Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Howard Bloom’s "Genius of the Beast"—Capitalism as Ultimate Fulfillment?

Flourishing before Capitalism and the Alternatives


Howard Bloom has written some great books. I was blown away by the Lucifer Principle. His latest book, the Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism, is a storied book that sings the praises of capitalism. It is an inspirational book for anyone itching to succeed in today's market.

But Genius is convincing only if you limit your purview, as Bloom does, to the last 10,000 years or so of human history, which was full of social hierarchies and organized religions. If you limit your view of human history to such a small window and set of "civilized" organizations, a capitalist mindset might be the best among the choices.

However, this 10,000 years or so is only about 1% of human genus history. In the other 99% of our history, many if not most human groups (hunter-gatherers) were peaceful and contented, non-competitive and cooperative with long hours of leisure and playful interactions, and with little interest in accumulating goods. These findings are drawn from anthropological and archeological research (Fry, 2005) and from eye-witness accounts among early explorers (e.g., Stannard, 1993). Western explorers and conquerors wiped out many peaceful societies but remnants of others still exist today.

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Derrick Jensen, like others, argues that the capitalist system is rooted in Western rationality divorced from emotional and physical presence. The Western world has for so long divorced body from mind, emotion from reason, absenting itself from the present moment of being, that it cannot feel the trauma it has and is causing to life and lives throughout all ecosystems. It is based on a hierarchical, dominator model (Korten, 2007) of relationships rather than the cooperator model that prevails in peaceful societies. The dominator model assumes that one must coerce others for one's survival, that one's group is superior, and that only humans (some humans) are worthwhile keeping alive. The rest of the earth and its life forms can be used at will.

Capitalism furthers the Western notions that have corrupted human life: that one can buy, own and sell what is not one's to buy, sell or control (e.g., water, daughters, land-you can't take these with you); that one can pollute the water, air, land for profit making at the expense of future generations. These were not our ancestors' values. These values are unheard of in other lifeforms. When you start selling our earth, some people lose and some people win, some (seem to) thrive while others are destroyed.

As Jared Diamond has pointed out in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, across the centuries in hierarchical societies the wealthy competed with one another for greater and greater status to the point of consuming all of the society's resources, thereby undermining their and their children's futures. We seem to be rapidly headed in this direction but on a global scale.

The characteristics once construed as vices---greed, lust, envy---were converted to virtues in modern capitalism (Muller, 2003). These "virtues" will kill us along with the hundreds of other species already "disappeared" as a result of unmitigated profiteering.

As Jensen points out, the powerful in science, religion and business are collaborating to destroy indigenous ways of life that for centuries coexisted in ecologically sustainable ways.

All these forces are driven by the Security ethic-the focus on primitive survival/dominance mechanisms that are the human default when an affectionate upbringing or culture is missing, or when competition fever is lit before wisdom sets in.

There are ways to remedy this situation. First, understand and attend to what is really happening. Often you have to go out of your way to find out information about alternatives to what is occurring (see this website).

Second, understand that human nature is malleable. People raised in competitive and unaffectionate environments are more likely to be competitive and ruthless. Those raised in responsive and affectionate environments are more likely to be cooperative and sensitive. Although difficult, it is possible to change as an adult.

Third, providing what people need lessens stress, lessens aggression and increases cooperation. Our ancestors knew these things. Peaceful hunter gatherer communities are fiercely egalitarian (Fry, 2005). They seem to know how easily things can get out of hand.

The wisdom of our ancestors, the sense of responsibility to future generations (to the seventh generation), the focus on being (engagement ethic), the sense of relationship with other life forms, are still evident in hunter gatherers today (e.g., see Everett, 2009). These are things we can learn too.

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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