Reader: At the moment, there is a desire for growth and development that has gripped the nation. And things have improved. Today, we are much richer, per capita income wise for example. Our GDP is growing at one of the fastest rates in the world. Disease and malnutrition is on decline. More people have moved out of poverty in recent times and we are on our way to being a superpower.
Naturally, not all will be well. It wasn’t so even in the times of Christ or Buddha or in epics like Mahabharat and Ramayana.
What are your views on this? What is your issue?
Editor: Gandhiji called poverty the greatest form of violence. As humanity, we have set out to attack it on a war scale. Not only in India but at the level of the United Nations, the Sustainable Development Goals start with wanting to end all poverty.
However, we’re blinded to the violence that we are carrying out in the name of poverty reduction and development.
For one, in abolishing economic poverty, we’re creating many other forms of poverty. We’re destroying community, natural resources, leisure time, clean air, healthy ecosystems and so on. This unidirectional pursuit of development is very expensive.
I also want to create a distinction here in the word ‘growth’. We see growth in nature and it is Universal. However, natural growth has a cycle of decline built into it. Everything that is born dies in nature.
However, our structures aren’t so. A company for example is an immortal entity. And most of our manmade growth has no limits built into it. So there is (natural) growth and there is (manmade) growth. Using the same word for both has cost us dearly. After all cancer cells also manage to grow but they threaten the body. We’re not too different because in our pursuit of growth we haven’t attended sufficiently to the body.
Reader: So are you saying people must remain poor? That we must stop pursuing scientific achievements and the progress that mankind has made? There are naturally going to be some side effects of growth but is it not a natural direction of evolution?
Editor: You make too many assumptions here. The topic is not as simple as giving a yesno response. Fukoka points out in One Straw Revolution that through our pursuit of problem solving, we have become the only species capable of destroying ourselves.
We’re avoiding the messy and difficult stuff of values, morals and ethics. This collectiveexterior (or Lower Left Quadrant as Integral theory puts it) is the toughest to navigate. We have ignored it because it is far easier to pursue individual spiritual growth or external material achievement.
As human beings are we evolving in our capacity to love and care for each other and the planet? Are we able to deepen our morals and ethics so that we create a world of justice and dignity for everyone? And in our experience of technology, what has it done in places where the foundations of values were not present?
In our pursuit of material growth, we have created a system that is continuing to concentrate wealth. 8 people today are as wealthy as half of humanity! It isn’t that there isn’t enough to go around we just haven’t learnt how to share it yet.
Reader: So what do you think has gone wrong? And how do we set it right? There were attempts in the past like socialism that have failed quite miserably. People also prefer having peaceful inequality rather than a violent revolution that affects their daytoday living. Moreover, those at the top keep pointing out to the ‘trickle down’ effects of their money. They deserve it because they have taken the risks and applied their intelligence it is basic economics!
Editor: Gandhi observed that there is enough for each of our needs and not our greeds. That our needs are getting overstimulated is another topic altogether that I hope to deliberate on a little later.
Coming to your question now, we are stuck in a game whose rules will naturally keep leading to concentration of wealth and power. Primary structures in this are the corporate entity, which limits liability while allowing remote control and the financial system, which creates money out of thin air.
It is not only about wealth about 50odd designers sitting in Silicon Valley across Google, Facebook and Twitter are together deciding what billions of people should do. And they’re going right after the bottom of the brain stem, evoking our most primal responses to get attention (which in turn gets them advertising in this attention economy)
The middle class has been coopted into this by the stock markets as well as being willing consumers and employees. So our capacity to question these structures is stunted not only by most of them being invisible but also because we benefit from them as well.
Reader: But surely these rich people are highly enterprising. You can’t deny them the upside of their endeavours?
Editor: If you look closely at each of these rich people, you will see an element of shared wealth being accessed but not being paid fully for. This could be access to oil for example while paying only for access rights rather than natural damage.
It could be getting the benefits of the internet infrastructure that governments heavily invested in making (in early days of cold war for example) and building on top of that. It could also be built on keeping wages way lower, enjoying subsidies and getting tax breaks.
Such concentration has been possible because the stock markets then want to participate in the future earnings (part of which is ‘future loot’).
Before going further into this though I want to speak about one of the many paradoxes of our times our dependence on this very system.
Our times are such that we have to rise up against the mother who has breastfed us. We are all children of this same system. I am writing this on a Google doc, using the very same tools that I am writing against. The electricity comes in from Reliance which will take some of my money and put it in the hands of India’s richest man again.
These are times when we have no choice but to live this great contradiction. We have to embrace it to get the moral ground required to raise these questions. Else we will be gagged forever. It is not practically possible to totally uplug and even if a handful of people do manage to do it, the rest will not be able to.
Coming back to the ‘enterprise’ of the rich, we have agreed in this system that those who take risks must have a chance of a personal reward. This to me is a very base motivation, but it works.
We are seeing more and more people who take risks without getting a promised reward ever. Social entrepreneurs are an example of this. They channel in a higher motivation than money and yet take the same risks.
Even when we attach a reward to the risk taking what are the limits to this? Even the richest man eventually can have a few meals a day and sleeps on a bed. Beyond the variety that comes from travelling and the power that comes from controlling other people’s destinies, the rest of the differences are overrated.
There is no way in which our richest will be able to spend their wealth over a lifetime, even if they engage in buying the must luxurious goods. What hunger exists that they can feed only with luxury is another question to ask is that itself not a form of poverty?
So one must question these appetites then the desire for power to control other people’s destinies and to engage in diversity by the day, in training the senses for greater and greater pleasure. None of this lets anyone escape the pain of being human anyways.
Reader: These are all analysis and none of them are solutions. What are the answers? How do we set it right? What do we do?
Editor: There are some initial answers surely like reducing tax breaks for the rich and needless subsidies on fossil fuels. There is great space for regulation in the financial markets that prevents bubbles and crashes in the future. There is value to considering the possibility of a Universal Basic Income.
However these are all limited because they haven’t been codreamt of. To that extent they will have to be forced down upon the throats of the rich (even if we manage to do that ever). It will be violent if everyone doesn’t agree to these.
The answers then have to be cocreated and found together. I am sure it is a question the rich hold as well as to how do they make the world better. However each of us is schooled differently and being rich conditions you in a wholly different way than being poor does. It shifts the world view to the value of individual enterprise which only a very few human beings are actually capable of doing.
The deeper question is about sharing of power even before wealth. If power is shared, then even the collective importance we give to financial wealth can shift, culturally. But the concentration of power and it’s exercise through wealth robs each of us the freedom to be in control of our own destiny.
Reader: So you are saying there is enough for everyone? That no one needs to be poor even at the current levels of income etc.?
Editor : Yes I am. I don’t think we need to create more wealth by destroying the planet or investing in arms and ammunition.
If we move to a steady state economics where there is very little and managable growth, there is renewal and regeneration of Nature and work on distributing what we already have better, we should be able to move to a life of dignity for everyone on the planet.
The challenge with trickle down is that by the time it will happen we will have caused even more damage to the planet and even more concentration at the top. The corporate funding in turn will influence politics and make democracy less responsive to citizen participation, further making it easier to sell away our public resources. This path is not tenable.
This model of development is extremely destructive. It needs to stop.