Our society is besieged by a series of interconnected crises. Millions of people around the world know this and are crying out for change, for a different way of living, for justice, peace and freedom.
Political leaders, Prime Ministers, Presidents and the like, are apparently incapable of responding to these demands; they do not understand the depth of the anguish or the complex interconnected nature of the problems. Instead of presenting new possibilities and working for peace and social harmony they do all they can to maintain the divisive status quo and act in accordance with the past. But life is not static, it cannot be contained within any ideology – religious, political/economic or social – all must change to accommodate the new. And ‘the new’ is now flooding our world, stimulating change, demanding response and accommodation.
The world and the individual are one;for substantive change to occur this basic fact must be acknowledged; responsibility for the world rests firmly with each and every one of us. If we are to heal the planet and create harmony in the world change is imperative, but it must first of all take place within the individual. Over the last 40 years or so a gentle, yet profound shift in attitudes has indeed been taking place within large numbers of people; the increased level of social-political participation and in many nations revolt against historical injustice and suppression testify to this development. Whist this is extremely positive, urgent and fundamental change is required if the many issues facing humanity are to be overcome and a new way of living set in motion.
What are the crises facing humanity: The environmental catastrophe and war – conventional and nuclear– global poverty, inequality, terrorism, the displacement of people, and, festering beneath all of these, the socio-economic systems under which we all live. These issues, and they are but the most pressing, are the effects of certain ideals and conditioned ways of thinking; they are the results of the underlying crisis, what we might term the Crisis in Consciousness, or the Crisis of Love. Not sentimental, emotional love, but love as a unifying force for liberation and change. Love as the Sword of Cleavage, as the exposer of all that is false, unjust and corrupt in our world.
‘Society’, large or small, is a reflection of the consciousness of those who constitute that society; it is formed by the values, relationships and behaviour consistently and predominantly expressed by the people within it. Such expressions are to a large degree the result of socio-psychological conditioning, poured into the minds of everyone from birth by parents and peers, friends and educators, the media and political propaganda. This conditioning pollutes the mind, distorts behaviour and creates a false sense of self. It colours every relationship and forms the corrupt foundations upon which our lives are set. From this polluted centre, filled as it is with selfishness, competition, nationalism and religious ideologies, action proceeds and the divisive pollution of the mind is externalized.Where there is division conflict follows, violent conflict or psychological conflict, community antagonism or regional disputes.
For lasting change to take place, for peace and justice to flower, we must do all we can to break free of this inhibiting conditioning and in so doing cease to add to the collective pollution. The instrument of release in this battle is awareness: Observation and awareness are synonymous. In choiceless observation there is awareness – awareness of the values, motives and ideals conditioning behaviour. In the light of such awareness, unconscious patterns are revealed, and through a process of non-engagement can, over time, be negated and allowed to fall away.
Through competition, fear and ‘ism’s of all kinds we have divided life up; separated ourselves from the natural environment and from one another. The prevailing economic system encourages such divisions; individuals are forced to compete with one another, as are cities, regions and nations. Competition feeds notions of separation and nationalism, ‘America First’ and Brexit being two loud examples of countries, or certain factions within these countries, following a policy which they mistakenly believe to be in their nation’s interest, meaning their economic interest. Such divisions work against the natural order of things by strengthening the illusion of separation.
The natural environment is an integrated whole, humanity is One and an essential part of that whole; the realization of unity in human affairs however is dependent upon social justice, and this is impossible within the constraints of the current economic model, which is inherently unjust. Neo-Liberalism is a major source of the psychological and sociological conditioning which is polluting the mind and society; creative alternatives that challenge the orthodoxy, which proclaims ‘there is no alternative’, must be cultivated and explored.
New criteria need to be established for any alternative economic model; the acknowledgment that human need is universal and should be universally met, and that nobody ‘deserves’ to live a life of suffering and hardship simply because of their place and family of birth. Sharing is a key principle of the time; it must be placed at the heart of our lives and of any new socio-economic structures. Not just sharing of the natural ‘God-given’ resources of the world, but of space, ideas, knowledge and skills, all should be distributed based on need, not bought and sold based on wealth and power. The recognition that humanity is one is crucial in bringing about the needed transformation in consciousness; sharing flows quite naturally from the acknowledgment of this fact and by its expression encourages a shift in attitudes away from the individual towards the group, thus strengthening social cohesion and unity.
Sharing, justice and freedom are vibrant expressions of Love and the Crisis in Consciousness is itself the consequence of a Lack of Love. Like virtually every aspect of life, love has been perverted, distorted and trivialized. Love is not desire, it is not dependent on anything or anyone for it’s being: Love is the nature of life itself. Remove the psychological clutter and Love will shine forth, bringing clarity and lasting change, within the individual and by extension society.
