03 August 2012

Changing the World: a Case Study.

This post, the last I have planned for this blog, is an extended version of an essay I submitted to Śabda the newsletter that our Order use to keep in touch (it's like a once a month manual forum). Many Buddhists are interested in changing the world. Over my lifetime the world has changed significantly, and I thought it might be interesting to write up some reflections on this change, and how it was achieved.

The world changed in 1971. 

In 1971 President Nixon unilaterally dismantled the Bretton Woods Agreement. This multi-lateral agreement on monetary policy was put in place to help the world recover financially from WWII. It spawned the IMF and the World Bank. Part of Bretton Woods was the gold standard. The countries involved agreed to fix the exchange rate of their currency to the value of the US Dollar, while the US agreed to peg the value of their currency to the value of gold. The expense of the war in Vietnam was putting great pressure on the US economy. Then the French began to swap their US dollars for gold. This caused a drain on gold reserves in the US and choked their money supply. In the face of these problems Nixon may not have had much choice but to withdraw from the gold standard. This is something for goldbugs to keep in mind.  As we will see this was the thin edge of the wedge.

In the same year the UK introduced the Competition and Credit Control Act. Economists joke about this really being 'all competition and no control'. The main effect of these changes was deregulation, which allowed private sector debt to begin to accumulate. From 1945 to 1971 there was a period of economic stability, with no notable crises. The IMF tell us that since 1970 "there have been 147 bank crises, 218 currency crises and 66 country-financing crises". In 1971 the motto of Polonious was decisively thrown out. The world began to borrow to finance consumption and to gamble on asset prices.

During the 1980s politicians influenced by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics, also known as Neo-classical economics, gained power. They were aided in part by divisions amongst the other dominant school of economic thought: the Keynesians. It was the ideas of John Maynard Keynes which had produced the post-war economic stability. Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA (and Lange in NZ) implemented policies inspired by the Chicago School. These policies are also known as Neo-liberalism. One of the main things they did was pursue deregulation of the economy. This pursuit was based on an ideological view of markets which they said could be left to themselves to sort out prices. Underlying this view was the 19th century utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham. And overlaying it was an over-estimation of the power of computers to predict the behaviour of the economy, and the validity of the computer models being used to make predictions. All around the first world Neo-liberal policies removed trade barriers, sold off public assets, down sized government departments, and took the deregulation of finance almost to it's logical conclusion.

Debt fuelled consumption and speculation, especially the latter, pushed up prices causing inflation. Inflation required pay rises, and further price rises. Until it all collapsed in a recession. Then began to pile up again. Each cycle was a little worse because some of the debt carried over. In the Third World it rapidly lead to ruin and poverty for many. Africa succumbed first in the 1970s. South American countries were hit in the 1980s. In South-East Asia ruin and poverty came in the late 1990's. Now the First World faces ruin.

The response to repeated crises was to further deregulate the economy, and particularly finance. In the UK this was done by a Labour government. The Labour party still describe themselves as "socialist", but alongside typically socialist policies like expansion of the welfare state, they pursued an extreme Neo-Liberal approach to the finance sector. This further deregulation allowed for more debt, and more risky lending. Banks, who make money from debt, were happy to oblige. Successive governments around the world followed similar policies.The whole thing gained momentum so that debts accumulated exponentially.

The finance sector generated huge amounts of income but concentrated it in the hands of a tiny minority. It generated even hugher amounts of debt. Today the UK is the most indebted country in the world. Recent estimates place our private sector debt at 450% of GDP, which includes household debt (including mortgages) at 100%. Government debt by comparison is just 81% of GDP.

The most recent crisis exposed corruption in the finance sector, and the massive scale of our indebtedness. Five years later we're still going down hill, with Europe teetering on the brink (of what?). Many first world banks are technically insolvent, but somehow reporting record profits and paying out large bonuses. Now we learn that some have been manipulating interest rates. They are propped by government borrowing amounting to a trillion pounds. Executive pay is increasing exponentially. Unemployment is high. So much for the "free market". What this approach to banking amounts to is national socialism. However the practitioners of this peculiar form of socialism for the rich, are still emphasising that the poor must pursue a pure form of free-market capitalism. Many intellectuals are pointing to disturbing parallels with Europe in 1931.

The same trend has exacerbated environmental problems. At the moment there are direct and indirect incentives to exploit resources at the maximum rate with no regard to the environmental consequences. Governments seem paralysed by fear of the business sector. And business and finance spend billions of dollars/pounds lobbying for favourable laws. The political will to address any of these problems does not exist at present. And those economists who did predict the credit crunch of 2007 are saying that we have not seen the worst. There is another massive credit crunch coming in 2012 or 2013.

How did this happen?

The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

Lewis Powell Memo
The second major event of 1971 was the Lewis Powell Memorandum to the US Chamber of Commerce entitled "Attack on American Free Enterprise System". Powell characterised the situation as a war in which business interested were threatened by social change emphasising the values of cooperation and mutual aid (our values). The memo makes a series of detailed proposals for an aggressive response by conservative businessmen.

Businessmen should endow universities with chairs to teach conservative business practices, and financially support conservative institutes. Powell proposed that a number of very well resourced think-tanks be set up. These would help to create and promote a consistent, potent message. Deregulation was central to their agenda. They needed to train spokesmen in communicating the conservative message, and create booking agencies to help organise speakers. They also invested in media companies to ensure access. They did all this, and needless to say they funded conservative political parties. Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court two months after the memo was published.

At the same time US conservatives began to politicise fundamentalist Christians who had been disengaged to that point, creating a whole new constituency of millions of ultra-conservative voters.

