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”.
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.
Acceptance of the way things are
Although there can be strength in wanting things to be different there can also be weakness. The strength may be compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering – we should all wish that conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness can be because, from our own point of view, there may be 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? Maybe 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.
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 in its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. On the contrary, it means that it *is* working. If the leaders of the 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, the natural political system is working.
Mind and politics are the same nature
What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of peoples’ minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they can be 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 longer so he used all his creative powers to become the 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 as he may have never learnt any other way of responding. His mind is working; can we say in this situation that ‘his natural political system’ is working?
Cybernetics / Systems Theory
The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system, the laws governing systems (cybernetics) apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. The exact output will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10 cents 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 obeying cybernetic law. Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because, quite reasonably, we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work. 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 somewhere else.
Natural Political Flatness
We normally have the idea that political power is a man-made construction, which tends to configure itself like a pyramid with those at the top having most power and those at the bottom least. However, it is possible to consider political power to be a natural phenomenon. According to this view everyone is naturally imbued with an equal amount of political power, because political power is part of the mind. Far from being a pyramid, this power structure is completely flat because everyone is fundamentally equal. From this point of view the man-made, pyramidal political system is a secondary phenomenon superimposing itself upon the natural flatness.
The man-made political system develops when people create it and invest it with their own natural political power. It is, in some sense, an illusion because no matter how much power appears to reside in it, it is nothing other than people’s natural political power in a contrived form. The awe we feel when we meet powerful people within the man-made system is in proportion to the credence we invest in the illusion. We should feel no more awe meeting one person than another, because all of us are naturally powerful and important.
compiled in September 2008 from articles on a previous ‘Politics of Soul’ website.