The pressures of modern life are colossal; for young people — those under 25 years of age — they are perhaps greater than at any other time. Competition in virtually every aspect of contemporary life, a culture obsessed with image and material success, and the ever-increasing cost of living are creating a cocktail of anxiety and self-doubt that drives some people to take their own lives and many more to self-abuse of one kind or another.
Amongst this age group today, suicide constitutes the second highest cause of death after road/traffic accidents, and is the most common cause of death in female adolescents aged 15–19 years. This fact is an appalling reflection on our society and the materialistic values driven into the minds of children throughout the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in total “close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Many more attempt suicide,” and those who have attempted suicide are the ones at greatest risk of trying again. Whilst these figures are startling, WHO acknowledges that suicide is widely under-reported. In some countries (throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, for example) where stigma still attaches to suicide, it is not always recorded as the cause of death when in fact it should be, meaning the overall suicide figures are without doubt a great deal higher.
Unless there is fundamental change in the underlying factors that cause suicide, the WHO forecasts that by 2020 – a mere three years away, someone, somewhere will take their own life every 20 seconds. This worldwide issue, WHO states, is increasing year on year; it is a symptom of a certain approach to living — a divisive approach that believes humanity is inherently greedy and selfish and has both created, and is perpetuated by, an unjust socio-economic system which is at the root of many of our problems.
Sliding into despair
Suicide is a global matter and is something that can no longer be dismissed, nor its societal causes ignored. It is the final act in a painful journey of anguish; it signifies a desperate attempt by the victim to be free of the pain they feel, and which, to them, is no longer bearable. It is an attempt to escape inner conflict and emotional agony, persecution or intimidation. It may follow a pattern of self-harm, alcohol or drug abuse, and, is in many cases, but not all, related to depression, which blights the lives of more than 300 million people worldwide, is debilitating and deeply painful. As William Styron states in Darkness Invisible, “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.”
Any suicide is a tragedy and a source of great sadness, particularly if the victim is a teenager, or someone in there twenties, who had their whole life ahead of them, but for some reason or another could not face it. As with all age groups, mental illness amongst young people is cited as the principle reason for, or an impelling cause of suicide, as well as for people suffering from an untreated illness such as anxiety anorexia or bulimia; alcohol and drug abuse are also regularly mentioned, as well as isolation.
All of these factors are effects, the result of the environment in which people — young and not so young — are living: family life, the immediate society, the broader national and world society. The values and codes of behavior that these encourage, and, flowing from this environment, the manner in which people treat one another together with their prevailing attitudes. It must be here that, setting aside any individual pre-disposition, the underlying causes leading to mental illness or alcohol/drug dependency in the first place are rooted.
Unsurprisingly young people who are unemployed for a long time; who have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse; who come from broken families in which there is continuous anxiety due to job insecurity and low wages are at heightened risk of suicide, as are homeless people, young gay and bi-sexual men and those locked up in prison or young offenders institutions. In addition, WHO states that, “Experiencing conflict, […] loss and a sense of isolation are strongly associated with suicidal behavior.”
Lack of hope is another key factor. Absence of hope leads to despair, and from despair flows all manner of negative thoughts and destructive actions, including suicide. In Japan, where suicide is the leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 39 (death by suicide in Japan is around twice that of America, France and Canada, and three times that of Germany and the UK), the BBC reports that, “young people are killing themselves because they have lost hope and are incapable of seeking help.” Suicides began to increase dramatically in Japan in 1988 after the Asian financial crisis and climbed again after the 2008 worldwide economic crash. Economic insecurity is thought to be the cause, driven by “the practice of employing young people on short-term contracts.”
Hope is extremely important, hope that life will improve, that circumstances will change, that people will be kinder and that life will be gentler. That one’s life has meaning. Interestingly, in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, suicides in Britain increased by almost 20 per cent, and cases of self-harm rose by 44 per cent. To many people she was a symbol of compassion and warmth in a brittle, hostile world, and somehow engendered hope.
The list of those most vulnerable to suicide is general and no doubt incomplete; suicide is an individual act and flows from specific circumstances and a particular state of mind. Generalizations miss the subtleties of each desperate cry. Some suicides are spontaneous acts, spur of the moment decisions (as is often the case in Asian countries, where poison is the most common method of suicide), others may be drawn out over years, in the case of the alcoholic for example, punctuated perhaps by times of relief and optimism, only to collapse under the weight of life’s intense demands once more.
