Friday, October 19, 2012

To Change the World

The piece below is the Introduction to the book I have just finished writing. It is long and complex, as is the book. Anyone interested in knowing more or commenting on what I have to say should contact me at or DO NOT use the Blogger interface; it seems to convert most messages to gibberish  (The 15 August piece on Sri Aurobindo elicited, in addition to the few published comments, over 50 identical pieces of spam!)  If you send me a message and do not get a polite and considered response it means I have not got it. Please feel free to circulate or post this note and the piece below wherever you want.

1001 Things You Should Know

The world is now trapped in deep interlocked crises that could precipitate an extended economic depression, global environmental disasters and war; but we have the capacity to deal with them by effecting a global spiritual transformation. This book is a guide to what ordinary people can do to direct the course of events. Its recommendations emerge from a tradition and history that are uniquely of India, a legacy that Mahatma Gandhi brought into politics and Martin Luther King made global.
As our national legacy is not well understood even in India -- perhaps especially in India because of deliberate colonial era distortions that have endured into the 21st Century -- much of the book is history, with a particular focus on the confrontation of India and Britain as that of two fundamentally different approaches to reality, the spiritual and the material. In addressing that issue the book examines several venerable clich├ęs about India -- its spirituality, its "unity in diversity" and the unparalleled tolerance of its society -- that no one has felt the need to explain. Why is India so famously spiritual, united in its diversity and tolerant?

The answers, necessarily hypothetical, point to the time when efforts began to to tone down the endemic hostilities of the fiercely territorial hunter gatherers inhabiting India. Probably taken in hand by the legendary Saptarishis, the seven sages at the beginnings of Indian tradition, the effort most likely began with the collection of the sacred lore of all the tribes into a compendium -- the Vedas -- that everyone could venerate. (The colonial era theory that blond White protoEuropean "Aryans" composed them while herding cattle and riding their chariots up and down the high Himalayan passes is laughably absurd.)

The word Veda is from the same root as video; it is what is seen or known. To seek the significance of that body of collected tribal knowledge India's best and brightest gathered in forest retreats and produced the Upanishads (a composite word that means to talk sitting together). Those ancient conference reports conceptualized familiar realities: a universe governed by law extending from the starry sky to the endless cycling of nature's seasonal transformations in which death was but a step to rebirth and human actions propelled fate.

The Upanishads postulated an eternal and immanent power governing by immutable Dharma (Law), the endless flux of the universe. In human affairs that law operated as Karma, the unbreakable chain of cause and effect binding an individual’s actions to personal destiny. As death is but a door to rebirth, the karmic chain was seen as extending over many lives, determining the soul's evolution or regression in awareness and understanding. In the happiest of circumstances the individual soul could achieve enlightenment, escape from the cycle of life, and merge with the Paramatma, the Universal Soul. The guiding lights on that positive track were defined as Sat Chit Ananda — Truth Knowledge Bliss — three separate elements that can be read as a statement: the bliss of knowing the truth.

The Indian world view shaped by the Upanishads is profoundly hopeful; individuals face no Judgment Day but have endless opportunities for trial and error in their progress towards God. Existence is a constant teacher of the need for spiritual understanding and evolution. Although human society suffers a long decline in virtue through great cycles of time, the immanent power of the Universe never allows the defeat of the Good. The darkest age, the Kali Yuga (now current), ends with the return of virtue in full flood.

The philosophy of the Upanishads flowed into the life of ordinary people through two masterly epics written some seven millennia apart and marking key points in the evolution of Indian society. Endlessly retold as sacred legend, folk tale and life’s eternal drama, celebrated in music, song and dance, the Ramayana and Mahabharata carried the philosophy of the Upanishads down to the lowliest village. By popularizing the view that all Creation is Vasudev kutumbakham, God's family, they made it impossible to define a tribal "Other" and enforce a group identity on the basis of fear. Thus defanged, tribes became castes, autonomous in certain customs and traditions but parts of a larger society; the law-giving Manu of the current Yuga compared them to the functionally different but interdependent parts of a human body.

 The Ramayana marked the evolution of caste federations into unitary kingdoms; it set the ideal of Ramrajya, the rule of a virtuous monarch dedicated to the welfare of his people and beloved by all castes. When that ideal lay trampled in the struggle for imperial power the Mahabharata carried instructions for corrupt and confusing times: people were not of high or low caste by birth but by personal merit and action; the individual must maintain his moral equilibrium and do his duty regardless of immediate success or failure.

