World After Capital: Freedom from Wanting

This post is by Continuations by Albert Wenger from Continuations by Albert Wenger

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NOTE: Today’s excerpt from World After Capital is the first subsection in the chapter on psychological freedom. It deals with freeing ourselves from wanting as a crucial part of exiting the Job Loop.

Freedom from Wanting

With the extraordinary success of capitalism built on the Job Loop, we have become deeply confused about work and consumption, seeing them today as integral goals of our lives instead of as means to an end. Working harder and consuming more allows the economy to grow, so that we can work harder and consume more. Put this way it sounds crazy and yet that has become the default position. We in fact went so far as to rework religion to deeply ingrain this view by moving away from a great chain of being theology to a protestant ethic, which actively encourages earning more. [118]. Similar changes have taken place not just in the Western but throughout Asia where Confucianism and other religions have undergone similar changes.

Worse yet, we frequently find ourselves trapped in so-called positional consumption. If our neighbor has bought a new car, we want to buy an even newer and more expensive model. Such positional consumption behavior has emerged not just with respect to goods but also to services—think of the $1,000 haircut [119] or the $595 per-person dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant in Manhattan [121]. Of course, much of this confusion was fueled by trillions of dollars of advertising spend aimed at convincing us to buy more and more and more by showing us images of how cool or happy we will be. Between economic policy, advertising and religion it is no wonder that many people are by now convinced that wanting ever more material things is simply part of human nature.

But that is not so. Instead our addiction to consumption is exactly that: an addiction that exploits a basic mechanism in the brain. When you desire something like a new car, your brain gets a hit of dopamine based on your anticipated happiness from having it, making you feel good. Yet once you actually get the car, you compare this to to your prior expectations. If the reward from having the car turns out to be less than what you expected, your dopamine levels will decrease and this can cause extreme disappointment. If your expectations are met, dopamine levels will stay basically constant. But only if your expectations are greatly exceeded will you get another big hit of dopamine. The unfortunate result of this is known as the “hedonic treadmill.” That is, when your brain gets accustomed to certain levels of dopamine (having a new car), you inadvertently boost the levels of dopamine required in the future to produce the same feeling of happiness. You’ll have to raise your expectations for an even more expensive or faster car to get that initial kick of dopamine again [120].

That same mechanism though works for many other forms of anticipation or seeking that are aimed at creation or experience, instead of consumption. As an artist or scientist you can forever seek out new subjects. As a traveler you can forever seek out new destinations. As a surfer you can forever seek the perfect wave. And so on. Freedom from wanting is possible by recognizing that we can all point our brain away from consumption and towards other pursuits, many of which are part of the Knowledge Loop. Redirecting our reward mechanism does not mean giving up on all consumption. It simply re-establishes the lost difference between needs and wants: You need to eat; you may want to eat at a Michelin starred restaurant. You need to drink water; you may want to drink an expensive wine.

This is why Universal Basic Income (UBI) is focused on meeting needs, not wants. Once you are economically free to meet your needs and have psychologically freed yourself from wanting, you can direct your attention into the Knowledge Loop or other activities that allow for endless seeking.

Suppose your passion is skiing. You grew up with it, and as an adult you know that no activity helps you feel as alive as skiing. You want to keep seeking the perfect powder day. But skiing is expensive, is it not? How would a UBI ever let you focus your attention on it? On a UBI alone, without additional income, you definitely wouldn’t be able to afford an annual ski trip to the Swiss alps, including a stay at a luxurious lodge. But ski equipment is actually not very expensive when you consider that it can last for twenty years or more and can be shared with others. And if you’re willing to hike up a mountain, you can ski as much as you want without buying a lift ticket at an expensive resort.

Psychological freedom in this instance means freeing yourself of assumptions you might have about how to go skiing. In this it helps of course to remind yourself that many of these assumptions are formed by companies that have a commercial interest in portraying skiing that way. If you can learn to re-frame skiing as an outdoor adventure, a chance to be in nature, it isn’t expensive at all and is very much accessible under a basic income. A similar logic holds for any number of other activities a person might both wish to pursue.

To free ourselves from wanting, we should frequently remind ourselves of the difference between needs and wants, learn how our brain works and point our seeking away from consumption to (creative) activities. For many of us, myself included, that also means letting go of existing attachments to wants that we have developed over a long life of consumption. In that regard it is encouraging to see the current popularity of Marie Kondo’s critical examination of the stuff that we tend to accumulate. Finally, we should always cast a critical eye on the advertising and marketing we encounter, understanding how it often perpetuates illusions about needs and wants, keeping us trapped in the Job Loop.