By Roberto Assagioli
From the Italian Psychosynthesis Magazine, issue 18, 2012.
Dear Readers, we present you with an article that we think could have been written today and not eighty years ago. It is about a different economic crisis to the current one but the principles that govern it are similar and shadows and lights are the same. It is up to you to draw the necessary considerations…
A school of political economy that was in vogue in the last century had created the myth of the “homo aeconomicus”, an imaginary being who would act motivated solely by his or her own financial gain, and on this basis it had built more or less ingenious theories and formulated supposed laws.
The great historical events that took place in the twentieth century have demonstrated the futility of those abstract constructions, and little to no validity of those“laws”.
It could not be otherwise. The “Homo aeconomicus” does not exist but man, the complex and multifaceted man in which the various aspects and elements, the various needs, tendencies, desires, passions and aspirations constantly act and react upon each other, and all contribute, in different, hardly calculable and predictable ways, to determine his or her conduct in all fields, including the economic one. And in turn the individual and collective economic conditions have not only tangible and practical effects, but affect the whole human being, infuence his or her ideas and feelings, pose problems, require choices, and cause emotional, moral and spiritual crises.
This fact was fully recognized by the (Italian) Prime Minister, that worded it in one of those incisive phrases which were peculiar to him, in his speech to the people of Naples on 25 October. He said: “The world crisis is not only economic, but it is now, above all, spiritual and moral.”
We believe that an examination, though brief, of these interferences and relationships between the economic and the psychological and spiritual aspects of the crisis that troubles now the world, could make us better understand what is happening and in which all of us are actively or passively involved in various ways and measures. And this greater understanding will allow us to glimpse the many spiritual lessons that the crisis can teach and will point us the way to solve it and to prevent new ones.
Evils produced by crisis
So that what is said below could not be misunderstood, I wish to state that I am fully conscious of the enormoussum of evils the harsh economic crisis has produced and is producing.
Only a barren selfishness could make us numb to the physical and moral sufferings of the millions of unemployed who are all over the world. We can not and must not for-get the cold and hunger that plague so many of our fellow creatures and their moral suffering, sometimes more acute than the physical ones, seeing their loved ones suffering without being able to do anything for them and living in a state of uncertainty and concern for the future.
Even in the cultural field, damages are severe and obvious. The economic crisis forces many to discontinue studies and fruitful researches, prevents or restricts many good scientific, artistic and educational initiatives. I also fully recognize and appreciate the great benefits that increased material prosperity has brought to humanity, such as the large decrease in infant mortality, infectious diseases, famines, the limitation of working hours and in general the participation of a constantly growing part of humanity to a higher standard of living, to the benefits of education and culture.
This expanded and enriched the lives of millions and millions of our fellow creatures that before led an existence neither too tiring and dreary, as workers often did in the last century, or torpid, isolated and almost vegetative, as most of the rural population. The best material means of communication and psychic exchanges have produced great and beneficial changes.
Just think what the radio means for illiterate peasants in remote villages of the russian or siberian plains. So the current crisis, because preventing or slowing this elevation of global living standards, has to be considered against the good of humanity. This is all true, but after having found that, it must be recognized that it is not all the truth.The economic crisis has various and contrasting aspects and effects and taking into account only the most conspicuous ones with negative nature gives a distorted picture of the complex reality and is harmful because it prevents from seeing and using the best means to eliminate the existing evils.
The shadows of prosperity
Conversely economic prosperity and material affluence also have downsides, have pitfalls, rather real dangers that must not be ignored, that rather must well face to avoid harmful illusions and consequent hard disenchantments.
