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Posts Tagged ‘Karl Marx’

View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqánpage 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last Thursday, at the Hereford Pavilion Centre, I gave a brief talk to the Herefordshire Interfaith about the Bahá’í Revelation.

Beforehand I was told that I would have 15 minutes and was given a list of questions to address.

On the day the committee part of the meeting spilled over into the Faith-to-Faith’s time slot. The quart into a pint pot problem of describing my beliefs in quarter of an hour became a quart into a test tube experience. I had five minutes!

Even so the Faith-to-Faith moments were valuable if tantalising.

First one member briefly explained the basics of Universal Sufism, a movement connected to the mystical teachings of Inayat Khan which regards itself as expressing the compassionate spiritual core of all religion and therefore does not see self-definition as Muslim a necessary criterion of membership. He closed with a short prayer.

There was time for only one question before it was my turn.

Bicentenary Leaflet

Fortunately I had copies with me of the Bicentenary leaflet that had been mailed out to us earlier from the National Office. That saved me explaining at any length the core beliefs. I handed it round at the start of my talk to all the seven people who were there.

I had time then to briefly outline the basic details of Bahá’u’lláh’s life and the essence of the Bahá’í teachings.

There was one question, before everyone shared the same feeling that next time we really needed to allow much more time to explore what was being explained.

Given that I had spent a fair amount of time preparing what I was going to say, I think it would be a shame to waste the notes I made, though not all of them were going to be shared even in a 15 minute time slot.

So, here goes.

What was unusual this time was that I was given a set of questions in advance, most of them predictable.

Question One: What is the historical and geographical story of you faith? What are your main tenets/beliefs?

Much of what I planned to say in response to that first question focused upon the life of Bahá’u’lláh, given this year celebrates the 200th Anniversary of His Birth.

The Life of Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’u’lláh’s life after the execution of the Báb, the Prophet Herald of the Bahá’í Faith, in 1850, was one of constant imprisonment and exile.

On 15 August 1852 there was an ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt on life of Shah by three followers of the Báb who were reacting against the persecutions taking place at the time. Bahá’u’lláh was denounced as a Bábí by the Shah’s mother amongst others.

The Chain that weighed on Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal

He was taken to the so-called Black Pit – an underground disused water cistern used as a prison. Two chains were used on His shoulders, the heavier weighed more than 50 kgs. They left lifelong scars. The thumbs of both His hands were bound behind his back at times.

His first reported mystical experiences of the Divine occurred in this foul prison (See Moojan Momen, Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography  – page 32 – for both instances):

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.

The authorities failed to implicate Bahá’u’lláh in the plot so He was released after four months.

There followed His exile to Baghdad on 12 January 1853.

He spent 10 years there apart from a retreat to Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan 300 km north of Baghdad. This He did to avoid making worse the conflict his half brother was causing within the Bábí community. During those two years He wrote two mystical works, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, for two prominent Sufis. He returned to Baghdad on 19 March 1856.

Somewhere between 1857 and 1858 the Hidden Words were written, a condensed summary of the spiritual teachings of earlier revelations.

In January 1861 the Kitáb-i-Íqán was written for the uncle of the Báb and explains the nature of progressive revelation and the meaning of prophetic symbols of the second coming of former messengers of God.

It wasn’t until 22 April 1863 on the brink of His exile to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) that He openly declared He was the one foretold by the Báb.

It was in Adrianople that His half-brother tried to poison Him, leaving Him with a tremor for the rest of His life.

Bahá’u’lláh’s reputation was by now spreading in spite of His exile. The Bahá’í community can be said to have really begun to take shape at this point.

In 1868 He was banished again via Gallipoli and Haifa to ‘Akka, a walled and disease-ridden city, where He arrived on 31 August 1868. The authorities hoped and expected He would die there. Most people did.

It was in that prison His younger son, Mirza Mihdi, died, after falling though a sky light while pacing in prayer on the prison roof.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Bahá’u’lláh was moved under house arrest in September 1871 to the house of ‘Udi Khammar. This was where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was completed. In this book He explains in full the laws applying to and the obligations of Bahá’ís. He also speaks of the successorship – without naming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at this point He explains the successor will be the authoritative interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. He also lays the foundations of the Universal House of Justice.

A compassionate governor took office in 1876 and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to make plans for his father to move to a house at Mazra’ih near a beautiful garden in June 1877. He moved again to the mansion at Bahji in September 1879, close to where He was eventually buried in 1892.

His wife Asiyih Khanum had died in 1886 followed by His brother in 1887.

In 1882, at the suggestion of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilisation had been published in India.Political and social reform would not succeed without an underlying spiritual and moral reform’ was its theme. (Momen: page 138). Current thinking about the unwise divorce in free market thinking between J S Mill’s economics and his insistence on moral checks and balances reinforces the wisdom of this.

