My last post promoted the idea of making the world work for everyone. But what is it that makes the world not work well for everyone? Probably the most signifigant factor is greed, in its most general sense.
The world, as it is today, exists mostly for the benefit of the few. In a January 2014 article, the Atlantic noted that The World’s 85 Richest People Are as Wealthy as the Poorest 3 Billion, in a discussion of Working for the Few, an Oxfam briefing paper on economic inequality.
With the end of the cold war, the whole globe is now wired into a capitalist network, with the exception of a very small number of nations including rogue states like North Korea or failed states like Somalia. There are also some indigenous peoples remaining but they are increasingly integrated into the global world-system and are just a tiny percentage of humanity (though perhaps more important symbolically or morally through their legacy and difference).
Capitalism is now the only game in town. And it has transformed from a Western (ie. the U.S. & Europe) hegemony into a global system with varying regional flavors. Governments, in theory, represent a counterbalancing structure. However, multi-national corporate agency and international financial capital extend globally and undercut the restraining power of governments.
Further, corruption is endemic across the world and is especially virulent in some areas, further neutering government. And these forces foster the diversion of much of the world’s capital resources to be sequestered into offshore tax havens, free from taxation, accountability, government supervision, moral concerns or human needs.
In China, which is still a self-professed Communist country “between $1tn and $4tn in untraced assets have left China since 2000, according to estimates” with Caribbean offshore tax-havens being used by the families of some of the country’s top political and military leaders as reported by the Guardian drawing on a report by ICIJ .
China appears to have transformed into something of a kleptocracy. Kleptocracy, essentially government of the elite, by the elite and for the elite, represents the institutionalizing of corruption, the perversion of governance. Russia has also become a kleptocracy with Vladimir Putin being listed as the 2nd richest man in the world by therichest.com.
My point here is not to make a moralistic rant against capitalism or greed. Rather it is to observe clearly how money rules the world and how the pursuit of money is embedded into the world-structure (or you might even say, is the world’s structure).
I don’t think capitalism is evil (whatever evil might mean). It tends to promote efficiency and innovation. The laws of thermodynamics show that systems are drawn to maximize efficiency. And in a world of 7 billion people, efficiency will certainly have attractive force.
I think that abstractly, capitalism can be seen as someone neutral. It responds to demand, whatever that demand might be. You might go on Amazon and buy a book on how to covertly manipulate people for your own self-interest or you might buy the Dalai Lama’s book: An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life.
Beyond that, capitalism is essentially the world. It is our methodology for being-in-the-world. It is the way we meet our human needs, the medium through which we live our lives.
But whatever your stance towards capitalism, whatever your attitudes or beliefs, if you look at the current manifestation of global capitalism, if you look at its results, the world it creates, which is the world we live in, then it is serves to transform the material outputs of human energy, the fruits of our labors, into the possessions of the few.
If you are sympathetic to my idea that being human together on this planet is the most attractive goal for us to strive towards, surely a world where 85 people claim ownership to more of the world’s resources than the 3 billion people at the bottom of the capitalist heap is an anti-human result. If we are to be human together, then the world must be reformatted to become a habitat for all of humanity and not just a 1st class resort for a small elite.
However, I’m not interested in focusing on the political economics of this. My purpose here isn’t to undertake structural analysis, to recommend policy formulations or to propose specific economic reforms. Rather I’d like to use these observations to reflect on the systemic nature of greed.
Because of the remarkable advances of the human knowledge project, humans have developed tremendous capabilities for manipulating material reality to suit our purposes. Recently, I was reading “How Monkeys See the World” by Dorothy Cheyney & Robert Seyfarth, and was struck by their observation that about 70% of Vervet Monkeys (the main objects of their observational studies) died of predation, that is by being eaten by other animals.
This caused me to reflect that in more economically fruitful areas of the world, whatever issues you might have with the state of the world, that we’ve created somewhat comfortable lives for most of us, compared to most the creatures that preceded us in evolution’s flow. The history of sentient life (sentient to any degree) is overflowing with suffering.
Pre-mammlian species produce large numbers of offspring but only a small fraction make it to adulthood, and many never see the light of day before they are consumed or their potential lives otherwise extinguished. Most animals, including our own ancestors, lived with the constant fear of being eaten alive.
The number of humans in our current world that are eaten by other species must be pretty miniscule even in “the less developed countries”. We must be the only species who is it’s own main predator.
Our technology gives us the capability to make human life increasingly comfortable for increasing numbers of people. We are able to generate an abundance that’s moving humanity into a post-scarcity state. And some of the prophets of technology like David Deutsch, Peter Diamandis, Erik Brynjolfsson & Andrew McAfee and the nanotechologist Eric Drexler predict that a continued acceleration in our technological capabilities will enable ever increasing levels of prosperity.
But will those technological capabilities, that potential of abundance, lead to greater levels of human satisfaction? Our knowledge & material powers have developed much faster than our wisdom of how to live in this world.
We can’t expect to develop human solidarity as long as the world remains an edifice of vast inequality. The road to humanity’s self realization can’t be through a world structured to maximize the generation of profit and the accumulation of wealth. We can’t be human together as long as we remain enthralled by riches and consumed by greed.
- Making the World Work for Everyone
- The Power of Greed