Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Accumulation Of Wealth As Mental/Moral Illness

Lately I've been thinking, again, and talking more actively, about the fundamentally diseased nature of our capitalist economic structure (E.F. Schummacher talked about small, localized capitalism as viable, and I tend to think he was right; he was also basing this thought on a  fundamentally spiritual/Christian model of values, including justice and service, but any spiritual path worth its salt would, and does, say the same)  based at its core on the exploitation of natural resources and of people, and on the active oppression of people for the direct and exclusive benefit of a tiny elite. This has certainly been the history of the United States from its inception, and of the colonization of the New World before its inception.  The current "affluent" way of life of many North Americans would be impossible without these activities. What we take for granted is only possible at the expense and misery of enormous populations around the world, endless wars and the incalculable suffering that they entail, and the systematic and clearly unsustainable pillaging of someone else's "property", land and culture. It has never been any different under the similar social and economic models of any previous empire's rule. We have historically supported, and we continue now to support, either overtly or covertly, brutally oppressive puppet regimes. We justify this by declaring that otherwise some "socialist" or "communist" or "people's" or "populist" regime would gain power and threaten the sacred American way of life ( by which we mean the obscene profits of American based multi-national corporate conglomerates). Too bad for those folks who may have democratically elected one of those populist regimes.

My focus recently has been on the "ordinary" accumulators/controllers of wealth: the so called middle class. My hypothesis is that - and I thank Howard Zinn for the inspiration for this line of thought - the middle class relentlessly pursues the same set of values and beliefs that energize the  elite, engages in the same self indulgent feelings of entitlement that they do, makes the same kinds of assumptions about wealth and poverty and opportunity and responsibility that they do, and thereby directly supports and actively collaborates with the injustices and atrocities which are consistently perpetrated by the ruling elites. As with any addictive system, denial, delusion, and deception - both self deception and the deception of others - flourish. The usual smoke screens are employed in order to divert attention from the real, and ultimately very personal, issues. It's the politicians' fault. And making any corrections is their job, not mine. My responsibility
is limited to casting my ballots at election time, or to giving charity to those "less fortunate" than I. I see this as no  different from the perhaps apocryphal quote attributed to Marie Antionette regarding the poor of France: if they have no bread to eat, then let them eat cake.

In a just economic structure, there would be no need for charity, for the casting of self-redemptive crumbs to the poor. In a healthy economic structure, with mental and moral development recognized, valued and supported, all would live comfortably and well, poverty and oppression would not be necessary and required components of  the social system, and, recognizing the direct and unavoidable connection between my excess accumulation of wealth and your misery would engender self imposed, internally generated limits on the level of superfluous luxury that I "enjoy".

I'm not talking about entering into poverty. This is not required. It is clearly possible for you or I to live quite comfortably, to get all our material needs met, to enjoy a graceful and fluid way of being in the material world, without the accumulation of excess. My current, admittedly arbitrary number is a quarter of a million dollars. I cannot see why anyone would need more than this. Ok. Keep your house, if you're among the fortunate who have one, and have another quarter of a million dollars besides. If you disagree with this number, please explain to me how you justify having more. Is it fair to say that 90%, or 95%, or more, of the people on the planet could never dream of having this much "capital" at their disposal? Why should you? Doesn't this make you one of the elite, with all that that implies? By doing do, I suggest, you are selling your soul - and your mental and moral health - to the devil of delusion, self indulgence and complicity. Why not keep enough to live well - a quarter of a million, let's say; and you can even build back up to that level as you spend, or not - and give the rest away? Radical, I know. But given the realities as I've described them, what real choice is at all viable?

I'm not so naive, or stupid,  that I think that by doing this an over night miracle would occur in which all economic disgrace and suffering would be eliminated. That's not the most immediate point. More to the point is the personal recognition that one's own current economic/financial circumstances may well be contributing directly to that disgrace and suffering, and that it is within one's power to make a choice for full spectrum health, a concept that includes not only one's personal health, but that recognizes that one's personal health is intimately tied to the health of the planet and that of  "the least of these". Otherwise, certainly one has no grounds to stand on from which to complain, and I'd suggest that the possibilities for well being in general are severely compromised, if not made impossible.

In the Buddhist tradition this way of looking at things may be analogous to the distinction that is sometimes made between the Hinayana (or "lesser") path, and the Mahayana (or "greater") path. In the former, one's concern is for one's own enlightenment/liberation/awakening/deliverance alone, where as in the latter, one vows to renounce one's final liberation until all sentient beings are liberated and delivered from suffering (along with the intention/vow to actively contribute to this liberation and deliverance), thus recognizing that one's own happiness and in fact sanity, is ultimately and inextricably tied to everyone else's. In the Jewish tradition there is the teaching of Tikkun Olam, or "repairing the world". Each of us has a responsibility to contribute, in genuine and meaningful ways, to this repair, again, recognizing the full implications of how our own actions, beliefs and assumptions affect all others.


Kunzang said...

very articulate and thought-provoking...and non-threatening in terms of "inviting" others to self-evaluate. Thanks for writing this, and I hope it can be shared with a wider audience.

Ken said...

sobering. dead on and yet somehow hopeful. thank you for writing. i have a lot to think about!

Lou said...

I agree with the premise for the most part. In an ideal world it works. I do feel, however that it gets close to a kind of judgement that I am not completely comfortable with. The amount "allowed" seems reasonable, but even that is subject to some consideration. After all $250000.00 in San Francisco won't even purchase a tiny house, whereas in Calcutta one is now one of the elite.

Matthew David, LPCC said...

Lou, thanks for your comments and thoughtfulness. I recognize, and say, that the number I'm naming is arbitrary. I'm more interested in addressing the underlying principles, the un-examined beliefs, assumptions, values, entitlements that, in the case of the piece, I think the so called middle class is prone to, and the fundamentally pathological implications of these. I am comfortable with the notion that the basic American value of unlimited accumulation of wealth - and the right to do this - is pathological.