Why Stop Now?

01 December 1994
Article

This piece was a contribution to the book that accompanied a fascinating exhibit of work by living artists from over fifty countries. The exhibit was titled The Right to Hope and was conceived and organised by Kate Thick. It was first shown in 1995 in Johannesburg where I had the good fortune to see it, then travelled during 1996. I was truly proud to be included in a book prefaced by Nelson Mandela. The Right to Hope: Global Problems, Global Visions was published in the UK by Earthscan in 1995.


Far be it from me to take issue with the organisers of the multi-dimensional and multi-media cultural event which is "The Right to Hope", but the carper in me (and the erstwhile philosophy student) immediately needs to scrutinise their chosen title. No writer believes that words are innocent and I want to ask why the terms "right" and "hope" should be juxtaposed.

What is a "right" if not an additional human freedom achieved, usually after a long and frequently bloody struggle by a determined minority; usually then codified and enshrined in national or international law; all too often called into question by those who perceive that the hard-won right is contrary to their interests.

It took the world's first anti-colonial revolution to establish the Bill of Rights attached to the Constitution of the United States. Much subsequent US history has witnessed attempts to water it down, for example those of the present-day gun lobby with its systematic distortions of the "right to bear arms". One of the first acts of the French revolutionaries was to proclaim the Rights of Man and the Citizen - but they had to behead the reigning monarchs and displace an entire ruling class to make it stick.

The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights is honoured mostly in the breach and the most fundamental among them - the right not to be slaughtered - has been violated with increasing frequency in our own time as the "international community" has discretely looked the other way.

I believe that hope allows people to struggle for rights, to create, to affirm their dignity. Fortunately for us all, hope is co-extensive with the human condition, not an elusive goal to be constantly beaten back yet constantly reaffirmed. Hope is what makes politics possible: collective hope, far more than collective despair, has been at the root of every significant change in human history. Let us understand hope as a virtue, in the Christian sense, or as one of the distinguishing natural and moral attributes which differentiates human beings from other creatures. Thus understood, we shall fully affirm its transforming power. In these troubled times, we have enough to fight against, and to fight for, without having to fight for hope as well!

This point clarified, I can readily understand why those who conceived this event chose their title. Perhaps one's own particular present has always seemed to those living it the worst of all possible times, indeed a "hopeless" time. Still, our own era strikes me as a worthy rival for all other existing candidates (including the 14th century). The four horsemen of the apocalyptic tradition are now accompanied by a fifth terrible rider who bears the news of the serious possibility of the extinction of the human species.

To the catalogue of ills other times and other civilisations have been forced to confront, we can now add the wanton destruction of the natural base which sustains life - though scientists suspect that pests like crows, flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and similar wide-ranging species are capable of adaptation to vastly altered ecological circumstances, which is scant consolation. Finitude and death close in upon not just the individual, the family, even upon peoples, but also upon the evolutionary experiment we call humanity.

If Spinoza was right, the first natural postulate is that all beings desire to persevere in their being. If Aristotle was right, man is a rational animal. For the individual being, for the individual man, fair enough. The question is, rather, whether social aggregates of beings and collective "man" necessarily boast the same attributes. Our present array of survival mechanisms strongly suggest that they do not.

By accident or by design, our global economic machinery now virtually guarantees the destruction of viable societies in the mid- to longer term. Every society has an economy - which can be defined as a set of arrangements and enforced rules for acquiring or producing material goods and services which sustain individual and community life. It does not follow that a society is, or should be, first and foremost an economy. For centuries, society encompassed and superseded the economy. Whatever "arrangements and enforced rules" were chosen (some of them quite horrible ones, as in slave-based systems) they were put in place for social, cultural and political reasons, not purely economic ones.

The economic doctrine now espoused and the economic arrangements now adopted worldwide, particularly over the past two decades, benefit a smaller and smaller minority of the planet's inhabitants while excluding the majority. This is not a moral judgement but a factual statement, supported by overwhelming evidence showing increased concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. According to the UNDP, the richest 20 percent of humanity now control 85 percent of the world's wealth, while the bottom 20 percent must make do with a mere 1.4 percent of that wealth. One striking example, though not a "scientific" one because it does not compare like categories, is the existence of 358 billionaires, with a combined economic worth estimated by Forbes magazine at $760 billion. This makes those 358 individuals roughly equivalent, economically speaking, to nearly two billion people whose annual share of GNP, according to World Bank figures, is $390.

The phenomenon holds for income distribution within countries, including advanced ones like Britain and the United States, as well as between rich and poor nations. Everywhere the rich grow richer and the poor are robbed of what little they have. Such disparities are the logical outcome of a system which allows the "free" market to make most of our decisions for us and this system has penetrated the entire world. Global markets, assumed to be self-regulating, exist for finance (investment or speculative capital), labour, and natural resources as well as for the usual goods and services. By definition, the market understands only the language of money and cannot register the needs of those who have little or no purchasing power. Yet it has been elevated to the status of a quasi-natural law which assumes that human motivation can be reduced to the desire for accumulation and profit, that human beings will work only because starvation is the alternative.

Although the market can perform many useful services and can contribute to making societies wealthier and healthier, no one should ask it to do what it was never designed to do. It cannot, in particular, provide jobs for everyone - jobs are at best a by-product of its functioning. Paradoxically, if we want to keep the benefits of the market, then it must be controlled and regulated through international structures and agreed processes which prevent it from carrying inequalities to such extremes that society, and the natural base on which it rests, will self-destruct and take us all along with it.

