I’m about to set down what I think to be a big thought. It has a Christmassy theme, rather than a strictly artistic one, but I hope you will accept this as a little bit of writerly artistic expression, appropriate for the season. I hope you’ll stay with me.
Markets, we are told, are solely governed by fear and greed. People make investment choices on the basis of fear of loss, or else on the basis of avarice for obscene gain. The conventional wisdom about markets being driven by fear and greed, in this case, is true. You can verify it for yourself in a million and one real life situations that you encounter daily. People are programmed to fear each other, to fear the unknown, to take drastic measures because they fear and to instil fear into others. So many actions, by so many people have selfishness at the heart of them. There is an entire political philosophy that has grown up around trying to justify selfishness as a noble and righteous goal. Often, Adam Smith is quoted in support of these ideas. We can see for ourselves, every single day, the consequences of selfishness and greed. The Occupy movement is but one of the awakenings that maybe this greed thing is not good. Maybe greed is what is at the root of the problem. Maybe dismissing, repressing and suppressing those that think so is also a part of the problem.
I’m old enough to remember communities and a time when people gave each other a fair go. They looked out for the welfare of one another. I was a child back then, but I remember well the feeling and general ambience of a place and time where you had lots of people genuinely concerned for you. We had very little, but what we had we shared openly. Everybody did. To do anything other than this was anathema. Then came the Thatcher and Reagan years, whose lasting legacy is a prevailing culture of “getting yours before it’s gone”. This was a philosophy that said savage competition and the crushing of rivals was not only right, it was moral, and supported by the weight of evolution. Survival of the fittest became survival of the most self interested. This, we were told, would result in the best standards of living for all, by the alchemy of trickle-down economics. We were taught to emulate the most brutal, ruthless, deceiving, lying, cheating, amoral, greed-obsessed non-citizens in our society and to laud them and their actions as the highest good to which we should all aspire. We worshiped at the temple of “gain by any means necessary”. We sold our souls.
It didn’t work out the way they promised. Only a tiny minority of the population did well out of this political and philosophical tide. All boats did not rise on a rising ocean. Some sank without a trace.
The Occupy movement states its case most eloquently here: http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/
On this site, ordinary people tell their stories of what the culture of rampant fear and greed has done to their lives. It’s a poignant site, because each person expresses their pain and loss on a single sheet of paper, in their own words and writing, in a single snapshot. In these simple, eloquent expressions of discontent with greed and fear is the explanation for why the shops have been observably (and you can observe this for yourself) less busy this Christmas, than they were in previous years.
Why did we buy into it? Why do we work so hard to get our share of this pie? Don’t we think there would be enough pie? Why do we send our children to nurseries so that we can both work all day, to stay afloat financially? Where did it go wrong?
We fear there isn’t enough to go around, but we live in an age of unprecedented abundance. There is so much abundance that fully 20% of us (by some estimates) don’t need to work at all. Even with our crazy, inflated demands on the productive capacity of humanity, to buy stuff we neither have time to use or space to store, there is more than enough stuff available. Those people that don’t need to work (or consume) are the ones we call the unemployed and the poor.
The proof that we have abundance and that we have all we need is that the only thing we can imagine we can do with these unemployed and poor people is permit them to perish. What a cold, heartless view that is. But that’s the view of the wealthiest. The unemployed and poor, in their eyes, should do the decent thing and simply go away (meaning they should die). We have so much productivity and productive capacity, but we can’t find a way to share the leisure and stuff around evenly. We’re too scared to do so. We fear there isn’t enough, when plainly we can see ample evidence that there is more than enough.
It’s true that money is scarce, but that’s only because it’s rigged to be that way by people that benefit from it being so. There is nothing about our real productive capacity and productivity reflected in our monetary system, which is nothing more than a system of gross manipulation, controlled by people that wish to take all the pie. They act as if the pie is finite and that we don’t know the recipe to make another. They fear there is no more pie, so they are greedy.
In reality, there is only human effort underpinning the value of money and we know there is more human effort than we need, otherwise there would be no unemployment. Money is scarce, but human effort is not. Value creation is people. Money utterly subverts that very basic relationship. It’s easy enough to accumulate more money than the value you create, if you are greedy enough. We permit such people to do so, if we are fearful enough.
There is another philosophy and cultural norm we could have chosen instead of fear and greed. We could have based everything on love and generosity – the antithesis of fear and greed. The reason we didn’t is historical. We came from a feudal heritage, where fear and greed were enforced by bloody repression. But we’re not bound to relive that history ad-infinitum, not even if the wealthiest believe they would benefit most from a system of quiet, stealthy neo-feudalism.
