Thursday, March 31, 2011

Never quite enough

I'd like to highlight an article with the above title by integral economist Christian Arnsperger found at this link. I will provide comments later in that section.

"A 30 percent tax on the world’s two hundred highest fortunes...could give every poor person on the planet a lifetime of nutrition, health, and education. The irony of the situation is that the psychological suffering of a handful of billionaires each' 'robbed' of one third of his fortune would quickly overshadow the physical and psychological suffering experienced today by the 'bottom billion' of the poorest among the poor.

"I fully realize that in the depths of my own body and my own psyche I am just like those billionaires.... For Western man, asking for a third, or even a tenth, of his income in order to feed, house, and educate the whole world is simply too much to ask; each Western Man is the whole world unto himself—we have been
manufactured that way by our culture. It’s called modern individualism.

"We can choose differently, we can choose to look at our lives in another way and to realize that we have made the capitalist market economy into our church, and modern economic science into our religion.

"Existential economics...led to me into this—somewhat iconoclastic—direction was a twofold factor: on the one hand, an anchoring within what, roughly, we might call Christian humanism, a way of doing philosophy that accepts that anthropological reflection need not (and, in fact, cannot) be disconnected from radical reflection on religious and spiritual issues; on the other hand, a deep indignation with the injustice of capitalism, together with a growing difficulty to fit my thinking into Marxist schemes of reasoning.

"Generating constant economic growth within a framework of constantly expanding globalization—this is, in a nutshell, the capitalist project when it comes to economic development. I want to argue that such a view—the massively dominant view—of development is existentially move towards a genuinely post-development view, we need to tackle the issues raised by existential economics. For us in the rich, Western countries, capitalist, growth-oriented development has been a three-century-old cultural choice. It has been based on specific anthropological premises. It has been an anthropological and spiritual disaster.

"The identification of growth with development comes from a deep-seated conviction in the Western cultural landscape: more stuff is better than less stuff. By 'stuff' I mean material goods but also all sorts of non-material objects such as services and images. The Western human being is a being who has made consumption into an existential imperative.

"Don’t expect me to draw...a well-meaning denunciation of economic materialism in the name of 'spirituality.' If I did that, I’d be ignoring the very roots of modern economic thought. In reality, in fact, the great thinkers of economics were working very consciously for the salvation of humanity.... I think we need to go as far as saying that economic thought has a strictly spiritual root.... The economy is, therefore, less a technical-operational domain than an existential-spiritual one.... Economics, part and parcel of theology—not only neo-liberal economics (as some left-wing critics claim, using the word 'theology' as a degrading term), but all of economics to the extent that it ultimately seeks to liberate Man. Marx, Keynes, and Hayek were, literally, the most influential theologians of the 20th century; I say this not by analogy or as an image, but as a literal description of what their study of economic activity was about.

"What is post-development? It is, essentially, a move from capitalism to post-capitalism in all parts of the globe. This includes pre-capitalist economies which still exist. These economies are no longer viable; the existential critique of capitalism should never be an alibi for a nostalgic—and completely illusory—return to pre-capitalist forms. The idea, instead, is that poor countries need not necessarily go through a capitalist 'stage' in order to go beyond the misery which we, in the West, have bestowed upon ourselves through the massive growth of our wealth.

"Capitalism functions on what I call imaginary scarcity: what makes accumulation, competition, and consumption 'work' is the fact that each of us somehow feels he never has enough. Wanting to get more just deepens the feeling of 'never quite enough.' This process is never-ending; it never exhausts itself; more not being enough, it calls for even more, and this creates growth and the need for growth to create existential reassurance.

"Now, real scarcity could, in principle, be eliminated through a form of egalitarian capitalism. You could try to 'channel' the dynamism and incentives of capitalism into a system where we produce, distribute, and consume (and even 'exploit' each other, which is inevitable whenever there is division of labor)—a system that would establish one single barrier to capitalist rationality: everyone should be protected from real scarcity, so that  there should be massive and constant redistribution. But alas, egalitarian capitalism is an unstable creation; when you establish it (as did the promoters of social democracy in the mid-20th century), it gets attacked from all sides by those who have no interest in it. Why? Simply because capitalism and equality are like oil and water: you can mix them up vigorously, but if you don’t coerce them into staying mixed they will separate again. The basic reason is that egalitarian capitalism eliminates real scarcity but is incompatible with imaginary scarcity.... [We need] a profound change in our theology, a change towards a new fundamental reflection on what it means to be human beyond liberal individualism... Capitalism can’t transcend itself.

"In a truly post-capitalist world, human beings should be free from both real and imaginary scarcity. The idea that constantly growing aggregate wealth can be stimulated only through relative poverty—an idea that lies at the heart of capitalist market incentives—has to be replaced with the idea that moderate wealth can be maintained through relational and social investment.

"One thing that is very urgently needed is development aid to the First World from the Third World—to the extent that the Third World hasn’t itself already given up its traditions.... What the Third-World traditions are still rich in, and what we tend to have become very poor in, is spiritual resources to deal with existential anxiety in 'adjusted' ways—integrating death into the rituals of life.... Spiritual resources would allow us to see things differently, and to live differently, giving economic wealth production its rightful—and relatively minor—place and giving relational and social investment the priority."

1 comment:

  1. Even though he sees we cannot return to a pre-capitalist economy nevertheless in our way forward he recommends reintroducing from pre-capitalist, third world countries their metaphysical notions of spirituality, up to an including immortality of the soul. It is these metaphysical beliefs that take us beyond our materialist limitation that create the never enough existential feeling inherent to capitalist individualism. While I agree we need to reinject spirituality back into the equation it needs to go postmetaphysical and in this regard Arnsperger could use a good dose of the Integral Postmetaphysical Spirituality forum.


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