Monday, June 16, 2008


Covetousness as Inner Demurrage

By John Taylor; 2008 June 16, 12 Nur, 165 BE


Our reading from Holy Writ this morning is about greed. In the Tablet to Manikchi Sahib, Baha'u'llah writes,


"O children of understanding! If the eyelid, however delicate, can deprive man's outer eye from beholding the world and all that is therein, consider then what would be wrought if the veil of covetousness were to descend upon his inner eye." (Tabernacle, 1.11, pp. 7-8)


This passage from my morning scriptural reading this morning reminded me of a brochure scrawled over with notes that my father handed me yesterday as I was writing. It is an advertisement for the Cricket Kid's Remote, a clicker specially designed to protect children from the bad in cable television land and direct them to the good; this putative good is in the form of two favorite channel buttons, which can be pre-programmed. One button has a moon symbol and the other a star. He had written on the pamphlet: "John and Marie: Set it up and I'll pay. Lots of educational stuff..."


Grampa has not thought things through.


Baha'u'llah wrote the above grave warning long before covetousness had been regularized, institutionalized and kneaded into our daily mental bread by electronic mass communication. I would never allow a cable feed into our part of the house for the same reason that I would not let in a nest of vipers. Brain worms bite too, and penetrate much deeper than snakebites. Baha'u'llah's words explain exactly how they sting, by arousing covetousness. It is necessary that parents avoid the slightest unnecessary exposure to advertising. I do that for myself, how much more for our children, too young to defend themselves. Actually, I am over fifty years old and I have found no defence other than complete abstinence, so I cannot expect children not to need protection, from their "favorite" channels most of all. Commercials are specially designed by experts to arouse just what Baha'u'llah warns will blind the soul, covetousness. Even when you are "innocent of envy" and desire nothing, just watch one commercial and your soul is tainted forever. You may not realize it, but you have been conditioned in a way that neither you nor God intended. A little flame of the desire to acquire has been instigated that was not in there before.


When Baha'u'llah wrote that people had only one pair of eyelids, now we are inundated at a rate of thousands of new eyelids per day. The kids' favorite show is Futurama; a new movie in the series is coming out this week called "The Beast with a Billion Backs." Good title; if you wanted to make a documentary film of this age of commercialism you could not do better than call it "The Beast with a Billion Eyelids." Is it any wonder that in spite of our vaunted education, wealth and technology in the West that inwardly we are making so little progress? We are in pitch blindness and generate a new eyelid to keep us that way every few seconds. Baha'u'llah, in the same paragraph, continues,


"Say: O people! The darkness of greed and envy becloudeth the radiance of the soul even as the clouds obstruct the light of the sun. Should anyone hearken unto this utterance with a discerning ear, he will unfurl the wings of detachment and soar effortlessly in the atmosphere of true understanding." (Tabernacle, Idem)


The entire capitalist system is based upon the opposite view, that greed and envy provide necessary energy to feed the economy. Cogs in the machine are oiled by covetousness. We need to be continually prodded on by desires for our neighbour’s wives, beasts, homes and other possessions. While the lower end of the income scale is driven by the desire to keep from starving, the rats on the upper end of the labour market might lag if they were not driven by the bull whips of envy and covetousness to run ever faster on their spinning wheel of ambition.


Writ large in broad social interaction, we see the covetousness of capitalism demanding continual competition for resources. Take energy as one example. In Canada, a small number of hayseeds who happen to live near the massive oil wealth of the Alberta tar sands hold the rest of the country to ransom. Bad as this is, it is far worse in the Middle East. There, a tiny population of Saudis all but swim in wealth while a few miles to the south millions starve. Far from being a bad thing, capitalism holds that competition for scarce resources and wide disparity of wealth provide a creative tension that prods us on to greater things.


The solution that Baha'u'llah offers to the greed that feeds the machineries of capitalism is essentially a spiritual one. Our natural urge to gather in all that we can must be moderated on a day-to-day basis by pious acts, prayer, reflection and charity. Such a lifestyle leads to a constant awareness that this life is but a prelude to a greater life to come. This would cut the problem off at the root; it is the only possible long term cure to the cancer of materialism.


In the short term, however, quick and dirty fixes have to be considered. We must do something drastic to counteract the frightful harm and dislocation that materialism and unfettered capitalism are doing to the environment and the human condition. Global warming has already gone way beyond enough tipping points to raise the hair of any scientist who cares to look at the situation. Something must be done, and done fast.


I have been looking at George Monbiot's proposals for doing just that in his book, Age of Consent. After proposing a democratically elected world parliament as a major step to bringing order to the international scene, Monbiot all but throws up his hands and admits that even this spectacularly radical measure would not cure the insidious cancer of capitalism eating at the vitals of the world economy. Now that oil prices are rising, and in danger of spiking (in graphic terms, a spike would be a sudden rise of gas prices beyond $3.00 a litre), Monbiot's ideas in this book need to be given serious, urgent consideration by all.


