From the Three M’s of Capitalism to the Three M’s of Buddhism: Reorganizing Our Way of Life for Environmental Sustainability, Social Justice and Individual Wellbeing

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The Three M’s of Capitalism: Capitalism, as a social system, organizes individual economic actions based on the private ownership of capital employed in the production of goods and services and the market exchange of goods and services thus produced. Invented in Europe in the late fifteenth century, capitalism has become a global system whose influence, crossing national borders, now affect the lives of all the people around the world. What is behind the amazing growth and expansion of capitalism in the last several centuries is the logic that drives capitalism as a way of life. That logic that drives capitalism as a way of life can be characterized by the three M’s of “maximization,” “manipulation,” and “misconception.”

Whether one is a producer or a consumer, the goal of individual behavior in capitalistic economies can be characterized by “maximization.” Thus, a producer tries to maximize profits to be gained by producing goods and services and selling them in competitive markets. A consumer, on the other hand, ties to maximize satisfaction to be obtained by purchasing these goods and services and consuming them. The goal of “maximization” applies to the individual behavior of other economic agents in capitalistic economies as well such as investors, wholesalers, retailers, and moneylenders. While it is clear that such universal pursuit of “maximization” places a severe burden on the carrying capacity of Mother Earth, capitalism as a social system of organizing individual economic actions does not have a built-in system of checks and balances that would prevent the depletion and degradation of material resources in the natural environment. What makes the situation worse is that the individual behavior of economic agents who pursue the goal of “maximization” is treated as rational behavior in standard textbooks of economics as the model of rational “economic man.”

The way economic agents, especially those who possess capital, go about conducting their economic activities can be characterized by the word, “manipulation.” Thus, “manipulation” appears in the exploitative relationship between management and labor in the production of goods and services where the lives of many individuals as workers are manipulated by a small number of individuals who are rich and powerful as the owners of capital. Besides humans, information, too, becomes an object of manipulation in that deceptive, even false, information is employed to artificially stimulate consumer demand for goods and services. Most importantly, the small number of rich and powerful capitalists accumulates their wealth by the manipulation of financial markets such as collusion and insider information to gain advantage over others, leading to the instability of financial markets.

The third M of the three M’s of capitalism, “misconception,” refers to the misconception, or the misguided view, of the true nature of reality of our existence in the universe perpetuated in capitalistic economies. For the proponents of capitalism, the universe is nothing but the reservoir of material resources called natural capital that can be exploited to improve the material standards of living for us humans. Improving the material standards of living is regarded as important because of another “misconception” that human progress is measured by the continual expansion and growth of material products, on which human wellbeing is said to depend. This kind of materialistic outlook on life, namely, the view that human progress is measured by the continual improvement in the material standards of living, is a “misconception” of the true nature of the universe in that the carrying capacity of Mother Earth as the reservoir of material resources is not limitless but finite. Capitalism is also based on another “misconception” regarding the interdependent nature of our social relationships, turning them into antagonistic relationships subject to “manipulation.” Most importantly, capitalism as a way of life suffers from a “misconception” of the true nature of us humans in that our wellbeing is conceived only in material terms, with the spiritual aspect of human existence contributing nothing, if any, to it.

In short, capitalism is a system that operates on the presumption that everything in the universe is capital of one form or another: natural, social or human. Thus, everything in the universe becomes an object of private ownership, a source of making profits, and an instrument of gaining wealth and power.

From the Buddhist perspective, capitalism as a way of life is indeed a system that is built on the three poisons of “greed,” “hatred,” and “delusion.” As the Buddha reminds us, “Greed, hatred, and delusion of every kind are unwholesome. Whatever action a greedy, hating, and deluded person heaps up—by deeds, words, or thoughts—that too is unwholesome.” (Anguttara Nikaya, 3:69) While the Buddha was not talking about a specific kind of society when he uttered these words, it is clear that the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion capture very well the deeds, words and thoughts of economic agents in capitalistic economies.

