Once a week, I watch the American CBS TV program 60 minutes. This time, part of the program was about the latest fad among some teenagers: beating homeless people, sometimes resulting in death. The reporters had obtained the footage of a security camera which showed how four young men beat an unfortunate homeless man for fun. The reporter then interviewed another young man (part of a group of four) that had participated in the killing of a homeless man. When the reporter asked the young man why he had done this, he replied for fun.
The reporter went on to point out how a DVD film called Bumfight, in which two homeless people were paid to beat each other, had become very popular among American teenagers. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) says that beating the defenseless homeless people has become a perverse national trend. Across the country, packs of teenage boys are stalking homeless people and attacking them.  The reporter went on to blame the Bumfight DVD and its twenty-something-year-old producer (who incidentally had sold his DVD rights for $1.5 million) for being partly responsible for these attacks.
The day after I began to receive the usual calls from friends and associates: did you watch 60 Minutes last night? Wasn’t it awful? How can these sorts of things happen? Well, that is the US for you. It seemed to me that what my friends hadn’t realized was that what happens in US today will happen in London a few months later and then it spreads throughout Europe. Usually we get a milder form, a bit later in Norway. The fact is that the US is a trendsetter. If they succeed in their policies, we adopt them, and if they fail, well, we won’t touch them. But sometimes their success is illusory and comes with a very heavy price tag. But by the time the Americans realize this, we have already jumped on board hoping to take advantage of whatever new technique or policies that they have come up with.
Americans, unlike Europeans, are not shackled by traditions. They are risk takers and energetic. They will try anything once and are willing to share their experience with all, especially if they can also benefit from it. But sometimes they believe so strongly in their policies that they try to get everyone to implement them, sometimes even by force if necessary.
For the past 100 years, the US has been experimenting with various forms of capitalism and we in Europe have been (to some extend) copying them. We have consistently adopted, although always in a milder form, the American economic policies, from the New Deal of FDR, to Consumerism and Neoliberalism. By copying them, we accept to take the same risks.
We should not shake our head and think that this is just an American phenomenon. What is happening there will happen here, it is just a matter of time. You only have to go to London or Paris to see the homeless sleeping rough in the streets. It is only matter of time before some teenagers try to have some fun with these poor people; after all, we have adopted consumerism as well. What these teenagers did and are doing only reflects the extreme of what the current value-less, pleasure seeking, and self-centered consumer-oriented society is all about.
John Berger, the British writer, was correct in his observation when he said that: “the poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied . . . but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.”
The indifference -- indeed hostility -- that we show to the homeless or the poor is just a very small part of a bigger problem facing our societies today. The big problem, as I see it, is one of corruption of our most basic values and ideals. In our capitalist democratic societies where the individual’s interest is proclaimed to be the center, we are seduced by the promise of happiness that money can buy and in pursuit of that dream we both seduce and are seduced -- going round and round in the circle of illusory compassion, loyalty and real indifference.
A few years back, I attended the launch ceremony of a new software release by a Swedish company in Stockholm. At that time, two Swedish economic professors (Ridderståle and Nordstrom) had written a controversial (in Scandinavia) book called Funky Business. One of these gentlemen was invited to start the ceremonies by giving a short speech about their findings on how western society was changing and its implications for businesses. I certainly was not prepared for what I was about to hear. Nordstrom started his speech with the following: Loyalty is dead, Family is dead, ... what is left is shopping and f**king.
At first I was surprised and indignant. Surely these guys are mistaken. Are these the only things that people are concerned with? And then slowly I began to understand that although we are not there yet, “there” is where we are heading.
Loyalty is dead. In an era of downsizing, BPR (Business Process Reengineering), TBC (Time-Based Competition), Six Zigmas, etc, people are hired and fired at will. There is no room for loyalty. In an era of “what have you done for me lately,” there is no loyalty. In an era of prenuptial agreements there is no room for loyalty. In an era where politicians are bought and sold, there is no room for loyalty. Now it seems loyalty is rented and not earned.
In an era where over 50% of all marriages end in divorce, there is no room for family. In an era where parents have to spend most of their waking time working, there is no time for family. In an era when a child will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate, there is no incentive to create a family. In an era where the old are sent to retirement homes to die, there is no place for family.
The family unit is important. It is around this unit that we gather, creating villages, towns, cities, and countries. It is the glue that keeps our societies in place. The family functions based on two bonds: love and loyalty. Constant betrayal by corporations, governments, friends and even spouses has effectively destroyed the notion of loyalty.
