Life Under Capitalism
Finding Meaning in the Modern World
Modern Capitalism is not always conducive to people living wholesome, stress free, balanced lives. It is not surprising that many of us live much of our lives under the shadow of self-doubt and anxiety. For all the talk of narcissism it is the opposite problem that most people suffer from. A negative impression of one’s self, a sense of failure, of not having achieved as much as one could have. Narcissism, individual and cultural, is the outward facade of an insecure society. The ‘me’ generation lives under the uncertainty of many social myths, most of them orientated around the needs of the capitalist economy. These myths serve the interests of capitalism and those who benefit from it.
What ways does the system work against our interests?
It separates two parts of our lives as producers and consumers. It is difficult to see that the problems of the former are often caused by excesses of the latter.
It sets high expectations and tells us we can all achieve them. Obscuring the reality that much ambition is thwarted and failure is more common than success.
It commoditises love and sex, playing on peoples emotions. Driving them through fear or artificial need to seek perfections that are seldom, if ever, known.
It places barriers in the way of growing up. Infantilizing our needs.
And it obscures the reality of our mortality, so that we spend much of our lives avoiding this central fact.
We deserve a great deal of sympathy for the fact that we live under this system. In terms of human experience, it is a new way of organizing life. A chaotic one capable of producing wealth, but less good at attending to the happiness of its citizens.
In fact happiness has become a tool of the system. Since the 19th Century bookshelves shelves have groaned under the weight of tombs dedicated to the subject. One measure of the failure of modern capitalism is the number of books attempting to offer solutions to make people happy.
This despite the fact that being happy is something difficult to achieve. Research has shown that are brains are ill-prepared to understand and predict our own happiness. Such that it often remains an elusive goal, something we are always searching for. The brain is an amazing organ it is not good at understanding what will make us happy. We simplify and distort the picture of the future and then strive for something that is unachievable. We also confuse happiness with meaning.
Studies have shown happiness and meaning are two different things. Happiness is short lived, in the present, and meets immediate needs. Meaning is difficult and involves pain and suffering. It entwines the past, the present and the future. It involves giving and caring and struggle. Moreover it involves sacrifice. It is more rewarding than the temporary gratification of short-lived needs.
The Enlightenment held happiness to be active. It involves the understanding of worthwhile pursuits regardless of the outcome. Reason, knowledge and morality produce happiness. Growing up means seeking to move one bit closer to our ideals, while recognising that much of our hopes are bound to remain unrealised.
However much you want to change the world you must accept it as it is, while never giving up on hope. Progress does happen, both technological and moral. The signs are everywhere. But it comes in increments over time frames of hundreds or thousands of years. Small changes do happen in a lifetime, however, and we should be grateful for witnessing them. Playing a part when and where we can.
The Enlightenment was the first time societies began to grapple with the questions of the modern world and is still held in high regard by many philosophers. Despite happening two centuries ago, the questions they asked still need resolution. As a movement it shone a light onto a dark, cloistered world where your position in society was determined by your fathers, fathers, fathers. Where rulers were undemocratic and all education, information, and news were controlled. A world where people lived in fear and superstition. It can stand as an anchor. The point where the modern world began. By understanding how the thinkers of the time grappled with modern questions. By understanding how they formulated their answers. How much has been achieved in those two centuries. And how much has not. We can better understand our own times.
History is useful too for understanding our modern fixation on happiness. In the early twentieth century advertisers, in what was then a new profession, discovered they could create sales by tying purchases to happiness. Advertisements ever since have understood us very well. Even if they haven’t given us what we need.
They play to emotions. Of the need for romance, wealth and status. Of the need for a secure family life. When adverts show us pictures of attractive people content with their new car, watch or family home they understand what we need, yet what they offer will not give it us. The happiness an expensive car, large house, or Rolex watch can give us is temporary, short-lived and superficial. Often they are attempts to buy love from the world. Pity those who need to spend millions on a Ferrari. What they need is love. Love me I am wealthy is what their purchase says. It speaks to a need to impress. To show-off. To seek love and respect from the world.
It is not all bad. For those lucky few who live in the West, we live in one of the richest, freest periods in human history. Our life-spans three times longer than they were just a few centuries ago. Our basic needs for survival, still a problem, for much of the world, are all met. We have unparalleled options for education, knowledge, travel and new experiences. What is missing is the emotional education and knowledge to help make the most of these opportunities. It is this goal that Meaning of Life.life dedicates itself to. As well as providing the resources for meaningful travel, education and work.
Along with others we are building a community of caring and sharing and contributing to a world where people can live more meaningful lives.
