Issue 01 — 21 September 2004


When British people travel for the first time to a developing country such as India or Indonesia, the experience highlights for many the differences between life in a developed country and that of a developing one. People previously accustomed to complaining about the state of the health service or other public services, sometimes gain a sense of appreciation about the strengths of their own civilisation – one that is a product of several hundred years of Western Capitalism. In Britain, as in the rest of Western Europe, there are not vast numbers of humanity begging or living rough on the streets; the roads do not get washed away when it rains; hospitals don’t forcibly eject individuals if they can’t pay for their treatment; schools and universities aren’t reserved only for the rich. Moreover, there has been a distribution of wealth across British society – though some would argue the inequalities have worsened – such that the majority of people in Britain now consider themselves as middle class. They possess disposable wealth that most people living in the developing world can only dream of; a degree of wealth that allows them to take foreign holidays, become home owners, and consume all manner of goods and services. The wealth, technologies and organisation of Western society mean that today we no longer face what John Maynard Keynes described as the permanent problem of the human race: the struggle for subsistence.

Given this situation, is it possible to conclude that as people become wealthier they become happier? For some this answer may seem obvious, but in my own experience and that of others, there are many anecdotal examples that suggest that there is not a simple correlation between wealth and happiness. Many of us will have friends or know people who have chosen to opt out of the “rat race”, the term that characterises modern working life, in order to improve their lifestyle or happiness. And if like me you have contact with people who live in the developing world – especially in the Muslim world or in other places where non-materialistic cultures still have influence, you will come across people who show contentment and happiness with their lives, despite living in a developing country and lacking wealth. It seems that for some their lack of wealth does not prevent their happiness.

The importance, to people living in the developed world, of the principle that the pursuit of wealth is good and that happiness will follow it should not be underestimated. For many it is a central criterion for the choices they make in their working lives, personal relationships and even how they spend their leisure time. These principles and those that are related to them, such as the importance of individual freedom and pursuit of self-interest, are the ideological pillars of Western Capitalism.

Happiness and the Enlightenment

The enlightenment thinkers of the 18th Century and their precursors considered that they were emerging from centuries of darkness and ignorance into a new age of reason and science. In the opinion of Empiricists such as Hume and Locke, man had an innate ability to observe his reality, discover its fundamental truths and hence improve his situation using this knowledge. Bernard Mandeville in his poem ‘The fable of the Bees’ promoted the theory that the pursuit of individual self-interest was of the greatest benefit to society. Adam Smith in his treatise on the Wealth of Nations argued that society benefited overall from the invisible hand of the market and the pursuit of self-interest of the individuals within it. Hobbes in his work Leviathan argued that individuals in a society need to give up some of their rights and freedoms to the government so that it could provide them safety and security, implying that the role of the government was to serve the general interest and happiness of the people.

The contribution of these writers, their followers and others who promoted humanism and secularism, was to propose a view of the world and of human purpose in which people pursued their self-interest throughout their lives; that in order to realize what was in their best interests, people needed a number of forms of liberty; that the role of the government was to promote the general interests and happiness of its people; that the pursuit of material wealth within a free market context was of benefit to everyone and was to be encouraged.

A person’s success in his pursuit of wealth came to be seen as a product of his or her hard work and labour. In the 19th century it was argued that equal opportunities would allow people to realize the pursuit of their self-interest; inequalities between people would no longer reflect inherited wealth but rather be a consequence of a person’s efforts and talents. The prominent social scientist Thomas Carlyle called for the “real aristocracy”, that is “the aristocracy of talent.” This came to be the accepted wisdom and governments implemented social legislation in the 19th and 20th century that saw the creation of state schools and universities that would produce talented individuals who through hard effort and toil would deserve the positions they obtained.

