I wonder whether Bernie Sanders realizes that he is not really seeking the presidency — he is after the American soul. The soul of America is consumerism, and the fact that the top 1/10 of 1% owns as much as the bottom 90% is consistent with a culture in which consuming more and more material wealth is fundamental to who we are. He is rejecting who we are as a culture. How can he possibly win with that attitude?
There was a story recently about a man who sold his child for $500, so that he could buy an Apple Watch. I am not sure if the story is true, but it is not surprising. In modern culture, our self-identity is based on the idea, “I consume therefore I am.” This has replaced the Cartesian maxim, “I think therefore I am.” We are so identified with our stuff that, without it, we are nothing. We seek stuff to make ourselves happy, and Apple is in the business of giving us the best stuff.
We have an innate desire to seek happiness; and being happy, we want to be even happier. About 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught that we could attain perfect happiness by following an eightfold path that involved meditation and other practices. His teachings are still alive and there are many buddhas (awakened ones) walking the earth right now, who have attained the summit of human happiness. Lao Tzu and Jesus brought similar messages of an ability to find perfect happiness (enlightenment/salvation) while still walking the Earth. These messages never took hold in the West.
In the West, the message of Jesus was transformed into one where we have to wait for happiness. For thousands of years, Western religion has promised happiness in the afterlife, if we keep our noses sufficiently clean in this life. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that we will know perfect happiness only when we attain union with God. The hope of happiness brought by organized Western religion was not as good as that taught by the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Jesus; but at least it was in the right direction. It was still a message of spiritual happiness — which is the only true happiness.
Now, even Western religion is starting to lose the faith. Turn on a broadcast of a megachurch on Sunday, and you may hear the message, “Join the Jesus team, and you will get what you pray for.” The purpose of religion is devolving into a plea for “stuff” to make us happy.
Until recently, the common people did not have much in the way of material wealth, so when they sought happiness, they sought it inside of themselves, they looked to God, or they looked to friends and family. Happiness was a loving family or a good story told beside a fire. We made ourselves happy. Happiness did not arrive “next day” from Amazon, in the form of a new electronic gadget.
Here’s the thing. What you have can never make you happy. You make yourself happy. Focusing on acquiring “things” to make yourself happy sets you up for being both unhappy and lonely. As you focus more and more on what you have and what you want, you separate yourself from those around you. As you build a wall around you and your things, you close yourself off from others, and you experience the pain and unhappiness of loneliness.
In the 1980s, 20% of Americans reported themselves as being lonely. Now the number is 40%. Apple Corp, which was formed around 1980, is a shining symbol of the consumerism that may be creating this loneliness. As loneliness has increased, so has the size of Apple.
Bernie Sanders decries the disparity in wealth between people, especially between races. He is not wrong. But, this disparity is the logical result of a culture that desperately wants to be happy, and knows only one way to do it: by acquiring and consuming more and more
Now the top 1/10 of 1% owns as much as the bottom 90%. Eventually they may own as much as the bottom 99.9%. This seems inevitable. If they believe that to be happy they must have more, then they will get more. They certainly have the power to do so; and the desperate need to be happy gives them the will.
It will not end well. Our trajectory is more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer. At some point there will be a new paradigm, a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of trying to be happy. Until then, we have to see consumerist madness through to its logical end.