What was it about the Panama Papers that made people so angry? Leaking of classified information and geopolitical deceit aside, it is because the public saw a side of the rich and powerful that, while not strictly criminal, they found immensely frustrating. To see such vast amounts stashed away touched a raw nerve among the general populace, believes Matthew Norman in an Independent article, a nerve that wasn’t primarily related to offshore funds or tax avoidance but to “something more basic and more ancient . . . It is the plain, unarguable immorality of a few having so much—and effortlessly adding to the plenty—while most have so little.”
Capitalism (and more broadly, business and trade) has always been marked by a degree of self-interest, and Buddhism has no quarrel with this. It is difficult to imagine Trapusa and Bahalika, the first lay disciples of the Buddha and merchants themselves, not seeking to make a profit from their wares on their caravan journeys. Buddhism has also had a historical relationship with philanthropists since Anathapindika, a wealthy banker (setthi), became a patron of the Buddha. It has no dispute with wealth earned by right livelihood, namely work that doesn’t involve violating the Five Precepts: killing, taking what is not freely given, sexual misconduct, false speech, and consumption of intoxicants.
However, when this “necessary evil” of conventional, samsaric life becomes a worldview or a way of articulating reality, life in turn becomes distorted, leading to a zeitgeist that is immoral, even harmful. Despite encouraging trends, such as a renewed interest in Buddhism in Asia and a developing interest in the West, and increased social and political engagement by young people, it is evident that the zeitgeist of our age is one fundamentally marked by greed at a level so unprecedented that it is destroying our world.
The word “zeitgeist” is defined as the “spirit of the age” that shapes all human life of the period, from culture and art to society and politics. Today, we are greedy for natural resources, greedy for money, and if we can afford them, greedy for “pleasant experiences,” such as the purchase of luxury goods and services and lavish trips abroad. The enrichment of the individual is not marked by self-development but by what he or she possesses—money, material goods, and more. This greed manifests in over-consumption, selfishness, and a belief that the individual can and should do and have exactly what he or she likes without regard for the consequences.
Global capitalism shifted fundamentally during the 1970s and ’80s under the aegis of the “holy trinity”—Ronald Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, and Margaret Thatcher. Within their own contexts and limitations, these three leaders reshaped their societies in ways that continue to affect people’s lives even today. They laid the foundation for the 21st century zeitgeist, however unintentionally.
Reagan successfully associated right-of-center economics with the discourse of American values: tax cuts, self-reliance, and wealth creation. He supported right-wing regimes around the world that, in turn, supported his economic vision. Thatcher deregulated banking in the City of London and introduced a culture of individualism that challenged both Britain’s post-war settlement of left-wing social welfare and the old conservative values of social cohesion. Reagan and Thatcher saw trade unions and other movements for social justice as impediments to their countries’ economic advancement.
Meanwhile, although Deng would not have called himself a capitalist, “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was responsible for raising more people out of poverty within a generation than had occurred in any other period of human history. His achievement of setting China on the road to becoming the world’s second-largest economy is unprecedented. However, all things, even good ones, come at a price. Communist Party cadres, academics, and religious leaders alike agree that the opening of markets and the explosion of materialism in China resulted in a collapse of traditional Chinese values. It also led to a vacuum in morality and spirituality that was already tearing apart the fabric of society after Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which had attempted to purge capitalism and traditional culture from China. This is why China is seeing a revival of interest in traditional philosophies—Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism—which should bode well not only for society but also for the environment.
While wealth creation became an integral part of Anglo-American political discourse after Reagan and Thatcher, recklessness in the banking sector and an explosion of financial instruments too complex for even their creators to understand also grew rife. The narrative of individual agency and desire, while initially empowering, has stayed focused on the self even as the 21st century implores us to consider the collective good of the planet. Subsequent governments have overseen a rise in inequality even though overall global poverty has fallen, while the Earth’s resources continue to be sucked into a very small place, to be enjoyed by a minority.
Change might not necessarily come from the goodness of our hearts, but it will come out of necessity. We can no longer afford to follow the same old thought paradigms, which are based on flawed traditional assumptions—that consumption is an absolute economic good and that growth and therefore jobs are theoretically infinite. Tim Dunlop writes compellingly and disturbingly in The Drum:
“Why is the era of full-time employment coming to an end? There are two key reasons. One is that climate change is bringing us up against the edge of what the earth can bear. (Or if you prefer, the limits of what the earth can bear has brought us climate change.) This means that the extractive industries on which developed-world prosperity has been based—mining and fossil-fuel burning—are putting at risk the biological sustainability of a middle-class existence. Carbon pollution is heating the atmosphere to unsustainable levels, while the cataclysmic effect of ‘natural’ disasters can set back regional development for years. It follows that an economy based solely on that sort of growth is self-defeating.” (abc.net)
Greed is responsible not only for the ecological crises of our time, but also for the resulting litany of social, political, and cultural problems. Materially, the world economy must shift towards renewable industries and generate jobs in a new environment in which we learn to live with limitations, both in the literal sense of sustainable use of the Earth’s resources and in a moral and spiritual sense. We will have to live differently and find out, in Anglican priest and social commentator Giles Fraser’s words in an interview with The Guardian, “what prosperity without growth looks like.” (youtube.com) Greed has also generated a great deal of hubris and complacency, persuading us that things can go on as they are forever. The great religions teach that our mortal, fragile existence is characterized by limitations, and accepting our own limitations and those of the planet may be the only way to ensure our long-term survival.
A zeitgeist is a complicated phenomenon, and one for which we must all be held accountable. It is not that Thatcher, Reagan, and Deng woke up one day and resolved to create a zeitgeist of greed and individualism for the 21st century—many sectors of society also bought into this vision. But all our striving for a “good” life, however we may imagine it, will be futile in the event of ecological collapse, and the damage to civilization will be more catastrophic than any financial crisis. The exhaustion of the world’s natural resources will render the end of our current ways inevitable. Are we prepared?
David Cameron was born with so many privileges. The only thing he lacks is an understanding of other people (Independent)
Why do we keep inventing programs for jobs that just aren’t there? (ABC)
Sustainable business: Giles Fraser interview (YouTube)