Tag Archives: wealth

Just being naive

You don’t live in the real world, they tell me. You don’t understand how it really is. You’re naive and an idiot. Well, maybe I am. But nonetheless I continue to believe that the world of soil and trees is the real world, while the world of economics, is fantasy. I believe that most people are ok, and that if you treat people kindly, most of them will be able to be kinder people.

The thing about my naivety is that the evidence backs it up. Under austerity, crime has gone up because more people are desperate. Resources are in fact finite where the logic of economics involves infinite growth. Everywhere universal basic income has been trialled, all kinds of social benefits follow. Both crime stats and hospital admissions go down.

What we do when we are grasping, and cynical about each other, living in the dog eat dog logic of a brutal real world, is we make everything worse. We make our own reality, collectively, and if we push this way, this is what we get. It is not inevitable, or necessary, it is a choice.

Other choices are available.

If we choose to be kinder to each other and to other species, things would be different. If we choose to live responsibly and within our means, we could change our relationship with the planet. From the dog-eat-dog perspective that would just be setting ourselves up to be beaten by other countries, passed by their willingness to exploit more than we do. We’d be weak, the underdog, the dog who is eaten in the dog-eat-dog world. Step back a moment and this looks more like a choice between destroying ourselves to ‘win’ some imaginary game that delivers nothing in terms of happiness, and not doing that.

The UK is the 5th biggest economy in the world, and yet we cannot, apparently, feed our hungry, home our people, keep our children out of poverty or protect our landscapes. It’s an odd sort of wealth that cannot achieve these things. It makes me ask what on earth a measure of wealth means given that life expectancy has gone down of late. From where I’m sat, it doesn’t look like wealth at all, it looks like terrible poverty and misery for many people. But hey, keep telling me about this real world you live in.


Social contracts

Social contracts underpin our lives, but we don’t talk about them much. To participate in civilization and to benefit from it, we have to agree to contribute what we can or at the very least, not go round ruining things for other people. We benefit from all manner of things that belong to, or are funded by everyone – as do private companies, who often use the idea of their private-ness to suggest they shouldn’t have to contribute as much. They use the road networks, the police, the fire services, the education of their employees and so forth.

At the moment, our social contract obliges us to pay for participation with health – when the work demanded of us makes us ill, when the cities we live in have such bad air pollution that it kills people. Participation comes at a high price. I think government and industries alike are failing to hold up their side of the contract, because profit is put before health – especially where air pollution is concerned.

Any practice that allows a few to profit from the natural resources of the world while damaging the environment for everyone else, breaks the unwritten contract. There is no mutual good or benefit here. Why are some people allowed to profit to an obscene degree while others are exploited? Why are some people allowed to accumulate vast wealth at the cost of making others ill? The greater the distance between the richest and the poorest in society, the more strain there is on that unwritten contract that in theory binds us all together.

Poor, vulnerable and under-privileged people who seem to have broken the social contract, are punished for it. Having the resources you need to survive taken from you, being a case in point. That we have food banks feeding people who would otherwise go hungry and even starve, is itself a manifestation of the social contract, upheld by people who believe that we all have a duty to contribute to society and to help those who have less than us. There are a great many individual people trying to hold our social contracts in place despite the way those in power are ripping to shreds that which was never put on paper.

Humans have always depended on co-operation to survive. We all depend on each other. We depend on the people around us to respect us and not assault us. We depend on each other for food, for amenities, for shared resources. And yet all too often we are persuaded to think of ourselves as isolated individuals who can act alone with no consequences. If we don’t see the threads binding us together, we can do massive damage to everything we depend on. If we don’t see the importance of working for the common good, what we get is exploitation, and benefit for the few at a high cost to the many.

When we see society in terms of winners and losers, we make ourselves poorer. Most of us lose. When we see society in terms of co-operation and mutual support, more people are able to win. What would happen if we aspired to make sure that everyone was winning at life? What would happen if we started to see piles of wealth as weird, and offering assistance where needed, as normal? Why not aspire to a world in which everyone has enough and lives peacefully, rather than heading towards a world where a few powerful individuals get to be kings and queens of their own infertile piles of plastic rubbish?

