The foundation of our economic system was formulated in the 18th century, at a time when the understanding of humankind was quite limited. Yet we continue to adhere to its precepts as if this 18th century understanding was a full and complete understanding.
The conduct of this (egoistic) capitalist system rest upon the following set of assumptions and precepts: a) the world is a material world explainable as matter-in-motion; b) humankind has no interior essence and is, like the planets above, grounded in matter and the material; c) the cause of human action is external and material; d) with no shared or common interior essence there is no inherent ‘We’ only ‘Me’ as independent individuals; e) each individual is his own property and destined to improve his lot in pursuit of selfish pleasure through material gain; f) the wealth of a nation is the linear sum of the material gain of individuals; and g) Nature’s bounty is limitless and ours’ individually to act upon, dominate and exploit to satisfy our individual pleasurable pursuits. With these assumptions and rules as the guide what could possibly be the future for people and Nature?
It is not difficult to imagine how these foundational underpinnings taken to their logical conclusion explains why life in capitalist society is as it is. Since setting these as unchallenged truths the economic system has become, in a step-by-step fashion, an imposing (and clearly a top heavy) societal structure. It is one that if not capturing it at least adversely impacts peoples’ lives in so many ways. Accordingly, with this system of orientation it is not at all surprising—in fact it would be surprising if it hadn’t happened—that we’ve structured society and life as a competition for stuff. Unfortunately, in this competition we all lose, especially the more we win.
So the fact that a person’s worth equates to his/her material wealth, that inequality is increasing as today’s winners have a greater chance of being winners tomorrow due in part to the auto correlative nature of competitive systems (and of course the winners take it all), that except for when challenged by natural disasters and wars against enemies any sense of being a collective (i.e. collectivism) is disregarded if not repulsed, that the exploitation and extraction of Nature is thought to be without limit or consequence; that the externalities of economic activity are largely dismissed (if it doesn’t now impact me then frankly it is not a problem I care about!). I could go on but I suspect this is enough toward making the point that this system of assumptions and rules (i.e. beliefs) enacted is one with which we likely will destroy ourselves—it will be pure and simple suicide!
Triple-A Way to Self-Destruction
Metaphorically what we have is a 3-legged economic stool with the first leg being attachment to the material. We are led to believe that we are nothing if we haven’t acquired the material stuff that shows we are worthy. As Erich Fromm said quite succinctly “I am = what I have and what I consume” (To have or to be, p 15). Those without the material trappings have no worth and contribute nothing to the wealth of society—such people are simply worthless, without value. Who among us desires to be worthless? Thus through attachment the desire for the material, a having-orientation, is fostered.
Modern management practice supports, if not develops, attachment and a having-orientation by its use of carrot-and-stick fear-based methods (e.g. merit system, pay-for-performance, annual performance appraisal, incentive systems, management-by-results). These methods keep people focused on their deficit needs (which correlates with a having-orientation and develops dependence on others) whereby their satisfaction is held conditional upon satisfying management’s desires. The assumptions these extrinsic motivational practices flow from the above system precepts and in particular include: 1) people have no interior essence; 2) the cause of human action is external and material; and 3) people selfishly pursue material gain.
The second leg, addiction, follows directly from our attachment to things of outer value and the corresponding development of a having-orientation. Given that the pursuit of pleasure through the acquisition of material gain has no natural satiation point—one could never have enough stuff—the need to have more and more turns inevitably into an addiction. People are habitually compelled to seek material gain.
This addiction to material gain, to increased profit time after time is quite evident. For business enterprises—especially those subservient to Wall Street—if their profit this quarter is not greater than it was the last quarter they’ve failed! For individuals, the material gain they’ve realized yesterday though pleasurable at the time can never quite satisfy tomorrow’s desire for pleasure—getting more stuff becomes what it’s all about.
It has become so much so that many fear letting go of their egoic way of being and associated attachments to the material trappings the system advances as success in life. Although most haven’t acquired sufficient material gains—especially today as the inequality gap grows exponentially—they seemingly hold out hope that someday they too will have it all (more individual effort is all it takes).
