A recent study by Oxfam provided some striking data regarding growing disparities of wealth and poverty within and between countries around the globe:
50% of the world’s wealth is now owned by 1% of the population.
This richest 1% has 65 times as much combined wealth as the bottom 50% of the population.
The world’s richest 85 people control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the population.
10% of the population controls 86% of all the assets in the world, while the poorest 70% control only 3% of assets.
The amount of wealth hidden in secret tax shelters is estimated to be $18.5 trillion, which exceeds the entire GDP of the richest country on earth (US GDP = $15.8 trillion).
In the US, the richest 1% of the population captured 95% of new wealth generated after the 2007 financial crisis, while the bottom 90% became poorer.
The combined wealth of Europe’s 10 richest people exceeds the total cost of stimulus measures implemented across the EU between 2008 and 2010.
The report goes on to show that these growing income disparities are being seen in most democratic countries today and it attributes this trend to “political capture” – or the control of political institutions by the wealthiest segments of society, who are re-writing national and international laws and policies in ways that serve only their narrow self-interests.
Which raises an important question: what can be done to reverse these trends?
The Oxfam report suggest that “popular politics” – or the political mobilization or poor and working classes in support of progressive taxation as well as investments in education, health, and other public services – will be needed to reverse such trends.
I fully agree that progressive taxation as well as investments in education, health, and other public services are essential. But achieving and sustaining these kinds of advances will require much more than “popular politics.” This is because the underlying problem is, in part, structural.
Western liberal democracies are structured according to the logic of interest-group competition. When governance is organized in this way – as a contest for power – it will always be divisive and dysfunctional at best, oppressive at worst.
For reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, electoral contests invariably invite the corrupting influence of money; they diminish the inclusion and participation of historically marginalized individuals or groups; they reduce complex issues down to manipulative slogans; and they ignore the well-being of the masses of humanity.
Stated another way, when governance is organized as a contest for power, it will inevitably result in political capture.
Popular political mobilization will, in exceptional historical circumstances, result in temporary advances for the cause of social justice and economic equity. But the long-term trends will continue to be characterized by the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people – as the history of the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries abundantly demonstrates.
These trends cannot be reversed merely through popular mobilization within current political structures. They will only be truly reversed when the organizing logic of interest-group competition is replaced with a new structural logic, derived from consciousness of the oneness of humanity — or recognition of the organic unity and interdependence of the entire social body.
It is, therefore, toward the cultivation of this consciousness, and the construction of new models of governance that are coherent with it, that we need to bend our energies in the long-term, if we hope to truly reverse the deeply troubling trends identified in the Oxfam report.
For the past few years I’ve been serving in an informal advisory capacity for a company called SecondMuse, which is learning to apply the art and science of collaboration to the betterment of the world. Some of their projects include Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) and Launch.
Last spring we co-authored a chapter on collaboration in a book called Creating Good Work: The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build A Healthy Economy.
This week we were asked to publish a blog post on the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire.
The theme of the chapter and the blog post is “organic collaboration.” We use this term to refer to collaboration between diverse organizations — from across the public, private, and civil society sectors — who are working together systematically toward goals that benefit the entire social body.
If you’re interested in reading more, click on the CSRNewswire blog post above.
The contemporary public discourse on science and religion is stuck in a quagmire that contributes little to the betterment of the world. On one side of the quagmire are proselytizing materialists who point to the most spurious expressions of religion as evidence of the incompatibility of science and religion. On the other side are apologists for superstitious beliefs that reflect a hopelessly outmoded conception of religion which is indeed irreconcilable with science.
What is needed is a new discourse on religion – a discourse that embodies the same kind of critical scrutiny and self-reflection that science has benefited from over the past few centuries.
The advancement of science has been driven, in part, by an ongoing discourse on science that has placed increasingly stringent demands on what kinds of knowledge and practice can legitimately claim the name “science.” Even though the discourse on science is still evolving, and interpretations vary around the boundaries, the discourse has already provided many important insights that help people distinguish legitimate science from pseudo-science, or junk science, or any of the spurious things people have historically done in the name of science, such as horoscopes and astrology.
This self-reflective discourse on science has, for the most part, been thoughtful, searching, public, and sincere – at least among scientists, educators, philosophers of science, and others who contribute to the discourse. At its heart are questions such as these:
What is science? What do we need from science? What do we expect or demand from those who claim to be practicing science? And what criteria must be met in order to merit the name science?
In other words, the discourse on science has, for several centuries, focused on what science ought to be in order for science to contribute to the advancement of civilization.
In contrast, a similarly thoughtful and self-reflective discourse on religion has not yet adequately developed. To encourage this, we need to begin asking a parallel set of questions:
What is religion? What do we need from religion? What do we expect or demand from those who claim to be practicing religion? And what criteria must be met in order to merit the name religion?
