In a technical sense, economics is the management, study, and use of scarce material wealth and resources. Thus, economics is a matter pertaining to not only life and death, but also incentives when taking “opportunity costs” and “trade-offs” into consideration. Plato said that the three most important things to man are his mind, then body, and then his estate. He added that in order to live a life of contentment and justice, wealth must be combined with character and morality, given that wealth alone does not necessarily bring happiness and a good life.
For Plato, economics was one out of a number of aspects pertaining to how a society should be built and governed in a just and morally sound manner. Today, American bureaucrats have the same philosophical concerns as Plato in the sense that the former seeks to preserve an overarching structure of governance and shape the way societies are built and governed but on a global scale and to their liking. The effects of this enterprise on the part of American bureaucrats will be touched upon later.
To start, however, it should be noted that the global governing institutions and structures set up by the United States after World War II have largely been self-serving agents who have accrued benefits for themselves rather than for others and are preoccupied with preserving their own bureaucratic interests. Whereas the stated goal of American foreign economic policy has been to bring “private markets into public arenas,” the hegemonic discourse underpinning the policy pronouncements has led largely to a de-linking and fragmentation of markets such as the Asian market as well as the de-linking of the European market from Russia.
Economics is one of six dimensions of what is known as “world order,” with the other five dimensions being diplomacy, law, politics, strategy, and security. In his treatise on “Politics,” Aristotle considered the family to be the most basic economic and social unit in a society. Families are naturally designed to supply an individual’s daily needs and wants, according to Aristotle. The final evolution of the family unit is the state, and the aim of the state is to foster a “good life” for its subjects. Whereas the family originates from the acquisition of basic needs, the state originates from a collection of families seeking a “good life” together, according to Aristotle.
But since the time of Aristotle, notions of what constitutes the “good life” have obviously changed due to changing material conditions resulting from evolutions in science and technology. Thus, the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a “good life” is the source of much of the ontological and social turmoil around the world in this day and age. Nonetheless, at the most basic level, Aristotle contended that economics pertains more than anything to the preservation of existence so that a “good life” may come about. By logic, if one ceased to exist, it would not be possible to bring about a notion of what constitutes a “good life,” nor would it be possible to develop a notion pertaining to the meaning or purpose of existence.
Given that economics in its most basic sense pertains to the preservation of existence, Bertrand Russell then suggested that economics mainly pertains to the distribution of food. Money and wealth are considered to be no more than a medium of exchange used to obtain certain needs or wants. As the economist Henry Hazlitt wrote, there are only four things one can do with money. For one, a person can save. Second, a person has the option to spend. Third is the option of giving to charity. Finally, there is the option to invest. Thus, economic thought, from antiquity well into the modern period, is concerned more about how to live and preserve life than anything else.
According to the famous free-market economist Ludwig Von Mises, the basic point of economics is to enable the free pursuit of one’s ends in life. Once the summation of a person’s economic activity enables the person to do what they want in life, individual economic activity has then served its purpose. In a classic liberal sense, economics does not aim for the wanton accumulation of money and goods. Economics, particularly in a classic liberal system, is aimed at enabling a person’s pursuit of the meaning and purpose of life. Work is thus a means to an end, not necessarily the end in and of itself. Benjamin Franklin, in a short book titled “The Way to Wealth,” set out a very simple formula for the acquisition of wealth: savings + hard work = wealth. Business, according to Andrew Carnegie, is merely the management of people.
One can contend that the natural state of man is poverty. The question then becomes one of how a person becomes wealthy. In a sense, the answer is luck. As Hegel suggested, the issues of war and poverty ultimately take a natural course, and thus there is apparently very little need to tamper with these issues. As a result, Laissez-faire economic thinkers such as Adam Smith focused primarily on creating a system based on peace and security, low taxes, and an independent judiciary to resolve disputes that arise between people. In a free-market system characterized by capitalism, the basic principle is individual ownership of property and wealth, not state ownership. It then follows that the individual is free to do what he or she wishes with their property and wealth. Capitalism, as demonstrated by the history of the West, was a repudiation of the overarching economic and social structure in Medieval Europe defined by church rule and feudalism. Not only did absolute monarchs, feudal overlords, and the church own land, but they also owned the people who lived off these lands. Thus, as Max Weber wrote, capitalism once had a meaning and a social mission, or a “spirit” that sought autonomy and freedom for the individual from oppressive governing and religious authorities.
Whereas the transition from church rule and feudalism was characterized by a form of capitalism with spiritual underpinnings, the final stage of capitalism that we are currently experiencing is characterized by nothing other than a Weberian “disenchantment” where the prevailing psychosocial condition of depression and despair results from a highly bureaucratized and centralized modernity. In this particular psychosocial condition, rationalization and scientific materialism sequesters the belief and spirituality that once undergirded capitalism. “Rational goals” take the place of communal and spiritual goals, and as a result Mao famously contended that the final stage of capitalism would be “communism.”
