by Eric Shechter
We’re in big trouble. Apathy and cynicism paralyze us, wars and sweatshops torment us, the economy is heading toward another plunge, and now ecocide has come to finish us off. Already floods, droughts, and food prices are increasing, and they’ll continue to do so. To survive, we need enormous changes, and we need to discuss them before the collapse — but eventually the discussion must lead to action.
We must get more people into the global conversation, to grow ideas and raise awareness. We must uncover the truth about economics, human nature, and the power of the people. I’ll start with economics.
Most people are clamoring for huge reforms, to make capitalism work properly; they say that we’ve strayed far from our society’s fundamental principles. But my view is considerably more radical. As I see it, our terrible problems are consequences of our fundamental principles; those principles are part of what we need to change! I’ll explain that capitalism itself is toxic, both materially and spiritually, even when it is honest, and it can’t be kept honest, and ultimately it is the root of all our problems. Walmart, Monsanto, and Fukushima are merely symptoms of a cultural wrong turn that our whole society took long ago. Correcting it is an enormous task that we can’t put off any longer.
— — — — — —
Some people won’t hear me, because they’ve been taught to equate capitalism with democracy. But actually those are opposites. Most folks don’t get to vote on how their workplaces are run; they have to do as they’re told. Jobs are structured to suit the bosses and owners. Consequently, most jobs are unfulfilling, and people would quit in a minute if they didn’t need the paycheck.
Some people credit progress to capitalism, but again those are opposites: Experimental research consistently shows that monetary rewards motivate menial work but demotivate inventiveness. And progress ought to mean a shorter workweek, but under capitalism it just means fewer workers are needed. Then, with more unemployed competing for fewer jobs, wages sink. Thus, the so-called “jobs problem” is really a capitalism problem.
People have been trained to believe in the efficiency of market pricing, but I don’t see it. Planned obsolescence is tremendously wasteful. And natural resources are priced at extraction cost, rather than replacement and cleanup cost. We’re turning a garden planet into a toxic dump. The commons has been privatized, plundered, and poisoned, so the ecosystem is dying. Runaway global warming is now accelerating, due to several feedback loops. Carbon-neutral is not enough; we must implement carbon-negative technologies widely in this decade or we won’t survive this century.
Also accelerating is the growth of information, which makes each of us more powerful, for good or ill, and all too often it is for ill: Destruction is easier than preservation. Weapons are becoming cheaper and easier to obtain. Soon every suicidal madman will have his own germ warfare lab, and will not be deterred by military bullies. There is nowhere to hide. Our species will only survive if we develop a global culture of friendship and love that heals madmen and bullies.
But private property creates a culture of separateness that is spiritually poisonous. It says
“you keep your stuff in your house and I keep my stuff in my house; your loss is not my loss, and might even be my gain; and keep the homeless where we won’t have to see them.”
And so our lives are separate. We train in competition, not cooperation. Lacking community, we seekmeaning in our material possessions, but we don’t find it there, so we numb ourselves with antidepressants and other drugs. Empathy is replaced with apathy and cynicism, generating madmen, bullies, and greedy pigs. War and other cruelties are ignited by lies, chiefly “those people are not like us.”
The gap between the rich and everyone else widens with every transaction in the so-called “free market.” That’s because the rich can afford to decline any offer that doesn’t make them richer. In contrast, the poor get few offers, and must accept whatever they can get, even a shitty deal like migrant farmworker or the so-called “volunteer army.” Trickle-down doesn’t work, because the market — growing more efficient — permits ever fewer crumbs to fall. Small businesses get crushed and swallowed by big ones. Our debts, like our workplaces, are owned and exploited by the rich.
— — — — — —
Thus, even under honest capitalism, even before people start cheating, wealth and power become concentrated into few hands. It’s like the board game Monopoly, which ends with all players but one destitute. The social stratification destroys any sense of shared purpose; the resulting distrust is stressful, painful, and medically harmful. Admittedly, a concentration of power can develop from any socioeconomic system — but that’s more likely in capitalism, where it’s an explicitly stated goal.
— — — — — —
And once power becomes concentrated, you can say goodbye to democracy and freedom. Power corrupts; that old proverb has been verified by the Stanford Prison Experiment and other modern research. Thus some of the wealthy turn greedy, and honest capitalism turns dishonest. And that’s hardly surprising: You can’t harness the devil, and bargaining with him always ends badly.
Small businesses may behave honorably, but they can’t be separated from big businesses. Big businesses are psychopaths, compelled by competition and by their legal charters to maximize profit by any means available, disregarding or even concealing harm to workers, consumers, and the rest of the world.
The wealthy buy government, which brings a huge return on investment. They rule, not so much by brute force or by secret cabals, but rather by owning the media, framing the issues, and focusing the public’s attention on distractions. Problems like poverty or global warming are swept under the rug and never addressed at all, because addressing them would not make the rich richer. Instead, the psychopaths in power produce bombs and prisons for profit. Reforms can’t be effective for long, because money erodes its way through any regulations. There’s not much point in asking the incredibly rich to promise, on their “honor,” to not influence politics in their own favor. The only way to avoid rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class.
— — — — — —
We’ve been taught that we’re powerless, but in fact change is possible. As Victor Hugo said, no army can stand against an idea whose time has come. When people finally realize how money is destroying us all inside and out, billions will rise against it. And the police, despite all their training, are still human; when they awaken and join our side, the bureaucracy of brutality will fall without a shot. But a fairer redistribution of wealth will not last if we continue in separate lives; we must change our culture too.
“Imagine no possessions — I wonder if you can,” John Lennon sang. And I, too, wonder if you can visualize a life so very different from our present one. We’ve hoarded for 10,000 years, and that’s deeply ingrained in our culture. But before that we shared with our tribe for 100,000 years, and that’s still coded in our viscera. We can and must return to sharing, but now with a global tribe. That will be a change bigger than revolution — it’s a move to a higher spiritual plane — but nothing less will restore the commons and save our species from extinction.
What can you and I do about it? Join the conversation. Help spread ideas, information, and inspiration. Tell people that we’re all on the planning committee. And, of course, if you like this essay, recommend it.