In other words, the discourse on religion needs to focus on what religion ought to be in order to contribute to the advancement of civilization, in the same way the discourse on science has.
Does flying an airplane into a building full of people, in the name of religion, qualify as legitimate religion? Or is this junk religion? Can insults, hatred, and xenophobia ever be considered a legitimate expression of religion? Or are they a complete perversion of religion? When self-interested congregational leaders claim to be the exclusive or final repositories of religious truth, should we accept these as legitimate religious claims? Would we ever accept such claims if they were made in the name of science, which requires humility, an open mind, and ongoing investigation of reality?
Clearly, we need to reframe the discourse on religion if we are interested in the genuine investigation of reality and the advancement of civilization. Rather than endlessly arguing “for or against religion,” why not foster thoughtful discourse on what we mean by religion and what we need from, or demand from, religion?
If we’re not yet sure what demands we should place on religion, then it’s time to begin that conversation. As a starting point, these are a few I suggest:
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be fully compatible with, and complementary to, science.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be unifying rather than divisive.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be concerned with the cultivation of ethical character and conduct.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must be directly concerned with the exigencies of the age we live in – which include learning how to live together in peaceful, just, and sustainable ways as members of an increasingly interdependent global community.
Religion, as a system of knowledge and practice, must foster a constructive sense of agency and change.
Personally, I’m not willing to grant the name “religion” to any phenomena that does not meet these demands. And I know growing numbers of people who are beginning to apply similar standards. Only as this discourse on religion expands will religion begin to mature as an essential system of knowledge and practice, in the same way that science has.
I was recently invited to give a TEDx presentation on my scholarship, which focuses on moving beyond the prevailing culture of contest in order to create a more just and sustainable social order.
Unfortunately, the TEDx format is limited by the fact that it does not enable meaningful conversation. Rather, it is another one-way approach to communication in a world that is already over-saturated with one-way messages.
Which leaves me asking: how can we create more effective online spaces for meaningful conversation about the exigencies of the age we live in, and the means for addressing them?
Social change theorists and activists are paying increased attention to the role that discourse plays in processes of social change. In brief, a discourse can be conceptualized as an evolving way that people think and talk about a given aspect of reality, which influences their perceptions and social practices in relation to that aspect of reality.
Discourses contain properties, such as interpretive frames, that determine their influence on social perceptions and practices. Struggles for peace and justice can therefore be understood, in part, as struggles to reframe significant public discourses – such as discourses on governance, the economy, or human rights.
The dominant frame in many public discourses today can be understood as a “social contest” frame. This interpretive frame employs war metaphors, market metaphors, sports metaphors, social Darwinist metaphors, or fight metaphors to make sense out of virtually every aspect of social reality.
The social contest frame is so ubiquitous that many people have uncritically internalized it as a “common sense” interpretation of social reality. Thus it is widely employed in media discourse, political discourse, academic discourse, and even everyday speech. But as we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, this frame is proving deeply maladaptive because it reinforces dysfunctional social perceptions and practices.
Interdependence is the defining feature of the century we have entered. The logic of interdependence finds its fullest expression in the metaphor of the “social body” – a metaphor that I explored in a previous blog post.
In an interdependent social body, the well-being of every individual or group depends upon the well-being of the entire social body. This collective well-being cannot be achieved when social relationships and institutions are framed as contests. Rather, collective well-being can only be achieved through a recognition of our organic oneness, and through efforts to translate this recognition into a new social reality.
At this critical juncture in human history, struggles for peace and justice will therefore need to reframe significant public discourses according to the logic of the social body frame. This is a powerful form of agency and change. If you are interested in exercising this kind of agency, read on…
I live in a country that is systematically defunding public education. As a result, access to quality education is increasingly becoming a privilege of only those who can afford it. As tragic as these circumstances are, they pale in comparison to what is playing out in Iran today, where denial of education has been adopted as a state strategy to block the progress and undermine the well-being of Iran’s largest religious minority.
Throughout Iran, Bahá’í school children are systematically harassed and intimidated by teachers and administrators who, under government instruction, are trying to obstruct their educational advancement. When they persevere and graduate from high school, they are then denied entrance to institutions of higher education.
In response, the Bahá’í community of Iran established a decentralized virtual university – the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education – run out of Bahá’í homes and other informal spaces, that is providing high-quality university education to large numbers of Bahá’í students. This response reflects a non-confrontational strategy of constructive resilience that Bahá’ís adopt in the face of injustice and oppression.