It is these constant pressures that are often the principle causes of the slide into despair and the desire to escape the agony of daily life. They are all pervasive, hard to resist, impossible, apparently, to escape. Firstly, we are all faced with the practical demands of earning a living, paying the rent or mortgage, buying food, and covering the energy bills etc. Secondly, there are the more subtle pressures, closely related to our ability to meet the practical demands of the day: the pressure to succeed, to make something of one’s life, to be strong – particularly of you’re a young man, to be sexually active, to be popular, to know what you want and have the strength to get it; to have the confidence to dream and the determination to fulfill your dreams. And if you don’t know what you want, if you don’t have ‘dreams’ in a world of dreamers, this is seen as weakness, which will inevitably result in ‘failure’. And by failure, is meant material inadequacy as well as unfulfilled potential and perhaps loneliness, because who would want to be with a ‘failure’?
These and other expectations and pressures constitute the relentless demands faced by us all, practical and psychological, and our ability to meet them colours the way we see ourselves and determines, to a degree, how others see us. The images of what we should be, how
we should behave, what we should think and aspire too, the values we should adopt and the belief system we should accept are thrust into the minds of everyone from birth. They are narrow, inhibiting, prescribed and deeply unhealthy.
The principle tool of this process of psychological and sociological conditioning is the media, as well as parents and peers, all of whom have themselves fallen foul of the same methodology, and education.
Beyond reward and punishment
Step outside the so-called norm, stand out as someone different, and risk being persecuted, bullied and socially excluded. The notion of individuality has been outwardly championed but systematically and institutionally denied. Our education systems are commonly built on two interconnected foundations – conformity and competition – and reinforced through methods, subtle and crude, of reward and punishment. All of which stifles true individuality, which needs a quiet, loving space, free from judgment in which to flower. For the most sensitive, vulnerable and uncertain, the pressure to conform, to compete and succeed, is often too much to bear. Depression, self-doubt, anxiety, self-harm, addiction and, for some, suicide, are the dire consequences.
There are many initiatives aimed at preventing suicide amongst young people – alcohol/drug services, mental health treatment, reducing access to the means of suicide – and these are of tremendous value. However iff the trend of increased suicides among young people is to be reversed it is necessary to dramatically reduce the pressures on them and inculcate altogether more inclusive values. This means changing the environments in which life is lived, most notably the socio-economic environment that infects all areas of society. Worldwide, life is dominated by the neoliberal economic system, an extreme form of capitalism that has infiltrated every area of life. Under this decrepit unjust model everything is classed as a commodity, everyone as a consumer, inequality guaranteed with wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny percentage of the population — 1% of 1%, or less in fact. All facets of life have become commercialized, from healthcare to the supply of water and electricity, and the schooling of our children. The educational environment has become poisoned by the divisive values of the market place, with competition at the forefront, and competition has no place in schools and universities, except perhaps on the sports field: streaming and selection should be vetoed totally and testing, until final exams (that should be coursework based), scrapped.
All that divides within our societies should be called out and rejected, cooperation inculcated instead of competition in every area of human endeavor, including crucially the political-economic sphere; tolerance encouraged, unity built in all areas of society, local, national and global. These principles of goodness together with the golden seed of social justice – sharing – need to be the guiding ideals of a radically redesigned socio-economic paradigm, one that meets the needs of all to live dignified, fulfilled lives, promotes compassion, and, dare I say, cultivates love. Only then, will the fundamental causes of suicide, amongst young people in particular, but men and women of all ages, be eradicated.
In cities and towns from New Delhi to New York the socio-political policies that led to the Grenfell Tower disaster in west London are being repeated; redevelopment and gentrification, the influx of corporate money and the expelling of the poor, including families that have lived in an area for generations. To this, add austerity, the privatization of public services and the annihilation of social housing and a cocktail of interconnected causes takes shape. Communities break up, independent businesses gradually close down, diversity disappears and another neighbourhood is absorbed within the expensive homogenized collective.
People living in developed industrialized countries suffer most acutely, but developed nations are also being subjected to the same violent methodology of division and injustice that led to the murder of probably hundreds of innocent people in Grenfell Tower.
The rabid spread of corporate globalization has allowed the poison of commercialization to be injected into the fabric of virtually every country in the world, including developing nations.
As neoliberal policies are exchanged for debt relief and so-called ‘investment’, which is little more than exploitation, the problems of the North infiltrate the South. Economic cultural colonization smiles and shakes hands, wears a suit and causes fewer deaths than the traditional method of control and pillaging, but it is just as pernicious and corrosive.
In the Neo-Liberal world of commercialization everything is regarded as a commodity. Whole countries are regarded as little more than marketplaces in which to sell an infinite amount of stuff, often poorly made, most of which is not needed. In this twenty-first century nightmare that is choking the life out of people everywhere, human beings are regarded not as individuals with particular outlooks fostered by differing traditions, backgrounds and cultures; with concerns and rights, potential and gifts and heartfelt aspirations, but consumers with differing degrees of worth based on the size of their bank account and their capacity to buy the corporate-made artifacts that litter the cathedrals of consumerism in cities north, south, east and west.
