the Real World
The Triumph of Capitalism?
A Chinese proverb says: “I
curse you to live in the times of change.” Which is sometimes translated as:
“I curse you to live in interesting times.” In such “interesting
times” we are living at present. Big changes and realignments have been taking
place in front of our eyes. The specter of Communism seems to be no longer
haunting the Capitalist world. On the contrary, in the battle between Communism
and Capitalism over its social superiority Capitalism has handsomely won.
The distinguished economist
and social thinker, Robert Heilbröner, recently published an article on the
very subject. The piece is provocatively titled “The Triumph of Capitalism”
and it opens with these words:
than seventy-five years after it officially began, the contest between
capitalism and socialism is over: capitalism has won. The Soviet Union, China,
and Eastern Europe have given us the clearest possible proof that capitalism
organizes the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism:
that however inequitably or irresponsibly the marketplace may distribute goods,
it does so better than the queues of a planned economy; however mindless the
culture of commercialism, it is more attractive than state moralism; and however
deceptive the ideology of a business civilization, it is more believable than
that of a socialist one.
Yet, Heilbröner is
aware that not all is well. He thus asks a significant question: “Is
capitalism working well enough?” Once we have asked this question, we confront
a very serious problem indeed.
Our first response is an
automatic one: Yes, of course, it is working well enough—look at the material
prosperity in the West and how capitalism outperforms communism. This is one
kind of answer, but actually a rather obvious answer, if not a trivial one. This
answer relates to the bottom-line-economics. Our bottom-line shows profit. So,
all is well.
The ‘economics of the
bottom line’ has been so impressive to some that they began to mystify it. The
result is economism, a philosophical doctrine which claims (implicitly or
explicitly) that economics—the ‘bottom-line-economics’ that
is—determines the structure and the ethos of society and should be
unconditionally obeyed for it is our god. This last conclusion is not spelled
out so clearly but it is nevertheless implied.
Now I will attempt to argue
that this whole line of thinking and the entire philosophy underlying economism
is basically wrong. Let us return to our question: Is capitalism working well
enough? My answer is that it isn’t. The bottom-line-economics is a
misconceived idea. When we observe how life actually works, then we realize that
the genuine bottom-line is the quality of life. Unless an economic or a
social system meets this ultimate criterion—that of the quality of life—it
is an incomplete, inadequate, if not fraudulent one. In this sense, economism,
or the bottom-line-economics, may be considered fraudulent. Let me explain why.
The distinguished British
writer Anthony Burgess writes: “Turning humanity into something far less than
it could be is what vulgarity is about.”
That is precisely what economism is attempting to do to us: it tries to reduce
us to something less than what we could become. In this sense, economism
is pushing us on the road to vulgarity, and is itself an instrument of
vulgarity. Advertising and the ideology or consumerism are its allies. When one
looks perceptively at the cluster of those forces that spiritually
diminish the human society, one realizes that consumerism and advertising are
only tools of economism.
Thus, on the first level of
analysis, economism must be questioned and opposed because it impoverishes us
as individual existential beings, cheapens us with regard to what we can
become; it robs us of our spiritual heritage.
On the second level of
analysis, economism must be questioned and opposed on ecological grounds.
Economism is based on false accounting. The much celebrated ‘bottom-line’ is
really fictitious. What it shows is often illusory profit. Why illusory?
Because some parameters and costs are hidden and omitted. Those costs are called
‘externalities,’ which economic models hide. These externalities show up as
enormous bills—going into billions of dollars—for cleaning polluted
environments and for repairing our damaged health. What will be the final bill
for repairing nature and bringing it back to the state of its wellbeing (which
means true sustainability in the long run) nobody knows. But this kind of
figure would be astronomical—a legacy of the bottom-line.
An economic or a
philosophical system which is so careless about the quality of life, a system
that sanctifies ecological devastations, must be in some sense fraudulent.
Economism claims to be the best economics system for humanity. But it simply
does not deliver—if you take into account its fallout.
It must be emphasized that
the ecological factor is not one of those ‘externalities,ʼ the nuisance
value which one can easily shrug off. The ecological parameters are now of such
a crucial importance to our survival that an economic system which is sane and
accountable in the long run must include these parameters as integral parts of
all economic equations.
This is increasingly
perceived not only by the environmentalists and people of the liberal persuasion
(and all those who care about the integrity of the Planet) but also by the
people on the right, the traditional defenders of capitalism. One of them is
Martin Anderson, of the
only way to eliminate serious pollution is to treat it exactly for what it is:
garbage… just as one does not have the right to drop a bag of garbage on his
neighbor’s lawn, so does one not have the right to drop a bag of garbage in
the air or the water or the earth if it in any way violates the property right
of others. What we need are tougher, cleaner environmental laws that are
enforced not with economic incentives but with jail terms.
One does not expect this
kind of language from the people on the right. But times are changing.
On the third level of
analysis, economism is to be questioned because it is based on a wrong ethics:
the ethics of selfishness, of competition, of ruthless disregard for all
being—in the pursuit of material profit now—is unnatural from the standpoint
of human history and human ethics, as well as from the standpoint of evolution.
Evolution is a hymn to symbiosis. Human societies are monuments to
cooperativeness and solidarity. The ethics of unbridled selfishness, which
economism promotes, is not a great new invention to be welcomed, but an
aberration and an insult to our noble ethical heritage. Let us also notice that
the ethics of competitiveness contains in itself potential violence. The ethics
which encourages you to tread on the bodies of others cannot be right as a human
ethics. The ethical imperative of economism, expressed in the simplest way,
would read as follows: Tread on the bodies of others or hang yourself if you are
On the fourth level of
analysis, economism must be questioned because it is based on a myopic
concept of reality. Any sensitive person, who has experienced the richness
and the versatility of reality, including its magical aspects, will perceive the
reduction of all reality to its economic substratum as a farce, not a true
rendition of the real world. What economism does is an extreme form of
reductionism—reducing the world and human beings to economic categories and
commodities. This represents a further vulgarization of the world, this time on
the ontological level.
Now we have an answer why
the economics of the bottom-line is a fiction—not the ultimate criterion for
accounting for all there is—and why economism is such a profoundly
unsatisfactory philosophy, if not a fraudulent one. In so far as the economics
of the bottom-line is so crucial to present capitalism, we have an answer why
capitalism does not work well enough—because it lives on the capital which
belongs to future generations; because it undermines the foundations on which it
rests: nature and natural cycles; because it reduces the human being, a noble
animal, to a vulgar consumer.
Education for the Real World
Thus we come to education.
In one of the most memorable scenes in Hamlet, the king asks: “Now,
Hamlet, where’s Polonius?” “At supper,” Hamlet responds. The king: “At
supper? Where?” Hamlet: “Not where he eats, but where he is eaten.”
this could be said about present students: they are devoured by the
present system of education, not nourished by it. They are not educated
in the true sense of the term (educare, I lead), hut manipulated.
Plato says: “The direction
in which education sets a man will determine his future life.” This is as true
now as it was in Plato’s times. What kind or direction is our present
education setting for our young people? How are they being guided and led? To
what ends and to what purposes? Are they not per chance so socialized and
programmed as to be good consumers and work for the glory of the consumerist
ideology and the bottom-line-economics?
Education as a social and
civilizational enterprise must ultimately serve the quality of life. If
education ignores or neglects this vital criterion it is not an adequate
education and may indeed be a misguided one.
While examining the
shortcomings of economism as a universal philosophy, I have argued that it is
crippled on four grounds:
By spelling out these
shortcomings (of economism) we now have a clear direction concerning desirable
and worthwhile education. Let me therefore enumerate the qualities of education
worthy of the new global citizen which is going to inherit the XXIst
are not isolated monads drifting aimlessly through the Cosmos. We are connected
with all human beings and with all living beings in one stupendous tapestry of
evolution. To think well is to open one’s eyes to the glory of Creation in its
process of becoming. This glory of becoming, from the original Big Bang, via all
creative evolution, is a hymn sung to solidarity, cooperation, participation.
This is what genuine education should instill in the student—the appreciation
for the immense richness of the universe, and a gratitude for being in it.
us notice something special and peculiar about our times, namely the tacit
alliance between consumerism and relativism. Our first impression would be that
the two phenomena are not connected. But deeper down, they are. Consumerism
thrives on relativism and indirectly supports it. The reason is simple: the more
perplexed and confused the consumer, the easier it is to persuade him/her to
buy. But there are deeper reasons too. If you believe in some intrinsic values,
which enshrine spiritual aspects of human existence, then you are not going to
be easily persuaded that consumption equals redemption. In a nutshell, spirituality
is an enemy of consumerism. For this reason, consumerism supports relativism
(“anything goes”) rather than any intrinsic system of values.
this reason also consumerism opposes (if only indirectly) the advent of
ecological values, for if nothing else, ecological values strongly advocate the
curbing of our consumptive habits. It should be clear from our earlier analysis
that ecological values or ecological ethics should be viewed as one of the
highest priorities of humanity at this juncture of history. We need to heal the
earth, we need to heal ourselves, and there is nothing relativistic about that.