Those who believe that the material affluence and the spread of a certain level of general education could be enough by themselves to really appease the human being, to make him or her better and happier, commit a psychological and spiritual rough mistake. This error has been shown and fought by the wise of all times, but it stubbornly persists, indeed in our times itis more rooted and widespread, so that it represents the belief expressed or implied by the leaders and the mass that embody the most typical and extreme form of contemporary civilization: the North American one. It is therefore worth pausing to highlight the critical failure and inadequacy of this ideal of pure affluence that Keyserling in his Psychanalyse de l’Amérique has called with a strong but appropriate expression: “the animal deal.” The shadows that are opposed to the lights in the view offered by the material prosperity are numerous and obscure. Economic prosperity leads very easily to hedonism, that is the excessive appreciation and attachment to the pleasures and material goods, and, instead of giving fulfilment and serenity, intensifes desires, greed, ambitions. The handsome profits – especially if they are quick and obtained more because of the favor of circumstances than merit or personal toil – give rise to vanity, ostentation and squander.
To be convinced you just think about the ridiculous and disgusting show offered by the “sharks” in the early postwar. During periods of “high standard of living” those who have less benefits are often the very people who belong to the educated classes, and represent the intellectual and spiritual elite, indeed sometimes they get damaged. This had happened in America during the “boom” that preceded the current crisis, as states with good facts the historian James Truslow Adams in a bitter article entitled The cost of Prosperity.
But there is a still more serious and significant fact, and it is that during periods of general economic recovery far more wars occur than in those with depression. All this proves that ownership and any increase in power in the material field, while offering many good possibilities, present on the other hand, both for individuals and for peoples, severe temptations and dangers that can be avoided only with an adequate ethical and spiritual preparation. But unfortunately the vast majority of humanity lacks such preparation, does not have the inner maturity necessary to make constructive use of all material goods.
The benefits of crisis
Conversely significant economic hardship bear important benefits to human being, as he or she may be reluctant to admit it. Even only from the standpoint of activity and practical efficiency, it can be seen how the economic need could shake people out of laziness, of lounging in existing conditions and motivate them to exert all their inventive faculties, their ingenuity and abilities of all kinds. This impulse of improvement has been and is intensively used with great success in the technical field by one of the ablest practical men of our age: Henry Ford.
Whenever the sales of his cars tend to decrease because of lower purchasing power of the market, he does not seek to increase them by increasing advertising, creating a new model or with other means, more or less artificial and forced. Here’s how he explains his approach:
“Our method is to reduce the price, extend the operations and improve the article. Please note that the reduction of the price comes first. We never considered our production accounts as immutable. So our first thought is to reduce the price at that point that we believe could facilitate more sales.
Then we get to work and try to manufacture the item for that price … The method generally used is to add up the costs and then determine the price, and although this method may be scientific in the strict sense of the word, it is not scientific in a broader sense.
Because of what use can be knowing the cost, if it tellsyou that you can fabricate the item to a price at which itcan not be sold? But even more compelling is the factthat although we can calculate the cost of a thing… no-body knows how much that cost should be.”
One way to find out what should be the cost of an object is to aim at a price so low that it forces everyone in the company to the maximum enhancement of his or her efficiency … we make more discoveries about the industry and the disposal under the constraint of our system, than under any other method of comfortable investigation. “But the material hardship, the “poverty”, gives other lessons that have more human and spiritual value. It induces and often lead to making life easier, to eliminate many alleged needs, many complications and superstructures that people seemed to can not renounce. And then we discover with pleased surprise that real needs are much smaller than it has been thought, that, for example, a simpler and sober diet is beneficial for the body and the spirit. We learn to appreciate more and to enhance what we already have, and we find that it is much more than we thought, when we scorned it or forgot it to pursue with unhealthy greed always new and more possessions.
We learn to find a worthy and ample compensation for the particular goods that are denied to us with the more precious ones, which are the heritage of everybody and from which we can all benefit without taking anything away one from each other. These are the stunning natural beauties, the clear dawns, the fiery sunsets, the blossoming of a flower, these are the treasures of art available at museums, galleries, churches. These are the pure joys of the inner life, of peaceful meditations, of the fervent ascents of spiritual heights, the passionate investigations of the fascinating mystery.