What would happen if capital were not an economic phenomenon but a philosophical and existential one instead? Many economists think this is absurd or pointless, but if we examined it we might find new ways of understanding our contemporary aberration, consumerism. Christian Arnsperger, a Belgian economist, philosopher and lecturer of Economic Ethics at the University of Leuven, makes his case in lectures, interviews and books such as Criticism of Capitalist Existence. Capitalism is based on the impossible delusion that we can overcome our mortal condition, the origin of our existential anguish.
Arnsperger’s basic question is: Do our deeds, carried out in the name of economic rationality, in fact conceal our anguish of existential finitude? He shows that consumer anxiety is based on the unconscious belief that the more is left for us to consume, the more time we’ll have to do so. When we get into debt buying more things and services, without being aware of what we really need, we get the idea that as long as we have those debts our creditors won’t let us die. This also applies to what characterises our economic system, i.e., competition and success: the winners live and the losers die, and much the same happens to the achievers and the unsuccessful. Fundamentally, however, the system and the cultural mindset themselves determine the meaning of winning and losing, of success and failure.
For everything to work out, Arnsperger says, the anguish over mortality musn’t stop, so the system itself feeds the anxiety that makes it thrive. This could explain why there are so many successful people who are anxious and so many winners who are unhappy. Moreover, if there isn’t enough triumph and success for everyone and the theory of scarcity supports this system, there’s neither time nor room to look after other people, or to be aware of their existence, their needs or even their importance for our own existence. Arnsperger clearly points out that there’s neither a way ‘to share our mortality’, nor to see ourselves as mortals, or to be cooperative, sympathetic and compassionate to find out (from our non-transferrable uniqueness) if a meaningful life is possible, if we use strategies derived from a fake rationality that conceal fear of mortality, in a silent and unavoidable desperation to endlessly extend our future. Technology’s never-ending and improbable promises about a future without disease, effort, work or suffering prove this. The race has started and people just have to reach the end. Allegedly, the more the people consume, the closer they’re to the end (which will keep moving forward).
As this view shows, the rationality of economic activity is paradoxically inspired by an existential irrational fear. Capital claims that we are primarily producers and consumers. However, Arnsperger states we are givers and receivers (chiefly of respect, care, cooperation, listening and love). It means we are relational beings. The rat-race towards triumph, success and hoarding (based on a wrong idea, i.e., that in so doing we ensure our future) undermines this inner nature and promotes anxiety. The economy that was meant to free us, ends up alienating us. To oppose this, Arnsperger says, we should be relational entrepreneurs. In other words, we should unite what the system separates and substitute cooperation for competition.