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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

Capitalism, Communitarianism, Contradictions and Cosmic Consciousness

Capitalism: A system that incentivizes productivity, transactional relationships, competition, efficiency, and consumption

Communitarianism: A system that values traditions and relationships based on feelings, sometimes at the cost of candor

Contradictions: Life is grayer than we’d like

Cosmic Consciousness: An external reality and inner possibility

A Young Capitalist

In 1954. I made my first investment in stock 1957. I was 13 years old. A man I sat next to on an airplane told me about his company, American Maize. He was working on a way to use a liquid version of corn as an alternative to plastic to coat vegetables for sale in grocery stores. I liked the idea. A year or so earlier I’d read How to Buy Stocks, a book that was distributed for free by Merrill-Lynch, and I used savings from various gifts and a little bit of work to buy the stock.

Engaging in “high finance,” even at the age of 13, came naturally to me.

My family owned a furniture store in Louisville KY.

Source: R.G. Potter Collection

The Sales Furniture Company was always overshadowed by the beautiful Bensinger’s furniture store building next door, and even today, 60+ years after its closing, I still find it necessary to point out that our store stretched over three buildings while Bensinger’s was contained in only one.

Yet another aspect of my competitiveness that one would think I would outgrow!

In any event, I grew up in a small business owning context. In fact, in the six generations my family has lived in the United States, entrepreneurship has been a constant theme. So, it seemed completely natural for me to develop an interest in the financial markets. That interest (and my family’s relatively privileged circumstances) led me to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where I had every intention of become a securities analyst and investment advisor.

I did that kind of work over the summers while at school and for a year thereafter.

A Conspiracy of Circumstances

However, Ho Chi Minh, Dr. King, the Kennedy Brothers, and Bob Dylan seemed to gang up on me as the 60s unfolded, and they’ve never let me go.

Ho had the audacity to beat the bejeezus out of the USA, which was murdering thousands of people in a place called Vietnam where it had no business being and upended my life plans.

Source: Nick Ut
Even though that racist assassinated him, Dr. King walked right through that door labeled “Segregation Now! Segregation Tomorrow! Segregation Forever!” and became a model to me of what a real man looks like.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
George Wallace Standing in the Schoolhouse Door

Every time I listen to John and Bobby Kennedy speak in my mind’s ear, I moan at the thought of the future America was denied by those “murders most foul.”

Dion sums up the way I feel about those three martyrs (and another one) in Abraham, Martin & John.

Mix in the abracadabra of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and Dylan taking me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind with all the other turbulence of that era, and, Shazam!, you get an Anthropocean, who carries the name given to him at birth but finds himself a long way from the furniture store he used to call home.

Like many others, I’ve bathed in a variety of streams that all seem to pour into and then out of the same head. I’ve learned from each of them. They bang and jangle and harmonize with each other. I’m trying to put my reflections on the various elements together into something that’s relevant to being in the Anthropocene.

The Banality of Capitalism and the Heart of Communitarianism

Realizing that the United States was as willing to make me and hundreds of thousands of other young men cannon fodder in 1968 just as Putin is today with young boys on Ukraine’s killing fields made me a harsh critic of capitalism.

The core of winner-take-all capitalism is rotten. Everything is commoditized. Everything has a price, and everyone has h/er price. Every action is instrumental toward some other objective. All relationships are transactional. Nothing is valued for what it is in and of itself. Nothing is stable, immutable, timeless, sacred.

Or, as that great admirer of capitalism, Ronald Reagan, once said in advocating for the clear cutting of a majestic red wood forest, A tree is a tree. How many trees do you need to see?!” *

Communitarianism predated capitalism.

In Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft one of the founders of sociology, Ferdinand Tönnies contrasted the “natural will to act cooperatively” as characteristic of traditional communities (Gemeinschaft) with the “rational will” to act in pursuit of a specific end, which characterizes the “strictly business” orientation of capitalism (Gesellschaft). #
Ferdinand Tönnies

These concepts weren’t taught at the Wharton School I went to, or, if they were, I never retained them, but I pursued communitarianism with a born-again fervor when I moved to the Haight-Asbury in 1968, and I’ve never abandoned it. But I have also come to recognize its romanticism, naïvité, and its limits to learning and growth.

