“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” –James Baldwin
Scientists call our current period of planetary history the Anthropocene, the geological epoch where humans have become the most powerful force affecting the global ecosystem. We are also, not coincidentally, entering the 6th great extinction in our planet’s 4.4 billion year history. The ancient texts of India called it the Kali Yuga, the dark age of unconsciousness, shadow, and despair. Buddhists call this time “the degenerate age” because of the preponderance of great suffering and the denigration of compassion within society. The Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (commonly known as North America) invoke wetiko, the spirit of cannibalism that impels some humans to consume the living world.
Within this context, there is a growing contingent of people, especially within psychedelic communities, who argue that what’s needed is a more “conscious capitalism.” From Whole Foods to Tom’s Shoes, there’s an expanding choir arguing that our current model of free-market capitalism has brought vast wealth and abundance for humanity, but needs to alter its focus from profit extraction to more “sustainable” and “humane” approaches to growing the global economy.
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For those who have disproportionately benefited from the last 500 years of a globalizing capitalist force, animated by extrinsic values, it seems apparent that more of the same could only be better. After all, it was called the “Enlightenment.” How could more be worse?
Conscious capitalism is simultaneously more and better, like the economic equivalent of Diet Coke. Conscious capitalism’s role is to prop up the existing order by modifying its more minor attributes, while keeping its essential nature intact. It is the desperate strategy of a dying system trying to keep our thinking within the narrow band of logic that makes it appear inevitable and necessary. This entirely false belief is what gives us the license to act as if we can continue human activity as we have been. In fact, it tells us that the world will be better for it. It is a strategy of business as usual, with the addition of a moral incentive.
So if reformist approaches such as “conscious capitalism” are not going to help address our current crisis, what will? I do not claim to know the answer to this; however, I believe that our ability to identify, curate, co-create, and amplify antidotes and alternatives will be enhanced by adopting some shared guideposts. In that spirit, I offer three principles that may assist in our collective inquiry to midwife the better world we know is possible.
Disidentification from the Dominant System
What characterizes a counterculture is its explicit stance against a dominant culture. While the battle lines were clear in the Civil Rights movement or the anti-war movement protests of the 1960s, they have blurred in the era of capitalist modernity.
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The psychedelic movement (or more accurately movements) have a broad range of motivations and impulses that are rarely linked to social justice. Outside a shared political project or understanding, there is very little critique of the dominant culture. Timothy Leary’s prophetic plea of “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” holds very little weight in today’s psychedelic communities partly because no one knows what they are tuning into or dropping out from.
Many people in the psychedelic realm are aspiring tech entrepreneurs or Silicon Valley mavens. They believe capitalism—rather than human ingenuity—creates innovation, jobs, and “progress.” As a result, the breadth of ideas within the psychedelic discourse is astonishingly narrow because they’ve already situated themselves within a false construct. It is of no surprise then that ideas such as conscious capitalism have become popular among psychedelic communities.
Conscious capitalism is often dressed up in appealing euphemisms like social innovation, cultural entrepreneurship, green growth, financial inclusion, and impact investing. Although some truly believe in the power of these approaches, I would argue their bias stems from their privilege—and privilege is a blinding constraint.
Timothy Leary’s prophetic plea of “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” holds very little weight in today’s psychedelic communities partly because no one knows what they are tuning into or dropping out from.
It is hard to hold a truly structural, constellational worldview that takes into account a vast multitude of factors and perspectives required for deep social change, while benefiting from the current system. Conscious capitalism is an alibi and an apology for the existing paradigm.
Imagine a world where no one would have to toil as a wage slave, but the basic needs to thrive (food, shelter, transportation, healthcare, etc.) were provided by society. Imagine a world where every human had access to the privileges of Western spiritual communities: yoga, ayahuasca, ayurvedic diets, juice cleanses, qi gong, etc. We would have a social, cultural, and spiritual renaissance on this planet.
By identifying with capitalism or as capitalists, or by making the false link between capitalism and innovation, we are actively disparaging the 90 percent of humanity who are being tortured by the existing system; we are dishonoring the 200 species a day that go extinct because of our carbon-based, growth-dependent economy. Counter to what the establishment propaganda preaches, human ingenuity would actually flourish under a system that distributed its wealth more fairly, rewarded generosity, and created conditions for collective and individual healing.
Our existing globalized culture of capitalist modernity is held in place through the complicity of us all. The South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko once said, “the most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” In other words, the base station of capitalism is the human mind.
Deprogramming ourselves and decolonizing our minds is both a spiritual and political practice.
Deprogramming ourselves and decolonizing our minds is both a spiritual and political practice. It requires us to be good students of our culture. It demands that we understand the consequences of having a global economy that is required to grow at three percent every year. The implications of this is that we have to double the global output of human activity every twenty years. Exponential growth on a planet with finite resources is leading us toward collapse, yet our daily lives are structured around “more.”
