TOP 2013-08-20

Eternal Discontent: the Psychology of Capitalism and Resistance

Our world is currently afflicted by a debilitating disease called capitalism. Capitalism is a type of cancer: it grows excessively, demanding that all natural resources, human labour and even the human spirit itself be expended for the sake of its endless growth. Everything is fuel for this process, everything must be fed into the jaws of the beast, because if it doesn’t grow fast enough, it will make sure that we suffer. And the beast isn’t satisfied just to grow, it has to grow at an ever faster rate, year-on-year, exponential growth. Inevitably we can’t always keep up with its eternal hunger, and the economy goes into recession, and, periodically, crisis, where money is short, companies go out of business, employees get laid off, and poverty strikes the vulnerable. All this because we didn’t feed the beast enough. Chop down every tree and let the titan gnash them all, and it still won’t be enough - for growth has to continue forever. Build the biggest ocean liner imaginable and then build one twice as big, both set to sail into the beast’s cavernous mouth, but that still won’t be enough, because the beast will want something bigger and then something bigger still.

It doesn’t matter whether society needs any of these things or not - we are compelled to produce more and more stuff, regardless of its usefulness, and even if it means that real needs go unmet. It makes perfect economic sense to divide up the moon - hell, the whole of the universe - and sell the deeds to people, even while a billion people are starving, if it ensures that growth continues. To play this game, there needs to be a market for every new product and service, which means people’s hunger for consumption must constantly keep pace with the hunger of the beast. Let’s buy a million things we don’t need, but that won’t be enough, because next year we’re shooting for growth. There’s no goal. There’s no limit. Our consumption must know no boundaries, and production must meet no limits, because we’ve just got to keep growing, faster and faster, onward forever!

Now take a slice of time and understand the state that we must be in at any given moment: it is, quite simply, a state of dissatisfaction. Economic output is not big enough. We must have more. We must produce more. We must consume more. Every single moment is a moment of hunger, because fulfillment has not, will not and cannot possibly ever be reached. The growth imperative puts us in a state of perpetual hunger, an eternal longing to fill a void that can never, ever be filled. It is precisely this longing that advertisements have to appeal to in order to make us consume things that we don’t even need. Once our real needs are met, the beast can only be fed by inventing a fake need and convincing us to buy the product - something which Apple has turned into a nauseating form of theatre with thousands of psychological victims. Another strategy is simply stealing something from us that used to be part of the commons, and then selling it back to us in a commodified form. This goes back to the beginnings of capitalism, when land was taken out of the commons and enshrined as the private property of the emerging bourgeoisie, then rented out to the same people who used to use it for free. Concomitant with the breakdown of community, we are even seeing the exploitation of virtual social networks for profit; friendship is now a commercial resource, mined by the profiteering Facebook corporation. And with the destruction of the ecological systems that we depend on - also caused by capitalism - we are being sold ‘eco’ products, so that ‘environmentalism’ has become just another brand, and another way for the beast to keep growing.

It is helpful at this point to take a brief look at Buddhist philosophy, which is remarkably relevant despite pre-dating capitalism by a couple of thousand years or so. The first of the so-called Noble Truths is that life is permeated by dukkha - that is, suffering, discontent, dissatisfaction - and the second Noble Truth attributes this suffering to a phenomenon called tanhā, which is usually translated as ‘desire’, but ‘craving’ and ‘attachment’ are possibly more helpful. Furthermore, tanhā causes three specific types of dukkha (suffering), which, I will argue, are all systemically visible in today’s society. First, there’s dukkha dukkha, or the ‘suffering of suffering’, the sort of thing that we would ordinarily associate with the word ‘suffering’ anyway. It’s the gross suffering of living in poverty, of hunger and starvation, preventable diseases because of inadequate sanitation, dying for a lack of clean water, working in appalling conditions, being driven away from your home due to conflict or oppression. Second, we see viparināma dukkha, the suffering of change. This type of dukkha adequately describes the suffering of capitalism even when it is working properly: it’s the suffering of constantly craving new, pleasurable experiences. You have one pleasurable experience, and because all things are impermanent, it comes to an end, and you want it again. This is the logic of addiction, and it’s the logic of capitalism too - just as I explained above with the metaphor of an insatiable beast, no amount of production or consumption is ever enough; the good times always end and we will always want more and more. Capitalism cycles between these two types of dukkha - viparināma dukkha during boom periods and then dukkha dukkha when it all goes bust, triggering poverty for a section of the population. On a societal level, we’re acting like an addict who has a cigarette, suffers when it comes to an end, has another cigarette, and another, then runs out of cigarettes and experiences physically painful withdrawal symptoms. Or we’re as pathetic as a child who constantly wants another ice cream, and then gets sick due to eating too much ice cream.

