Keep your mind open and your enemies’ opener.

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A friend’s dad is a hereditary member of the House of Lords. I stayed the night at his house not long after he had been re-elected after a period of absence. Out of politeness I asked to read his maiden speech. He began with some platitudes, echoing the comments of a few previous speakers and so on, and then in good faith went on to declare that he owned a private security company that worked on contracts for the Russian government. I think it’s probably customary for politicians to declare potential conflicts of interest in their maiden speeches.

Nothing could have prepared me for his concluding remarks which I remember almost verbatim: “And just to add an original point of my own, I feel we should follow the example of France and America in aligning our commercial and military interests.” And with that he sat down.

None of the subsequent remarks suggested even a modicum of concern about this. I was so startled I had to go back and re-read the exact words to make sure.

There was no escaping it. He was arguing, in broad daylight, in the place where big decisions are made in our name, that we should try and make money out of war.

I caught him just as he was leaving early next morning.

“No we wouldn’t go to war with profit as a motive,” he replied assuredly, briefcase in hand, the front door ajar, “but if we did decide to go to war for legitimate reasons then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do business while we’re there.”

“But can’t you see how that could be abused?” I asked from the kitchen table, at pains to keep my voice even, “When the people who decide whether we go to war are the same people who would stand to profit?” I was looking at one of them.

“Yes I can see how it could,” he replied, pausing to think in a moment of honest reflection, “but I don’t think that’s how it works.” And with that he walked out the front door.

Reading this it must be tempting to assume that the man in question is thoroughly evil, or at best dangerously stupid. I assure you he is neither.

I am quite sure that he genuinely believed what he said about going to war for the right reasons; that he himself would never consciously have let his private security firm be a factor in a decision to vote in favour of an invasion. And, having this neatly sewn up in his mind, he honestly trusted other politicians to do the same.

I almost envy him. How wonderfully straightforward life must be for the man under the impression that everyone is quite capable of reasoning their way cleanly to the utilitarian decision when their own millions are at stake. How truly reassuring to believe that human rationality is a kind of objective force of its own, working for the pursuit of truth and the greater good, entirely independent of our self-interest.

The conversation revealed to me perfectly clearly how democracies can commit terrible acts without anybody being deliberately evil. Political debates are nuanced affairs with multiple factors and unforeseeable consequences. Sifting our way through the screaming cacophony of opinions in the media in search of the buried truth of the matter is a difficult and lengthy process which very few people undertake.  In any given article 60% of people don’t read beyond the headline. Even for those who have the time and interest, an honest inquiry is sure to involve flux and vacillation before reaching anything remotely resembling a balanced view.

Far easier, and quicker, to read a headline or two and draw a straight line of argument between your bank account and one particular way of looking at things.

We delude ourselves that our political opinions are based on facts and logic. The truth is that in nearly all cases we ascertain the selfish position first and construct a rationalisation for it afterwards. And as soon as our viewpoint is well bedded, cognitive bias kicks in. We begin to read the world from that standpoint alone, selecting the facts to fit it until it becomes clear and unassailable.

We must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest is concerned.

I write about this story in the hope that it demonstrates the danger of placing too much faith in our reason. Rationality is the voice within our head. It is ego. As such it serves our self-interest first and truth second. Scientists are just people who have made a career out of aligning the two.

But most of us are not scientists, and politics is not particle physics. When it comes to politics we are never simply disinterested observers. Even when our pocket it not at stake there is still plenty to play for. After all, the airing of political views is socially strategic as much as anything else. Taking up a certain position can increase our evolutionary fitness by signalling our membership of an ‘in’ group. This is the intellectual 21st century equivalent of painting your face to identify yourself as member of a tribe. Both are attempts to solicit the co-operation of other members of that tribe or subculture. A common worldview thus acts as a kind of gravitational force which draws friendship groups together. This is why a big agreeathon can be so enjoyable: we are identifying and securing allies. It also explains why so few people are willing to stand out from the crowd.

Now in a way this is all blindingly obvious – it’s not a coincidence that rich people tend to be right wing. Nor does it twist one’s melon to realise that lefties stick to lefties like shit to a blanket.

The point I’m driving at is that we must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest, material or social, is concerned.