The attributes of personal freedom and tolerance, combined with the acceptance of law and specialization of labor, made India a cultural and economic powerhouse that influenced all of Eurasia. The Universal Soul of the Upanishads migrated West to ancient Greece, and its Platonic version entered the Semitic world when, some 300 years before Jesus, a learned council convened by Ptolemy II in Alexandria produced the first Greek translation of the Torah. The council rendered the tribal war god Yahweh into the almighty God of the Pentateuch, beginning the monotheistic tradition that flowed into the Bible and the Koran. Meanwhile, the Buddha's spare non-deistic retelling of universal reality centered on the creative core of Sunnyata (emptiness) fathered the Zero and revolutionized mathematics globally; his philosophy found a receptive home in East Asia and endured there as India itself returned to the richly personified deism of the old religion.

As trade with all parts of Eurasia and parts of Africa added to India's great wealth the country became a magnet for migrants, many filtering in peacefully and others invading to conquer and rule. With one exception, all of them settled into the unifying amalgam of Indian society.

The British were the exception. Arriving initially as traders, they rose to power at a time of great disorder in the country by using to advantage an acute capacity for political manipulation and treachery. Their rise coincided with two significant changes in the world view of the British elite. One reflected the demolition of the Biblical God-centered universe by Newton's mechanistic concept of it. The other was the fond fantasy that Europeans were the descendants of a superior "Aryan race." Atheism, racial arrogance and consistent perfidy put the British fundamentally at odds with Indian society and precluded their settling into it. Their nonviolent expulsion after two massively murderous world wars fought in the ruthless pursuit of imperial interests highlighted the stark contrasts between Britain and India.

The "Soul Force" that Mahatma Gandhi mobilized to end British rule has been missing in most of what has been reported as happening in India since independence. In addition, the massive corruptions afflicting the country now seem to signal the death of our traditional values. However, such conclusions are premature, for our history lies largely unexamined and misunderstood, as indeed, does the force that Gandhi mobilized. It is urgent to remedy those deficits now because the world is in deepening peril from the industrial “progress” that Gandhi correctly described as malignant and unsustainable in his seminal 1910 book, Hind Swaraj.

Corrective action will not come from governments: for some four decades they have done little in the face of disastrous environmental trends that are driving species to extinction at a rate not seen since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. They have taken only the most desultory action in the face of the threat that global warming could force radical changes in the cropping patterns of major food crops, precipitating possibly genocidal wars. The elite groups in control of the world's governments are loath to change economic arrangements that bring them vast wealth. If their suicidal inertia is to be overcome without ruinous disruption of the world economy ordinary people must mobilize the transformational power of Gandhian "Soul Force." 

Gandhi himself refused to explain how other people could use that force, saying to one interlocutor, “I have it all in my head. When the occasion comes I take out what is applicable to the situation.” When pressed to write a “treatise” on the matter he replied “I cannot do what you want me to do. It is beyond my power. ... I am not the man who can write a treatise. I speak under inspiration. I cannot decide as to how I shall tackle a particular situation until I am faced with it.” But even in the absence of written instructions, we can make out that he acted on the fundamental tenets of Hindu faith. If all Creation is part of the divine, all must share in and resonate to the force of the Soul, the spiritual truth. Satyagraha sought to mobilize the spiritual force of those he led and engage adversaries at the level of their highest common denominator. The essence of the Gandhian approach is the belief that once spiritually engaged, people can resolve any problem.

Gandhi based himself in the mainstream of a spiritual tradition Indians have sustained for some 15 millennia in an effort to comprehend the nature of reality. As noted earlier, that effort began in the Vedas, intensified in the Upanishads, and entered the lives of ordinary people with the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It has coursed unbroken down the centuries into the contemporary world, albeit with major blockages and periods of great difficulty. When the Vedic tradition became crusted over with ritual and superstition the Buddha emerged to cleanse and reform it. When Buddhism lost energy, Adi Sankara revived the old religion and set off the Bhakti tradition that strengthened resistance to invading Islam and eventually softened the foreign faith into the indigenous Sufi movement.

 Emerging from that milieu, Kabir and Guru Nanak, healers of caste and religious division, set off the streams of poetry and faith that became modern Indian nationalism. It is that extended background that explains why, when Raja Rammohun Roy took up the British challenge in Bengal in the 18th Century, the response came not just from there but from the whole country, reaching fruition in Gandhi. Britain’s empty boast that it created Indian unity flies in the face of the world’s most ancient nationalism, emerging not from conquest and oppression as in Europe but by consensus and culture shaped by sages, poets and philosophers.

The spiritual has always been a structural element of Indian history. With Satyagraha in South Africa Gandhi rendered it overtly political, opening the door to its globalization by Martin Luther King. The trajectory of Gandhian ideas from Africa and India to America is what allows their use to change the world in the 21st Century. That does not mean that we do not need to innovate. Gandhi's experience in leading a spiritually attuned people to confront oppressive authority is not directly relevant to a situation in which activists must deal with a hugely diffuse system with its decision-making centres dispersed among corporate elites obedient to no single institutional centre.

