Spiritual Capitalism

First, it Wanted Your Body. Then, Your Heart. Now, Capitalism Wants Your Soul.

Mindfulness training, meditation workshops, consciousness seminars. A generation ago, you’d have to visit a hippie bookstore to locate some. Nowadays, just head to your nearest corporate campus. They’re all the rage. In many organizations, they’re becoming not just trendy — but mandatory. Welcome to the rise of what I’ll call spiritual capitalism.

There’s a cynical way to see all this. First, capitalism wanted to exploit people’s physical labor. Then, their emotional labor. Put on a happy face on despite the fact that you’d never be able to educate your kids, retire, or have decent healthcare. Smile that rictus grin, or else. It’s just part of the job.

Now, capitalism wants your soul. Not just your heart, or your body. Capitalism run by and for capitalists, not society, eats everything, remember?

Let’s think about it for a moment. What do the workers of the future really have left, the “millennials”? Not money, that’s for sure. Savings, incomes, assets. Nor do we really have hearts left to sell, passion, fire, heat. We don’t care about selling shit. We’re mostly just trying to drown ourselves in a warm bath of digital noise, irony and memes, to dull the fatiguing pain of not having futures. All we really have left is our souls. Our empathy, gentleness, grace, courage, inner wisdom.

What’s a soul worth? Let me ask that question backwards. What does capitalism want with our souls, anyways?

There’s a not so cynical way to think about spiritual capitalism. Treated reverently, carefully, with delicacy and grace, maybe capitalism needs a little bit of spirit in it. People who are grounded, humble, empathetic are probably going to be able to (shudder, I’m going to have to use the word) “innovate”. Not in the bullshit corporate sense of: “churning out yet more disposable lowest-common-denominator junk that wrecks people’s lives”. But in the authentic sense of creating breakthroughs that really improve people’s lives.

It takes a working soul to really transform lives, to give life, to affirm life. So the upside of spiritual capitalism, if there is one, is that maybe, just maybe, there will be more room, space, inspiration, creativity, fuel for bigger, better, truer breakthroughs. And less to do what doesn’t matter. Lord knows we’ve devoted several decades, a generation or three, and trillions to that, right?

Let’s take a recent example. Mylan’s EpiPen. How does anyone with a working soul take the lives of kids by omission? The answer’s pretty simple: they don’t. A working soul would either a) prevent you from doing so b) preclude you from getting into this nasty business or c) give the damn things away for free. So if there is an upside to spiritual capitalism, maybe we’ll see less EpiPen scandal, and more authentic value creation.

But there’s a third possibility, too.

Maybe the Mylans of the world hire their Mindfulness Consultants (TM) once they’ve ruined a few thousand families forever, to ease (or erase) the gruelling psychic pain of having done so, by learning how to shut off their minds.

It’s a good match, right? Capitalism’s in a desperate place. It’s broken, returns dwindling. And the more desperate, savage, monstrous capitalism gets in its quest for dwindling shareholder returns, the more extreme the tactics it has to use. Hence, constant waves of scandal.

Dwindling returns, brutal tactics. And so the more extreme strategies capitalism needs to find to deal with the severe psychic pain, some might say deep-seated trauma, that employing such violence inevitably has on the very perpetrators, not just the victims. If you’re going to make a few people rich by making a large number of people broken, then you’re going to suffer a great deal of guilt, remorse, anger, self-loathing. So what better than the learning how to shut off the mind entirely? If you can tap the existential off button after a long day of screwing people out of their futures, then who needs a therapist…a raise…a bonus…a way out?

Are mindfulness and meditation nothing more than the post-modern equivalent of selling indulgences to robber barons? Then spiritual capitalism is probably even more of a failure at creating real social value, progress, benefit, than the emotional capitalism preceded it. Forget the free snacks. Those are so 2015. The latest corporate perk? Head to the nearest Meditation Retreat to purify your soul after you’ve done something truly harmful, shameful, shudder-inducing in the name of the bottom line.

Hence, the now-mandatory spiritual work is a way to license behavior that would otherwise be too repugant for your average middle manager to bear. You can’t always beat people or tempt people into doing more and more horrible things, or maybe you can, but it’s damned inefficient to have to—far easier to just purify them on assembly lines of self-detachment. That way, spiritual capitalism can get the very worst from everyone, at the lowest price — and spiritual capital is a reservoir of techniques, mechanisms, tools, that are being built to essentially morally cleanse profound social harm.

Maybe both of these are true, though. Perhaps spiritual capitalism will at once create more fertile soil for breakthroughs, and also license even worse behavior from organizations. That would be fitting for this age of extremes, right?

As ever, the choice is up to us.

Washington, DC
August 2016