Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Beautiful Irony

A valid comparison can be drawn between money addicts and heroin addicts. Neither group can be trusted, but it is not appropriate to hate either heroin or money addicts because they are both sick. Addicts shouldn’t be allowed to run our industries or invest our money but we shouldn’t hate them. They are not in control of their own behaviour – they are not themselves. Not being themselves, they are incapable of experiencing empathy and compassion. The beautiful irony is that the self is entirely unselfish when it is at its healthiest. Only the diseased self, full of fear and insecurity, grasps onto what it perceives as “mine” at the expense of other people.

Elite education can drive out co-operative instincts like empathy and compassion. However I don’t think this is inevitable, and I believe it is possible to learn techniques of intellectual and emotional self-defence to protect against this brutalising effect. These techniques are widely applicable because, as George Monbiot points out (1), in modern society we are besieged by advertisements trying to undermine our healthy, intrinsic self-worth. Through causing alienation, corporations seek to refocus our self-esteem around their superficial products and brands, and delude us into pointless competition against each other.

Fitra is the Islamic concept of the underlying purity of the self. Fitra means ‘pure primordial nature’ or ‘basic goodness’ and is an Arabic word appearing in the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad (saws) said that every child is born with perfect fitra (1). Subsequent human impurities are ‘adventitious’, i.e. they arise due to upbringing, circumstance etc. Muslims believe that Islam is the religion which perfectly expresses this pure primordial nature because fitra is naturally drawn to the One God, to Whom the Muslim monotheistic practice of tawhid is the best path.

In his essay ‘Fitra: An Islamic Model for Humans and the Environment’ (2) the Sufi scholar and leader Saadia Khawar Khan Chishti discusses the relationship between fitra and care for the environment. He argues that spiritually healthy people (whose fitra is being well expressed) will naturally care for the environment and other people. For example, they will naturally be contented and will not require large quantities of consumer goods. He therefore argues that the solution to the environmental crisis must have a spiritual element – namely the clearing away of obstructions to fitra. Non-spiritual solutions on their own will not suffice.

The concept of fitra is similar to the concept of ‘Buddha nature’, which is also described as our natural, primordial purity. Buddhists believe in the interdependence of all life, and say that our Buddha nature is best expressed when we break down the egotistical barriers that falsely separate us from others. Therefore they say that “compassion is our Buddha nature” because, without a false ego and a diseased sense of self, like the Buddha we will naturally empathise with the suffering of others and want to relieve it.

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1. George Monbiot, The Values of Everything (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/10/11/the-values-of-everything/)

2. Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 2, Book 23, Number 441. “No child is born except in al-fitra and then his parents make him Jewish, Christian or Magian (Zoroastrian), as an animal produces a perfect young animal: do you see any part of its body amputated?”

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The Fetishisation Of The Market

Regarding public good vs business good, Anna Minton’s book ‘Ground Control’ describes how the urban planning process has been distorted in recent years in favour of business and against the public interest. Large sections of our cities (e.g. Liverpool 1) have now been privatised in order to provide lucrative shopping environments. Undesirables (e.g. young people, old people, homeless people) are excluded through various means, such as the ASBO.

The fetishisation of the private sector knows no bounds. The current Neoliberal Party government is being warned that withdrawing investment from the public sector too quickly will deepen the recession, because the private sector is not ready to take up the slack. One reason for this is because the banks are failing to lend. The proposed solution is more ‘quantitative easing’ – increasing the money supply so that the banks have more money to lend. But the evidence so far shows that banks use any additional money in the system to fatten their own balance sheets and pay bonuses, not to lend, no matter how many times Vince Cable ticks them off.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to miss out the middle-man? If the Bank of England has money to pump into the system, the best way to bring us out of recession is to invest directly in public infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals, and public transport. The banks don’t need to stand in the middle, taking a cut through interest payments. This model of investment is different from PFI, the Neoliberal Party’s preferred mode of infrastructure ‘investment’ since the time of John Major, but why should the private sector sit in the middle of transactions between the government and the people, syphoning off our wealth and adding no value? The banking system in this country is just an organised form of corruption, and the government is entirely complicit.

The Moral Economy

Opposition to neo-liberalism can be summarised under the heading ‘the moral economy’. In a moral economy, human beings accept moral responsibility for what happens in the economy. We stop pretending that if everyone pursues their own selfish interest an ‘invisible hand’ is going to magically bring about our collective good.

Accepting moral responsibility does not entail taking control of every aspect of the economy. We can accept that, in some areas, properly regulated markets work reasonably well. However, the provision of universal public services should not be left to the market but should be performed by the public sector. Natural resources such as oil and metals belong to us all, and should not be left to small cabals to exploit and profiteer. We need to consume only as much oil as we need to create new renewable energy systems – the rest should be left in the ground if we want to have a future.

In a moral economy we should not be afraid to make qualitative as well as quantitative judgments: just because gambling and pornography are lucrative doesn’t mean they are useful parts of the economy. There needs to be clear understanding of the relationship between business good and public good: there are areas where they overlap and areas where they are mutually exclusive. Where business goes against the public interest it should be discouraged through regulation and taxation, and in some cases banned.

Manipulative technologies such as genetic modification are too dangerous to be left in the private sector. The trivial profit motive should not be involved in decisions which affect thousands of future generations. Harvesting and enclosing genes through patents is something that the public can have no truck with – how can it ever be in our interest? Amartya Sen’s research shows that small-scale farming by peasants is the most productive use of land and resources. We can feed the world with land reform, micro-finance and education. Genetic modification is an unnecessary, greedy innovation.

Babylon Must Fall

Neo-liberalism is an ideological blind faith in markets. Like all dogmas or pseudo-sciences, its adherents continue to grasp at it, regardless of how many facts and events prove that markets do not work. They endlessly chant the mantra “public bad, private good”.

As Derek Wall discusses in his book ‘Beyond Babylon’ there is a range of alternatives to neo-liberalism, ranging through Keynesian, regulatory, localist, eco-feminist, socialist and anarchist approaches, to name a few. They all have positive contributions to make, and all of us need to unite to slay the neo-liberal dragon.

I watched Ken Loach debate with Michael Heseltine on Newsnight last night. Loach attacked the Thatcher government’s record on unemployment and Hezza retorted that unemployment had also been high under Labour. Loach said that he should not be associated with the Blair and Brown government, but the exchange showed how the current political system hinges on the pretence that different factions within the Neoliberal Party offer genuine choice. The message is that once you have tried another faction (to no effect) you may as well lie back and let the Tories shaft you – which is where the British public is currently at.

Unless the Greens clearly articulate the message that we oppose the single Neoliberal Party with its blue, orange and red livery we will always be squeezed at general elections. Last time the political establishment was able to trick the voters that the orange faction offered some change, next time it will be the red faction etc etc ad infinitum (but Babylon must fall!).