Why Small is Beautiful
South Africa needs a dose of ‘Buddhist Economics’.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how South Africans need to start building their own punk rock economy.
In an age of declining institutions, we should embrace a DIY approach to work and life that prioritises authenticity, intentionality, and craftsmanship.
Beneath such advice lies an understanding of work and economics that is radically different to the ideology of modern economics.
I was reminded of this recently when I stumbled again across a book I read at varsity: ‘Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered’, written by economist EF Schumacher in 1973. The fourth chapter is called ‘Buddhist Economics’ and was written by Schumacher decades earlier after he worked as an adviser to the Prime Minister of Burma.
Schumacher had been a Marxist during World War II after fleeing Nazi Germany, and his journey to Burma marked the moment when he finally realised the moral bankruptcy of modern materialist economics. Schumacher realised that what consumer capitalism and Marxist economics both had in common was an underpinning belief that the material world was all there was. Salvation could only come about via consumption or some economic utopia.
(Ironically, his interest in Buddhism would ultimately lead him to a Christian conversion by the time ‘Small is Beautiful’ was published.)
Schumacher wrote: “Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions. Some go as far as to claim that economic laws are as free from ‘metaphysics’ or ‘values’ as the law of gravitation.”
This kind of amoral approach to the market-place leads directly to the reckless greed of Wall Street and many western consumers – if stuff is all that there is, the more the better. (It was also at the root of Marxist terror – the notion that everything is justified in the pursuit of a purely economic utopia.) This amoral approach is also reflected today in modern politics – issues like Brexit, corruption, and Trump are almost always discussed as issues having to do with GDP, rather than with justice and political philosophy.
The insidious element here is the fact that the way we operate our economies is designed to appear neutral, as being categorically different to the fields of justice and spirituality.
Think about applying for your first job: we tend to focus on the paycheck, or a sense of personal fulfillment – very rarely whether the work is actually good and noble.
This is in line with how the field of economics understands the entire concept of labour – as a cost – not as anything of any moral value. In this vein, one should work as little as possible for as much money as possible, and when employing anybody you should reverse the equation. If you’re lucky you will have time left over to play on your X-Box, or maybe you can work only a four-hour week if you are really smart.
Schumacher saw something different in the Buddhist world – that work is fundamentally human:
“The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence…
“Again, the consequences that flow from this view are endless. To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-racking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with goods than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence…
“Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.”
In short, Schumacher encountered a social value system that saw itself as higher than laws of economics. Economics must fit the values – not the other way around. In this value system, labour should be something noble and meaningful, not only a wealth generating exercise.
Now some would argue that such thinking is naive. In the world of work and labour, certain laws must always apply if we are to generate wealth. Not all work can be good and noble. We need the basic impulse of greed to drive us forward.
But look at where we find ourselves in our history.
Wages in real terms are in decline. Many people in older generations do not realise this – in the developed economy, this generation is literally poorer than their parents. Yes, we have iPads, and foreign fast foods, but most of us struggle to see a future in which we will own property or cars free from debt (unless you have inherited money).
Our world is filled with ecological destruction (you don’t have to be a global warming fanatic to agree with this), mass inequality, and cheap plastic rubbish which is meant to distract us and make us happy.
And there is now a despair simmering in the world of economists that strong economic growth may be a thing of the past. Economists call this phenomenon ‘secular stagnation’ – which basically means a long term, non-cyclical era of virtually zero economic growth.
This is why we need a re-ordering of economic thought, and I can think of three important lessons from Schumacher to that end.
Three Lessons from ‘Buddhist Economics’:
1. “The essence of civilisation [lies] not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.”
2. “Character… is formed primarily by a man’s work… [and] work, properly conducted in conditions of human dignity and freedom, blesses those who do it and equally their products.”
3. “While the materialist is mainly interested in goods, the Buddhist is mainly interested in liberation” and thus he believes in technology as a tool – but not as a controlling machine.
It seems that if we aim only for wealth, we don’t even get that. Instead, learning from the punks and the Buddhists, we can become rebels in a material world – by finding authentic work and changing our economy from the ground up.
For Schumacher, his journey ultimately ended up in a return to the faith of his European fathers – the Christian faith of the Catholic Church – which at its best has always taught the holiness of everyday things like work and nature.
By the time he compiled ‘Small is Beautiful’ he had come to believe that the essential problem of our civilization was its lack of faith – its closed, materialist system which did not allow for morality or conscience.
Hauntingly, he noted this decrepit belief in nothingness had rooted itself in education, which no longer taught right from wrong:
“In ethics, as in so many other fields, we have recklessly and wilfully abandoned our great classical-Christian heritage. We have even degraded the very words without which ethical discourse cannot carry on, words like virtue, love, temperance. As a result, we are totally ignorant, totally uneducated in the subject that of all conceivable subjects, is the most important… Who knows anything today of the Seven Deadly Sins or of the Four Cardinal Virtues? Who could even name them? And if these venerable. old ideas are thought not to be worth bothering about, what new ideas have taken their place?”
But perhaps the tide is turning today. More and more we see proof that character is destiny. Economic activity that lacks virtue is not sustainable.
And this is good news for many young innovators today – who are carving out small enterprises that look to practise craftsmanship, environmental stewardship, and economic justice and upliftment – who understand that the word ‘economics’ means ‘household management’, and that business is always ultimately about people.
Perhaps by being a little punk, and a little Buddhist, we can, by some miracle, begin our country again.