Satyagraha remains useful in situations like Koodankulam, where elite groups promote poisonous patterns of “development;” and it can be used to protest an entire range of policies as Spain’s Indignado and American “Occupy” movements have done. But it cannot transform the existing world situation without bringing local efforts into global synergy. The Information and Communications Revolutions have made that possible. The next decade will see most of the world's seven billion people connected by mobile telephone networks; the number of those on the Internet will be nearly five billion by 2020. The number of online machines that process and store most of human knowledge ─ the "Internet of things" as Yuri Milner the Russian IT strategist calls it ─ will grow much faster in the same period, increasing from five billion to 20 billion. Meanwhile, vastly improved Internet search functions and geospatial presentations integrating complex data streams will change the content and quality of the Web. Widespread use of smart phones will enable billions of people to access that information and contribute to online data banks. In sum, we will have the beginnings of what Milner calls a "global brain."

The impact of such a new planetary consciousness will depend on how it is used. If it is committed to help the poor and weak, to deal with social and environmental problems and promote peace and nonviolence, it could develop into a composite Mahatma, a collective "Great Soul" to guide the world out of its current state of generalized crisis and along a path beneficial to all. Its immoral use to control and manipulate people, to generate corporate profits without regard to social and environmental impact would produce a violent dementia. Much of the book is devoted to examining the negative factors that must be neutralized to prevent such a perversion. It also suggests how activists working at the level of their own communities can engage in a global matrix to build the synergies necessary to transform the world.

The first step towards mobilizing global action must be to spread a balanced understanding of what happened during the era of Europe's global dominance. At present such an understanding is not possible because imperial Europe has buried its record in fabricated histories. The motivation has not been national pride but elite profit; the truth cannot be told because it would reveal that exploitative violence and bloody treachery have continued unabated long past the supposed end of the colonial era. This is especially true of Britain, where a cohesive elite has engaged in a campaign of active and widespread propaganda. This is not because of the long afterlife of imperial arrogance; the propaganda hides the fact that the British Empire has been resurrected as a global underground economy that fosters every form of organized crime and corruption.

"Islamic terrorists," drug lords and criminal mafias in every country are the foot soldiers of that new imperium, as are wealthy tax cheats around the world. Their alliance is rooted in the use of "tax havens," of which there are now about 70, most of them established as the British Empire declined in the second half of the 20th Century. Tax havens help major multinational banks launder the proceeds of crime; they constitute a system with its hub in The City (financial district) of London. There is hard evidence of the system at work. Just in the last year Britain's largest bank, HSBC, incurred a fine of about a billion dollars in New York for laundering drug money. (The bank was only being true to its roots: HSBC stands for Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corporation, which rose to international prominence by financing the opium trade in the 19th Century.)

 In effect, the tax haven system has created within the world's existing financial architecture a shadow criminal enterprise hidden in plain sight: mass media regularly report the obscenely large "bonuses" major banks pay to their staff but they never explain why. Journalists avoided explanations even when such payments continued in the aftermath of the 2009 financial meltdown, as banks wallowed in public funds to stave off bankruptcy. If the thought has ever crossed their minds that bank bonuses are payoffs to people managing trillion dollar flows of black money, reporters and editors have kept it a very close secret.

The New British Empire is far more powerful than the old one ever was. It manipulates a wide range of proxies around the world to generate a massive flow of illicit earnings. Revenues come from the theft of natural resources, drug trafficking and the arms trade. Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have been the primary victims. Since the 1997 return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has also tied into the lucrative corruptions of that largest of tyrannies. The lurid downfall in 2012 of Bo Xi-lai, the rising political "Princeling" whose wife murdered a British money launderer, brought that fetid reality to world attention; or rather, it would have done so if the mainstream Press had not presented the murder victim as a respectable "British businessman."

The media have given scant attention to expert estimates valuing the global black market at over $30 trillion and annual money laundering at $2 trillion. To put those figures in perspective: the entire American economy is valued at about $15 trillion. The cooperation of Western mass media in disguising Britain's multifaceted post-colonial criminality points to the corrupting power of real-life Mordor. Unfortunately, there is no single magic ring that can be tossed into hellfire to destroy its dark empire; that will require a concerted global effort to promote understanding of its violent nature and corrupting role. Whoever accepts the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union will have a golden opportunity to kick-start that process.

