COMMENT: When a reader sends comments, I offer thorough response
I complained last column about a lack of comments left after my online columns, and behold, I got a critical response on March 11. I have to give this person my full attention. (I also got a comment of support from an acquaintance, but I will make my critic the point of departure for this column.)
The critic’s main remark is a rephrasing of a Churchillian aphorism: “Capitalism is a horrible system. It is just better than everything else.” He also seems to have understood me to say that capitalism “gives” people their station in life (I have not said that), but asserts people earn their place. And he asserts that wealth does not make one a morally-inferior person, which I suppose I have inadvertently implied in my writing.
So to this reader, I offer an analysis of capitalism not as economic system, but as a matrix of human consciousness, hoping he has read my three previously-offered columns here.
To begin, I hope to clarify what moves me to write about politics. So, I quote myself from a month ago:
“In all future columns, I will assume a consensus of readers that we surrender the illusion of control over nature and the future. We accept that human spiritual ingredients are of equal truth with material ones. To balance them is an act of making ego subject to compassion. We commit to an inward task of self-knowledge, and of labour to raise our consciousness. And we do not give in to despair, with regard to what we can do outwardly to make the material world less painful for others.”
I am no longer a rabid socialist foe of capitalism, as once was true. Therefore my critiques of what “capitalism” does to humanity and other species, and to our planet, are not motivated first by a revolutionary agenda — such as a Marxian politician would be trying to advance — and not provoked by any wish to “overthrow” (smash, destroy, etc.) the economy, politics, and cultures of capitalism today.
The social engineers, the “improvers” of human kind through monstrous programs and pogroms, such as we have seen historically in revolutionary France or Russia or Cambodia, sought to use the awesome power of the State to make a new human (homo sovieticus, etc.) Their order was flawed. First improve the quality of people who exercise power, then maybe they will actually prove to be worthy of their power.
My path through life has brought me to a quiescent moment for my own civic activism, when I have pulled my horizons in much closer. My family and a few friends, and whomever I might reach in my writing and my radio broadcasts, now get my fullest attention. I have a spiritual conviction of the need to be more inward-turning just now, personally. I still honour and respect immensely those who keep fighting in the exterior sphere of political activism: Fight; do not despair. Politics is still a path to human betterment – but not with the institutions we have and the people who inhabit them. We need improved people, and while capitalism commands our material environment, we are unlikely to find such people in high political office.
I will state my thesis for my critic. Capitalism nourishes the materialist ingredient of humanity at the expense of the intangible and mysterious, and we suffer for it. We are more than bodies, and we live by more than bread. The ego-distorting power of capitalist “success” is lethal to spiritual development, I would say to you.
I quote myself from an earlier column:
“…Our egos are not like earlier ones, nor like non-Western types. We have grown material and psychological aspects to ego now, that were not present in the consciousness of India, China, Persia, or Europe during the ages before capitalism and science altered the landscape…. Freedom of choice has become less of a fantasy and more a realistic possibility – ever since the power of capitalism, science, technology, and the nationalist State, burst upon the scene of human history in the few centuries after Europe colonized the New World…. I believe that this type of ego, so normal now as to be unnoticeable and very difficult to perceive, is enforced, fed, nourished, over-fed and hyper-inflated, by material possessions. And surely no one doubts that we possess a vast array of – what else to call them? – possessions. “
In past columns, I have tried to be clear — it is the materialism of this constellation of systems (given the catch-all label of “capitalism”) that provokes my attacks upon it. I have no affection for the materialism of socialists, communists, or Marxists either. Capitalism is just too damned effective at making us forget the non-material aspect of human being. It puts human consciousness into a state of anesthesia. It enhances the baser ingredients of our nature; that is my most compelling reason for saying capitalism is repugnant.
Capitalism is never just one thing. It operates its economic premises within quite varied political organisms e.g , in an Islamic republic or communist one-party dictatorship or parliamentary-monarchic government. It thrives within different ideological atmospheres also, whether American exceptionalist- patriotic messsianism, Swedish government-regulated quasi-socialism, Saudi Arabian feudal-theocratic monarchy, Canadian soft-nationalist parliamentarianism, or African and Asian authoritarian-traditionalist regimes’ various ideologies. Profits can be made in any of these; also, money reformulates their values.