But there’s a third type of dukkha talked about by Buddhism, the most complex and most frequently misunderstood of them all, and that’s sankhāra dukkha, the ‘suffering of conditioned states’, also known by the devastating moniker, all-pervasive suffering. And this type of suffering, I contest, is, on a systemic level, the type of suffering which is reserved for the Left. Because it’s all about looking at the world and saying this or that shouldn’t happen, or this or that should be the case. It’s about having views and ideals and principles and a will for things to be different. It’s about expectations, and the suffering which inevitably results from the world’s incalcitrant inability to ever live up to our every expectation. Always and forever, something just isn’t the way it ought to be, which is exactly as we in the Left would expect in our eternal state of struggle, struggle for freedom and emancipation at every level. But surely this suffering will go away if only the Revolution would come? No, let’s not be naïve, because even after the Revolution we will have to struggle against the counter-revolution, and even if the Revolution seems so complete, we will always have to be vigilant to ensure that it is never reversed, to make sure that no insidious hierarchies sneak their way back into our structures while we’ve let our guard down.

Here we part company from the Buddha, as he goes warp speed into La-La-Land, because ultimately Buddhism claims that our individual suffering is totally and completely our own fault, that merely by working on our own mind and changing our mentality to be more wise and more compassionate we can free ourselves from all suffering. Specifically, it’s about replacing attachment with detachment so that ultimately we can uncaringly shrug off every murder and genocide as just Something That Was Meant To Be - because everything that happens to people, in this philosophy, is their own fault, and their consciousness drifted into that body precisely so that it could suffer the consequences of how badly it behaved in its previous life. And after a few trillion rebirths as a moth, and a few million rebirths as a three-headed giant, and a few billion human lives where we gradually perfect our mind, finally we leave the cycle of rebirth and thereby free ourselves from suffering forever, or so the dogma goes.

Most religions, like most self-help manuals, ultimately fall into this trap of prescribing something for the individual, who, implicitly or explicitly, is supposed to just accept the world the way it is, no matter how structurally corrupt or awful it may be. So whether you’re spending millions of lifetimes perfecting the right attitude like a Buddhist, or spending however many microseconds it takes to ‘believe in Christ’ just before you die (which is, for comparison, all it takes for a Protestant to achieve salvation), religion tries to make us ignore our political and economic structures as possible causes of our plight. It’s like if we’re sitting in the firing line of a group of maniacs with flamethrowers: the Buddhist says just put on a flameproof suit and stop complaining, the Christian says to wait an indefinitely long period of time for the Coming of the Saviour, while only the Revolutionary says to take up arms and kill the bastards. In other words, we have to recognise that one of the chief causes of the world’s suffering is structural - it’s built in to our political and economic systems, and accordingly it can be eliminated through a revolution of those systems. A revolution of the means of production is a revolution of our material circumstances, which, for a great many people means the end of their poverty, and that same revolution can stop the economy’s insatiable addiction to growth, halting an ecological crisis in the process. This is the work that we need to do if we’re serious about ending people’s suffering. And that’s not to say that working on our individual mindset is useless, because there’s also a profound cultural shift that we will all need to experience if we want to be able to advance and maintain a revolutionised society, but even this can only be the consequence of a concerted joint effort, not an individualised feel-good session.

So, having decided to focus on the revolutionising of society, we will inevitably find ourselves beset by that kind of suffering which we labelled sankhāra dukkha (but we could stick a trendy nickname on it like the Lefty’s Lament). It reflects the fact that, for all the time that we spend existing in this corrupted world, we know that it is wrong, and we know how we’d like it to be different, and in the current climate we know that it isn’t going to change in our lifetime. We could succumb to the individualised soothing of the kind that Buddhism and self-help manuals prescribe, but the more we learn to be content in a fundamentally diseased system, the more likely we are to simply conform, to go along with it because now it doesn’t seem so bad. We know that the only proper response to a system this cruel and this destructive is anger, a mass scale of discontent, of resistance, and of retaliation. In short, suffering. For this reason I do not wish contentment on anybody. Suffering is endemic not only to our world but also our philosophy of opposing it. Supporters of capitalism have to contend with the suffering of change, as their short-lived profit motives and consumerist binges inevitably crash, failing to bring the pleasure that was promised by their myopic addictive fever. And the idealists among us have the suffering of resistance, a never-ending but necessary struggle to cure a societal illness.