Monbiot reviews some little-known economic history. Just after the Second World War a proposal by the 20th Century's greatest economic genius, J.M. Keynes, for an International Clearing Union was floated at the Breton Woods summit, but was sunk by the American delegation. This Clearing Union would regulate the present chaotic and inherently unequal international exchange regimen. Monbiot suggests that this institution be established now, and that the funds it generates be used to ground the people's parliament.


"The first step would be to change the rules governing trade between nations, permitting a significant transfer of wealth from rich to poor. The second, once the poorer nations could compete on roughly equal terms, would be to address the balance of trade between nations, ensuring that temporary deficits did not contribute to permanent debt. The Clearing Union would then generate the money required for global elections and a world parliament.


"The parliament, in turn, can be used to examine and challenge the decisions made by the two other bodies, to hold them, in other words, to account. Political change is therefore preceded by economic change: by the time we are ready to start experimenting with global democracy, we may discover that as a result of redistribution and economic stabilization, our sense that we are locked in deadly competition with each other has already begun to diminish..." (George Monbiot, The Age of Consent, A Manifesto for a New World Order, p. 238)


Monbiot is coming very close to the "commonwealth of Baha'u'llah" that Shoghi Effendi envisioned coming about someday soon; he wrote the following during the 1930's in his World Order letters,


"This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world federal system, ruling the whole earth and exercising unchallengeable authority over its unimaginably vast resources, blending and embodying the ideals of both the East and the West, liberated from the curse of war and its miseries, and bent on the exploitation of all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet, a system in which Force is made the servant of Justice, whose life is sustained by its universal recognition of one God and by its allegiance to one common Revelation -- such is the goal towards which humanity, impelled by the unifying forces of life, is moving." (World Order of Baha'u'llah, pp. 203-204)


This, the Guardian brilliantly points out, is the goal towards which all humanity, impelled by the unifying forces of life, is moving. Now we must start walking forwards, consciously rather than, as now, being frog walked backwards, blindly and utterly unwillingly by those ineluctable forces of life.


Monbiot admits that none of what he so far suggested is enough to address the insidious ideology of unfettered capitalism. As Baha'u'llah says in the quote we started off with, covetousness is a blinder that has to be torn off, or anything we do will be done blindly and out of ignorance.


"None of the measures proposed in this book are sufficient, however, to address a far bigger question, that of the curtailment of the world-eating and mathematically impossible system we call capitalism, and its replacement with a benign and viable means of economic exchange. But I hope that, if implemented, they might begin to establish some of the preconditions in which a global debate about the world's economic and ecological destiny could begin. Because capitalism is built upon the lending of money at interest, capitalist economies are driven by the need to repay debt, which is why survival within this system is contingent upon endless growth. Endless growth is physically impossible." (Monbiot, Age of Consent, p. 238-239)


Capitalism offers a false hope of unending wealth. Just think of it, funds keep growing forever. Idle money gains interest for sitting there, doing nothing but fester in a bank account. This is impossible. There must be incentive to risk, to invest money in real, sustainable growth. The reward for letting it sit, the parable of the talents teaches, is nothing but wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Age of Consent offers a simple test of why this is so, why unfettered capitalism is not only failing but is inevitably doomed to fail by its very nature. Such little mind experiments, by the way, have a surprisingly powerful effect in economics.


"As Heinrich Haussman has shown, a single pfenning (about half a US cent) invested at five percent interest in the year AD 0 would have yielded, by 1990, a volume of gold 134 billion times the weight of the planet. Interest payments in other words are feasible only in the short term. As debt can be paid only by generating value, capitalism seems destined to destroy the planet." (239)


Monbiot floats a clever idea for reversing the worst corroding effects of capitalism. This would be to apply the reverse of interest, demurrage, to assure that money would not be traded as a commodity in itself, that it would instead be invested in productive parts of the economy. This was originally suggested by economics professor and formerly the world's most successful currency trader, Bernard Lietaer in his 2001 book, "The Future of Money." Monbiot writes,


"... briefly, it works as follows. Rather than money gaining value over time through interest, it loses value, through demurrage, or negative interest. This means that it is impossible to invest in money, which is impossible to invest in money, which is another way of saying that, if it could be universally applied, capitalism would come to an end." (Monbiot, Age of Consent, p. 239-240)


I have yet to get a hold of Lietaer's book, but the idea of demurrage has me by the throat and will not let me go. Could it be that what we are doing when we perform the obligatory prayer, read the Writings, pay Huqquq, and offer other services to our Lord, that we are really performing a kind of spiritual demurrage? Is purifying the heart of covetousness inner demurrage?

No comments: