Sunday, 17 May 2015

Nation, Society and Wise Stewardship


I visited Te Papa, New Zealand's National Museum, in Wellington recently. There is an extensive presentation of their Maori, but even more of their British, heritage, along with the stories of the migrations, the backgrounds, and of the many refugees that New Zealand has taken in. But the major exhibition at the Museum was of the displays and videos commemorating the Gallipoli invasion during the First World War. Gallipoli, that’s part of Turkey – so what did that have to do with New Zealanders? Britain, that’s what. They were the King’s men and part of the Empire, so it was their duty. So without any more reason than that, they went to they didn’t know what  – and over 90% of them died. So, no, I didn’t go to see that.

Despite this, New Zealand is still quite British; they even celebrate the Queen’s birthday. But what is Britain and British? Is it a distinctive flag, tea, Big Ben, Edwardian costumes, the Beatles and Monty Python? Or is that English? Or even UK-ish? Surely all that’s past, anyway – except for the Union Jack. As for that … (And what is a nation, anyway?)

The recent General Elections cleared some of the identity fog for me. One result of the election has been that the northern end of the island of Britain voted in large numbers for the Scottish Nationalist Party, which seeks independence from the southern ‘English’ end. Meanwhile, the party that won more seats in England also became the government of the United Kingdom, a state that includes Britain plus a chunk of Ireland. This party is antipathetic to the SNP.  So currently, with regard to ‘United’, the omens are clearly not good. Especially, as some folk are eager to point out, since, although the Conservative Party won most seats, they didn't get a majority of votes. This is because of the electoral system: if there were proportional representation, Parliament would have had a very mixed bag of disagreeing members who would have to debate and form compromises. This, although confusing, would be closer to the nature of British society; we are mongrels of differing views who come from all over the place – even the royalty. Consequently, a brighter side of the national identity is the ability to accommodate differences; it resists fixed or absolute ideologies, supports tolerance and gives rise to a self-deprecating sense of humour. Yes, open access, freedom of speech, democracy, the Trade Union movement and the suffragettes, social welfare, BBC and the National Health Service, that’s my sense of what the nation is about. That’s not English or Scottish; that is or was British. And more than that: it’s in line with the social development the world over that allows people to function with a sense of mutual respect and encourages cooperation.

The ability to accommodate internal differences is what distinguishes a nation from its antecedent, the tribe. Tribes are great on internal loyalty and kinship with land, but poor on cooperation with other tribes. For the Maori, inter-tribal warfare was the norm; they couldn't work as a unified force. Nationhood, on the other hand, arrives at unity through constant internal negotiation, compromise and cooperation. The achievement of nationhood is not of unquestioning obedience to a leader, but the willingness to forge and abide with overarching laws that define an ethos.

In this light, it’s good to recollect why in his time and place, the Buddha considered the Vajjian confederacy as a model state. The seven features that made it strong were:
(1)They held frequent public meetings of their tribe which they all attended;
(2) they met together to make their decisions and carried out their undertakings in concord;
(3) they didn't abolish long-term principles and they honoured their pledges;
(4) they respected and supported their elders;
(5) no women or girls were allowed to be taken by force or abduction;
(6) they maintained and paid due respect to their places of worship;
(7) they supported and fully protected spiritual leaders. (D .16. 1.4).

It is said that the Buddha so admired this republican and democratic method that he used it as the model for how his Sangha would deal with their business. Translating that list into something more timeless, we might say that the recipe for a healthy nation is a mix of open discourse, respect for values and care for its people.

‘Open discourse’: well the various trails of embarrassing leaked memos suggest that much of what happens in the modern State goes in is in secret. But maybe that's to keep us safe from the Enemy. ‘Carry out their undertakings in concord.’ Yes, in the UK Parliament, we have people called Whips who ensure that members of the party vote in accordance with the party leaders. So concord is guaranteed! As for not abolishing long-term principles: hm.  Now what are they?

One is that, in Western democracies, the adults determine who will temporarily govern the commons, the land and the commonwealth. So the government is a steward, not the owner, of the nation's resources and ethos. Exactly so: in Sangha, we can’t give away long-term valuables, such as land, unless to exchange it for something equivalent. We hold such things in trust for the Sangha of the future.

However since the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher, the ethos of every government has been to transfer much of what was corporate and held in trust for the nation to the private sector. Water, electricity, and all source of energy; airports, and some sea-ports; postal services and telecommunications; railways and rented housing for lower-paid workers: all that has gone barring a few traces. The rationale behind this was that it would lessen the tax burden and improve efficiency. I don’t get it: other European countries run their own utilities, why doesn’t the UK steward just hire some better managers? And as for tax: Value-Added Tax has steadily risen from 8% to 20%. Perhaps the idea was that anyone could take shares in these private enterprises, so ordinary people could thereby take ownership of the national assets and even derive wealth from them. But the percentage of such ownership has steadily dropped from 40% of the pre-Thatcher era to 12% in 2013.1  Perhaps ordinary people couldn't compete with the savvy and financial clout of multi-national corporations, or the state-subsidised enterprises of other nations – who have therefore acquired the national infrastructure.

A consequence of the UK government’s eagerness to privatize and deregulate the economy is that corporations can use British infrastructure, its ordered climate and open access, without taking on the financial or moral responsibility of being part of the nation.  Some multi-nationals (like Amazon) use legal loopholes to be incorporated outside the UK so that they pay minimal tax, and so offer lower prices than UK-based companies while using UK infrastructure. Deregulation also means that global enterprises will seek to employ workers in the lowest paid areas of the world, where labour laws are few. 'Sweatshops' is the term; they're good for the economy.

The idea could have been that if you fix the economy, then the society will benefit. Well, obviously, the economy counts. But it needs careful regulation to avoid the snare of greed. This should be a constant principle, especially as part of Britain’s legacy has been the rise of shareholder capitalism, an economic surge that caused it to seek, acquire and derive financial benefit from a huge area of the Earth. And hold onto it through military means. What was the result of all that? Well, a few got very rich, while the colonized people worked in dire conditions, and back home, the lower classes lived in slums, in poverty, or emigrated. So the social history of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Britain was about dealing with inequalities and giving fairer distribution, as well as education, voting and health to the society as a whole. It was a struggle, often met with resistance (the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Peterloo Massacre etc.), but a corporate State with an ethos of fairness was the result. And consequently a principle of nationhood came to be: if you want to use our resources, you have to take responsibility for the nation, the people as a whole and the land we live on.

This leads on to the principle of 'protecting women and girls’, which in contemporary society translates into looking after the disadvantaged and more vulnerable sections of the society. In the UK this was the inclination that led to the Welfare State, with unemployment benefit and government-owned housing for those of lower income. This also needs to be remembered at the current time when in the UK the gap between the rich and the poor has grown, as has the number of homeless people. Up to one million people now depend on food banks (places to which people donate food) for their sustenance. The prices for basic utilities increases every year, beyond the increase in wages or the rate of inflation, and the free Health Service is sliding towards privatization. There are protests (one within 48 hrs. of the recent election) and riots. The statistics show that the economy has improved, but has the society?

It's good to step back and review what a society and a nation are about. In the 1990s, the United Nations pioneered the Human Development Index (HDI), an alternative measure of development that combined measures of health (life expectancy at birth), education, and economic standard of living. The first Human Development Report defined the HDI and its purpose specifically against the growing reliance on national income measures:
The idea that social arrangements must be judged by the extent to which they promote “human good” goes back at least to Aristotle ...
‘But excessive preoccupation with GNP growth and national income accounts has obscured that powerful perspective, supplanting a focus on ends by an obsession with merely the means.’(UN 1990: 9)

The there is the matter of the spirit or ‘honouring shrines’ in the case of the Vajjians. What shrines do our nation and our governing body honour? War memorials? At times Mrs. Thatcher's views seemed to suggest that the economy was part of a spiritual remedy for the failed nation: 'Economics are the measure, the object is to change the heart and soul,' was one of her comments.  Change from what to what, I wonder. To take the gain-loss shift of financial assets to be the defining mark of human advancement surely indicates that the body-politic has lost touch with spiritual truth.  The view of this kind of economy is that we are lazy and irresponsible, and also that we're in shortage.

But if humans aren’t always that interested in being stressed-out in some meaningless job, and worrying that they might get laid off at a moment’s notice –‘zero-hour contract’ (good for the economy) – is that so weird? What motivates people to work anyway? The economist E.F. Schumacher (of Small Is Beautiful fame2) offers his perspective:

'The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilize and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence … To organize work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring… or nerve-racking … would be little short of criminal ... Equally to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.'

My sense is that if work requires personal initiative, company you can trust and a meaningful outcome, people love to do it. In the circles that I move in, voluntary, unpaid, or cover-costs work is quite normal. As in monasteries: if you come, you don’t pay, you give what you like; while you’re here your food and board is looked after – but you’re expected to keep the moral standards, work, join in and accept responsibility. None of this is imposed by financial carrots or legal sticks; it is explained as a way of finding value in oneself by respecting others, sharing and offering service. People work because meaningful work and cooperation feels good. In spiritual communities, it is modelled as leading to peace, clarity and contentment. How many leaders do that?

These personal examples are tiny, but they do point to a feature of socially-engaged humans: they offer medical services, they work re-creating habitat for wildlife, they create Open Source software (thanks for that!), often for low or moderate pay, because it enriches their lives. So workers’ cooperatives have always been a feature of alternative capitalism, whereby the workers own the company. They present a model of cooperation and responsibility that has social implications.

On the other hand we look at the deregulated economy, the norm is CEO’s who earn millions, cut-throat competition and behaviour that lapses into criminality. And that has social implications too. Look at the record of some of the UK’s leading companies. Hong-Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation or HSBC: found guilty of money-laundering and dealing with Mexican drug cartels, it was fined $1.9 billion (not much, considering its annual profits amount to over $16 billion); no one was jailed, because no one was responsible. Barclay’s Bank: found guilty of fiddling with the LIBOR (that’s an exchange rate). Shell Oil devastates the Niger Delta; BP’s carelessness pollutes the oceans and kills innumerable animals. Sure, the company may acknowledge an error in one department, but nothing fundamental in the ethos of the company changes. It exists to make money, period. The shareholders, the 'owners' of the company, don’t even hold the shares. According to Michael Hudson, a former Wall Street economist at Chase Manhattan Bank, the average time that a share is held in the USA ranges between twenty and twenty-two seconds: then they're sold. Shares have become commodities to be traded, the professional shareholder is a share-gambler; and no one accepts responsibility for the behaviour of the company.  Hence irresponsibility, for the environment, for the people and even for the law, is a consequence. With the society dominated by this kind of heart and soul, it's no wonder some members of the public aren’t that motivated.

Actually, the above-mentioned companies are only British in name: they are morally and socially indifferent to the welfare of their location and are only based here because government policy since the nineties has been to give them tax benefits and freedom from supervision. Consequently the economy has picked up speed, because the stewards of the nation took their hands off the steering wheel, and allowed ‘market forces’ to direct the economy (which, as it now controls essential services also directs the society). Meanwhile, the nation has to pay for the environmental and social damage caused by a free-rein economy. That’s ‘market forces’; it’s a global predicament. (Britain is definitely not alone, e.g. in April, Deutsche Bank was fined $2.5 billion for doing the same as Barclay's) .

As for shortage: there was no shortage when the financial system went belly-up in 2008 due to speculative greed; the treasuries just printed more money. Also there’s a lot of money hidden away: the UK-based Tax Justice Network estimated that in 2010, undisclosed private wealth stashed in tax havens amounted to between $21 and $32 trillion. (The GDP of the UK is about $ 2.85 trillion.) So if tax evasion was dealt with and higher tax placed on invested wealth; if military expenditure were reduced; if fossil fuel companies were no longer handed subsidies (IMF estimates $5.3 trillion /year) but obliged to pay to clean up their damage – then there's no shortage. But because global capitalism works by shifting its assets and tax burdens into the cracks between national jurisdictions, its regulation needs an international approach. This makes sense; states can no longer be defined by geographical boundaries. Since so much of Britain is owned by the international economy and geared to its needs, it has to be part of an international jurisdiction. Then we might be able to focus on the ethical heart of nationhood. For that we need wise stewardship; of which there is a shortage. Shortage is a feature of the non-cooperative and hoarding economy. Internationally, cooperatively, there is no shortage.

I don't know much about economics, but I do observe society. And yes, there are areas where heart and soul do need to change; that has always been the Buddhist focus. But it's through right view and intentions based on goodwill, compassion and non-greed that right action and right livelihood come about. To put it in terms of economics, I'll quote Schumacher again: 'Buddhist economics must be very different from the economics of modern materialism, since the Buddhist sees the essence of civilization not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character. '

That's an attitude in line with elders such as the Buddha and Aristotle; it gets my vote.

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1 According to James Meek  (author of Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else: pub. Verso 2014)
2 Small is Beautiful, by E.F. Schumacher: pub. Blond and Briggs London, 1973