Category Archives: Politics

Sustainability & Autonomy

In order for any system to be sustainable (i.e. viable over a long period) all of its components must have a high degree of autonomy. The reason why natural ecosystems are sustainable (if humans don’t destroy them) is because their components such as plants and animals are autonomous. Plants, for example, autonomously photosynthesize and extend their roots to draw nutrients from the soil. Meanwhile, herbivores autonomously nourish themselves by eating plants, and carnivores by eating herbivores etc.

All systems face two principal types of threat: internal and external. External threats are many and varied: depending on the system they include strikes by meteorites, flu epidemics, bank failures and so on. A typical internal threat to a system is when one of its sub-systems predominates at the expense of the others, annexing a disproportionate share of the system’s resources and threatening the very survival of the whole, including the dominant sub-system itself.

Every viable system has a sub-system responsible for preserving the whole, and for maintaining the system’s essential organizing characteristics over time. The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana called this sub-system ‘autopoietic’, meaning ‘self-making’ in Greek. The British cybernetician Stafford Beer coined the phrase ‘pathological autopoiesis’ to describe a situation where this sub-system malfunctions, and attempts to preserve itself at the expense of the whole. It starts to construe ‘self’ too narrowly, mistaking the welfare of the sub-system for the welfare of the whole system.

Our modern political sphere is full-to-overflowing with examples of pathological autopoiesis, where elements of government or public life which are supposed to benefit the whole merely seek to preserve or enrich themselves. Banks and MPs are two obvious examples. Typically these pathological sub-systems protest that they are acting in the interest of the whole when they are clearly not. How many times have we heard ‘the national interest’ invoked to justify the crazy wars in Iraq and Afganistan, even after we explained that they are “not in our name”?

Fortunately, because all of its components have a degree of autonomy, it is possible for the system to survive even when some of its sub-systems are establishing a pathological hegemony. In the political sphere this autonomy is known as ‘democracy’, and it is a prerequisite for the long-term viability and sustainability of the human race. Democracy offers us the chance to wrest power and resources from pathological sub-systems before they destroy us, and ironically themselves too.

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The Whole Thing

“All societary regulatory systems begin inside the individual, at leasy cytologically and neurophysiologically and endocrynologically, then psychologically, and in my own understanding mystically too; and they extend according to cybernetic principles of regulatory processes through many recursions and many dimensions of embedment. Those we know how to examine and measure, which is to say that today define the scope of science, do not stop short of the global economy; the mystical ones not even then.”

Stafford Beer, Think Before You Think (p203)

The Political Instinct

In her book “The Mystery of Numbers” Annemarie Schimmel discusses the innate human mathematical instinct at the root of all systems of numbers and geometry. There is also an innate political instinct at the root of all our political systems and forms. The mathematical instinct governs human relationships to questions of oneness and manyness, controlling how we divide the world into quantities. The political instinct governs our relationship to questions of order, purpose and cooperation.

Humans instinctively feel that we are in this world for a purpose — it takes an extraordinary confluence of cynicism and apathy to knock this feeling out of us — and we also feel that we must cooperate with others to achieve this purpose. All of our patterns of cooperation, modes of persuasion, and our efforts to collectively agree upon goals spring from these initial political instincts.

To call our political instincts innate is to say that they are part of our nature, our soul, which means that they are basically good. Our mathematical instincts too are fundamentally good and useful, are one of the sacred endowments at the root of great human achievements. Yet unfortunately both mathematical and political instincts can be twisted and corrupted by the delusions of greed, hatred, pride etc. The opening scene of 2001 — A Space Odyssey graphically depicts the unfortunate human tendency to turn conceptual knowledge into weapons and slaughter.

One of the great challenges of our time is to rediscover our innate political instinct, before it got corrupted and became just another servant of business. This primordial political energy in our souls can bind us together through love and shared endeavour, and marry us to both ideals and reality.

Politics and Religion

The two basic points are 1) every religion has a valid political dimension 2) every religion has suffered from being harnessed to political interests which have no basis in religion.

Buddhism has a valid political dimension. The Buddha gives clear advice to rulers in the Kutadanta and Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttas. Islam and Judaism have more obvious political dimensions because both Mohammed and Moses were law-givers. The Qur’an and Torah both provide the bases for legal systems to govern polities of various shapes and sizes.