Those with empty pockets and scant prospects have no voice and, as Grenfell proves, are routinely ignored; choices and opportunities are few, and whilst human rights are declared to be universal, the essentials of living — shelter, food, education and health care — are often denied them. Within the land of money, such rights are dependent not on human need but one the ability to pay, and when these rights are offered to those living in poverty or virtual poverty, it is in the form of second and third rate housing, unhealthy food, poorly funded and under-staffed education and health services. After all, you get what you pay for; if you pay little don’t expect much, least of all respect.
The commercialization of all aspects of our lives is the inevitable, albeit extreme consequence of an economic model governed by profit, fed by consumption and maintained through the constant agitation of desire. Pleasure is sold as happiness, desire poured into the empty space where love and compassion should be, anxiety and depression ensured. But there’s a pill for that, sold by one or other of the major benefactors of the whole sordid pantomime, the pharmaceutical companies. Corporations, huge and getting bigger, are the faceless commercial monsters who own everything and want to own more; they want to own you and me, to determine how we think and what we do. These faceless corporate entities are given rights equivalent to nations and in some cases more; they have incalculable financial wealth and with it political power. They devour everything and everyone in their path to the Altar of Abundance, assimilate that which springs into life outside their field of control and consolidate any organization which threatens their dominance.
Commercialization is a headless monster devoid of human kindness and empathy, it sits within an unjust economic system that has created unprecedented levels of inequality, with colossal wealth concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer men (the zillionaires are all men), whilst half the world’s population attempts to survive on under $5 a day and the Earth cries out in agony: every river, sea and stream is polluted, deforestation is stripping huge areas of woodland, whole Eco-systems are being poisoned and the air we breathe is literally choking us to death. Apathy suffocates and comforts us, distractions seduce us and keep us drugged: “Staring at the screen so we don’t have to see the planet die. What we gonna do to wake up?” screams the wonderful British poet Kate Tempest in Tunnel Vision. “The myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost, and pitiful.”
How bad must it get before we put an end to the insanity of it all? It has got to end; we can no longer continue to live in this fog. During a spellbinding performance of Europe is Lost at Glastonbury Festival, Tempest stood on the edge of the stage and called out, “We are Lost, We are Lost, We are Lost”. We are lost because a world has been created based on false values — “all that is meaningless rules” — because the systems that govern our lives are inherently unjust, because we have been made to believe that competition and division is natural, that we are simply the body and are separate from one another, because corporate financial interests are placed above the needs of human beings and the health of the planet. Excess is championed, sufficiency laughed at, ambition and greed encouraged, uncertainty and mystery pushed aside. The house is burning, as the great teacher Krishnamurti put it, Our House, Our World — within and without — both have been violated, ravaged, and both need to be allowed to heal, to be washed clean by the purifying waters of social justice, trust and sharing.
Systemic external change proceeds from an internal shift in thinking — a change in consciousness, and whilst such a shift may appear difficult, I suggest it is well underway within vast numbers of people to varying degrees. For change to be sustainable it needs to be gradual but fundamental, and have the support of the overwhelming majority of people — not a mere 51% of the population.
Kindness begets kindness, just as violence begets violence. Create structures that are just and see the flowering of tolerance and unity within society; Sharing is absolutely key. After Grenfell hundreds of local people shared what they had, food, clothes, bedding; they shopped for the victims, filling trolleys with baby food, nappies and toiletries. This happens all over the world when there is a tragedy — people love to share; giving and cooperating are part of who we are, while competition and selfishness run contrary to our inherent nature, resulting in sickness of one kind or another, individual and collective.
Sharing is the answer to a great many of our problems and needs to be placed at the heart of a new approach to socio-economic living, locally, nationally, and globally. It is a unifying principle encouraging cooperation, which, unlike competition, brings people together and builds community. The fear of ‘the other’, of institutions and officials dissipates in such an environment, allowing trust to naturally come into being, and where trust exists much can be achieved. In the face of worldwide inequality and injustice the idea of sharing as an economic principle is gradually gaining ground, but the billions living in destitution and economic insecurity cannot wait, action is needed urgently; inaction and complacency feed into the hands of those who would resist change, and allows the status quo to remain intact. “We sleep so deep, it don’t matter how they sh
ake us. If we can’t face it, we can’t escape it. But tonight the storm’s come,” says Kate Tempest in Tunnel Vision. Indeed, we are in the very eye of the storm, “The winter of our discontent’s upon us” and release will not be found within the corrupt ways of the past, but in new forms built on ancient truths of love and unity held within the heart of all mankind.
Charred, lifeless and brutal, the hollowed out remains of Grenfell Tower in west London screams of the human agony inflicted when, on 14th June, the building became an inferno.
