Capitalism and compassion: Can they coexist?

Capitalism and compassion: Can they coexist?

Ideologues and politics are one and the same.

By Ramani Durvasula, PhD

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies… A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

It is a familiar anecdote. The tale of the successful businessman posing with his yacht or shiny mansion and revered for his “wealth” and hard work. While the chronically unemployed man, perhaps residing in a region of the country hobbled by unemployment and economic depression, losing his home, is criticized for not trying harder or not adequately caring for his family. One of the most prevalent biases is the belief that we live in a just world, and that therefore people get what they deserve. You are rewarded if you work hard. Therefore, the socioeconomically disadvantaged must be lazy, unmotivated and hence, get what they deserve (Kangas, 2003; Reyna, Henry, Korfmacher & Tucker, 2005; Shapiro, 2003; Smith, 2010).

In a free market, the bottom line is simply, the bottom line. It is quantitative, cold, reductionist and does not reflect human capital — just financial profit. Capitalism has become largely about self-interest, consumerism, sleight of hand and the bottom line. Our rubrics of success are so often tied into bottom lines — economic success and material outcomes — that we do not pause to consider whether the traits that generate these successes translate to the “stuff” that close relationships and families need to function and thrive — emotional presence, empathy, respect, mutuality and self-reflection.

We believe success should generalize — a person who accumulates wealth should also succeed in other arenas. This assumption often results in disappointment and distress. A person may be able to provide financially, but not emotionally — because the two systems are often disjointed. In a system that is profit driven, the raw material for intimacy and connection is rarely cultivated or valued. Empathy and self-reflection typically impede profit making. Is it possible that the very skills that make a person successful at business may impede their success in relationships? Unrepentant adages such as “it’s not personal, it’s business…” underlie the idea that the skills needed to succeed at business may not translate to the raw material needed to maintain healthy personal relationships. Fact is, business is personal, and sterilizing the brutal impacts of self-interested economics through such phraseology does not shelter us.

If the larger structure of success is predicated on profit then does this bubble up from the ground and impact our psyches? The APA report on stress in America, year after year, has shown that financial issues remain the most salient stressor for their respondents. Poverty has an impact on both physical and mental health (APA, 2006; Belle & Dodson, 2006; Gallow & Mathews, 2003; Jackson & Williams, 2006; Kaplan, Siefert, Ranjit, Raghunathan, Young, Tran, et al., 2005; Lorant, Deliege, Eaton, Robert, Philippot & Anssearu, 2003; Siefert, Heflin, Corcoran & Williams, 2004; Smith, 2010; Sweet, 2011). As the middle class founders and people blame themselves for their fiscal woes, which in turn may be associated with higher levels of stress, as well as depression, anxiety and maladaptive coping, the impacts of a system based solely on a bottom line which benefits a few appear to be bad for the mental health of many.

Research examining hierarchies indicate that those at the top of the hierarchy have better health and better stress than those who are lower on these socioeconomic hierarchies. Our economic and incentivization systems are a set-up for failure and disappointment for those who are the most vulnerable to experience the worst outcomes. The free market system has become the bellwether of myriad systems in our culture — educational, commercial, media, medical and spiritual. It becomes difficult to teach children empathy and emotional regulation when the system into which they are being acculturated does not value these qualities. It becomes difficult to foster governmental spending programs that provide health care, education reform and relief services to those who may be experiencing any number of challenges because that negatively impacts bottom lines and as the prevailing wisdom would maintain that it “steals from the rich and gives to the undeserving and lazy poor.” The tendency then becomes to blame and subsequently punish those who may simply need support or a leg up in an uneven world. Because the system does not equitably provide opportunity across all socioeconomic strata.

We as psychologists are often told to stick to the science of human behavior and not become ideologues or get sucked into politics. They are one and the same. As the cultural, economic and political needles move, so too does mental health. We are not going to dismantle our extant capitalist systems — but can we safeguard mental health in the midst of this? We can and must reflect on how the drumbeat of economics impacts our minds, and perhaps to keep alive the call that all people from vast corporate structures to individuals — can pay it forward and remain mindful that ontogeny in its fashion, recapitulates economy. Excellence, innovation, growth, and remuneration are all admirable qualities and aspirations. The question all of us must grapple with is — at what price?


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