It’s pretty unclear nowadays what’s capitalist, what’s socialist, what’s radical and what’s not. Actually it’s easy at the extremes. Pure capitalism (market does everything) pure socialism (government does everything) — they’re both too radical for most people. Except for some fringe libertarians, most reasonable people are seeking some position in between radical capitalism and radical socialism.
There in the middle, it’s a matter of tilt — tilting toward the right, left or centre. That covers just about everyone — conservative, social democratic, socialist, fascist, leftist, hard right, centrist, etc. They’re all claiming their particular tilt along that scale is the only truth. Everyone else is presumably biased by some radical influence or other.
So we need to take a hard look at just what radical means. It comes from the Greek word radix (root) — getting at the root of things. In practice, that involves deciding what is the root question we should be asking about economic life.
Well, we’ve all been raised on Economics, and here’s its root question. “How can we sacrifice as little as possible in order to get as much as possible from limited resources by means of competition?”
So right off the bat, we’re talking about consumption. To the economist, life is about maximizing the satisfaction (utility) gained from consumption. But that’s not the whole issue. Work is reduced to a sacrifice (disutility), endured only to obtain the means to consume.
When that culture of taking as much as possible and giving as little as possible is channeled by the marketing industry into an constant drive to increase consumption at every opportunity — it’s called consumerism.
The marketplace then becomes an arena for one individual to deny a commodity to another individual by asserting ownership. That’s the nature of competitive markets — whatever you buy is something that someone else doesn’t get. But you don’t even think of it as taking something from someone else. It’s been normalized. It’s just shopping.
It’s all been legitimized by the sacred canon of Economics. This declares that the central fact of human existence is scarcity — there’s not enough to go around — so you must take what you want away from others.
You don’t think about that because it’s not your concern. Economists tell us that those other people are doing just fine. The competitive market is officially a win-win game. Losers just aren’t playing the game properly — so they just need to shape up. In fact, losers don’t even exist in a properly competitive market. So just play the game competitively. Everything’s good.
But what if someone has hoarded most of the wealth? Not to worry, say the economists, they got it fair and square! That’s how the win-win game works — everybody wins, but some win more than others. Its all good because we’re free, aren’t we?
Still, economists are talking about perfect markets — not the real world, where a lot of things can go wrong. No problem. Let the government make a few tweaks here and there and fix things up.
But this is where the differences come into play — where the tilt varies. Some call for an economy that is primarily driven by market forces, as described above. Some call for an economy that is primarily driven by public programmes, where the label socialist often gets applied. Some call for a functional balance of market and public endeavour, where the label social democratic is sometimes used. But everyone — right or left, democratic or fascist — resides somewhere along this scale.
And it’s all wrongheaded.
Why? Because they’re all playing the same game — consumerism. Programmes on the left just offer a fairer consumer society — realigning opportunities and re-juggling winners and losers, resetting more parameters through regulation, reining in more financial malpractises, broadening social services, and patching up the safety net.
But it’s still the same old story — find your fulfillment through more and better consumption. It’s still a market scramble — where you grab what you can before someone else gets it — with a few more constraints and a more human face. Hardly radical.
“You mean there’s an alternative?”, you might ask. Well, yes there is, actually. But first I need to refer you to a point I’ve made in a previous blog post. There are two ways of living:
- Take all you can, and give only what you have to;
- Give all you can, and take only what you have to.
So beautifully symmetrical. And guess which one we live to the hilt — which one we live passionately — in our present economic culture. I hardly need answer that.
But there is another way to live. Re-read #2. Rather than living to consume, live to do something. Live to serve some higher pursuit. I could put it in a Christian context and say live to love and serve your neighbour. Or I could express it in a secular context and say live to fulfill some higher purpose of your own choosing. I advise the former, but you can get by with the latter if you’re really determined to stay inside the box.
The point is — choose how you are able to give something of yourself to your neighbour and your community — give to the best of your ability — and take (consume) what you need to be good at it. That’s the kind of vocational culture that nourishes the human spirit. It’s the antithesis of today’s culture of obsessive consumerism.
And this is radical as hell. This is the kind of cultural transformation that can feed our higher aspirations — no matter how far we are from that ideal in the current rat race.
Now back to the market. If we ever had this kind of live-to-serve sharing culture, we’d still need to distribute stuff. We’d still need some kind of market. But how different that market could be. A true market is meant to serve the community — a way to manage trade more efficiently than crude barter. Without the predatory culture of consumerism, it can serve that higher end if managed well.
Utopian perhaps? Probably, at the moment. We’re stuck for a very long time in an narcissistic marketing economy where our daily desires are fodder for manipulation and perversion — and it’s effective manipulation indeed. Most people are sucked in, big time.
But every culture has its counterculture. And often, in history, the counterculture wins out in the end. That’s a task for our great grandchildren to complete. But there’s ground to be laid right now. And work to be done.
It’s a matter of what we’re called to do with our lives — consume or serve? That’s a cultural shift that will take forever to turn a profane culture about-face. But it starts in family and community, where new narratives take shape over generations — from right now.
I draw some of these ideas from something called Radical Orthodoxy, found in some quarters of my own Anglican church — and to some extent from Catholic Social Doctrine. Of course there are similar threads in other spiritual traditions that I plan to examine more closely.
But I’ve presented it here in a fairly secular manner — even though I believe it’s much richer in a spiritual context — because secular humanism has something to say about it too. There’s a lot of common ground to be found, and a whole transformation to be won in the end.