It became widely accepted that the possession of wealth implied that a person’s character was good, whilst poverty implied laziness, lack of talent and weakness of character. Some thinkers even proposed that charity to the poor was against the natural biological order; Herbert Spencer and his fellow social Darwinists argued that the poor, infirm and weak should be left to the struggle of life and death in order to improve the overall composition of society.

Thus in Western Capitalism the pursuit of wealth is not just good, but morally necessary for both individuals and society; one major role for the state is to promote the pursuit of wealth, for happiness and wealth are inextricably linked.

A study of human nature

Since happiness is a human emotion or physiological state, it is necessary to study and understand how Western societies satisfy human nature and needs. The non-satisfaction of our human needs leads to a variety of states such as being hungry, thirsty, cold, anxious or depressed, depending upon which human need is not satisfied. Conversely the satisfaction of our human needs leads us to a state of contentment and happiness. Richard Tomkins, in an article titled: “How to be happy” , points out that numerous studies conducted in Western societies over the last few decades indicate that there has been a decline in people’s happiness over time as they have become richer. To explain happiness in the context of satisfying human needs, Tomkins uses a widely accepted model of human nature called the “Hierarchy of Needs,” developed by the psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Maslow referred to five factors that motivated people, and were dependent upon each other such that it would be difficult for a person to be motivated by a higher factor if one lower than it was not fulfilled. The lowest factor that he said motivated humans was their desire for basic needs such as food and water; the next factor up was their desire to be safe and secure. The next factor after this was the need that people had to be loved and to feel a sense of belonging; following this was a need for people to have self esteem; at the top of his hierarchy was the need to achieve what one was capable of.

With this model of human nature, Tomkins points out that some wealth is needed so that people’s basic needs are realized and that their environment is safe and secure. Studies have demonstrated that people who are on very low incomes become significantly happier once they are able to achieve this basic level of wealth. These studies also indicate that to achieve this effect a relatively small personal income is required, beyond which further increases in income do not tend to bring significant improvements in happiness.

It follows that the pursuit of an economic policy whose objective is to try and increase a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on a yearly basis will not necessarily increase people’s happiness.

The next level in Maslow’s hierarchy is the need to feel a sense of belonging and to receive love. This is achieved by developing strong personal relationships with others – especially our partners and family members. As Tomkins indicates, if society programs us for individualistic behaviour and personal consumption, it is likely to be at the expense of these personal relationships. The more hours we spend on developing our careers, the fewer hours we spend with our partners and children. Moreover, many of our activities can directly add to a country’s GDP but simultaneously be detrimental to our emotional well-being. As the rate of divorce increases, we spend more on solicitors’ fees, counselling, maintaining multiple households and so on. These activities add to a country’s GDP, but reflect more unhappiness for individuals as people’s close personal relationships are disturbed. Similarly the money that we spend on personal security such as alarms and surveillance systems increases the nation’s GDP, but this is accompanied by feelings of insecurity in our society. And output for the pharmaceutical sector increases as more and more people use anti-depressants to counter depression.

Some economists have proposed modifying the GDP statistical measure to reflect the negative well-being costs of many economic activities. One measure is the “Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare,” which was first developed by ex-World Bank economist Herman Daly and theologian John Daly in their 1989 book For the Common Good. When this measure – or another metric called the “Genuine Progress Indicator” – is used with the economic data of either the US and UK for the last 50 years, a clear correlation is shown with happiness studies that were conducted in both countries over this period. In the US, the General Progress Indicator increases along with GDP from the 1950s to around 1970 and then it starts to decline, unlike GDP which keeps on increasing – and 1970 was around the period at which Americans started to become less happy with their lives.

Next in Maslow’s hierarchy is our need to gain the respect and recognition of others. In Western Capitalism, the principal manner to earn respect and recognition comes through one’s ability to accumulate wealth; the enlightenment tradition is that wealth is the measure of the success of a man. However, we find that status manifests itself in a relative manner. What is important is the relative difference in wealth between people who compare themselves to each other, rather than the absolute quantity of wealth possessed. The need for self-esteem causes people to engage in a competition with others over wealth. This race for status is never ending, as there will always be people with more money and more ostentatious symbols of wealth to compete against. Also, very soon after being purchased most things that are acquired, like cars, clothing, and gadgets, start to look dated. So for the sake of maintaining appearances many possessions end up being unnecessarily replaced.

