As the economic crisis worsens, the foremost responsibility of governments is to redesign our political and economic systems so that no-one dies of hunger. But this will never happen without an unparalleled uprising of public support, says Mohammed Mesbahi.
All the commentary from expert analysts about the crumbling financial system is almost useless to understand what is really happening in the world today. Countless articles are written about how to fix the economy and restore growth to the system, but they are only relevant to a system that was never sustainable and is now coming to an end. What we call the ‘system' has become so complicated that it appears to have a life of its own, and not even the most sophisticated banker understands what is going on anymore. Few economists speak in terms that mean anything to the ordinary person who is struggling to find or keep a job, make ends meet and provide for their family. The disconnection between the worlds of powerful politicians in their private meetings, and the everyday lives of the people they are called to serve is more apparent than ever before. But at the same time, something profoundly new is happening throughout the world that requires a much simpler way of looking at things if we are to comprehend what it means.
The protests taking place in almost every country are a magnificent sight, but it is important to recognise that every one of us who participates in protests against ‘the system' is also implicated in the mess created by bankers and politicians. Without exception, we are all part of the system. Unless we recognise that society is an extension of ourselves then the final result could be tremendous chaos and violence if the economic situation continues to worsen, while the political parties of left and right fail to provide an answer to increasing social problems and inequalities. The system is made up of ordinary people like you and me, of men and women with families and children, which is why it is imperative not to attack ‘the system' when this would be tantamount to going against each other.
In modern history many governments have tried, with good intentions, to completely change the system. This change was always imposed on the basis of a political ideology, but the time has come when ideologies are not needed any more. There was nothing inherently wrong with the principles underlying capitalism, socialism and communism, but governments abused these principles with an imposing, violent and arrogant attitude towards their people in the name of a belief. Today, more and more people are becoming conscious of the need to be free from these political ‘isms' that have caused so much suffering and conflict throughout the world. More than a decade after the Millennium it would appear inane to call oneself a communist, a socialist or a capitalist, or to believe that freedom can be acquired through wearing a uniform - in other words, that we can destroy one ideology by replacing it with another.
Witnessing the uprisings and demonstrations that are now taking place, we could say in a literal sense that people are becoming more aware. Without any condescension, this is one way to put it - that people have started to think for themselves, and are no longer relying upon what other people tell them to think, are no longer ‘believing in a belief'. Our education systems do not help us to understand that ideologies are a denial of human freedom, they do not teach us what it means to be free within, but today people are realising this intuitively for themselves. Hence all the changes that are happening so dramatically across the world.
Please observe the so-called Arab Spring; millions of people courageously freed themselves from dictators who had imposed beliefs and ideologies on their people for decades, but now that the revolution has unfolded many different factions are trying to impose all manner of new beliefs upon each other. In Egypt, the army quickly tried to rebuild the old system based on power and privilege even when a million people again took to the streets. In Zucotti Park and at St Paul's, as in any mass protest movement, you also have many intellectual factions with different beliefs all combating for attention within the crowd. Let us not be fooled. Democracy is closely related to freedom, but the kind of democracies we have today are an imposed and controlling form of social organisation. We will only know the true meaning of democracy when each and every one of us experiences the freedom that comes from within, and not before. As any protester knows, it is not enough to vote for a political party once every few years when no politician has an answer to our social and economic problems.
The cry for justice
As we stand with the new movement of protestors, we must look closely at what it means when we cry for justice. There are many stories now being reported about the accumulating wealth of the richest people in the midst of economic austerity, which of course leads to rightful anger against bankers and the unbridled greed that has been sanctified in modern-day society. But which is the greater sin: the banker's bonus, or the fact that thousands of people are dying from hunger each day in a world of plenty? The global economy is sinking and so the people's voice is rising, but why are there no demonstrations in our city squares when people are dying from hunger?
It is because we do not see the interconnection between our different lives. We have not been educated to see the very poorest people as our brothers and sisters, or to see the world as a whole. A child is not taught how to be in touch with himself, with his own nature, but is rather conditioned in how to become a ‘somebody' in a dysfunctional society based on competition and stress. In universities we may study many books about the history of human civilization, philosophy, politics, the arts and so forth, but we are not taught in the simplest human terms how to serve other people. The consequence, in a global and collective sense, is that we do not understand that we are one humanity, that we are all dependent upon each other, and that we have a responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves.
