Towards a Dharma-based Economy – I
by Swami Atmarupananda on 02 Mar 2017 5 Comments

[In early November 2015, the author participated in a four-day programme held in Varanasi and Sarnath entitled, Awakening the Light of Dharma: How to Uphold Dharma in the World Today, organised by the Global Peace Initiative, in partnership with Jnana-Pravaha of Varanasi, the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute, and the Malaviya Centre for Peace Research. On November 8 the proceedings were held at the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute, which included a morning session on the topic ‘Principles of a Dharmic Economy’, moderated by Dr Tho Ha Vinh.[1] After Dr Tho gave an introduction to the topic, the author was asked to address the gathering. The following is adapted from the substance of his talk-Editor.]


This morning we are to discuss the possibilities of a dharma-based economy. But I think it will be useful if we first discuss where economic systems come from; the answer to that question is fundamental. How can we think of changing our economic system without first knowing the source of economic systems? Second, we will examine the present state of our existing economic system, in general terms. Third, we’ll look at the principles that can serve as a new foundation for a dharma-based economy. And finally we’ll look at some of the many efforts, the experiments already underway that are seeking to develop a new model. So let us begin.


Where does our economic system come from? It isn’t a part of nature, though economic activity is certainly intrinsic to human society; but a particular society organises that economic activity in a particular way. In other words, economic activity is natural to human society, but the economic system that a particular society uses is human-conceived.


By ‘human-conceived’ I don’t mean that people sat around and thought up the economic system any more than people think up language. No, it grew unconsciously; but how? It grew out of the stories we told ourselves and continue to tell ourselves, stories that answer fundamental questions: What is life? What is its purpose? Who am I? Who are other people and what is human society - that strange, intricately organised collective of other people? What is my relationship to the world, what are my responsibilities to the world, the world’s responsibilities to me? What is of value? Such stories are the myths of a society, and every society has them, including a modern, scientific, technological, atheistic society.


It is a demonstrable fact that the economy we have at any point in history has been generated unconsciously from the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that a society tells itself. So with all human institutions, so with society itself. We have the justice system we have in any particular society because of the stories we believe about justice. We have the penal system we have because of the stories our society tells itself about the nature of criminals and retribution and redemption.


Our problem today is that our stories no longer work. They are built on contradictions, which is perhaps true of all stories,[2] but the contradictions in our present stories have become compounded to the breaking point. This is true not just of the economy. Political systems around the world are largely broken, governmental and private institutions around the world are showing cracks, the idea of the nation-state is broken, the climate is broken because of the stories we have told ourselves about nature and the use of nature. The environment - that miraculous, extremely complex living envelope that sustains us and includes us - is itself broken because of our human stories. And all of these are interrelated; but today we will focus on the economy.


This general idea is fundamental to our discussion: our economy is built upon accepted stories, not upon facts of nature. It is fundamental, because its recognition bestows a flexibility of thought and action: the economy we have is not a law of nature, but a choice, even if it was chosen unconsciously.


Now let us move on and look at some of the contradictions inherent in our economy. First, and most obvious of the contradictions, our economic system is based on growth, specifically growth of production, consumption, and total monetary value of the system. Its aim is not to attain an equilibrium which can be sustained indefinitely. Its aim is growth, economic expansion. The reason why it is based on growth is important, and not beyond the understanding of anyone here, but it would take all my time to explain the reason. So for now, suffice it to say that the reason has to do with the way money is conceived of, created, and accounted for in the present system.


For long ages of human history, economic systems were not dependent on constant growth: it’s a modern phenomenon and therefore not intrinsic to economic activity. So the modern system is based on growth, but continual growth in a finite system is headed for disaster from the beginning, headed for breakdown. Yes, there have been people warning of this problem for a long time, but they have been ignored because the economy has expanded far beyond anything anyone ever imagined possible two hundred years ago, and it is still expanding.

So why not believe that it can continue growing? Because it can’t. It’s a practical, not a theoretical, impossibility. Yes, the population of the world is far larger than experts ever thought possible for the earth to sustain one hundred and two hundred years ago, and the economy is far larger than thought possible, but sooner or later we will hit natural limits, and it looks like sooner rather than later is in store for us.


Tied to this idea of continual growth is the destruction of the commons. ‘The commons’ is an interesting concept, universal in human societies in some form or another; but the conceptual understanding of ‘the commons’ as well as the term itself is taken from medieval England. The forests, rivers, lakes, and streams of a locality were under the control or ‘ownership’ of the lord of the manor, but were held for the common use, and therefore common good, hence ‘commons’. The timber and firewood, the herbal medicines that could be gathered, the wild foodstuffs, the animals for hunting, fish for catching, the water itself for household use, and grasslands for grazing one’s herds, all were there for the common good.


And a ‘commoner’ was one who used the commons, as opposed to the lord who controlled them. Add to that early concept of the commons, the resources recognised in more modern times: mineral rights, oil, and the broadcast spectrum of electromagnetic waves; these also become part of the commons, no longer under the lord of the manor but under the control of the state.


