Dear Engage Readers: It’s really hard to talk about capitalism in Buddhist circles because its not something you can “feel in your body” like racism or sexism. It’s not a biological trait like skin colour or genitals. It’s an assigned social status, a social class that you are either born into or that you acquire over a lifetime. You cannot sit down and do a meditation on the “labour theory of value” or the “crisis of overproduction.” It’s something you have to learn about and analyse. You have to think about it. Consequently, while Buddhists are keen to talk bout race and gender ‘privilege’, they almost never talk about class inequalities. Few engaged Buddhists I know have addressed the class structure in Buddhist organizations. Yet it’s the global architecture of wealth extraction that shapes the foundations of our civilization, our relationship to the biosphere and to each other, at personal, group and global levels. I invite you to read the following articles by Joe Brewer on capitalism, class and global wealth extraction.
Wealth inequality has reached truly epic proportions — with 62 individuals amassing the same aggregate wealth as 3.7 billion. Most of us intuitively sense that this outcome was rigged by design by a global elite.
Here in the United States we know about things like Citizens United (those with money can influence elections) and the Koch Brothers (part of the cabal that purchased this little legal precedent in the Supreme Court). We get that the bankers who collapsed the financial system made out like bandits, quite literally. Those unlucky enough to be born anyplace where the tornado of colonialism touched down have been taught that “our people” should blame themselves for the personal character flaw of being on the receiving end of conquest and pillage.
What we’ve been lacking is a name for this integrated system of tax havens, corporate handouts, gutted governments, privatized lands held in common, and so forth. I use the phrase global architecture of wealth extraction and want to describe here how it makes up the core of political systems around the world.
Last year, I worked with a talented graphic designer by the name of Zoe Lowney to help tell this story as a timeline for modern history. This is what she came up with:
We intuitively get that the game has been rigged for some time. But most of us don’t know the details of how things came to be this way. As this graphic demonstrates, the architecture of wealth extraction had to be carefully built up in waves of creative destruction over the span of several hundred years.
In the earliest days, a suite of business innovations (double-entry accounting, the joint-stock company, etc.) were combined with a systematic policy of kicking people off commonly managed lands so that a system of “rent seeking” could be built up for wealthy people to extract money from the working poor. This was done in 16th and 17th Century Britain in what is known as the Enclosure Movement. And it laid the groundwork for a massive colonial empire to grow as the British and other imperial powers spread this logic of wealth extraction across the globe.
The first wave of mass poverty in modern times was the British and French peasantry. When these societies overthrew corrupt leaders and established democracies, the elites had to find more subtle ways to keep syphoning off wealth (thus growing social inequality) that didn’t conclude with rolling heads at the guillotine. So they invaded foreign lands and did their rent-seeking there.
This was how the mass poverty of India and many African nations sprang into being. Accompanied by systems of racial inequality and other “social control” mechanisms at home, they pitted the working classes of their own nations against each other as they took their model of wealth hoarding to new levels in “developing markets” like those of the spice trade and later with oil, coal, and other natural resources.
Flash forward to the 20th Century and you see the high art of wealth hoarding in digital accounting systems, structural debt-repayment programs, “free trade” agreements that privatized public lands, the invention of personal lines of credit to keep people enslaved to mortgages and consumer purchases, and later the so-called austerity programs that gut public coffers to feed private financiers after they orchestrated the deregulation and collapse of financial markets.
Said another way, the seeming lack of choice among political parties has less to do with political ideology and much more to do with the economic ideology that forms the core logic of this planetary-scale system. To really get a sense of just how big it is, consider this:
If we were to tax a mere 10% of the money hoarded away in tax havens, we would have at least $2,000,000,000,000 that could be used to fund (1) universal basic income; (2) universal healthcare for more than 7 billion people; (3) free public and university education for everyone on Earth; (4) fund basic scientific research for all major problems humanity must confront; and (5) make the transition to ecologically-based energy systems and urban design that staves off the potential for collapse of our highly unsustainable civilization.
Think about that for a moment. Let it sink in
The architecture of wealth extraction is a cancer on this planet. It continually corrupts our governments, poisons the natural environment, and pits us against each other in a “race to the bottom” that has only one logical outcome — the wholesale destruction of life-giving capacities for the only home planet we’ll ever have.
I have written elsewhere about systemic corruption, the cognitive science of how we fail to see it, how wealth is really created, and what we might do with that $2 trillion dollars that constitutes a small part of the money squirreled away by sociopaths and those who idolize them.
It is time to systematically dismantle this wealth hoarding system. Now that we know what it is and how it was built, we can tear it apart piece by piece and replace it with something better.
Now THAT is change I can believe in.
Onward, fellow humans.
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