Wildflower wealth

The horse chestnuts have been extraordinary this year. Every tree I’ve seen in walking distance of my home has had an incredible array of flower candles on it. Big flowers at that, in totally outrageous profusion. The hawthorn is the same. Intensities of flower that I cannot recall ever having seen before. It’s not just one tree, it’s been every tree of this type that I’ve encountered for miles around.

On the path margins, the plants are growing with startling enthusiasm. There’s a density of lush green growth out there. The grass on the commons is thick, and tall. Everywhere I look, I see explosions of rioting plant life.

Perhaps this in some way because of the late and cold spring. Perhaps the abundance is because snow on the ground soaks in more effectively. Perhaps we have just the right pattern of sun and rain to promote growth. I don’t know.

What I do know is how it impacts on me. What a sense of richness and blessedness I have every time I step outside and see a wildly bedecked hawthorn, or the density of wildflowers on the verges. I experience this as personal abundance, personal wealth. It’s an intense, bodily reaction to the world around me.

Wealth in money is such a cold, abstract feeling. Numbers on a screen. Largely meaningless. Wealth as an experience of nature is immediate and so very real. I might own numbers of a screen, I do not own flowers in a wood, but the latter enriches me far more than the former can.

It is so normal to see people describe the world of numbers in bank accounts as the real world. A bank balance does not feed you. No matter how much money we have, we all depend fundamentally on the bounty of the land. The real world has soil in it.

Seeking abundance

If you’re reading this blog, the odds are you spend most of your days exposed to a stream of advertisements. Those adverts sell you dissatisfaction, fear and a sense of insufficiency to get you to buy the latest new, improved, shiner, faster thing that you can’t afford and don’t need.  It is a planet destroying approach, and constantly undermines our happiness and creates vast social and economic pressure.

The antidote, is to deliberately seek a sense of abundance that doesn’t depend on buying stuff. It’s an approach that doesn’t depend on being wealthy. So long as your basic needs are covered, you can have abundance if you know where to look for it.

There can be a tremendous sense of abundance in giving things away and taking care of other people. The well-off person who is seeking abundance can do it in part by helping others. Donate to the food bank. Give away old clothes. Buy someone lunch. Solve a problem for someone else. You get to feel heroic and powerful, and to make a difference.

There is no greater richness than being time rich. Time is finite, it is the stuff our lives are made of and it is easy to feel like we don’t have enough of it. Time that isn’t scheduled, time to do as you please, to do nothing – this is an incredible abundance to be enjoyed and celebrated. Turn off the machines of an evening, and great swathes of time can appear, rich with possibility. Learning to do nothing is a great antidote to information overload and fast lane nonsense.

Health is another great richness. Devoting time, energy and resources to your mental and physical health improves your quality of life and again, creates that feeling of abundance. If economic activity becomes more important than health, we end up deeply impoverished, ill and miserable. Claim back whatever time and energy you can find to put your health first.

Enjoy the small things. Every day life is full of wonderful small things – moments of beauty, kindness, inspiration, laughter. If you look for them you’ll see them. If your attention is always focused on some distant goal, you may miss all the good things that are right in front of you. Taking the time to enjoy what you’ve got increases feelings of abundance.

Stop treating hard work, long working hours, exhaustion and stress like some kind of virtue. There’s a lot of social support out there for doing this, which is of course why we end up doing it. These are not virtues, these are social ills and we need to free ourselves from them. Celebrate sloth, daydreaming, quietness, non-consumption, lack of speed, days off, and you start celebrating quality of life, not your economic usefulness to someone else.

Abundance is not some future goal to buy our way towards. Abundance is something we can only have if we look for it here and now.

Work does not save us

Today is not going to plan. Pain and other issues in the night kept me from sleeping, and it’s not the first time in recent days this has happened. Normally I’m working by about 7 in the morning. Today I took the decision to start later in the hopes my body would cope better. It’s not a choice everyone has the luxury of being able to make.

This leaves me wondering what life would look like if health and wellbeing were social priorities rather than work and profit. Wealth without the health to enjoy it isn’t a great deal of joy. But then, the people with the wealth tend to be healthier, the people without as much money tend to have poorer physical health. The stress of poverty causes mental illness.