During the whole period from arriving in Baghdad to His time in ‘Akka a stream of books and letters flowed from His lips through the pens of His secretaries (his tremor did not allow him to write clearly and the speed of revelatory inspiration would have made it almost impossible for one hand to keep pace) – more than 7000 in all have been authenticated. In these texts he explained the details of his revelation.

In conditions less conducive than the British Museum reading room used by Karl Marx, he was able to produce what seem to me and many others across the world a better blueprint for a true civilisation. More of that next time along with an explanation of why I headed this sequence up with quotations concerning reflection and consultation.

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts will appear no consecutive days.

Recently, in a meeting of the committee of a small charity a possibly symptomatic exchange occurred.

‘Can we avoid using the word marketing and talk about publicity instead?’

‘Why? What’s wrong with saying marketing?’

‘Well, it sounds as though we are selling something when we’re not. We’re a charity.’

‘But that’s the way everyone talks nowadays. It’s the current term for what we want to do: make more people aware of us and keen to help us.’

As the meeting progressed some people said ‘marketing’ before immediately correcting themselves, others used the m word and showed no remorse, and a minority said ‘publicity’ with a barely concealed air of moral superiority.

Why one earth does it matter what one small group of people did or said in a side-room in a small town?

Well, for the same reason it mattered when someone in high office in a televised interview referred to a ‘swarm’ of refugees. The words we choose to use subliminally affect the world-views of others and often unintentionally leak our own unconscious biases. Philip Zimbardo, as I recently quoted, is well aware of the potentially pernicious effects of starting down this slippery slope  (The Lucifer Effect – page 456):

. . .  be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures.

What happened in miniature in the side-room with the word marketing is similarly serious, though dealing with a different issue, and is happening all the time everywhere in our culture on big stages and small ones: and the cumulative effect is to show just how far we are all infected with the assumption that markets are natural and harmless. We simply don’t question it at all most of the time. That’s how the world does its business – and there’s another word that highlights the same problem.

At one time busy meant active and probably still does for the most part, but business has had a long history of ambiguity meaning activity or trade from as early as the 15th Century, before crystallising  nowadays into meaning primarily an activity or enterprise that makes money. Although you still might say, of course, that this is none of my business!

A Culture of Contest

This habitual acceptance of competition and profit as natural blinds us to the problematic nature of our culture. Our ‘culture of contest,’ to borrow Michael Karlberg’s evocative phrase, is a broken model that: (a) prevents the truth being discovered and justice reliably being achieved in court rooms where the whole point in most Western countries is for two opposing teams to wrangle until one wins, (b) thwarts equity as well as increasing inequality in the economic sphere, where the prize of increasing wealth goes to the most effective competitor rather than the most worthy one, and (c) obstructs wise decision-making in the political sphere because the main point is to defeat one’s opponents in elections and remain in power for as long as possible.

Beyond the Culture of ContestTo use present day party politics and the economic model as the two most relevant examples, we can see first of all that a competitive model doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants in the political sphere. Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly (Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46):

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

Recent events illustrate how competitive divides corrode relationships even within the same political party.

In terms of economics, the same deficiencies appear in a different guise, and in fact we ignore the fundamental principle of moral restraint on markets cited by one of the founding father’s of economic thinking, Adam Smith (page 38-42):

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. Indeed, competition has become the pre-eminent value of a deeply materialistic age. And in the absence of external and internal market regulation, its culture of competition – or culture of contest – has led to widespread social conflict and ecologically degradation.

He goes on to describe these as the causes of (1) extremes of economic inequality, driven by the capitalist’s ‘attempt to extract the maximum surplus value from the labour force that is the primary source of their wealth,’ (2) rivalries between nations, and (3) a ‘relative absence of both external state regulation and internal moral regulation’ resulting in ‘unprecedented conflict between our own species and most other species on the planet.’

I won’t go any deeper into the politics of this at present.

For now I’m simply going to take the risk of sharing my sense of what might be wrong with the unregulated market place, or perhaps any market place at all, as a firm foundation upon which to build a better society in the future.

PostcapitalismMy Trigger

So what’s triggered this sudden excursion outside my relatively circumscribed field of expertise? Why don’t I just stick to consciousness and poetry?

Blame historian Bettany Hughes. The other night, I sat down to watch a programme I had recorded.

Her previous series, such as that on the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, held my attention and enriched my understanding. She is now tackling Marx, Nietsche and Freud in her latest sequence. All three of them are Marmite thinkers: you either love them or hate them. Only the first programme on Marx had been broadcast when I started writing this (it’s available on iPlayer till the middle of July). That was the one I watched.

Much of it was already familiar ground to me, and I ended up watching the programme in three instalments, not sure if I’d actually get to the end. I’m glad I did though.

In the last fifteen minutes or so there is a brief contribution by Paul Mason, another Marmite man probably. I’ve already read his recent book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future. His analysis of where Marx’s key ideas are still worth pondering on gave some valuable insights that I will perhaps blog about in more detail sometime.

