Economics, Capitalism and Consumerism

“Economics is usually defined as the “social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.” (Economics: Definition of Economics by Merriam Webster), English economist Lionel Robbins defines economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” (definition of economics.” Wikipedia, last edited 26 June 2020 at 12:03 (UTC)). Alfred Marshall claims “economics is the study of humans, in relation to the ordinary business of life. It studies that portion of the personal and social activities, which are closely related to the attainment of material resources, related to welfare and its utilization.” (“Marshall Definition of Economics.” Exam Notes, 16 June 2017).

These definitions are limited in that they do not address human behavior, ethics or sustainability. They simply look at the attainment of the material needs of society and how to obtain them most efficiently. A more inclusive definition of economics would consider the attainment of material goods as well as the equal distribution of those commodities within a context of social justice, ethics and sustainability. It appears that our current economic philosophy is amoral and solely anthropocentric.

John Ikerd claims that our current notion of economics is out of date. He feels that our current economic model is based on antiquated ideas that don’t apply to our modern societies and that human and ethical considerations have been largely ignored in place of economic efficiency. It appears that self-interest in business has created a primary goal of maximizing profits instead of supplying the material needs of society in a just manner that would include economic success for everyone, the equitable attainment of wealth and material goods and a work environment that would encompass personal fulfillment. It appears that another agenda has become more prominent; an economic system that is focused on monetary-gain and power as a goal in itself.

This agenda has been largely unchallenged by the general public but the injustice rendered by it has been widely felt. The powerful and elite who control the economy make every effort to keep reform from occurring so they will not have to share the riches of the planet. It is time we begin to re-create an economic system that will fulfill human needs in an equitable manner and include a context of ethics and sustainability.

Self-interest in itself is healthy as long as it does not exclude the interests of others as well. The term, enlightened self-interest, has emerged as a new way to describe the relationship between the interests of the self in relation to others and speaks to a context of cooperation, collaboration and a desire for all to succeed. Such a model would support the equal distribution of resources among the world’s populations and discourage the practice of colonialism, thus negating the common rationale for war and economic conflict. Greed and selfishness can be regarded as living in a condition of scarcity, thereby driving the need to acquire and consume more of the Earth’s bounties.

People actually have an affinity toward cooperation or symbiosis as a defining characteristic of their genetic makeup and there has been much current research on this topic. The notion that humans are inherently selfish or unethical is culturally derived and not logical or scientifically verifiable. What needs to be considered is the balance between, self-interests, the interests of society, and what it means to live as an ethical, sentient being.

No one has configured an economic system that works adequately yet but it is time to seriously deliberate on this matter. We must look at models that have had merit historically, incorporate new thinking that includes ecology and ethics and begin experimenting with new models before our current economic systems fail completely.

I would like to introduce some ideas of Herbert Marcuse related to economic philosophy that I derived from an article by Douglas Kellner. Marcuse wrote an essay, “Ecology and the Critique of Modern Society,” in which he articulated the importance of ecology as a basis for a fruitful human-nature relationship. He believed that societal transformation and the preservation of nature from capitalism and other economic systems that damaged the environment were an essential part of human development. He also stated that human aggression and violence were instrumental in the continued destruction of the natural world and that until humanity resolved its inner conflicts, nature would continue to be exploited. 

Marcuse believed that people were integral with nature and that the economic systems that had been created functioned in a way that inhibited a sense of connectedness and wellbeing. He felt that capitalism thwarted the multi–dimensional aspects of human behavior and funneled them into specialized and limited functions that diminished the human spirit. He goes on to say that capitalism creates a framework in which our lifestyles are organized by work and by the production of goods and services for the primary goal of profit. Capitalism fails to adequately address individual growth and development and does not typically promote healthy social and cooperative relationships.

Capitalism also operates as a contradiction in that in order to promote material wellbeing for humanity, nature must be damaged or decimated. Therefore, a destructive and even aggressive context constitutes the primary nature of capitalism. This changes the function of people into tools of labor and into conduits of destruction. This context doesn’t meet the needs of the individual or society and instead tends to foster greed, competition and anti-social behavior. These concepts were the basis for Marcuse’s vision of a radical ecology.

It is apparent that our current economic system does not support humanity’s wellbeing as it is based primarily on the motive of profit and the accumulation of material wealth and power. Unfortunately, that power and wealth is in the hands of the elite few who have been able to manipulate the economy to their advantage while knowing that their actions will cause considerable misfortune for a large portion of the global population.

What is needed is a new vision of economics that will foster a reasonable standard of living for all members of society with wealth being distributed as equally as possible. This would constitute a transformation of the present values of self-interest to enlightened self-interest and a genuine desire for all humanity to accomplish their highest visions, aspirations and goals in an economy that would promote cooperation, success and sustainable outcomes.

A system that would accomplish this objective has yet to be formulated and established but core principles of communism and socialism could be attempted if we gave up our primitive and immature values of competition and needing to win at the expense of another. There may be other models to emulate from indigenous cultures as well and new models that might emerge as we continue to study human behavior in the context of social systems. As in many other aspects of human behavior, values and attitudes ultimately make or break any type of governing body or institution, regardless of its configuration or intended purpose.

Consumption and Our Current Standard of Living

When attempting to define what a standard of living is, we find that this concept is rather subjective and hard to quantify in any objective terms. Economic philosophy seems to have avoided this subject altogether. There have been many ideas related to what a standard of living is or what it should be throughout history. These have ranged from a very simple lifestyle such as those lived by hunters and gatherers, basically, a subsistence lifestyle, all the way to a lifestyle of extreme luxury and affluence with no limits on consumption whatsoever. We also have the notion that people deserve certain things and should be able to have all of their needs met and gratifications fulfilled. There are those that advocate for a lifestyle of simplicity such as found in monastic life and there is the belief that wealth and abundance is tied to spiritual and social grace with God.

There has been much talk about what type of standard of living is appropriate and ethical and what is not, but there has been very little agreement on establishing any real standard in the real world. Today we see a world of extremely poor people, a small number of extremely wealthy people and a vanishing middle class. Throughout history, poverty has often resulted in disharmony, conflict and eventually war.

Given the level of consumption that we are experiencing today, we must create a standard of living that will address the needs of the world’s populous without exploiting the biosphere and destroying our habitat. Some new thinking is definitely in order. I would like to deliberate on some alternative thoughts that are surfacing in the ecology movement.

First of all, we must address subsistence needs but this must be done in a way that is ecologically sustainable. Once these needs are met, we can entertain non-subsistence needs that would make life more comfortable. There are other things that support the quality of our lives such as hobbies, sports, the arts, and other recreational pursuits including vacations and quality time. All these needs are valid but must be addressed in the context of our relationship with nature. We also may not always be able to produce what we want when we want it due to insufficient technologies and information. We must employ science and technology to produce only sustainable outcomes. Living with less may also be necessary in order to have some semblance of equality in the world.

One notable idea proposes shared ownership of many of the things we use and own currently such as vehicles of transportation, tools, creature comforts, clothes, toys, hobbies, games, housing, workspaces, businesses, land, and many publicly and privately owned and managed facilities. Many of these could be mutually owned and cared for. The notion of private land, clubs and private exclusive organizations would be less important given a context of shared commodities and services. Granted, there would need to be adjustments made in the way we think and act about privately owned entities, but this change in perception may be necessary for our future survival.

Another proposed change would be in the amount of time we spend in our work lives. Personal growth and development have been demoted as being less important than our career activities and supporting our capitalistic system and consumer economy. We could work half the time we do and still fulfill the needs of society and lead happier and more productive lives in the process. The attainment of power and wealth in itself is not a sustainable practice beyond what we actually want and need. We must also want each other to succeed and prosper and have equality in our standards of living no matter where we live on this planet.

References:

“Definition of economics.” Economics: Definition of Economics by Merriam Webster, last edited merriam-webster.com/dictionary/economics. Accessed 30 June 2020.

“Lionel Robbins, Theories and influences, Robbins is famous for his definition of economics.” Wikipedia, last edited 26 June 2020 at 12:03 (UTC), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lionel_Robbins. Accessed 30 June 2020.

“Marshall Definition of Economics.” Exam Notes, 16 June 2017, allexamnotes.com/2017/06/economics-marshall-definition/. 31 May 2020.

Ikerd, John. “Rethinking the Economics of Self-Interests.” Presented at a seminar sponsored by the Organization for Competitive Markets, University of Missouri, Omaha, NE, September 1999, web.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/Rethinking.html. Accessed 31 May 2020.

Kellner, Douglas. “Herbert Marcuse.” Illuminations, uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell12.htm. Accessed 31 May 2020.

The Voice of the Earth; An Exploration of Eco-psychology, Theodore Roszak, Phanes Press, 2001, The Neon Telephone, The Moral Equivalent of Wretched Excess. pp. 247-262. Accessed 31 May 2020.

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