The Qur’an and the Torah both combine the eternal and the temporal, and this reveals the nature of politics. God is eternal and Truth is eternal, but the actual, temporal conditions in which man finds himself are far from God. Man must find a way back to God so, through the prophets, God reveals His spiritual truths and His laws for good-living.

Politics is an aspect of humanity’s collective striving for good. In our political activity we should be guided by the religious truths to which we are the heirs, but we must not make the mistakes of over-literalism, dogmatism, sectarianism, etc. which have so bedevilled our civilisation.

Within the Islamic world the Islamist tendency over-emphasises the political dimension of Islam at the expense of the spiritual. Because it is has lost connection with the loving aspect of God it is prepared to contemplate or perform violence and terrorism to accomplish its sectarian goals. Islamism has more in common with Trotskyism than it does with Islam.

Although Islamism is a corruption of Islam, this does not mean that Muslims should withdraw entirely from the political sphere. On the contrary, it is important that Muslims who are in touch with the spiritual heart of their religion should be socially and politically engaged, in order to reduce the space available to Islamists. Muslims have an important role to play combating the ever-strengthening tide of greed, materialism, addiction, violence and environmental destruction. Organisations like Christian Aid provide an example of how religious people can make vital contributions if they engage with the key political issues of our time.

Increasing Equality

According to Lord Griffiths, the Conservative peer and Vice-Chairman of investment bank Goldman Sachs “we have to accept that inequality is a way of achieving greater opportunity and prosperity for all”. Has he hit on a clever, counter-intuitive truth? No, he is just plain wrong.

In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show that practically all the problems of modern societies, from child mortality to drug addiction, mental illness to obesity, murder rates to environmental pollution, have the same root cause – inequality.

“It became clear,” according to Wilkinson, “that countries such as the US, the UK and Portugal, where the top 20% earn seven, eight or nine times more than the lowest 20%, scored noticeably higher on all social problems at every level of society than in countries such as Sweden and Japan, where the differential is only two or three times higher at the top.”

We all know that the endless pursuit of economic growth is crazy, that higher GDP is a meaningless quest that does nothing to increase our collective happiness or well-being. What Wilkinson and Pickett show is that we must measure our society’s success in terms of increasing equality, because this is the only reliable recipe for “greater opportunity and prosperity for all”.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAScgcrXlXE

Gandhi famously said:

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

Tackling poverty is essential if we are to achieve an equal and just society. So is confronting greed. Although the Labour government has taken certain steps towards reducing poverty, such as introducing family tax credits, they have done nothing to restrain the rapacious behaviour of the economic elites. Peter (now Lord) Mandelson said in 1998 “we are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. We now see the damage that this laissez-faire attitude has caused, and is still causing.

So what is the answer, redistribution of wealth? In fact the first thing we need to do is STOP redistributing wealth. The current system is set up to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich. We see this clearly in the bailout of the banking system, where we have all dug deep into our pockets to keep the bonus culture afloat. We see it evidently in the various forms of privatisation, taking property that previously belonged to us all, and handing it to a small section of the population. We see the government choose to fund public infrastructure through expensive private finance, when it could borrow the money itself at much lower rates of interest. All of this is designed to make the taxpayer fund the profits of private corporations. It is not sour grapes to say “enough is enough”, it is a sane recognition that for as long as the ever-widening gulf of inequality in our society is allowed to grow, we will become sicker, fatter, and more likely fall victim to crime and violence.

Natural Harmony

February 2007

Although there is strength in wanting things to be different there is also weakness. The strength is in compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering; we should all wish that the conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness is because there is much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn.

If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working. How can it be working? The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged!

Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations on its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. It means on the contrary that it IS working. If the leaders of a country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works.

It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, then the natural political system is working.

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of people’s minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they are in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any more so he used all his creative powers to become Buddha, to release himself and others.

When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault – he may never have learned any other way of responding. Can we say in this situation that his natural political system is working?

The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system the laws governing systems apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. What the output will be will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10c into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way. Either way the system is working, insofar as it is being systematic.

Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work, and not without reason, but we can learn more from how things actually DO work than from how we think they should work! The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from the depths of the universe.

The ‘Real’ Economy

With financial meltdown seemingly averted, eyes are now turning to the ‘real’ economy, and the question of how deep will be the global recession precipitated by the abrupt ending of cheap credit. (We should have no doubt that cheap credit is over. Banks and hedge funds are now desperately trying to ‘de-leverage’, which means holding onto all the cash they can, while unwinding their ‘positions’ funded through borrowing. Cash is king, queen, and the whole royal family.)