This addiction for acquiring unceasingly is the needed wealth providing consumption-production dynamic to ensure profitable gain time and time again for those producing and selling the stuff we are led to desire—consumption drives demand which drives production. Furthermore, if we haven’t the ready cash to buy then credit with interest—of course a very profitable arrangement for the lender—will be provided to enable us getting our consumption fix. The insatiable need to have more in order to be worthy keeps us running on the wheel, it keeps us in the rat race forever working, individually putting forth effort, so that we can get the things we desire. We mustn’t stop for after all our sense of self worth is dependent on it!
The more we are consumed by our addictions the more our destruction is ensured with the third leg, alienation, as we become increasingly alienatedfrom our self and each other, as well as life it self. Erich Fromm concluded, “Idolatrous worship of the externalizations of irrational passions is the process of alienation” (The sane society, p 124). Alienation is so destructive because people objectify themselves and others in the process—the real self is lost. It essentially puts egoic selfish material pursuits on steroids—the essence of greed and insanity. Holding above life the very things one pursues in life is simply an insane way to structure and live one’s life. If you doubt this just invest a little time in reflection and looking around with an open and inquiring mind.
This unceasing desire to have and to consume turns us into a consumable, a commodity—we don’t live and develop as human beings in life we develop as a career—a career is a thing, an object. When the value of every person is defined externally, then there is no inherent value in any one, including one’s self—we all become objectified and powerless! Internally impoverished as life is sucked out of us. When the power lies in things outside our self then effectually we become dependent upon an external power for our sense of self-worth. Though some will say they have attained it in this system it is nonetheless very precarious and ephemeral because it is dependent upon someone or something outside one’s self: Yes they may have acquired more but what have they become?
What’s To Be Done?
Unfortunately, all too often we hear we have to make it (i.e. the system, egoistic capitalism) work. The vast majority of solutions or fixes addressing the symptoms ignore the fact that the system is a misaligned system, foundational unsound. In essence they offer an exact solution to a poorly defined problem. Hence such attempts at making the system work just can’t work! It is like tinkering with all sorts of shims to make a window fit that dimensionally doesn’t align with the opening—it will never quite do. Also for those advancing the idea that there is no alternative (TINA) this sadly is just an expression of their ignorance and a reflection of their addiction.
As the dialogue in It’s the EconoMe reveals, our egoistic economic system is making us slightly mad (creating an insane society) in large part due to it not aligning with our very nature—it works against human beings not for human beings. It is a structure built on sand destined to tumble from its own weight. “Everything for me and nothing for others is a recipe for destruction and the depletion of wealth, not its growth” (It’s the Econome, p 8). Consequently the system must be foundationally recast with a different aim if we have any chance of reclaiming our inherent value as people and ensuring our viability as human beings, individually and collectively.
The intent of the system must be life affirming not life alienating. That is it must be dynamic not static, it must support and further human development and not place material growth above life itself. This does not mean we disregard material production rather material production should be the means not the end. “Each person has unique capabilities to give through their unfolding in life, and economic activity can facilitate this if each person in the transaction is afforded the opportunity to be humanly productive—productivity must not be limited to material productivity. In this way, the production of goods and services would be a means to the evolvement of the individual…Economic activity–the production of goods and services–can afford each individual the opportunity to express and realize his/her unique talents and capabilities” (The intent of business, pp 114-115).
In this way the focus is on human progress not material growth. “Progress is concerned with the future, with making the prospects for the future better through the decisions and actions taken in the present. Moreover progress is about forward movement toward a higher state of human existence and thus requires enabling each person to realize or express his/her potential, as well as to take responsibility for their way of being-in-the-world…Growth, on the other hand is about the present relative to the past and is materially related with dimensions that address size, quantity, weight and power. Further, growth is bounded by the materiality of Nature, whereas progress, which involves the expression of the infinite, is only limited by ones finitude–which is transcended when we consider future generations. That said, material productivity and monetary gain would still be of concern, it is just that they wouldn’t be the driving concern”(The intent of business, p 117).
We shouldn’t focus on making changes in the system that will minimize or buffer us from the adverse effects of the system. What we need to do is dissolve the problems; that is, we should eliminate the chance of the system producing the problems we now experience from ever happening. This requires a fundamental redesign, a change of the system.