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Tipping Point

It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts appeared last week: this is the final one.

At the end of the previous post, which dealt with the need for coherence if we are to address the most compelling challenges of our time, I flagged up that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system?

Additional complicating factors are that, to achieve a fully transformative level of consciousness to mend our crippled civilisation and defective cultures root and branch will, as the Universal House of Justice indicates, be ‘the work of centuries.’

However, if we are to have any kind of civilisation at all beyond the next few decades, there is at least one urgent problem to resolve: global heating. We don’t have centuries to rise to that challenge. I have neither the time nor the clarity to fully address that right now though there is an earlier attempt on this blog.

What I plan to focus on here is whether we have the capacity to begin to build the foundations right now to make both those other projects, lifting consciousness and creating institutions, potentially viable.

In this final post I will begin to explore some tentative suggestions about how this process might begin to work.

A Tipping Point

Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed by Ray and Andersen in their book: ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’[1]

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning:

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.[2]

Moreover, Bahá’ís believe that science and religion are not at odds, which goes some way to answering the problem McGilchrist explores in The Master & his Emissary. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can: ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’[3] Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well: ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’[4] Their conclusion is: ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’[5] (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book:

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.[6]

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

There are a number of thinkers who have striven to articulate a more benign way of organising our global economic system.

Raworth

There are signs that younger economists, in addition to the writers of The Econocracy, are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75):

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Ehrenfeld

Other thinkers are encouragingly moving in the same direction. John Ehrenfeld, in his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, explains his belief that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”[7]

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements:

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.[8]

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics, turning it into a kind of religion:

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.[9]

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.[10]

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring:

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.[11]

The idea of rediscovering a truer sense of self is not some kind of baseless sentimental nostalgia. For example, Gaia Vince in her book Transcendence quotes early evidence to support Ehrenfeld’s claim:

The extraordinary settlement of Çatalhöyük – already a city, 8000 years ago, of hundreds of one-room mud-bricked homes accessed from the roof – reveals evidence of a remarkably egalitarian society with strong social control and norms that prevented accumulation of wealth.[12]

Ehrenfeld also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’[13] This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are: ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’[14]

Ehrenfeld develops this further, when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’[15] I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties[16]. We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality, which, as we explored earlier, much of current economic and political thinking does not do:

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.[17]

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view:

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.[18]

Singing from McGilchrist’s hymn sheet, he argues that mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here[19]. They fail to capture ‘the holistic qualities of life.’[20] Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

This complexity also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism, in ways that resonate with the Bahá’í concept of consultation discussed elsewhere. He writes:

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.[21]

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles:

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks.[22]

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness. His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be, something we explored briefly in an earlier post. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

The Bahá’í Perspective

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, and he also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes:

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.[23]

It seems a good point in the discussion to tap into a Bahá’í writer who has usefully explored the nature of this dilemma: he looks at it in terms of consciousness and social structures.

Before I plunge into that aspect of his thinking it would perhaps be useful just to touch on some of his earlier insights to pave the way to it.

The writer I’m referring to is Michael Karlberg, a Bahá’í academic with a background in ‘critical theories of culture and communication.’[24] His book is titled Beyond the Culture of Contest. His explanation of his basic position summarises a key aspect of this sequence’s perspective:

This book was written to advance the thesis that our contemporary ‘culture of contest’ is socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable and the surrounding ‘culture of protest’ is an inadequate response to the social and ecological problems it generates.[25]

He later discusses Adam Smith’s assumption that the free market would function within and be restrained by ‘a larger moral framework,’[26] before going onto explain where it all went wrong:

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self-regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition.[27]

The consequences are predictably bleak:

In this context, as the relative absence of state and moral regulation results in the permanent extinction of increasing numbers of species, sustainability of the contest itself is called into question.[28]

Interestingly, in the context of the earlier discussion about capitalism masquerading as a kind of religion, having referred in the previous page to ‘a seemingly insatiable society’ he mentions, immediately after pointing out the absence of moral regulation, ‘the deification of competitive values.’

His analysis of how our current tripartite system of political, economic and legal domains is destructively skewed raises another point relevant to the quandaries I am struggling with:

Political and legal contests are expensive and economic contests determine who has the money to prevail in them.[29]

What makes it worse is that:

Within this tripartite system of contests, it is impossible to regulate economic activity in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner. In fact, within this system, it is the economy that ultimately regulates political and legal decision-making, rather than the other way around.[30]

His ideas about how to address this come much later, and this is where consciousness and social structures come into play. In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.[31]

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.[32]

Next he turns to systemic interventions:

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…[33]

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order, is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’[34]

At the end of this post I have added a list of additional references that will provide more detailed information about Bahá’í thought and practice in these respects.

Perhaps it is best to end this sequence with a quotation from a 1985 message to all the peoples of the world, as going into greater detail at this point would open up another long sequence of posts.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandizement against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.[35]

My own sense of purpose here is similar to that which Karlberg stated at the start of his book:

. . . It is not my intent that readers come away from this book with a personal interest in, or commitment to, the Bahá’í Faith. I will be satisfied, however, if I have prompted my readers towards critical self-reflection regarding the codes of adversarialism that underlie the contemporary culture of contest.

We need to find ways of breaking free of the religion of capitalist profit and consumption that prevails so widely in the West.

I am not claiming that the Bahá’í Faith has perfectly developed a complete antidote in practice. We are still in learning mode and have a steep mountain still to climb. However, I believe our model has valuable insights that can be used by everyone engaged in this struggle to build a better world.

There is no way Bahá’ís could ever claim to be able to do this alone in any case. We all need to work on this together, and have much to learn from each other as we do so. A key Bahá’í offering is our pattern of globally co-ordinated practice, built on a foundation of consultative decision-making, and complemented by vigorous educational processes involving children, youth and adults, that offers a good chance of transcending the fragmented, divided, divisive and almost chaotic processes that currently exist.

This confronts the chicken-and-egg problem, referred to earlier, of how to have educational systems, organisational structures and enhanced consciousness being simultaneously developed.

