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Pursuit of Wealth, published May 5, 2010 in Express Tribune
Markets Versus Society
Dr. Asad Zaman
Humanity as a whole faces problems on a scale never before seen in history: Environmental catastrophes (global warming, rapid destruction of species of flora and fauna, pollution of water, sea and air, depletion of natural resources, etc.), political catastrophes (billions in extreme poverty, destruction of innocent lives and livelihoods in historically unprecedented numbers, etc.) and social catastrophes (dysfunctional communities, families, social and financial institutions, due to erosion of trust). It is a testimony to the genius of Karl Polanyi, that he foresaw these consequences of the triumph of the market over society, which lies at the root of all of these problems. In this essay, we will discuss the contrasts between these two ways of understanding the world we live in.
Societies claim that the most precious things are those which cannot be bought in markets. Love cannot be purchased. The value of human lives cannot be measured in dollars. Character (displayed by heroism, sacrifice, fidelity, etc.), spirituality (in the form of devotion, meditation, worship), intellect (in the form of philosophical, mathematical, and scientific achievement), and human achievements (exemplified by arts, sports, and literature) are all beyond the reach of the marketplace. Markets vigorously contest this idea and assert that ‘every person has his price’. The full ramifications of the idea that everything can be bought and sold on the marketplace can only be understood by unfolding it in a variety of dimensions.
A natural consequence of the idea that everything is for sale is that money becomes all important. Because it is a tempting illusion, societies everywhere have built barriers against it. The Quran states (104:2) “[Woe unto him] who amasses wealth and counts it … The Bible states that the love of money is the root of all evil. Confucian sage Lao Tzu warned us not to race after riches. Societies everywhere train children to share, to be generous, and to value social relations over money. Markets reverse these priorities. Bernard Shaw’s dictum that “Lack of money is the root of all evil,” accurately reflects the market mentality. This legitimization of greed and the pursuit of wealth is the root cause of the recent global financial crisis, explored in depth in numerous books with “Wall Street Greed” in their titles. Though the financial hemorrhage appears to have stopped, the human consequences in terms of the jobless, homeless, and hungry will be with us for a long time. Furthermore, this is only the tip of the iceberg. A recent IMF publication counts nearly a hundred monetary crises in the twentieth century, many of which have similar roots.
Traditionally, children are taught to take pleasure in service, and self-sacrifice for higher social causes. Healers everywhere learn their skills with the motivation to serve the sick, as reflected in the Hippocratic oath. The market mentality which teaches doctors to take pleasure in earning profits from patients, is considered despicable by societies everywhere. The current rarity of organizations oriented towards service, like “Doctors without Frontiers,” and the dominance of the profit motive, is testimony to the triumph of the markets. Schools have replaced the society oriented slogan “Enter to Learn – Leave to Serve,” by the market oriented “Enter to Learn – Leave to Earn.” Communities dissolve when humans seek to earn profits from each other, instead of serving each other.
The conflict between social values and market ideologies is played out across a broad spectrum of current issues. Rainforests are natural wonders, a subtle and complex ecological balance of flora and fauna, which provide dazzling displays of natural beauty. The market eye turns these into a source of wood and other natural resources for the production of wealth. Prescient sociologist Max Weber remarked that spirit of capitalism is the pursuit of wealth, to the point of being absolutely irrational. This irrational pursuit of wealth has led to looming catastrophes on all fronts of human existence. It is time to pause and reconsider. If the best that life has to offer cannot be purchased, we must re-orient our priorities, and re-learn the social lessons that have been nearly wiped out by market ideologies. The first among these lessons is to value human lives as being infinitely precious, beyond the possibility of purchase by money.