I recently listened to an On Being podcast titled When the Market is Our Only Language in which Krista Tippitt interviewed Anand Giridharadas, a journalist and writer. Here’s the official description of podcast:
We Americans revere the creation of wealth. Anand Giridharadas wants us to examine this and how it shapes our life together. This is a challenging conversation but a generative one: about the implicit moral equations behind a notion like “win-win” — and the moral compromises in a cultural consensus we’ve reached, without reflecting on it, about what and who can save us.
Anand has been a featured speaker at think tanks like the Aspen Institute, where the super-rich and super-powerful come together to, as he puts it, “talk very sincerely about what was going on in the world today, how could you make a difference, how could you start a project to help….what we were doing in coming together in this way was genuinely trying to help, genuinely talking about these problems, genuinely creating action and programs and thousands of little initiatives to help people.”
But after spending a fair amount of time in that rarefied world, his perspective changed: “…in some deeper way, the whole thing, actually, I started to realize, was a conservative exercise in protecting the system that kept us on top.”
He had come to see that the problems these wealthy men and women sincerely wanted to solve were actually direct consequences of their own actions. Because they, like many of us, were caught up in the process of maximizing income and wealth, they were not able to see that these maximizing decisions had harmful effects on other people, on vital institutions and indeed on the very future of our planet.
An obvious solution for them would be to stop creating those kinds of problems, but that’s not really the kind of thinking most of those people are willing to do. As Anand says, “…the only acceptable forms of social change are the forms of social change that also kick something back upstairs — language like ‘doing well by doing good,’ which, again, is like, ‘The only conditions under which I’m willing to do good is under which I would also do well.'”
He also says: “Sometimes, on the darker corners of the internet, it’s imagined that rich people are all sitting in a room making these horrible, evil schemes. And part of what I found was that a lot of these folks are incredibly decent and upholding an incredibly indecent system. And the way you get from one side of the river to the other, from those decent people to the indecent system, is the bridge of faulty assumptions and weird myths and bad ideas that have managed to really rise to the fore and conquer a lot of our culture.”
My first reaction, as a former economist, was that what he was saying made perfect sense. And I was a little taken aback that I had never thought about it in those terms before.
My second reaction, this time as a teacher of the Alexander Technique, was that these good, rich and powerful people were clearly in the same sort of boat as the rest of us – although a much bigger one! The Alexander Technique is a process of learning how to become aware of habits of mind and body, and how to make useful changes in those habits. Anyone who has had experience with it knows that we often have our own “faulty assumptions and weird myths” about ourselves, and those faulty assumptions can cause harmful tensions in ourselves while doing basic activities like sitting, standing, speaking, and walking. They can also compromise the quality of our decision making process.
If the rich people at the Aspen Institute want to improve the world, but are really just repairing the deck chairs on the Titanic, we often try to improve our functioning by taking up some new activity – a yoga or exercise class for example – while ignoring dis-functional habits of posture, movement and thinking that are allowed to continue lurking in the background, undermining the quality of our lives and our efforts to improve it.
Our personal situation might seem trivial in scope compared to the actions of the super-rich who, after all, are making decisions that directly affect millions of people. However the harmful way we use ourselves has implications far greater than we imagine. As John Dewey, America’s most famous philosopher and the “Father of American Education” – and a student of F. Matthias Alexander, the developer of the Alexander Technique pointed out:
“In the present state of the world, it is evident that the control we have gained of physical energies, heat, light, electricity, etc., without having first secured control of our use of ourselves is a perilous affair. Without the control of our use of ourselves, our use of other things is blind; it may lead to anything. If there can be developed a technique which will enable individuals really to secure the right use of themselves, then the factor upon which depends the final use of all other forms of energy will be brought under control. Mr. Alexander has evolved this technique.” – From Dewey’s introduction to Use of the Self, Alexander’s third book, originally published in 1932)
Looking at the world today, it’s pretty clear that Dewey’s prediction nearly a hundred years ago has played out in some pretty terrible ways.
To me, the message here is that whether we’re super rich and powerful, or part of the other 99%, we have a responsibility to take as close, and as unbiased, look as possible at the assumptions that guide our life. If we don’t, our actions may continue, in Dewey’s words, “to lead to anything” and future “anythings” may be much worse than we could ever have imagined.
As it happens, while writing this blog, I stumbled onto an article about Ellwood, a small town 60 miles south of Chicago that has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. Because of it’s location, it was the perfect place to build gigantic warehouses and transportation connections to serve the country’s consumer economy. In just a few years the town has became the largest inland port in North America.
It all sounded good for the local economy at first, but in fact the traffic became a nightmare, roads needed constant maintenance, and the city government was plunged into a financial crisis, in part because it had agreed to tax incentives for the new facilities.
To add insult to injury, virtually no new local jobs were created within the town itself. The article’s title, “How Ellwood, Illinois (population 2200) Became a Vital Hub of America’s Consumer Economy. And it’s Hell” says it all.
Ellwood represents a perfect example of what Anand was talking about. The people who attend the Aspen Institute might support projects that would help the kinds of problems faced by the people of Ellwood. But those problems were actually created by people like themselves, in their blind pursuit of wealth.
Image Copyright : Aleksandar Varbenov