Whilst there are various theories about what triggered the fire – dodgy wiring, a faulty fridge, a gas leak – what is clear is that this disaster was not an accident, it was the consequence of a social housing policy dating back to the 1980’s, systematic neglect, social injustice and the ongoing war being waged on the poorest members of British society by the Conservative government. And this time the result is not just low pay, second-rate education and housing, lack of opportunities, increased anxiety and depression, but murder; families torn to pieces, lives destroyed.
Deep sadness shrouds the whole area, and, coming as it does on the back of a spate of recent atrocities, distress and a sense of collective bewilderment pervade the country.
The initial shock of the disaster has morphed into contained anger as the level of official incompetence and apathy becomes increasingly clear. Residents’ warnings of the risks of fire were repeatedly ignored by The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) who own the building and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization (KCTMO); the most insistent residents – two of whom are now dead – were bullied and threatened with “legal action for defamation” by KCTMO, the company responsible for the management of the building, The Independent reports. This attitude is widespread, the Radical Housing Group (RHG) makes clear that “the recent history of social housing is one of contempt for council tenants and denigration of council housing…the underlying causes of the Grenfell tragedy are deeply economic and political.”
The list of factors that led to this disaster is long and intertwined, rooted in the poisonous ground of commercialization, social division and official complacency.
There were no sprinklers installed. This is compulsory in buildings over 30 meters tall built after 2007, and retro-fitting has been repeatedly recommended in high rise flats built before then, but fearful of deterring commercial developers the Government failed to make the retro-fitting of sprinklers mandatory, in fact fewer than 1% of council tower blocks in England are fitted with sprinklers. The building was serviced by only one flight of stairs in and out, stairwells were cluttered with rubbish, and in an £8.6 million refurbishment last year, highly flammable plastic cladding, which is banned in buildings above 18 meters in height, was fitted to the outside and overlooked during a series of council inspections. It served no purpose other than a cosmetic one and on the night of the fire allowed the flames to spread rapidly upwards from the fourth floor. The fitting of sprinklers throughout Grenfell Tower would have added an extra £200,000 to the recent renovations, non-flammable cladding a mere £5,000.
At the time of writing the number of those that lost their lives stands at 79; some are questioning if the true figure is being released. Given that there could have been up to 600 people or more in the tower (we will never know the exact figure), and fire enveloped it within 15 minutes, the fatalities are probably in the hundreds. Scotland Yard is conducting what they describe as a “far-reaching” criminal investigation into how the fire started, how it spread and how the Tower was maintained, the absence of fire measures and the refurbishment.
Survivors are being housed in temporary accommodation and are reportedly receiving £10 a day from the council to live on. Response from the local authority and government agencies has been appalling: there has been no coordination of the largely community led relief operation and no overall organization. Whilst council tenants made up the majority of residents, private renters, homeowners, and subtenants lived in Grenfell, including many migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom don’t trust officials and are not coming forward to access support, including accommodation, for fear of immigration issues. Some, having survived the nightmare of the fire and lost everything they owned are now reported to be sleeping on the streets.
Neglect and Incompetence
The building, with 120 flats over 24 floors, is owned by RBK&C (the smallest borough in London), the richest borough in the country with financial reserves of around £300 million – up from £167 million the previous year. The huge stockpile has been created by under-spending on council activities including adult social services. In 2013/14, RBK&C under-spent by £30m; instead of reinvesting the money in public services, top rate council taxpayers were offered a £100 rebate. The council, Labor Councilor Robert Atkinson makes clear is hoarding money “in non-election years only to give it back as a pre-election bribe immediately before a council election.”
KCTMO manages the building; an unaccountable quasi-private company driven as all such groups are by profit. The residents group, Grenfell Action Group (GAG) has been highly critical of KCTMO for years and repeatedly highlighted health and safety risks in the building, including fire. In 2013 a major incident was ‘narrowly avoided’, when residents experienced power surges caused by faulty wiring. This, GAG claims, was covered up by KCTMO and the RBKC Scrutiny Committee “who refused to investigate the legitimate concerns of tenants and leaseholders”. As recently as November 2016 GAG wrote on their blog that the building was a disaster waiting to happen, saying they believed “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the KCTMO, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.” They go on to say, “Unfortunately, the Grenfell Action Group have reached the conclusion that only an incident that results in serious loss of life of KCTMO residents will allow the external scrutiny to occur that will shine a light on the practices that characterize the malign governance of this non-functioning organization.” Nobody listened, no action was taken, and now people have died, others are badly injured, hundreds are homeless and have lost everything.
In March this year Labor councilor Judith Blackman, a member of the KCTMO board, passed on residents’ fears about the installation of gas pipes in stairwells. KCTMO said they would be boxed in with “fire rated protection” but this was not done. She also asked for an “independent safety adjudication of the building, but this was declined,” The Guardian reports. “I was treated like I was a nuisance,” she said. “I raised 19 complaints on behalf of individual residents. Every single time we were told that the board had satisfied itself that the fire safety was fine.”
