Occupy Debt

It might be early days, but this seems like a brilliant idea from Occupy Wall Street, “Rolling Jubilee”

OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it – traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

This is a simple, powerful way to help folks in need — to free them from heavy debt loads so they can focus on being productive, happy and healthy. As you can see from our test run, the return on investment approaches 30:1. That’s a crazy bargain!

I was a fan of Occupy to begin with, but it seems they lost their way, but I’ve always loved the movement and this is such a good idea. I’d love to see Occupy Dame Street do something similar in Ireland (and not protesting family homes…).

via Kottke

A History of Non-Violence

I’ve written a few times on my thoughts on political change, from which I’ve synthesised a general personal outlook which sees a need for change, but has no faith that traditional representative ideological politics (specifically voting for Party X) can help. The solution, for me, must come via us ordinary folk changing how we live our lives in such a way that we could completely change the system from the Bottom Up. This could happen, through a “Mindful Revolution” – an awakening of the populace to our state of affairs and just how we could change them without any help from The Powers That Be.

On reflection, whilst this still holds true for me, it is admittedly pretty naive. It’s essentially a dream of a solution rather than any thing practically workable, but I think it’s on the right track. I recently (re)discovered Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist Anarchism” (I had read it a few years ago but only now really appreciated it), and it made me rethink about this stuff. Snyder’s piece is a really great vision, but it’s (most likely by design) broad enough so that it can be interpreted in different ways. It’s a compass more than a map, but it’s a strong compass.

In reading about it, I came across the work of activist Ken Knabb. In particular, his writings on ‘engaged Buddhism’. ‘Engaged Buddhism’ is a catch-all term for social engaged Buddhist movements, such as Vietnamise monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s community and activities.

Knabb has delivered two sharp and thought-provoking articles which are giving me a lot of food for thought. In “Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists” he argues that engaged Buddhists’ social awareness has “remained extremely limited.” The problem being an aversion to any kind of direct action, confrontation or violence which Knabb says will prevent any kind of social change.

If the engaged Buddhists have failed to explicitly oppose the socioeconomic system and have limited themselves to trying to alleviate a few of its more appalling effects, this is for two reasons. First, they are not even clear about what it is. Since they are allergic to any analysis that seems “divisive,” they can hardly hope to understand a system based on class divisions and bitter conflicts of interest. Like almost everyone else they have simply swallowed the official version of reality, in which the collapse of the Stalinist state-capitalist regimes in Russia and East Europe supposedly demonstrates the inevitability of the Western form of capitalism.

In “Evading the Transformation of Reality”, Knabb more precisely makes this point – arguing that what many perceive to be ‘social change’ is actually ‘social service’ (for instance, working with the homeless or drug addicts is serving society – but is not attempting to tackle the underlying root cause of these problems). Knabb implies that many do not have the stomach for true ‘social change’. And whilst in the second piece, Knabb has some explicit criticisms for engaged Buddhists, I think many of his ideas can also be generally levelled at any liberal protestor, such as the aversion to confrontation and a lack of commitment to really study alternative view points.

I am also reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s criticism of “Western Buddhism”, which he claims

enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

Knabb’s thoughts on ‘violence’ are probably the most challenging:

It is true that many forms of violent struggle, such as terrorism or minority coups, are inconsistent with the sort of open, participatory organization required to create a genuinely liberated global society. An antihierarchical revolution can only be carried out by the people as a whole, not by some group supposedly acting on their behalf; and such an overwhelming majority would have no need for violence except to neutralize any pockets of the ruling minority that may violently try to hold on to their power. But any significant social change inevitably involves some violence. It would seem more sensible to admit this fact, and simply strive to minimize violence as far as possible.

Zizek posits that “Western Buddhists” can absolve themselves of any responsibility for changing their environment – and Knabb charges that “engaged Buddhists” will avoid even the mildest confrontation. Whilst I still believe in what I’ve written here and here about the possibility for social change, I am now forced to consider that any course of action would necessitate some violence. Indeed, even if we were to have our Mindful Revolution, would the current powers-that-be allow this? And if not, would that then make violent confrontation inevitable?

One to ponder.

