What do we want from life, really?
While the answer will invariably differ depending on who you ask, I think it’s fair to draw some common ground around certain things.
We want to protect our health and that of our loved ones – not living in conditions that cause us to get sick. We want freedom to think whatever we want, act however we want, say whatever we want and be whomever we want. So long as exercising none of these freedoms affects the life or liberty of others then this freedom is entirely reasonable and justifiable. We want safety from violence, the threat of it, and from others impinging on our freedoms. We want love, compassion, tolerance and support from others. While mainly from those we are closest to – the further these sentiments extend out from people around us the better – helping us live in a world free from prejudice, discrimination and marginalisation. We all want a feeling of ‘flow’ – that sense of accomplishment and purpose that rewards us from being just challenged enough to push ourselves and just within our skill set and talents to feel rewarded. A life that has purpose – maybe more than just one – and also meaning.
All of these are quite reasonable I think, and while not an exhaustive list it certainly covers a lot of the fundamental things I think we want from life.
The interesting part is to ask: what is preventing us from having them now?
I think its money. Not lack of it – money, full stop – a world system based on money.
Why? Because at it’s heart. The large majority of human cruelty, anger and suffering arises over the competition for money, the resources money buys or the cultural hatreds propagated as a means to maintain power (and associated monetary wealth).
This is a critical – if not exactly controversial – point, so it’s worth dwelling on. There are a lot of things wrong with our world, and too often people use these examples – or the alleged human nature that they would have you believe underpins these things, making them apparently inevitable – to suggest that humans will always require protection from each other and thus any utopian model of human civilisation is flawed. In short, we are all so naturally cruel, greedy and selfish that ultimately we sow the seeds of our own destruction and thus could never be trusted to behave in such a way that permits a society without state control, or one based on trust, cooperation and mutual respect.
I don’t buy it. I started off not wanting to believe it, then I grudgingly accepted it – as it held a certain persuasiveness after I saw how bad the world can be sometimes – and now I have come back around full circle to realise that it’s simply not true. It doesn’t work as an argument disproving the possibility of a ‘non-competitive society’ – certainly once you take money out of the equation – and is also disproved by the myriad examples of groups or societies where it has worked.
Put simply, money imposes itself as the barrier to everything. If you are poor, and live in a poor area or poor country – life can be pretty miserable. Everything costs money – services, food, health, help, school – al of it costs money at some point. If you have none, you have to fight, to compete or to steal – costing someone else money essentially, forcing them to pay somewhere along the line. (Stealing doesn’t transcend commerce it just shifts the cost). But when you have few options, life is hard. This hardness, this innate unfairness of having a hard life purely by virtue of where you are born can make you bitter, can make you angry – fair enough too in a lot of ways. Money becomes an issue of life and death in many cases, raising the stakes and pushing people further towards desperation. In those terms, it is easy to see how other people’s lives start to get a price tag affixed to them.
A capitalist might argue that in a free market, everyone has a chance to pull themselves up and that is why capitalism – in it’s pure, free market form especially – is the most just, equal and liberating system, a level playing field. This is disingenuous however.
Firstly a free market economy doesn’t exist right now and (as far as I know) never has. No one wants it in reality either – especially not those crying loudest for it (corporate right wing USA) – because while they talk a good game, their wealth, that of America and all the rich nations of the world, has been built on an entirely uneven playing field. It’s all about trade agreements, tariffs, taxation and subsidies. Mechanisms to ensure that trade works in favour of those with the power – increasing their power to trade unfairly – and on it goes.
Despite all of that, the truth is that after centuries of first feudalist then capitalist systems, we have seen the continual and worsening concentration of wealth and power to the few at the expense of the many. The inequality of wealth has gotten worse – not better – over recent generations, especially in the richest countries like the USA and the UK – who often tout their models as examples to the developing world. Even if you managed a totally free market system it would still work in the same way, eventually concentrating wealth and power into the hands of the few over time. There is no point in having more vegetables than you can eat, there is however power in having more money than you can spend. This basic principle is what warps our world. (It’s slightly more complex that that but ultimately that debate only ends up producing arguments for capitalism that are self serving for commerce and the acquisition of capital – hence, in my view, arriving at the same point).