The protests erupting in Wall Street and elsewhere could have happened a long, long time ago. So why now, all of a sudden? Because millions of people in the affluent countries are beginning to feel the pinch. Even when we cannot pay our mortgages, however unjust the circumstances, why don't we think about those who are poorer than ourselves? There are many different levels of poverty, and as we know in the USA and other rich countries there are an extraordinary number of people living in relative poverty, but how about the kind of poverty when you cannot find enough food to eat, or for your children to eat? When you do not have shelter, or money, or even the most basic form of healthcare to prevent you from dying? We are all familiar with the phrase a ‘crime against humanity', but why doesn't the international community ascribe this phrase to the thousands of people dying from hunger each day, or to the 1.4 billion people that the World Bank cursorily describes as the extreme poor?
Now that the economic system is collapsing every nation has to begin to restructure itself, and we can all play a part in this process. But we have to understand that this begins with ending hunger. We cannot even look at the word injustice without first looking at the problem of hunger. It is as if we have bought a new home, but first we must clean up the mess left by the old tenants. That mess is the problem of hunger. We cannot go out into the world and campaign for justice for ourselves when our own children are waiting at home, abandoned by us and hungry. The world is in a state of disrepair and requires a dramatic process of rehabilitation, but first we have to look after our own children, who are the hungry people of the world.
After 9-11 happened, a huge army was sent to Iraq over land and sea and air within a month. Notwithstanding the terrible consequences of that illegal war, just imagine if all that manpower and expertise was redirected to giving life, not taking life away. Imagine if the world's military resources was mobilised to eradicate hunger as a foremost priority - above hegemony, defence or corporate profit. Recently, NATO sent hundreds of millions of dollars effectively flying through the air to stop Gadaffi from massacring his own people. Whether or not we agree that this was a necessary action, there is another question we should ask: why doesn't NATO send all their planes and armies into Africa to help feed the people? Many more people in Benghazi may have died without outside intervention, but at the same time thousands of people were dying from hunger and poverty in other parts of the world, and continue to die each day. Why doesn't NATO prevent Al-Shabab from diverting aid away from the Somalian people? We all know the answer: because there is no strategic or economic interest for them there. But this is not a cause that gets people to protest en masse in the streets, demanding an answer from our governments: ‘why don't we help the hungry millions?'
Even the Church has failed in its duty to shake the world's conscience about the blasphemy of hunger, despite there being no cardinal rule to prevent the clergy from demonstrating in our city squares for freedom from want. When protesters camped outside St Paul's Cathedral in London, many banners posed the question ‘What would Jesus do?' We might wonder how the Church would respond if Christ was to reappear today as a ‘divine activist' moving among the mass rallies for freedom and justice across the world. Unfortunately, when we label the very few people who attempt to do the right thing for the world as ‘activists', we infer that an activist is somehow different and set apart from the ordinary citizen. The media and advertising industry encourage us to adopt such labels, which enable us to separate our social identities and not feel connected to the suffering and vast inequity that plagues the earth. It is these same divisions in our consciousness that allow us to say: ‘there has always been hunger, and always will be'. Or to nod our head at the warnings of environmentalists, and then to say: ‘but it is naive to believe that we can change the world'. In this sense, the word activist really means ‘the one whom nobody listens to'.
An understanding of justice also requires awareness, which means to see things clearly, to think for oneself, to not have a belief in a belief. Now that the old order is collapsing and no government knows what to do, we can no longer point the finger at our politicians alone. That finger must also be pointed towards ourselves. We like to say ‘it's the fault of my government', but is it really the government or our own lack of action, our own lack of concern, our own complacency? As we have seen in the Middle East, when two million people stand in the street and peacefully shake their fists then the government has no choice but to listen or leave office.
Let us try and understand, in the simplest terms, what this means for the economist and the politician. Now that it is obvious that our economic, social and political systems need to be totally restructured, the correct responsibility of governments is to redesign these systems specifically so that no-one dies of hunger. In the first instance, this requires international cooperation for an emergency program of redistribution unlike anything we have seen before. Such a program cannot be based on charity, which has absolutely nothing to do with justice. Charity is of course venerable in the kind of world we have today in which billions of people are suffering in poverty, but the necessity of charity is a sad representation of public complacency. An emergency program cannot be based on the existing premise of ‘let's do our best to feed the starving people', but must rather be initiated on the basis of ‘this should never happen again'.
There is plenty of food and resources to feed, clothe, house and care for everyone in the world, as long stipulated as a human right in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration. This Article must become the law for every nation, which is the expression of justice in its strictest sense. Just as there are laws to obey when a country joins the European Community, the articles of the United Nations must obligate member states to collectively ensure that no person ever dies from hunger in any country. Article 25 must be translated into the rule of law, backed up by the force of public opinion around the world. The voice of the people should be heard and represented in the United Nations - that is what the United Nations is for. It should come to represent the heart and minds of the people. This will inevitably take a long time, and each nation should continue to grow within its own traditions. But as a very first step, enlightened politicians and the public should voice their demand for an emergency redistribution program to be initiated under the aegis of the United Nations, which should become the most important work that the United Nations has ever undertaken.