There’s nothing about fear and greed that make it the most useful human condition. Indeed, there is much research which unequivocally demonstrates that love and generosity are hard wired into the human animal. We’re empathic creatures. We have the capacity to feel the pain of others as if it were our own. That means that whenever we hurt, deceive, impoverish or unjustly take from another, we have the brain functions to feel it just as piquantly as our victim does. In a system driven by fear and greed, selfishness and ruthless competition, the only way to find our way out of that empathic pain is to brutally suppress it within ourselves. We have to make ourselves immune to that pain by an act of psychological violence on ourselves – the ultimate self harm.
Imagine a society driven by love and generosity. In that society, you wouldn’t fear losing your job and not being able to pay the bills, because your community would see that you were never out on the street, starving, hungry and cold. You wouldn’t do a soul-destroying job just to pay the bills, because you wouldn’t need to. You would spend your days doing what you love to do best, giving the fruits of your labours away to those that need them, because you would be secure in the knowledge that everybody else would do the same. You would want for nothing and have enough of everything you needed, simply because you lived in a world where everything was made with love, given with love and given freely. That would extend to the starving poor and those trapped in despair or loneliness. Filling the world with love and generosity would be transformative to how we live our very lives and the work we do. We’d tend towards creating high quality things, not gear ourselves toward planned obsolescence and waste, in a greedy attempt to get even more money from others, by short changing them with shoddy goods.
What if Adam Smith was misinterpreted? What if we got the concept of his invisible hand all wrong? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_hand Smith wrote passionately about the pursuit of self interest and that has been widely interpreted to mean selfishness. I think that’s a mistaken conclusion. What if acting greedily and fearfully was not in your own self interest? What if your self interest was best served by achieving Maslow’s being values and hierarchy of needs? What if that agenda was the self interest you actually pursued? Have you ever asked yourself, “What are my self interests, anyway?” Maslow says they are things like beauty, simplicity, wholeness, goodness, truth, aliveness and justice, among others. So how come you aren’t pursuing them? Adam Smith says you should.
Chronologically, Smith first introduced the concept of the invisible hand in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759. In this work, however, the idea of the market is not discussed, and the word “capitalism” is never used. In my view, the ideas presented in this work were usurped and hijacked by others to justify and support their own feelings of greed and selfishness, rather than gaining any real understanding about where our self interests may really lie. Smith offered them enlightenment, but they could only interpret it through their lens of a lifetime of feudalism. They got the concept of self-interest wholly wrong, I think.
Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics (which just goes to prove that the Nobel Prize can be won by the most wrong-headed of people), called Smith’s Invisible Hand “the possibility of cooperation without coercion.” Talk about saying the words, but missing the point entirely. In a world of love and generosity, where you preserve your soul and remain true to yourself, that’s still a world of cooperation without coercion, but a very different one to the dog-eat-dog world that Friedman supported. The economists, whose track record in understanding the motivations of humanity is quite poor, subverted this idea or cooperation without coercion and ignored the parts in Adam Smith’s writing about morality, brotherly love and generosity, in favour of their own predilections for fear and greed. We’ve been duped by these guys.
In order to be selfish and greedy you have to imagine yourself to be apart from others and the world. You have to believe in the idea of being separable from the mass of humanity, in order to have more than the rest and to use others as if they were there for your sole benefit. This belief in separability also leads to fear, because we come to think that we are not the same as the others and consequently we fear them. They might take what’s ours. They envy us.
There is another view that is increasingly taking root, however. In that view, we are all connected. We are all essentially organisms with more similarities than differences, which live in the same connected biosphere, itself a giant organism, with each person playing a part analogous to that of a single cell. We’re symbiotic, not different to nature. We are nature. This Gaia point of view is completely incompatible with the idea that you can pillage where you live, but buy yourself out of the mire and go and live somewhere else. There is no “Earth B”.
In this world view, cells in the biosphere (i.e. people) that act greedily and fearfully are actually like a cancer on our own organism. An organism at war with itself, in the Gaia sense, has very poor prospects indeed. If the general populace embraces fear and greed, we begin to act like an auto-immune disease upon the biosphere. We don’t have to, though. We can choose another way.
