More and more people are fighting stress, anxiety, and uncertainty in life today, compared to the pre-industrialization world. More and more psychological conditions and disorders are surfacing, some classified as ‘diseases’.
We could talk for hours and months trying to go to the roots and causes of it all, debating with or without facts, sticking to our beliefs and opinions. So I will rather focus on what can be done in the present, knowing what we do, to ease pains of daily living (most will call these the first world problems, but I will refrain from defining or classifying information. We shall treat data as it is in the context of this blog and conversation if one breaks out).
Let’s look at capitalism first. It’s underlying principles aim at maximizing capital while minimizing resources. From Wikipedia: “Capitalism is an economic system in which trade, industry and the means of production are controlled by private owners with the goal of making profits in a market economy.” Gist (my words): Everyone aims to maximize monetary or material profits in a competitive (read dog fights dog) world.
Now let’s look at Buddhism. Again, from Wikipedia: “It is a faith that provides insights to help sentient beings end their suffering through the elimination of desire and ignorance by way of understanding and the seeing of dependent origination, with the ultimate goal of attainment of the sublime state of nirvana.” Gist (again my words): Everyone aims to minimize pain in the mortal world by becoming aware of roots, causes, and effects of pain.
See an overlap yet? Or perhaps an irony?
One is a way of keeping and growing the financial and economic systems, the end goal being to bring (material) prosperity. Another, a way to look at life with the end goal being to reduce human suffering.
The question I want to pose today is this: can a capitalist society benefit from Buddhist faith? Does it even need to?
Are we giving up mental peace, social health, familial richness at the cost of growing ourselves materialistically?
If no, what explains the rise in mentally weak individuals, desperate to get help in any kind and form (drugs, risky behavior, broken relationships)?
If yes, how are people dealing with it today? Is social media an answer in the form of an anonymous (sometimes) group therapy platform where you validate your material gains, possessions, capital successes? What of the suffering? Where is that channeled? Who is sharing the pains? Doctors? Health care system? Alcohol/substances?
Is there any place in this profit (greed if I may say so) oriented life to employ some, if not all, of Buddhist principles?
At what level?
Say you are the chief executive Or an investor to a private enterprise, and you will be measured on how much profits you bring to your investors, using as little resources as possible. How will you balance human capital’s interest with that of the investors? How will you balance informed goals (to maximize capital while keeping expenses low) with intangible human goals (to keep compensations fair, to keep employee morale up, to ensure there is healthy team work, to facilitate a purpose bigger than just profit making, and be credible at the same time, to be transparent with a gap in compensation between executive and professional levels)?
Say you are a customer of a product from this enterprise. How will you balance your ‘want’ (notice I did not use the word ‘need’ on the assumption that no one in principle should be able to profit from fulfilling basic human needs; we will talk of healthcare later) of the product with how it is produced (say a shirt made in Bangladesh that is cheaper than most but cost a teen his study life), how many people compromised their own needs to get it to you (say Wal Mart employees who will work with minimal benefits because if they don’t someone else will)? Will you pick a pricier but socially friendly alternative product that won’t let other fellow humans get exploited? How will you balance a greed for bigger and better yet cheaper articles with your responsibilities of keeping the society sane and sustainable? Would you even care? And if you did, how will you afford an expensive alternative? Where will you get the resources to burn there?
Say you are an employee of such an enterprise. How will you align your values, motivation, conviction with an organized effort to maximize profits for its shareholders?
Would you care at all, or become a natural part of this ecosystem that has two conflicting value propositions: greed, and social harmony?
What ways do you know to make this blend work, in a credible, transparent, yet capitalist way?
Say everyone at the enterprise gets a share of the ‘profits’ too – weighted to their ranks for simplicity. Are you now closer to a socially balanced solution – because you’ve been bribed in?
Say there are no ranks at the enterprise. Just roles. And everyone does their part to the best ability, keeping the means of profit and distribution transparent. Is that practical – considering there will be other organizations with a pure, efficient, agile and capitalist structure that can throw you off the ‘race’ by doing what you do cheaper, faster, or better?
What if one says that this perpetual machine generating (and sucking up) material wealth for all participants (proportionally according to their place in the hierarchy) is not sustainable because eventually most of the non participants or those at the bottom of the chain will get weaker and weaker, taking the entire structure down?
Think of it another way:
– if you want to grow up the chain (or hierarchy) to get a bigger share of the ‘profits’, you are in constant pain (competing, being judged, responsible for successes/failures of all those under you).
– if you do not want to grow up the chain, you will likely be in pain because your labor will inevitably be exploited or used to its limits to maximize enterprise gains (by definition. If you don’t do it, someone else will).
– if you are just entering the system, you will likely want to come in with as competitive a skill set as possible, so you can fight and climb up the chains faster. Meaning: more competition to acquire the skills, higher cost of education (at least in North America), and higher the pains.
How do you see the Buddhist (or other related spiritual principles) helping with each?
Are we, as an evolved, highly intelligent species, OK with creating an excruciatingly competitive ecosystem, in turn causing more and more pain and suffering, and then finding more and more ways to alleviate these pains (medical, spiritual, …), sometimes paying for these?
What are your thoughts? Are we leading our children to a healthy way of living? Should we even care at all – because life can be treated as a capital adventure too: maximize pleasures while minimizing human expenditure – i.e. future generations will find their own ways out?