The oppression of Bahá’ís in Iran extends beyond denial of access to education. In the past 30 years, hundreds of Bahá’ís have been executed; thousands have been detained or imprisoned; tens of thousands have lost their homes, property, and livelihoods; and several hundred thousand have been the target of hostile propaganda from the media and the pulpit. And yet Bahá’ís are law-abiding citizens. Their only crime is belief in the oneness of humanity, the oneness of religion, the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion, the need for universal education, and other related principles which they strive to translate into action through service to the nations in which they live.
As a result of these beliefs, even those who arise to teach courses like mathematics or engineering at the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education are arrested, as the Iranian government strives to deny Bahá’í youth this sole venue for educational advancement. But the Bahá’ís persevere.
Against this backdrop, someone recently asked me: “If Bahá’ís are law-abiding citizens, why do they resist the state’s effort to close down their decentralized university?” This is an excellent question, because it requires us to think carefully about the limits of what it means to be a law-abiding citizen. Toward this end, the following comments reflect my personal exploration of this theme:
The teachings of the Bahá’í Faith are unambiguous regarding the essential role that good government and obedience to the rule of law must play in maintaining the welfare and advancing the orderly progress of human society. “What mankind needeth in this day,” Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “is obedience unto them that are in authority, and a faithful adherence to the cord of wisdom. The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society.”
Nevertheless, for Bahá’ís, obedience to government is not absolute. As a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi explains, “whereas the friends should obey the government under which they live, even at the risk of sacrificing all their administrative affairs and interests, they should under no circumstances suffer their inner religious beliefs and convictions to be violated and transgressed by any authority whatever. A distinction of a fundamental importance must, therefore, be made between spiritual and administrative matters. Whereas the former are sacred and inviolable, and hence cannot be subject to compromise, the latter are secondary and can consequently be given up and even sacrificed for the sake of obedience to the laws and regulations of the government.”
Among the most sacred spiritual convictions inculcated by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is the central role that knowledge and learning play both in the development of the human soul and in the progress of society. As Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “Knowledge is one of the wondrous gifts of God. It is incumbent upon everyone to acquire it.” And again, “Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone.”
As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá elaborated, “There are certain pillars which have been established as the unshakeable supports of the Faith of God. The mightiest of these is learning and the use of the mind, the expansion of consciousness, and insight into the realities of the universe and the hidden mysteries of Almighty God. To promote knowledge is thus an inescapable duty imposed on every one of the friends of God.” Thus “education and training are recorded in the Book of God as obligatory and not voluntary.” Hence Bahá’ís are exhorted to “Make every effort to acquire the advanced knowledge of the day, and strain every nerve to carry forward the divine civilization.” “Let the loved ones of God,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further counsels, “whether young or old, whether male or female, each according to his capabilities, bestir themselves and spare no efforts to acquire the various current branches of knowledge, both spiritual and secular, and of the arts.”
“All blessings are divine in origin,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues, “but none can be compared with this power of intellectual investigation and research, which is an eternal gift producing fruits of unending delight. Man is ever partaking of these fruits. All other blessings are temporary; this is an everlasting possession. Even sovereignty has its limitations and overthrow; this is a kingship and dominion which none may usurp or destroy. Briefly, it is an eternal blessing and divine bestowal, the supreme gift of God to man. Therefore, you should put forward your most earnest efforts toward the acquisition of science and arts. The greater your attainment, the higher your standard in the divine purpose. The man of science is perceiving and endowed with vision, whereas he who is ignorant and neglectful of this development is blind. The investigating mind is attentive, alive; the callous and indifferent mind is deaf and dead. A scientific man is a true index and representative of humanity, for through processes of inductive reasoning and research he is informed of all that appertains to humanity, its status, conditions and happenings. He studies the human body politic, understands social problems and weaves the web and texture of civilization. In fact, science may be likened to a mirror wherein the infinite forms and images of existing things are revealed and reflected. It is the very foundation of all individual and national development. Without this basis of investigation, development is impossible. Therefore, seek with diligent endeavour the knowledge and attainment of all that lies within the power of this wonderful bestowal.”
Thus, while Bahá’ís are exhorted to obey the laws of the lands in which they live, learning and the acquisition of knowledge are prescribed as “incumbent” and “inescapable” duties that are “obligatory and not voluntary.” For Bahá’ís, these sacred duties cannot be “violated or transgressed by any authority” and, unlike purely administrative matters, they are “not subject to compromise.”
Moreover, the inalienable rights to education, learning, and the acquisition of knowledge are upheld by various United Nations’ declarations and covenants, including Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
In light of these widely recognized human rights, along with fundamental Bahá’í beliefs and convictions, the Bahá’í community in Iran has strained every nerve to ensure educational opportunities for its children and youth in the face of government policies designed to deal with “the Bahá’í question” by ensuring “that their progress and development are blocked.”
The Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education is a clear illustration of the constructive resilience demonstrated by the Iranian Bahá’ís in the face of systematic oppression. Furthermore, it reflects the judicious balance that Bahá’ís strive to achieve between, on one hand, their civic duties as law-abiding citizens and, on the other hand, their conviction that education is a spiritual right that cannot be denied.
Against the backdrop of the “permanent campaign” that now characterizes American politics, thousands of Americans from every part of the country just participated in a nation-wide electoral process that has no campaigning and that takes less than an hour to complete. Anyone looking for alternatives to increasingly dysfunctional systems of partisan democracy might be interested in examining this unique electoral process.
Every year, during the first two weeks in October, the American Bahá’í community holds elections in 158 electoral districts across the country. The purpose of these “unit conventions” is to elect delegates who will subsequently elect the national governing body of the Bahá’í community. A similar process occurs in over 180 other countries around the world. As Bahá’ís participate in this process, they are not merely electing their own governing bodies. They are constructing a new model of democratic governance from the ground up.
So how do Bahá’í elections work?
The election process has no nominations and no campaigns. In fact, it has no competition of any form because, in the Bahá’í system, governance is not structured as a contest of power. Rather, it is a call to service. In this regard, every adult has an opportunity to vote, is eligible to be voted for, and has a responsibility to serve if elected.
Voting is conducted in a reverent atmosphere in which each person casts a secret ballot that reflects their personal assessment of who, in their electoral unit, has the integrity and capacity to serve in an elected capacity. There are no discussions before or during the process, so no vote is influenced by anyone else’s opinions. And if anyone seeks to solicit votes in the period leading up to the election, this is considered a display of ego indicating the person is not fit for selfless service to the community.
In this way, voters exercise true freedom of choice in voting. Partisan filtering processes are completely absent, as are the biasing influences of campaign rhetoric and punditry.
Individuals who cannot attend the convention are free to mail their ballot in advance. For those in attendance, the balloting process takes only a matter of minutes. When the ballots are counted, those individuals who are named the most frequently on ballots are elected to a form of service they had not sought, but are well qualified for.
Since there was no campaigning (and hence no campaign financing), and since the elected members did not seek election (or re-election), and since they were elected based on the community’s collective but unspoken assessment of their integrity and capacity for selfless service, the corrupting influences of ego and money are eliminated from the electoral processes.
This same basic process is also used to elect governing bodies at the local, national, and international levels of the Bahá’í community. And it has proven itself effective in every culture on earth.
Given the crisis of legitimacy facing so many democracies around the world today, it is worth reflecting on several insights that might be drawn from the Bahá’í experience.
First, when it comes to democratic governance, processes of social innovation need not, and indeed have not, come to an end. Prevailing systems of partisan democracy were remarkable historical accomplishments when they first emerged. But they emerged over 200 years ago. It’s time to take stock of all of the lessons learned in those 200 years and begin the difficult but necessary process of constructing viable systems of democratic governance for the twenty-first century and beyond.
Second, tinkering with minor aspects of the partisan political system, such as campaign finance reforms and term limits, will never be sufficient. Rather, some of the deepest underlying assumptions need to be revisited. This includes the assumption that democratic governance is best structured as a contest for power. Contests of power inherently privilege those with the most power. Structuring governance this way merely serves the narrow interests of those segments of society with the most power.
Third, while open-minded observers might be attracted to the structure of the Bahá’í electoral system, it is important to recognize that such a system could never be imposed from above, nor could it be adopted overnight. Rather, the system is only possible when participation is supremely voluntary, and it only works to the degree that a culture of mature participation is cultivated over time. The Bahá’í community has been constructing this system, learning what it takes to make it work, and fostering a culture that supports it, for almost one hundred years. The community’s success, in this regard, has been built on the simultaneous development of systems for the spiritual education and empowerment of growing numbers of participants, beginning in their formative years. Thus the Bahá’í community recognizes the mutually interdependent process by which individuals and the institutional structures they participate in must develop and mature together.
With that said, skeptics might argue that it is naïve or unrealistic to try to extrapolate, from the experience of the Bahá’í community, lessons that might be applied to democratic electoral processes in large, complex, pluralistic nation-states. Yet one could argue that it is even more naïve and unrealistic to assume that any nation can continue to cling to partisan systems that have been deeply corrupted by money and special interests, have lost the respect of the populations they purport to serve, and are proving increasingly incapable of addressing the challenges now facing humanity. Thus it seems fair to suggest that, at a minimum, it is time to begin a searching conversation about the reinvention of democracy.
As Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote over a century ago: “The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective… Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.”