Also, if you have the stomach for it, here is an hour long lecture by Žižek on the topic of ‘Western Buddhism’, in which he makes some thought-provoking statements about Buddhism. (I should stress they are thought provoking, not necessarily true or accurate – American Buddhist does a good job here of refuting many of his wild claims) He also suggests that the Lion King’s “The Circle of Life” could be used to justify the Holocaust, and makes an entertaining claim about the nature of traditional Tibetan Buddhist music. It’s good fun.

Buddhist Anarchism

Buddhist Anarchism by Gary Snyder

Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self” — because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.

In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is Ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hangups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities. Recent findings in anthropology and psychology make this more and more evident. One can prove it for himself by taking a good look at his own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means.

The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one’s feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this totalistic realm. The hawk, the swoop and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer’s standard, and he must be effective in aiding those who suffer.

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.

The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

Well, if that isn’t a manifesto to live by….

Reprinted from here.

Footnote: According to The Bureau of Public Secrets, “Buddhist Anarchism” was originally published in Journal for the Protection of All Beings #1 (City Lights, 1961). A slightly revised version appeared in Earth House Hold (New Directions, 1969) under the title “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution.” (This is the revised edition, under the original title)

How to save the world whilst shopping.

This week sees Ireland vote in yet another European referendum. We’ve been bombarded with pro and anti propaganda day and night for weeks now, and it screams at us from every lamp post.

In reality its always like this, you just see it accutely during a campaign like this. Its certainly been like this since the start of “The Crisis” and what it is, is a battle of ideologies. There is a battle for the hearts and minds of people, by those who peddle various ideologies. More so, they want to convince you that they have The Right Plan that will Fix Everything. Whether they are left or right, or somewhere in the middle, its the same. Some group or person believe they have the answer to the world’s problems and if we go with them they will save us. And it’s always a Top Down approach – we need to give them power and they will fix things from the top. In recent years I have begun to completely lose faith in this approach.

I have oscillated my whole life from being very political to being somewhat apathetic, and I think as my life goes on the oscillations get shorter and shorter until its an almost weekly or daily cycle. Some days I get quite worked up about The Issues and rabble on about How We Fix Them. Other days I think that they can’t be fixed, at least not within the current system.

As the oscillations get closer and closer, what they really do is merge into one idea – that I want things to change, but I just don’t think they can be changed. On the surface this is a very cynical and pesimistic view. But if I think about it – it’s not really that I don’t think things can be changed – it’s that I don’t believe things can be changed in the traditional manner – that is the Top Down approach – by voting for or giving the reigns of power to, some group of some idealogical bent who will put into place policies, and procedures and legislation. That system is completely broken. The problem is that it is a Top Down approach. I have lost complete faith in this. What I do have faith in, is the Bottom Up approach.

We can no longer rely on the Powers That Be to save us, because I don’t think they really want us to be saved. If we were saved, we wouldn’t need them. They need a level of turmoil so they can come back and save us. Even if you put aside Orwellian ideas, you could also argue that it simply hasn’t _worked_. The current crisis, and the failure to come up with any workable solutions, being evidence.

I wrote about this before, when I talked about Alan Watts’ and John Holloway’s similar ideas about the failure of Top Down politics, and how the solution must come from within us. I think this is true more than ever. What I mainly spoke about then was how our thoughts and attitudes create the world we live in, and that includes our economic and political systems. But you could argue that is a cop out – I condemn standard political action and say “Ah, just change your mind!” But what do you do?

Watts would say, you can’t do much. But you can something. If the Top Down Big Government Grand Scheme hasn’t been working, then how about the Bottom Up Tiny Little Everyday Efforts Scheme. This all came to my mind this week as I passed rows and rows of screaming idealogical propaganda, and thought of a recent interview by the late Adam Yauch, in which he was asked for recommendations on what people could do to help bring about happiness in society. He said:

Everything we do affects other people. One doesn’t have to be doing something that has some huge sweeping change on a lot of people at one time. Every way that we interact with other people, even if it’s like, you’re at the store and buying something — it’s the way that you interact with the clerk at the store. EVERY action that we take has some motivation of either being selfish or altruistic. All that adds up. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about how it’s important to watch your thoughts. Thoughts are what lead to actions. If you are striving to have more happiness in your life, it helps to guide your mind towards starting to recognize what are selfish motivations and what are constructive motivations. The more you look at that and recognize it, the more that’s going to influence your actions.

Yauch’s quote brought to mind one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, David Foster Wallace’s great commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. In it, Wallace talks about encountering people at the checkout in a store and how you relate to them, and how you have a choice in this, if you think about it.