Look where greed and fear gotten us. We live in a despoiled world, filled with misery, torture, suspicion, control, surveillance, sham democracies, human rights abuses, invasion of privacy, slavery, despotism, uncontrolled nuclear contamination, depleted soils, degraded nutrition, polluted air and water, where crime is rampant and violence is the norm. Is this really a world we would create in the pursuit of self interest? When our food, water and air are toxic, our nourishment is nutrient depleted, we are perpetually drugged to the eyeballs with so called “cures” (which are, in reality, merely cosmetic coverings of the symptoms) for diseases we wouldn’t even have, if we lived healthier lives more in harmony with the biosphere, is this really the invisible hand doing its benevolent work? I don’t think so.
We instead embark upon nonsensical lives in the pursuit of money. But what is money? Why are we accountancy obsessed? In reality, it’s all about mistrust. It comes from a mindset that believes value creation is finite and scarce and that unless you pay attention to accounting for what’s paid and owed, you will wind up being taken advantage of by your fellow man. It’s a misanthropic point of view. It explicitly says that all other men are so untrustworthy, that they will steal everything you have unless you keep them honest by counting all transactions with a monetary system. At its very heart is the idea that without a stash of money, you will be left to perish, by your fellow man.
That’s a self-perpetuating idea, actually. If you assert that nobody is trustworthy, that nobody will care for you and that only the possession of lots of money can prevent your starvation and homelessness, you will bring about a world in which nobody is trustworthy, nobody will care about your well being and where even massive amounts of money cannot protect you against starvation and homelessness. It can all change in an instant. Lose your wallet, and you could lose your life. That’s the world we construct when we start from a presumption of mistrust in our fellow men. Mistrust breeds mistrust.
The American currency says “In God We Trust” on it, but some say it should have been “In Gold We Trust”. In people we mistrust. It’s the fear that things are being taken from us unjustly that causes us to depend so heavily on money and accountancy. It’s the fear that we’re being robbed that drives us to rob first, before we get robbed. The fear that we’re not getting what we think we deserve, what we’re worth and what we’re entitled to (in our own concept of ourselves) that causes us to act greedily and miserly. We use our greed to attempt to accumulate more that we know, in our hearts, we need or have contributed, in value creation.
Those of us that achieve some wealth and privilege, however small, use all sorts of specious, intellectual gyrations to justify our privilege over those with “less entitlement”, in our eyes. It seems the richer we get, the more tortured our logic to justify our good fortune. We may believe we are deserving of our privilege, but it’s dishonest. We’re no more deserving than anybody else, yet equally deserving. Kim Jong-Il did not fall from the stars, write the world’s best operas or score eleven holes in one, on his first golf game, even though official North Korean news sources claim it to be so. I suspect that in private moments, he knew it all to be lies, too. In those moments, he must have known he was not worthy and so he brutally asserted his entitlement all the more, given that disquieting knowledge. It wasn’t the rest of North Korea he was trying to convince, by imprisoning anybody with the misfortune to accidentally sit on a photograph of his face printed in a discarded newspaper left of a park bench. He was trying to convince himself. The so called “treasonous dissenters” were just the collateral damage of an ego that had ceased to care about his fellow man, who had ceased to love and who was no longer generous. It was the act of a greedy, fearful tyrant. He was, in reality, a human, just like the rest of us. His power and privilege was not grounded in some form of divine entitlement. He was undeserving, greedy and ruled by fear.
That isn’t to say nobody deserves anything. We are all part of this giant, biospheric organism. There is nothing undeserving about us. We’re entitled to the same nurturing, existence, resources, nutrients and consideration as any other part of the biosphere. We are not uniquely evil or only fit for expulsion and excision from the biosphere. We’re part and parcel of it. We’re here to live in harmony with nature.
However, because we have been brought up to live within a society driven by fear and greed, we find ourselves acting against our better nature. We make compromises on the quality of what we make, we impoverish our relationships, we ignore ethics, we pay no heed to morals, we are quite prepared to deceive and short change organisms that are just like us, all to fulfil our greedy desires, or out of a fear of being left by the wayside. This, of course, goes against the grain of humanity. We exhaust ourselves working, out of fear of being left destitute and unloved – in other words, to perish. Your own government will participate in making you destitute, if your business fails, by pursuing you for back taxes to the point of bankruptcy, while Goldman Sachs is excused their tax obligations over a nice lunch. We work so hard to make other people rich. And they want to be rich because that’s how they think they can become more lovable and to be loved. It’s wrong, though. Money doesn’t make them lovable and nobody loves them any more sincerely, for all their cash. It’s all wrong.
