Posts Tagged ‘New Age’

34. Free market economy and an ideal society

 

The ideal society would be the modern version of the paradisiacal equality, freedom, harmony, togetherness and happiness of the ancestral gathering and hunting way of life. We lost this ‘paradise’ some eight thousand years ago: in the transition to agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle that brought warfare and slavery. Since then, a feeling of bereavement has always induced thinkers and philosophers (these are not necessarily always the same) to dream of a better, ideal world. The breakthrough of the free market economy meant ‘the end of history’: the end of five thousand years of forced civilization. It enabled mankind to take some first steps towards regaining the ancestral equality and freedom.

If we were to imagine a utopian free market society, its population would voluntarily work together for the common good on a basis of equality. People would produce goods and services, and earn money in return. Their earnings would allow them to buy goods and services for themselves, and to pay taxes for common facilities and government costs. Such a society would suppose an intricate network of tasks and responsibilities, where everyone would find a job fitting her or his individual talents, aptitude and preferences. This intricate machine would be lubricated not just by the natural flow of money, but also by mutual trust and a belief in shared goals.

In this ideal society, each member would do his best in the conviction that his work serves both the common good and his individual interests. Happiness always implies the feeling that one is meaningful (for other people in the environment, or society as a whole). So in that ideal free market society, everybody would have a fair chance and opportunity to be happy. An important condition for such “social happiness” is that one can participate in common decisions. In short: this ideal society would in many ways resemble a larger-scale version of the ancient hunter-gatherer group-based societies, but without the fearful struggle-for-life that tainted those ancient ways of life.

Our actual free market society has not yet reached the level of such an ideal society. In its original phase, the rising free market implied a situation of inequality and exploitation, based on the old antagonism between a class of property owners and a suppressed working class. A series of revolts and reforms has already somewhat mitigated this inequality, but it still survives in some ways. Our actual society has made all of us into consumers, but it did not fully remove the inequality of chances to participate in it. Only when all citizens will be able to participate in a way that fits their talents and ambitions, will the free market society – and its economy – function optimally. But in the west, the presently prevailing neo-liberal ideology has broadened the gap between poor and rich. In India, the fragmented character of Hinduism and the caste system keeps hampering equality. In China the state-managed model of capitalism is a key obstacle: most large companies still are state-owned, which hampers the natural growth of privately-owned enterprises.

May we expect the wind of change and freedom to undermine the permafrost of old forms and thoughts worldwide? May we see the Arab spring as a beginning? The Muslim world is not the West. The revolting Egyptian Facebook youngsters may want western freedom and democracy and welfare. But they may also want to keep their sisters veiled and subordinate to men. They may want to remain Muslims and to keep the tribal fundaments of Muslim culture unchanged. In the West these old thoughts and forms have already been weakened by over 200 years of enlightenment, a more science-directed school-education, free distribution of all kinds of books, uncensored media and newspapers: all factors that furthered individualism instead of religious and tribal sentiments.

Today, it would take a worldwide disaster of a scope similar to the ancient Toba explosion to disrupt the progress of the free market economy. This progress is almost unstoppable because a free market economy matches human nature, a nature formed in millions of gatherer-hunter-equality and freedom. The happiness of ‘the lost paradise’ has survived only among the last few surviving gatherer-hunter-populations, but the craving for such a happiness survives in us all. The not-yet-perfect free market economy in the west has already made people more happy than their grandparents before, and it is the smell of this happiness that lures young people in the Arabic world.

As we said at the end of the previous chapter, the new self-image – first spread by the television and today even more by the interactive possibilities of internet – is lacking something. Our happy gathering and hunting ancestors experienced their language-world in the creation story they sung and danced around the campfire, as the San people still do today. The essence of this experience is the religious feeling that in some form is part of everybody’s mentality. In the five thousand years of forced civilization, this feeling was used by elites imposing a monotheistic collectivism. The free market freed consumers from this ideological suppression, but it did not give them a new creation story to replace the lost one.

Since the 1960s our western free market economy prevailed without a basic story that could give people a new motivation and direction. Older generations still clung to the old Christian Story, but in the 1980s that common Story was no longer strong and widely shared enough to support the social responsibility of business men. Bankers began to use money that originally was intended for productive investments, for competitive schemes. Due to their political clout, some of them were able to mislead both governments and voters with a neoliberal ideology, until after a few decades their Ponzi schemes exploded – as illustrated by the disastrous Madoff affair[1]. We already mentioned the maxim “greed is good”, the effects of this ideology on neo-liberalism, and the collapse of the financial system in 2008. A fundamental cause of that crash was the lack of a basic story guiding common human behavior.

The ill effects of a weak or missing Story are visible not just in the banking world, but on all levels of Western society. A similar example is the rise of petty street crimes[2] in our cities, which in spite of increasing police efforts has also been on the rise since the 1980s. Other examples of nihilism may be found in the rise of public hooliganism (for example by bands of football supporters), or the rising tendency among public officials in some countries to accept bribes or even manipulate democratic elections. All this is behavior that is connected with something like a moral black hole: the void that has been left by weakening monotheism, and that is begging for some proper replacement.

Chanting hippies

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In the industrializing Western societies, since the early 1900s a growing number of citizens have already been trying to fill that gap on an individual, spiritual, semi-religious level: for example by seeking inspiration and meaningfulness in Eastern mysticism. Around 1900 Buddhism was the latest fashion, in the New Age movement of around 1970 it was Hare Krishna. However, such fashionable and often rather elitist endeavors did little to reach the masses, let alone to really establish a common and morally inspiring vision on humanity. Perhaps such spiritual trends were functional as an answer to some need of escapism, in the same way as participating in a football fan club – for many football fans, this can also serve as a kind of pseudo-religion.

By opening new information channels and breaking old information monopolies, the market economy freed the Western people from … the monotheistic belief. There has always been a relation between the dominant economy and what people believe. In the long time of hunter-gatherers we had a totemistic belief, where people perceive themselves as part of- and originated from the animal world. In Neolithic times we had an animistic belief, where people perceive the world around them as animated: a spirited whole from which their own lives depend. In hierarchically organized societies we had a monotheistic belief, where people perceive the world (and themselves) as created by a single God who governs everything.

In a free market society all such old forms and thoughts fade away. In itself, this can only be seen as a positive development. However, this development had one important negative side effect: which is that we, today’s consumers, now miss the values, shared identification opportunities, and social cohesion that used to be provided by the old common beliefs. Therefore each of us tends to act exclusively in his own interest, with (as we already illustrated) socially negative effects. These negative effects will only worsen if we fail to establish some kind of new, common belief.


[1] Madoff had been put in jail for the rest of his life in 2009

[2] A judge asked a young criminal on the court: why do you these things? The answer was: why not?

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