Additional References:

Humanity Is Our Business Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Century of Light Posts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Becoming a True Upholder of His Oneness Posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Footnotes:

[1] The Cultural Creatives – page 230.
[2] The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25)
[3] The Cultural Creatives – page 318.
[4] The Cultural Creatives – page 302.
[5] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[6] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[7] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 18.
[8] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 49-50.
[9] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 76-77.
[10] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 175.
[11] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 191-194.
[12] Transcendence – page 178.
[13] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 202-203.
[14] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 204.
[15] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 208.
[16] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 217.
[17] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 226.
[18] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 227-228.
[19] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 229.
[20] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 230.
[21] Postcapitalism – page 287.
[22] Postcapitalism – page 288.
[23] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 305,
[24] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page ix.
[25] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page xi.
[26] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 39.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 41.
[29] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 51.
[30] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 52.
[31] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[32] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[33] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[34] Ibid.
[35] The Promise of World Peace

From the The European Bahá’í Business Forum website

It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts appeared last week: the final two are scheduled for today and tomorrow.

Coherence

At the end of the last post I flagged up the fact that another key capacity necessary for change is lacking: coherence. The significance of this lack was flagged up as long ago as 10 November 1974 in a message from the sovereign body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice. They wrote:

We should also remember that most people have no clear concept of the sort of world they wish to build, nor how to go about building it. Even those who are concerned to improve conditions are therefore reduced to combating every apparent evil that takes their attention.

However, there are pressures that make it imperative that we transcend this lack of cohesion. The European Bahá’í Business Forum, in a recent letter, puts it fairly bluntly:

We are faced with a challenging new era in human history. It is a chaotic phase of transition in which collectively we are confronted with the difficult reality of unprecedented global uncertainty and forces of fragmentation.

The planet itself is now telling us through accelerating signs of climate change that business as usual is leading us to disaster.

In addition, they spell out bluntly that not everyone is willing to embrace the prospect of radical change:

While the internal incoherence within the current economic system will lead to its collapse, sweeping away some obstacles to a new sustainable system, we are currently faced with the headwinds of an intransigent resistance to change.

That the system is broken in many ways seems almost beyond dispute. Joseph Stiglitz defines a key aspect in the introduction to his widely acclaimed post mortem on the efficacy of our current political and economic system – The Price of Inequality:

. . . capitalism is failing to produce what was promised, but is delivering on was not promised – inequality, pollution, unemployment, and, most important of all, the degradation of values to the point where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable.[1]

The remedy that makes sense to him is currently conspicuous by its absence:

For markets to work the way markets are supposed to, there has to be appropriate government regulation. But for that to occur, we have to have a democracy that reflects the general interests – not the special interests or just those at the top.[2]

This suggests that mending the system will not be easy.

We have to develop some sense, though, of how this perverse fragmentation can be remedied, and a desire for reform to be generated, if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Not only is the tunnel vision of some approaches far too narrow ever to address the full complexity of the issues that confront us all in global late-capitalism, but even where there might be a wider focus, there is a failure to recognize that tackling aspects of the system’s defects more or less one at a time, in an uncoordinated manner, is not going to get far either.

Iain McGilchrist, in his comprehensive analysis of the way our culture has privileged the wrong half of our brain, The Master & his Emissary, makes it clear how neurobiology has been enlisted to serve the purposes of a reductionist and materialistic scientism. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is this:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity.[3]

He makes a crucial point, when he writes, ‘However distinguished, the individual remains part of the whole and is understandable only in terms of the whole of which it forms a part,’[4] a truth our society and culture seems to have forgotten a long time ago. So, from our fragmented perspective, the group looks like ‘a potential threat to individuality,’[5] a belief that would make effective cooperation seem quite problematic.

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, the left hemisphere view has become the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships, though, are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality. The left hemisphere tends, in its black and white world, fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist describes a more desirable society when he writes, ‘a society is, or should be, an organic unity, not an assemblage of bits that strive with one another.’ As it stands, he adds, ‘It is as if every organ in the body wanted to be the head.’[6]

We are in desperate need of reinstating a proper balance in the modes of operation of the two hemispheres. This cry is articulated in the Bahá’í Faith’s belief that religion and science are to be seen as one and should not be in conflict. They are as the wings of one bird, as also, we believe, are men and women.

McGilchrist’s articulation of this need is complex and subtle but required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. The quote below is only one part of his case, though a central one.

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. . . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.[7]

This however could be much easier said than done, on a collective level, when we are heavily influenced by the powerful promptings of a competitive and acquisitive culture.

A further obstacle to achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action is the short-term perspective that is wired into our primate brains. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

So, to achieve coherence we need to effect two major changes.

The first is to subordinate our analytical tendencies to our holistic potential and invest the necessary significant level of effort in transcending our short-term biases. Education will be a key to that, but if those who value holism and effortful thought do not gain the power to shape our educational system, how is that ever going to happen?

The second is to create cohesive, cooperative and morally creative institutions to manage our communities at every level. This may have to be accomplished before we can rebalance our educational system. You may well ask, ‘how though can we do that until our educational and child-rearing systems create, on a wide enough scale, the kind of consciousness necessary to build such institutions?’ A chicken and egg situation to which I will return later.

The Need for Institutions

Focusing for now on the need for coherent and effective institutions, I found this clearly defined and analysed when reading The Cultural Creatives.

Ray and Andersen describe how anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a breakthrough, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics:

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.[8]

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough:

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.[9]

At present we are indeed for the most part locked into ‘the terms and solutions the old culture provides.’ Wilhelm Streeck hits this nail on the head as well:

The de-socialised capitalism of the interregnum hinges on the improvised performances of structurally self-centred, socially disorganised and politically disempowered individuals.[10]

Ray and Andersen pinpoint a crucial missing link:

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.[11]

The apparent absence of new ways that seem potentially effective is a debilitating aspect of many people’s thinking, much of it rooted in our default position of individualism, as Streeck points out:

The sweated workers of today and the middle-class workers in the countries of advanced capitalism… never experience together the community and solidarity deriving from joint collective action.[12]

Not surprisingly, this becomes a vicious circle, founded as it is in disconnected disempowered individualism:

The practices that make it possible for individuals to survive under neoliberalism may also help neoliberalism itself to survive. . . . . social life in an age of entropy is by necessity individualistic.[13]

But we do have institutions. Why exactly, in Ray and Andersen’s view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had, for example, do the trick?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.[14]

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything: ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’[15]

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded:

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.[16]

The Need for Transcendence

They also strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell:

‘You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.’ . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of ‘the grounding mystery of all being,’ he said, ‘we have nothing we can really trust.’[17]

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton:

‘The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.’[18]

This is very close indeed to the idea that Shoghi Effendi quotes the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describing:

‘O My servants!’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, ‘The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.’[19]

A sense of transcendent power may be necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of our primate brains with their tendencies towards the instinctive rather than the thoughtful and the short-term perspective as against the long view.

