Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Vol #1, Col #8: From God to Goods: In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Almighty Dollar

Everything sounds good in theory. Take communism for example: a utopian vision wherein social hierarchies and disparities in wealth cease to exist, where education is free and accessible to everyone, where all occupations are valued and considered essential to the successful functioning of the community... In application? Well, the fall of the Soviet Union – yeah, enough said. The same logic however, in my view, can equally be applied to communism’s economic converse; that of corporate capitalism also known as the chief commandment (if you will) by which modern society is run.

Central to its implementation has been a move towards stressful city-living, the separation of church and state, as well as an increased emphasis on efficiency, and "rationalization". For all of the social well-being that the latter economic system has brought forth (ingenuous entrepreneurialism for starters!), a lot of not-so-good by-products have too come hand-in-hand (the privatization of essential resources, exploitation of third world workers, and striking global differences in production, consumption, and profiting patterns are just a few off the top of my head). Importantly, from my perspective however, it is capitalism’s infiltration of our value system which has proven to be the most detrimental.

Accumulation, accumulation, and oh did I mention? ACCUMULATION! This has become the purpose of life for many. Whether it’s cars, lovers, gadgets and gizmos, or that funny inked paper to which we accord arbitrary value, it is a rare occasion that you come across (at least it is for me) others who simply pursue careers for the love of them.It’s all a means to an end – a way to earn dollars so that you can eventually (when you’re well into your senior years) partake in the activities you actually want to (if you’re still physically capable), and then, well…you die. Doesn’t sound like much of a plan to me! I mean, wouldn’t you rather be doing what you love all along? For that matter, considering how much of our lives we devote to the toils of our daily labour, shouldn’t we at least derive some pleasure and personal satisfaction/fulfillment from the tasks in which we’re engaged? Shouldn’t we be able to see and enjoy the fruits of our own labour? Ah, but my friends, there in lines the problem: not all occupations are equally valued in society, and further we have created technologies to replace so-called inefficient “manpower”. Therefore, we are all eventually confronted with the fact that we must “settle”, at least in terms of the economic aspect of our lives.

Even more troubling however is the fact that this model of living (more like “existing”) is cyclical in nature: you can NEVER have enough, and there’s ALWAYS something bigger and better that’s just been created waiting for you, and you can have it all (so they tell us) if only you just work hard enough to save up those pennies and dimes. The reality, of course, is that many of us are living paycheck-to-paycheck, despite the free market claims that this sort of system ensures a more level playing field.

But, above and beyond all of this, my biggest beef with capitalism is that it has taught us to externalize our desires, so when we’re depressed, we buy something new and fancy or go out for a five star meal to try and throw our troubles away. It’s never about NEEDS, only WANTS – wants created by a market that is by legal obligation purposed to drive up profits. In effect, this system has made us forget that happiness is a conscious choice – a state of mind derived from internal self-actualization; something that can only be accomplished through introspection, a task that the capitalist system distracts many from ever pursuing.

A secondary quibble I’ve got with the “big C” is its alienating capacity: not only are workers lacking personal investment in their tasks, but further, our relationships with each other have largely become based around a model of ‘goods exchange’ (the what can you do for me mentality?). Perhaps because we don’t really value our own contributions (it’s not like we’re planting and harvesting our own crops on the family farm anymore), those of others seem negligible as well. Transactions (and therefore relationships), in the modern view, are designed to be as fast, painless, and efficient as possible (I myself find the barter and trade systems still practised in some nations quite charming – nobody takes more than they personally require and value is negotiable – but maybe that’s just me). We get irritated when we have to wait in line, or when a new employee is receiving training. We’ve gotten so caught up in this go-go-go lifestyle that if a wrench gets thrown into the works, our whole day gets ruined. In essence, we’ve come to value and emphasize the wrong things (tell me, how often do you actually stop and smell the roses?), and I don’t think I need to mention any of the horror stories that have resulted purely over “money wars”.

When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, humans really only require food, water, shelter, and a mate for survival. As much as I’m sure you’d all love to consider your flatscreen TVs and Ipods necessities of living – I hate to break it to ya, but that ain’t reality.

While I’m not so na├»ve as to believe (though a gal can dream can’t she?) that a complete overhaul of our economic system is in order anytime soon, I would like to propose that we find a way to re-harmonize our lives, in the meantime. While it’s only a small part of the equation, I do believe a good starting point is the adoption of some sort of alternative (alternative to the heralding of ‘cash as king’) belief system.

Whether it be religious, spiritual, or philosophical in orientation, I think humans, as a species, need to get back to a place where life directives are driven by a defined moral code, as opposed to the plan of action that will prove most lucrative. We need to take a moment each day away from our quests for cash to thank the universe for all that has been bestowed upon us. After all what good is money if you’re not in adequate health to spend it?

Most importantly however, we need to get back to a place where when times are rough, we have something deeper to turn to, someone (or some being) to pray to or ask for guidance and strength, something to give us a sense of hope when nothing seems to be going our way. Despite living in the Western world – the end of the globe that seemingly has everything – the prevalence of mental illness is higher here than anywhere else, leaving me to rightly conclude that something is seriously wrong with this picture. In sum, this week’s lesson: materialism is fleeting.