Ernest Becker (1971) talks of 6 “common problems” that humanity faces- fundamental issues that you will have faced, no matter where or when you were born. The first of these is man’s relation to nature, and the conclusions he draws as to the modern man’s approach to the natural world and the disharmony it has created is vital in understanding our approach to one another. Modern man’s approach to nature is intimately bound to our economic system- mass production and a relentless drive for profit have led to a thoughtless decimation of our natural world, and we would be foolish to believe that this disregard has not impacted how we view one another as well.
The last of Becker’s “common problems” is our struggle to determine the power relations of both the universe at large and our society in particular. Power in the hands of others can on a basic level be seen as a barrier to our goals and freedoms and so we must obtain an understanding of our power in relation to that around us. A human race that believes that it has tamed and conquered nature, and thus that it is ok to exploit it, is a race that imbues itself with a dangerous and destructive arrogance. If you can control the forces of nature then why not the man sitting across from you? This of course does not play out on a conscious level, as most of the character defining process’ seem not to. Rather it is a subtle tone layered throughout an individualistic society- that you have power, that you are strong. For the first time in evolutionary history a species has placed itself above all others, disregarding notions of balance in nature and the connectedness of all life.
Of course for many of us this is counterbalanced with a growing disillusionment from our political leaders and our engagement in general. This leads to apathy and engenders a culture of helplessness- we no longer feel like we can effect real and meaningful change in our societies, a condition born out of the consolidating of huge political and economic power in the hands of a few, out of the lies and corruption in our officials, and the overwhelming scale of our problems. There is no such counter-balance for the elite- they have all the arrogance imbued on a race that has dominated nature and none of the helplessness of the “lower classes” learnt from centuries of oppression.
The rise of objective empiricism has forced us to reject the spiritual and abandon the unseen, whilst embracing the material and measurable. Nowhere is the dreadful outcome of this seen more than in how we do economics- we have eroded the human into a mere consuming machine- entirely rational and selfish. Not only does this lead to terrible measures such as GDP as a tracking of economic growth- but it twists the image of humanity into an unrecognisable creature and corrupts the source of our own identities.
If we embrace the current wave of empiricism and materialism propagated by science and capitalism all we value is the material, the things we can grab hold of and smell and taste and see. If all other meaning is lost to us, if we no longer believe in a higher being or an after life, or a collective consciousness or anything of that ilk- then all we have left is the material. This is the terrible brilliance at the heart of capitalism, the dark pit into which almost all of us fall if we’re not careful. We begin to obtain our sense of self and worth from the possessions we own and the money we earn. All there is left to us is money and objects. It’s how we define ourselves, and that’s why we try to keep up with the Jones’ and that’s why we get caught in the rat race. We don’t know our neighbours or the people that surround us when we shop- we no longer expect as much from human interaction as we used to so now we look elsewhere for fulfilment.
This “keeping up with the Jones'” is another tenant that capitalism depends upon- greed and competition. It requires of us to be ruthless and selfish, greedy and corrupt. This apparently leads to an invisible hand that will work for the betterment of all of us, this will push all of society above the clouds and into the sunlight. The worst of us- the things we bury deep and try to hide are suddenly called into the light and shown to be our salvation. My greed will be your plenty. This tenant ignores the fact that society only functions through mutual trust and cooperation, and that if we all truly acted as economists think we do then civilisation would burn. We’ve clawed ourselves out of the evolutionary ooze to become an aware and compassionate species, that works in unity and harmony, and yet the system would have us revert back to form and wash away millenia of progress.
Perhaps the notion of the free market is itself to blame for the wave of apathy sweeping across our country. Perhaps a system that supports deregulation and demonises governmental intervention actually engenders a culture of apathy- with its simplistic notion that by “leaving things alone” all our woes will be solved. The elected state is apparently a tool for oppression, but the non-elected and unaccountable corporation is the gift of salvation and prosperity.
I will not end this blog with a statement, or a conclusion. I will end it with a challenge- possibly the most important you’ll ever have to face. Search deep down in yourself, past the social constraints and the psychological barriers. Who are you really? Are you motivated purely by self interest, or do you care about more than just yourself? What do you think of the universe, of the world we live in- is what we can see and touch the whole picture or is there something more? Is there something more to you and those around you? And now that the assumptions and drives of our current economic system are laid bare for you to see- do you agree with them? Do you want a system that requires greed, inequality, materialism, ever-growing-consumption, and possibly your soul to keep going? For once I will not end by condemning the rich, but rather pitying them. If you want to imprison a free man, all you need do is let him get on with it.