Banner Image: waratah, fragment, Tasmania's native Christmas flower. Photo Charles Chadwick, with permission
A sorcerer out of control? Inequality, President Trump, Brexit and reasons for hope (number 50, 2017)
In 1848, Karl Marx published the first issue of a slim (23 pages) pamphlet, called The Communist Manifesto. Within it is the famous phrase “Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”
This sentence, written so long ago, mesmerises me. It suggests that the forces of capitalism, beyond a threshold, are like a demon, and that capitalism itself (and the society that depends on it) can become victim of the spells which the excesses of capitalism have released. I am not a Marxist, nor a communist, but I do believe in a much fairer global society than we now have, with only eight super-billionaires now controlling as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion. .It was partly my attraction for greater fairness that made me study medicine, focussing especially on the health problems of low-income settings – including in 1985 when I spent 10 months away from Australia, as a senior medical student, mainly learning about health problems in Africa and South Asia.
It did not take long for me to decide that purely biomedical approaches (eg better drugs or more doctors) could have little impact on the health issues of what was then called “The Third World”. This realisation propelled me to a career in public health, but in 1997 an experience I had at the Ronald Ross Centenary conference convinced me that fundamental changes in economic and political power are needed even more than vaccines and interventions such as handwashing and more toilets. I realised that while many in public health work for good health, far fewer work for the economic and social reforms which underpin health (given that the heyday of “Health for All”, was already well past.) Though not trained as an economist I determined that I would still do the best I could; later, during my doctorate, I was able to study the work of many economists.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the end of the 1840s (also called the “hungry40s”) was a time of social upheaval in Europe – laissez faire capitalism had raised economic growth, but also deepened inequality, and with it, the risk of revolution. Much later, Hirschman, in 1982, argued that excessively unrestrained market forces (such as in the 1840s, the gilded age of the late 19th century, the 1920s and since about 1980) can undermine the moral values that are its own essential underpinnings, generating the satire “greed is good" in the film Wall St. Hirschman's arguments support the idea that there are great cycles in the world economy; not just booms and busts, but periods of self-restraint by elites, followed by a gradual forgetting of the consequences of too much inequality. This leads to the relaxation of rules and norms intended to reduce the risk of economic collapse, for example when US President Bill Clinton repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, a cornerstone of Depression-era regulation.
What happens when inequality runs out of control? It could mean revolution and regicide, but there were times when hyper-capitalism accepted greater regulation and self-restraint, such as during the Depression and following World War II. But those lessons have recently been forgotten, with consequences including Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of nationalism in many countries. The recently (and still?) dominant ideology – neoliberalism – was bound to worsen inequality, and it remains to be seen if these new regimes will do any better. These reactions could, as Marx foreshadowed, presage an out of control sorcerer, such as a period of neo-totalitarianism, (or illiberalism such as David Frum has justargued in an excellent example in the Atlantic called "How to Build an Autocracy: The preconditions are present in the U.S. today.") Social media and search engines have apparently been manipulated by narrow interests, and it can be argued such dark methods paved the way for Trump’s election.
However, this is not the 1930s in Europe and Japan. With vigilance, social institutions and civil society could lead to a more prosperous and fairer future, despite President Trump’s rule, despite the clear existence of a US "shadow state" as documented by David Talbot and many others. Trump's phone call with Tsai Ing-wen, not only gave hope in Taiwan, but must also have heartened Tibetans.
Some early signs of President Trump’s rule are promising, such as the global protests following President Trump’s inauguration. On the other hand Frum worries these will be dismissed by the new President. Other signs are disturbing, to anyone hoping for less inequality or action on climate change. These include the appointment of the Goldman Sachs and hedge-fund veteran Steven Mnuchin, for US Treasury Secretary. As Joseph Stiglitz notes, the expertise he will bring to the job will be in tax avoidance, not constructing a well-designed tax system. Also of concern is the the appointment of Rex Tillerson, the chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, as Secretary of State. But even on climate change the position is not hopeless. The drive toward renewable energy, including its declining prices, is now so strong that greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industry will continue to decline. Note, however, that even if this occurs, greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to rise, and the rate of increase could even steepen due to reinforcing feedbacks, such as from melting tundra.
When BODHI was co-founded in 1989 (in the US as well as Australia) it became one of the world’s first Buddhist-influenced non-government organizations seeking to improve social and environmental justice for all. Both major forms of Buddhism recognise the importance of compassion. A central tenet of Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Tibetan Buddhism) is the concept of “bodhicitta”, the wish to be of benefit to all beings. An important aspect of Theravada Buddhism is the concept and practice of “metta”, or loving kindness. In principle, both forms of compassion extend to all forms of life, including people of any race, faith, ethnicity, status or caste.
The experience of each of the co-founders of BODHI was that organized and practical expressions of either metta or bodhicitta were rare, at least by Buddhists and Buddhist sympathisers. We knew, of course, that Buddhist teachings had a powerful, generally positive influence in many countries, but also that many nominally Buddhist counties had experienced internal conflict and overt aggression - but so had many Christian and Muslim countries. We also knew of organized programmes in Western countries to raise funds for Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal, efforts which had commenced soon after His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama had fled the Chinese invaders in 1959, accompanied by about 80,000 of his countrymen, in the first of several waves. (See an interview with the Dalai Lama in 1960.) We also knew of small groups working to support individuals, families, monastics and monasteries. But we did not know of any Buddhist-influenced organizations similar in aspiration to OxFam, Save the Children Fund, or the Catholic aid organization Caritas.
Although a Buddhist group called Tzu Chi (“compassionate relief”) had been founded in Taiwan in 1966 we did not, at that stage, know of it. Nor (in those pre-internet days, when research was more difficult) did we know of the Karuna Trust, which, based in the UK, had then been active for several years. We knew of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, but its focus was more on dialogue and the promotion of peace, than on poverty relief via partners, as we intended.
However, few among these groups seek to actively promote poverty relief and poverty prevention. BODHI, though small, has supported almost 50 such projects, mainly in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Tibet. We also have tried to raise concerns about numerous issues relevant to social justice, in our newsletters (of which this is the 50th), on our various websites, and via Facebook. Recurrent themes have included climate change, inequality, racial and other forms of discrimination and the lack of female education and empowerment and its consequent effect on poverty. Compared to the need, BODHI can only make a small difference, but we can do far more collectively than as individuals.