Conservatives all over the world have benefited from this coordinated strategy to hijack democracy in the USA, and fight a war against their own people. A steady stream of graduates with PhDs in what amounts to conservative ideology, finds jobs in universities and think-tanks to explore and publish their ideas and influence new generations of students and intellectuals particularly economists. There are close linked between Neo-conservative though and Neo-classical Economics. Through manipulation and control of the media a constant presence of the conservative message is maintained. Powell's memo is one of the most important documents of the 20th century, it is the founding charter of the Neo-conservative religion.

However I should sound a note of caution. Some historians have noted that there is little evidence that Powell Memo had any real impact. Even so it remains iconic because it sums up the mood of conservatives in the US at the time, and it summarises what actually happened in terms of the mobilisation of conservatives.

As a result of these policies conservative ideas have been at the forefront of politics. Deregulation has wrecked the world's economy, and helped to wreck the environment. Conservatives set the agendas on which elections are fought (they are doing so again in the UK right now). Business policy became political policy; business values became social values. The world changed because conservatives captured the cognitive map, dominated the debate by choosing the frames, and made laws that represented their values.

Something that I did not say in my original essay was that during this time the hippies were busy taking mind addling drugs, catching crabs and growing their hair long. As John Lydon said with venom in an interview from the late 1970s the problem with hippies was that "they're complaisant". While people in the 1970's counter-culture were tuning in, turning on and dropping our, the conservatives where tuning in, turning on and taking over. This is relevant because many of the leaders of First World Buddhism were hippies or felt inspired by the counter-culture. Some still do feel inspired by that era. But the hippies changed nothing. Their self-indulgent abdication of civil responsibility simply allowed the conservatives to dominate political life.

This how American businessmen succeeded in changing the world. They certainly created a much bigger impact on the world than Buddhism has done. It might be argued that we are few and poorly resourced. But the basic problem seems to be that we don't care, or don't care enough. There are plenty of people out there to make common cause with. We suffer from what Glenn Wallis has called sufficiency. We think Buddhism is a magic panacea entirely sufficient for all purposes be it psychological integration, emotional positivity, and even social change. So we don't look elsewhere, and we don't make common cause with people who share our values. And honestly, most people share our values at least to some extent. We're not as special as we'd like to think, and that feeling of specialness really is a problem for us because it's an expression of ego.

Now What?

I ended by report to the order with this question: "OK, I've understood this, now what?" This was as much to do with the word limit on reports as anything. I'm quite clear on some of the measures I'd like to see in response.

Firstly we must as a priority involve ourselves in civic society. This may require some education. But there are plenty of resources for that in this day and age. We Buddhists almost always have a strong sense of values. At the very least we should all book a time to go and meet our elected representative and try to communicate our values to them. We're about 1% of the UK population, but we're clustered and if we all visited our representative then we'd be heard. Democracy only works if people participate. Your representative can only represent you if they know you. But we need to go further. We need to engage in whatever public forums are open to us and speak up about our values and aspirations (this will require a major effort to de-jargonise Buddhist-speak else no one will understand what we are saying).

There are many arguments for and against this, but for me the bottom line is that if you take altruism seriously as a virtue, then you need to act to resist laws and policies which visit suffering on people. If we want society to reflect our Buddhism values, then making a few thousand converts is not enough. We need to influence public policy, which we do by being personally involved.

Secondly there are pressing problems such as environmental degradation that need concerted action. Concerted political will only emerges when there is a clear public will. If we're not even in the discussion our voices won't be heard. We live in a world where in some places people are dying of starvation and malnutrition, and in other places dying from obesity. There is no shortage of food on planet earth, even for a much larger population. Speaking as an over-weight Buddhist, I say there is no excuse for being a fat Buddhist (except in some very rare glandular disorders). Charities and Aid are only sticking plasters. Necessary for the short-term but long term we need to be thinking about changing the political systems we live in. In the First World we have the greatest chance of making these changes precisely because we live in relatively free democracies.

My third point follows on from this. The major powers continually act with greedy self-interest when dealing with the rest of the world. If we had acted more honourably at key points in history, then there would be considerably less war in the world now. For instance if the European powers had kept their promise to the Arabs lead by Prince Faisal at the end of WWI then our relations with the entire Middle East would be very different. The UK and the USA governments in particular have behaved abominably right up to the present. We have to let them know 'not in my name'.

Lastly we need to understand how political debates are framed, and set about reframing them. And here I think I've gained valuable experience in dealing with how Buddhist debates are framed. What I reject is the traditional ultraconservative fundamentalist framing of Buddhism; and Buddhism as a supernatural panacea. And it is very interesting to note the religious tone to Neo-Liberal discourse, and the idea of the supernatural ability of markets to determine price (which reminds me very much of karma). I've already written several blog posts on the Renegade Economist site regarding these issues: Framing the Debate Part I and Part 2, and Distorting Darwin or How the West Was Won.


So that's it for Jayarava's Raves. I have nothing else planned out to say on Buddhism. In a sense I feel I've said what I wanted to say about it. If you read one essay a week it would take you six years to read them all. I have been working on packaging some of the essays up into a book (or perhaps two) but I have no deadline in mind at present.

Now I want to engage with the institutions of society more, to take part in the public debate. I will certainly do all this as a Buddhist, and I will draw on the Dharma. However I won't be setting out to convert people to Buddhism, only to encourage them (and myself) towards paying attention, expressing empathy and altruism, and finding contentment in their lives. And after all it's only a blog, and not even very popular.

Thanks to all my readers over the years. And Thanks especially to my friend Ann 'Pema Yutso' Palomo for inspiring the whole project.

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