Putting Soul in the Machine
A Quick Re-Vision of Western Civilization
by Howard Bloom
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The early part of the twenty-first century gave the Western world one skull-cracking slap after another. The downing of New York's World Trade Center; the battle with militant Islam's holy warrior; the crash and scandal of major corporations like Enron, Worldcom, and Arthur Andersen; and the growth of China to superpower status—these were wakeup punches. They handed us what may be our greatest opportunity and our greatest responsibility since the Great Depression and the Nazis threatened to topple the Western way of life in the 1930s.
Osama bin Laden's threats against America and against the “false religion” of freedom of speech, secularism, spiritual eclecticism, human rights, women's rights, and gay rights have the potential to nuke us into a new dark age. As you read this page, over ten thousand Wahhabi madrassas, “suicide bomber factories,” salted on every one of this planet's continents, are teaching children to make holy war against you and me. The West, these kids are told, has nothing left to give the world but immorality and decay. The teachers in these madrassas peddle passion brilliantly. They feed the hunger for meaning with the junk food of emotion—violence and righteous fury. But could the madrassa teachers be right? Do we in the Western system have nothing worth struggling for? Do we have nothing that's worthy of idealism and belief?
Our civilization is under attack. But many of us don't want to defend it. Why? There's a void in our sense of meaning. We've been told that “the Western system” is one in which the rich stoke artificial needs to suck money, blood, and spirit from the rest of us. We've been told that the barons of industry work overtime to turn us from sensitive humans into consumers—mindless buyers listlessly watching TV while growing obese on the artificial flavors, chemical preservatives, and cheap sugars of junk food. And some of that is true.
But the problem does not lie in the turbines of the Western way of life—it does not lie in industrialism, capitalism, pluralism, free speech, and democracy. The problem lies in the lens through which we see. Capitalism works. It works for reasons that don't appear in the analyses of Marx or in the statistics of economists. It works clumsily, awkwardly, sometimes brilliantly, and sometimes savagely. So we need to dig down to find out why.
We need to reveal the deeper meaning beneath what we've been told is crass materialism. We need to see how profoundly our obsessive making and exchanging of goods and services has upgraded the nature of our species.
The Western system is not at all what we've been taught to believe. This is not a mindless consumer culture destroying the planet in an orgy of greed. It is the most creative and potentially idealistic bio-engine this planet has ever seen. But if we fail to open our eyes and spot this reality fast, everything we believe in may easily disappear.
We need to stare a blunt fact in the face: Many of today's corporations are creatively and morally asleep. But you and I can wake them in a most ironic way—through a strange-but-vital upgrade in the richness of our lives. We can re-perceive the tale of capitalism's rise. We can lay out a new and far more insight-saturated story of our origins—a factual creation myth. And we can use this genesis story, this re-perceived tale of our history, as a key to the quandaries of work and daily living. We can use it as a cornerstone of a new view of our future in a world of instant change.
We can reveal a central secret of the Western system—we're not mere digits in a numbers game; we're feeling people woven in emotional exchange.
RAISING THE DOWNTRODDEN
Here's a basic fact of the Western way of life: Hard as we may find it to conceive, capitalism offers more things to believe in than any system that has come before. Nearly every faith, from Christianity and Buddhism to Islam and Marxism, promises to raise the poor and the oppressed. But only capitalism delivers what these ideologies and religions profess, century after century. Capitalism lifts the poor and helps them live their dreams. The proof is in the mega-perks we tend to take for granted. Here are some examples.
In the early 1700s, cotton clothes were a luxury import that only the super-rich could afford. The masses worked from day to day in stiff fabrics that housed insects and that scratched and tortured the skin. Changing into new clothes every few days or laundering them regularly was impossible. There was little sense in bathing if your shirt carried last month's stench. In 1785, capitalism introduced the power loom and changed the very nature of the shirt on man's back. By the twentieth century, capitalism had made a T-shirt of cotton—the fabric of kings—the norm for even the poorest sub-Saharan African.
In the nineteenth century, capitalism gave us another universal: soap. Statistics show that Westerners grew dramatically healthier and added decades to their lives beginning in roughly the 1840s, when the soap-and-cotton revolution kicked in.
In the early 1800s, sending an urgent letter to a relative on a distant coast took months or weeks. Then capitalism built the telegraph system and made sending messages across continents and seas a matter of hours. In the 1990s, a mesh of multinational corporations took another leap. They built the mobile phone system and made it second nature to ring Taipei from Tampa and Bangalore from Boston while you were walking down the street.
In the mid-1840s, a trip from New York to California took over half a year either by wagon or by sailing ship. Your odds of dying on the way were roughly one in five. Then in 1869 there came a capitalist masterpiece, the transcontinental railway, that snipped the trip down to a week. In the twentieth century, capitalism gave the average citizen jet wings and slivered the New York to LA trip from roughly one hundred hours down to five.