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. We must develop trust in what we are not wired to grasp easily.

Our negativity bias won’t help here. Hanson and Mendius’s book The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain explores this clearly.

They explain that:

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. [20]

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates:

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.[21]

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).[22]

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly:

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.[23]

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias:

Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.[24]

We clearly need every possible means to enable us to rise to the challenges we face in changing our broken system.

I have also been here before when I reviewed Jeremy Rifkin’s compelling analysis of our current situation in The Empathic Civilisation. He argues that a connection with the earth we depend upon, and our capacity to develop sufficient empathy for our fellow creatures as well as our planet, will be a sufficient motivator for us collectively, and in sufficient numbers, to avert catastrophe.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted.

Rifkin has done his best in his impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

And there we will have to leave it until I attempt to explore this further in the next post, tentatively offering some possible ways of beginning to break this deadlock.

References:

[1] The Price of Inequality – page xlviii.
[2] The Price of Inequality – page li.
[3] The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[4] The Master & his Emissary – page 202.
[5] The Master & his Emissary – Page 255.
[6] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[7] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[8] The Cultural Creatives – page 109.
[9] The Cultural Creatives – page 154.
[10] Streeck – page 41.
[11] The Cultural Creatives – page 187.
[12] Streeck – page 25.
[13] Streeck – page 40.
[14] The Cultural Creatives – page 227.
[15] The Cultural Creatives – page 229.
[16] The Cultural Creatives – page 246.
[17] The Cultural Creatives – page 299.
[18] The Cultural Creatives – page 311.
[19] The Promised Day is Come – page 16.
[20] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – page 26.
[21] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 40-41.
[22] Ibid.
[23] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 44-45.
[24] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 73-75.

In spite of my great admiration and respect for his scholarship and the immense value of his basic position that we are dangerously in thrall to the arrogance and limitations of our left hemisphere’s approach to the world, there are two possible caveats I have about the picture McGilchrist paints, both of which I’ll explain in the next two posts, but with some degree of caution given the strength of the rest of his argument and the degree to which I resonate to it.

I’ll begin with the one that concerns his total failure to mention the role of emotional trauma in the development of schizophrenia, as this is particularly resonant with my own work in the NHS.

The other, which I’ll deal with in the final post of this sequence, concerns his sense that there is a negative correlation between schizophrenia and creativity. David Horrobin’s The Madness of Adam and Eve makes the case for schizophrenia’s strong connection with creativity and cogently conflicts with McGilchrist’s position – strongly enough for me not to be inclined to dismiss it out of hand in spite of Horrobin’s poorly received general thesis about the role of schizophrenia in humanity’s evolution. Additional support for my caveat may come from Charlie English’s account of the Surrealists and schizophrenia, as described in his book – The Gallery of Miracles and Madness – which describes the perils of art under fascism in Hitler’s Germany.

Trauma

McGilchrist makes a strong case for believing that schizophrenia displays all the typical characteristics of left-hemisphere functioning as found in clinical cases of right hemisphere deficits, which would strengthen his case for schizophrenia’s negative correlation with creativity, as for him creativity is uniquely located in the right hemisphere. More on that next time.

He also refers consistently to genetic rather than environmental causes.

The closest he gets to acknowledging any kind of role for trauma is when he states,[1] ‘[p]sychosis may be precipitated by right brain injury or surgery.’ Basically, though, his position is captured in such statements as this:[2] ‘Schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa are in fact genetically linked, and each is common in genetic lineages of the other.’ There are no references to the possible role of other kinds of trauma not involving brain damage, such as sexual abuse and domestic violence. The word ‘trauma’ does not appear in his index.

In terms of my more recent research into this issue, perhaps the most graphic account of the possible importance of trauma in the incidence of schizophrenia can be found in Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score[3]. He describes his work on a ‘ward [set up to determine] whether psychotherapy or medication was the best way to treat young people who had suffered a first mental breakdown diagnosed as schizophrenia.’

He shares what he learned from the patients:

The quiet of the night seemed to help them open up, and they told me stories about having been hit, assaulted, or molested, by their own parents, sometimes by relatives, classmates, or neighbours. They shared memories of lying in bed at night, helpless and terrified, hearing their mother being beaten by their father or a boyfriend, hearing their parents yell horrible threats at each other, hearing the sounds of furniture breaking. Others told me about fathers who came home drunk – hearing their footsteps on the landing and how they waited for them to come in, call them out of bed, and punish them for some imagined offence. Several of the women recalled lying awake, motionless, waiting for the inevitable – a brother or father coming in to molest them.

The link between schizophrenia and trauma is, I believe, strong and unequivocal, though also almost unrecognized by the young doctors van der Kolk worked with at the time, who ‘rarely mentioned stories like the ones I’d heard.’ He goes on to explain[4] that ‘more than half the people who seek psychiatric care have been assaulted, abandoned, neglected, or even raped as children, or have witnessed violence in their families’ and shares how surprised he was that a ‘dispassionate’ clinical focus was so often focused on a patient’s symptoms and their management ‘rather than on understanding the possible causes of their despair and hopelessness.’

My earlier explorations of the research seemed to point very much in the same direction.

Eleanor Longden and John Read take a long hard look at the evidence for the involvement of trauma in the incidence of psychosis, and look carefully at the implications of that in their article The Role of Social Adversity in the Etiology of Psychosis.[5]

They describe an explanatory model that states clearly that trauma as the child grows damages the brain in ways that are likely to create psychotic experiences:

The traumagenic neurodevelopmental (TN) model of psychosis (Read, Perry, Moskowitz, & Connolly, 2001) synthesises biological and psychological research to emphasise the similarities between structural and functional abnormalities in the brains of abused children and those of adult patients with psychosis (which, correspondingly, reflect the differences between patients with psychosis and healthy adults, and traumatised and non-traumatised children). A major premise of the TN model is that the heightened stress sensitivity consistently found in patients with psychosis is not necessarily inherited, but caused by formative exposure to abuse and neglect.

They discuss in more technical detail than it is appropriate to include here exactly what kind of damage has been done to the brain.

Shields in his paper Psychosis As A Mechanism For Coping With Existential Distress makes a similar case:[6]

This paper proposes that . . . . one sees psychotic episodes for what they may be: a mechanism for coping with existential distress – a way of being that allows an individual to escape existential realities when that individual cannot avoid these things otherwise. . . . .

He goes on to clarify what he means:

. . . if existential distress becomes unavoidable but unmanageable . . . . a psychotic episode can function as a dissociative mechanism for avoiding that distress.