In order to stop the damage of the current system, we must examine our existing values and how we lead our day-to-day lives. What are we consuming? Where does it come from? How do we treat each other? What is our relationship to our food? How do we interact with the natural world and more-than-human-life?
This is a constant practice of vigilance and a realm where psychedelics can play a critical role. After all, few things stoke the imperative to act as if one is interdependent with all other beings like the realization of oneness that psychedelics can engender; an experience that can also help us decide what aspects of our lives and privileges no longer serve us. There will be sacrifices that need to be made and consequences that need to be heeded. This is part of our maturity process as a species. This is a much more profound and personal inquiry than what the current cultural discourse has created space for. It is also precisely the type of deep inner work and deprogramming that psychedelic practices facilitate by allowing us to temporarily step outside our cultural conditioning.
The truth of ultimate oneness, however, can also be a trap if it is understood in a reductive or unskilled way. It requires careful examination and a subtle, ongoing practice to discern its true meaning and value for issues of societal change.
Transcending the Fear of Dualism
There is an unstated understanding within psychedelic communities, and the New Age more broadly, that the root of societal problems is the idea of “us versus them.” So much of the violence on this planet stems from othering and creating separation. Yet, by accepting this belief the result is often an abdication of personal responsibility and a refusal to engage in political processes. Many refuse to take a political stance out of fear of judgement—they believe that judgement creates duality.
Let’s look at this another way. Could it be that the fear of duality creates duality itself? As we have established, there is an existing system of capitalist modernity that is destroying life at an unprecedented rate and scale. Issues such as inequality, poverty and climate breakdown are not externalities or aberrations of the system—they are the logical outcome of the system’s rules, a system that turns every living thing into a commodity and resource to fuel more growth. By ignoring this reality we actually strengthen it.
Perhaps, part of what is happening on a societal level is that we are being initiated into understanding non-dualistic thought. We are transcending the binary, oppositional logic that is inherent in many of our languages to see that there is no “us versus them” and simultaneously, there are those who are disproportionately responsible for what is happening on this planet.
Yes, the “psychopathic one percenter” is a shadow aspect of the collective unconscious and, simultaneously, there are individuals who have agency and power that are actively benefiting from the destruction of the planet. Yes, there may be a Donald Trump archetype within all of us—the bully, the patriarch, the misogynist—and yet, he is responsible for the morality of his actions as an elected leader. This is not creating separation. The separation already exists. We are simply acknowledging multiple layers of a non-dualistic reality.
By exclusively focusing on one layer of reality or the meta-layer of unity consciousness—the New Age equivalent of monotheism—we are engaging in a form of spiritual bypassing. A common variant of this is the argument that all reality is an illusion or maya. In studying the Vedic texts that originally discuss the concept of maya, what I’ve come to understand is that maya does not simply mean “the world as illusion,” but rather, illusion is what you as an aspect of God, as Atman, decide is illusion.
There is a responsibility that comes with being a co-creator of reality. As Ram Dass once said, “the universe is perfect, including my desire to change it.”
There is a responsibility that comes with being a co-creator of reality. As Ram Dass once said, “the universe is perfect, including my desire to change it.” Creation or maya or evolution are not static processes that are happening outside us; we are active participants in co-creating reality, or more accurately, relationality. We, ourselves, evolve by actively engaging in creating a better world. The struggle for justice, empathy and solidarity with all Life creates grace within us and deepens our spiritual practice.
Non-dualistic thought is a critical ally when trying to understand the complexity of modernity, and, fortunately, is greatly aided by psychedelic medicines where we achieve states of consciousness where we can actively hold multiple realities without conflict. We can simultaneously critique the system, live within the contradiction of being complicit in that system, while working towards changing the system itself. We don’t have to define ourselves by what we stand against, although we do have to know what we stand against and why. That’s how all the progressive shifts in culture have happened—from the abolition of slavery to women getting the right to vote—that the majority of us benefit from every day. How can we reap the fruits of labor for those who risked their lives to enter the messiness of duality, while claiming that the sanctity of singularity or oneness is all that matters?
Fortunately, there is a growing movement of people applying their spiritual and psychedelic practices to engage in non-dualistic thought and action, giving birth to a multiplicity of possibilities. Many of these emergent possibilities are a part of the umbrella concept of post-capitalism—ideas that transcend the traditional structures of ownership, growth and accumulation. Post-capitalism is not simply another ‘ism’ to replace previous ideologies. Rather, it is a conceptual container of pluralities based on shared values that stem from the critique of the existing system.
