The Economic Crisis And Human Nature

It seems to me that the current economic crisis challenges a century of materialist assumptions about the motivation of individuals and their relationship to each other. I find the following passage from the Bahá’í International Community’s Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in 2010 very illuminating in this regard.

The question of human nature has an important place in the discourse on sustainable consumption and production as it prompts us to reexamine, at the deepest levels, who we are and what our purpose is in life. The human experience is essentially spiritual in nature: it is rooted in the inner reality—or what some call the ‘soul’—that we all share in common. The culture of consumerism, however, has tended to reduce human beings to competitive, insatiable consumers of goods and to objects of manipulation by the market. Commonly held views have assumed the existence of an intractable conflict between what people really want (i.e. to consume more) and what humanity needs (i.e. equitable access to resources). How, then, can we resolve the paralyzing contradiction that, on the one hand, we desire a world of peace and prosperity, while, on the other, much of economic and psychological theory depicts human beings as slaves to self-interest? The faculties needed to construct a more just and sustainable social order—moderation, justice, love, reason, sacrifice and service to the common good—have too often been dismissed as naïve ideals. Yet, it is these, and related, qualities that must be harnessed to overcome the traits of ego, greed, apathy and violence, which are often rewarded by the market and political forces driving current patterns of unsustainable consumption and production.

Source: ‘Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism’ Bahá’í International Community, United Nations Office


‘The Earth Is But One Country’

The last twenty years has seen the world ever more closely linked by trading and financial networks which now seem on the brink of disruption because of years of unfettered greed and mismanagement. In all likelihood as these networks are disrupted there will be a return of nationalism and parochialism as anxious populations seek to find some stability in the economic and social chaos which results.

However the fact remains that we are all one human family and the answer to our problems are to be found in unity and not in division- the unity that comes from knowing that we are all brothers and sisters on one planet- not just buyers and sellers in a global market place. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh

“The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens”

‘With Fire We Test The Gold’

I recently came across a wise quotation attributed to the author Henry Fielding (1707 – 1754) which says

Make money your god and it will plague you like the devil.

It sometimes appears that what is merely a useful fiction to facilitate the exchange of goods and services has become a false god demanding worship from us all. Despite living in a world of fiat currencies which only have value in our collective imagination we seem surprisingly ready to dismiss human virtues as abstractions. I am reminded of a section from the ‘Hidden Words’ which says

.. with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants.

(If we haven’t passed the test yet perhaps we are at least studying hard as searching on Google delivered only 837,000,000 results for ‘money’ whereas ‘love’ delivered 1,610,000,000..).

‘The Second Coming’

In the gathering economic crisis I am reminded of the words of W.B. Yeats in “The Second Coming” that

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”

Yeats also looked forward with trepidation to an ironic “Second Coming” asking in the final lines of the poem-

             “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Happily the real (and far friendlier) Second Coming has already arrived. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh

“The Divine Springtime is come, O Most Exalted Pen, for the Festival of the All-Merciful is fast approaching. Bestir thyself, and magnify, before the entire creation, the name of God, and celebrate His praise, in such wise that all created things may be regenerated and made new. Speak, and hold not thy peace. The day star of blissfulness shineth above the horizon of Our name, the Blissful, inasmuch as the kingdom of the name of God hath been adorned with the ornament of the name of thy Lord, the Creator of the heavens. Arise before the nations of the earth, and arm thyself with the power of this Most Great Name, and be not of those who tarry”.

‘True Values’

It seems to me that in these times of financial crisis true values can become obscured. Economics is after all only means to an end, rather than an end in itself. In the words of Abdu’l-Bahá

“ is clear that the honor and exaltation of man must be something more than material riches. Material comforts are only a branch, but the root of the exaltation of man is the good attributes and virtues which are the adornments of his reality. These are the divine appearances, the heavenly bounties, the sublime emotions, the love and knowledge of God; universal wisdom, intellectual perception, scientific discoveries, justice, equity, truthfulness, benevolence, natural courage and innate fortitude; the respect for rights and the keeping of agreements and covenants; rectitude in all circumstances; serving the truth under all conditions; the sacrifice of one’s life for the good of all people; kindness and esteem for all nations; obedience to the teachings of God; service in the Divine Kingdom; the guidance of the people, and the education  of the nations and races. This is the prosperity of the human world! This is the exaltation of man in the world! This is eternal life and heavenly honor”!

