Someone once said “if you are not a socialist by the time you are twenty five, you have no heart; and if you are still a socialist by the time you are thirty-five you have no brain”; or at least something to that effect.
How times have changed. These days, very few people are willing to reflect on the merits of an economic system where there is no private ownership of the means of production. In fact, it has been years since I have heard someone mention the name Karl Marx, let alone, discuss any of his ideas.
This was not always the case. Back during the turbulent times of my student years, we dedicated much of our sober hours reading the works of not only Marx but also Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Antonio Gramsci, Nicos Poulantzas and Louis Althusser, for we believed that there was a more humane alternative to a world in which the rich dominated and suppressed the poor. Sadly, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe during the late 1980’s brought our intellectual endeavours to a screeching halt. The “end of history” occurred with such rapid speed, not even the secondhand bookstores wanted our precious collections. Mine, to this day, are in cardboard boxes locked away in Mom’s garage where they collect dust.
It is quite sad that we gave up searching for alternatives to a world crippled by personal greed. In our quest for greater personal wealth, we deplete and destroy: our people, our natural resources, our environment and ultimately, our planet. We might call it development or progress, but the price remains the same. Collectively, we are left poorer.
Consider the following:
- UNICEF estimates that 22,000 children under the age of 5 die each day of poverty related causes. That is more than 8 million very young children per year, and they die in remote places that escape the world’s scrutiny and thus our collective conscious. Even worse is the fact that these deaths can be avoided.
- Nearly one billion people world wide could not read a book or sign their names by the beginning of this century and if we dedicated less than one percent of the world’s military spending on education, we would have been able to send every child to school in 2000. Sadly, we failed to do so.
- One-in-every-two-children grows up in poverty. One-in-three does not have adequate shelter, one-in-five does not have access to safe water and one-in-seven does not have access to health services.
- In 2005, the World Bank estimated that the world poorest 20% account for only 1.5% of the world’s private consumption, compared to the 76.6% consumed by the richest 20%.
- In 2008, the combined wealth of the world’s seven richest people was more than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 41 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries.
- In 2004 the top 8.3 million people around the world controlled US$30.8 trillion or nearly a quarter of the world’s financial assets. This means that 0.13% of the world population controlled 25% of its financial assets. One-third of all private financial wealth is owned by the richest 91,000 people. They account for only 0.001% of the world population.
I could go on citing more of these compelling statistics but I am depressed enough as it is.
My early flirtation with socialism is long over. But that does not mean I embrace unadulterated capitalism as its only alternative. I still have a heart even though I am long past thirty-five.
These days I have less of a problem with the accumulation of personal wealth per se. But I have a serious problem with how it is accumulated, especially if it is done in manner that imperils the survival of the poor, or if it contributes to the destruction of our planet and all that lives on it.
In addition to the great suffering and inequalities associated with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, we have become a very unhappy bunch, primarily because we believe that higher incomes and more personal wealth will make us happy. We have become greedy, craving forever more of what we believe we do not have enough of: money, status, material goods, properties, food and the like. In following our greed, we make ourselves sick – emotionally, physically and psychologically.
Maybe, it is time to look for a middle-path – something between complete asceticism and complete craving for more material wealth. A place where we have enough, but not too much; a place where we share wealth with others so that they too have enough; a place where we pursue common life satisfaction rather than accumulate material possessions; a place were we keep certain things and places “off-limits” to the profit motive and where happiness is a tangible goal shaping daily governance and policy making.
Despite the fear of sounding just like John Lennon: just imagine.
Wait. Before you hurl your cynical contempt at me, and accuse me of unattainable idealism, or brand me as some sort of “near-middle-aged hippie”, let me tell you: there is such a place.
The Kingdom of Bhutan.
Where the GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than GDP (Gross National Product). Where as far back as 1729 the country’s legal code declared that “…. if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist”.
Where happiness is measured in a holistic way and beneficial human development takes place only when “material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other”.
The world needs alternatives to individual greed, so Bhutan gives me hope. Happiness can and must prevail.
As a last tip of my hat to my early flirtation with socialism, I provide you this week with Chairman Mao Zedong’s favorite dish: Red Braised Pork Belly. Although there are many recipes for this dish, this one works for me.
Let there be happiness.
 See The World Happiness Report 2012 at http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/Sachs%20Writing/2012/World%20Happiness%20Report.pdf