August 13, 2010

The Yoga of Economics

Which economy tries to fulfill infinite human longings with finite things? Capitalist materialism. That’s not an economy fit for a yogi.

As a yogi and writer here on Elephant, I have, in several recent articles spelled out why I do not like corporate capitalism. But I have not spelled out what kind of economic system or philosophy I prefer as an alternative to corporate capitalism. So, here is a short outline:

Capitalism has failed at creating a sustainable way of life on this planet. And yoga is all about sustainability, sustainable body, sustainable spirit, and, yes, sustainable economics.

So, if not the economic philosophy of capitalist materialism, what will be the underlying values of the new, yoga economy? Like alternative economist and author David C. Korten, I think that “a sustainable society needs a spiritual foundation.” Why? Because, in the true spirit of yoga, spirituality, not materialism, is the ultimate foundation of life.

In his seminal book, Small is Beautiful, the late British economist and Buddhist E. F. Schumacher, warned against the unsustainable nature of capitalism’s rampant materialism.

Schumacher wrote: “Economy as the content of life is a deadly illness, because infinite growth does not fit into a finite world. That economy should not be the content of life has been told to mankind by all its teachers; that it cannot be, is evident today … If the spiritual value of inner man is neglected, then selfishness, like capitalism, fits the orientation better than a system of love for one’s fellow beings.”

Here Schumacher points out a central dogma in current economic thinking: that it is possible, even desirable, to fulfill infinite human longings with finite things.

This materialist philosophy forms the underlying economic doctrine of today’s market capitalism, of our system of unlimited control over productive property. Put bluntly, it supports the dictum that selfishness and greed are good, even necessary fuels for the capitalist engine of growth.

This paradoxical philosophy has resulted in a market system in which land, food, and intellectual ideas are bought and sold without restrictions. This “free market system” has created an economy of disparity, of unequal buying power, and of a deep schism between rich and poor.

More specifically, this philosophy grants the concept of “the divine right of kings” to corporations.

In other words, corporate owners are ultimately only responsible to themselves and their shareholders, not to their employees, nor to the environment, nor to the human community at large.

Finally, this philosophy grants that unlimited accumulation of wealth is both positive and a basic human right.

Today it is widely accepted that unlimited exploitation of the globe’s finite natural resources is unsustainable.

There is little support, however, for the idea that an economy based on unlimited accumulation of wealth, or unlimited control over private property, may be the direct cause of today’s economic and environmental problems.

Nevertheless, the accelerated accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few, has caused both economic disparity and environmental degradation.

In short, while there has been an increase in the unbridled accumulation of wealth—which has resulted in an increase in GNP and per capita income, particularly in the Northern countries—there has also been an increase in the spread of poverty—both in the North, and, particularly, in the South.

As long as the basic tenet of unlimited hoarding of wealth remains fundamental to our economy, economic disparity and environmental degradation will continue. We will continue to accept as fair and inevitable that economic growth creates concentration of wealth, on the one hand, and unemployment, displacement of people and poverty, on the other.

Without a fundamental rethinking of the current economic dogma of private property rights as an absolute right above all other values, and that human progress is best measured as increased material consumption, we cannot create an environmentally sustainable and poverty-free yogic economy.

Economist E. F. Schumacher wrote that “no system or machinery or economic doctrine or theory stands on its own two feet: it is variably built on a metaphysical foundation, that is to say, upon our basic outlook on life, its meaning and its purpose.”

The “metaphysical foundation” of economic liberalism is motivated by self-interest, individual property rights, and the fulfillment of our material or economic needs.

What, then, should be the basic outlook on life of the new, yoga economy? The spiritual conception of wealth, as described by Indian philosopher and yogi P. R. Sarkar, expresses a common sentiment among many alternative development thinkers:

“This universe is created in the imagination of the Supreme Entity, so the ownership of this universe does not belong to any particular individual; everything is the patrimony of us all. Every living being can utilize their rightful share of this property … This whole animate world is a large joint family in which nature has not assigned any property to any particular individual.”

Sarkar termed this concept of wealth “cosmic inheritance,” and made clear its implications for economic theory: “The system of individual ownership cannot be accepted as absolute, hence [economic liberalism] too cannot be supported.”

With a spiritual worldview as the basis for a new yoga economy, the psychology of greed and selfishness is replaced with the psychology of collective welfare and cooperation.

If the purpose of development—as presently conceived—is to increase material amenities, then sustainable development will certainly help us to continue to consume, but it will not help us attain inner fulfillment.

Therefore, sustainable spirituality—the idea that true progress is movement toward inner fulfillment, toward self-realization—must also be embraced by the sustainable development economy.

Spiritual progress subsumes material development, as people cannot pursue spiritual growth without adequate basic necessities such as employment, food, shelter, education, and medical care.

So, the purpose of development, guided by a sense of spiritual progress, is to help us pursue personal and social pursuits that foster inner growth and communion with people and nature.

Activities such as sports, art, music, theater, yoga, meditation, hiking, etc., do not simply fill our lives with more material things, instead they fill our lives with enjoyment, purpose and meaning.

Reverence for nature, for all non-human creatures, is a natural extension of such concepts as cosmic inheritance and spiritual progress.

Economic activity, therefore, must take into account the existential rights of other species. This outlook is an integral aspect of what Sarkar terms neo-humanism—the view that expands humanism to include a common, unified consciousness behind the diversity of nature.

This outlook, this spiritual ethic based on yoga, is growing amongst many seeking an alternative to the disparities of the global economy.

According to activist Helena Nordberg-Hodge, “we are talking about a spiritual awakening that comes from making a connection to others and to nature.

This requires us to see the world within us, to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of life, of which we ourselves are among the strands.”

Thus, the yoga economy, in essence a fusion of spirituality and humanist rationality, is based on principles of love and respect for all beings, sharing, cooperation and spiritual progress.

This new vision, this new yoga of economics, is in stark contrast to capitalist materialism’s idea that the most conspicuous human motives are self-interest, competition and hoarding of wealth.

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