THE BLOG
01/07/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Save Capitalism?

The oft-prophesied collapse of capitalism is looming over our world's daily supply of goods. The global economic system is on the ropes and must not be allowed to fail. So proclaims government, financial marketeers, tottering czars of industry, media mandarins, and just about everybody else who can pay to be heard. But since their efforts to avert failure have so far inspired little confidence, some attention might be given to Plan B. After all, despite its arcane procedures, capitalism is really just an accounting system, a way of ensuring that the world's work gets done and that those who do it are properly compensated.

Now I'm not stupid enough to forget that capitalism is also a system that has allowed a substantial though relatively small group of human beings to amass titanic wealth and, so to speak, to capitalize on that wealth by exercising transformative power over the whole planet and everyone on it. If they were all wise and benevolent, that might be a satisfactory arrangement; they aren't, and it isn't. So any discussion of how human history (let alone human well-being) might continue after the demise of capitalism must get a good fix on the roots of greed and why it has persisted despite the abundant evidence of its perversity.

Moralists of the Right, when not actually endorsing greed, will insist that it's inherent in human nature, a kind of original sin we're stuck with, like cruelty, violence and the need to snipe at those we disapprove of. The belief that people are essentially flawed is fundamental to the outlook of the Right. It's the root of authoritarianism; if from birth we are, as a species, up to no good, we need to be given rules and obey them. (The possibility that the rulegivers are equally flawed doesn't trouble the Right. Many among them think God made the rules, the U.S. Constitution included.)

To hold this pessimistic view of human nature is a sure sign of a broken heart, so to reach out with healing is the first obligation of anyone whose view is more hopeful. This is why the instruction Love Your Enemies retains its magic. I was lucky enough to come of age at a time when a great mass movement of young people was willing to act on the assumption that Love Is All You Need (try to guess the decade). If nowadays young people are more likely to think that an iPod or an MBA is all you need, it's not their fault. The system of brainwashing that American capitalism perfected through the advertising media, though bruised by the first countercultural rebellion, charged back with the advent of Reaganism and has been riding higher than ever until recently. But we're clearly in for a change.

Walk the streets of any American city or watch drivers immobilized in traffic, and you'll notice a conspicuous shortage of happy adult faces. It's not a coincidence. Our system imparts false values from the moment we're old enough to watch TV or read a billboard. In a single day the typical American is bombarded with more images of stuff to crave than our colonial ancestors saw in a lifetime. Some of it is actually useful. Most of it is junk. Not just because of the impact its production has on the planet. Far worse is how it poisons our mental life. Junk breeds junkies. It promises happiness and delivers clutter. It promises excitement and delivers numbness. It promises beauty and delivers cosmetics. Why shouldn't people feel cheated by a system that hits them a with a real stick but feeds them a plastic carrot?

Consumers everywhere are in revolt. Not so much from choice as necessity. But what if that could be turned around? What if we noticed that paying attention to real people was more rewarding than shopping or TV? What if we encountered an inner voice that could distinguish between the nurturing we require and the counterfeits we pursue? What if we began to ask whether corporate consumerism was really the ultimate flowering of America's promise?

For one thing, capitalism as we know it would fade away. But since it may be doing that anyway, we might be wise to drop our resistance and bid it a fond farewell. We could thank it for its efficient promotion of the Industrial Revolution, while observing that by creating an interconnected world it has rendered its own creed of frenetic competition obsolete. A satellite can't go into orbit till its booster rocket falls away. If the accounting system is in flames, let it drop and disintegrate, mission accomplished.

The question that arises naturally is, what would take capitalism's place? Conventional economists will be quick to point out that socialism also seems to have failed. From a Darwinian perspective, planet Earth was an environmental battlefield where socialism was defeated by its hardier, fitter rival (though it looks more and more like a Pyrrhic victory). The truth is that a system grounded in the cooperative sharing of resources can no more succeed within a competitive context than a CD can play on an LP turntable.

The proper context is one where sharing rules, as any successful parent discovers. To create that context globally will require more than giving the advertising industry a sabbatical (though that would help). We must focus on our natural instinct for empathy. Children who are coerced into sharing via the weapon of guilt turn into hostile and resentful adults who hate welfare.

No, we share effectively only when we do so from love, as children spontaneously teach. They teach it not only in those moments when they suddenly share a prized possession, but especially when they share some unexpected aspect of themselves, the harvest of self-discovery. We could travel steadily through life making such offerings of ourselves, giving and receiving delight, except for being conditioned by fear to suspect the worst of each other.

Of course, living can inflict a thousand wounds on our ability (or willingness) to "love one another." But with the advances since Bible times in our understanding of how the psyche functions, self-realization techniques are widely available to repair the damage done to our inherent nature. Why not make use of them? The world's work would get organized and performed in a collective spirit of mutual assistance and shared benefit.

I can hear the howls of "Utopian" already. Mostly they come from the broken-hearted, who continue to believe, despite millenia of evidence, that force and violence can have any ultimate effect beside generating more force and violence, in endless retaliation. Anyone who doesn't acknowledge the connection between the present socio-economic meltdown and the waste of spiraling billions of money on aggressive weaponry that could fund beneficial public projects (health care?) instead, is in no position to give either economic or moral advice. The cancerous spell of profit-driven militarism packaged as "defense" must be broken if this planet is to witness a human future.

To those who doubt that humans en masse are capable of such spontaneous and sustained harmlessness, I reply that the shift has already begun. The great tide may have ebbed that bathed the 60s/70s in the glow that boomers still recall, but the energy behind it is perennial and flows readily without an assist from Birkenstocks or granola. Today, as then, self-appointed "realists" who perpetuate the illusion of separateness may dismiss the political call to unconditional love as naive. Perhaps, but then so is the Sermon on the Mount. And it's true that by the time the meek inherit the earth it may not be that nice a place. We had better start doing our best without delay. By extending love we will find it.