Working when ill isn’t very efficient. I’ve noticed that in the last year, where I’ve been taking more time off and resting more. I work faster. I get far more done in far less time. The idea of work as an inherent good is not upheld by exploring what happens when I work less. If we’re measuring quality or quantity of output, less time working equates to more and better work done.

Yet we treat more work as the answer to all social problems. We treat it as the answer to poverty, even though the single biggest issue is rent costs and unaffordable mortgages. In the States, the crippling cost is health care, often. Most of us can’t hope to earn our way out of those traps no matter how long or how hard we work. Here in the UK our government seems to have decided that work is also the answer to disability and chronic ill health. Make people work and they will magically get over it. I’m not sure which planet they come from, but I do wish they’d go back there.

We all need the space, time and resources to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to each other. Relentless work doing nothing of much use, just burning up finite resources, is something we need to get rid of. Making things that benefit no one, half of which go rapidly towards landfill, is not an answer. A marketing culture of disposable everything where you throw it away to get the newest one is eco-suicide, and it’s also make-work. There have to be better ways.

Life lessons from your mediaeval monarch

With the mediaeval king as your spirit guide, everything looks different!

I’ve been blogging recently about the role of abundance in our lives and the importance of recognising the good that we have. Most of us have things in our lives a mediaeval monarch would envy, so, with tongue only a bit in cheek, take the king as your spirit guide and journey into new ways of seeing.

Have you got windows? Do they have glass in them? Can you see out through the glass? Your mediaeval king envies you.

Own more than three books? Your mediaeval king is a bit in awe of your wealth and scholarship.

Oranges all year round? A steady supply of almonds and spices? He’s hoping you’re going to marry his daughter.

Got some mode of transport at your disposal? A bicycle? Access to a bus or train? (Don’t get him started on cars). Your mediaeval king can only get places by getting on a horse and travelling along muddy roads. There are no road signs where he is going.

Got a phone? The fastest way your medieval king can get a message out is to get some other person ride a horse down the unsignposted barely roads at top speed. It counts as the ‘information superhighway’ when he’s got something faster than a donkey.

Worried about your love life? Sadly lacking in the contraception department, your mediaeval king is trying to stop his illegitimate children killing off the ones born in marriage, and the ones born in marriage all hate each other, and hate him, and all want the crown sooner rather than later. Also he has to contend with a set of holy days that rule out large chunks of the year for getting laid without offending God. He lives in a time when de-lousing someone is an act of courtship.

Yes, he has the power of life and death and a crown and a lot of other bling and some castles, and knights and horses and whatnot, but he can’t get a cup of coffee of a morning.

It’s surprising how effective it is to picture yourself being envied by a mediaeval king when you’re feeling down about things.

What is your worth?

How do you rate your own value? What do you think other people are using as their basis for valuing you? Too often, the answer is money – the paycheck and the bank balance. It’s not helped, in the UK, when our government keeps coming up with policies to reinforce this idea. The latest is that only non-UK citizens earning over £35k are to be allowed to stay. What this tells us is that they do not value lower income people, assume that the skills of the lower income person are nothing special. It doesn’t matter what you might do, or what you’ve done, it’s just your paycheck at the time of assessment.

People who start businesses, and creative people often start small and work up. What we’re worth financially today is no indicator of our potential financial worth in the future. No one would have picked JK Rowling out of a cafe when she was too cold to write at home, and seen the benefit she would single handedly bring to the UK economy.

There are so many reasons to resist making a person’s value dependent on their wealth. In practical terms, low paid workers are essential to both the production and consumption sides of the economy, and always have been. In a world of fat cats sat in plush offices, nothing gets done. So much work – especially the child raising, care giving work of women – is unpaid and unrecognised. A great deal of essential stuff in this country is undertaken by volunteers, with the charity sector dealing with the gaps in care, research and support for the vulnerable because neither government nor the private sector are bothering.

We’re taught to seek out signs to demonstrate our wealth and success – usually signs appropriate to our class and background. Every time we switch on a TV we’re exposed to a lot of images of how we, and our homes, cars, children should look. What we should be buying to keep up. Every day, through visual media and advertising we’re bombarded by images of what success looks like plus information about where to buy the appearance of success. There are plenty of people going into debt to do just that.