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

What they are talking about here is mindfulness, and the interdependence of the world, two key Buddhist ideas. What we do influences the world around us, and what we do depends on us being mindful of our thoughts, actions and motivations.

Mindfulness is a kind of buzz term at the moment, and like anything has numerous definitions. It is a concept that comes originally from Buddhism, but has since been adopted and modified into a much broader idea accessible to all. In short, it emphasises the ability to place and hold your attention on something, whilst at the same time being aware of what is going on. The practical benefits of this are an ability to experience things more directly and fully, and focus on things that are important to you, and avoid becoming distracted both by the world at large, and your own fleeting thoughts.

The Mindful Manifesto:

It involves paying attention to thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a way that can increase our awareness and compassion, help us manage difficult experiences, and make wise choices.

Mindfulness can also be called, or is sometimes coupled with awareness – awareness of your thoughts and feelings and what is going on around you. If we were mindful – really aware of what is going on around us and what we think of it – would we really act the way we do?

Imagine if people starting becoming fully aware of how their thoughts, words and actions affected the world around them. If our micro interactions between the people we meet as we go about our day changed, and we conducted ourselves fully aware of our place in the world. We can wait forever for a idealogue to come and help us, or we can begin changing our world. There are more of us then there are of them – it would be unstoppable. We just need to wake up.

Salvation won’t come from a political party, and it won’t come from a referendum on a European Treaty. But it might just come at the check-out in Tesco.

Bonus, Ian MacKaye on a similar subject:

Currency and Coffee

Continuing a theme I like, that money is not wealth, the Malaysian Prime Minister, in between making some harsh (but fair) comments about Europe’s economy, observes:

“Currency is not a commodity”, he says.

“You sell coffee. Coffee… can be ground and made into a cup of coffee.

“But currency, you cannot grind it and make it into anything. It is just figures in the books of the banks and you can trade with figures in the books of banks only.

“There must be something solid to trade, then you can legitimately make money.”

via The BBC

See Also: Money and Wealth
Gay Byrne Versus The KLF

The Dumbest Idea in the Universe

There is a article from Forbes doing the rounds recently called “The Dumbest Idea In The World: Maximizing Shareholder Value” which argues that since the 1970s, companies have been run not for any kind of long-term growth, or for the benefits of customers or workers, but for the short-term benefit of shareholders.

In today’s paradoxical world of maximizing shareholder value, which Jack Welch himself has called “the dumbest idea in the world”, the situation is the reverse. CEOs and their top managers have massive incentives to focus most of their attentions on the expectations market, rather than the real job of running the company producing real products and services.

It’s an idea which has also been suggested by Ha-Joon Chang in his “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” when he argued that “Companies should not but run in the interest of their owners”.

The idea was that shareholders bear the risk involved in running a company so it incentivizes them to maximize company performance and thus would make companies as efficient as possible, when in fact the opposite has occurred. Shareholder value has increased but at the expense of corporate performance. Goods and services suffer in order to deliver short-term gains to shareholders.

The problem, as Ha-Joon Chang described it was:

Shareholders may be the owners of corporations but, as the most mobile of the ‘stakeholders’, they often care the least about the long-term future of the company. Consequently shareholders […] prefer corporate strategies that maximize short-term profits, usually at the cost of long-term investments, and maximize the dividend from those profits, which even further weakens the long-term prospects of the company by reducing the amount of retained profit that can be used for re-investment. Running the company for the shareholders often reduces its long-term growth potential.

It occurred to me while reading the Forbes piece that you can look at the same problem on a bigger scale – the global economy. At the moment many nations in Europe are undertaking programs of ‘austerity’, facing devastating cuts in public spending to appease the markets. In order to make themselves attractive enough to private speculators they are slashing and burning public spending programs, and offering no opportunities for investment and growth. In short they are doing what companies do – maximizing investment return at the expense of growth and real productivity. Replace ‘shareholders’ with ‘bondholders’ and ‘companies’ with ‘countries’ and you have the same problem but on a larger, and much more destructive scale. In Ireland we dare not ‘burn the bondholders’ because we need their filthy lucre, so we destroy our public services and infrastructure instead and develop no means for long-term growth.

So, health, education, the poor, the elderly, etc. all get thrown under the bus to maximize shareholder value. In addition to this, democratically elected representatives are forced out and replaced with market-pleasing technocrats. Democracy itself is sacrificed at the alter of the market.