The responsibility for this disaster flows in a putrid line from KCTMO to Kensington Council onto Westminster and government policies over decades: the commercialization of public services, the cutting of funds to local authorities and emergency services – consistently praised but numbers cut, stations closed, wages frozen – the marginalization of the poorest sections of society and gross neglect are at the root of this tragedy. Manifold causes that are themselves effects of a destructive, divisive approach to governance, in which financial considerat
ions and not human concerns or social justice determines action, policies and attitudes.
Gentrification and Social Cleansing
Grenfell Tower forms part of the Lancaster Road West Estate in Notting Hill Gate. An area that, like many other parts of the capital, has been subjected to a gentrification assault accompanied by systematic social cleansing that goes back decades and has intensified over the last 10–15 years.
In 1980 Margaret Thatcher introduced the ‘right-to-buy’ policy, allowing council tenants the chance to buy their homes. Since then the number of council homes in Britain has been reduced by over two million and the poison of neoliberal market economics has infiltrated all areas of social policy, including housing. Council property – flats, houses, libraries, school playgrounds, youth clubs etc. are regarded as commercial assets to be sold off and profited from. Council homes have been removed from local authority ownership and control and handed over to ‘arms-length’ management companies – like KCTMO – and/or transferred to housing associations. Local authorities, RHG relate, have “become distanced from housing provision, central government funding for social housing has been reduced, and the involvement of powerful private companies has increased.”
The commercialization of social housing has resulted in a lack of accountability, acute shortage of council accommodation, a derisory attitude towards social housing tenants and inflated rents. Throughout London, commercial and residential prices have gone through the roof, whilst cuts to housing benefit by the Conservative Government have meant that those unemployed or on low incomes cannot cover rents.
As areas are redeveloped people living in estates like Grenfell Tower are being pushed further and further out of the city, their concerns disregarded, their voices ignored, their lives regarded as irrelevant. Private companies dominate regeneration projects; firms are given valuable land, in exchange for their work, on which to build expensive flats that only the wealthy can afford. Public spaces are absorbed, becoming private commodities, local residents’ concerns are routinely disregarded, the city becomes a corporate space, city living more and more expensive and the poor are discarded, unwelcome.
Social diversity and colour are gradually being sucked out of the area around Grenfell and a bland homogenized ghetto for the rich created. Pubs and low cost cafes where people would traditionally have met have been closed down to make way for expensive restaurants, ritzy spas, delis that nobody can afford and designer cafes. All of which are aimed firmly at the wealthy residents who own the £X million flats and houses two streets away from the estate and can afford the exorbitant prices.
Some fear that the council could use this disaster as an opportunity to intensify its assault on the poor demolish the tower and build another luxury high-rise. All Grenfell residents must be offered long-term affordable accommodation within their local area or an area of their choosing, to this end and to address the shortage of council property in the borough (there are approximately 3,000 people waiting for social housing in Kensington) the council should buy private property and turn it into council housing. News that 68 flats have now been bought in Kensington by the Corporation of London to house survivors is welcome, however the details of any offers need to be scrutinized and who it applies to, victims consulted and listened to, their wishes honored.
Whilst they may not have lit the match, this disaster is the result of long-term socio-economic policies pursued by successive Governments that discriminate against the poor, of the abdication of responsibility by local government and criminal negligence by KCTMO.
This time of year Mediterranean beaches are the destinations of choice for many European holidaymakers; it’s also the beginning of the busiest time of year for the people smugglers based in Libya and elsewhere along the North African coast. July to October is their peak season — during this time in 2016 around 103,000 refugees were crammed into unsafe boats, often in the dead of night, and cast off into the Mediterranean Sea.
Some don’t survive the crossing. Whilst the number of migrants arriving at Europe’s back door may have decreased — from 205,858 in the first five months of 2016, down to 71,029 for the same period this year, the number of dead has dramatically increased, reaching a staggering 1,650. The mortality rate has increased from 1.2% to 2.3%. In 2015, when Europe’s response was properly coordinated, and when Germany opened its doors to over a million refugees, the death rate was 0.37%.
Europe’s politicians seem indifferent to the growing number of fatalities, and with a reported 2.5 million people (according to a leaked German government document) waiting in countries around the Mediterranean, the death count is set to rise dramatically.
The German report states that one million people are holed up in Libya, which, thanks to western ‘intervention’ is now a lawless state without any credible government where refugees are imprisoned, sold as slaves and trafficked into prostitution. Another million are in Egypt, almost half a million are waiting in Algeria, there are 160,000 or so in Tunisia and hundreds of thousands sit patiently in transit countries such as Jordon where there are estimated to be 720,00.