As Western societies get wealthier, this race becomes even more demanding. Richard Bronk argues in his book Progress and the Invisible Hand that many status goods are scarce, unlike the material goods needed to meet our basic needs. Thus there are only a limited number of houses in the best locations in town; only a few places where a yacht can be moored on the river; a limited number of seats in the Michelin starred restaurant. As people’s incomes increase they compete for these goods that are limited in supply leading to ever-higher prices for these positional goods. Thus people who want these status goods will need to spend even more wealth, effort and time to maintain their existing level of consumption of these goods. This means that the race for status gets harder and harder as society becomes wealthier.

Alain De Botton argues in his recent book “Status Anxiety” that the race for status will lead to anxiety and depression for many people. Not everyone will become an investment banker, company president or successful entrepreneur. Most people will not be able to afford to change their car every year, or take frequent holidays in the Caribbean. If people participate in this race by borrowing from banks and using credit cards many of them will end up in debt, and made to feel like losers and failures in a society where success is measured by wealth.

The above study of human nature suggests that Western societies are causing people to satisfy their human needs in ways that cause many of them to feel depressed, anxious and unhappy. If this is the case then it may be asked why do people persist in these modes of behaviour, if this makes them unhappy? One possible reason is that people are seldom able to identify the root cause of these feelings. Rather than promote self-examination or assessment, Western societies encourage individuals to engage in activities in which they can drown out or escape from their worries and concerns: the consumption of alcohol, anti-depressants, food, holidays, computer games and so on. Furthermore, because the healthy functioning of Western societies depends upon individuals pursuing wealth and then consuming goods and services with the wealth they acquire, these societies have developed ways to influence people’s behaviour. It is this power of conditioning or control, and the lack of any alternative lifestyle, that makes it difficult for individuals to change modes of behaviour.

The system needs individual consumers

Western society at its core is based on a system of capitalist economics; it represents a system of production and exchange of goods and services within a free market context. For the system to work, economies must continually grow. For an economy to grow firms must increase the production of goods and services and people must keep on consuming more of these goods and services.

Thus the system must keep on motivating people to want things. In most areas, producers face the problem of excess capacity; given their economies of scale, their proficiency in mass-production, as well as the technology they have acquired in the last two hundred years, producers are able to make much more than consumers require in almost every industry. People today do not suffer from hunger in the Western world – rather we are presented with such a variety of foodstuffs that our problem now is an epidemic of obesity.

Thus Capitalism suffers from a problem of surplus. One way for firms to cut back on their capacity to produce things is for them to buy out and shutdown their competitors; but this means making people redundant. Since such people are also needed to consume the goods and services in the first place, this leads to a vicious circle. Another way of addressing the issue of over-capacity is to try and open up new markets. But in most developing nations, since people have very limited purchasing power, there is little or no money to be made in these markets.

Thus the most reliable way for producers to address this problem of over-capacity is to encourage people living in the Western societies to keep on consuming their goods and services at ever increasing rates.

There is a group of people whose mission statement is to understand and determine people’s needs, educate them about the availability of products and important product features, and also develop strategies to persuade people to buy products; they are the marketers. If marketers are the commanding generals in this war of persuasion then their foot soldiers are the advertising companies and their most powerful weapon is the mass media.