Sadly, my own clinical experience seems to validate this perspective, and it is disappointing to feel that McGilchrist fails to take this into account, in spite of its possible relevance to his exploration of our left hemisphere’s unhealthy dominance both in our lives as individual’s and within our Western culture as a whole. Trauma’s impact on culture in this respect would entail creativity’s being reduced as well as rigidity increased.

I want now to explore fairly briefly three examples from my own experience, which I revisited to check in case I am simply dragging trauma in, after joining dots that don’t belong together left hemisphere style, to create a delusional pattern to confirm my anti-psychiatric prejudices. Ian’s story is dealt with in more detail elsewhere on this blog.

Talking to Ian

Ian

Ian was a 50 year old man with an eight year history of being tormented by voices telling him to kill himself and fly with them to far-off places. Describing his experience of the voices he said: `I was living in a dream world. I’d got the voices nearly all the time. They were so loud that I couldn’t hold a conversation. And I couldn’t listen to the radio. They just blocked everything out. The voices were plaguing me so much that if I tried to think about something they’d side-track me. And I’d start thinking about what they were saying to me, and start thinking about doing something about it. I couldn’t think in a straight line. It was just going round and round in circles. They used to wake me up at night. They got loud when I was ill. I thought they were spirits, come from the spirit world for me. I didn’t think that I was going to hurt myself by jumping under a train. I thought it would just be a few seconds of confusion and then it would be all over. I didn’t mind if being dead was just black and nothingness. And if it was flying with the voices all round the world, I didn’t mind that neither. It was better’n what I had.’

He was on medication when I first saw him. `It wasn’t having any effect at all. I was on quite an high dosage. I was on 100 mgms of Haldol a week, and 600 mgms a day of Chlorpromazine.’

His view of his future was bleak. `Just the voices, and hospital, really, and medication. That’s all there was in life. I couldn’t see any point in any thing. And I couldn’t see any point in doing anything else. I thought it was just schizophrenia. And that was the end of it. I was schizophrenic and that was it. And I had nothing to look forward to except hospital and more medication. And I couldn’t stand the thought of that. So that jumping under a train was looking very attractive.’

At first he found it difficult to trust me. He requested to bring his key-worker from social services with him and I agreed. Even then he found the going very rough.Gradually over a period of three or four sessions he became more able to disclose some of what was in his mind both about the voices and about his past.

For him there seemed to be two breakthroughs.

One was early on. `I bargained with the voices. I kept my promise to them and talked to you, and things got gradually better.’  It wasn’t a question of shouting them down: `I just talked to them quietly. I told them I knew they were unhappy and that I would do something about it. I asked them if they could let me sleep. It took a coupla nights. Then they give me a break.’

At first the pattern of negotiation took this vague form: it became more precise and specific as time went on. He had not felt though that it would turn out to be as easy as it was: `I didn’t think I could get in contact with the voices so easily. I thought it would take a lot longer. But I found that it happened pretty quickly.’

The other breakthrough, built upon early work to get him more in touch with his emotions, came a dozen sessions later. `I knew something was bothering the voices. And I think it was over the split up with my partner. And the pain that that caused which I hadn’t dealt with. I just pushed it to one side. I hadn’t come to terms with it. . . . Because I was sad inside and because I was still hanging on, really, the voices kept plaguing me. They were feeding on my unhappiness.’

This was not an easy process. In fact there was still a great deal of work to do at this stage. None the less he was able to describe very clearly the way emotionally-loaded events or actions were related to the voices for him: `I had to deal with the feelings. Feelings were something I’ve always suppressed. [The voices] kept feeding on my suppression. I kept saying `No. I didn’t do that’ or `No. This hasn’t happened’ and they kept getting worse and worse until it got unreal.’ And even though a painful process of emotional re-education still lay before him, the voices had almost completely gone: `I haven’t had ’em for eight weeks. I’ve had ’em for a short period, calling my name. But they soon went.’

He summarised his progress in the following way: `I didn’t recognise myself that the problem lay there (i.e. in the way he was dealing or failing to deal with his emotions). I thought it was just schizophrenia.’

As you may have already suspected his account raised an interesting quandary.

It could be said that, although he had been diagnosed schizophrenic, really he was depressed. The efficacy of an intervention aimed at his emotions therefore worked because the disorder was of the emotions. There would then be no indication that such an intervention would work with a genuinely psychotic patient.

Ian’s own view was that, when we first worked on the voices, he was in the grip of what he views as “schizophrenia”, but that at a later stage, when the voices faded out, he was depressed. He would not have been able to work on the voices then, he argues, because he didn’t care what happened to him: he was not hamstrung in that way when he was “schizophrenic”. The psychiatrist’s view is that there is still no doubt that Ian is suffering from schizophrenia.

My sense is that, in line with psychology’s perspective, schizophrenia is a spectrum or dimension not a category. People can be found at difference points along a line rather than locked in separate boxes, so there are probably few ‘pure’ examples of the extreme form of schizophrenia likely to be found at the end of the spectrum. This consideration may also be relevant when we come to look at creativity in the next post.

My revisiting his account in the light of McGilchrist’s omission of emotional trauma from his account failed to completely reassure me in terms, at least, of my own experience.

Another two cases give more compelling support for the trauma hypothesis from two different angles.

Helen

In 1988 a young woman persuaded her GP to refer her to me. She had carried a diagnosis of schizophrenia since she was 16: it had never been questioned. Before that she had had a twelve year history of sexual abuse at the hands of her father which went undisclosed and unnoticed at the time. She wanted to talk about the abuse to someone. An OT and I saw her together, with some trepidation. After all, psychosis and psychotherapy weren’t supposed to mix in those days. I’m not sure yet how different it is now.

I allayed my fears with an article that argued that, although ‘schizophrenia,’ a label that is increasingly questioned nowadays, was not in itself amenable to a `talking cure’, people with this diagnosis could benefit from counselling for other problems. We plunged in.

It took more than a year for her to begin to describe the abuse, so painful was it for her. She could focus on it for no more than ten minutes in each hour at first. After that she became overwhelmed with terrifying hallucinations of her father, hallucinations which impinged upon all her senses – smell, touch, hearing, taste and vision. The only way she learned to determine afterwards that he had not really been there was to observe that she had no marks upon her body. Generally it would take the rest of the session to help her regain control of her own mind.

As the months went by she could bear to reveal more of her painful story, though always in small instalments. Her fears about telling it diminished, but she still had not really come to terms with the emotional pain and the anger. For reasons of confidentiality I cannot share any of the particulars of her story. She was able, eventually, to break free of an abusive marriage. She gained greater control over other hallucinations.

