Velvety Chains: Social Values That Bind

Today I came across an article by Steve Biddulph and one paragraph therein really struck a chord with me:

There is something happening, in the new century, to the way we live, which again is harming our basic humanity. Every economy tends to enslave, and ours is the most effective of all, since the chains are invisible, velvety soft against our wrists and necks. We are induced to work, long hours, all of us, without respite for parenthood, or for anything like a natural rhythm in our days, and rewarded with shiny toys and the ability to cross the globe at will for shallow, glitzy experiences of pseudo-wealth. Then back onto the treadmill. We trade away our lives, and we don’t even question if this has to be so.

I have mentioned before that social systems tend to ‘brainwash’ us. In effect, they make us adopt values which are not intrinsically our own and often not in our best interests. Some social rules are enforced through violence or strong obvious incentives; think of capital punishments or tax breaks for home ownership. However, such rules are not as dangerous to our well-being as tacit, implicit rules which we adopt without being fully aware. Biddulph pointedly describes these as invisible, velvety chains.

Using the word ‘chains’ implies that this is something intrinsically bad, and to some degree it is, but not all the social rules we are adopting in this way (without us being fully aware that we adopt them) are bad for our individual and collective well-being. For instance, if we get into a heated argument with someone else, we more often than not refrain from punching our adversary in the face. Often, this option doesn’t even occur to us; although it is arguably one of our natural ways to resolve conflict. We don’t do so because we have a strong set of social rules (not just laws) which guide us to avoid violence.

However, it is in any case better for us to be aware of the rules which we adopt, be they beneficial for us or not. The particular velvety chains Biddulph focuses on though are at the heart of what is wrong with our world today. Our desire for wealth, material consumption and economic growth brings untold misery into the everyday lives of billions of people. It makes those miserable which are poor, but it also makes those miserable which are rich. Biddulph mentions for instance “the astonishing decline of mental health as even the most affluent and secure kids melt down over homework stress and exam results or perfection of looks or achievement.” Our reward for our struggles is “pseudo-wealth”. Why pseudo-wealth? Well, if we can buy an expensive car, it gives the appearance of us being wealthy. But real wealth lies within our body, mind and soul; and to increase this real wealth requires deep contemplation, fostering human connection and community; none of which are aided by a car purchase. This purchase instead only makes us move the treadmill of the self-reinforcing cycle of work hard, spend, work harder, spend more.

We need to become aware of the forces that drive our lives and which bring misery to us and others. Biddulph suggests that “it might be time to quietly, carefully, walk away”. I disagree. We don’t have to walk away quietly. We should shackle our chains with a roar. A roar of anger over what was done to us, and a roar of newfound freedom; a roar which hopefully those around us will hear and join our emancipation.

However we must also do so while preserving some of the best parts of the economic system which drives our world today. In order to house, feed and care for the huge population currently living requires intricate interaction between many different industries and countries. If this system is broken in the wrong way, misery on a global scale will likely follow.

The Economy and Happiness

By many measures, there has been tremendous progress in key well-being indicators for all of mankind. There is less poverty, less hunger, less violence and more prosperity than there has ever been in human history.

We live in times of plenty not just for the few but for the many. To a large degree, this is due to the rise of China; which has managed to bring more wealth and resources to its population.

However it is also in China where some problems with the current state of our world are the most apparent. The rapid industrialisation of China came along with immense environmental destruction, with a dramatic rise in inequality and, most importantly at all, a diminishing of core values which make for a just society where it is a pleasure to life in. For many (not all, of course) Chinese nowadays, money and consumerism have become central values. Western luxury brands such as Gucci, Hermes or Prada enjoy wide recognition. If you are able to buy such items, you are often assured of the admiration and envy of your peers.

Thinking about it, that is just how it is in many places in the Western world and in the rest of the world as well. Sadly, the quest for money and consumerism have been shown to be detrimental to our well-being. I believe that for a good society – that is one where the vast majority of people can enjoy good and happy lives – it is essential that there is a strong feeling of equality and mutual respect.

I have been living for many years in New Zealand and Australia now and here one of the central tenets of culture is that everyone is worthy of your respect and your friendship; no matter of whether you are rich or poor, intelligent or not so intelligent, good looking or not so good looking; you are worthy of having a quick chat with and be given a smile. It is generally not respected to be rude or impolite to others.

