“When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.”
— John Maynard Keynes, 1930
Writing at the beginning of the Great Depression, Keynes was optimistic that when economic conditions improved so that people had enough money to live, their values would shift accordingly. Material acquisitiveness would cease to be a virtue; success would no longer be synonymous with a person’s “net worth” — a curious expression: net of what?
Clearly Keynes’s hopes have gone unfulfilled. If anything, American society is more hag-ridden than ever by pseudo-moral principles like Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good.” Or the belief that people who are poor don’t deserve help because their poverty is their fault — they’re lazy or stupid or otherwise unfit to live in a society in which capitalism has been neatly translated into social Darwinism.
Life itself has become a commodity of conspicuous consumption, advertised via social media: “Look where I am! Look how much fun I’m having!” Young people who never knew a world before cell phones and the internet learn to value themselves according to the currencies of Instagram and Facebook, by “Likes” and “Followers.” Some of our contemporary values aren’t just morally questionable; they’re downright creepy. Time was, only aspiring dictators and cult leaders needed followers.
Northern California is an especially strange land these days — recently awarded the distinction of being the most expensive place in the nation to live, yet every day I walk around people sleeping on sidewalks. Communities live beneath overpasses and bridges blocks away from one-bedroom apartments renting for $3,000 a month.
While versions of this scene play out in cities across America, I find it especially morally painful in this region dominated by the “high” technology industry, which proclaims its supposed mission to “make the world better” from shiny billboards along the freeways while quietly displacing entire urban populations beneath them, creating masses of domestic refugees. From the streets of San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, Silicon Valley’s “better world” looks a lot like highway robbery.
Our government has been timorous about restraining the monopolistic practices and profits of what European anti-trust officials call “GAFA”: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Because in this country, capitalism is our abiding religion. From Wall Street to health insurers and pharmaceutical companies, our economic and legal system privileges corporations over people, rich over poor. We still consider ourselves the most “advanced” country in the world, despite decades of statistics to the contrary in areas such as healthcare, public safety, education, and happiness.
John Lanchester’s recent New Yorker article, “How Civilization Started: Was It Even a Good Idea?” cites anthropologists, political scientists, and economists whose work suggests that in many ways “civilization” has made us both less happy and less civilized than the people we think of as our “savage” ancestors.
Lanchester quotes anthropologist James Suzman about the Bushmen of the Kalahari: “The sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”
From here, it’s hard to imagine a world where material inequality is not tolerated. Here, we live in a zero sum game: for one person to succeed, many others must fail. Here and now, inequality is not merely tolerated; it’s venerated. It’s our measure of success, not failure. What happened on the way to civilization?
In some ways, says Lanchester, “It turns out that hunting and gathering is a good way to live. A study from 1966 found that it took [a Bushman] only about 17 hours a week, on average, to find an adequate supply of food; another 19 hours were spent on domestic activities.” The hunter-gatherers averaged 2,300 calories a day, slightly over our recommended amount, though short of what we need to maintain our obesity epidemic.
At the time of the study, the average American week required 40 hours of paid work and 36 hours of domestic labor. Despite our modern, time-saving conveniences, we somehow enjoyed half as much leisure as the Bushmen. Because we had to pay for the conveniences. And pay not just enough to cover the cost of their production or a living for their inventors, but enough to make companies and their owners rich. Henry David Thoreau defined the cost of a thing as the “amount of life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
Some of the principles that distinguish the Bushmen’s society from ours are: “[They] do not accumulate surpluses; they get all the food they need, then stop. They exhibit…‘an unyielding confidence’ that their environment will provide for their needs.” And above all, they share, with fierce egalitarianism.
When was the last time we ate or bought simply what we needed, and then stopped? I think it’s become difficult for us to recognize when our needs are satisfied because we’ve been sold on packing all kinds of desires into our idea of need. And as the Buddha observed, desires are inexhaustible. So we suffer a constant state of imaginary scarcity which feels so real to us that we can’t stop worrying, acquiring, or hoarding.
We have no faith whatsoever in our environment to provide what we need, and how could we? Because our society doesn’t value sharing; we prize competition instead. Such competition is supposed to be good for us, motivating us to create better products and thus better lives. Has our great American experiment in free-range capitalism proven its hypothesis? Has it made better, happier lives for our majority?
In a chapter titled, “Mistaking Technological Advancement for Human Transformation,” Kodo Sawaki (Homeless Kodo) wondered half a century ago, “Advancement is the talk of the world, but in what direction are we advancing?”