However, one day, as our work continued and she became gradually more able to tolerate working on the memories, she was readmitted back into hospital. When I next met with her she explained what had happened.

She had ended up in a place that reminded her of one of the worst experiences of abuse. She was overwhelmed by all the original pain and terror. In my jargon, she had been re-traumatised.

We discussed her options. She could either remain in hospital on high doses of medication until the impact of this faded, or she could move to a residential facility with the close support of staff she trusted to work on these feelings and memories with the minimum of medication. She thought about this as she sat there, her eyes full of tears on the edge of uncontrollable sobbing. She chose to stay in hospital rather than have to face these feelings anymore.

There was never any doubt, in her case, of the diagnosis of schizophrenia nor of the reality of her traumatic history.

John

I was part of a Team running a 12-bedded unit working with people whose diagnosis of schizophrenia had been labelled ‘treatment resistant,’ which should be translated as meaning not helped by medication. As a result their lives were constantly disrupted by recurrent episodes of psychosis usually leading to several hospitalisations a year. People referred to us generally stayed at least two years, sometimes longer, and were carefully assessed to determine, if possible, the exact roots and meaning of their psychotic experiences. Strong relationships were built over time with all the residents who would allow this to happen. The revolving door lifestyle generally speaking no longer plagued them after that.

An 18 year-old young man was referred to us from the Acute Ward. He had been admitted on a section as a potential danger to others. He was convinced that Satan and Jesus were fighting a battle with fire in the world around him. Some people were even allying themselves with Satan in his view. He was determined to prevent this if he could and was threatening to kill those who, he believed, were on Satan’s side.

He was not able to give us any clear account of why or how he had come to this state of mind. However, because he was significantly younger than most of our residents, we were able in this instance to interview his mother, who was happy to share a detailed picture of his background and early experience.

It was a revelation. The most important insight came from her account of the incident that led her to leave her marriage. Her husband, the young man’s father, was an alcoholic. One day she walked into the living room, when her son was just a baby, and saw her drunken husband dragging the infant towards the coal fire with the clear intention of putting his feet in the flames. She managed to rescue the child and find a place of safety for them both.

A child of that age would not be able to form recoverable episodic memories that he could explain in words to anyone else. However, his emotional brain could well have retained vivid and powerful impressions of the incident in terms of the heat, the flames, the anger, fear and conflict. This would create plausible grounds to conclude he had been sufficiently traumatised to be vulnerable under stress later in life to a psychotic episode. It does not take a genius to see that his persecuting father, even from such vague but powerful memories, could end up being translated into Satan, his rescuing mother into Jesus, and the weapons of the conflict between them into flame, to symbolise the terror he couldn’t consciously recall, but which still flooded his mind. His body, to paraphrase van der Kolk, still stored the score and scarred his mind.

My experience working in mental health, not just with schizophrenia of course, pointed clearly towards trauma as a frequent factor in the incidence of mental illness. However, it sometimes, perhaps too often, required significant levels of patient research to detect its role in an individual’s history. Such efforts were not always successful. For example, if had not had access to John’s mother and if she had not been prepared to openly share such painful details, we would never have made the connection been his trauma and his hallucinations and delusions. However, in my view, absence of evidence in such cases, is not necessarily evidence of absence.

Conclusion

In the light of these examples I’m afraid I find Iain McGilchrist’s perspective on this particular issue somewhat disturbing. It doesn’t seriously detract from the great value of his basic position that left hemisphere fuelled materialism has corrupted our culture, but it does constitute, for me at least, a significant and unfortunate omission that will almost inevitably distort people’s perception of a socially significant challenge.

Next time, I’ll be taking a look at schizophrenia and creativity.

References:

[1]. The Matter with Things – page 136.
[2]. Op. cit. – page 145.
[3]. The Body Keeps the Score – pages 25-27.
[4]. Op. Cit. – page 27.
[5]. In the American Journal of Psychotherapy, Vol. 70, No. 1, 2016 – page 12.
[6]. Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014pages 143-7.

It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts will appear this week: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

In this sequence, triggered by Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality, I have looked at how Neoliberals ‘offer – no, demand – a religious faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market.’[1] I have examined the claim that this is assisted by the commandeering of a deracinated spirituality to act as a kind of tranquilliser to damp down any feelings of discontent with the capitalist system. I also took into account how our individualised society relies on psychological approaches, in contrast to more socially oriented cultures, and accepts a perspective on our situation that suggests we have no effective alternative, as capitalism is the best option.

This all combines to reduce the potential for forms of collective resistance.

We need now to look at how a combination of two reciprocally reinforcing factors makes resistance even less likely than even Carrette and King’s model would predict. We need to do this before we look at possible alternatives. I’ll start with complexity, and a related factor, before going on to look at coherence in the next post.

Complexity

Putting the problem at its simplest ‘Economists model people as knowing exactly how the economy works, whereas we would argue that they themselves do not have the full picture.‘[2]

There is fascinating evidence in support of the idea that even the economic experts don’t have much of a clue.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent analysis of our flawed decision-making abilities in general, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, turns his attention to what goes on in the process of financial speculation.

Tracking individuals, he finds, does not confirm their sense that they know what they are doing:

Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.[3]

In Chapter 24, after reviewing the evidence he concludes:

. . . . . financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero! When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.[4]

There were exceptions to this general trend in that ‘the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest’[5]  and  ‘men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.’[6]

This is not a very flattering state of affairs for the economic pundits:

There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.[7]

Kahneman’s own research confirms this view. He was invited to investigate the figures of a firm to whom he had been invited to speak. He was given access to a ‘spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years.’[8]

He took the first basic step in this assessment of skill:

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them.[9]

The rank ordering allowed for the calculation of how well each person’s rank held up over the whole time period studied. The more consistent people were the stronger the correlations would be between each year’s figures.  He created 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years.

Then came the surprise:

I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero.[10]

Which meant, in effect, that ‘[t]he results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.’ ‘The illusion of skill’[11] is a deeply embedded one in this area, but it is also deeply misplaced. What we learn from carefully analyzed data is that:

. . . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.[12]

I will return in a later section to another aspect of this problem from Kahneman’s point of view. At this point I need to focus on what others have to say on his main point about the global economic complexity in which this unpredictability has its roots.

