Economics Opinion

Capitalism, the Fourth Great Humility, will consume us all

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(Image via Unsplash/Edward Howell)

Unless humanity starts making urgent changes, neoliberalism will have disastrous consequences on our planet, writes Simon Cole.

WHEN I WAS TEACHING in Japan 20 years ago, one of my students introduced me to ‘The Three Great Humiliations of Man’ [sic] in an essay I’d assigned. I was so impressed by her powerful choice of plagiarism, that I passed it with flying colours.

Incidentally, I stopped using the term “man” (and “mankind”) 35 years ago. I’m amazed to find people still using it today — alongside some who claim we’re not a biologically sexual species. So much for social cohesion. Forgive the rant.

Just now, I searched online for the Three Great Humiliations of humanity. There were many references to the Century of Humiliation in China, but it turns out Sigmund Freud coined the term.

They are:

  1. the discovery by Copernicus and Galileo that we are not the centre of the universe;
  2. Darwin’s discovery that we are descended from apes; and
  3. Freud’s discovery that we are not in control of our minds.

I don’t think we can accuse Freud of humility.

The Fourth Great Humiliation of our species is upon us. We’re stuck on this beautiful blue gem in space and we’d better learn to live within its limits. If we do, we have a chance at peace, harmony and happiness. We also have a chance to reach a similarly livable planet in the galaxy in the distant future. If we don’t, our prospects are very grim indeed.

Evidence that the human mind is grappling with this Great Humiliation is all around us. We’ve known the limits to growth for 50 years. Having disregarded the warnings, we are hitting multiple walls: resource depletion, energy decline, deforestation, climate change, depleted topsoil, desertification, freshwater scarcity, overpopulation, peak oil, the sixth mass species extinction, pollution and toxification. All of these are caused by us, by what we’re doing and how many of us there are.

Denial is rampant, especially in the corridors of power. Wealth and power aspirations continue to abound in ordinary individuals and at the state and corporate level. Envy, competition and greed are now hurtling us toward World War III.

However, if enough of us take the humiliation to heart, we have a chance.

There is a groundswell of change called degrowth. This might sound grim, but think of it as shrinking to abundance. Apart from espousing frugality, they point to better measures of well-being than GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator and the Happiness Index. A few sage leaders are looking this way, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and philanthropist Chuck Feeney. The movement takes many forms: the Great Simplification; sustainable population; post growth; the Simplicity Institute; and the Steady State Economy.

The conundrum is, however, that this movement is not in a position of influence. Whilst it aspires to replace the current paradigm, its modesty is trumped by the blind ambition of the ruthless. Capitalism and society have rewarded the powers that be. That’s why they’re there.

They’re not completely blind, however. Some of them know collapse is a very real possibility. Some tech billionaires fantasise about escaping. Think Don’t Look Up. In this gloomy scenario, we don’t take humiliation well. Amid a lot of fighting, a few of us survive. The culture continues and we go on to ravage other worlds. Happy days.

Let’s hope enough of the uber-wealthy and powerful become a part of Team Human voluntarily. It’s never happened before. Wars and depression have been the great levellers in the past.

What can you do? Change starts at home, but it depends on your starting point. If you have a debt-free roof over your head, you’ve got the one big-ticket item you need. If you don’t, do what you need to to get it.

Beyond that, stop accumulating. Stop speculating. Stop wasting. Stop working hard. Be happy. Help others. Be like me. I have humility. I coined the term the Fourth Great Humiliation of Humanity!

Simon Cole is a teacher, campaigner and journalist.

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