The Western system accomplished in three hundred years what it would have taken evolution over three hundred million to achieve—it gave us the equivalent of new arms, legs, ears, eyes, and brains.
No other civilization in the history of this planet—not the Egyptian, the Roman, the Muslim, the Chinese, or the twentieth-century Marxist Russian—has ever come close to lifting the downtrodden in these ways. None has ever done so much to elevate, empower, and create a brand-new category of humanity, a brand-new niche of comfort and prosperity: a massive and productive middle class.
The middle class is an economy-and-culture engine that even Karl Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, praised for creating “wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.” Yes, the same Karl Marx who hated the middle class. The same Karl Marx who turned the word for middle class into a curse word: the “bourgeoisie.”
But the middle class is something we usually don't notice—a sea of humans the Western system has raised from the ranks of the downtrodden . . . and has uplifted permanently. How have the Western system and its sidekick, capitalism, pulled off deeds of this magnitude? How has the Western system done it without really knowing its own nature? And if capitalism is such a miracle worker, why does it need a radical upgrade?
Because while the West does far more than it gets credit for, that's nothing compared to what it can ultimately achieve. Yes, the capitalist system has performed its share of miracles—and its share of atrocities. The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911 killed 146 women—most of them younger than twenty-three years old—in less than fifteen minutes. In 1984, a nighttime leak of forty tons of methyl isocyanate gas from a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, sent a toxic cloud crawling across a forty-square-kilometer residential area housing half a million people. The result was death for 28,000 and lasting illness for another 120,000. And by 2001, one Texas company, Clear Channel Communications, Inc., had offices in 63 countries and owned 1,200 radio stations; 135 clubs, theaters, arenas, and stadiums; 19 television stations; and 770,000 outdoor advertising displays. In 2004, Clear Channel was on the verge of bridging the gap from the free market to monopoly and was capable of determining what information you and I do and do not get to see.
THE POWER OF MESSIANIC CAPITALISM
We have to retell the history of Western civilization in a way that hints at the rich ore beneath the slopes and plains of our history's terrain. We have to peel back the lumpy outer skin of capitalism and show the beating heart within. A semi-brain-dead capitalism has given vast new powers to humanity—powers like the ability to light our homes at night with electricity and add five hours a day to the normal human's waking life. A capitalism that knows its mission, a capitalism propelled by the troika of empathy, passion, and reason, can work far greater wonders.
Imagine what it would be like if at every staff meeting you were expected to put the care of the multitudes we mistakenly call “consumers” first. Imagine what it would be like to go to work each morning in a company that saw your passions as your greatest engines, your curiosities as your fuel, and your idealisms as the pistons of your labors and of your soul. Imagine what it would be like if your superiors told you that the ultimate challenge was to tune your empathic abilities so you could sense the needs of your firm's customers even before those customers knew quite what they hankered after. Imagine what it would be like if your superiors asked you to do what artists and psychics do—find your hidden selves in the hidden hungers of those you serve. There is an implicit code by which we in the Western system live—a code that demands that we uplift each other . . . and that we do it globally.
The “human resources” creed—the real business of business—should be one that comes from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay:
A man was starving in Capri;
He moved his eyes and looked at me;
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan,
And knew his hunger as my own.
Mine every greed, mine every lust.
And all the while for every grief,
Each suffering, I craved relief.
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high.
People are the ones who demand. We do it because we desire, we hanker, we hunger, we're eager, we're roused. Or we're deadened, we're hurt, we're unsatisfied, we need. Consumerism—that wretched sin—isn't what it seems. Capitalism is what we do each day, and it can generate in our daily lives and in the place we work the exuberance of satisfying others, the exhilaration of feeling wanted, the elation of creativity, and the knowledge that we've contributed to something far, far bigger than ourselves.
We desperately need a reinvention and a re-perception of the system that has given Western civilization its long-term strength and its recent weaknesses. We need to wake up capitalism to its mission—a set of moral imperatives and heroic demands that are implicit in the Western way of life. By reinventing capitalism and injecting our own souls into the machine, you and I can raise the bar of human possibility.
We stand at a choice point in history. We can wake up and smell the coffee of our civilization—its pep, its drive, and its power to add to human lives. We can see the ideals and the creative imperatives that capitalism now hides. Or we can go with the flow of the current zeitgeist and condemn all that we have as mere consumerist trash and every workday move we make as an attempt to pick the pockets of the poor. If we fail to see the force of secular salvation, the power of messianic capitalism, in what we do each day, then we will yield the planet up to those who insist on taking the Western system's transformative powers away.
Howard Bloom, a recent visiting scholar at the Graduate Psychology Department at New York University and a Core Faculty Member at The Graduate Institute, is the author of two books: The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History and Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century.