Dealing with harmful consumption?

Consumption, the base of modern economics, does not necessarily lead low welfare of masses.
Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala

Consumption is the base of modern economics. The theory of utility states that increased consumption leads to welfare, happiness or, in economics' jargon, 'utility'. This is seen to be true. One eating ice cream or traveling in a new car is seen to be happy. But opposite is also seen. The poor are seen sleeping blissfully on railway platforms. Such peaceful sleep is rare for the rich. Or, a monk undertaking fast is seen happier than the rich man eating a seven course meal. Psycho-somatic diseases like BP, asthma and skin disorders are mostly seen among the well-off. Thus, oftentimes high consumption and low welfare go together. Conclusion is that consumption leads to welfare in some circumstances and not in others.

The relationship of consumption and welfare appears to be determined by one's inner self or the unconscious. Man has two levels of consciousness-the conscious or the mind, and the unconscious or the heart. Say, the heart's desire of a monk is to undertake penance on the banks of the Ganga. He happens to come in contact with a hip youth. He also develops the desire to dance in the disco. He enjoys the lights and loud music of the disco too. But, in the process, his heart's desire of undertaking penance is suppressed and this desire continues to smolder within. His conscious mind and unconscious heart become disjoint. In due course he develops psycho-somatic diseases like skin disorders etc. Consumption of the mind has thus provided him with pleasure in the short run but hit at his welfare in the long run.

All religions espouse this principle. Islam says one should follow the will of Allah. God should here be seen as speaking through one's heart. Hindus say one should keep his senses in control and do the bidding of the Atman. Jain and Buddhists generally negate the material world. Christianity promotes celibacy-which is opposite of consumption.

The rich are not happy with this teaching of religion. If people follow the religious teaching of abstaining from the disco and undertaking penance on the banks of the Ganga, then the businessman will not be able to make profits from the disco and the politician will not be able to make money in giving license for the same. The heart's desire of the businessman is to earn lots and lots of money. It is necessary that people consume evermore for him to make these profits. The clerk should work 12 hours and then use the money to go to the disco. This provides double profits to the businessman. First the clerk works 12 hours and makes profits for the businessman and then he pays for the disco. Such would not happen if he were to enjoy a walk along the banks of the Ganga instead. The businessman promotes a culture of consumption in order to fulfill his heart's desire of making money. He converts rest of the society into a consumption machine. He makes advertisements and TV programmes that ensure that the heart's desire of the clerk to walk on banks of the river is suppressed and he develops the desire to go to the disco. The businessman suppresses the heart's desires of others in order to fulfill the desires of his own heart.

There exists a conflict between the heart's desires of the businessman and the monk. It is the role of religion to resolve this conflict. All religions have done this by making rules of what the businessman may do what he may not. For example, trade in alcohol is prohibited in almost all religions. The politicians and businessmen did not like this social role of religion. They, therefore, invented the idea that religion is a matter of the individual and has no social bearings. The individual was set free. The advertisements to promote consumption were made legitimate because it was for the businessman to define his personal religion. Thus we have before us a situation in which consumerism runs rampant, human beings are morose and beset with many psychosomatic diseases.

This situation has developed because established religions failed to combat the theory of 'personal religion'. The priests failed to combat this ideology of the politicians and businessmen. The priest did so because he had become disjoint with his own heart. He was drawn by the pleasures of the mind and was purchased by the politicians and businessmen. He was willing to accept their employment in order to fulfill his own desires of consumption. The priest could not oppose the running of the disco because he was employed by the disco owner to undertake worship in the temple. He did not oppose the adharma of the politician and businessman of promoting consumption because he was himself engrossed in that same adharma. Rather the monk was more interested in renting out the premises of his ashram to a disco owner. Religion's control on society has collapsed not because of social evils. Religion was made to control this very social evil. Rather, religions control over society has collapsed because the priests have failed to follow their own dharma of connecting with their heart and controlling their mind. One result of this is that the politicians create rift between religions. Priests of various religions bicker with each other because that helps them fulfill their desires of consumption.

Solution to this problem will be obtained from internal cleansing of the religious priests. They will have to connect with their hearts. Then they will spontaneously connect with the priests of other religions just as two unknown passengers wanting to travel by the same train spontaneously become friends and assist each other in carrying their baggage. The main problem is not conflict between religions. The main problem is that priests of all religions have disjointed with their own hearts. The inter-religious conflict is merely an outcrop of this deeper malaise.

Creating goodwill and cooperation among religions is absolutely necessary. But this will not happen until the priests first connect with their own hearts, i.e., undertake penance. Trying to create goodwill among religions will fail to create good social order just as friendship between two thieves does not control thefts.

Indeed, friendship between priests of different religions, who are all engrossed in consumption, will make things worse. With mutual conflict pervading their discourse, they at least expose the consumption of the other. Even this will stop. Cooperation between the state and religion, or construction of a theocratic state, will likewise make things worse. The materialist politician and materialist priest will together wreck havoc on the society as Christian crusades, Hindu cleansing of Buddhists and Islamic Jihad have done.

The only solution is for the best of society-priests and otherwise-to undertake penance and connect with their inner self, their soul or their heart. Then they will be able to oppose adharmic consumption and also make true friendship with other religions.

Author's address: bharatj@sancharnet.in