As the Forbes article suggests, we need to move back towards companies that operate for the benefit of customers and employees. They give some examples of companies who do things right, including Apple, who famously don’t pander to shareholders, preferring to invest back into product development and maximizing customer experience. (This is not, however, to suggest they are morally virtuous corporate heroes – they charge a premium price and horde a lot of the surplus capital).

If we need to change the corporate culture away from rewarding the temporary owners towards benefiting the customer and the employees, this is even more true at a national and international level. Pandering to bondholders at the expense of the people is a disastrous extension of the same mindset that has destroyed many companies in the West, and will(is) destroying nations.

Footnote:

This argument takes place in a world where we accept that companies should be run for profit, but that this profit should be used in better ways. People like Ha-Joon Chang consider themselves capitalists, but are avowedly anti-free-market. This though is not to suggest that a kind of cleaned-up capitalism is the only answer. But it does suggest that how things are currently done is certainly not working – and that institutions – whether they be private firms or nation states need to consider who they serve. Serving temporary speculators helps no one but them.

Kim City

Recently departed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was, amongst many things, a self-proclaimed ‘internet expert’.

According to Fox News:

The reclusive leader made the remark after South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun asked that South Korean companies operating at an industrial park in the North Korean city of Kaesong be allowed to use the Internet, Yonhap news agency reported, without citing any source.

and in discussing the issue, seemed to suggest the influence of classic city-building game Sim City in making his decisions

“I’m an Internet expert too. It’s all right to wire the industrial zone only, but there are many problems if other regions of the North are wired,” Kim told Roh, according to Yonhap.

Which might explain a lot about the impoverished nation – everyone knows you put the industrial zones as far away from the residential zones as possible. Sadly, he probably also learned he could bulldoze protests out of existence too.

Individualism

So, Ireland has elected Michael D. Higgins to be the 9th President of our country. I’ve been a fan of him and his ideas for some time now, so this pleases me greatly. I am also pleased to see that even though his new role is ceremonial and relatively ‘non-political’ he is still sticking to his guns in fighting what he calls the “narrow individualism” which was to blame for the economic and social disaster which befell Ireland. That selfishness that ignored the truth that we are part of an interconnected society – and simply striving for your own gain without thought for others leads to chaos.

The problem of ‘individualism’ is something I have thought about for some time. Repeatedly on this blog I have woven together various threads on the subject, mainly from Eastern Philosophy as interpreted through he work of Alan Watts, but also from other leftist thinkers, as well as scientists, comedians, philosophers and psychologists. In many ways I think it is the fundamental problem. People talk of “Money” or “Religion” being the root of all evil. I think the basic problem is this idea of our separation from our environment and others. We don’t see ourselves as integral parts of a system, and thus we act in ways that is destructive to that system. If we could see how connected we are, how our separation from the Universe is a hoax – THE hoax according to Buddhism – then how we interact with each other would fundamentally change.

Alan Watts nicely captured this view

I’ve seen some right-wing or libertarian commentators raise an alarm at this premise coming from our President elect. Individualism is one of the central axes of their world view, and anything other than that is “collectivism”, wherein lie the murky waters of cartoon communism – grey jumpsuits, non-critical-thinking zombie-like masses marching to work. This is not what criticizing “individualism” leads to – The Buddha or other similar thinkers did not propose a world where people lose their self identity. No one is wishing for a Borg-like collective of unthinking slaves. You do not have to give up your identity to realise that you are entirely interdependent on the rest of the Universe, and that acting in an individualist way is harmful to you and others.

So I am very happy to have a man who shares this view as my President. He has no real power – but if he can help us in any way start thinking about ourselves and place in society – well that’ll be good enough. And, if you look around at most big cities around the world, well, you might just see people Occupying a space who have similar ideas.

“The only sense in which the protesters are communists is that they care for the commons – the commons of nature, of knowledge – which are threatened by the system.”

They are dismissed as dreamers, but the true dreamers are those who think things can go on indefinitely the way they are, just with some cosmetic changes. They are not dreamers; they are the awakening from a dream that is turning into a nightmare. They are not destroying anything, but reacting to how the system is gradually destroying itself.

Slavoj Žižek, entertainer, Marxist philosopher, and cultural theorist on the Occupy Wall Street movement.