One hundred years ago the printed word was really the only way to convey information to the masses. With modern technologies we now have, in almost every home, many different ways of receiving information: radio, television, magazines, the Internet, and so on. These mass media have an immense power to shape our values, attitudes, and behaviour; they create our consciousness and project lifestyles that we try and live out. The people who provide the funding for the mass media are the advertisers.
Using the power of imagery, the mass media aim to persuade us, shape our personalities and influence our behaviour. There is almost no space for neutral unbiased information in the commercially driven mass media. In the service of the Capitalist system, the mass media makes the consumption of goods and services an exciting and an emotionally fulfilling activity, one that gives people’s lives purpose and meaning. For example, when we dress ourselves, we do so with clothing that bears the names of running shoes, construction companies or fizzy drinks; these names and logos represent identities that we feel affiliation towards. Our behaviour is shaped so that we want to emulate the lifestyles and identities that advertisers have branded – famous football stars, basketball stars or other celebrities.

As Richard Tomkins argues , much of this persuasion happens in very clever ways. In order to avoid people suffering from advertising fatigue, much of the imagery used to promote a product is indirectly used. Hollywood films and even pop songs can be full of product placements; professional sports have been made into just another branch of the advertising industry. In fact no cultural or artistic event can take place without commercial sponsorship; fashion magazines are often little more than shopping catalogues.

As Professor Philip Kotler, one of the world’s leading marketing gurus said in an interview : “If there are no more needs – by which I mean, everything we think of, there’s someone supplying it – then we have to invent new needs… Now, I know that’s been criticised. People say: ‘why are you doing that to us? Why don’t you leave us alone?’ But part of capitalism is, it’s a system where we’ve got to motivate people to want things so they’ll work for these things. If there’s no more things they want, they won’t work as hard: they’ll want 35-hour weeks, 30-hour weeks and so on… Yes, marketing does drive us to new wants. You have a Ford, now you want a BMW; and then, if you have enough money, they’re going to get you for a Lamborghini. And from a philosophical point of view, people can talk about our being manipulated.”

Marketers and advertisers have the power to change the culture of society. The 1960s were a time of student protests, demonstrations against the Vietnam War and American imperialism. The hippies represented the bohemian lifestyle and culture that rejected conformity and traditional values. They wanted a world in which love would dominate, not power or wealth. The worst crime a hippy could commit was selling out to commercial interests. As illustrated by Thomas Frank in his 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool, advertisers and marketers picked up and promoted the liberalism of the hippies, because it broke down the rigid control of people’s behaviour. If people abandoned thrift and conservatism and tried experimenting with things that were once forbidden this would mean more consumption of goods and services.

So what was once anti-establishment became mainstream as advertisers adopted the symbols, music and identity of this counter-culture. Sexual liberalisation in the 1960s gave business-minded people commercial opportunities to exploit. For example the pornography industry transformed itself from being a taboo, shady industry to being a mainstream part of our culture – today pop videos contain soft porn imagery and society readily accepts it. The hippies’ message, of love and not war, opposing the establishment and commercial interests, was conveniently marginalized.
Is there an alternative?

As we have examined in this paper, Western Capitalism gives rise to a competition for wealth and status. This results in anxiety, depression, and a never-ending “rat race”. Government polices that are focused on economic growth fail to address our non-material needs, such as our need for family, love, compassion, security and the community. Furthermore, the mass media shapes and conditions our attitudes and behaviours so that we become the consumers that the system would like us to be.

The happiness that comes when we live our lives in accordance with our human nature is clearly lacking. The thinkers of the enlightenment were wrong to assume that wealth would bring happiness and hence the pursuit of wealth should be the main aim for society. Perhaps they did not pay much attention to human nature, or perhaps it was not well enough understood at the time they developed their ideas. Since the premise that wealth equals happiness is at the base of Western Capitalism, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to reform Western Capitalism to make its goals and values consistent with human nature.

If we want happiness then we need to search for an alternative to Capitalism that is based on a completely different conception of the purpose of human existence, one that is consistent with our nature. There is today an alternative to Capitalism and that is Islam. Perhaps because it is an alternative, Islam is always presented in the Western media in the context of terrorism and fanaticism.