Self-knowledge is an important part of this. Of all the judgements we pass in life none is more important than the one we pass on ourselves. To live a good life we must have self-esteem. Or confidence in our ability to think, learn, choose, and make decisions. And we must have self-respect, a belief in our right to be happy. And a confident belief that achievement success, friendship, respect, love and fulfilment are appropriate to us.
This is the basis for such fundamentals as being able to earn a living and take independent care of our self in the world, and includes being competent in human relationships. It also contributes to helping make sense of the knowledge contained in the meaning of life website. And it helps build resilience to allow one to face adversity, accept failure and persevere in ones aspirations.
Understanding and having a positive opinion of yourself builds up the immune system of the soul. It builds strength to fight back against life’s setbacks. It can’t guarantee that no set-backs will occur. In fact they are inevitable. But self-esteem does reduce your susceptibility and ensures you will bounce back.
So too does understanding the many obstacles that lie in the way of us leading happy meaningful lives. Capitalism has at its core the desire to create wealth. The needs of citizens are subordinate to the needs of the economy as a whole.
It is an innovative system that drives competition to provide the public with newer better products. At lower, cheaper prices. That is good for the consumer. And capitalism has brought many good things into peoples lives. It has created elegant and exciting cars, delicious sandwiches, charming hotels on remote islands and bright, friendly kindergartens. And more troublingly – some anxious citizens.
The essential drive of capitalism is to provide more appealing goods at lower prices. While this is attractive for the customer, it can be a challenge for the producer. This means pretty much everyone in some major part of their lives. The more productive an economy, the more conditions of employment will be less secure, less serene and more agitated than one might like. Knowing how to cope with the stresses and the failures that attend life in capitalism emerges as a major emotional life skill.
This doesn’t mean capitalism is a terrible system, only that it has some awkward downsides. It causes inadequacies, desires, and panics that feel like they are our fault alone. In reality we are products of our times. Our sense of failure can be traced back to the many myths in the system we live under. Understanding and addressing these myths helps to live more relaxed, peaceful lives.
Youth is the best time of your life.
Hardly. Research shows that people get happier as they get older. 80 year olds report just as much self discovery and growth as 20 year olds do. All the evidence suggests that life gets better as we age.
Our work is who we are.
Not so. We have more talents in more job areas than we will ever be able to explore. The modern world may require specialisation and it is good to build expertise in an area, but you are always more than your job. There will always be unexplored potential within you. Our career does not define who we are or could be. And that we are full of potential, only some of which we’ll ever see.
An office job is meaningless.
In truth, the vast majority of jobs contribute in some way to the welfare of others. It is actually a wonderful thing to contemplate the effort that goes into bringing a bottle of shampoo to your doorstep. Resources sourced in India, packaged and shipped to another country. Plastics bought and sold. Machinery made in Germany. Call centres in Dubai. Insurance in London.
When we see a product on a shelf it is easy to forget how much effort it takes to get it there. Our small, specialised part with its delays, dependencies and mundaneness can seem removed from the final products. Our meetings and reports, or hours behind the sales counter don’t appear especially meaningful, yet everyday we are contributing to a part of the modern world. And earning an income that can support our daily lives.
The judgement of others matter.
Not really. Many people are snobs. They judge us on narrow aspects of our selves. On our careers, our success, our wealth. They form rigid, unbudgeable conclusions about us based on what we do for a living and then from these judgments decide exactly how much love and attention we deserve. Or they judge us based on things they like or dislike.
True merit is not found only in any singular aspect of ourselves. Good or bad exist in many unexpected places and are not always tied to wealth and achievement. We should concentrate on our own opinion of ourselves and leave the snobs to their narrow, misplaced judgments.
We can know our own souls.
The evidence suggests that we do our best to obscure the truth from ourselves. Covering up our baser motives and endowing ourselves with more positive intentions. This is not to say that self-exploration and self-knowledge are not important, they are. Just that we’ll never truly know our selves. Better to judge our actions rather than our intentions. We all know you mean well.
We can judge people evil.
The flip side of not knowing our own souls is we can’t know others either. Research shows that all of us are capable of the most horrific crimes. Under the wrong circumstances all of us can commit evil. You can’t judge other people evil as you’ll never understand their life through and through. You can judge actions, however. Some things are bad and wrong and evil and we should have the courage of our convictions to call them so.
We are an immoral, selfish species.
On the contrary all the evidence suggests we are a moral animal, under the right circumstances many people do choose to behave in moral, upright ways. Some people even sacrifice their lives to uphold moral principles.
Evolutionary psychology is a useful science and there is merit in much of its theories. But it does us a disservice when it claims all we are is a chest thumping ape.
