Seven Reasons why Capitalism is an Affront to the Soul
At first sight, this might seem like a strange title to appear on a blog mostly devoted to la Madre Ayahausca. However, after six and a half years now of working with the medicine, what follows has been a growing realization and arises from the experiences I have had with La Madre.
She not only wants us to cure ourselves but to heal the planet. Actually she shows us that healing the planet is healing ourselves. We are not separate.
As Dennis McKenna eloquently writes in the foreword to ‘The Ayahuasca Dialogues Report’ of the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC) which is available here:
“The globalization of ayahuasca is happening, whether we want it to or not. It is ayahuasca itself that is bringing this about, insisting on a more active co-evolutionary relationship with our species. It’s our job to do what we can to manage that process in a way that is sustainable, equitable, and ethical so that this sacred medicine can offer maximum health and healing benefits to all who choose to use it, while discouraging its misuse and profanation. The good works of the ESC can help us to continue and strengthen our relationship with this ‘ambassador’ from the Gaian mind, as we learn what it has to teach us: how to evolve toward more wisdom, knowledge, and love for each other, for all species, and for this beautiful and irreplaceable planet that we all share.”
As well as the teachings from Madre Ayahuasca, the writings and presence of James Hillman have been an important influence on this particular blog – as well as informing others I have written. Hillman, following in the steps of Jung, but definitely dancing his own dance, brought the soul back into psychology and helped rescue it from the inanities and superficiality of most contemporary ego-based psychology.
Hillman’s way of perceiving and understanding the soul is brilliant and breath-taking. First of all, he says it is not a thing. It is a perspective – a way of seeing that sees through. Soul is what turns events into experiences. It is deeply connected to death. It refers to the imaginative possibilities in our natures.
Hillman differentiates soul from spirit, which he sees as dominant in Western culture. In brief, soul moves into the depths and the vales whilst spirit moves to the heights. Soul loves attachment, ambiguity, and mystery, whilst spirit seeks to achieve unity, harmony and transcendence. This is not the place to expound on this at length – to read more on this, see here.
Hillman makes an important further move. He says that soul is not just in us but in the world – he uses the Latin name ‘anima mundi’ to describe the soul of the world. Hillman asserts this from the perspective of a much less mainstream but continuous tradition in Western thought from the Greeks, through to the Italian Renaissance and the German romantics. By making such a move, Hillman allies himself with the cosmovisions of indigenous peoples, who have always known that the world is ensouled, magical, and full of spirits.
So given this short introductory outline of what I, following Hillman, understand by soul, why is capitalism such an affront to it?
1. Capitalism converts everything into a price.
The nature of capitalism is to turn everything into a monetary value – into a commodity – which can then be exchanged and sold. Not content with commodifying human labour and raw materials, capitalism in its later developments is busy commodifying knowledge. We are told we now live in the ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’ economy.
The reduction of human experience in all its spheres to a quantative, monetary value is a deep affront to the soul.
2. Capitalism is destroying the earth.
As I’m sure all readers of this blog know, the basis for life on earth, notably our soil, oceans, species and climate, is being eroded by the activities of an increasingly unregulated, globalized capitalism. To give just one of countless possible examples, I include the following quote from the UK newspaper Guardian in a report about air pollution that I saw yesterday:
“The WHO data shows that there is now little or no escape from the plague of poisoned air; people in 98% of cities in low- and middle-income countries with more than 100,000 inhabitants are breathing air with pollution levels that exceed WHO minimum safety guidelines. That figure is almost halved in high-income countries, where the figure is 56%.”
Our souls, as well as our bodies, which are both deeply connected to the anima mundi, or which, better said, are part of the anima mundi, inevitably suffer as we see and experience what is happening to the world around us.
3. The language of capitalism is alienating.
I could list many ghastly examples here, but these few will suffice: ‘unique competitive advantage’, ‘human resources’, ‘core competence’, ‘buy-in’ (which defines agreement as a financial transaction), ‘corporate values’ etc. etc. (For Forbes’ list of the 45 most annoying and meaningless business terms, click here).
The effect of all this is to force imagination, which is the lifeblood of the soul, into retreat.
Thankfully, we can see many examples now where our souls are fighting back and imagination and artistic activity are allying themselves to the struggle to create a better world.