The Three M’s of Buddhism: How can we turn the three poisons of capitalism, as represented by the Three M’s of “maximization,” “manipulation,” and “misconception,” into wholesome actions of our body, speech and mind through which we interact with the universe and the world around us? Here the insights of Buddhism offer some hints as to how we may accomplish this task of turning unwholesome actions into wholesome actions. To begin with, the universe, to the Buddhists, is not the reservoir of material resources that we can exploit to satisfy our greed for goods and services. Rather, it is the ground for our very existence as a species, defined by the intricate web of causes and conditions that give birth to and support all sentient beings as well as inanimate objects. The proper attitude towards the universe is therefore that of the middle way between extreme abundance and extreme abnegation in all of our economic activities, including consumption and production. In other words, what we need is “moderation,” not “greed,” in our relationship with the universe, or the natural environment, in view of the finite carrying capacity of Mother Earth, on whose viability as a living system the life of us humans depends. “Moderation” is thus the first M of Buddhism as a way of life.

As social animals, we humans communicate with each other with “speech,” which can be unwholesome or wholesome depending on the way we choose our words. In order to promote wholesome relationships among members of human communities, what we need is not “hatred,” that leads to “manipulation,” but “loving-kindness,” or “mutuality.”

Though the world “mutuality” is also employed as a formal language of law in some contexts, what is implied by “mutuality” here is the kind of human relationship that is based on mutual respect among members of a social organization, be it a family or a business enterprise. “Mutuality” is thus the second M of Buddhism as a way of life.

The world with which we humans interact includes the spiritual world of our ideas, images, and thoughts. This is where “delusion,” or “misconception,” comes in, which prevents us from seeing the true nature of reality in the world around us. In order to see the true nature of reality, we need to develop “mindfulness.” Mindfulness, or awareness, must be developed and cultivated so that we can see every thing as it truly is, starting with breathing, the very act that makes our life possible in the first place. Starting with the awareness of breathing, we can develop and cultivate the capacity to see the true nature of reality and thereby attain liberation, as the Buddha reminds Ananda with the following words: “Concentration by mindfulness of breathing, Ananda, is the one thing which, when developed and cultivated, fulfills the four establishments of mindfulness. The four establishments of mindfulness, when developed and cultivated, fulfill the seven factors of enlightenment. The seven factors of enlightenment, when developed and cultivated, fulfill true knowledge and liberation.” (Samyutta Nikaya 54:13) Fulfilling true knowledge and liberation lead us to wellbeing by liberating us from attachment to the worldly conditions such as wealth and power. Thus, “mindfulness” is the third M of Buddhism as a way of life.

How do we make the transition? In view of all the problems associated with capitalism such as the environmental degradation, the social tension that stems from the income disparity between rich capitalists that comprise only 0.1 percent of the total population and the rest of us, and the inherent instability of financial markets, it is clear that the three M’s of capitalism need to be replaced by the three M’s of Buddhism. To do so, however, is not an easy task, for we have to break down the walls of vested interests that protect those rich and powerful capitalists whose wealth and power have been accumulated through the three M’s of capitalism.

In a way, the third M of “mindfulness” is the most comprehensive M of Buddhism as a way of life in that “mindfulness” about the Buddhist Dharma includes both the first M of “moderation” and the second M of “mutuality.” Thus, spreading the message of “mindfulness” would be the first step we can take towards developing the three M’s of Buddhism—from family life to community life, from business organizations to educational organizations. Preaching to the choir, or the sangha, is not the main intension behind writing this short essay, for Buddhist practitioners around the world are already familiar with the need for a fundamental change in our outlook on life if we are to avoid the catastrophic outcome that awaits the blind pursuit of the three M’s of capitalism. Some academic economists are also waking up to the need for such a fundamental change and exploring the possibility of developing an alternative paradigm to standard textbook economics by incorporating insights from the Buddhist dharma (See, for example, Brown, Clair, Buddhist Economics: An Enlightened Approach to the Dismal Science, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, and Magnuson, Joel, From Greed to Well-Being A Buddhist Approach to Resolving Our Economic and Financial Crises, Chicago: Policy Press, 2016). For us Buddhist practitioners, the key question is how we can translate our practice into an effective venue for developing and cultivating mindful individuals and institutions to spread the three M’s of Buddhism.