The modern capitalist economies[3] have more and more depended for their growth on privatising and monetising the commons and then selling the goods of the commons back to citizens, while the private interests control the resources profit. Lumber, oil, minerals, grazing rights, the tourism industry, the broadcast spectrum, bottled water - all are examples of the commercialisation of the commons, which leads to the disappearance in actual fact of the commons into private interests, and in the case of most physical resources, the eventual depletion or destruction - through overuse, pollution, mountaintop removal, and the like – of the resources themselves. And now, as more and more has been privatised, there is a rush to privatise water - the most essential resource for life after air. Air alone is safe for the time being, as no one has found a viable way to commercialise it - though they have found plenty of ways to pollute it, leaving the cost of clean-up largely to taxes collected from the public.


Thus, as the commons disappears into private control and eventual depletion, we are reaching the limits of growth. And no growth means death, within the context of the modern economic system. That is why China, for instance, is desperately buying up rights to resources all over the world, especially in Africa and South America. In the end that won’t work, because when a country is faced with the massive hunger and thirst of its own people, it isn’t going to honour pieces of paper saying that another country owns the rights to the resources there. And that, by the way, leads to the projected wars of resources.


And so we have a system built on the need for constant growth, the privatisation and destruction of the commons, and another related element, another part of the story we tell ourselves: happiness lies in material conquest, possession, control, extraction, and consumption, in that order. Let us look at the central equation in that statement: happiness equals material consumption. Material consumption is, of course, a part of nature itself: all living systems have to consume food and water and air. And resources for material consumption have been organised in human society from the beginning, and as such it isn’t in itself a problem: rather, it’s life. Hinduism, for instance, since ancient times has recognised that two of the four principal aims of human life are personal possession, artha and sense enjoyment, kama, both related to material consumption.


But something happened in the late nineteenth century, continuing increasingly to the present day: the conversion of the citizen into the consumer. In isolated places and times in the ancient world, such as ancient Athens and Rome, citizenship was a well-developed concept, meaning more than just being a ruler’s subject or a country’s resident. Again in Europe, with the birth of the nation-state, the concept of citizenship began to grow, until with the birth of an independent United States, citizenship took on full significance once more, implying rights and responsibilities and participation in state decision-making, a significance which began to spread to countries around the world.


Moving forward two hundred years, after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001, the erstwhile US President George W Bush told the American public that they should go out and shop, and thereby prove to the terrorists that they had not defeated the American people. If he had said that two hundred years earlier, one hundred years earlier, even forty years earlier, there would have been national outrage at such an insult to the people’s status as citizens - equating it with the ability to shop. But in 2001   the outrage was isolated, muted, and ineffectual. Why? There are several connected reasons.


Until the late nineteenth century, people’s purchases were needs-based. People needed food, so they bought groceries. They needed clothes, so they bought something appropriate to wear, or the material to make their own. A carpenter needed tools, so she or he bought them from the local blacksmith, according to the demands of her or his work. But in the late nineteenth century, entrepreneurs found that they could sell many more things if they could create needs: make people interested in buying something that they had never known that they needed, by explaining to them why this product would make them happier or more successful.


First, such agents of consumerism found that women were an untapped potential: they were sold new and improved gadgets to make their housework easier, and then women’s fashion spread from the rich to the burgeoning middle class, so that decent clothes were no longer enough: they needed the latest fashion, and ‘fashion was created by the people selling the clothing. The same spread to men. Advertisers developed the art of equating happiness with consumption.


In the early twentieth century, a nephew of Sigmund Freud named Edward Bernays brought Freud’s psychological discoveries to America and applied them to the advertising industry. One of his many successes was to sell cigarettes to women. Previously, in Western society, it was considered ‘unladylike’ for women to smoke. So he began an advertisement campaign which portrayed women smoking cigarettes defiantly to express and flaunt their new-found social independence. It caught on, much to the delight of the tobacco industry, and large numbers of women began to express their autonomy by smoking in public.


Also, manufacturers discovered that, if they made a light bulb, for example, that would last twenty years, they would sell one only once in twenty years for a particular socket. If, however, they made light bulbs that lasted two years, they would sell ten times as many. And so began the idea of planned obsolescence of products. And thus the citizen has become largely reduced to a consumer. ‘Reduced’, because as the citizen became a consumer, forces were also at work reducing his effective participation in governance, a topic of great importance but separate from the present topic of the economy.


Another element in the breakdown of our economic system is our very understanding of work - participation in the economy. The Protestant work ethic which was so effective in motivating people to engage in economic and other activity, and which was instrumental in the rise of modern capitalism, has outlived its usefulness. The stories out of which the Protestant work ethic developed are no longer vital, leaving modern society without a viable philosophy of work. A much simplified version of the Protestant work ethic can be expressed in two equations: hard work is a sign of morality, and worldly success is a sign of God’s favour. But the Protestant Christian worldview on which this ethic was based is all but dead.


(To be concluded…)

Courtesy Prabuddha Bharata, February 2017 

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