When it comes to messages from the government and the media, poor but happy is never on the agenda. Choosing to live lightly and happy isn’t offered. A worth in terms of kindness, generosity, gentleness, service to others, contribution to human knowledge and spiritual richness – these never come up. In terms of career worth, we always prioritise the ones involved with the big bucks for media attention. It’s rare to hear anything about people who’ve spent many years doing something small but essential really well.

Being rich can make you famous. We take on trust that the reason a person is rich is that they contributed something worthwhile. We don’t look at what they inherited or who bailed them out (and I gather Donald Trump’s claims to be a fantastic businessman could use some scrutiny on that score). We don’t ask who they exploited, whether they’ve destroyed any ecosystems, displaced indigenous people, cheated, lied, back stabbed to get where they are. We put the financial worth ahead of their behaviour.

How do we challenge this? The answer is in many ways to start small, by noticing other kinds of worth in the people around us and championing it. By questioning assumptions that tie worth to money. By not buying the things we are told we need to look the part. By daring not to manifest the agreed signs of affluence and success. By not measuring our own worth in terms of cash held and cash anticipated.

Status anxiety and a spiritual life

There are a lot of things I am not, which sometimes bothers me. I’m not, economically speaking a very successful author – not a best seller for my publisher, not a big name in my field. I’m one of those people who goes in to make up the bulk of a movement, the crest of a wave someone else will ride on to far more glorious effect. History is full of us. We provide momentum for movements, we underpin change but individually, we are entirely forgettable.

Like a lot of people, I fret about how other people see me. I fret about issues of success, and status. For me this often includes a fair amount of angst over not being intellectual enough. It’s not been an easy process for me, coming to terms with the facts here. It’s been evident for a lot of years that at no point would I go back to formal study. I can’t afford it and I do not think I could take the pressure. The more I watch those who can, and the more I read, the more evident it is to me that I just don’t have the right kind of mind for this sort of thing. I don’t have the discipline, or much inclination to cultivate it.

The desire to be able to do this, or be seen as a certain sort of person has everything to do, in my case, with a desire to be taken seriously, and that’s really all there is to it. I associate academic status with credibility, and being taken seriously, which in turn would seem to validate the process of writing, and the time spent on it. Fame and money have similar, validating potential. There’s an illusion in here about achieving the kind of status that would stop the people who habitually put me down from doing that, but I’ve started to notice that anything I achieve seems to cause a devaluing of the thing in certain quarters, not an improved valuing of me. There are games I do not get to win.

It’s a very easy game to play with yourself, too. Set up a distant goal, a really tricky hoop to jump through, a magic point of achievement that will validate you. When I get there, then I will be ok. Then they will accept me and take me seriously and be nicer to me. Then I won’t have to feel all the put downs and humiliations I’ve been lugging around for all this time. Get the right job, achieve the right income level, raise the perfect child, become massively famous, save the world… And somehow all you ever get to do is run, not arrive.

Most of us will not be wildly successful, heroic, wealthy, famous or important in any of the ways we might want to be. It does not help that we have a culture where celebrity is some kind of holy grail, and ‘ordinary’ is tantamount to an insult. We prioritise the feats of the few whose names we can remember, and the vast majority of people, slogging away as best they can, are slightly invisible.

Spiritual paths will often tell us that we shouldn’t care about these things – fame, wealth, status etc are trappings of the world, traps, dead ends. Pulled by this in one direction and by massive cultural pressure to strive and feel like a failure in the other, the results can be untidy to say the least. If I’ve learned anything in recent years, it’s that ‘you shouldn’t feel this way’ is the least helpful advice. I also wonder, because I’m cynical, what exactly to make of people who are making a lot of money and achieving fame as spiritual leaders and gurus who cheerfully dole out the message that the rest of us should focus on our spiritual lives and not worry about all the things they have accumulated. That can just create a new set of status goals, as you strive to be the best Druid, do the most meditation, have the best wand, or whatever becomes the substitute.

I should not worry about wealth, fame, power or worldly status because the famous guru I just paid a lot of money to said so?

We all seek validation, one way or another. We all measure ourselves. I wonder if the answer might be to support each other in finding some better and more available yardsticks, praising each other for what we can do, for what goes well, for modest success, and taking down the impossible goal posts for each other, so as to come up with a more sane culture.

Who owns the land?

