By Alexia-Teodora Matei
The western model of society – capitalism, the organization of lives in metropolises, the never-ending hunt for “success” – has been, for more than 2 centuries, proliferated as the embodiment of progress. In its countries of origin – The United States, the countries of Western Europe – the model is zealously reinforced. Those who do not adapt are, at best, labeled lazy or incompetent and, at worst, ostracized and forced to pay for their disobedience with their wellbeing. Seeing them as living proof of the model’s dangerous shortcomings is considered blasphemous. In the other, less fortunate parts of the world, the blueprint of western society is being administered as a universal cure, and in its process of dispersion, it neutralizes all other ways of living.
Universities have been deeply complacent in engineering the expansion of the western model; from the glorification of its accomplishments to framing its absence as an indicator of underdevelopment, these generators of knowledge have become mere instruments for enforcing the status quo. I am particularly interested in the seemingly forsaken responsibility of universities to permanently question and refine knowledge and to treat only very few things as axiomatic. The following piece aims to explore the dangers of universities embracing the western ideals of state-crafting as the manual for building a lucrative and fulfilled society.
When it comes to opening a discussion on such a deeply complex subject, it is only natural to begin with a set of important clarifications. Firstly, I shall focus on capitalism – namely, how it dictates conceptions about society and the good life – as the single most representative aspect of the Western culture. Secondly, saying that the capitalist system is neither natural nor irreplaceable does not mean it is instead wholly abnormal or flawed. It is undeniable that the Western definition of a fruitful society has led to some of humanity’s most monumental advances. What I am arguing for is that a more open way of thinking – one that never takes the status quo for granted, that recognizes the limitations of the western ideals and the benefits of other, fundamentally different approaches to running society – is what universities should embrace.
So how exactly does the capitalist way of life look?
Capitalism is all about profit-maximization. The liberalization of markets, the extension of trade, automation and other tens of economic facades of the capitalist ideology prove this point: they exist so that people can produce more, faster and better. These incentives have determined profit-seeking entities to cultivate a set of narratives that – in terms of their efficiency in making sure more work is done – are comparable to the great industrialization advances or the most liberal market policies. I am talking about a set of mentalities – about hard work, about success, about when and under what conditions will we ever be fulfilled – that keep individuals eternally faithful to the cult of work. No project, no paper, no assignment or new invention is ever sufficient if there could be a second, better variant. The concept of good enough is the most well-kept secret of the capitalist society. Locked away, far from corporate meetings and feedback sessions, it is almost as if its keepers are desperately trying to taint its reputation so that their workers will never seek it. Good enough has almost become an insult, a confinement to mediocrity. In order to escape it, we have all adhered to the trend of shifting goalposts: the culture of tirelessly setting new, more ambitious targets for ourselves. After a proposal or an important homework, or a new article is sent to our boss, or teacher or editor, we are tormented by thoughts of how we could have done things in a better way. And, when positive feedback finally arrives, we forbid ourselves proper enjoyment because we are forced to think about what comes next. The ever-repeating process is made worse by the development of a latent, malignant gene in our minds which we know by the name of instant gratification. It’s not only that capitalism has taught us to want more and better, but to also want now. We have no conception of getting small but meaningful bits of fulfillment from the process of our work. The only thing that can make us happy or valued is the end result.
Unfortunately, universities are very much fueling our miserableness. They do too little to aid our suffering by promoting knowledge about other ways of life. When they do talk about matriarchies, or about communes or any type of intentional community, most times they do it too briefly, all the while lacking the right objectives. Maybe they do it in an uninspired attempt to appear “progressive”. Maybe they do it with all the good intentions: to repair some of the harm that was done by consigning the non-western to the periphery of academic curricula.
Whatever the motivation, one thing is obvious in the vast majority of cases: western universities do not treat other ways of thinking about life and society seriously enough. They always present what is non-capitalist as something that existed, or that still exists but is not up to par, or that only helps us understand other parts of the world. Never as something that we could learn from, and that should inform – or, at the very least, make us profoundly reconsider – the way we go about our lives and the mechanisms we have for policy making.Treated like artifacts, the communities in which people only worked to the extent that would satisfy their needs are talked about as if they only belong to pre-colonial times. Their remains are merely observed – very seldom learned from – and they are subtly – yet categorically – placed in the context of an underdeveloped part of the world.
Alternatives to the capitalist life, where poverty and wealth are not calculated in terms of material possessions, but rather in terms of knowledge and spiritual richness, are inexhaustible sources of wisdom that could help better our western, decadent understanding of life. Let us look towards the philosophy of the Andean-Amazonean indigenous peoples: the buen vivir (good living) ideology. For them, society is not about the individual, but about the community. The mantras of such a lifestyle promote solidarity, an unwavering respect for nature and the cultivation of moral values: kindness, understanding, compassion. Everything that is produced by the economic models of these societies must benefit all their inhabitants. It must also be conducted with high regard for the preservation of the environment. The concept of economic growth built on the commodification of nature and the exploitation of the worker is foreign to such communities.
The lessons that we have to learn from alternative ways of organizing society are many, and I strongly believe that universities should begin teaching them properly. Afterall, it is time we recognize that building a materially richer society is pointless if it comes at the cost of many communities and if it ends by crippling its creators’ ability to reach true, meaningful fulfillment.