This is in addition to the 3.3 million refugees in Turkey, who have been denied access to Europe by the European Union’s (EU) ‘One in One out’ Syrian migrant deal struck in 2016. A crude financial arrangement of convenience made with Turkish President Recep Erdogan – a quasi-dictator, in which Turkey accepted the return of irregular migrants arriving in Greece in exchange for six billion euros in financial aid, and the loosening of visa restrictions for Turks. The result: tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece, living in intolerable and insecure conditions.
It was bribery by any other name; the aim was to push the refugee issue out of sight, make them someone else’s problem. This remains the EU’s inadequate, irresponsible approach.
It’s easy to see the statistics and forget that the numbers refer to people, human beings trying to escape some form of danger or violent conflict: Syrian Mother, “there was a rocket launching pad right behind my house. For the children, this was the main reason that we left. They became sick, they would’t let me go… At night they’re asleep, they’d wake up crying. And the same thing happened to me. And my husband was not with us.” Others are fleeing persecution: Sudanese Mother, “There is racism in Sudan, between Muslims and Christians. The soldiers or the policemen come and they take half of what I earned, and they say: ‘that is for us’. But they don’t behave like this with everyone, only with Christians from Eritrea. If you try to say no, they will either kill or jail you.”
Ignoring root causes
Two main routes into Europe are used by refugees: the Aegean route via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans which is now virtually closed off, and the Mediterranean crossing from North Africa which is fraught with dangers.
Having travelled for months across unforgiving terrain, suffered abuse and exploitation en route, refugees arriving in Europe all too often find themselves in an unwelcoming, hostile environment, one in which the debilitating politics of fear, intolerance and division has increasingly influenced decisions on immigration generally and an approach to those seeking refuge.
Europe has sought to reduce the numbers making the journey by various short-term measures, none of which deal with the root causes of migration, and indeed the numbers have dropped — not because less people are leaving their troubled homelands, but because they are going somewhere else, or being held, imprisoned, in transit. The problem is not being resolved because the underlying causes have not been faced, those in need are simply being pushed elsewhere: it is a moral disgrace and a new approach is urgently needed.
To Europe’s utter shame there has been no collective response to what is euphemistically called the ‘refugee crisis’, but is actually a worldwide humanitarian issue partly caused by the aggressive foreign policies of America and her allies.
It’s not just war that people are fleeing; it’s a range of issues including human rights abuses and persecution by brutal regimes – Ethiopia, a key ally of the West for example, and Eritrea where people are fleeing military conscription and poverty. The driving impulses that make people leave home are fear and hope; fear of death and terrorist threats – in Nigeria for example where the largest numbers making it to Europe currently come from, fear of torture and violence, and the hope of a better life somewhere else; a peaceful life in a country where the rule of law is observed and human rights are respected.
Refugees make up a mere 0.4% of the total population of the EU (approximately 510 million), and on a global scale refugees represent only around 8% of all migrants, and roughly 85% of all refugees live in developing countries. There is no question that Europe could and should do more, could offer long-term support to more in need.
The sane suggestion of establishing equitable resettlement quotas for all EU states has been completely shunned by selfish, irresponsible national governments concerned not with meeting the fundamental needs of refugees, but by domestic politics. Britain has been at the forefront of isolationism and indifference, with the Conservative government under David Cameron’s leadership agreeing in 2015 to take a paltry 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.
Manipulative, cowardly European politicians hide behind the outdated, unworkable Dublin Agreement, which states that refugees must be processed in the first country they set foot in and can be returned there if they dare to venture beyond its borders. This completely unfair scheme has placed colossal pressure on Italy and Greece – countries that most refugees simply wish to pass though en route to other European countries. In fact many refugees, according to a study by Warwick University, don’t even want to go to Europe. The report challenges the idea that, ‘destination Europe’, is the dream goal of millions, claiming it is traffickers who often ‘decide’ who goes where: Europe is the most expensive option and therefore the most profitable for the smugglers.
The in-depth report recommends that Europe’s refugee policy, which has focused on deterring people from seeking refuge must be changed to one that is “grounded in an appreciation of — and responsiveness to — the journeys and experiences, as well as the understandings, expectations, concerns and demands of people on the move.” It makes clear that the current approach, which connects aid payments to countries such as Ethiopia, Lebanon, Jordan, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, to preventing migration, should be replaced with proper “interventions that address the diverse drivers of unauthorized movement”.
Deterrents do not work mainly because the situations people are escaping from are a great deal worse than anything that might happen to them when they arrive in a destination country.
