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Posts Tagged ‘accumulation’

I went to a festival the other day. It was ostensibly one of those crunchy-granola, blissed-out, We are One, Earth People, California peace and love fests. What struck me, however, was how much of the fair grounds were given over to commerce. About eighty-percent of the space, it seemed, was taken up by booths with people selling bells, crystals, candles, ways of life, musical instruments, plants, food, pipes of various kinds and an absolute tonnage of clothes. To navigate from stage to stage, one had to negotiate a world on sale.

I’ve been reading an interesting book recently—Salt: a world history. It’s reminding me, in great detail, of how much our world has been shaped by people striving to sell things. It’s such a central feature of our way of life I don’t know why it should seem strange to me, but it does. I’ve lived in and been the beneficiary of a capitalist society all my life, but I can’t help feeling that we’re off the mark somewhat. Not entirely, but somewhat.

It brings to mind the story of Kain and Abel. The Bible is pretty terse with the narrative of these two brothers, leaving out a whole lot of details. It mentions only that they both offered sacrifices, that God rejected Kain’s, and that Kain was pissed and killed his brother. But that’s just about it. The murder itself gets only one line: ‘And Kain spoke to his brother Abel when they were in the field, and Kain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.’ That’s it.

There’s an ancient midrash, oral account, that fleshes out this story, helping us to understand the nature of the world’s first murder by answering the question—what did they talk about? “‘Let us divide the world,’ they said. One took the land, the other all possessions. The first said, ‘the land you are standing on belongs to me.’ The other replied, ‘the clothes you are wearing are mine. Strip.’ The other countered, ‘fly’. After this, Kain rose up and killed his brother Abel.”

Our system for wealth generation may seem pretty sensible, but unchecked it has some deep flaws. Just consider some of the things we’re willing to sell to make money. One of the clearest cases of excess is what one New York Times journalist called, “perhaps…one of President Bush’s most lasting legacies.” He was referring to massive arms deals that were pushed through in the last years of the Bush presidency. In a three-year period, from 2005 to 2008, US government weapon sales abroad increased almost threefold, from $12 to $32 billion. Major beneficiaries of this trade were, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan. But the deals were far from limited to these two titans of stability. The windfall also piled great drifts of “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets [and] missiles, remotely piloted aircraft and even warships” on the shores of such secure, dependable, sure-to-never-let-things-get-into-the-wrong-hands countries as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Romania and Georgia.

When a man came to the Chofetz Chaim, the great ethicist, and asked how he could make amends for all of the bad things he had said about other people, the Chofetz Chaim cut open a pillow, went to the window and scattered the feathers on the wind. ‘When you’ve collected all the feathers and put them back in the pillow,’ he told the man, ‘you will have repaired all the damage.’

In selling weapons around the world, we’re scattering feathers that kill. To do so, we employ a bizarre logic that isn’t all that dissimilar from the logic we use to support our consumerist way of life. Our economic model is based on a premise of self-interested competition; in tandem with this, we act without considering all of the long-term consequences, the true costs. One senior Pentagon official justified the increase in arms sales simply by asking, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries?” No. But is that the only other option?

Pursuing self-interest, without considering the consequences over time, can be disastrous. It is the cause of our current economic meltdown.

Unchecked competition and consumption can act like a cancer, destroying its host organism and, ultimately, itself. This is at the root of Alan Greenspan’s revelation, after years of being one of its lead champions, that capitalism in its current incarnation may not function in a stable, healthy, rational manner. This is why, as he told Congress, he was in a “state of shocked disbelief” to discover “a flaw in the model that [he] perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.” That flaw, simply put, is that self-interest alone is not a sufficiently reliable governing principle to ensure the proper functioning of an economy, not a sound enough ideology on which to establish a society’s wellbeing.

One of the deepest insights of the Torah (Hebrew Bible) is that self-interest must be balanced not only against the interests of others, but also against something much greater. In biblical speak, this greater thing would be the divine. On our plane, the Torah proposes we accomplish this by balancing our competitive self-interest against time. With the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the Torah encourages us to make episodic corrections that take the edge off ballooning inequities and allow our overall organism (the earth and all its creatures, including us) to recalibrate. Indeed, it could be argued that the market corrections we currently experience every seven years or eight years are a direct reflection of the Torah’s inherent wisdom in this regard. The corrections we face now, however, are involuntary. If we took it upon ourselves to correct the disparities in our system, by periodically adjusting for accumulated inequities and other harmful consequences, it’s entirely possible that we could avoid these financial hiccups and, more importantly, the economic tsunamis that occasionally follow in their wake.

Ultimately, though commerce carves and shapes our world, we are still only selling our own planet back to ourselves. One of the key underlying lessons of the story of Kain and Abel is about interdependence. Each brother could not thrive without the other; they both needed what the other produced. That’s how an organism works. When the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself, unchecked, we divorce that growth from the bedrock reality of our world. Money becomes abstract. We can print more, but that doesn’t make the planet a bigger place. Our own accumulation also doesn’t ensure the wellbeing others. In fact, it often diminishes it. Living in a world where a tiny percentage of the people control the lion’s share of resources is simply evidence that we still don’t comprehend the true nature of life. It demonstrates that we’re not thinking like an organism.

So what’s the alternative? We learn to live with what we have, to slow down, take a step back and let go of our accumulation; we learn to share this planet more equitably. This probably sounds overly simplistic and idealistic, but it may just be the most difficult, rational thing we could ever do.

Peaceful Sabbath,

Jonathan

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