It’s possible for everyone to succeed.
In fact success is rare. Although we are encouraged to believe it’s possible, even probable. With just a little good-will and effort we can all be millionaires. In fact there are a lot of factors involved. Only 2% of new businesses succeed, although most of us imagine it to be more than 50%. Few of us will make a million dollars. And failure is not your fault. Society does us a disservice by only spreading stories of success. And many a modern entrepreneur does us no favours by portraying themselves as just average. For there is nothing average about their success. Their situation is rare and difficult to achieve. And dependent on many factors out of a persons control.
Wealth will buy you happiness.
In fact all the evidence shows that over a certain subsistence level additional wealth does nothing to create happiness. Granted it may make you comfortable while you are being miserable, but it does not follow that if you are poor you must be unhappy.
Society pays lip-service to the idea that wealth doesn’t make you happy, while promoting the myth that it does. Capitalism does best by creating needs that we don’t have. Why else would many people flog themselves silly to obtain ever greater piles of money?
The Rich are superior.
Tied with the above is the lie that the rich are somehow more deserving than the poor. That their wealth derives from a superior intellect, morality and work ethos. It may be true that intelligence and hard work can create wealth, but it does not follow that they will. Nor that the wealthiest are always deserving of their wealth. And morality is completely divorced from the issue. Often the converse is the case. People are wealthy because they are ruthless and cunning and driven and don’t care about other things in life.
There is no such thing as bad luck.
Actually there is. Many people play lotteries these days. Although they hope to win they recognise the chances of doing so are slim. Yet in life we are told we can all succeed and the similarity with a lottery never considered. In reality your chance of success is like winning the lottery. Odds of several million to one. Luck plays an incredible role in our lives from our genes to our backgrounds to the opportunities and chances and successes we achieve. For every successful author there are millions just as good who never got their breaks. The same for singers, actors and business people. Sometimes it really is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
You are missing out on so much.
Ideas about what we might do bombard us everyday. Go sailing, study abroad, visit the Seychelles or see the Great Barrier Reef. And we always hear about the wonderful things our friends have done or are about to do. The Modern world tells us everyday how much we are missing. There are endless hints about happiness found in places or experiences. This means we live in a constant state of panic. That we haven’t done this or that. That we haven’t lived as well as we could or as well as others have. That we don’t have money or time to do it all.
Actually the best things in life are free. An appreciating of being alive. The enjoyment of walks and nature. Of learning to cope with the loneliness that comes with existence. Of learning more about what friends and family and partners are like. Of an appreciation of animals and doing good.
Work life balance is possible
It’s actually difficult. Almost impossible. Certainly if you want success in the workplace. We live in a time when two conflicting ideas exist. That of Romanticism and Capitalism. One fills our head with ideas about how perfect relationships should work. It presumes romance should exist in every second of every hour of a relationship and that communication should come easy. The other keeps us away from our homes, our families for long stretches of time and fills our head with all sorts of information. Such that we feel tired and numb. At home we may be irritable, lifeless and in little mood to communicate even if we tried. The demands of capitalism are the opposite of what is needed for family life and in practice a work-life balance hard to achieve.
Civilization is in decline
Every generation seems to believe that this one is worse than the last. That old certainties are gone and the youth of today are in moral decline. But the past looks simpler because it is over and done with. The present trickier because we face new choices.
And progress can be difficult to define. The accounts are always open. One fell swoop of a nuclear holocaust could wipe us all out. Yet progress is possible and real. When you think of it presumably you think of all the changes that now keep you alive long enough to read about it. In the West people are more free and able to live lives of their choosing that at any time before. Awareness of environmental damage and the scale of changes in communication technology should mean we ponder change more carefully than our forbearers did. But this doesn’t mean we are in decline. People today are more tolerant, understanding and peaceful than at any time in human history.
We are an advanced civilisation
We may not be declining but we are not an advanced civilization. We may feel smug when we compare ourselves to the Romans with their horses and crucifixion or the Middle Ages with its Knights and Witches, but that doesn’t make us advanced. In both technology and morality progress will continue so that others will look back on us as primitives just as surely as we look back on our ancestors as so.
We are immortal
With powerful inducement from the capitalist economy we presume we are immortal. Accidents, disease and ill-health are what happen to other people. Hence we take risks in our cars, in sports, in forgetting to put sun cream on, or eating ill-healthily or not exercising. And we push aside the thought that death frames our lives. Life can have little meaning until we understand this central fact. As the French novelist Marcel Proust wrote, it should be enough to know that we are human and could die tomorrow to make us appreciate what we’ve got.
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Matt, Editor, meaning of life.