That leaves us with love, which we have begun to treat as another commodity. Friend finders, marriage bureaus, online dating agencies, etc are places where people exchange CVs and list their assets hoping to find another person that is willing to give more than he/she is willing to take. We even have speed dating; often used to find out what the other person has to offer in as little time as possible.
With loyalty almost gone, and love commercialized, there is nothing left but a huge vacuum, which the governments and corporation are trying hard to fill with products. That is why Nordstrom was saying that there is nothing left but shopping and f**king.
The oft-repeated saying in the US is: there is no such a thing as a free lunch. If the family unit is being slowly dissolved and our social interaction is reduced to quid-pro-quo, then indeed we are on a slippery slope to our very own individual hells.
The Economic System of Quid-Pro-Quo
The best example of this economic system is known as market economy or free market economy. The American Heritage Dictionary defines this system as “an economy that operates by voluntary exchange in a free market and is not planned or controlled by a central authority; a capitalistic economy.” This system relies on “market forces” (supply and demand) or the “invisible hand” for the allocation of resources. In other words, the product’s availability and its price are automatically determined by supply and demand without any interference from the government or any other central authority. It is important to note that the government is not the only authority that can influence the market. Some groups may find some things objectionable (drugs, pornography, etc). The Church, for example, may interfere with the market if it declares usury a sin. In an ideal free market only the supply and demand determine the availability and price of the products. And that supply and demand is generated by individuals. At the core of this system, therefore one finds the individual and not the group. In this system, it is the interest of the individual that is paramount. Everything revolves around the individual and his desires; and since it is self-interest that is at the center, the social transactions become a series of quid-pro-quos.
One of the early proponents of free market policies (repudiating the existing Mercantilism ), Adam Smith, in his magnum opus The Wealth of the Nations (1776), argued the case for quid-pro-quo system as such:
But man has almost constant occasion for help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers another bargain of any kind, proposes to do this, Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. 
Of course a system that relies on the individual’s self-interest necessarily requires an individual that is free. That is why all the proponents of this system such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mills and others were also were proponents of democracy and individual freedom. But it seems, to me at least, that the individual freedom that is required in a truly free market economy cannot be achieved in a democracy. Democracy means that although certain individual’s rights are guaranteed, it is the majority’s (i.e. the group’s) interest and not the individual’s that is at the center. Here is the crux of the problem: individual’s interest vs. the group’s interest.
All the proponent of the free market economy, especially those that preach Consumerism (economic policies that place an emphasis on consumption, and, in an abstract sense, the belief that the free choice of consumers should dictate the economic structure of a society ) have tried and are trying to get rid of anything that interferes with this free market. That is why they constantly push for smaller government, more individualism, and more deregulation.
From a pure laissez faire economist’s point of view, any regulation imposed on the market interferes with the efficiency of that market, i.e. reduces the profit for individuals. Now consider the function of laws and regulations. Laws, rules and regulations are necessary to keep order in any democratic society. If one gets rid of all the regulations, then one is left with nothing but chaos; and chaos is where profit is maximized.
Look at history and see how few people have earned tremendous profits in chaotic times. Look at how robber barons in the US amassed tremendous wealth in the absence of regulations. Look at the Russian oligarchs and how they became billionaires in a short time because of chaos and absence of regulations. Look at Enron. For a few, it makes sense to deregulate the market, to have smaller government and to have a “free market.” But to achieve this in a democracy we need to have people that are willing to vote for such a society. There is only one type of a person that is willing to benefit from chaos and that is the Homo Economicus or the Economic Man. This Man is an individual that is in essence an amoral being driven solely by his/her pursuit of self-gratification.
The Making of the Economic Man
The greatest threat to the ideal free market economy and consumerism is not the government or regulations but the established religions with their absolute values. Established religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Hinduism just to name a few, do not approve of selfishness and blind pursuit of accumulation of wealth. Their values are absolute and can not be changed. It is not possible to change the words of Bible or Koran now. One may attempt at interpreting the texts differently, but the core values stay the same. For example all the established religions forbid greed, the very foundation of the free market capitalism. If you look at the seven deadly sins: hubris/pride, avarice/greed, extravagance/lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth; you’ll see that all are connected to selfishness and are exactly the things that are being promoted by the corporations.
How do they (these Economic Men) side-step this issue? There are several ways:
Meanwhile the missionary work is carried out post-haste through media. These Economic Men have acquired great fortunes and, using some of that fortune, have gotten hold of the media. Using the media, they have entered into our homes and are trying hard to persuade us to accept their distorted picture of the world as reality. Today, almost any advertising for any product contains at least two of the seven deadly sins as their “selling” points. To be egoistic and self-centered is promoted as the normal mode of behavior. Look carefully at some old movies and see what they were promoting. Now look at some of the new ones and see what they are saying. Look at the TV shows and soap operas; you’ll see that they mostly deal with self-gratification, money and undermining of the absolute values.