Capitalism is not endemically democratic. But it does generate wealth for capitalists, and they as a class will never be entirely inert in politics. People who earn wealth by their entrepreneurial risk-taking and competitive ethos are not people who will indefinitely accept exercising no power in government. When “common” people can rise by amassing material acquisitions, they won’t accept inherited privilege, and aristocracy or party-caste elites do not survive when capitalism has enriched large numbers. That is, I think, why capitalism’s defenders say it “supports democracy” (but not equality of social class, and not re-distributive social justice).
Quite wonderfully and rather counter-intuitively, capitalism does not dictate one particular cultural formation. Variety and multiplicity thrive. Religions are flourishing within capitalism, and still the machinery of capital accumulation, of debt-money, of profit, speculation, and private property, all co-exist with a multitude of family values, attitudes to women, public legal norms, and what I can only call (for lack of a better term) “philosophies of life.”
The cultural fabric and mainstream norms of Canada have, in my lifetime, altered almost out of recognition. The rapid development of technologies like the personal automobile and computer, air travel, television, the Internet, and the cellphone, have overturned the comfortable patriarchal world of stifling WASP Ontario conformity in which I was born in 1950. No mourning for that culture here; good riddance.
But with all gain perhaps there is always some loss, and as my remarks in an earlier column spelled out, the greatest loss to us is in intangible, spiritual areas of our lives. I am not one who believes that because of technology and the incredible affluence of the West’s middle classes, that humanity is accelerating its evolution of consciousness. That evolution is still in question. Jeremy Rifkin, Ken Wilber, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Deepak Chopra, and other luminaries of the consciousness-shift movement notwithstanding, I see just as much de-evolution as forward progress over the last 50 years.
The West-meets-East fusion of high capitalist technological prosperity with traditions of the Buddha, the Tao, the I Ching, and occultist/esoteric streams, have not raised humanity. Yes, I agree with Teilhard de Chardin, there is a potential for a planetary noosphere, a mind-melding of humanity as the consciousness of Gaia. However, the dystopian future as portrayed for Earth in the film Avatar, has not been rendered less probable since the year 2000, but more likely. The thresholds for human catastrophe, the knife-edge of cascading crises, are not being mitigated, in my estimation. The future is not looking bright.
Do I blame capitalism for that? No. Capitalism “is us”. It is not accidental nor incidental to human behavior that this mode of being has ascended into planetary dominance. Its power is a manifestation of some very deep structured reality of the being known as the human.
Is capitalism truly the best we can do, however? No.
Summing up, my dear critic and responder to my column, I am not tearing capitalism apart from some urge to destroy what good it has done. It has indeed done wonders.
I am a dialectician, I suppose, and I see the necessity of inhaling all of a system’s historical atmosphere, both repugnant and fragrant. Marx is the exemplar of one who praises capitalism in one monologue, while abhorring it in another, as you can see from a quick read of his classic, The Communist Manifesto.
Never mind that history is full of examples of systems worsen than capitalism. Can you imagine a better one? Of course you can. Well sir, push the world toward that better way of being. However you can contribute to bring more love and compassion to political activism, do it.
Act especially when the action goes against capitalist norms. Must humans act from a calculation of “enlightened self-interest”? – in Adam Smith’s felicitous phrase. (Smith was a very thoughtful man and wrote a lot about morality. Strange that he is a revered voice of capitalist apologetics.)
One begins by an interior examination of who you are, what makes you tick, what you care most about. Ask, what would make you a better participant than those who rule us in politics and the corporate order? Why replace them if we are not better than them?
A government of Gandhis is a speculative possibility that stimulates the imagination. Is it merely fantasy to think about that? Does power ruin us? Or does materialism do that, as I argue?
I am not calling for saints to become politicians, nor vice versa. I just wish that the people who think they are doing us a favour by entering politics and acquiring power, question that assumption. It is very good for the politician’s mind to discover that until 200 years ago, there was no word “politician” in common usage. The notion of a career “doing politics” was, not so long ago, a very novel and much-ridiculed idea.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc of the Cognizant can be found here.