Capitalism as an economic model for society is basically an untouchable concept in America. Anyone who disagrees with this is a socialist, or worse, a communist who doesn’t understand “how things work”. And by “work”, this means making as many people materially wealthy as possible. But capitalism also makes us sick, and has other consequences so severe we dare not mention them out loud.
There are some serious problems with capitalism as a system when you look at what it has done to not only our living environment, but our own health as a species. We are laying waste to the earth’s resources in the name of growing our economies as fast as possible, and we are more stressed out and tired than ever because of it. The link between capitalism and stress is well known, yet we continue running on the hamster wheel in the hopes that we beat the system and make our fortune.
In economic terms, the environmental problems caused by capitalism are viewed as “externalities”. If we wreck the environment by making as many cars as we possibly can or extracting as much crude oil out of the earth as possible, it is a side note rather than a major issue for business. Conservatives (and many on the left) are sometimes willing to entertain more environmentally responsible policies, but not at the expense of profit. As George H. Bush famously said, “the American way of life is non-negotiable”. Stress and sickness is also deemed an acceptable byproduct of capitalism — in fact, there is a hugely profitable industry that has emerged to help people help with this stress. Capitalism is so successful that it makes people sick by working them into the ground, then makes even more money when they try to heal themselves.
To deal with this insane dichotomy, we have developed an extraordinary ability to ignore what is happening to us. The damage we are doing to ourselves and the planet is so severe that we literally cannot confront it for fear of what it might reveal. If the entire basis for our society is wrong (or at least deeply flawed) what does this say about our most fundamental beliefs? We have been raised to accept that profit is good, that failure is weakness, and hard work the ultimate virtue. It is a set of beliefs that has such power over us that we simply cannot comprehend another way of being.
Other countries have made efforts at least to tweak capitalism so it is less destructive to the health of their citizens. Sweden, Denmark, Germany and many other European countries have more socialistic economies where wealth is redistributed and citizens benefit from a generous welfare state. Environmental issues are also taken seriously, and “externalities” taken into serious consideration when planning for growth. These countries are not perfect, but they are at least addressing the problems created by unfettered market capitalism.
In America however, capitalism is such a deeply held belief that any interference is regarded with deep skepticism. It is a given that rich people know what is best for the economy, that tax cuts are good, and government regulation bad. In response to the market fundamentalism that began under Ronald Reagan, the Democrats have simply moved ever rightward, adopting the same philosophy as their opponents, albeit with a slightly more human face.
When we harm the environment, we harm ourselves
There is a fundamental misconception in Western society that we are somehow separate from our environment. This is largely a product of religious fundamentalism and scientific reductionism. Religion taught us that God made the earth for man to rule, while science taught us that we are the pinnacle of evolution — the end product of genetic mutations that began in primordial slime and finished with bipedal apes who could throw spears and quote Shakespeare. While the science itself doesn’t explicitly state this (Darwin himself made it clear that humans were not the end product of evolution), Western societies have operated on this principle and refused to acknowledge the living world that we depend on to survive. We have ruthlessly exploited and destroyed delicate eco-systems for our material gain, believing we have an innate right to plunder the earth regardless of the consequence. Capitalism is merely human created mythology that has exponentially increased our destructiveness.
The truth is that we are inextricably linked to the living world — we are made of the same material as the plants, the birds, the bees and the animals, and depend on them for our survival. Our food comes from the earth, and the earth works diligently to maintain homeostasis to ensure we can live on it. Ignoring this puts us out of balance with our host, and can only lead to disaster.
Capitalism is perhaps the most destructive force humanity has ever seen from an ecological perspective. It is no wonder then, that it is making us sick. Because on top of the all work, all the time culture it promotes, it is actively disrupting carefully balanced ecological systems that keep us alive and healthy. A part of us instinctively understands this, and it creates an existential anxiety that cannot be satiated by self help books and yoga.
What to do
There are no easy ways to change or revolutionize a society, at least no consciously. The revolution we need is likely underway already — we just can’t identify it yet. Changing capitalism isn’t just a hopeful goal, it is a biological necessity, and at some point change happens whether we are ready for it or not. Because the more aggressive capitalism gets, the sooner it will destroying itself. The election of Donald Trump for example, and his brand of brutalist market fundamentalism is already creating a huge backlash. The rise of the women’s movement and the election of the Democrats to Congress are just part of America’s response to Trumpism — there is almost certainly much more to come.
The best thing to do it seems, is to come to terms with what is causing our profound anxiety. The sooner we accept that our current way of living is not doing us any good, the sooner we can start creating our way out of it. Humans are a very, very creative species with an ability to make dramatic changes at the drop of a hat. America’s economy was flipped on its head in the lead up to World War II, and there is no reason we cannot do it again. We knew what we were up against in the 1940’s and were able to create a specific response to an overwhelming problem. If we come to terms with the problems we now face, we can create lasting solutions. But as Albert Einstein famously said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”
Capitalism is the most deeply held of mind sets, and it’s high time we started to think outside of it.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.