‘Spiritual Solutions To Economic Problems’

I have just returned from giving a presentation on ‘Spiritual Solutions To Economic Problems’. I had an interesting conversation with members of the audience (including a Sikh and a Hindu gentleman). It was heartening to hear the common agreement on the need for a new economic paradigm based on spiritual values. One of the quotations I used was from a message from the supreme governing body of the Baha’i Faith, The Universal House Of Justice. It reads- 

‘This unprecedented economic crisis, together with the social breakdown it has helped to engender, reflects a profound error of conception about human nature itself. For the levels of response elicited from human beings by the incentives of the prevailing order are not only inadequate, but seem almost irrelevant in the face of world events. We are being shown that, unless the development of society finds a purpose beyond the mere amelioration of material conditions, it will fail of attaining even these goals. That purpose must be sought in spiritual dimensions of life and motivation that transcend a constantly changing economic landscape and an artificially imposed division of human societies into “developed” and “developing”.
This perceptive analysis of the need for change was taken from The Prosperity of Humankind first published in 1995 but perhaps even more relevant now than it was over a decade ago.

‘Tell The Rich Of the Midnight Sighing Of The Poor…’ reports G8 finance ministers as saying ‘surging commodity prices threaten to end years of robust global economic growth, stoke inflation and force millions of the world’s most vulnerable people deeper into poverty’. Forgive me but I am not so sure that the term ‘robust economic growth’ is a very apt description of the debt-fuelled bubble I saw expanding over the last decade. Sadly accurate however, is that the present crisis will force millions more into deprivation. It seems to me that a new moral attitude is required from us all (including the rich and powerful) if we are to solve this problem. Current financial speculation on the basics of life-such as fuel, food and shelter- does not seem likely to reduce commodity prices in any short order. Making money is fine but surely not at such a cost to others. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh

‘O CHILDREN OF DUST! Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth. To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues’.

The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985 reprint

‘Boats Do Not Rise Equally With The Tide’

It seems to me that one of the major problems of our age is growing inequality of income in most parts of the world. This creates both relative and absolute poverty. It also produces divided societies where a super-rich minority live at an increasing remove from their humbler brothers and sisters. There is a growing appreciation of this problem including amongst the super-rich themselves. For example Bill Gross, managing director of Pimco, the world’s biggest bond fund said a few years ago that

When the fruits of society’s labour become maldistributed, when the rich get richer and the middle- and lower-classes struggle to keep their heads above water as is clearly the case today, then the system ultimately breaks down; boats do not rise equally with the tide; the centre cannot hold’.

Abdu’l-Bahá said of the inequality He witnessed in the early 20th Century that-

‘One of the most important principles of the Teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is: The right of every human being to the daily bread whereby they exist, or the equalization of the means of livelihood.

The arrangements of the circumstances of the people must be such that poverty shall disappear, that everyone, as far as possible, according to his rank and position, shall share in comfort and well-being.

We see amongst us men who are overburdened with riches on the one hand, and on the other those unfortunate ones who starve with nothing; those who possess several stately palaces, and those who have not where to lay their head. Some we find with numerous courses of costly and dainty food; whilst others can scarce find sufficient crusts to keep them alive. Whilst some are clothed in velvets, furs and fine linen, others have insufficient, poor and thin garments with which to protect them from the cold. 

This condition of affairs is wrong, and must be remedied. Now the remedy must be carefully undertaken. It cannot be done by bringing to pass absolute equality between men…

… Certainly, some being enormously rich and others lamentably poor, an organization is necessary to control and improve this state of affairs. It is important to limit riches, as it is also of importance to limit poverty. Either extreme is not good. To be seated in the mean is most desirable. If it be right for a capitalist to possess a large fortune, it is equally just that his workman should have a sufficient means of existence. 

A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity. When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. Men must bestir themselves in this matter, and no longer delay in altering conditions which bring the misery of grinding poverty to a very large number of the people. The rich must give of their abundance, they must soften their hearts and cultivate a compassionate intelligence, taking thought for those sad ones who are suffering from lack of the very necessities of life… 

…There must be special laws made, dealing with these extremes of riches and of want…’

Paris Talks: ‘: UK Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1972 eleventh edition reprint


The Challenge To Develop New Economic Models

George Soros was reported today in the Times Online saying that  the world economic situation is like a ‘greek tragedy’ (and presumeably not just a tragedy for the Greeks..).

Reading this prompted me to re-read a letter first published by the supreme governing body of the Baha’i Faith entitled The Prosperity of Humankind. It was first published in 1995 and I thought I would share with you what seems to be a particularly prescient section-

‘The classical economic models of impersonal markets in which human beings act as autonomous makers of self-regarding choices will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice. Society will find itself increasingly challenged to develop new economic models shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community’.

Looks like a good opportunity to start developing those ‘new economic models’..