Sunday, March 03, 2013

Capitalism, consumerism: Time for revolution?

I just bought a new Galaxy Tab. This is my fourth tablet in two years. The first three were iPads that I replaced one after the other. I still have the last one and am eyeing a mini iPad. I also bought an iPhone and a BlackBerry less than a year ago. Now I feel backward and am resisting the urge to buy the brand new BlackBerry Z10 and iPhone 5.

My 15” MacBook Pro laptop is doing just fine. Still, I bought the lighter 13” MacBook Air, convincing myself that I needed it for more portability. All the above is in addition to a couple of desktop PCs at work and in my home office. The cost of all these gadgets is some SR30,000, which could have bought a small car or helped me replace the one I have — not that I need to! So what is going on? I am fully aware of how insane this is, but still can’t help it! 

Prince Amr Al-Faisal believes that a capitalist economy is built on consumerism. After 9/11, former president George W. Bush’s first advice to Americans was to go shopping. The US president knew only too well that his economy depended on spending. Factories keep making products that exceed people’s needs. Car factories build a car every 45 seconds. Apple alone produces millions of iPhones for people who already own phones. 

So if we were to keep what we have and pass it on to our children, then who is going to buy all these products? Remember old cars and phones? Remember when they would last a lifetime? Today, we buy cars every few years, and cell phones at least once a year, not because we need to but because the culture of consumerism makes it seem necessary, and even urgent, to buy the latest and greatest. 

How does this work? Manufacturers keep adding more features and speed to new products. Then marketing showers and surrounds us with news, reviews and advertising about how useful the new software applications are that can only work with the latest hardware. If you cannot afford them, you can get bank loans or use credit cards — so no excuse! (What are you waiting for? Call this free number now and get a discount, or buy two and get one free! Hurry, only a limited supply is left!)

No one says anything about the Earth having a limited supply of resources as well. No one explains how we can afford this rate of consumption that eats up our world’s limited resources. No one explains what is going to be left for new generations? 

So what would happen if one day we decided to stop playing this game? The answer comes from all directions: The whole economic structure of the world would collapse! Recession, we are told, starts with less shopping. 

Then the vicious circle turns in the opposite direction. Instead of booming, economies collapse. Factories shut down, shops close, advertising agencies go out of business, and so do all supporting service providers from distribution to transportation, and from storage facilities to hotels and restaurants. We all lose our jobs and benefits. 

Look at Greece, they point out. More austerity measures made people poorer. They could only afford to buy less, which means less production. The only way to lift this country out of its recession is to lend it more money so that people can buy more of its produce.

How do we get out of this predicament? What is the solution? Prince Mohammad Al-Faisal, the founder of Islamic banking, believes we should start searching for an answer. There is no Islamic economic theory, yet. What has been achieved in the last 30 years is the development of Islamic financial institutions and banking products. It is high time Muslim scholars start looking for solutions to the world’s economic ills.

To encourage research in this field, he established the Prince Mohammad Al-Faisal Award for Islamic Economic Studies. His son, Prince Amr, is traveling all around the Kingdom these days to spread the word. He is encouraging university students to think out of the box. “Ignore all established theories and come up with your own,” he urges them. “Capitalism has failed us time and time again. As a result, only 1 percent of the population in rich and poor countries enjoys the fruit of the hard labor of the 99 percent.”

Islam has the solution, but what is it, exactly? How can we develop the endowment “waqf” and alms “zakat” concepts, for example, to serve our modern needs? Only the young would dare to challenge the traditional concepts, and Prince Amr is daring them to come up with creative answers to ancient questions. The elders should follow. That is the way revolutions go! 

1 comment:

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