4. Capitalism is inherently unjust.
Despite the rhetoric of global capitalism that deregulation and extending ‘free’ markets into every region and area of life will ensure that all benefit – “a rising tide lifts all boats” – the evidence is that inequality is increasing. (See, amongst many examples, this OECD report.)
We can agree with Plato that the soul intrinsically knows and strives for truth, beauty and justice. In which case, rising levels of inequality, the huge wealth amassed by the few, and the many living in poverty, is a further deep affront to the soul.
5. Capitalism fosters ugliness.
As already stated, the soul yearns for beauty. Hillman has written about the importance of beauty in our lives and the many ways in which capitalism numbs our physical senses – constant loud noise, electric and flourescent lights illuminating everything, increasing time spent in virtual realities, the distractions of Facebook, overworking – so we no longer feel the loss of beauty in the world and adapt to, rather than fight against, the ways ugliness, standardization and commercialization is taking over the world.
6. Capitalism promotes marketing and spin.
For capitalism to continue on its crazy and destructive path of unending growth, we have to be convinced to buy more and more products we do not really need. Part of the dark magic of capitalism is to sell us more and more products that do not satisfy us, keeping us stuck in the loop of consumer addiction.
This is achieved through more or less sophisticated techniques of spin and marketing, which have penetrated every sphere of life, notably politics. Again, going back to Plato, the soul longs for truth – living in a world where we know we are constantly being manipulated, lied and spun to, is a futher deep affront to the soul.
7. Capitalism reinforces the ego and individualism.
This last point, in particular, tracing out the reciprocal relationship between the economic system we live in and its effects on our psyches, could clearly merit a whole book – as could all the previous points as well.
One of the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’ of modern sociology, Max Weber, wrote a brilliant book called ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, where he laid out the connection between the development of capitalism in Northern Europe and the ethos of the Protestant, especially Calvinist, work ethic.
Put very simply, capitalism encourages individualism, separation and our identification with our ego identity(ties).
Here is an interesting quote by BuzzFeed’s founder Jonah Peretti about this:
“My central contention is that late capitalism not only accelerates the flow of capital, but also accelerates the rate at which subjects assume identities. Identity formation is inextricably linked to the urge to consume, and therefore the acceleration of capitalism necessitates an increase in the rate at which individuals assume and shed identities. The internet is one of many late capitalist phenomena that allow for more flexible, rapid, and profitable mechanisms of identity formation.”
What we are witnessing now is a further erosion of the commons – the shared resources of our political, social and cultural lives (such as water, air, education and health) – as they are being privatized for corporate gain. The recent case of Nestle, as documented by the Story of Stuff Project, is an excellent example. Even in the course of writing this, I received a email from the Story of Stuff Project showing how McDonalds is trying to infiltrate schools.
I recently came across an excellent article by Sean Donahue called ‘The Neurobiology of Reenchantment’, which indicates how capitalism is effecting us on a neurobiological level. His article says that:
“Stress — situations in which it is unclear whether we will be able to meet our basic survival needs and trauma situations in which we feel powerless to protect ourselves and meet our needs and are overwhelmed with terror — are ubiquitous in contemporary life, especially in the lives of the poor. They constitute the permanent state of emergency of the oppressed described by Walter Benjamin. Privilege and wealth buy a certain degree of insulation from direct violence and stave off desperation (though never completely, especially for children experiencing violence within their families.) For the poor and the marginalized, survival is always in jeopardy. And for many more, the threat of falling into poverty or stepping outside the bounds of cultural acceptability creates a constant edge of fear. For survivors of trauma, the unresolved terror held onto in the body can make it difficult to ever feel truly safe.”
By reinforcing individualism, competition and the survival of the fittest – misrepresenting Darwin and ideologically suggesting that these traits are the basic nature of human beings – capitalism erodes sharing and genuine community, which have especially been the ethos of many indigenous peoples, and, for which, I think, our soul longs for.
Whilst I was writing this, I thought that one obvious critique of what I am saying here, is that I am only able to express myself in this blog through using the tools and products of globalized capitalism. (Clearly, too, as a white, traditionally educated male, I have greater access to these benefits.)
My response would be to assert one of the main ideas coming out of the global movement contesting neo-liberal economic policies and their consequences:
Such a world would ameliorate the gross inequalities, the environmental destruction and the human and non-human casualties of the current global market economy and make its benefits more widely available.
If we don’t learn anything else from Madre Ayahauasca, it should be that many other worlds are possible.