What exactly is the ‘real’ economy? Can we say it is the economy where we work, the economy of production, the economy of fundamentals? As discussed previously, the global financial markets are largely divorced from the real economy insofar as 80% of trades are purely ‘technical’ (e.g. arbitrage, currency speculation) while only 20% are concerned with actual ‘investment’. This is one of the reasons why Susan Strange said that money has gone “mad”.

The world’s richest and most famous fundamental investor, Warren Buffett, has also warned against the madness of a market obsessed with prices and technicalities. Following his friend Ben Graham, Buffett characterizes the market as a fellow named Mr. Market:

Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his. Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him. Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: he doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you. (The Essays of Warren Buffett, p64)

Rather than focus on the ‘technical’ factors of market behavior, Buffett prefers to focus on the fundamental characteristics of the businesses in which he owns a stake. He wants to intimately understand their products, accounts, business models, and management. In this he follows the example of John Maynard Keynes, whom Buffett praises, quoting a letter that Keynes wrote in 1934:

As time goes on, I get more and more convinced that the right method in investment is to put fairly large sums into enterprises which one thinks one knows something about and in the management of which one thoroughly believes. It is a mistake to think that one limits one’s risk by spreading too much between enterprises about which one knows little and has no reason for special confidence . . . . One’s knowledge and experience are limited and there are seldom more than two or three enterprises at any given time in which I personally feel myself entitled to put full confidence. (Essays of Warren Buffett, p82)

Although the investment philosophy of Warren Buffett compares favorably with the madness prevalent in the market, there are nevertheless many important ‘fundamentals’ which he overlooks. For example, Buffett describes Coca-Cola as a “wonderful” business (ibid. p30). This remark is very revealing about the ‘real’ economy, because the ‘real’ economy makes no distinction between those companies whose products and practices are harmful and those whose are helpful. Instead the focus is purely on the bottom line, profit and loss.

I would like to propose that we divide the ‘real’ economy into two broad categories: the productive and destructive economies. The job of investors, consumers, workers and governments should be to look beyond mere profit and loss at the actual effects which companies and their activities have on the world. We should support those which are productive, and boycott those which are destructive.

There are some companies which fall clearly into one or other of these categories, and some which are more ambiguous. Clearly we should all boycott weapons and tobacco companies, although unfortunately the British and American governments provide enormous public subsidies to weapons companies.

One ‘industry’ which is clearly destructive is gambling, yet its revenues — a frightening £55bn in the UK last year — are included in Britain’s GDP. Surely this figure should be subtracted, not added! However, the Department of Culture has gone so far as to say that it “sponsors” the gambling industry.

Government sponsorship indeed seems to be the effect of the Gambling Act 2005, which loosened the regulations applied to gambling, despite the fact that there were already 300,000 gambling addicts in this country (of whom 40% have suicidal tendencies). The act was passed in the face of a report by Professor Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University that the effect of the bill would be to increase the number of addicts by between two and four times. As we move into recession we are likely to see gambling become more of a problem: a recent survey shows a link between gambling and urban deprivation.

The point is that notions of the ‘real’ economy are meaningless if considered in isolation from physical and mental well-being. No matter how profitable a company, if its effect is to damage well-being then its revenues and profits should not be counted as part of our national ‘product’. Instead, attempts should be made to warn people away through taxation, advertising bans, publicity compaigns, clear labelling, denial of premises and so on. This is the strategy which is now, belatedly, being pursued in the UK with regard to cigarettes. Better late than never.

The View From Iceland – by Elin Agla Briem

Once
After a hard day’s forage
Two bears sat together in silence
On a beautiful vista
Watching the sun go down
And feeling deeply grateful
For life.

Though after a while
A thought-provoking conversation began
Which turned to the topic of
Fame.

Then one bear said,
“Did you hear about Rustam?
He has become famous
And travels from city to city
In a golden cage;

He performs to hundreds of people
Who laugh and applaud
His carnival
Stunts.”

The other bear thought for
A few seconds

Then started weeping.

(‘Two Bears’ by Hafiz, trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

To whom will we bow tomorrow? I lived in England from 2003 till 2007. During that time Iceland changed a lot. In a society that used to be almost without any class distinction, all of a sudden there was a group of extremely rich people. Private jets, Elton John and 50cent at birthday parties and so forth.