Saving the Planet is a social project. Ecological values are going to be
the engines of this project. In the process, we shall need to articulate a new
set of economic values which will bond us together in the pursuit of a viable
and worthwhile future.
values are not absolute, and are not meant to be so. But they are not
subjective—thus representing personal predilections of some individuals. They
are a historical necessity for our times for the culture to survive as a human
and spiritual culture. In this sense, ecological values are inter-subjective or trans-subjective.
Among the most important ecological values I would mention first of all reverence
for life; then responsibility for all, including future generations;
then frugality in our life styles: frugality not as an imposed poverty or
abnegation, but as grace without waste; in economics terms this means doing more
education should teach us a right system of accounting vis-à-vis nature, vis-à-vis
other cultures, and vis-à-vis future generations. Too often we make (or at
least some of us do) handsome profit at the expense of the well-being of nature,
or at the expense of the Third World nations (to whom we export our pollution
while we extricate from them their natural resources), or at the expense of
future generations to whom we shall leave a much more impoverished and scarred
planet. A right system of accounting is an economic problem, but much more so a cultural
and a value problem. Our analysis of the concept of reality and of
ecological values clearly points out how we should go creating a right system of
all systems of education, as well as systems of philosophy, are about how to be
human, not how to be a consumer. We must not misread our mandate: we are here to
lead our young to be deservedly human and not to manipulate them for the sake of
the status quo, which anyway is undermining its own existence.
It is quite clear that we
are now opening a new chapter of history. This is an ecological chapter. Our
responsibility entails and necessitates ecological responsibilities. We cannot
be human, in a deeper sense, unless we make peace with nature (and with
ourselves, for while waging the war against nature, we have been waging one
against ourselves). Thus an ecological dimension must be a part of our
education, our philosophies, and of our religions.
It can be said that the West
has won the battle against communism. But winning this battle—is it a victory?
Or perhaps a pyrrhic victory? Entranced and mesmerized by this battle, we have
perhaps neglected to see that we have been losing another, a more important
battle—the battle to save the earth and also to save the meaning of our
reconstruction, the healing of the earth, should be now among our most
important imperatives. Education, if it is genuine and comprehensive, should
help this process of healing and integration. We should steep the minds of our
youth in the great, everlasting liturgy of nature and teach them reverence for
life and for all creation. This is an imperative of our economic survival in the
long run as well as an imperative of our psychological sanity.
Ecology is about a new shape
of life. Ecology is about the dignity of life. Ecology is about the
dignity of human work. Present economics is suicide economics, not a proper
accounting of our household. We have been incurring an enormous debt to nature,
and asking future generation to foot the bill. Future generations are refusing
to do so. Future generations speak with the voice of eco-wisdom and eco-values.
We were not brought to this world to lead an alienated, estranged, deracinate
and uprooted existence. We were brought to this world to celebrate the glories
of the Cosmos and to live in solidarity with other beings. Genuine and
significant education must be one which helps to live life fully, meaningfully,
with inspiration and with a modicum of grace.
Education for the real world
is one which respects the world in all its dimensions, in all its
richness, including its hidden and mysterious aspects. Such an education
respects evolution in its profound unfolding as it builds ever more subtle
structures and beings, ultimately the ones which reach out to heaven.
Let us take the human
condition seriously. Let us take predicaments seriously. Let us take education
seriously. And let us design educational and social structures which are
congruent with the evolutionary imperative, with the desiderata of life
unfolding, bountiful and ultimately radiant. To win an ideological battle while
losing the environment and the quality of life is no victory. Let us clearly see
what our aims and goals are—in education and culture at large. These goals
have to do with the liberation and fulfillment of the human being on the highest
level of cultural and spiritual attainment. We need the courage, determination
and vision to put one-dimensional theories of man—whether of capitalist or
communist variety—to where they belong, on the shelf of history, and start
evolving ideals, theories and practices in the image of Man, a transcendental
This article was originally presented at the conference “Education in
Europe: The Challenge of 1992,” held in
Robert Heilbröner, “The Triumph of Capitalism,” The New Yorker,
January 23, 1989.
Anthony Burgess, “Voyage to Discovery in the New Vulgaria,” The
Observer, August 6, 1989.
As reported in the International Herald Tribune, April 11, 1986, p.
For further discussion of ecological ethics, see Skolimowski’s papers,
“Eco-ethics as the Foundation of Conservation,” The Environmentalist,
vol. 4 (1984), Supplement 7, and “Reverence for Life,” in Ethics of
Environment and Development, Donald and Joan Engel (eds.), 1990.
For further discussion, see: H. Skolimowski, Eco-Philosophy, Designing
New Tactics for Living, 1981 and Eco-theology, Toward a Religion for
our Times, 1985.