What impressed me about his contribution to the programme was how he was able to capture in a few straightforward sentences one of the key ideas in his book. Given that I only ever managed to read less than half of Das Kapital in my socialist days, I’m grateful for his insights, which capture more fully some of the implications of Marx’s ideas than I had managed to grasp by my own unaided efforts.

He spoke of surplus value, as does Karlberg in the passage I quoted above, which he believes is still a valid concept and a much neglected one.

Surplus Value

Apart from the question in the middle these are his words as best as I could capture them.

Where does profit come from? Marx says it comes from work… everything that’s gone into getting [a small boy] to work – the food, the clothing, maybe the education, certainly the housing – costs some money, and his labour is worth all of that, but the amount of work he does during that working day… is way above what he needs, and the difference between . . . what it should take (what his work is really worth) and what he is actually working, is a surplus. That’s where profit comes from, and we know, actually, that (Marx) is trawling through this stuff for these acute examples of exploitation, because he wants to shove the concept of exploitation right down the throats of mainstream economics. Mainstream economics, then and today, doesn’t even accept that exploitation exists.

When a factory falls on the heads of a bunch of Bangladeshi garment workers, that’s an accident. To Marx, it’s one of the most fundamental laws of capitalism that the capitalist will extract the maximum amount of surplus value that they can.

“What’s the future of capitalism?” Bettany asks.

Marx isn’t predicting the imminent doom of capitalism. He understands that it is a fully functioning system. But he identifies its fragility. That in any system based on profit, where all the profit is extracted from the work of people, then you hit limits. The first limit you hit is the working day. You can’t extend the working day forever. You must innovate. You must create machines and the machines squeeze the worker more and more out of the production process, then the very source of all the profit is squeezed into a tiny area.

So you get repeated crises of profitability. People in Marx’s time were asking whose fault was it that XYZ company went bust. Marks says it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s the fault of the Profit System, which is based on the exploitation of workers, and the exploitation of workers cannot keep on producing the profits at the rate that is required to expand the system forever.

It’s possible, of course, that it is all slightly more complicated than that. But consideration of this will have to wait till the next post tomorrow.

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From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. Recent events across many countries again makes it seem timely to revisit this sequence. The posts will appear over the next two weeks.

If One Common Faith helps the Bahá’í community understand the current context of the vision we are seeking to implement (see previous post), Century of Light helps us see how our understanding of this vision developed by slow degrees.

Obstacles to Understanding

Secularisation partly explains the difficulty humanity as a whole has in grasping a transcendent vision of global transformation: the failure of religion makes a contribution too.

. . . the secularization of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

(Century of Light: Sec I, page 6)

We also all lack precedents to aid our understanding:

Our century, with all its upheavals and its grandiloquent claims to create a new order, has no comparable example of the systematic application of the powers of a single Mind to the building of a distinctive and successful community that saw its ultimate sphere of work as the globe itself.

(Century of Light: page 10)

British Museum: London

British Museum: London

People might, for example, claim that Marx had developed what seemed to be a global vision but it is not in fact comparable. It was a muddled reductionist vision. It was reductionist in the way that it relegated ideas to the back seat and promoted material conditions to the driving seat of history. It was muddled because, at the same time, it used exhortation to enlist the persuadable to throw their weight behind the idea of a supposedly impersonal dialectic of change. Also all the attempts to implement the vision have so far been catastrophically destructive, involving Chekhov‘s pet hates of ‘violence and lies‘ in abundance. Not only that but Marx had the benefit of one of the best libraries in the world – the British Museum’s reading room – and still failed to achieve the breadth, depth, complexity, compassion and ultimate practical efficacy of  the vision expounded by Bahá’u’lláh in prison and from exile.

An Unfolding Understanding

Guardians Resting Place: London

Guardian’s Resting Place: London

Even within the Bahá’í community understanding of the vision evolved over a period of  time. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his role as expounder of the words of Bahá’u’lláh, emphasised the role of the recognition of the oneness of the human race (Century of Light: page 23). Later, Shoghi Effendi, who was appointed in his turn as interpreter of the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and died in London in 1957, drew out the implications:

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind – the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve – is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. . . . . . It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not experienced…. It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarization of the whole civilized world – a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.

(World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 42-43. Quoted in Century of Light: page 50)

To one degree or another, most Bahá’ís no doubt appreciated that the Assemblies they were being called on to form had a significance far beyond the mere management of practical affairs with which they were charged (op. cit: Page 54). Century of Light again quoted Shoghi Effendi:

. . . . they were integral parts of an Administrative Order that will, in time, “assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fullness of time the whole of mankind”.

(Century of Light: Page 55)

A word of explanation is perhaps needed here. The Bahá’í Faith has an administrative system that involves electing local and national assemblies on an annual basis. This is done without electioneering: the Bahá’í voter in a secret ballot votes for anyone within the community, local or national as appropriate, who seems to him or her to have the necessary qualities of character and experience to execute the role of Assembly member conscientiously and well. Processes such as consultation (see the earlier post on this subject) are vital decision making tools of these institutions. The pattern can be studied and borrowed from by all, whether Bahá’í or not, and in this way the future shape of the world can be influenced by this pattern.

‘The Bahá’í community,’ it goes on to explain, ‘now embarked [on a stage of development] in which the Administrative Order would be erected throughout the planet, its institutions established and the “society building” powers inherent in it fully revealed’ (Century of Light: Pages 55-56). 

It continues with the words of the Guardian  (Page 68):

Theirs is the duty to hold, aloft and undimmed, the torch of Divine guidance, as the shades of night descend upon, and ultimately envelop the entire human race. Theirs is the function, amidst its tumults, perils and agonies, to witness to the vision, and proclaim the approach, of that re-created society, that Christ-promised Kingdom, that World Order whose generative impulse is the spirit of none other than Bahá’u’lláh Himself, whose dominion is the entire planet, whose watchword is unity, whose animating power is the force of Justice, whose directive purpose is the reign of righteousness and truth, and whose supreme glory is the complete, the undisturbed and everlasting felicity of the whole of human kind.

Moving Towards Empowerment

Century of Light speaks of the role of planning not as though ‘the Bahá’í community has assumed the responsibility of “designing” a future for itself’, but as striving ‘to align the work of the Cause with the Divinely impelled process they see steadily unfolding in the world.’ This is a purpose, of course, which can influence all peoples of good will, whether Bahá’í or not. Their duty is to align their efforts with the spirit of the age in their way just as Bahá’ís do in this particular fashion. By these combined efforts the world will change. However:

The challenge to the Administrative Order is to ensure that, as Providence allows, Bahá’í efforts are in harmony with this Greater Plan of God, because it is in doing so that the potentialities implanted in the Cause by Bahá’u’lláh bear their fruit.

(Century of Light: Page 69)

The Greater Plan of God, the spirit of the age seen as the organising principle of unity in diversity, requires the efforts of the whole of humanity. As a Bahá’í community we have to make sure that we provide a kind of catalyst by means of what we do within our administrative system and in collaboration with all people’s good will, the Lesser Plan of God.

Century of Light continues:

. . . . . The organic unity of the body of believers – and the Administrative Order that makes it possible – are evidences of what Shoghi Effendi termed “the society-building power which their Faith possesses.”

(Century of Light: Page 97)

By 1996, it had become possible, as the Faith grew, to see all of the distinct strands of this complex enterprise as integral parts of one coherent whole (Century of Light: page 108). There were still challenges though.

For the most part, however, these [new Bahá’í] friends were essentially recipients of teaching programmes conducted by teachers and pioneers from outside. One of the great strengths of the masses of humankind from among whom the newly enrolled believers came lies in an openness of heart that has the potentiality to generate lasting social transformation. The greatest handicap of these same populations has so far been a passivity learned through generations of exposure to outside influences which, no matter how great their material advantages, have pursued agendas that were often related only tangentially – if at all – to the realities of the needs and daily lives of indigenous peoples.

(Century of Light: pages 108-109)

This highlighted a need, the meeting of which led to the creation of the Training Institute process (page 109) that empowered people to take initiatives and persist in action even under difficult circumstances:

. . . beginning in the 1970s in Colombia, where a systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings was devised and soon adopted in neighbouring countries. Influenced by the Colombian community’s parallel efforts in the field of social and economic development, the breakthrough was all the more impressive in the fact that it was achieved against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.

The Colombian achievement has proved a source of great inspiration and example to Bahá’í communities elsewhere in the world.

The process of transformation the Cause has set in motion advances by inducing a fundamental change of consciousness, and the challenge it poses for all those of us who would serve it is to free ourselves from attachment to inherited assumptions and preferences that are irreconcilable with the Will of God for humanity’s coming of age (page 136).

Seat of the Universal House of Justice: Haifa

Seat of the Universal House of Justice: Haifa

Century of Light towards the end (pages 139-140) concludes:

. . . . With the successful establishment in 1963 of the Universal House of Justice, the Bahá’ís of the world set out on the first stage of a mission of long duration: the spiritual empowerment of the whole body of humankind as the protagonists of their own advancement.

We must not underestimate the significance of this achievement:

The process leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice . . . .  very likely constituted history’s first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of the community’s chosen delegates, a development that has now reached the point that it incontestably represents the will of a cross-section of the entire human race. There is nothing in existence – nothing indeed envisioned by any group of people – that in any way resembles this achievement.

(Century of Light: page 92)

See links below to the subsequent five posts which examine in more detail some of the specific components of this process of empowerment.

