Crisis = Danger + Opportunity


Reading Ben Barber’s piece, A Revolution in Spirit in the Nation, questioning the future of capitalism, as we know it, woke me to an situation that was not available to me when I wrote my book. My underlying strategy in the book for transforming our present hyper-consumerist culture is a modest, subversive process to change present beliefs and values by encoding a sustainability set into commonplace artifacts and collective decision processes. My argument, a few years ago, was that there was no big crisis apparent in the public consciousness. I did believe such a crisis of unsustainability was indeed present, but, because our social psychologists tell us we can only react to imminent events, the persuasive power of impending gloom and doom was not available to me or others arguing for serious action.

Now such a crisis has presented itself, and, as the Chinese define the term, it is a combination of danger and opportunity. But as Barber warns, we are overlooking the opportunity and focusing only on the danger. I agree, and have been making a similar argument on this website. Yet we are trying our damnedest to put things back pretty much as they were when the system broke down. Sounds like a version of Einstein's warning that one cannot solve problems by thinking the same way that was used to create these selfsame problems.

Economists and politicians across the spectrum continue to insist that the challenge lies in revving up inert demand. For in an economy that has become dependent on consumerism to the tune of 70 percent of GDP, shoppers who won't shop and consumers who don't consume spell disaster. Yet it is precisely in confronting the paradox of consumerism that the struggle for capitalism's soul needs to be waged.

If you substitute “sustainability” for capitalism in this paragraph, you put yourself right into the center of my argument in Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. Consumption is the most evident factor causing the unsustainability of the industrialized economies whether they be free market, social democratic or mixed socialist/capitalist. But consumption is only a symptom of an underlying cultural malaise and the end of the slow conversion of the existential form of human life from being to having as Erich Fromm wrote.

Barber moves from the nuanced strategy I used to one relying on a top-down replacement of unsustainable cultural practices.

. . . Or better yet, take in earnest that insincere MasterCard ad, and consider all the things money can't buy (most things!). Change some habits and restore the balance between body and spirit. Refashion the cultural ethos by taking culture seriously. The arts play a large role in fostering the noncommercial aspects of society. It's time, finally, for a cabinet-level arts and humanities post to foster creative thinking within government as well as throughout the country. Time for serious federal arts education money to teach the young the joys and powers of imagination, creativity and culture, as doers and spectators rather than consumers.

Recreation and physical activity are also public goods not dependent on private purchase. They call for parks and biking paths rather than multiplexes and malls. . . . Of course, much of what is required cannot be leveraged by government policy alone, or by a stimulus package and new regulations over the securities and banking markets. A cultural ethos is at stake. For far too long our primary institutions--from education and advertising to politics and entertainment--have prized consumerism above everything else, even at the price of infantilizing society. If spirit is to have a chance, they must join the revolution.

Calling the breakdown an epic moment, Barber calls for our political leadership and especially President Obama to save capitalism from itself. Again, if one substitutes the word sustainability for capitalism, Barber's call to action resounds more loudly as a call to change not only our political economy, but also the very fundamental beliefs and values that are locking us into a deeply pathological culture. Capitalism has its roots in the rationalization and mechanistic view of the world that followed from the works of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. Barber points to the need to fix more than our failed marketplace, and asks if we are ready to join in the struggle, but fails to provide critical details.

Today we find ourselves in another such seminal moment. Will we use it to rethink the meaning of capitalism and the relationship between our material bodies and the spirited psyches they are meant to serve? Between the commodity fetishism and single-minded commercialism that we have allowed to dominate us, and the pluralism, heterogeneity and spiritedness that constitute our professed national character?

The struggle for the soul of capitalism is, then, a struggle between the nation's economic body and its civic soul: a struggle to put capitalism in its proper place, where it serves our nature and needs rather than manipulating and fabricating whims and wants. Saving capitalism means bringing it into harmony with spirit--with prudence, pluralism and those "things of the public" (res publica) that define our civic souls. A revolution of the spirit.

Is the new president up to it? Are we?

As I have written, I do not believe we have much, if any choice, here. We have been given a sign, as in the mythos of antiquity, that all is not right with the world. Our evolving understanding of complexity warns us that is is more than the displeasure of the gods that is the cause. The world cannot be set right by fixes of any size. Whatever is to be done must come from both top and bottom. It will take much practice of the human skill of caring--long forgotten, but embedded deeply in our human heritage. Spirit, as used by Barber, captures the essence of what I call flourishing. Even as the world appears to be in dreadful shape, the possibility of recovery, transformation, and the realization of a vision of a flourishing world can power us into the future.

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Gena Rotstein said:

Hi John;
I recently blogged about this as well. There was an interesting conversation that occurred. Inviting you to check it out and add your thoughts:

I hope all is well.