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The Capitalist Mindset: What it does for you… and what it does TO you

Our relationship to the economy is critical for personal resilience… but most people have NO IDEA why we relate to the economy the way we do.

In school, we learn that our economic system is called “capitalism” and that it’s something that just sort of happened after the Middle Ages. This, as David Loy’s excellent book A Buddhist History of the West explains, is far from the whole story. Why do we feel so much at the mercy of the economy, the market, our own bank accounts, all the time?

loy

To understand how we’ve collectively created this ridiculous set of circumstances, we need only look back to how capitalism developed…

 

From the Protestant Reformation, Capitalism

Capitalism, or rather the mindset from which we presently approach it, didn’t spring into being after the Middle Ages. True, that was when urban merchants gained importance and modern banking came along, but the really critical event was the Reformation. How did a religious schism lead to capitalism? Well, first we have to make a distinction.

If by capitalism you mean entrepreneurship, the exchange of goods and services, competition, loans and investment of capital, then many, many civilisations have been capitalist before us: the Greeks, the Celts, the Indians, the Chinese at various times, the German free cities, the Italian city states- anybody with an established artisan and merchant class was arguably in some sense capitalist. The European Middle Ages was merely a short nap when capital slept imprisoned by the aristocratic landlords, and even then, Italy and parts of Germany continued to thrive as artisan-merchant economies.

But if by capitalism you mean the “religion” of capitalism, in which the market is nearly worshipped as the highest and defining element of society, the kind of capitalism in everything is justified in pursuit of profit, that is a mindset that came out of the ashes of the English Reformation.

You see, the Reformation got everyone looking at scripture for the model of what a reformed Christian society should look like. The trouble was that no one could agree on what it said. The New Testament contained powerful suggestions of a communitarian life- as it says in the Book of Acts, “Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.”

In truth, looking to scripture for a model of the perfect society was doomed from the start because scripture wasn’t written answer the question. It’s about as useful as opening a book on used cars and hoping to find out how to cook pheasant under glass.

 

Capitalism from Spiritual Lack

The Calvinist Puritans were a major force in the English Reformation with serious influence among the urban merchants and the lower gentry. And they were in something of a moral quandary. As Calvinists, they believed that their eternal fate was predestined, that only the elect already chosen by God would be saved irrespective of any good deeds (if you’re thinking this is spiritually ludicrous, you’re on the right track).

This made it dreadfully difficult for someone to take comfort in his religion or any spiritual endeavour. But, they reasoned, God would bless the elect in this life with economic prosperity- you could bet you were going to heaven if you did well enough at work.

This was where the association was made between money and moral value. For the first time, money was viewed as a salvific force, a way of trying to fill spiritual lack. In place of faith, hope and love, thrift and hard work reigned as Puritan virtues, which they imported with them to America when they came.

As the dream of a unified, reformed Christian society faded, people needed new things to put their faith in, new ways to fill their spiritual need, and money and all that it brought was there to step in.

Where the Reformation had looked forward to a society perfected by Christian values, capitalism simply looked forward… to the tomorrow of progress that is never sufficient, the GDP that is never big enough, the technology that is never advanced enough, the corporations that are never profitable enough, my income that is never big enough. In other words…

We have created a system of eternal movement which can never reach its goal, can never satisfy our spiritual lack, can never perfect our society, and always creates problems through the insatiable force of the spiritual hunger behind it. Yet we worship the mechanisms of economic change for the change itself, because it makes us forget about that futility.

If capitalism, or rather our version of it, is pursued with religious fervour, that’s because it did historically become the direct substitute for religion. To sum up, there are four main things to observe about OUR capitalism:

  1. Capitalism is the replacement for both Protestant spirituality and the Protestant search for a perfected society
  2. As such, it is the eternal movement toward a future fulfillment that never comes
  3. For capitalism to slow down long enough to solve the problems it creates is impossible, because it is the movement that distracts us from our feelings of lack
  4. The consuming and exploitative impulse of capitalism is driven by a deep-seated spiritual emptiness that, on some level, we realise can never be resolved through capitalism

The Commodified World

When we gave up on creating a better world through divine knowledge, we searched for a new certainty. Western Christianity had already replaced the direct mystical experience of God with rational knowledge, and so we applied this to the world around us. Western Christianity had also divorced mind from matter, creating both a split within the very psyche of every person and making it easy for those split psyches to objectify the material world as something “out there,” unspiritual, unimportant and therefore exploitable.

Thus, our search for knowledge about the world became a commodification of the world, the enforced service of matter to the mind. By extending our knowledge, we extend our power and our ability to exploit. This is what really sets Western science apart from, say, the millennia-old tradition of Taoist science, which sought to improve the use of natural principles while respecting nature itself.

But this commodification does not stop with inanimate matter or even animals. In the marketplace, human beings have been commodified, and from an early age, we are taught to assume the characteristics of a commodity- the uniform values, beliefs, interests and skills that enable us to be plugged conveniently into the corporate economy.

Fascinating Corporate Fiction

In order to facilitate this exploitation, we came up with a mechanism to avoid imposing normal interpersonal moral standards on economic actions. This is the fiction of the corporation.

The corporation gains a “legal” personhood so that the individual actions of those who direct it- the executives and stockholders- cannot be visited on them. The corporation and its ethos of increasing the wealth of the shareholders by all means absorbs all responsibility, but since it is not a real person, it is exceedingly difficult to bring to justice.

Back in the days when companies were owned by individuals, their responsibilities to their customers, employees and the community at large could be pinned on them. With corporations, this is exceedingly difficult, and this culture of evading responsibility continues to underwrite the global economic abuses of the present system.

What We Need to Learn

The problem is not the fact of the market. Today, more and more people are realising that the market can be harnessed to raise human potential, encourage human creativity and serve the community, and from social enterprises to fair trade, there has never been a more fruitful time for these ideas. But to make the most of them, we have to shed the mindsets which make the market harmful to us. Specifically:

  1. We have to realise that because the market proceeds from lack and desire, it creates a false impression of zero-sum games. To grow the economy in non-parasitic ways means finding more and more ways to help other people. Even in our business, we find many, many ways to cooperate rather than compete with those in the same field, creating mutual benefit and value for our customers. This is the future.
  2. We need to stop seeing ourselves, others and the world as commodity and instead focus on cultivating community.
  3. We need to give ourselves the creative freedom to contribute to the world, rather than fitting into the moulds the corporate economy tries to ram us into.
  4. We need to realise that while there is nothing wrong with improving our own circumstances or enjoying well-earned pleasures, a lot of our consumption actually brings little joy to us, while negatively affecting others on this planet. Being conscious of what and how we consume is essential to making a positive impact on the world we live in, as well as boosting our own resilience. We’ve written extensively about certain aspects of this, especially in areas like food.
  5. Above all, we need to understand that money in and of itself can never give us spiritual fulfillment- but working in a field we’re passionate about can certainly get us closer.

The Key

We literally create the world around us and all its aspects collectively. Just as we’ve collectively created a world full of poverty in the midst of plenty, lack in the midst of abundance and misery in the midst of wonder, so we can in fact create a magnificent society where everyone gains.

First, though, we have to change our own perceptions…

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

 




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