Some may take issue with this, arguing that I am being paranoid. I may be; but one can not ignore the fact that as our values are becoming relative, the borders of what is acceptable are constantly pushed to include the unacceptable. Some values have been so distorted that what was considered a “sin” is now portrayed as a virtue. If you don’t believe me, just consider greed and Wall Street. If you don’t believe me look at series such as Apprentice, Playboy, Big Brother, etc. What are they trying to teach us? In guise of healthy competition, they are teaching us to be egoistic and selfish. The recurring theme in a majority of these reality shows is this: try to be smart and look after number one: yourself. Disloyalty, dishonesty, malevolence, and all other instruments of deceit are used by the contenders to win. If you examine these shows you’ll see that there is always a competition with one winner at the end. The participants have to lie, cheat, and deceit each other to advance to the next level. In the end the winner is the one that has managed to basically screw everyone else.
In these settings corruption of values is a given; indeed this corruption is required for the shows to exist. But the manipulation and brainwashing is not in the media alone. Our schools and institutes of higher education are also used to preach the gospel of free market economics and extreme individualism.
We seldom think about universities as places where people are brainwashed or manipulated. We like to think that institutes of higher education are temples of knowledge, unsoiled by corporate greed, ideological preferences, etc. And to a certain degree this is correct. As long as you deal with the physical universe, universities and colleges are impartial and objective (if you disregard the current evolution vs. intelligent design argument). You see, studying engineering, architecture or medicine is straight forward. One plus one makes two; and will remain two no matter how many tests you conduct and how many people argue for, or against it.
But as soon as you enquire about the workings of the society, the power structure, the means by which power is attained and exercised; you enter the world of manipulation, half truths and lies. Universities and colleges suddenly become places where Machiavelli would feel right at home.
You see when students begin their studies in Business or Economics; they are presented with a set of “FACTS” about an ideal society and its inner workings. For example, it is taught that there is almost always an inverse relationship between unemployment and interest rate -- with the exception of stagflation, when both rise together. The aim, the students are taught, is to keep certain figures within certain parameters. For example inflation should be kept below 2%, or the ideal unemployment figure should not be about 5%. There is no or very little concern about the consequences of economic policies. When they teach students the concept of downsizing, or relocation of production facilities to a lower cost country etc, they emphasize economic efficiency and maximization of profit, rather than its effect on the society as a whole. No one mentions the effect of this downsizing or exportation of jobs on the poor people who depend on these jobs. People are irrelevant; they are only numbers to be played with until the proper profit margin is achieved. The costs of broken homes, alcoholism, theft and violence is not discussed or considered. They hammer this into the heads of the students as being the truth, nothing but the truth, so help them God. Students are taught to see people as individuals driven by self-interest. Corporations are similarly presented as entities purely pursuing profit for their shareholders.
In these temples of knowledge profit is valued highly, an end to be achieved by all means. Consequently in our societies people have begun to worship the god of profit; and his successful disciples as heroes, people to be emulated and praised. Things such as ethics, moral values and decency are pooh-poohed and left to the philosophers to deal with.
Similarly in political science, nations are treated as individuals, blindly pursuing their own self-interests no matter what. When nations behave ruthlessly and selfishly, it is called REALPOLITIK (political realism or practical politics). Consequently wars are no longer started because of territorial disputes or the desire by a king for a greater kingdom but because of economic interests. It is the monetary cost-benefit analysis that determines if millions are made homeless or hundred of thousands are murdered. This is done by mercenary armies.
You see, the armies are privatized. Regardless of how patriotic the poor soldier feels, at the end of the day he is a mercenary, fighting for a country that is controlled by big corporations that in turn are controlled by rich individuals. In effect he kills or is killed to advance the interest of those individuals. A certain German general once said that if the soldiers knew what they were fighting for, there would be no war. As for us, well, we are fooled into believing that it is our interest that the soldiers are fighting for. After all what is good for General Motors is good for America, right? Or what is good for Rimi (Norwegian supermarket chain) is good for Norway, right? Well it all depends doesn’t it? After all who can guarantee that General Motors or Rimi won’t become another Enron?