Related Articles

Humanity is our Business (3/5): Capacity Building (a)

Humanity is our Business (3/5): Capacity Building (b)

Humanity is our Business (4/5): Devotional Meetings

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (a) The Plight of Children

Humanity is our Business (5/5): (b) What can we do for our children?

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 An eclectic take on the history of socialist thought … Paul Mason. Photograph: Emma Lynch

An eclectic take on the history of socialist thought … Paul Mason. Photograph: Emma Lynch

Another 2015 post seems relevant to re-publish given that Monday’s post will look at a recent book’s critique of economics as an accurate model.

A review in Saturday’s Guardian by of Paul Mason’s latest book Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future suggests it is well-worth a read.

Mason’s book, though it has its limitations as I am beginning to discover as I move into its fourth fascinating chapter, is a stimulating analysis of what he sees as the key problems and their possible solutions. I suspect, from what I have read so far, that he underestimates the value of organisation and totally discounts spirituality, let alone religion. Runciman has a list of reservations of his own.

None the less I am finding it an exciting read that raises exactly the sort of questions we all should be seeking to discover some kind of answer to. Some of the detailed economics is a bit above my head, but I am enjoying the basic flow of his argument. Below is a short extract: for the full review see link.

The digital revolution has made many things real that once seemed to belong to realms of science fiction. Self-driving cars are almost here, telepathic communication may not be far off, newspapers with pictures that move and talk are so commonplace as to pass without notice (in the Harry Potter books, the last of which was published just eight years ago, moving newsprint belonged to the world of witches and wizards). Now Paul Mason argues that the internet is bringing another quaint and fantastical idea within the scope of the achievable: socialism.

By socialism, he doesn’t mean the tame social democracy that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, with its emphasis on moderating inequality and championing workers’ rights. He doesn’t even mean the spikier version currently associated with Corbyn and Syriza. He means the real deal, going right back to the utopians of the early 19th century and their eventual successors, Marx,  Luxemburg  and Lenin. This is socialism as a root-and-branch challenge to capitalism, the market and the very idea of private ownership. Still, Mason is no orthodox Marxist. His is an eclectic take on the history of socialist thought. From the utopians, he gets the idea of unfettered choice and radical social experimentation, which the internet can deliver in spades. His Marx is not the author of Capital so much as the author of an obscure text called “The Fragment on Machines”, which argued that information overload would ultimately destroy capitalism by dispersing knowledge among the workers. Lenin and Luxemburg appear as the prophets of monopoly capitalism, now being reproduced in the era of Facebook and Google.

. . . . .

Like many opponents of capitalism, Mason appears unable to decide whether the system will have to get even worse so it can finally change or will have to change so as not to get even worse. At one point, he suggests that the Republican party in the US, with its ideological commitment to doubling down on neoliberal capitalism, could take the system past the point of no return if given a free hand. But a Republican administration would also undermine any progress on climate change, without which, Mason insists, none of us has a long-term future. The digital revolution has put extraordinary new powers in the hands of the workers but it has empowered bankers as well, not least by giving them the ability to create money almost out of thin air. New technology generates as many fresh illusions as it punctures old ones. We still need politics to sort out the resulting mess. . . . .

. . . . he has bitten off more than he can chew. But that is a big part of the appeal of this deeply engaging book. Mason doesn’t have the answers – he is not even close –, but he is asking the most interesting questions, unafraid of where they might lead. What’s more, he writes with freshness and insight on almost every page. PostCapitalism is full of memorable turns of phrase. To survive, 21st century capitalists “would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the 19th century”. Marginalist economics is a theory of society that is “bigger than accountancy but smaller than history”. Touché. I can’t remember the last book I read that managed to carve its way through the forest of political and economic ideas with such brio. A lot of the time Mason doesn’t seem to know where he is going, but that is part of the pleasure.

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Recently, in a meeting of the committee of a small charity a possibly symptomatic exchange occurred.

‘Can we avoid using the word marketing and talk about publicity instead?’

‘Why? What’s wrong with saying marketing?’

‘Well, it sounds as though we are selling something when we’re not. We’re a charity.’

‘But that’s the way everyone talks nowadays. It’s the current term for what we want to do: make more people aware of us and keen to help us.’

As the meeting progressed some people said ‘marketing’ before immediately correcting themselves, others used the m word and showed no remorse, and a minority said ‘publicity’ with a barely concealed air of moral superiority.

Why one earth does it matter what one small group of people did or said in a side-room in a small town?

Well, for the same reason it mattered when someone in high office in a televised interview referred to a ‘swarm’ of refugees. The words we choose to use subliminally affect the world-views of others and often unintentionally leak our own unconscious biases. Philip Zimbardo, as I recently quoted, is well aware of the potentially pernicious effects of starting down this slippery slope  (The Lucifer Effect – page 456):

. . .  be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures.

