The mode of contemporary living is in many ways dysfunctional. There are the obvious and painful daily signs that affirm this: the thirteen or so wars taking place; the fact that half the world’s population live impoverished lives on less than $2 a day, 80% on under $10 a day. Most of us live with financial anxiety and job uncertainty; 22,000 children die every day of poverty related illnesses; 900,000 people in desperation commit suicide every year and 360 million people are known to be suffering from depression (more in acutely materialistic countries – average 20% in America for example), tens of millions go undetected, untreated and uncounted. And then there are the quieter, less quantifiable ills: the repression, the controls of thinking; the propaganda that conditions and inhibits; the education systems and mass media that manipulatively demand conformity, subdue dissent and deny independent thinking. As Noam Chomsky wrote: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” Clever isn’t it.
Worldwide, life is dominated by an unjust economic model – beloved by all colours on the political spectrum, which has infiltrated every area of life. The preeminent concern of 99% of humanity is the practicalities of daily living – how to pay for food and shelter, education and health care, water and sanitation. There is no time or energy for living, for creativity and self-enquiry, for exploring one’s nature and the world.
Neo-liberal economics, or market fundamentalism, has contributed to extreme levels of poverty, social division and criminality. It is largely responsible for the environmental crisis and man-made climate change and has fueled worldwide inequality. Not just income and wealth inequality, but inequality of opportunities of access, influence, power and rights, including the observation and enforcement of so-called ‘universal’ human rights. The right to food, shelter, education and health care, for example, ‘rights’ universally available if you have money to pay for them. Inequality distorts democracy; indeed it denies democracy as it limits participation, corrupts free speech, suffocates dissent and perpetuates the concentration of power. It causes resentment and anger and fuels a plethora of social ills, from homicide to depression, community suspicion to substance addiction.
This current economic model nestles complacently at the core of many of our problems. It has reduced everything to a commodity – including people: the economically vulnerable are marginalised and exploited, traded like cattle, abused and violated. The system needs to be re-evaluated and fundamentally changed – along with the worldwide value system (promoting materiality) that flows from its ideological roots, and colours all areas of living. Arundhat Roy, in a June 2, 2011 interview with BBC, stated: “We have to re-define the meaning of modernity, to redefine the meaning of happiness.” And re-imagine the world based on altogether different values to the divisive ones espoused by the neo-liberal model. Perennial values that will facilitate the observation of human rights and honour our common humanity: values of unity, tolerance, cooperation and sharing. Principles of goodness held firmly within the hearts of all men and women of goodwill that need to be at the heart of new structures, political, economic and social.
A revolution of ideas is needed; a revolution, the Dalai Lama suggests, “in our commitment to and practice of universal humanitarian values.” Defined by His Holiness as ‘honesty, morality, compassion and wisdom.’
There are positive signs that suggest we are living in a time when such fundamental changes are not only possible, but that if one looks with an open mind (a rare jewel indeed) – the signs of the new can be seen within the fog of conservatism and extremism.
There is a worldwide popular protest movement, the like of which we have not seen before. It stretches from Thailand to Ethiopia, from Turkey to Brazil; it is an expression of group responsibility, of anger and hope. It is largely peaceful and represents a change of mind, a recognition that, as a great teacher has said, “nothing changes by itself,” that “man must act and implement his will.” Sensing their collective power, huge groups of people are uniting and demanding change, calling for freedom. An end to injustice, to state and corporate corruption, the destructive influence of global institutions – the International Monetary Fund and World Bank – and to be listened to by arrogant governments, who for too long have serviced their own ambitious interests and their corporate bed-mates and failed to serve the people.
The Arab Spring, together with the ground breaking Occupy Movement is, perhaps, the loudest cry amongst a chorus of voices calling for political and social change in recent years. And yes there is turmoil in the region, but it is a time of transition, change takes time and resistance is deep-seated. The revolution in Egypt brought hundreds of thousands, some claim tens of millions onto the streets of Cairo; it toppled two presidents, and, as Ahdal Soueif wrote in the Guardian, “… proved that a framework enabling people to self-organise in small but coordinated communities will empower them and set free their creative energies. Yet the political system is built on the opposite idea – of people coalescing around leaders in hierarchies. The struggle is to invent a new system while the old one is attacking you, bad-mouthing you, murdering and imprisoning you.” The idea of people coming together, uniting under a common cause is a major factor in the times we are living in. Group work, unity and cooperation are essential qualities of the age, themes reminding us of our common humanity that run contrary to the largely divisive individualistic ways of the past. Themes suggesting there is a developing awareness of both the power of collective action and the group or “universal responsibility”, as the Dalai Lama puts it.
Individual and society
For there to be sustained substantive social change, a shift in consciousness or awareness is necessary, a change of mind. The great 20th century Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti taught that, “we are society”, that society is not separate from us. He maintained that “this immoral destructive society is made by each one of us, so we are responsible for it,” the crisis, he says, “is in ourselves and we are unwilling to face that crisis and try to escape from that fact through various forms of entertainment.” Whilst I am reluctant to disagree with the Great man, I suggest that a symbiotic relationship exists between society and us. That the nature of society and the systems under which we live encourage and aggravate certain behaviour, both positive and negative, and that the current systems cultivate and accentuate destructive divisive attitudes and actions. Take as an example tea pickers in Assam earning $2 a day for backbreaking work; they have two daughters but cannot afford to feed them properly, to clothe them and send them to school. So they reluctantly sell one of the girls for $50 to a local recruitment agent. He promises work in a home in Kolkata, but promptly traffics the child into a brothel in the city for $800 and the 14 year old finds herself working as a prostitute within the week. All are victims more or less of the system. The girl is abused, her life ruined, the family exploited, the agent desperate and conditioned into survival no matter what, to think only of himself. ‘It’s a dog eat dog world’, ‘look after number one’. Well, we are not dogs; we are human beings, brothers and sisters of One Humanity. And in the realisation of that underlying unity lies great happiness and the answer to many social issues. As Mother Teresa put it, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other – that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister.”
Facilitate a change of mind in the recruitment agent (and the world is littered with such men) by shifting the focus, changing the value system. Establish an economic model that is designed to serve the needs of everybody, that moves people out of harm’s way – removes their vulnerability. A system that is just and fair, that brings people together, fosters cooperation instead of competition and thereby encourages brotherhood – an expression of unity. Place sharing at the epicentre of a new way of living: share the world’s resources, including knowledge and skills equitably amongst the people, based on individual need, and see a reduction in inequality, a lifting of fear, anxiety, stress, and the cultivation of trust and community.