The logistical details of such a program will be a formidable challenge for governments to negotiate and plan, but there can be no gainsaying its broad mandate. Again and again we see humanitarian emergencies with the same old story, as in Turkey's earthquake recently or the floods in Thailand: not enough resources, not enough support, not enough aid to go around. Even in the richest country with the largest military, people in New Orleans were left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, calling out to the world ‘Where's President Bush?' When we want to protect our own interests or go to war, everything happens so quickly - we have all the equipment, all the weapons, all the manpower, all the money. But when it comes to the suffering of poor people, all of a sudden money is non-existent. This is the trend that must be reversed. This is why the prevention of human deprivation, whatever its cause - poverty, conflict or natural disaster - must be guaranteed by an international authority. Think of it like a worldwide emergency services, funded by contributions from every nation. We should not even consider this to be a ‘humanitarian' operation, which has connotations too similar to charity: such programs should be structured into our reformed political and economic institutions and enshrined in international law.
None of this will happen without an unparalleled uprising of public support. A solution to the world's problems cannot be brought about by any political party or ideology, and can only happen through a free, united and single voice of the people of the world. Ideologies and belief systems have no further part to play in the changes that lie ahead. A healthy revolution in fact begins with the act of wanting to be free of all ‘isms' and ideologies that constantly harass human free will and prevent us from demonstrating love between people of every race and culture. To be free from beliefs and ideologies will naturally allow our minds the space to know ourselves, which in turn will give us the ability, the energy and the love to identify ourselves with others.
The principle of sharing
But it is futile to become ‘anti' any belief or ideology, such as to go against capitalism; it is time to put capitalism in its right place and redistribute the world's resources to where they are needed most. Capitalism came very naturally to us - it is natural to say ‘this is yours, and this is mine', but the time is coming when we must say ‘let us share what we have'. Sharing means ‘to be with', because we cannot share with another person without silently acknowledging that we are together, that we are here to help one another, hence the principle of sharing has the ability to unite and not divide.
The beauty of sharing is that it does not belong to any political party or ‘ism', but to the people of the world. It doesn't belong to the socialist party, or the communists, or anyone else. It is the freeing agent from a painful history of ideologies and beliefs that have caused such tremendous conflicts with each other. When we understand that the principle of sharing is fundamental to our survival but tragically neglected at every level of society, we will recognise that sharing is the surest guide to justice and peace. Then we will each know ourselves as an ambassador of humanity, for above all nations is the united people of the world.
What could this mean for the people protesting in New York and every other city? The protest movement well knows that we need to redistribute wealth, that we need to stop money from going through the wrong hands - to the arms industry in particular. Whichever way you look at it, war must come to an end. Nobody wants war any more - or nobody can afford to go to war anymore. The protest movement also well knows that there is more than enough money to go around, but it is hoarded by powerful families and corporations, even by the governments who spend it injudiciously. So each nation has to redistribute its wealth and resources among its own people.
But we also need to redistribute resources globally, initially on the basis of an emergency to all people without the basic necessities of life, and eventually through new international economic arrangements no longer based on competition and material gain. This requires visionary thinking and a new kind of economist, and it may take many years to restructure our international governance systems. Through the sharing of world resources, laws will have to change by the shovel; everything will need to be simplified. This is why we should not waste our time listening to the advice of the orthodox economist or politician; their theories are outdated and irrelevant to the coming era. When the principle of sharing begins to influence government policy, the present economic system will naturally fade away. Both cannot coexist for one is divisive in its complexity and the other is unifying in its simplicity.
No one is immune from the changes that lie ahead, so let us not work against the system, but together let's change it. This requires an attitude of confidence that we can change the system, that a better world is possible. And this requires awareness, and togetherness, and more and more perseverance - especially perseverance. As we have seen, governments instinctively abhor any uprising of the people because soon their power is in jeopardy, so their tactic through the police is to discourage even the most peaceful form of protest. So we have to carry on and on, otherwise change is impossible.
We are already becoming a powerful force, structuring ourselves and becoming organised into one voice. Every demonstration around the world should express, in its own creative way, a refusal to carry on living as before. But we cannot change the world without first looking after the most vulnerable people, which means that we have to demand from our governments an immediate end to hunger, everywhere. A true social revolution has to have morality at its heart, which is why an end to life-threatening deprivation in every country must become our first priority. The key is for everyone to raise their voice for greater economic sharing, and to continually push the boundaries of our demands until governments implement this unifying principle into world affairs. Now is the time, as it always has been.
Mohammed Mesbahi is STWR's founder.
Editorial assistance: Adam Parsons.
A translation of this article in French is available here.
A translation of this article in German is available here.