Around the world we see poverty is rising. In some places at alarming rates. Happiness (not that it’s measured often) is not rising however – especially in rich countries that are supposedly doing better economically than in the past. So what’s going on here and what’s wrong with this picture? As we get richer we should get happier no? The capitalist dream!
One, an assumption that GDP or wealth equates to happiness. There is in fact very little evidence to support this idea. What little there is has been frequently called ‘shaky’. It is a widely held view in the world but it is false. At best you can say that money ‘helps’ – in that it removes some of life’s basic hardships in a capitalist world, but past a fairly modest point, it has little to no impact on actual happiness.
Two, that somehow it is possible to have infinite growth in a finite world.
Capitalism (and certainly modern economies) demand it. Without growth, economies stagnate and apparently the whole thing goes horribly wrong. But – without getting bogged down in the economics of it all – how (over the long term) is it even possible? As a system, we have to ask ourselves why we are seemingly content to live on borrowed time like that. Corporations are expected to provide increasing returns to shareholders who demand growth in profits or they take their money somewhere else – but how does it all end? If you play it out to it’s natural conclusion: how.. does.. it.. all.. end..?
You can’t have infinite growth in a finite world, it simply doesn’t work. Sooner or later under this current system, companies will have to gobble each other up until there is only one left and then you are back at your original problem – there’s nowhere to grow. The whole concept is false. The system is unsustainable and will – sooner or later – collapse under it’s own weight.
While I am curious about how civilisation would have progressed had we had a different (non capitalist) system, I am reluctant to get into that debate because it’s kind of redundant – we are where we are – however I am happy to acknowledge that our modern technological civilisation has produced some amazing and marvellous things. Interestingly, science operates on a form of gift economy (like the one that I am partial to) – not capitalist principles, but anyway.. a post for another time perhaps.
Talking about from today – capitalism is doing nothing for us. Most of the worlds problems, most of the things that are bad, scary or unpleasant about the world are (I think) directly attributable to money, or the competitive conflict that it causes. Poverty creates an environment of desperation. You can also see a lot community spirit, altruism and love in even the poorest places on earth – but I think that is despite, not because of the poverty.
It’s been said that “people only act mean when they feel threatened”. Now I know that’s a massive over simplification, but I think that as a rule of thumb it’s quite useful. It’s a handy clue to the fact that a lot of what makes people mean, selfish or greedy in the world has to do with things that have happened to them in their lives that have built resentment – injustice, cruel treatment, prejudice etc. This is why people talk of the vicious cycle of poverty. Its not about the challenge of making money when you’re poor, it’s about the other things too – the chance to live a safe, happy, fulfilling existence that’s what’s most at threat. Poverty begets more poverty much as wealth facilitates more wealth.
Few in this world who have anything are prepared to give to others because it means less for them. No one ever gave them anything, they had to work for it – so why should someone else get it for nothing? This attitude comes from living in a world where everyone learns to fight each other for what there is, to distrust, to compete. The world doesn’t have to be like that however.
Remove the money and a lot of the world’s problems go away.. not all of them of course.. – life comes with tragedy built in – however without money a great number of the incentives to exploit one another disappears. We need to find a sustainable population size (which is an issue I am not underestimating), but at that point there is enough room for us all, enough food, enough water and more than enough happiness to go around.
It would take a couple of generations for the old tensions and conflict to disappear, but looking beyond that you could build a world where the incentives are to cooperate, to succeed through helping and understanding each other. It happens now in parts of the world, it just needs to be embraced and expanded on. Despite the competition, peoples’ good nature still manages to generate billions in charity every year and we still help each other out as and when we can afford to. Why not stretch that concept of ‘afford’?
We are capable of both good and evil – that is not in question, and this duality is visible every day – the real issue that we must deal with is how best to build our future so as to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives. We don’t need money to live, and we positively don’t want it if we desire happiness.