Modernity, after all, is a discourse that is totally detached from religious or spiritual notions, and thus modernity has inarguably had an impact on the manifestation and metastasis of capitalism in the modern period. The social byproduct of the “disenchantment” resulting from modernity is “anomie,” which was a term used by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, and it suggests that a breakdown of traditional values occur as a result of the “mass-regimentation of society” stemming from hyper-industrialization, which in turn leads to the deprivation of an individual’s sense of communal belonging and self-determination, thus causing depression, meaninglessness, and purposelessness.
Jobs that once served a social and spiritual purpose are now meaningless and rote. As Max Weber said: “Where ‘doing one’s job’ cannot be directly linked to the highest spiritual and cultural values – although it may be felt to be more than mere economic coercion – the individual today usually makes no attempt to find any meaning in it.” Weber adds that in the United States, capitalism is associated more with the animal self rather than the spiritual self: “Where capitalism is at its most unbridled, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, divested of its metaphysical significance, today tends to be associated with purely elemental passions, which at times virtually turn it into a sporting contest.” French existentialists of the 20th century such as Albert Camus have suggested that given the meaninglessness and purposelessness of life in a modern age, it is left to the individual to find his or her own meaning and purpose, which is easier said than done.
For many, the result of the rapid changes in material conditions stemming from the metastasis of capitalism is ennui, or a sense of boredom, and it is boredom that is perhaps the key existential threat to wealthy and well-off individuals. But despite the lack of results, disenchantment and anomie have not gone unaddressed in the modern western world. For one, Marxism, Freud’s “Psychoanalytic Movement,” and in more recent times the rise of communal living has been mechanisms through which meaning and group solidarity were sought after. Group solidarity is perhaps more common among the poor. But once an individual achieves wealth, he or she must often times disassociate with the group, which in turn leads to depression and despair. Thus, it is no surprise that the rate of depression and despair is highest among the wealthy. Mill’s individualistic and utilitarian approach thus comes across a pitfall.
Once a significant amount of wealth is amassed, there is then not much benefit to add another dollar to the dollars one has already amassed. In the end, most economic activity and thus most benefits and costs occur incrementally or marginally, according to the economist Subodh Mathur. There is nothing drastic that can occur in order to change one’s economic and social circumstances, let alone the economic and social circumstances of an entire society. Drastic economic and social change can occur only through a miracle or through theft. Thus, the whole neoconservative idea of exporting capitalism and democracy to other countries overnight was based on both delusions and hubris. There are cultural and historical factors that determine the course of economic and social evolution in a society, and not all societies will have outcomes like those produced through the course of Western history due to cultural differences.
Thus, modernity, particularly as it is manifested through American global hegemony, seeks to destroy communal and group solidarity in many places, similar to a corporate boss crushing a workers union. Group solidarity is actually the primary source of meaning for most people, and the result of social fragmentation resulting from Western hyper-centralization of power has been an existential and psychosocial crisis throughout the globe. As Francis Fukuyama has stated, the hyper-centralization of power in the hands of a few American bureaucrats has led to social fragmentation everywhere, along with the numerous social ills that result from this kind of social fragmentation. As a result, the disenchantment and anomie of a highly bureaucratized and regimented modernity stemming from the United States has transformed the world into a war zone that is overarched by nuclear brinksmanship, as evinced by two world wars in the 20th century, along with the Cold War and the pursuit of global hegemony by the United States in the 21st century which has wreaked havoc on the Eurasian landmass.
There is also a tug-of-war between the “realist” and modern outlook shaped by the Anglo-American empirical tradition on one hand, and the religious and “romantic” outlook towards the world that is shaped by the continental tradition, and this tug-of-war has been the leitmotif of the Western intellectual and philosophical tradition with ramifications for the whole world due to the West’s incredible power projection. To put it slightly differently, there is a deterministic and mechanistic worldview on one hand, and there is an existential and spiritual worldview on the other hand. The contrast between these two outlooks, namely, realism and romanticism, can be summed up by the following quote from Delacroix: “If by romanticism one understands the free manifestation of my personal impressions, my aversion to models copied in the schools, and my loathing for academic formula, I must confess that not only am I romantic, but I was so at the age of fifteen.” One of these outlooks discounts the importance of leadership and the human soul, whereas the other takes these things into consideration. As a result, “meaning” and meaninglessness are constantly being weighed against one another, especially in the current postmodern epoch.
In sum, the aggregate social costs of modernity have severely outweighed its aggregate material benefits. Moreover, the failure of American foreign policy has been its failure to fulfill what is arguably the most important task for a superpower, namely, the establishment of world order amidst a state of global ontological turbulence brought on by the four major ontological states of our time. These ontological states are the scientific materialism of liberalism, the cynicism of Marxism, the social traditions of populism, and the natural religion of romanticism.
Arguably, this ontological turbulence and turmoil can only be remedied through the discovery and promotion of a shared meaning of existence. But this ontological turbulence and turmoil is perhaps an unsolvable dilemma, unless a leader arises who can awaken a collective consciousness that transcends borders and boundaries. On one hand, there is the need to preserve a status quo for the sake of the continuity and stability of global order, and on the other hand there is always a natural inclination for change and revolution, which in turn brings a certain level of turbulence and turmoil. Thus, our unsolvable dilemma.