What happened in miniature in the side-room with the word marketing is similarly serious, though dealing with a different issue, and is happening all the time everywhere in our culture on big stages and small ones: and the cumulative effect is to show just how far we are all infected with the assumption that markets are natural and harmless. We simply don’t question it at all most of the time. That’s how the world does its business – and there’s another word that highlights the same problem.

At one time busy meant active and probably still does for the most part, but business has had a long history of ambiguity meaning activity or trade from as early as the 15th Century, before crystallising  nowadays into meaning primarily an activity or enterprise that makes money. Although you still might say, of course, that this is none of my business!

A Culture of Contest

This habitual acceptance of competition and profit as natural blinds us to the problematic nature of our culture. Our ‘culture of contest,’ to borrow Michael Karlberg’s evocative phrase, is a broken model that: (a) prevents the truth being discovered and justice reliably being achieved in court rooms where the whole point in most Western countries is for two opposing teams to wrangle until one wins, (b) thwarts equity as well as increasing inequality in the economic sphere, where the prize of increasing wealth goes to the most effective competitor rather than the most worthy one, and (c) obstructs wise decision-making in the political sphere because the main point is to defeat one’s opponents in elections and remain in power for as long as possible.

Beyond the Culture of ContestTo use present day party politics and the economic model as the two most relevant examples, we can see first of all that a competitive model doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants in the political sphere. Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly (Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46):

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

Recent events illustrate how competitive divides corrode relationships even within the same political party.

In terms of economics, the same deficiencies appear in a different guise, and in fact we ignore the fundamental principle of moral restraint on markets cited by one of the founding father’s of economic thinking, Adam Smith (page 38-42):

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. Indeed, competition has become the pre-eminent value of a deeply materialistic age. And in the absence of external and internal market regulation, its culture of competition – or culture of contest – has led to widespread social conflict and ecologically degradation.

He goes on to describe these as the causes of (1) extremes of economic inequality, driven by the capitalist’s ‘attempt to extract the maximum surplus value from the labour force that is the primary source of their wealth,’ (2) rivalries between nations, and (3) a ‘relative absence of both external state regulation and internal moral regulation’ resulting in ‘unprecedented conflict between our own species and most other species on the planet.’

I won’t go any deeper into the politics of this at present.

For now I’m simply going to take the risk of sharing my sense of what might be wrong with the unregulated market place, or perhaps any market place at all, as a firm foundation upon which to build a better society in the future.

PostcapitalismMy Trigger

So what’s triggered this sudden excursion outside my relatively circumscribed field of expertise? Why don’t I just stick to consciousness and poetry?

Blame historian Bettany Hughes. The other night, I sat down to watch a programme I had recorded.

Her previous series, such as that on the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, held my attention and enriched my understanding. She is now tackling Marx, Nietsche and Freud in her latest sequence. All three of them are Marmite thinkers: you either love them or hate them. Only the first programme on Marx had been broadcast when I started writing this (it’s available on iPlayer till the middle of July). That was the one I watched.

Much of it was already familiar ground to me, and I ended up watching the programme in three instalments, not sure if I’d actually get to the end. I’m glad I did though.

In the last fifteen minutes or so there is a brief contribution by Paul Mason, another Marmite man probably. I’ve already read his recent book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future. His analysis of where Marx’s key ideas are still worth pondering on gave some valuable insights that I will perhaps blog about in more detail sometime.

What impressed me about his contribution to the programme was how he was able to capture in a few straightforward sentences one of the key ideas in his book. Given that I only ever managed to read less than half of Das Kapital in my socialist days, I’m grateful for his insights, which capture more fully some of the implications of Marx’s ideas than I had managed to grasp by my own unaided efforts.

He spoke of surplus value, as does Karlberg in the passage I quoted above, which he believes is still a valid concept and a much neglected one.

Surplus Value

Apart from the question in the middle these are his words as best as I could capture them.

Where does profit come from? Marx says it comes from work… everything that’s gone into getting [a small boy] to work – the food, the clothing, maybe the education, certainly the housing – costs some money, and his labour is worth all of that, but the amount of work he does during that working day… is way above what he needs, and the difference between . . . what it should take (what his work is really worth) and what he is actually working, is a surplus. That’s where profit comes from, and we know, actually, that (Marx) is trawling through this stuff for these acute examples of exploitation, because he wants to shove the concept of exploitation right down the throats of mainstream economics. Mainstream economics, then and today, doesn’t even accept that exploitation exists.

When a factory falls on the heads of a bunch of Bangladeshi garment workers, that’s an accident. To Marx, it’s one of the most fundamental laws of capitalism that the capitalist will extract the maximum amount of surplus value that they can.

“What’s the future of capitalism?” Bettany asks.

Marx isn’t predicting the imminent doom of capitalism. He understands that it is a fully functioning system. But he identifies its fragility. That in any system based on profit, where all the profit is extracted from the work of people, then you hit limits. The first limit you hit is the working day. You can’t extend the working day forever. You must innovate. You must create machines and the machines squeeze the worker more and more out of the production process, then the very source of all the profit is squeezed into a tiny area.