The Economic Man and the Pursuit of Happiness
As was mentioned earlier, in free market capitalism, it is the interest of the individual that is paramount. Everything revolves around the individual and his/her desires. The question is, what is it that an individual, be it the amoral Economic Man or not, really desires? Is it education, money, sex, youth, a palace, two palaces, private jets, servants and slaves . . . what? None of these things is an end in itself but rather the means to achieving something else. One studies to gain knowledge, to get a better job, to earn more money, to buy a better house, to eat better food, to . . . and it continues. You see, behind every desire lurks another. If you examine all desires, you’ll see that they all eventually lead to one ultimate desire: happiness.
From the moment that we are born to that moment that we close our eyes for the last time, we want happiness. Happiness is very subjective and therefore difficult to either describe or quantify. In order to understand it, it is perhaps easier to examine what causes happiness. Happiness is closely connected to desire; for it is popularly believed that the state of happiness is brought about by the fulfillment of desires.
Already in mid-1600, Blaise Pascal was questioning the illusory nature of desire and its connection to happiness. He argued that “as nature makes us always unhappy in every state, our desires picture to us a happy state; because they add to the state in which we are the pleasures of the state in which we are not. And if we attained to these pleasures, we should not be happy after all; because we should have other desires natural to this new state.” 
In other words we are happy when we dream of achieving/possessing that which we desire, but as soon as we get it, we cease to want it. To sustain that feeling of happiness, we have to move on to satisfying new desires. This means that in order to be even modestly happy, one must continually satisfy one’s desires. Desire comes in all forms and shapes from small ones such as satisfying hunger to large ones such as dominating the whole world. But as we go about satisfying our desires, we find that the rush of happiness is harder and harder to come by. And consequently our long periods of contentment, interspersed by small periods of happiness are replaced with long periods of frustration and discontentment, interspersed with smaller and smaller periods of happiness; this is despite the amassment of all sorts of titles, possessions and experiences. In 2000, Robert E. Lane of Yale University published the results of his investigation into the state of people’s happiness in the market democracies. This is what he found out:
Amidst the satisfaction people feel with their material progress, there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximize well-being and the eighteen-century promise of a right to the pursuit of happiness under benign governments of people’s own choosing. The haunting spirit is manifold; a post-war decline in the United States in people who report themselves as happy, a rising tide in all advanced societies of clinical depression and dysphoria (especially among the young), increasing distrust of each other and of political and other institutions, declining belief that the lot of average man is getting better, a tragic erosion of family solidarity and community integration together with an apparent decline in warm, intimate relations among friends. 
You see, a society that is built around the self-interest of the individual can not provide anything except material things. The free market economy, especially consumerism, equates happiness with possession of material things. It seeks maximum economic growth to generate maximum corporate profit, fuelled by mass consumption and provided by mass production. In this system it is the promise of happiness that is sold rather than the product. That ownership of material things brings happiness is a big lie that has been around for thousands of years. It is just that in those days they didn’t have TVs and Internet to propagate it effectively.
I said to myself, "Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself." But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?" I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine -- my mind still guiding me with wisdom -- and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man's delight. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. 
The quote above describes King Solomon’s disillusionment (ca 3000 years ago) with wealth, power and pleasure. In effect there was no continuous state of happiness in any of the things that he had tried.
It seems to me that happiness is achieved not by possessing material things but ideals. One is most happy when one is working towards a goal; and what goal is more worthy than another’s happiness. It is my belief that the perpetual state of happiness can be achieved only through striving to create that state (happiness) for others. It is never-ending, fulfilling and satisfying.
In other words, it is only through other people’s happiness that one is guaranteed a continuous experiencing of one’s own happiness.
Who are the Pushers?
Who are the people that are continuously working to perpetuate this system of deceit, lies and corruption? Some politicians, the political lobbyist, the TV/Movie screenwriters, the charming evangelical preacher, even your average rich guy, etc, are not the real movers and shakers. These people are only pawns, played with and then sacrificed. The real power behind the scenes belongs to those dynasties that have existed for a very long-time. They know each other well and indeed have family ties. These are the puppet masters. They are behind the people who are behind the little known companies that own big industries, banks, and insurance companies. They are the real pushers. These people have no interest in peace and transparency. They want chaos and opaqueness, for in chaos they find even more profit and in opaqueness no one can see their deeds. Some may call them a Cabal; some may call then a satanic group, and some may call them economic wolves. Regardless of what you may call them, one thing I am sure of: they exist; and if they are not stopped they will continue to spread mayhem and misery through elective wars, selfish national and global economic policies and worst of all through corruption of the very essence of man, its sense of right and wrong, its values. Their aim is not only at the US, UK, Canada or Australia. It is the global village that they are after. And they are bent on achieving their goal either peacefully by bribes and threats or by WAR.