I do think it becomes more and more difficult to uphold such values the more economic inequality is created in a country and the more the things one can purchase with money are valued. However, we are bombarded constantly – on the TV, on Facebook, when doing a Google search, when playing a game on our mobile phone – with advertisements of which 98% share a similar message; spend money and your life will be better. Parents, be they poor or wealthy, educated or uneducated preach their children that they should aim to be successful in school; that they should choose to pursue a career which will give them economic independence (by earning money). On big holidays like Christmas or birthdays, one is trained to expect material objects or experiences which can only be bought with money. When you are planning to get married (and you are a man), you are trained that you can express your love through your wallet by choosing the right engagement ring.

Many of these things are accepted into mainstream society without reflection. They are considered to be just as things are, and more than that, they are considered how things should be. But to what end, do I ask? What lives can we build for ourselves when they are based around the simple circle of earning money which is then spent to bring about happiness and to sustain us in order to be able to earn more money. What society will result if our core values are built around this?

Not so long ago, towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century (and even some time before that), some of the most capable and influential minds were very concerned with the idea of public good. Which place does this idea have in our current world?

I think that we have become very successful at creating the world which we think we want; a world where we are free from material needs and where we can live in comfort. Unfortunately, I do not believe that this is the world which can give us deep and lasting happiness. Deep and lasting happiness is based on humility, time spend in a meaningful way, a natural and wholesome environment and constant giving and receiving of kindness and love. The combined economic power of the world is more than sufficient to supply us with the essentials we need for living and with means to engineer an environment which will enable us to find happiness. Nonetheless, we are obsessed with growing our economic power through consumption. Why? It is unnecessary. We should rather focus on channelling the economic power we have already created towards more noble and sustainable goals.

Featured Image: WikiMedia

On Preventing the Extinction of Mankind

Few will disagree that the continuation of our species as a noble goal to pursue. It just feels inherently plausible to us. But I think that we should nonetheless reflect upon whether this is really such a worthwhile and important goal to pursue.

Some say that we may be the only species in the universe with consciousness, and therewith the only ones able to appreciate the beauty of nature as well as to imbue it with meaning. I would say: so what? That we perceive our consciousness to be so special might be one of its many inherent flaws. There is nothing to suggest that our way of experiencing the world is any less valuable than that of other animals or plants or rocks for that matter. Furthermore, statistically speaking, in a universe with many billions of galaxies, it seems very unlikely that we are the only creatures capable of producing art, laws and language. Any way we look at it, given the vastness of the universe, it seems very likely that ending mankind will go largely unnoticed on a cosmic scale.

That being said, we are here for better or worse and a pressing question is what to do with our time. I believe that we carry within us a love for ourselves and for others, and that this love is something which we should embrace as a generous present the machinations of the universe have provided for us. We also carry within us a love for nature, for animals, for mountains, for stars, for the beauty of a grain of salt and the rhythm of rain falling on leafs. If we accept this love, we see that pursuing survival for ourselves and our planet and the species which inhabit it, might be a pursuit which is in balance with our nature and not in conflict with what we know about the universe.

In any case, we need to accept that humanity as it lives now is guaranteed to be extinct. We have made changes too drastic too our environment and we are on the cusp of gaining too much power over our own genes to continue existing within the bounds of our current gene pool. Drastically changing our nature might still take some generations to accomplish but it seems quite inevitable. Interestingly thus it lies within our power to shape our own biological destiny.

I think that achieving survival for our current generations and those which will follow us should be one of our top priorities. Apart from keeping order and peace and proving us with the basics we need for day to day survival, it should be a main focus of our economic activity. Sadly, though it is not. Our economies create demand by consumption of individuals. That is not a sustainable. We cannot continue to consume more and more to assure our economies are on a trajectory of constant growth. I think we should create demand for our economies by large projects and initiatives which we decide to be important. Some of these could be related to our survival on this planet; such as reducing carbon emissions, exploring ways to protect us from asteroids and supervolcanos. Even if we do not have a strong foundation to argue for the importance of humanity in the greater context of the universe, it seems very self evident that pursuing these projects is more useful than the ability to buy a new luxury sedan every couple of years.

Featured Image: The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1777