Will the people of Middle Earth mobilize against the great evil threatening them? I believe they will for two reasons. One is that the old order is spent. Corporations, the central institution of the colonial and industrial eras, are no longer the most efficient means to organize economic activity; increasingly, the giant transnational entities that dominate the world economy are like lumbering dinosaurs in a networked world. Although they have accumulated enormous political, economic and social power, the corporate elite have come up against a new reality they cannot master, the lightning fast connectivity of the Information Age.

To understand how that has changed economic fundamentals we have to look at the historical context, specifically, the evolution of the European concept of “capital.” It appeared first when elite groups enclosed common lands, claimed property rights, and imposed rent on weaker sections of society, thus monetizing their labour. Those without property could not get land without laying their lives on the line with a mortgage – a word that in the original French means “engaged to the death.”

Land ceased being the primary form of capital when the development of ocean-going ships and new navigation capabilities made long distance trade hugely profitable. The “capital” of the mercantile era was the money necessary to fund risky and expensive ventures. It was raised and spent by a new institution, the joint-stock corporation: the East India Company founded in 1600 was the first one. With industrialization the concept of “capital” changed again: it became the capacity to bundle money, technology, raw materials, labour and marketing skills.

At every step in its radical evolution "capital" remained under the control of elite groups; but the Information Age has changed that. The social connectivity now necessary to generate the most lucrative profits is a form of "capital" that cannot be easily controlled from the top. In fact, corporate advertisers using the Internet and Worldwide Web are the tenant farmers of the Information Age, monetizing the social connective. Without fascist measures similar to those in China they cannot control the vast potential of that connectivity or block its potential to mobilize transformational change.

As an illustration of that altogether new power, consider that the current "housing crisis" in the United States could be resolved in a week by organizing a Web-based state-regulated lottery of overpriced real estate. The overpriced properties now stalling the market could be transferred to new owners who would need no mortgage. Properly institutionalized, the entire housing market could be driven by lottery, generating a steady flow of funds for builders and erasing banks from the picture. The power of connected collectives can be similarly exerted in every area of economic and social activity. It can clean up politics, initiate and sustain action to protect the environment, eradicate poverty and illiteracy, and dramatically bring down the incidence of preventable and communicable diseases.  

The second reason for my optimism is that the world seems primed for a spiritual revolution. To see why that is so, we have to bring into focus the net result of four grim centuries of Europe's global hegemony. All things negative in that era have had unexpected positive outcomes:

  • The racist genocides, slave trades and exploitation of indentured and migrant labour have mixed the human gene-pool into an unprecedented unity.
  • War has ploughed under many national parochialisms and cross fertilized traditions.
  • Opposition to Europe's racist and colonial oppressions brought to life the moral revolution that for the first time in history demanded the equality of men and women of all races.
  • Mass-market consumerism with its color blind pursuit of profit undermined racism everywhere.
  • The ecological ravages of the industrial era underlined humanity’s close and custodial relationship with Nature; the deepening environmental crises they triggered have made urgent and fundamental change imperative.
  • The current world economic crisis has made clear to many millions of people that the existing economic and political systems are deeply corrupt and must be changed.

To read an epochal transformation into this negative-to-positive progression is admittedly an intuitive leap but it can be defended scientifically by considering the nature of thought. Scientists have demonstrated that thoughts are patterns of electrons that can not only be mapped and projected visually in the laboratory, but used to control equipment, most innocuously to help grievously disabled people. They have done this without venturing an opinion on the provenance of more complex thoughts. Is "thinking" individually generated? Or does the "thinker" merely perceive existing patterns? If thought is individually generated, it would support the view of our universe as an accidental evolutionary development with no set direction or purpose. If it is the perception of existing structures of electrons -- as in the intuitive leap above -- it would imply that a purposeful universe is transmitting a message.

The mainstream of Indian spiritual tradition has affirmed that human beings are part of a purposeful Universe. That belief is the basis for yogic meditation which seeks to tune the individual to the Universal essence. This is not to say that the Universe is deterministic in human terms: it can be perceived in many different ways, and that can change its course: “You attain what you worship” says the Bhagavad Gita. The world we now have is the result of Europe’s worship of wealth and unscrupulous power; to transform it we must perceive and want a different reality.

There is little doubt that since Gandhi’s advent turned the tide against the colonial era there has been a continuous improvement in the moral quality of human actions. We have seen a widening altruism, a growing sensitivity to the need to protect all life on the planet, and a strengthening effort to promote human rights and democracy. Even neo-colonial Europe amidst its continuing depredations has bowed to the trend and instead of glorying in domination and rapacity, provides “official development aid” to its victims. It is within our power to push that positive trend into an evolutionary quantum jump. Out of the titanic gloom of the current global crisis we can bring another world into being; this book is a basic guide to how we can do so.

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