So you get repeated crises of profitability. People in Marx’s time were asking whose fault was it that XYZ company went bust. Marks says it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s the fault of the Profit System, which is based on the exploitation of workers, and the exploitation of workers cannot keep on producing the profits at the rate that is required to expand the system forever.

It’s possible, of course, that it is all slightly more complicated than that. But consideration of this will have to wait till the next post on Monday.

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‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ by Goya

Arise, O people, and, by the power of God’s might, resolve to gain the victory over your own selves, that haply the whole earth may be freed and sanctified from its servitude to the gods of its idle fancies – gods that have inflicted such loss upon, and are responsible for the misery of their wretched worshippers. These idols form the obstacle that impedeth man in his efforts to advance in the path of perfection.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets page 86)

This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days. It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original  by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain. 

Why is secularisation happening?

In quoting Matthew Arnold in the last post, we mentioned that Tennyson also was affected by the decline in religion which was so dramatically felt at that time. Behind Tennyson’s anguish of doubt you sense throughout whole sections of the poem In Memoriam the presence of Darwinian ideas of evolution:

Tennyson

Be near me, when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And life a fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

(Tennyson: In Memoriam: No. 50)

Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, feels that the decline is linked to industrialisation (and urbanisation), but not in a straightforward way. For instance, the United States is highly industrialised but is not comparably secularised.

The Role of Reason

The growth of a culture’s emphasis on reason, Weber’s rationalisation, is also an important, maybe central factor. Also factors internal to Protestantism may have contributed. One view holds that the Reformation instigated these. Berger (quoted on page 171 of Hamilton) states:

Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality, as compared with its Catholic adversary.

He feels it divested itself of mystery, miracle and magic. Christianity’s increasing pluralism also aided the spread of the rationalising tendency: the pluralistic situation (page 172) “where one can choose one’s religion is also a situation where one can choose no religion at all.” This is perhaps the process that produces one of the modern religious styles described in Century of Light (page 46):

Religion, where not simply driven back into fanaticism and unthinking rejection of progress, became progressively reduced to a kind of personal preference, a predilection, a pursuit designed to satisfy spiritual and emotional needs of the individual.

Charles Darwin

Hamilton then looks at the factors external to Christianity. The growth of rationality is taken to be central. He quotes Wilson (page 173) as arguing that:

It is not inherent tendencies in Christianity that are central but the autonomous growth of scientific knowledge and method. The argument is that this has undermined the credibility of religious interpretations of the world.

Century of Light describes this in forceful terms (page 69), not as the voice of true science but something masquerading as that:

What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Also people came to look to political institutions and processes for justice and for better conditions, not to the Church. The decline of community has played its part.

Materialism

It is however possible to argue, as Hamilton goes on to do, that both the decline of religion and the rise of materialistic science have common underlying causes. Religion and science, he feels, are not necessarily at odds. Religion has not helped itself in the West by pronouncing on empirical matters using scriptural evidence. Beneath that the decline of Feudalism may have contributed to the decline of Christianity, the rise of science as well as ultimately and very indirectly the temporary credibility of Marxism.

Shoghi Effendi quotes reports of Christian missionaries (World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, page 181) describing communism as the “religious irreligion” and expands on its role in the next page:

The excessive growth of industrialism and its attendant evils . . . . the aggressive policies initiated and the persistent efforts exerted by the inspirers and organizers of the Communist movement . . . have no doubt contributed to the de-Christianization of the masses, and been responsible for a notable decline in the authority, the prestige and power of the Church.

Similarly, on the subject of materialism and looking most particularly at the Twentieth Century, Century of Light (page 46) asserts:

Karl Marx

Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

The Inevitable Part of a Cycle?

Interestingly, Stark and Bainbridge (Hamilton: pages 176-178) regard secularisation as nothing new but rather a part of the normal cycle of religious development, and, in describing their model, create fascinating resonances with the Bahá’í perspective.

Ultimately, Churches decline as a result of their tendency to develop ever more extreme worldliness, engendering the emergence of revived religious groups . . . or new innovative developments. . . . While acknowledging that the rise of science stimulated an unprecedented, rapid and extreme degree of secularisation in contemporary society Stark and Bainbridge argue that science cannot fulfil many central needs and human desires. It cannot remove all suffering and injustice in this life, it cannot offer an escape from individual extinction, it cannot make human existence meaningful. Only God can do these things in people’s eyes. Religion, then, will not only survive and rise to prominence again, it will be transcendental or supernaturalist in form. It is more likely to be, further, the innovative . . . .  movements rather than the sectarian revivals of established traditions that will flourish since the latter can only come up against, in their turn, the same forces which have brought about a degree of secularisation in the first place.

