An edited version of a talk by Carolyn Hughes given at this year’s
Anthroposophical Conference on the theme “What Matters?”
Where to start when challenged with such a boundless but personal question? I remember reading Stephen Covey and thinking he had nailed it. His advice was: “To Live. To love. To Learn. To leave a Legacy.” To me this meant finding our calling, the impulse which gives our life meaning, purpose and integrity. What is our particular contribution to enabling others, healing the ailing planet, challenging injustice, walking a life of the Spirit? How to move from complaining about why reality is like it is to how it could be changed, for the better? As a postgrad student researching China’s land reform in the 1970’s I was granted a British Council scholarship to study there. With my idealism packed I headed to Beijing, ostensibly to study Chinese history but really to witness the making of a new type of “truly social” human being first hand. I expected to find a nation where the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was joyously celebrated.
The reality of a proletarian paradise was otherwise. In Beijing, China’s heart, it was as if the body of the city was there but the soul had departed, leaving only the presence of a mute and monochromatic crowd. The heavy hand of the State was everywhere visible. Nothing was clear. Truths stayed beyond our grasp; the weight of propaganda was crushing. One encounter at a time idealistic delusions melted away. We learnt how the Cultural Revolution had made an intensive assault on the social and cultural values and private relationships of the Chinese people. Central Confucian and Taoist values of loyalty, duty, trust, relatedness,” face,”favour and reciprocity within the extended circle of family and close associates were dismantled.
How had the profound and ancient values underpinning Chinese culture been undermined in just one generation? Is that all it takes for an invasive all- powerful State to wipe the cultural slate clean? By eliminating those who had traditionally been deeply respected for safeguarding, carrying and practising these values: the thinkers, the artists, the teachers and the middle class, only a cultural and spiritual void was left.
Into this void flowed the reforms summed up in Deng Xiaoping’s words “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse.” The mouse was economic growth and the cat was the means to achieve it. The trade-off was consumer choice in exchange for public quiescence and lack of democratic reforms.
Years later, after being posted to the Australian Embassy in Beijing in 2000 it was clear to me that the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath had resulted in consequences which would have been anathema to Mao. People became more at ease with the type of functional and anonymous relationships in mainstream commercial life which are second nature to us. These changing attitudes made it easier for hedonic values to find a home in the Chinese psyche and cleared the way for consumerism, material wellbeing and social prestige as central values to strive for. The outlet for freedom of choice became runaway retail therapy. Then the Gold Rush began. Corporate Globalisation arrived – transplanting manufacturing, goods and services to the most profitable areas, scrambling over each other to get a foothold in China. They came to take advantage of low labour, land and resource costs as well as the absence of workplace and environmental regulations. This investment boom made China the assembly line of the world. With the mass exodus of western manufacturers, the advanced economies have lost much of their industrial base, unemployment has soared and our middle class has declined – as average wage levels have fallen with competition from low wage countries.
As a diplomat with responsibilities in economic and commercial portfolios I was in the belly of the beast, living alongside the effects of corporate globalisation and market fundamentalism on both a developing nation and on our Western economies and seeing just how closely they were linked. Market fundamentalism sees the economy as operating autonomously – independent, unfettered by government, social or environmental concerns. I sensed our lives becoming subject to market imperatives such as infinite GDP growth, short-term shareholder value, profit maximisation and efficiency and witnessed them eclipsing all other considerations such as the wellbeing of people, the natural world and the environment
We’ve all heard the mantra “it’s the economy, stupid” meaning that everything of value rests on the success of the economy, as measured by the growth of national GDP. Perhaps those words should be rearranged to read “it’s the stupid economy” – describing more accurately the consequences of this unquestioning faith in the invisible hand of the market and economic growth.
It’s time to ask truer questions than “how do we grow the GDP faster?” such as “Just what is the economy? What is it for? Is it working for us and the rest of life on this planet or are we working for it?” We need new indicators of progress to guide our society. One alternative is the Genuine Progress Indicator. The GPI seeks to understand what really matters to people and then to measure whether those things are improving and, if not, work out policies that deliver them. The project “What Matters Most to New Zealanders” has found that we want healthy individuals, prosperous families, vibrant communities, a clean and pure environment, stable employment, affordable housing, freedom from poverty, sense of security, ample free time, easy access to education for all and a future with hope. These necessities of social life have to be protected from the market by social and political institutions and recognised as rights rather than commodities or human freedom will be in jeopardy.
I’d witnessed up close the results of the Chinese State’s total control over society; the domination of the economic, political and increasingly the cultural spheres by powerful business interests globally and the despoiling by both of our fragile planet as equally destructive forces. An understanding was dawning that this destruction was not only a matter of Matter…but that more substantial spiritual questions were involved. If we want the economy to work better for all of us there’s no point in just moaning over the consequences. Best do something about it. Where there’s a will there’s a world.
So I left Beijing to get out into that world and explore ways to take back ownership of and responsibility for some of the most valuable things we are at risk of losing. My deepest concern was to understand what we can do to heal our Earth and so assure the future of our material and spiritual home for ourselves and for all life.