In The Econocracy the authors make their position plain: ‘many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . .’[13] and that ‘the economic knowledge that forms the basis of [the economists’] claim to expertise is often inadequate.’[14]

Wilhelm Streeck points out what makes this complexity even more difficult to fathom:

[There remained] little if any space for collective action, . . .  because it was hard for most people in financial markets to understand their own interests and identify their exploiter. . . . The prosperity, relative and absolute, of millions of citizens depends on decisions of central bank executives, international organisations, and councils of ministers of all sorts, acting in an arcane space removed from every day experience and impenetrable to outsiders, dealing with issues so complex that even insiders often cannot be sure what they have to do and are in fact doing.[15]

There are, however, ways we could enhance our chances of decoding some of the mystery if the will was there. The next section explores some of the removable obstacles impeding our progress in this respect.

Tunnel Vision

Let’s pick up the threads of this with Kahneman’s analysis of decision-making in complex social, political and economic situations again. He uses a key expression that needs more examination (my emphasis):

In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.[16]

He feels that two important lessons need to be learned from all this:

The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).[17]

He concludes that ‘stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.’[18]

This sounds like confirmation of John Donne’s dictum: ‘Doubt wisely.’

How can what other writers say help us unpack the dangers of hyperspecialisation and suggest potential partial remedies?

The Econocracy is a good place to start. They explain that ‘economics students only learn one particular type of economics and . . . they are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner.’[19] Moreover, they teach ‘this perspective as if it is economics’ which ‘allows economists to see their discipline as a complete system.’[20] They conclude that ‘this amounts to nothing less than indoctrination into the neoclassical way of thinking about the economy.’[21]

So, hyperspecialisation paves the way to patterns of teaching which amount to indoctrination, in their view. They go on to clarify that economists differ in one critical respect from other academic disciplines:

. . . a considerable majority from all the social sciences, from history to psychology, agreed with the statement [that ‘in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by single discipline’], illustrating that economists are unique in their belief that their discipline has all the answers.[22]

They lack what the authors term ‘pluralism.’ They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision

It seems a no-brainer, then, to realise that, if a system is highly complex, it’s going to take more than one perspective to grasp its patterns with any hope of predicting developments and controlling consequences.

The remedy The Econocracy proposes rings bells for me from a Bahá’í perspective at least. They write:

. . . many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . . Our vision is of a world in which economic experts recognize that their knowledge of a complex economy is limited and that economic issues are the proper subject of collective democratic debate. The role of experts is to inform citizens of their choices rather than to make those choices for them.[23]

They unpack some implications of this much later in their book:

The kinds of skills and qualities needed by citizens in a broad democracy to function effectively are learned, not innate, and must be practiced to be mastered. They include listening, compromise, the ability to critically evaluate verbal and numerical argument, and developing independent judgement. They can only come through practical experience of being involved in participatory democratic institutions. In this sense, moving towards a system of broad democracy is a process of learning by doing.

. . . . . We have spent considerable time and energy thinking about the pedagogy we use for public education activities because we are aware that embedding critical reflection and pluralism at their core is not easy.[24]

Why do Bahá’í bells ring?

In terms of The Econocracy’s point about ‘participatory democratic institutions’, bells ring because a core discipline of the Bahá’í Faith is consultation. The Prosperity of Humankind contains a succinct statement of its purpose which also conveys a great deal about its methods and assumptions: `the adversarial method, . . [is]. . fundamentally harmful to [the] purpose [of consultation]: [which] is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.’ It is basically a process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that: (a) no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth, (b) groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and (c) today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Secondly, because Selling Spirituality emphasizes the importance of having a moral compass based in true spirituality to counterbalance purely material considerations, the Bahá’í case for much the same kind of balance immediately springs to mind. A Bahá’í statement on social action addresses this issue:

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided. . . . Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

At present too many of us in so-called ‘developed’ societies, by which I mean ‘industrialised,’ are caught in the ‘traps of consumerism,’ the trancelike mind-set of the markets, convinced they’ll find riches and fulfilment there. We are convinced there is no way out.

Streeck describes this and to a degree subscribes to it:

The problem is, while we see [capitalism] disintegrating before our eyes, we see no successor approaching. . . . There is also the absence of a vision of a practically possible progressive future, of a renewed industrial or new post-industrial society developing further and at the same time replacing the capitalist society today. Not just capital and its running dogs but also their various oppositions lack a capacity to act collectively.[25]

Which brings us back to the other problem, hinted at by the Bahá’í quote above. There is another key capacity that is lacking: coherence. We have to have some sense of how this can be remedied if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Footnotes

[1] McChesney (1999) quoted in Selling Spirituality – Page 169
[2] The Econocracy – Page 98.
[3] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3843.
[4] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4738.
[5] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3856.
[6] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3857.
[7] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3877.
[8] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3882.
[9] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3884.
[10] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3887.
[11] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3899.
[12] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3958.
[13] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[14] The Econocracy  – page 27.
[15] Streeck – page 20.
[16] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3963.
[17] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3982.
[18] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4347.
[19] The Econocracy  – page 37.
[20] The Econocracy  – page 40.
[21] The Econocracy  – page 54.
[22] The Econocracy  – page 115.
[23] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[24] The Econocracy  – pages 152-56.
[25] Streeck – page 35-36.

It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts will appear this week: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

It’s time to explore in more detail what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, but also to see how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies.

A key point was made in the Century of Light, a statement published by the Bahá’í World Centre in 2001. They wrote:

In an age of scientific advancement and widespread popular education, the cumulative effects of . . . . disillusionment were to make religious faith appear irrelevant.[1]

Adding, later on the same page, the important caveat that:

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

My very battered copy of this classic.

I’ve explored this before on this blog. In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm, on a similar track, writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length:

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.[2]

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his bookIs God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

The thirst for belief may partly explain why we have ended up putting our faith where it currently lies, lies being the operative word. Carrette and King use a quote from Tony Benn to make the main comparison point:

‘The most powerful religion of all… is the people who worship money.… The banks are bigger than the cathedrals, the headquarters of the multinational companies are bigger than the mosques or the synagogues.’[3]

They feel that business becomes ‘the religion of the market.’[4]

They specify some of the details about how it works:

A religion of feel-good affluence reassures the consuming public that religion can indeed be just another feature of the capitalist world with little or no social challenge to offer to the world of business deals and corporate takeovers. Spirituality is appropriated for the market instead of offering a countervailing social force to the ethos and values of the business world.[5]

These are not the only forces at work, alongside the trance-inducing pacifying factors listed previously. Wilhelm Streeck, in his book How Will Capitalism End?, refers, for example, to the way the system founds ‘. . . social integration on collective resignation as the last remaining pillar of the capitalist social order, or disorder.’[6]

We probably need to unpack the possible causes of such disabling resignation.