Owning the land tends to equate to owning any resources in the land – minerals and water most especially. Thus the ‘right’ to control resources that everyone depends on, is not equally distributed. As Nestle push to own water, and fracking poisons water for many, the question of ownership is especially pertinent at the moment.

It’s worth thinking about how land ownership comes to exist. How do people obtain the resources to buy large tracts of land? And however many times the land has changed hands, the history of ownership comes back to violence. In Europe that tends to mean kings, feudalism, conquest, and in many parts of the world it means the violence of colonialism, the forced taking of land from its indigenous people and all that has flowed from that. Go back far enough in history and no one owned land. The idea of kingdoms, and the idea of big kingdoms and control of vast land areas, is more recent. How many people own land because their ancestors took it by force?

I wonder what it would be like if no one had the right to privately own and exploit material resources. Land, and all that is in the land, and on the land, the water, and the air held as common property in which fair access for all is the priority. Without the scope to exploit these commons for profit, we’d probably have a lot less consumerist culture, and fewer accumulation habits and would be more sustainable. If you can only exploit the land for the good of your community, the whole basis for decisions about benefit and usefulness would shift.

In such a situation, we would own the fruits of our labours. We would own our ideas, the work of our hands, our time. It would move us away from stuff, and towards doing. I suspect such a shift would create radical cultural change, because that minority of people who do nothing useful for anyone else but extract wealth and power through their ability to control the resources we all depend on, would no longer hold that power, while people doing useful things would more readily be respected.

Affirmation politics

I’m just going to assert this because I believe it to be true: Political systems mostly exist to keep power in the same place. Democracy is usually an illusion. Here in the UK, was can vote between the same suited men with the same beliefs who will do a bit more or a bit less of the same things. We do not have a great deal more genuine choice than a Feudal peasant, Eton sends us a steady supply of new masters, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It seems, looking at the international scene, that you can’t have substantial change without bloodshed, and then people who acquire power work out ways of getting more of it.

I think there’s a relationship between the ways in which money makes more money, and power makes more power. To lead, you do not have to deliver for anyone else. You don’t have to solve real problems, or improve quality of life. You do need the PR skills to convince people that you’re less bad than the other suit. We vote for what we find most bearable, because there is so seldom an option to vote for what we want. Overpaid smug bastards strutting about before the cameras talking about the heroic tough choices they are making for the good of the country while children go hungry.

Tribes tend to deliver very different political systems, because there is a much more direct relationship between the ruler and the ruled. You may quite literally all eat at the same table. You bear the consequences together, and you know exactly where the one in charge lives. The smaller your unit, the more answerable your glorious leader is, perhaps requiring them to be more like the chair of a committee in which everyone gets a say, negotiating a way forward everyone can get behind. Or leading with vision, safe in the knowledge that if the vision doesn’t deliver, they’re out of a job. I’m not a bloodthirsty person, anything but… however I can see how the idea of sacrifice kings in times of crisis would keep a ruler on their toes. Tough, heroic hard choices for the good of the tribe do not, in that context, mean letting children go hungry. It will fall to leadership to take the brunt – and that’s a much better system.

Yesterday I talked about affirmation community. The natural extension of that is a small scale politics dependent on affirmation. People have to approve, agree and be willing for the politics of an affirmation culture to work. In an affirmation culture, everyone has their place, it is known, recognised and commented on. People who have a value are not pawns to sacrifice for the greater good – because at that point, the people are the good. There may be times when someone has to step forward and take the risks, put life and wellbeing on the line, but to do that by choice is very different than to be forced into it by a smiling tyrant’s ‘tough choices’.

Affirmation creates a social currency of valuing. If we have that, we will not demonise the vulnerable, or think it acceptable to leave the struggling to die. If we learn to see the best in each other, we won’t find it acceptable to have far more than others. We will want to express value through sharing, and we will want to be valued as someone who possesses virtues like compassion and generosity. In an affirmation culture there is every incentive to want to be seen as a valuable contributor to your society, doing the best you can with what you have. And so a culture that was based on affirmation would have no place for the kinds of parasites who give nothing, but draw wealth towards them and ask other people to do all the work, whilst at the same time devaluing the bent backs on which they stand. Separate ideas of value from stashes of money, and everything changes.