Although there is no blueprint for what post- capitalist systems could look like, what unites the various expressions are shared values such as love, generosity, altruism, interdependence, empathy, non-violence, compassion, and solidarity with all life. These values inform ideas such as zero-waste, circular production methods that mimic nature’s own genius in turning all waste back into productive use; co-operative ownership models and commons-based governance structures that privilege a more democratic distribution of economic power; universal basic income, a global wealth tax, and shorter working weeks that restructure the logic of work in the age of automation and AI; regenerative agriculture that rebuilds depleted soils, sequesters carbon, and returns our food production to long-term sustainability; localization to bring economies back to human-scale; and many other growing alternatives.
For those who aspire to truly create systemic change, post-capitalism is a powerful unifying frame. As an idea it is testament to what is possible when we transcend the fear of dualism and actively engage in critiquing and remaking the world around us.
Being in Dialogue with an Animate Planet
It goes without saying that human beings have approached most of the problems of human history with a particular, anthropocentric lens. We have also created and exacerbated most of the issues and risks we face as a civilization with the same problem-solution mindset. The Cartesian, mechanical, binary, linear model of causality has been the core engine of Western thought and the lens by which we see the world.
If we are producing too much carbon as a civilization, how do we capture and store this carbon? If the climate is changing, how do we geo-engineer it? If capitalism is creating inequality, how do we redistribute wealth? This is how basic human problem-solving tends to work—but it is also an indicator of how dangerous anthropocentric thinking can be.
What if the current polycrisis, this civilizational crossroads we face, is demanding from us something else, something more?
Rather than approaching social issues from a problem-solution lens of linearity and causality, what if we started being in dialogue with our living planet, and indeed, the living universe?
The last thirty years of science has helped the Western world catch up to many Indigenous worldviews. For example, the Gaia Theory posited by chemist James Lovelock, microbiologist Lynn Margulis, and others helped to popularize the idea that the planet is a living being: a self-regulating, complex system that actively creates the conditions for life on Earth. Evolutionary biology is revealing the complexity and interconnected nature of living ecosystems, from mycelial networks to the bacteria that make up the human body. Chaos theory is revealing the fractal patterns and non-linearity that make up reality. Developments in quantum mechanics have helped us see the universe as animate, responsive, and queerer than we can imagine. The very act of observing atoms shifts the behavior and position of those atoms. As the quantum physicist and philosopher Karen Barad reminds us, there is no objective reality; we meet the universe halfway.
Rather than approaching social issues from a problem-solution lens of linearity and causality, what if we started being in dialogue with our living planet, and indeed, the living universe? If it’s our best thinking that got us here, perhaps it is time for us to embrace a trans-rational approach, to start asking our elders—including the living landscapes and more-than-human-life that surrounds us—for perspectives on what we should do.
I don’t mean this in a sentimental way or in addition to thinking through the best strategy for what to do as a civilization. I mean this seriously, as an activist and political strategist. I would like you to imagine what the world would look like if our primary activity was to humble ourselves to Nature and ask what the living world needs from us as a companion species.
What would it mean to engage in life-projects or social change projects based on seeking request, permission, and consent from the natural world? What if we stopped thinking of our purpose as an individual endeavor of choice, but rather a prayer to be heeded in guidance with broader planetary needs? What if our starting place for our social, political, and economic work was asking the most marginalized beings, human and otherwise, how we could be of deepest service to their needs?
No tree would consent to conscious capitalism. No eco-system would.
Perhaps this type of dialogue and permission-based action will be a part of the evolving role of psychedelics and psychedelic communities—to serve as a bridge between our maturing species and the entelechy of a living planet; in turn, to help re-sacralize Nature with and through the sacraments generously offered to us.
I’m not sure the rational mind can fathom such a reality, but I assure you, whatever the outcome, it would not look like the linear, reformist approaches that are masquerading as social change today. No tree would consent to conscious capitalism. No eco-system would.
Like trees, we are also ecosystems—literally, on a cellular level, we are made up of communities of bacteria and microorganisms. On a temporal level, our ancestors are living through us, as are our future selves and future generations of our lineage, if they have the same chance at life as we did. On a spatial level, we are an ecology of selves, of all the beings, seen and unseen, that we are in perpetual entanglement with—those that define us through our relationality.
The false choice of growth or more growth must give way to new and ancient ways of being. Animism may be our most potent antidote to rationalism, as humility is to hubris, dialogue to domination, and wonder to knowing.
Alnoor Ladha’s work focuses on the intersection of political organizing, systems thinking and narrative work. He was the co-founder and executive director of The Rules (TR), a global network of activists, organizers, designers, coders, researchers, writers and others focused on changing the rules that create inequality, poverty and climate change. TR started in 2012 as a time-bound project and an experiment in anarchist organizational design, exploring new ways of how to work, play and make trouble together. Alnoor comes from a Sufi lineage and explores/writes about the intersection between politics and spirituality in troubled times.