For one thing, as Carrette and King point out, ‘The market is being presented to us as natural and inevitable.’[7], a quality captured in the term capitalist realism’, used by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher to describe the sense that ‘not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system… it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it’.

To catch essentially the same point Streeck uses a German term:

Sachzwang: A factual constraint residing in the nature of things it leaves you no choice. Soon even the left began to internalise the idea of globalization [of capital] as a natural evolutionary process unstoppable by political means . . .[8]

He spells out this suppressive force most clearly when he writes:

. . . over two decades, globalisation as a discourse gave birth to a new pensée unique, a TINA (There Is No Alternative) logic of political economy for which adaptation to the ‘demands’ of ‘international markets’ is both good for everybody and the only possible policy anyway.[9]

The net effect of this is to create a social climate of powerless dissatisfaction, in which deracinated spirituality acting as a tranquilliser is not the only paralysing influence, as Streeck explains:

A pervasive cynicism has become deeply ingrained in the collective common sense. . .  elite calls for trust and appeals to shared values can no longer be expected to resonate with the populace nursed on materialistic-utilitarian self-descriptions of a society in which everything is and ought to be for sale.[10]

This combination of seeing no alternative, cynical acceptance and bogus spirituality have brought us to the point where, to quote Carrette and King this time:

Neoliberal ideology seeps into the very fabric of how we think, indeed into the very possibilities of our thinking to such an extent that people now live as if the corporate capitalist structures of our world are the truth of our existence.[11]

This is very much in harmony with the Bahá’í perspective:

The overthrow of the twentieth century’s totalitarian systems has not meant the end of ideology. On the contrary. There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multi-form it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilization”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism—two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view. [12]

Others also refuse to accept this tunnel vision. Ziya Tong, in her book The Reality Bubble, describes us as a ‘human population’ of ‘eight billion strong, marching to a capitalist drumbeat of eat, work, shop, and sleep. . . . Why do we do it? The big myth, I would argue, is that we are brought up believing there is no other way. We are simply told that this is how the system works.’[13] She asserts that we  can find a new way of looking, ‘new eyes’ in the words of Proust.

As a Bahá’í I am very clear in my own mind that there are alternatives to this dispiriting way of disorganising things, but any more detailed consideration of these will have to wait until the last post in this sequence. The gloom will have to continue for a bit longer so we can explore it more deeply.

Perhaps one of the central and most insidious sleights of mind perpetrated by this ideology is defined by Streeck as ‘the exaltation of a life in uncertainty as a life in liberty.’[14]

Streeck goes on to explain that, if there is active, or at least perceptible discontent, it is to be labelled as a problem within the person:

The entropic society of disintegrated, de-structured and under-governed post-capitalism depends on its ability to hitch itself onto the natural desire of people not to feel desperate, while defining pessimism as a socially harmful personal deficiency.[15]

And of course, deracinated spirituality, ‘the new cultural Prozac,’[16] comes in as the weapon of choice to defuse any incipient feelings of desperation.

This raises the issue, which there is no time to explore more deeply just now, of how much the current unequal, disempowering and disconnecting system in which we live is responsible for many of the health problems, and, more relevantly here, mental health problems from which we suffer. One quote from James Davies’ book Cracked, which I reviewed in the past, will have to suffice. Davies interviewed Dr Peter Breggin, a US psychiatrist who is critical of the medical model. Breggin explained his viewpoint:

Most problems are created by the contexts in which people live and therefore require contextual not chemical solutions. ‘People who are breaking down are often like canaries in a mineshafts,’ explained Breggin. ‘They are a signal of a severe family issue.’ .  . . . For Breggin, because the medical model fails to take context seriously – whether the family or the wider social context – it overlooks the importance of understanding and managing context to help the person in distress.[17]

As a qualifying point, it’s true that, in the UK at least, psychology has shifted away from an unqualified endorsement of the medical model. The British Psychological Society’s Division of Clinical Psychology recently published a report emphasizing the utility of psychotherapeutic approaches to psychosis. The executive summary opens with the observation that ‘Hearing voices or feeling paranoid are common experiences which can often be a reaction to trauma, abuse or deprivation. Calling them symptoms of . . . psychosis or schizophrenia is only one way of thinking about them, with advantages and disadvantages.’[18]

Also, the practice of individual psychologists, including me before I retired, has always been careful to avoid doing anything that might induce someone to adapt to the unacceptable, whether that was within an abusive relationship or an oppressive work environment.

I’ll pause at this point. There are certain ingredients that we need to add into this explanatory salad, such as baffling complexity, if it is to create a more satisfactory account of our lack of concerted opposition to the system’s defects. Once done, I can then move on to possible ways of transcending the problems. I am grateful though to Selling Spirituality for triggering me, with its energising critique, to revisit this whole area, and both for emphasising the complicity of so-called spirituality and for confronting me with the barely credible possibility that many people actually invest what amounts to a religious strength of faith in capitalism.

Footnotes

[1] Century of Light – Page 59.
[2] The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – pages 260-61.
[3] Page 23. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[4] Page 157.
[5] Page 126.
[6] Streeck – Page 15.
[7] Page 174.
[8] Streeck – Page 22
[9] Streeck – Page 23.
[10] Streeck – Page 34.
[11] Page 170.
[12] Century of Light – Page 135.
[13] The Reality Bubble – (page 7).
[14] Streeck -Page 46.
[15] Page 33.
[16] Page 77.
[17] Page 279
[18] BPS, 2014, p. 6.

Charles Tart

It seems worth republishing this sequence again, mainly because of my current sequence on The Matter with Things, to which it resonates strongly. The first four posts will appear this week: the last two next Tuesday and Wednesday.

At the end of the previous post I was emphasising that capitalism has begin to look like a religion and it depends upon a form of thought-control for its continuing hold on our minds. Is uprooted spirituality the only factor at work in that?

This is not, of course, the first time I’ve been here on this blog.

In his book Waking Up, which featured in an earlier sequence, Charles Tart uses the term ‘consensus consciousness’ to describe how our culture and life experiences shape our perceptions of the world. This effect is so strong that he goes onto describe it as a state of mind that is definitely not an enviable one:

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.[1]

Carrette and King in many ways are singing from the same hymn sheet. They quote David Loy – 2002:[2]:

. . . according to the U.N. development report from 1999, the world spent at least $435 billion the previous year for advertising… this constitutes the greatest effort in mental manipulation that humanity has ever experienced.

