law last month setting tough penalties of up to 10 years in prison for anyone caught distributing a movie or song before its commercial release..."