When we’re really honest with ourselves, this extends to almost everything we are likely to hold an opinion about. Fine – so hold it all lightly. Be prepared to change your mind about everything at the drop of a hat. I change my mind about my free will, the free market and the existence of God about once a week. It’s fun – try it.

In a fast evolving world a closed mind is death.

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Against All Odds

Few people know that 97% of our money is created when commercial banks make loans. For every pound in circulation there is a corresponding debt, and interest owed on that debt. The upshot is that there is less money in the world than debt. People everywhere are desperate, and collectively unable, to keep up with interest repayments to the banks. Make no mistake: this is economic enslavement.

Interest has a distorting effect on our morals. It means that money now is worth more than money tomorrow. Whether we like it or not we are compelled to seek short term profit over long term preservation, growth over greenery. Money in its current form turns out to have unsustainability written into the rules which govern how it is allocated. As currency activist Matthew Slater puts it: “It could be that 90% of the population wants a green revolution, but the money won’t allow them to do it. There’s this conflict between what we want, and what money wants.”

So what is to be done?

Well actually there are lots of things we can do. One approach is to try and change government policy. Money is a creature of the state: if you change government monetary policy you solve the problem in one fell swoop.

Enter Luuk de Waal Malefijt. He heads up the Dutch branch of Positive Money, an NGO raising public awareness about the problems inherent in the mainstream monetary system with a view to influencing government policy. He sees 90% of his role as one of education, or rather “an anti-campaign of education” to counter the misinformation pedalled by bankers, politicians and even university professors. Considering money is something we use literally every day the scale of ignorance about how it works is staggering. I have spoken to people who have worked in finance their entire lives who are factually wrong about money creation. [1]

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“With citizens not understanding the difference [between money and debt] they cannot see the root cause of all of our economic troubles. So you could view the current situation as very Orwellian in the sense that two definitions have been obfuscated to the point where we don’t understand what we’re talking about anymore.”

Until politicians and the public understand the problem, a change in government policy will not be forthcoming. Luuk described how this process can work both ways:

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Matthew Slater is not holding his breath: “I’m not so optimistic that the state is something that I can work on, or wants to be influenced by me. I’m more interested in working at the level of individual and collective consciousness. I try to enlighten, inform and wake people up about the nature of money and the behaviour of monetary systems.”

Despite their differences, education is as pivotal to Matthew’s leadership as it is to Luuk’s. And as Fullan points out: “you can’t have a learning society without learning students and you can’t have learning students without learning teachers”.[2] As Luuk said, “leaders figure themselves out and their role on the planet.” This is an ongoing process: a leader must always be growing and learning.  For example, both mentioned that they had learnt to soften their methods of approach when attempting to persuade and inform people about the need for monetary system reform. For Matthew this allowed him to value other people’s work and led to less frustration which, in his own words, has made his work more sustainable.

This frees up more energy to channel into direct action. Rather than waiting for government gears to grind, he designs and implements exchange networks which allow people to exchange value without succumbing to the debt and interest based problems of national currencies. It turns out there are already thousands of these in communities all over the world.

Matthew, who looks more than a little bit like a pirate, lives out of a rucksack containing a laptop and a change of clothes. He has no fixed abode, no bank account and little money: “It’s about writing our own narratives. We have to be much more courageous in living our values and deciding what those values are going to be.”

Matthew’s life is an embodiment of his values, and this gives his leadership credibility, his message gravitas and followers inspiration.

Luuk echoed the importance of leading by example: “Matthew’s answer is exemplary: one person has to make a firm stand….to make an example and stand up for it. And make sure their leadership is very consistent in the movement, always there, always leading, providing the vision and guiding and thereby creating a movement changing one single defined aspect.”

Although both leaders have tangible achievements under their belts, Matthew is “not optimistic about either approach”. Luuk is more positive, albeit in a self-aware way: “You need to be unrealistically optimistic to be able to continue a campaign or fight that is this large. You need to be a true believer, not seated in realism.”

Constructivists argue that reality is socially constructed. If this is true then the conviction to live one’s values and a spoonful of optimism are in themselves enough to change reality.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

 

[1]Image from Positive Money, < http://positivemoney.org/2014/08/7-10-mps-dont-know-creates-money-uk/>, 29/10/16

[2] Fullan, (1993), Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform, London: Falmer Press, p.138