But it is not just advertising that hypnotises us into compliance.

Carrette and King argue that we increasingly see:

a concern with making the individual employee/consumer function as effectively as possible for the benefit of corporate organisations and the ‘global economy’. . . . Such a move allows advocates of capitalist spirituality to use the traditional language of ‘belonging’ but this time orient it towards the need for employees to align themselves with the corporate mission statements of their employers. [3]

The next shift in their argument should make me as a psychologist more uncomfortable than it does:

We argue that the discourse and institutions of psychology have played a major part in maintaining control in late capitalist societies in the West by creating a privatised and individualised conception of reality. Modern government requires a social mechanism to control populations, and psychology functions in part as the underlying philosophy of what it is to be a human for a capitalist system of social organisation.[4]

The reason why it comes as no unsettling surprise is that I have been here twice before from slightly different perspectives each time.

First of all, when I read Richard Shweder’s Thinking Through Cultures, I learnt how biased in a potentially destructive way our implicit individualism is, and how much that has influenced our preference for the ‘science’ of psychology.

The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre in views expressed in a paper on Social Action (November 2012) is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is more highly developed than that found anywhere else.

Richard Shweder’s compelling account of his re-examination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Shweder describes his findings in his bookHis very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext.

Why is this relevant here?

Mainly because the problem was rooted in the individualistic lens of the Western researchers who were unable properly to decode the implicit communal context which lay behind the responses of the Hindu subjects of their study. They were also unable to see the limitations imposed upon them by their Western perspective, which they simply assumed must be correct. Earlier in his book Shweder spells out a correlate of this bias:

Not surprisingly, in most sociocentric role-based societies… it is sociology, not psychology, that thrives as an academic discipline. In other, more individualistic cultures (for example, the United States) it is psychology that flourishes at universities and popular bookstores, while sociology has an uneasy relationship to a public that find sociological discourse to be unreal and laden with ‘jargon.’[5]

The idea of an individualistic Western lens is not just Shweder’s view. In her book Transcendence Gaia Vince expresses much the same conclusion:

Westerners, with an individualistic suite of social norms, tend to process objects and organise information into categories. In contrast, East Asians, with more collectivist norms, view themselves as part of a larger whole…[6]

Psychology would therefore seem, on the basis of evidence of this kind, to be assisting in the creation of the ‘privatised and individualised conception of reality’ Carrette and King refer to.

This is by no means the worst of it, as I discovered somewhat later.

In the introduction to their brave, thorough and well-researched book, Irreducible Mind, Kelly and Kelly capture the way that psychology came increasingly to adopt a materialistic and reductionist approach to the mind that fitted snugly into the materialistic capitalistic mind-set:

[William] James’s person-centered and synoptic approach was soon largely abandoned . . . in favour of a much narrower conception of scientific psychology. Deeply rooted in earlier 19th-century thought, this approach advocated deliberate emulation of the presuppositions and methods – and thus, it was hoped, the stunning success – of the ‘hard’ sciences especially physics. . . . Psychology was no longer to be the science of mental life, as James had defined it. Rather it was to be the science of behaviour, ‘a purely objective experimental branch of natural science’. It should ‘never use the terms consciousness, mental states, mind, content, introspectively verifiable, imagery, and the like.’ [7]:

And, sadly, in some senses nothing much has changed. Psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.[8]

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

So, it is no surprise then that an individualist, materialistic psychology should suit the needs of capitalism, in the way Carrette and King suggest it does. They make basically the same point quite explicitly later in their book: ‘ . . . in the demand for a science of the self, psychology distanced itself from the trappings of a religious self and sought to offer ideas of being human on a reductionist and measurable basis.’[9]

Psychology is not itself a form of spirituality though, so how would this strengthen Carrette and King’s case for the key role of spirituality in keeping us quiet?

When spirituality is psychologised, as it has been, for example, with mindfulness training, it can act as a powerful tool for stifling protest and ensuring conformity. The analogy they keep referring to in their book captures this potential exactly. They describe it, at one point, as ‘the new cultural Prozac,’ which brings ‘transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation’ without ‘addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice.’[10]At another, they write, ‘Capitalist spirituality is the psychological sedative for a culture that is in the process of rejecting the values of community and social justice.’[11]

They believe that, in addition to this, the misleading redefinitions of reality entailed in this process are the equivalent of what George Orwell, in his classic novel 1984, terms ‘thought-control.’ They claim ‘privatised spiritualities operate as a form of thought-control that supports the ideology of late capitalism.’[12]

This explains away any unpleasant feelings as resulting from deficiencies in the individual, so that:

What is never raised is the possibility that the ‘difficult life’ is itself a result of the modern psychological understanding of the self in Western consumer societies. . . . [Popular classics of spirituality] are palliative for the ills of a consumer society, rather than addressing the underlying social problems that create the need for such works in the first place.[13]

As a result:

. . . employees can be made to feel a sense of corporate community and allegiance to the company.… ‘spirituality’ provides the all-important ‘feel-good’ factor that is so important for improving worker efficiency and loyalty. . . Thus, while claiming to be ‘alternative’…, the goal is to align the employee’s ‘personal mission’ with that of the organisation for which they work.[14]

In the end, expressing the idea very strongly indeed, the authors feel that ‘Mass control and collectivism are not just features of fascist and communist societies. Rather they are reconfigured and hidden behind the capitalist doctrines of free choice.’[15]The result is that we are all locked into a toxic materio-competitive worldview:

With the emergence of capitalist spirituality the freedom of the individual to express their inner nature through ‘spirituality’ becomes subordinated to the demands of corporate business culture… [16]

Next time I will be looking in more detail at what makes it possible to see capitalism as a religion, and also later exploring how important it is to factor in other influences than disconnected spirituality to explain our paralysis in the face of capitalism’s deficiencies. It will be some time yet before I consider other more positive alternatives such as the Bahá’í perspective, the Doughnut model and Ehrenfeld’s ideas of flourishing.

Footnotes

[1] Tart – page 95.
[2] Page 160. Unless otherwise stated all references are from Selling Spirituality.
[3] Page 20.
[4] Page 26.
[5] Shweder – page 169.
[6] Gaia – page 146.
[7] Kelly and Kelly – pages xvii-xviii.
[8] Kelly and Kelly – page xx.
[9] Page 66.
[10] Page 77.
[11] Page 83.
[12] Page 68.
[13] Page 56.
[14] Pages 134-35.
[15] Page 57.
[16] Page 45.