The core beliefs of Islam are that mankind has been created by a Creator; that we have been given revealed texts that we should follow; that death is inevitable for every person and that human beings will be accounted for how they behaved whilst they were alive; that eternal reward or punishment await them after their deaths.

Using Maslow’s model we can assess how Islam addresses human needs. Firstly let us consider Maslow’s lowest motivation – the desire for basic needs. In Islamic traditions it is well known that in an Islamic society, individuals – whether Muslim or Non-Muslim – are obliged to seek work to earn their daily living, if they are not able to meet their basic needs from wealth or assets they already possess. If they are not able to do so – perhaps there is no work available or they suffer from some disability – then the responsibility to support them falls first on their immediate family members. If the family members are unable to support them because of their own poverty then the duty of care to meet their basic needs falls upon the community and the State. The Islamic traditions disparage the person who sleeps satiated whilst his neighbours are hungry.

At the next level in the “hierarchy of needs”, Maslow identified the need for safety and security. Islam exhorts individuals not to involve themselves in activities such as stealing, fraud, and murder; people who engage in such activities are told that they will face serious punishments from their Creator. At the same time, it is well known that Islam defines exemplary punishments for individuals who are caught whilst engaged in such criminal behaviour.

Moving to the next level is the need for love and belonging. This is served principally in Islam by the family unit. The notion of family and the relationships and responsibilities that follow from it are central to Islamic teaching. The relationship between husband and wife is not one of master and slave as depicted by Western media; rather it is one where each partner has their own distinctive role. Islam encourages the partners to behave in a way that establishes a strong bond of love between them. To sacrifice the rights of your partner, such as their need for help, support, and time, because of outside interests such as work is something that is strongly discouraged. Each partner has rights that must be fulfilled. Similarly the bond between parent and child is one based on guidance, love and responsibility. When the children are small, their parents are responsible for nurturing, educating and looking after them. And when one’s parents became ill or infirm through old age, the responsibility switches back to the children to care for their parents.

When it comes to earning self-esteem, Islam has attached great importance to values and behaviours such as piety, honesty, being just, helping others and engaging in many other actions where there is no self interest involved. As a result in an Islamic society, respect is earned by behaving in a manner that demonstrates these values and behaviours rather than through status and wealth. The more that people respond to Islamic teachings to help the poor and the needy, look after their aged parents, sacrifice time and money to address problems they perceive in society, the more respect that others in society will give them. From a materialistic aspect, Islam does not limit the accumulation of wealth and luxury items to any given level, as it is not an ascetic or monastic faith whereby the religious must give up all material pleasures for the sake of the afterlife. Rather Muslims are encouraged to enjoy the world, and the goods and services that human effort produces are part of that. What Islamic texts do forbid strictly is for people to become haughty and arrogant because of their wealth.

What this discussion indicates is that Islam addresses human nature in a much different way to Capitalism – in a way that is in harmony with our nature. Islam can create a contentment and happiness that is relatively free from the status anxiety and depression about our own inadequacies that plague Capitalist societies. Moreover Islam openly discusses the issue of death so that people can come to terms with this inescapable matter at a very early age. This allows people to think of their lives with a broader perspective, rather than just engage in individualistic hedonistic behaviour to escape their own human frailty.

While Capitalist societies use the mass media to condition people to be good consumers, Islam conditions society so that people’s attitudes and behaviour are characterised by honesty, truthfulness, and a desire to sacrifice for family and less fortunate members of society. This type of conditioning reinforces the best qualities in our human nature. Ultimately it increases people’s happiness and gives them more choices. The need to consume should not become the sole purpose of our existence. Those ambitious people who want to be rich and wealthy should not be prevented from spending their time and resources in this direction, as long as they aren’t involved in criminal activity. But others are not made to feel like losers.

1The Financial Times, 7th March 2003
2The Financial Times 23rd October 2003
3The Financial Times, 29th May 2003

Salman Ahmed

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