Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Is Capitalism Self-Destructive: Part II

I had dinner with a couple of friends/former colleagues last night. One of them has a 2 year old son and at some point we got around to how kids have their own calendars (for scheduling purposes) in Outlook, how kids are doing more and more, getting their cell phones earlier and earlier. The view of the world from San Francisco’s Marina district is not necessarily an accurate indicator of national trends – and the fact that our dinner was in Cole Valley probably really didn’t change the dynamic a whole lot. But it seems more than ever things are very competitive for children.

I mostly attributed this both to the real Darwinism (it’s natural to compete) and Social Darwinism. But my friend Bob pushed back. He didn’t really believe those things really produce happiness or a high quality of life. Bob S. is actually very interested in the concept of self-actualization and he doesn’t see (at least right now while his son is 2) the “checklist” approach as the way to go -- the throw the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks: music, sports, , getting into the best school (even pre-school can be very competitive here) just so your kid can be competitive, that’s not the way Bob wants it to go with his child.

But like many people I know, Bob isn’t just interested in it from his and his son’s perspective, but interested in broader change.

The current system we live in is not motivated and can not easily be motivated towards broad change (see Newton's First Law of Motion -- inertia). But it's not just the physics of it, which make change hard enough, it's the capitalism.

Of almost anyone I know (there are a few exceptions, but only a few really) I’m the least qualified person to opine on how to achieve self-actualization. However, that particular circumstance makes me extremely qualified to opine on what self-actualization is not.

Capitalism, today, right now, capitalizes on “fear”. I’m not above doing that myself sometimes. I mean it wouldn’t bug me at all if Roger Goodell was scared as heck that I am right and decided to cut me a check for $3.8 million dollars. I could live with myself OK if that happened.

But I know a thing or two about fear and I can connect the dots to self-actualization. If you’re afraid of stuff that doesn’t really pose you any threat, you’re not self-actualized. If you’re not afraid of stuff that actually does pose you a threat (but you don’t even really consciously consider the threat), you are not self-actualized. If you have both? You’re even further away from self-actualization.

But Capitalism – our brand of capitalism, it seems to need way, way, way more than a handful of people who are afraid of many things which do not really pose a threat. In fact, capitalism mostly seems to thrive off of making sure that a great many people are afraid. Afraid not to have a nice car, afraid not to be consumed with looking as beautiful as they possibly can.

It sends mixed messages on the other side too – where people should be scared but aren’t. You remember that Budweiser commercial where they say: “Everyone who drinks Budweiser won’t become an alcoholic – but for the % of you who do? Oh man that’s going to SUCK for you!”

I don’t remember it either.

I don’t see where the groundswell of motivation to change this is going to come from. Bob can (and I’m sure will) teach his son about these things, about how to ignore the fear-based marketing, or the marketing that is dishonest about the actual threat. Bob can model what he values with his son, and hope he turns out to be a well –rounded, well-adjusted adult with a real shot at being happy and thriving regardless of where his passion may be.

But I do not believe we can hope for a self-actualized society in this system because the system needs an awful lot of people who aren’t self-actualized to thrive.

I’m still not sure whether capitalism is self-destructive, but I’m sure it’s no easy road to self-actualization for the masses.

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