Along came the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. With the collapse, or bailout, of huge unwieldy corporations came yet more evidence that the future of our economic life belongs to smaller more resilient businesses working with principles of conscious cooperation, service, profit-sharing, independence of government and meeting the real needs of people. Moreover there are many ways we can bring about change. Where would the big corporations be without us consumers? If we band together we can exert a strong influence on the economy. We can form pressure groups around particular interests – such as entering into contracts with organic and green businesses to buy their products and services, so giving them some economic security to invest in creative solutions or donate to worthy causes. With perfect synchronicity, I discovered at this point Rudolf Steiner’s work on the threefold nature of social life with the political, cultural and economic sphere being autonomous but interacting with each other consciously.
I learnt it’s not enough to find ways around an unconscious dysfunctional system. Steiner challenges us to think about how we can change the paradigm so the human being has his rightful place centre-stage in economic life. While it’s the State’s job to provide the legislative and regulatory framework of the economy and the overall protections of the Rights sphere, the economy works best when conducted by those responsible for economic activities. This means the conscious collaboration of producers, distributors and consumers working in association to develop an “altruistic stakeholder-managed economy” rather than one for the benefit of a few shareholders. Steiner’s idea of associative economics can transform the economic sphere and take many forms: ethical finance; social finance, co-ops, social enterprise, local currencies, fair trade, community shared agriculture and community land trusts.
One area where Steiner’s ideas of association and mutuality have been enthusiastically taken up is the Biodynamic movement which has piloted several innovations, especially concerning the role of land and property. One is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Where there is a community supported farm there is a farm supported community. Growers and consumers come into direct relationship and evolve new ways of providing working capital for the farm such as crowdfunding, person to farm financing and cooperative community funding.
Members of a CSA subscribe to a season’s worth of fresh produce in advance, sharing both the risks and the bounty of the farm. Instead of feeding the old economy by shopping at a supermarket the subscriber puts food dollars directly into the hands of a local family farm. CSA’s are about knowing what the land needs and what the community needs. Farmers are no longer separate or isolated. An etheric “skin” forms around the farm with care for the land being central. It becomes ‘alive’ – an organism yielding for all. In an associative economy it is not the farmer who owns the land but suppliers, customers and shareholders who make the land available to the farmer and guarantee his livelihood. The farmer is freer than when the property is his own. The community itself controls access to the land in open, democratically accountable and equitable ways for other activities such as education, internships, protecting wildlife and biodiversity, employment, community gardens, farmers markets, social enterprises etc. This is very different from the pressures exerted from conventional investors to minimise costs and maximise profits.
The Biodynamic movement in the UK, US and Europe has also done a lot to pioneer another social innovation – the charitable trusteeship of farms for long- term stewardship. Land is not considered as a commodity but as part of our common heritage – a resource that belongs to everyone, including future generations. Land trusts remove healthy biodiverse farms from the speculative economy. Farms are then safeguarded in perpetuity for Biodynamic and organic agriculture so they can be farmed by successive generations of farmers who lease the land based on its earnings value. The land is passed from farmer to farmer as a right to use, not to own.
A Land Trust has recently been formed in NZ to provide a solution for farmers who are facing challenges from debt, the sky-rocketing cost of land and inputs, climatic changes, export issues, being bought out by large conglomerates or overseas investment funds and difficulties of finding young farmers to take over. A number of NZ’s Biodynamic and organic farms have been lost to developers because of this succession problem.
We’ve all been struck at times by how so much of what we’ve experienced somehow contrives to come together to push us in a fresh direction – something we know deep down that we’ve been preparing for all along. I’ve experienced the destructive impacts of a One-Party State taking over a national culture and economy; giant corporations taking control of much of the Rights and the Cultural realms as well as the way we think about economic life and the detrimental impact pf unrestrained market fundamentalism and economic growth on our environment. Becoming acquainted in recent years with Rudolf Steiner’s ideas has helped put all this exploring into context. I’m convinced that the 3-fold social order is an idea whose time has come again and represents a fresh approach which speaks to the spirit and evolving consciousness of our time. One which is not weighed down with ideologies but seeks to find fulfilment in the reality of more far reaching objectives. In short to leave a better legacy for generations to come by taking our own steps in the direction of “What Matters.”
For Further reading:
On China: China: Ancient Inspiration and New Directions, by Judith G. Blatchford, Rudolf Steiner College Publications, 1989.
On Globalisation: Shaping Globalisation: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding by Nicanor Perlas, Centre for Alternative Development Initiatives, 2000.
On Threefolding: Towards Social Renewal: Basic Issues of the Social Question, by Rudolf Steiner, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1977.
On Community Supported Agriculture and Land Trusts. Common Wealth: For a free, equal, mutual and sustainable society, by Martin Large, Hawthorn Press, 2010. Releasing the True Value of Land, International Biodynamic Association IBDA, 2014 (English)
Google Associative Economics