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Friday, May 06, 2016

The history of consumerism and Chinese philosophy

The history of consumerism and Chinese philosophy | Podcast | History Extra

"The sheer volume and the consequences of consumption on the environment, on people's well-being, on society and politics. But at the same time this debate is very focused on the present, as if this is a phenomenon that really only got going after the Second World War in the era of high growth. And I think that's wrong. Factually wrong and also politically and socially a little bit irresponsible. And we need to get to grips with this much longer history...

A very simple view that many people carry about history and the past... today we are a society blessed or cursed by affluence and that consequently people in the past must have been poor and lived miserable lives. So there's a very characteristic idea, popular, not just the social sciences but many commentators which contrasts our current society where we have a lot of discretionary income, we can spend on frivolities if we want or luxuries, to compare that with earlier societies which are marked to be traditional societies where people just are pre-occupied with satisfying their needs. So putting food on the table and having a roof over the head. That's of course a very very simple and naive view of history and the historical process. So in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period, we already have - not just very rich people but also artisans spending on items that are not strictly speaking necessary. So, musical instruments, paintings, books, ornaments, fine tableware, comfortable bedding and things like that. So traditional society is really a misnomer. In the sense that we see the desire for material possessions much much earlier...

Commentators and people who think about these questions haven't been exposed to history... Germans tend to be seen as extremely clean and tidy people but one generation ago, men and women only changed their underwear every 2 or 3 days...

[On Chinese philosophy] It wouldn't even have been on talent, it would have been on hard work and effort, like how much you studied. In fact, the last philosopher in the book, Shunzi, was explicitly about not about assuming that everything is natural but everything can be worked on, including yourself and your own capabilities. So the exams, the exam system in China really was a measure of how hard you worked at studying to prepare for the exam... it was about testing how well you can sense certain different ethical situations. But basically how good a human being you were at understanding that there's no sort of black and white set of rules that, or an ethical code of conduct that everyone must follow. But that life is complex and human relationships are complex. And that the best bureaucrat is someone who can sense all this and work with it in an effective way...

'Buddhism and mindfulness, which is very popular now, they really are about this doctrine of no self, and yet in the West it's often been appropriated in the service of the self. In the service of finding yourself. And our book, the message of our book is explicitly against the modern day mantra to find yourself and look within and be true to yourself because for these Chinese philosophers that would have been the very opposite of what you needed to do to become a human being who's growing and cultivating yourself and becoming a better person all the time'

'And do you think in a way that Buddhism that perhaps many of us might know in the West is really a product of Western culture in the post-war period rather than actually of India 2.5 thousand years ago?'

'I think it very much is. I think there's also a sort of dangerous tendency to romanticise a lot of aspects of non-Western cultures and especially Buddhism has been exoticised and romanticised in a way as sort of, it's seen as a sort of antidote to the avaricious West. And that's not really seeing it as what it is or what it was. Of course we can adapt philosophies but we have to know, I think, we're doing that. We have to know what we're working with and not pass it off as something true to what the original ideas were'

So much for the Marxist conceit of Late Capitalism
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