Many books, memoirs, articles, films, podcasts, websites etc. have been written, made and created about the Haight-Ashbury, and I will not recount my experiences there and in other parts of the Bay Area over the course of 8 years here in any detail. That said, it was the greatest experience of solidarity that I have known. The scope of curiosity and inquiry was vast, including, but not limited to:

  • an intense interest in mysticism, the occult, religious studies and magic

  • an obsession with listening to, creating and performing music and many other artistic modes of expression

  • naturopathic medicine and natural foods

  • organic farming

  • counter-culture economics

  • gender fluidity and sexual experimentation

  • social and racial equality

  • new forms of journalism and social science, and

  • particle physics

Mediocrities and haters like Ron DeSantis, Marjorie Taylor Green and Alex Jones who mouth off constantly and belligerently about “Freedom!” wouldn’t have lasted a week in the Haight’s culture.

My friend, Barton Kunstler, wrote The Hot House Effect about periods in history where

across many centuries and an enormous range of cultures, certain communities have stood out as bastions of creativity and intellectual progress. From ancient Athens to the vibrant American jazz scene of the 20th century, these seemingly disparate enclaves share a set of defining characteristics … factors that drove their unusual creative fervor.

For a brief period of three or five years – depending on who’s counting – the Haight was such a place. Hundreds of thousands have been baptized in the waters of its psyche, culminating in its quintessential, ultimate and, perhaps, final, orgasmic expression across the American continent at Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.

The impresario, Bill Graham, built the Haight-Ashbury’s greatest shrine, the Fillmore West. He once described Jerry Garcia, the founder and leader of The Grateful Dead as someone “who epitomized what the utopia that never was and never will be is.” For me, the Haight, while obviously imperfect, was a much-needed antidote to the impersonality of mindless capitalism with the imperialistic wars and colonial occupations that always accompany its acquisitive and deadly rationality. The utopianism of the Haight’s tribe exercised great power over people like me. We’d had enough.

Jerry Garcia (Photo: Frank Mastropolo)
Billy Graham (Photo via Skirball Cultural Center)

The Limits to Learning in Communitarian Societies

As documented in a variety of studies of utopian and revolutionary moments, including my doctoral thesis, the intensity of the utopian flame like that burnt so brightly in the Haight did not and probably could not last. One for all and all for one is a great feeling, but it doesn’t reliably put food on the table. Undying love and BFF connections are more situationally dependent than one might realize upon entering into them.

A friend of mine said that “there is plenty wrong with capitalism, but it is the system that most closely approximates human nature.” Human beings are both self-interested and public spirited. These sentiments can be miscible, forming a uniquely homogeneous mixture when added together into the character of everyone in myriad variations. Capitalism can disappoint, but it has its merits:

  • the establishment of units of value (e.g., greenbacks) and financial institutions (e.g., banks) lubricate transactions between strangers

  • market structures facilitate the dependable exchange of goods and services, credit mechanisms that enable innovation

  • insurance protects risk takers from catastrophic losses

  • operational efficiency that promote safe and predictable manufacture and delivery of products,

  • considered from a utilitarian perspective, many/most of the other mechanisms of capitalism when mixed together with governmental oversight and regulation based on compassion have a better record of providing quality goods and services at the lowest price to the maximum number of people than systems that attempts to guarantee specific results by over-controlling the marketplace.

If one is fortunate enough to experience a period of passionate solidarity (such as I did) it may well shape one’s sense of justice and hope for life. It may cause one to feel bonded to certain types of people and causes forever. On the other hand, righteous idealism can be fragile.

Strong family, friendship and community ties frequently have a mutual and self-protective substrate. Difficult conversations are often avoided. Learning is sacrificed in the name of caring that is actually an undiscussable codependency. Alliances that seemed so permanent fracture easily when the context that surrounded those relationships shifts and new realities emerge.

Chaotic Cosmic Consciousness in the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is generating new truths at an impossibly furious pace. The invention of the Gutenberg press in 1439 is considered by many to have been an inflection point in human history. Information that was once possessed only by a small elite became widely distributed. One might legitimately say that new “Bibles” – new articles of truth – are being minted almost daily in the unfolding of this magical and often terrifying era, which has only just begun.

Take cosmic consciousness.

The cover of Stuart Brand’s groundbreaking publication of The Whole Earth Catalog in 1970 featured a shot of Earth from space. Conceptually, humanity had known for some time that the physical universe was a lot larger than we could feel, but seeing the Earth as it is seen from outside our atmosphere created a new type of consciousness. Humanity no longer had the idea of our planet existing in space as an idea, a concept. It was now a palpable fact. Those images gave all Earthlings cosmic consciousness as an incontrovertible truth, not as a mental construct.