But what should we do? How do we stop this slide towards hell? Well, to start, we live in democratic societies (such as they are). We should stop and reverse the concentration of the media in the hands of a few people. It is through media that values are undermined and people are so brainwashed to accept the unacceptable. We should demand that every newspaper, TV channel, magazine and internet site, put the name of the real owner or the majority shareholder on the corner of the front page. We would like to know who is manipulating us. We should not allow an individual or a corporation to own more than 2% of the media in any one country. We should also make sure that these wealthy individuals do not control media companies through proxies. It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that this concentration of media in the hands of a few wealthy individuals/corporations is stopped and reversed. For it is through the media that they bribe/blackmail the politicians. In democracies media is the corridor to power. It should be people that control this corridor and not the wealthy corporations and individuals. Currently, we have the illusion of democracy and not the real thing.
Next we have to control the funding of elections. This is directly connected to the issue of media. Advertising is expensive. Politicians want to take their message to the people. The best way is through media. They need two things: money for advertising and air time, and access. Before each election, the list of all contributors to the campaigns should be published. We would like to know who is paying for what. Lobbying should be forbidden. It is unacceptable for corporations and individuals to hire companies to buy political influence. These political pimps should be put out of business. Media access should also be regulated. All candidates should be given equal access.
The next step is to break the two-party system. It is always very easy for the wealthy to buy into both parties (as it is done now). We see that certain wealthy individuals and corporations give money to both parties and thereby ensure that no matter who wins the election, it is their guy at the top. By supporting other parties and forcing the government to allocate larger sums to minor parties (above for example 3% to 4% of the votes), we ensure that other voices are heard on the national level. Proportional representation is also extremely useful in breaking the monopolies of the old established parties.
Another important point is to hold politicians accountable. If they lie they should be punished and punished severely. If a politician lies, then he should be punished doubly as hard as a non-politician. The top politicians should know that if they lie they end-up in prison. There should be no possibility of pardon for politicians.
We should stop the growth of hyper-rich people. I mean if $5 billion dollars is not enough, then $50 billion will not be enough either. To stop the continuous rise in the rich dynasties’ fortunes, we have to set limits on how much can be passed on to the next generation. Anything above a certain limit (e.g. $5 billion dollars) should be taken by the government and used for the welfare of the less fortunate and as tax incentives to small businesses etc. The economists can sit down and come-up with a formula that estimates how much would keep the next three generations wealthy and comfortable. The rest should be taken away. Let us face it, if they are as smart as their mothers/fathers, then they will have no problem, and if they are not, then they will waste less money. On the other hand if a person feels poor (monetarily) with 1 to 5 billion dollars then only the grave will satisfy his/her greed.
Another important issue is our liberties. Under tremendous propaganda and scare tactics we are forced to surrender more and more of our liberties. Those who control the media and the politicians need to control us as well. They try their best to do this through peaceful means: through the media; but those who refuse to go along and try to work against these people’s wishes have to be closely watched, discredited and if necessary neutralized. Look carefully at how much liberty you have lost in just five years and imagine if this continues, how much more you will lose in 10 years time.
We also have to watch out for the big lies, for they are easiest to accept. Watch out for open-ended conflicts for it is the bread and butter of these people. The “war on terror” is the first big lie of this century. This is an un-ending war. Under this banner, many wars will be started and if not stopped millions will be killed. Under this banner they are trying to start the war of religions and civilizations. While we are scared, fighting each other, killing and getting killed, our liberties are curtailed, and our values are undermined. If we allow them, we will become the amoral Homo Economicus worshiping profit and seeing nothing in the world except the distorted reflection of our self-interest in everything.
Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar lives in Norway. He is a consultant and a contributing writer for many online journals. He's a former associate professor of Nordland University, Norway. He can be reached at: Bakhtiarspacefirstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Abbas Bakhtiar
 CBS NEWS, “'Bumfight' Videos Inspired Joy-Killing,” Oct 1, 2006.
On the national level, Mercantilism was a
catastrophe for the lower echelons or the “common man” in stratified
societies. In this system the working population were seen as the means of
production (pre industrial revolution) and were treated accordingly;
maximum work for minimum wage. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) through his
writings (e.g. Oliver Twist) painted a comprehensive picture of the
misery of the “common man” under such a system.
 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
Books I-III (Penguin Classics, first published 1776), Page 118-119.
 Wikipedia, “Consumerism”.
 Pascal, Blaise,
Pensees, first published in 1669.