Capitalism's Metaphysical Erosion: The Contemplative Solution

Two of the greatest minds to grace the economic sphere, Ernst Friedrich Schumacher (1911–1977) and Joseph A. Schumpeter (1883–1950) produced what remain among the most incisive critical analyses of capitalism to date. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, and Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, each provide expositions of the dystopian capitalist evolution. While ostensibly different in scope and method, they echo each other in diagnosis. In their own words:

“Nature, it has been said, abhors a vacuum, and when the available ‘spiritual space’ is not filled by some higher motivation, then it will necessarily be filled by something lower — by the small, mean, calculating attitude to life which is rationalised in the economic calculus…”

— Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 123

“The capitalist process rationalizes behavior and ideas and by doing so chases from our minds, along with metaphysical belief, mystic and romantic ideas of all sorts. Thus it reshapes not only our methods of attaining our ends but also these ultimate ends themselves…”

— Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, p. 127

The implicit assumption made is that capitalism ought to have some “higher” guiding principles, which Schumacher terms a culture’s Meta-Economics:

“Economics is a ‘derived’ science which accepts instructions from what I call meta-economics. As the instructions are changed, so changes the content of economics … Systems are never more nor less than incarnations of man’s most basic attitudes.”

— Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, pp. 54–280

The mutual finding is that our current manifestation of capitalism breeds a particular type of attitude towards life; one that imbues our self-perception and existential purpose with the metrics of materialism, acquisitiveness, and objectivity. The propulsive nature of capitalism derives its rank-order of valuations from the acted-upon cultural values of the day. Thus, if we desire to adjust the course of our economic system, we must first consciously address the subtle ways in which it has sculpted our glasses — our mechanisms for viewing the world.

Charles Darwin gives a poignantly moving admission of these sculpting tendencies in his autobiography:

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost almost any taste for pictures or music…My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

— Charles Darwin, Autobiography, p. 139

Schumacher comments on Darwin’s intellectual atrophy:

“This impoverishment, so movingly described by Darwin, will overwhelm our entire civilization if we permit the current tendencies to continue which Gilson calls ‘the extension of positive science to social facts’…The result, however, is the loss of all higher forces to ennoble human life, and the degradation not only of the emotional part of our nature, but also, as Darwin sensed, of our intellect and moral character. The signs are everywhere visible today.”

— Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 104

In our age of Neoliberal globalization, we’ve witnessed the definition of economic progress evolve from serving society’s needs, to conserving the process of growth itself. The system transformed from being a means, to the end in itself. As the roots of this self-perpetuating cycle reach new depths, the system guides the very production of humans, optimizing efficiency in lieu of spiritual ambition (Schumacher’s term), higher callings (Keynes’ term), metaphysical belief (Schumpeter’s term), and so on. Schumpeter even explicitly bemoans the unfavorable human such a system of production churns out:

“One may care less for the efficiency of the capitalist process in producing economic and cultural values than for the kind of human beings that it turns out and then leaves to their own devices, free to make a mess of their lives.”

— Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, p. 129

In the end, the obvious question is what can we actually do? For those of us who don’t work in a position of public policy influence, our potential for ameliorating a dauntingly vast and intangible system seems meager. Individually, after reading whatever book, blog post, or video, grinds our gears to the point where we want to take action and repair what we now believe to be a floundering system, Schumacher does prescribe a way forward at the conclusion of his book. And ironically enough, the most potent action may be inaction.

“Everywhere people ask: ‘What can I actually do?’ The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.”

— Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 318

Schumacher aims to enable mankind to act and devise social systems with prudence, which he describes by quoting Josef Pieper, “prudence implies a transformation of the knowledge of truth into decisions corresponding to reality”. The knowledge of truth (though the very implication of truth being found in knowledge is paradoxical through the eyes of the sages) is only available through pure contemplation. Schumacher quite literally prescribes mass-meditation:

“…prudence cannot be perfected except by an attitude of ‘silent contemplation’ of reality, during which the egocentric interests of man are at least temporarily silenced.”

— Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, p. 317

Schumacher’s eminence in the economic realm distinguishes his analysis from the platitudes of New-Age capitalist-critiques. Schumacher was a Rhode’s Scholar, served as the chief economic adviser to the National Coal Board, and was considered a protege to John Maynard Keynes.

So, meditate away. Or at the very least, check out the epilogue of his book, which contains his entire condensed philosophy.