It seemed half of the population wanted to work in banks (that was the great gold cage everyone wanted to get into). I found it amazing that very few seemed to ever consider whether it was a good thing to go after as much money as you could possibly get your hands on. The people who followed that maxim were hailed as heroes, courageous vikings. I think oligarchs is the modern term.

Of course not everyone thought in this way.

What has happened now is a combination of many things. A government that hasn’t been doing its job of looking after the citizens, a lack of regulation of financial businesses, naiveity and greed. Greed is probably the biggest factor.

Many people have been warning that this might happen for some time now, both in Iceland and England.  It looks as if they were hushed up (at least some reports were) so the party could go on for as long as possible. Who’s responsible for this hush up? The ones that gained from it. The 20 people or so that now are hiding outside of the country. Hanging on to their golden cages. As well as the politicians who wanted to enjoy the good times as well.

“We acted as if there was no tomorrow, so now there isn’t going to be one”

as my friend Kurt Vonnegut said when talking about the state of the planet.

The group of 20 or so people (oligarchs)  who owned the lot, seem to have left the building, taking with them as much as they can save of their billions, or trillions. Sorry I’m getting quite confused with these big numbers.

This is a very sad situation. The consequences are not yet fully known. It looks very serious. It will ruin the foundations of our society and enslave future generations to a huge debt.

You have to remember there are only about 300,000 people here to pay this bill. And this bill is huge. The bank owners had set up branches all over Europe and the Icelandic government (i.e. Icelandic tax payers) is responsible for paying the deposits back to the people of these countries. That includes England.

A lot of people in Iceland have lost all their savings, including my sister, thousands of regular folks have. Old people and young who were convinced by the bankers to put their money in bonds and funds that were perfectly safe!

We have the problem with our currency as well. You can’t buy any currency now unless you’ve got a flight ticket. Icelanders abroad can’t cash any money through foreign banks. All imports have, or are about to, come to a halt. Icelandic businesses around the world have lost all credibility and have to pay cash in all transactions.

The krona has fallen to I don’t know where — no one knows now I think.

The government is desperately trying to get a huge loan from Russia. Iceland will then probably support their efforts of gaining control of the North pole and its resources.  Well, I guess we will ‘support’ them on every matter and every whim. Maybe Canada would take us under its wing. Then we will of course ‘support’ them in all their actions and policies.

There is also the problem with Mr. Gordon Brown. He has used anti-terrorist legislation to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks. He declares the Icelandic state as bankrupt and so forth. Some people claim that with his remarks and actions he has ruined Kaupthing, the only bank which was still standing in Iceland. Kaupthing was the biggest Icelandic company and the loss because of this is tremendous.

The politicians all try to save their faces and keep themselves and their party number one. It’s so important to stay in power, to hold on to fame and the golden cage. The Icelandic PM and the British PM point their fingers and say to their people “Look at those islanders and see how they are treating you. But don’t worry, I’ll play tough and look after you. Just remember to vote for me in the next election.”

Our reputation has been ruined. That hurts all Icelanders deeply.  Honor, reputation and independence is very important to this nation.  I’m not sure if it affects the oligarchs though, they might have slightly different priorities.

I feel very sad and sick to my stomach about the way people behave. I feel for the people who are without any security now, and I feel for the people who are managing to hold on to their golden cages.

You could say that in a sense the Icelandic society has been shot right between the eyes.

It is in no way extreme to say that our independence is at stake in this situation. We might not be able to afford such a luxury any more. That breaks my heart.

I’m quite fortunate in a sense not to have any property and never to have had any. I’m also very fortunate to live among farmers and people up north who have always lived on modest means and know how to survive in this country.

This is a very basic description of the situation. The nation is in a state of shock. No one knows what will happen next.  Will we have our health care, our education system and so forth?

Will we have to bow to the East or West in the future?

Unwilling Participants in the Casino

In her book ‘Casino Capitalism’ (1986) the respected political economist Susan Strange wrote:

“The great difference between an ordinary casino which you can go into or stay away from, and the global casino of high finance, is that in the latter we are all involuntarily engaged in the day’s play. A currency change can halve the value of a farmer’s crop before he harvests it, or drive an exporter out of business. A rise in interest rates can fatally inflate the costs of holding stocks for the shop-keeper. A takeover dictated by financial considerations can rob the factory worker of his job. From school-leavers to pensioners, what goes on in the casino in the office blocks of the big financial centres is apt to have sudden, unpredictable and unavoidable consequences for individual lives. The financial casino has everyone playing the game of Snakes and Ladders.”