What if you didn’t have to worry about your material needs? What if you could depend on the fact that generous, loving people would take care of your life needs, no matter what happens, because they pursue their self interests of loving others in doing that? What if that freed you to do what you do best, generously and with love. I’m not describing socialism or communism or any other corporatist, state institution trying to move resources around distrustfully. I’m talking about a world where the exchanges necessary to ensure the whole community is taken care of happen at a local level. Money is utterly redundant, when trust, generosity and love prevail. People just do things for each other and give things to each other, without counting the cost. Cost implies some loss. In giving generously, there is no loss. We all gain. There’s no need to keep people honest with carefully balanced ledgers, if they are honest. In such a society, we would only take according to our needs. If we need to paint, then we take paint, but we don’t stock up on things we have no use for. Compare and contrast that to what we do that today. Our houses are filled with useless, temporary crap we have no time to use. This is what drives economic growth, in the world of greed – sheer waste.
In our fear and greed driven culture, love is sadly lacking at an individual level. To me, there is nothing quite so tragic as sad, lonely business people sacrificing every good thing in their lives to fill the loveless void in their hearts with cash and crap. There was one on the television last night. The Hilary Devey story is, to me, a tragic tale of somebody that put her entire life on hold in order to succeed in her business. The strain, stress and living with rats were enough to give her a life threatening stroke. What was the damned point? Why live a diminished life in order to reach a goal you may not ever reach, due entirely to your diminished life killing you first?
I recently read an article in one of the leading business magazines that purported to show you how to succeed in business. Every tip amounted to some form of deception of customers. I was laughing with wry amazement as I read it.
For those that zealously embrace the world of fear and greed, there is a price to pay. With their deceit and swindling to get ahead comes shame, but somehow they manage to suppress their consciences. They cease to be citizens. They no longer care what their actions do to others or the place they live. They always think they can move to a place with none of those people in it, so that they need not tolerate their reproaches. It can’t end well, can it?
How could we achieve a society where love and generosity prevailed? It’s a choice. It’s a product of our collective behaviour. We could make that choice, to reject fear and greed and embrace love and generosity, at any moment we want. If we made it socially unacceptable to act out of fear and greed, that’s how we could start. If we treat fear and greed as the disease that they are and we dismantle the institutions designed to shore things like that up, we could transform society very simply and very easily. We made that kind of a choice when we first accepted fear and greed. We could equally easily discard them. Why not?
What are those fear and greed sustaining institutions? Property law, taxation, a penal system based on punishment and vengeance instead of rehabilitation, unaccountable and undemocratic government, surveillance, spying, warfare, covert operations, banking, supra-national corporations, the commercial legal system, immigration controls, border controls and a thousand other systems designed only to count the cost, but ignore the value of humanity. Any entrenched system that encourages fear or greed would no longer serve a purpose, once we embrace love and generosity. They would change and change radically.
If you had a world that embraced love and generosity, you would have a much more peaceful, secure world, where terrorism had no reason to be and where “homeland security” would exist as a natural state of affairs, without militarising the police. You’d wipe out despair and its consequences at a stroke. That would be seen in the crime and suicide statistics, in domestic violence reductions and in the elimination of exploitation of human beings by greedy human beings. Could it happen? Of course it could. It would be no more difficult to achieve than a world that chose fear and greed, which spent boundless energy in creating systems and bureaucracies to enshrine these essentially negative values, as if they were God-given. No God worth believing in would give such values.
You could call a world where people just did things for each other, out of love for one another and to see each other right, a “service economy”, but that would be to perversely equate it to the greed-fuelled, money-obsessed, service sector of today’s economy. I argue that this possible new world is fundamentally different. It isn’t obsessed by accounting for everything exchanged. When everybody has enough, the accounting doesn’t matter anymore. We just live and give, without accounting for what we just did.
On twitter, this morning, I read this retweet of something written by the Archbishop of York: @JohnSentamu: Remember our time and our relationships have much greater value than anything that can be bought on the high street!
He is so very right. We can and should reframe society and its prevailing values so that we recover our time and our relationships. We’ve sadly sacrificed both, either because we fear going broke or because we greedily want more than we need (or both).
It has been said that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Greed is unnecessary. Love one another. Give generously. At this time of year, these are the things we are reminded of, by the story of Christmas. Dickens was more prescient than we think, with his tale “A Christmas Carol”.
If you have read this post all the way down to here, I thank you sincerely. Wishing you all a Christmas and New Year filled with light and enlightenment.