Just as the shift from a geocentric version of the universe to a heliocentric one shook our perceptions of our place in the order of things in the mid-16th century, so are the views we hold of ourselves today being rattled to their very foundation by the lightning-fast discoveries and that are commonplace in the Anthropocene.

For example, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is transmitting images back to Earth that appear to be overturning everything we were once sure of regarding the age and history of the universe:

The telescope spied galaxies from between 500 to 700 years million years after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, meaning the universe was under five percent of its current age…One galaxy is even believed to have around 100 billion stars. That would make [these galaxies] around the size of the Milky Way, which is "crazy," [according to] the study's first author, Ivo Labbe. It took our home galaxy the entire life of the universe for all its stars to assemble. "According to theory, galaxies grow slowly from very small beginnings at early times," Labbe said, adding that such galaxies were expected to be between 10 to 100 times smaller.

A JWST shot from deep space that has science deeply perplexed

What could be going on? One suspect is mysterious dark matter, which makes up a sizeable amount of the Universe. When dark matter "clumps" together into a halo, it attracts gas from the surrounding universe which in turn forms a galaxy and its stars, Labbe said.

But this process is supposed to take a long time, and "in the early universe, there's just not that many clumps of dark matter," he said.

Labbe referred to the "black swan theory", under which just one unexpected event can overturn [all] previous understanding—such as when Europeans saw the first black swans in Australia.

He called the galaxies:

"six black swans—if even one of them turns out to be true, then it means we have to change our theories…. the model is cracking."
Is the Big Bang Passé?! (Source: Agence France-Presse)

In other words, astrophysics and quantum physics are simultaneously blowing what we think we know about the physical world to bits.

Human survival depends upon our inner state of consciousness going through a transformation comparable to what science and technology are presenting to us as truth to cope with the pace of change in a way that will preserve our distinctive abilities to feel, think and create. Without a thoroughgoing internal awakening, it seems likely that humanity will be succeeded by a coldly rational robots equipped with an intelligence that will enable them to endure a future that humans could not.

People have employed practices such as meditation for millennia to create an inner space that is at home in whatever reality outer conditions might dish out. Psychotropics such as LSD and psylocibin can accelerate the process of seeing, feeling and accepting that one has only an infinitesimal place in a vastness of being that is completely out of mortal control and yet know peace. A “good trip” has much in common with the spiritual awakening and sense of belongingness that scores of thousands have cited over the eons of human history.

Dreams are another avenue to the inner awareness and state of consciousness needed to exist in the Anthropocene. Most people don’t remember or record their dreams and some scientists dismiss dreams as nothing more than electrical brain impulses that pull random thoughts and imagery from our memories.” However, one can develop the discipline to capture many dreams. Doing so, one encounters entities I experience as master teachers in the unconscious. It’s not a straightforward process and, from my perspective, one is almost always like The Fool who sets out on the journey described by The Tarot. But steady attention to the story of one’s self as presented in one’s dreams and to the validity of the dreamscape’s existence is also a pathway to the kind of inner cosmic consciousness needed to thrive in the outer one the Anthropocene is revealing.


* According to many professional reporters in attendance at the event.

# The experience of Blacks in America constitutes a tragic illustration of what happens when communitarians are thrown into a capitalist context. Millions were kidnapped from their homes, enslaved, and then “freed” only to be told during Reconstruction, “Okay, now you’re free. We, the folks who hold almost all of the power and wealth in this society, still think you’re subhuman and unworthy of education or the right to vote, but you now have a degree of legal equality. Therefore, we have every right to expect you to jump into a system you had no role in creating, to compete with your betters, play according to the rules that are already in place, and STFU.” Talk about crazy-making! (See Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: The Unfinished American Revolution for a an exhaustive and heart wrenching discussion of this pitiful history.) Of course, the West has brought this same supremacist rationality to many other peoples of the world, which is one of the key reasons the Anthropocene is in such bad shape. That isn’t to say that other cultures and systems don’t have their problems. They certainly do, but that’s no excuse for arrogant capitalism’s rape of so many societies and their peoples.

Barry Oshry Power and Systems research provides both conceptual insights and specific. Illustrations of the impact that systemic spaces have on the creation and/or the dismemberment of community.

I was following along nicely up to this point. While I, of course, know about Dr King and his work, this sentence doesn’t fit with the flow of the piece. Unfortunately he three in the song are overlapping but different than those you’ve cited.

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