Since the 1980’s, in the name of the so-called “free market”, governments around the world have made it easier for high-rollers to play in the global casino of high finance. In doing so they have argued that they are respecting the fundamental human ‘right’ to make millions, and they have claimed that the market is a force for innovation.

What we clearly understand is that there is always a trade-off between different peoples’ rights. As Susan Strange implies, the ‘right’ of certain people to play at the casino can severely impact the right of other people to eat, to afford healthcare, or to send their children to school.

There is a need to evaluate the relative importance of different people’s rights. If politics were healthy this evaluation would be performed on the basis of whose ‘right’ is more fundamental, and clearly the rights of those who wish to eat, study and get well should be considered more fundamental than the rights of those who wish to become multi-millionaires through unproductive speculation.

Unfortunately the political systems of the western democracies are not healthy. They are plagued by lobby groups representing ‘special interests’, including the financial industry which has put all of our futures in peril. They will seek to preserve their right to gamble, jeopardizing the rest of the world’s right to produce, plan, save, etc. We need to use the democratic tools at our disposal to prevent this.

The argument that deregulated financial markets are a force for innovation has been shown to be false. Their only ‘innovation’ is the creation of ever more complex financial products and derivatives, which even those who buy them fail to understand. Actual innovation, in terms of the productive ‘real’ economy, is severely stunted by these inveterate gamblers.

More Thoughts on the Financial Crisis

Another philosophical issue underlying the current financial crisis is the collective inability of our financial institutions to discern value. Lacking discernment they bought huge quantities of complex assets that turned out to be worthless, and now they require the tax-payer to bail them out.

One of the complex financial instruments whose actual value the banks failed to discern is Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO’s). Sub-prime mortgages were packaged up as CDO’s and bought by the banks, creating the toxicity which the Paulson plan aims to hoover out of the US system, and which is undermining the British banking system so much that it needs to be partially nationalized at a cost of at least £50bn.

Banks were spectacularly unable to discern the actual value of CDO’s, and the risk which attached to them. With the absence of discernment, the herd mentality dominated the financial markets, first in the form of greed as banks bought and sold the toxic assets in great quantities because everyone else was doing it and earning fat bonuses, and now in the form of fear as inter-bank lending has completely dried up, with no bank trusting another.

For me, an interesting analogy is provided by the Australian aboriginal Achilpa tribe. The tribe possesses a sacred pole which connects heaven and earth:

“During their wanderings the Achilpa always carry it with them and choose the direction they are to take by the direction towards which it bends. This allows them, while being continually on the move, to be always in “their world”, and, at the same time, in communication with the sky . . .  For the pole to be broken denotes catastrophe; it is like “the end of the world,” reversion to chaos. Spencer and Gillen [two anthropologists] report than when the pole was broken, the entire clan were in consternation; they wandered about aimlessly for a time, and finally lay on the ground together and waited for death to overtake them.” (from ‘The Sacred and The Profane’, Mircea Eliade, pub. Harcourt Brace (1959))”

The last sentence is an apt description of the current behaviour of financial institutions.

The human race’s unique nature is to be simultaneously in communication with the ground and the sky, earth and heaven. This is the meaning of the Taoist yin-yang symbol, where yin represents earth, yang represents heaven, and the human race’s job is to keep the two in harmony. Another way of saying the same thing is that human beings are composed of spirit and body, and that health and well-being, individually and collectively, come from correctly aligning body to spirit.

To relate such considerations to the financial crisis might invite derision from some quarters, yet it is precisely the correct alignment of spirit and body, heaven and earth, which enables us to discern value in the world. Without a spiritual axis there is no way to discern the beautiful from the ugly, the good from the bad, the valuable from the worthless. Without a spiritual axis all we are left with is the herd mentality: we blindly follow the rest of the herd and when that fails we lie on the ground waiting to die.

If any more proof were needed of financial wheeler-dealers’ inability to discern value or beauty, look at the current success of Damian Hirst, who cannily sold his remaining stock of embalmed sharks while the hedgies still had some money left. Look to the art market for the next set of ‘assets’ to be revealed as worthless, and for the next herd to lie on the ground bleating. Fortunately the tax payer won’t be required to bail them out.