Unfortunately, the major international institutions now in place do not consider market regulation their mandate - quite the contrary. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the new World Trade Organisation are all bent on further deregulation and on increasing the dependency of all countries on the global marketplace. Huge and unpayable debts have forced dozens of countries to concentrate their efforts on hard currency-earning exports to the detriment of investment in the satisfaction of local needs. Through structural adjustment programmes, the World Bank and the IMF have weakened the capacity of individual governments to protect their citizens against the harmful effects of the market.

"Free" (deregulated) trade between unequals promotes the survival of the fittest. The African peasant, for example, cannot hope to compete against the farmer from Iowa or East Anglia (both of them indirectly subsidised besides, in defiance of normal "free" market rules). Deregulated or "free" investment seeks out those countries which are prepared to pay the lowest wages and impose the lowest standards for safety, health, environmental protection and the like. Although the investments of transnational corporations in the so-called "third world" had by 1994 created twelve million jobs, half of those jobs were in China. The number of jobs destroyed locally by these transnationals is never calculated in the available statistics.

The famous doctrine of Comparative Advantage works only so long as capital remains national. Once denationalised, comparative advantage gives way to absolute advantage as countries vie with each other to attract investment, whatever the consequences for workers and the environment. Thus the global marketplace rewards choices which are the most socially and environmentally irresponsible, in a constant "race to the bottom", even though those choices may be the most economically profitable in the short term. Society at large is expected to pay the bill for the "side-effects" of the market's functioning, but finds itself increasingly less able to do so.

Perhaps the most dangerous and least noticed failing of the market is its utter inability to tell us what we need to know before disaster strikes. This became clear in the financial arena with the Mexican crisis of late 1994 and early 1995 when panicky investors fought to remove their money from a country touted only weeks before as one of the great economic success stories of the decade. Almost immediately, three-quarters of a million jobs disappeared and further loss of employment and lowering of the standard of living for ordinary Mexicans lie ahead.

The market is completely ignorant of ecology tells us nothing about exhausted land, overfished waters or decimated forests. So long as they last, the food, the fish, the trees are counted as income, with no notice at all taken of the depletion of natural capital which will soon make it impossible to produce further food, fish or trees. No "costs" in the accounting sense are registered, only revenues and profits. An entrepreneur who spent down his capital in this manner would soon find himself bankrupt, but in our current system, natural resources are being squandered, with predictable consequences.

Nor can the market provide us with useful information about the consequences of industrial processes, particularly the accumulation of pollutants in the land, water and air or the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. If climate change on the scale now predicted by many experts does occur, the costs - including the economic costs - will be infinite, but the market will give no warning when we have gone too far, as may well be the case already.

The tableau is indeed grim and the individual has rarely seemed, or felt, so powerless faced with the immensity and the acceleration of supra-national forces arrayed against him - so where does hope come in, if indeed it does?

The works of art displayed in the Right to Hope exhibit are in themselves sufficient proof that the human spirit is alive and well but there are many other objective reasons besides enduring individual creativity to place our trust in the future.

Our present market-based system, although globalised and elevated to near religious status, is in fact an aberration in human history. As Karl Polanyi has shown (in The Great Transformation, 1944, and other works), this system arose during the Industrial Revolution in mid-19th century England. Nowhere else and at no other time had the self-regulating market been enshrined as the dominant principle of economic and social organisation; nowhere else and at no other time had money, human labour and nature itself all been treated as commodities and subjected to the laws of supply and demand.

Polanyi also showed how, left to itself, the self-regulating market system would have destroyed society. Recognising this implicitly or explicitly, 19th century England undertook to protect itself. From all political quarters - left, right and centre - as the signs of social destruction accumulated, reformers and reforms arose to shield the community against the market's destructive power. The rise of the market and of regulation were simultaneous phenomena.

The task of the late 20th century is, granted, a far more difficult one because it requires regulation not just in one country, but world-wide; even so, this should not be an insuperable obstacle. The cracks in the system (e.g. Mexico) are showing and even those who benefit most from it may well decide that regulation is in their ultimate interest and preferable to exposing themselves to further shocks. The Bretton Woods Institutions (the Bank and the IMF) have been subjected to unrelenting criticism from a host of non-governmental organisations united in the "50 Years Is Enough" campaign, and there are signs that they will eventually be obliged to make internal changes.

The UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992 seems to have hampered more than helped the environmental movement. In Rio, the transnational corporations were omni-present and affirmed their right to self-regulation. But it is only a matter of time before this movement is reinvigorated - nature will provide the wake-up calls that no amount of rhetoric can stifle.

In early May 1995, high-level representatives of nine major world religions, in a new stage of expressing their concern for the earth, will announce the nine-year conservation strategies that each will convey to its own faithful.

What's more, the technology already exists to make our human presence less burdensome to the planet. The insurance industry is pushing hard for solar energy to replace greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels. Major insurers now employ their own climatologists because over the past decade they have had to pay out an unprecedented $50 billion in climate-related disasters (tropical storms and floods). Here is a major source of pressure within the world of business - and even the oil lobby cannot hold out forever.

Most of all, perhaps, hope is warranted because throughout the world, thousands upon thousands of citizens groups are springing up. They may not always be recognisable as classic NGOs; sometimes they are devoted to a single interest or local objective, but their common feature is refusal of the status quo. They are increasingly linked through real-time electronic communications so that a world-wide protest, or project, can be mounted in a matter of hours. This worldwide mobilisation is perhaps the great unreported story of the end of the 20th century. When citizens realise their collective strength and begin to capitalise on it, they will be unstoppable.

If hope is not, as I believe it is not, a right; if it is not a duty either, then what is it? I can only define it as a way of living honourably and with dignity to improve the human condition in the historical circumstances of one's own time, however hard those circumstances. This is what our ancestors did - that is why we are here - producing exhibits and films and books - not living in caves. Why stop now?