Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Post-Materialism (Part One)

It would seem that a baby is the most self-absorbed of creatures. He knows what he wants and lets you know about it. When he's hungry, he screams. But a baby typically has a degree of sanity that is not usually expressed in our individual or collective economic behavior. When he's had enough, he stops. He pushes the breast away or throws the bottle on the floor. He's done. That doesn't mean he won't start yelling about something else in a few seconds, but from the point of view of consuming, he has an instinctive sense of “enough is enough.”

What does this have to do with economics? Everything.

In my last post I brought up the notion of co-centrism, which is a way of pointing out the way things are in reality, as opposed to appearances. Things are related; they co-exist. They inter-are, to use Thich Nhat Hanh's terminology. They interpenetrate. Things exist in systems, but the system itself is hard to pin down aside from being a collection of its parts. Co-centricity points to the coexistence of parts and wholes, of systems and the things that make up those systems.

There is another dimension of economic wisdom, and that is post-materialism. Now, to be rigorous, we would want to fully explore what is meant by materialism, then explain why that view is not adequate, and then point out why the correct view is somehow “after” materialism. Perhaps at some point I (or hopefully someone smarter than me) will do just that in depth. In fact, philosophers have been working on this question rather intently for a very long time. One of the ways of dividing philosophical systems isbroadly speakinginto the substantialist camp and the idealist camp. The substantialists think there's something out there, and it's real. The idealists think that whatever is “out there” has a heck of lot to do with your mind, and it may not even be out there. That is of course a tremendous simplification, but it is a great relief (speaking as someone who takes philosophy seriously) to take a perhaps imprecise but broadly accurate look at a question. Materialism is a branch ofbut not identical withthe broader category of substantialism. Then there's the more recent school of the Positivists and the related scientific materialists who posit the “mind is an epiphenomena of matter.” All this involves very sophisticated reasoning, and it's true that if we were to examine materialism thoroughly, perhaps the first way to do so would be philosophically. But it is by no means the only way, and the fact remains that materialism of the economic sort is getting along quite nicely, thank you, without benefit of philosophy, so to speak.

Therefore in talking about economics, perhaps the notion of materialism would bring to mind a more common sense idea, one that would be closer to the notions of consumerism, greed, acquisitiveness, and possessiveness. All that stuff. And smart people throughout history have said, “well, that is not good.” Exactly, but why? If you examine why materialism in this sense is a problem you will eventually see that it's a psychological issue, one of attachment or fixation. In fact, we could nail it down right here and now and say that materialism is psychological. It's a mental outlook, or even more fundamentally, a mental pattern or set of patterns. Let's call it psychological materialism. The term psychological materialism is a brilliant one, first used (I believe) by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa Rinpoche was more famous, of course, for the term “spiritual materialism,” and to my knowledge did not develop the concept of psychological materialism very extensively. I use the term psychological materialism in a specific way that is idiosyncratic to my own body of thought, and I don't claim or attempt to use it exactly the same way that Trungpa Rinpoche did. My notion of psychological materialism is derived from Buddhist psychological teachings in general and owes a lot to Trungpa Rinpoche's concept of spiritual materialism. In particular, my understanding of psychological materialism includes both the solidification of external objects, and our solidification of, and attachment to, internal experiences, states of mind, emotions, and concepts. It refers to everything internal and external that we solidify with the mind through confusion.

The interesting thing about this way of looking at materialism from a psychological point of view is that it addresses the philosophical question as well as the more ordinary economic way of viewing it. The solidification of seemingly external objects of mind into things that are supposedly real and truly existent is actually a projection of mind. It is a matter of imputation, of reification. Now there are a lot of pitfalls that can come about if one understands this superficially, but certainly it is good as a start to at least question our assumptions about the world of our experiences. If we do not question the assumptions we make, we fall into the realm of naive realism, which means we are firmly in the grip of psychological materialism. In fact we've been there a very long time, according to Buddhism. We could go one step further and say that psychological materialism is just another way of characterizing what the Buddhists call samsara, because it (i.e. samsara) is a mind-created solidification of what is not inherently solid in reality.

The implications of the psychological nature of materialism are quite interesting. For one thing, if materialism is simply a mental attitude, and a confused one at that, why can't we just drop it right here and now? Well, if we were really decisive, we could drop it as a conceptual view, if we had really repudiated it internally. We could toss it aside as decisively as the baby tosses aside his bottle when he's done. But unfortunately the mind is not as simple as that, and even if the conceptual abandonment of materialism is a good idea, we still have all the habits of mind, the instincts at play, the fundamental entrenchment in samsara to contend with. If psychological materialism is synonymous with samsara, then from a Buddhist point of view, transcending it would be no small endeavor.

However, developing a post-materialist orientation is not as rigorous as all that. If we were to talk about going beyond psychological materialism in general, it would mean simply the intention or commitment to not letting ourselves be ruled by the negative patterns of mind (kleshas in Sanskrit) that keep us in a state of ignorance and suffering in samsara. In more economic terms, it would mean not letting materialism of the economic sort rule our minds and behaviors. At the policy level, it would mean not letting wealth and simple greed for “more, more, more,” rule the day. At the theoretical level of economics, it would involve not getting caught up in the “materialism of symbolic representation,” which basically means diverging into abstract representations of economic matters to the detriment of addressing what really matters in human terms.

Going back to the baby, what he feels at the moment he's full is sufficiency. Enough. One of the practical outcomes of post-materialism is not so much the rejection of material things or even prosperity, but instead just this recognition of sufficiency.

In general, post-materialism is presented as one aspect of economic wisdom with the understanding that we will gradually approach it through practice and experience. Post-materialism helps untangle the confusion around the way things appear to be at various levels, and co-centrism is more focused on pointing out the way things actually are. Ultimately, post-materialism and co-centricity are themselves co-centric. They contain each other and co-exist harmoniously without losing their specific attributes. Together they comprise the wisdom (prajna) aspect of the six-fold economics of compassion.

1 comment:

JimK said...

Maybe it will be useful to distinguish between three types of economic transformations...

The first type is the transformation from samsara to nirvana, where an individual or society is no longer trapped by clinging to dualistic concepts etc.

The second type is where an individual or society somehow shifts to a pattern with a definitely reduced level of greed and anger, where the conditions become more supportive of the cultivation of qualities that can lead to transcendence of society.

The third type is where the circumstances of some individual or society shift, so that their present pattern of living becomes so poorly adapted that it becomes unstable - change becomes inevitable. At such times, however, the range of practically accessible options is wider than usual. It's like a huge glacier which is impossible to move, but when it is melting, one may be able to dig a channel and divert the flow of the water down any one of several ravines. In this third type of transformation, the goal is simply to choose the best option among those practically accessible.