Towards the end of his chapter on this subject Hamilton quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light (page 6) captures this:

inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Exclusive Humanism

Prompted by Barney’s comment on the earlier post in this sequence, I revisited a book that I failed to finish in 2008. Charles Taylor, in that book – A Secular Age – dismissed what he refers to (page 22) as ‘subtraction stories’ and argued that ‘new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices’ were the truly effective factors. He argues (page 20) for what he labels ‘secularity 3’ stating that this:

. . . . is my interest here, as against 1 (secularised public spaces), and 2 (the decline of belief and practice) . . . [It] consists of new conditions of belief; it consists in a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed.

He feels that (page 21):

The main feature of this new context is that it puts an end to the naive acknowledgement of the transcendent, or of goals or claims which go beyond human flourishing. But this is quite unlike religious turnovers in the past, . . . The crucial change which brought us into this new condition was the coming of exclusive humanism as a widely available option.

He defines ‘exclusive humanism’ as (page 18):

. . . the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been co-terminous with the rise of a society in which the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, or any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.

The next post will consider where things might be moving from here. I feel there is more to say about this than I will be able to articulate at this point.

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 An eclectic take on the history of socialist thought … Paul Mason. Photograph: Emma Lynch

An eclectic take on the history of socialist thought … Paul Mason. Photograph: Emma Lynch

A review in Saturday’s Guardian by of Paul Mason’s latest book Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future has come out at the perfect time as far as this blog is concerned. I have begun a series of posts focusing on the current crisis, as Bahá’ís see it, and its shaping by the events of the 20th Century.

The posts are in the form of workshop materials I used recently so it seems a good idea, as a way of unpacking some of the implications, to interweave links that shed light on issues raised by these materials.

Tomorrow’s and next Monday’s materials seek to explore how dire our predicament is. Mason’s book, though it has its limitations as I am beginning to discover as I move into its fourth fascinating chapter, is a stimulating analysis of what he sees as the key problems and their possible solutions. I suspect, from what I have read so far, that he underestimates the value of organisation and totally discounts spirituality, let alone religion. Runciman has a list of reservations of his own.

None the less I am finding it an exciting read that raises exactly the sort of questions we all should be seeking to discover some kind of answer to. Some of the detailed economics is a bit above my head, but I am enjoying the basic flow of his argument. Below is a short extract: for the full review see link.

The digital revolution has made many things real that once seemed to belong to realms of science fiction. Self-driving cars are almost here, telepathic communication may not be far off, newspapers with pictures that move and talk are so commonplace as to pass without notice (in the Harry Potter books, the last of which was published just eight years ago, moving newsprint belonged to the world of witches and wizards). Now Paul Mason argues that the internet is bringing another quaint and fantastical idea within the scope of the achievable: socialism.

By socialism, he doesn’t mean the tame social democracy that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, with its emphasis on moderating inequality and championing workers’ rights. He doesn’t even mean the spikier version currently associated with Corbyn and Syriza. He means the real deal, going right back to the utopians of the early 19th century and their eventual successors, Marx,  Luxemburg  and Lenin. This is socialism as a root-and-branch challenge to capitalism, the market and the very idea of private ownership. Still, Mason is no orthodox Marxist. His is an eclectic take on the history of socialist thought. From the utopians, he gets the idea of unfettered choice and radical social experimentation, which the internet can deliver in spades. His Marx is not the author of Capital so much as the author of an obscure text called “The Fragment on Machines”, which argued that information overload would ultimately destroy capitalism by dispersing knowledge among the workers. Lenin and Luxemburg appear as the prophets of monopoly capitalism, now being reproduced in the era of Facebook and Google.

. . . . .

Like many opponents of capitalism, Mason appears unable to decide whether the system will have to get even worse so it can finally change or will have to change so as not to get even worse. At one point, he suggests that the Republican party in the US, with its ideological commitment to doubling down on neoliberal capitalism, could take the system past the point of no return if given a free hand. But a Republican administration would also undermine any progress on climate change, without which, Mason insists, none of us has a long-term future. The digital revolution has put extraordinary new powers in the hands of the workers but it has empowered bankers as well, not least by giving them the ability to create money almost out of thin air. New technology generates as many fresh illusions as it punctures old ones. We still need politics to sort out the resulting mess. . . . .

. . . . he has bitten off more than he can chew. But that is a big part of the appeal of this deeply engaging book. Mason doesn’t have the answers – he is not even close –, but he is asking the most interesting questions, unafraid of where they might lead. What’s more, he writes with freshness and insight on almost every page. PostCapitalism is full of memorable turns of phrase. To survive, 21st century capitalists “would have to treat people kissing each other for free the way they treated poachers in the 19th century”. Marginalist economics is a theory of society that is “bigger than accountancy but smaller than history”. Touché. I can’t remember the last book I read that managed to carve its way through the forest of political and economic ideas with such brio. A lot of the time Mason doesn’t seem to know where he is going, but that is part of the pleasure.

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