The study makes the common-sense suggestion that opening “sufficient safe and legal routes to the EU for people who otherwise ha
ve to resort to precarious journeys,” should be a priority, together with investing in decent “reception facilities and improved access to key services,” such as health care and housing. In addition long-term national and regional resettlement programmes are needed, and more humanitarian aid provided to poor countries close to conflict zones that are coping with the majority of the world’s refugees, including Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Like the other major issues facing humanity — the environmental catastrophe, nuclear disarmament and ending armed conflict, economic injustice and terrorism — the displacement of people (currently numbering 65 million globally), of which refugees form a small part, is a worldwide problem and requires an international humane and coordinated response. Unified policies based on the recognition of collective responsibility and group need, not this fragmented nationalistic approach which is intensifying human suffering and does nothing to deal with the underlying causes.
The existence of nuclear weapons is an ugly symbol of the violent consciousness that plagues humanity. Despite tremendous technological advancements, developments in health care and wonders of creative expression, little of note has changed in humanity’s collective consciousness: Tribalism, idealism and selfish desire persist, negative tendencies that under the pervasive socio-economic systems are exacerbated and encouraged. People and nations are set in competition with one another, separation and mistrust is fed, leading to disharmony, fear and conflict.
Such engineered insecurity is used as justification for nations to maintain a military force, and in the case of the world’s nuclear powers, arm themselves with weapons that, if used, would destroy all life, human and sub-human alike. Despite this, unlike biological and chemical weapons, landmines and cluster munitions, possession of nuclear weapons is not prohibited under international law, although launching them would, according to CND, breach a plethora of conventions and declarations.
Sustainable security is not created through threats and the cultivation of fear, but by building relationships, cooperating and establishing trust. As long as nuclear weapons exist there is a risk of them being used, of an accident – and there have been many close shaves since 1948 – and subsequent annihilation. As the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICANW) rightly states, “Prohibiting and completely eliminating nuclear weapons is the only guarantee against their use.” The rational thing to do is to move towards a nuclear free world and with some urgency; this necessarily entails the nuclear powers disarming, either unilaterally or bilaterally. Someone has to begin the process; by taking the moral initiative others will be under pressure to follow, whereas, as former US Secretary of State George Shultz put it, “proliferation begets proliferation.”
Clearing the world of these monstrous machines would not only be a major step in safeguarding humanity and the planet, it would represent a triumph of humane principles of goodness — cooperation, trust, unity — over hate, suspicion and discord.
There can be little doubt that the vast majority of people and nations in the world would like nuclear weapons to be decommissioned, it is the Governments of some of the most powerful countries that stand as obstacles to common-sense and progress: Corporate-State governments motivated not by a burning desire to help create a peaceful world at ease with itself, but driven by self-interest, pressure from financial investors and the demands of the arms-industry.
Towards the end of 2016, the United Nations general assembly adopted a landmark resolution to begin to “negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” Talks began in February this year, when the first leg of a two stage conference was held in New York; 123 nations voted to outlaw them, while the nine nuclear powers (USA, China, France, Britain, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea), rather predictably stood in opposition to a ban and voted against the proposal, as did nuclear host and alliance countries such as Belgium, Italy, Croatia and Norway, among others: Shame on them all. These obstructive governments do not represent the wishes of their populations, their motives are corrupt, their actions irresponsible.
It’s interesting to note that the countries that possess nuclear weapons seem to believe it’s fine for them to have these tools of destruction, but not for other nations, particularly those that have a different world view. Between them, these nine nations boast around 15,000 nuclear weapons; America and Russia own 93% of the total of which some 1,800 are reportedly kept on ‘high-alert status’, meaning they can be launched within minutes. Just one of these warheads, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades.
Modern nuclear weapons are a great deal smaller and many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which, far from ending the war, was completely unnecessary, and caused death and destruction on a scale hitherto unseen. As Admiral William D. Leahy, the highest-ranking member of the U.S. military at the time wrote in his memoirs, the atomic bomb “was of no material assistance” against Japan, because “the Japanese were already defeated.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower echoed this view, saying, “Japan was at the moment seeking some way to surrender with minimum loss of ‘face’. It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” In dropping the bombs, Leahy said, the U.S. “had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
False, Expensive Logic
The perverse attitude surrounding the possession of nuclear weapons was evident during the UK election campaign when Jeremy Corbyn – a lifelong peace activist and co-founder of the Stop the War Campaign – was repeatedly criticized by the right-wing media (including the BBC), Conservative politicians and manipulated members of the public, for refusing to say whether he would, or would not launch a nuclear attack. He met such irrational hypotheticals with composure and suppressed irritation, saying that he would do all he could to avert conflict in the first place and that every effort should be made to rid the world of these ultimate weapons of mass destruction.
He is right and should be applauded for taking such a sane, common-sense approach, but the collective imagination has been poisoned to such a degree that advocating peace, and engaging in dialogue with one’s enemies is regarded as a sign of weakness, whereas sabre rattling and intransigence are hailed as displays of strength.
In addition to the rick of human and planetary death, the financial costs of producing, maintaining and developing these instruments of terror is staggering and diverts resources from areas of real need – health care, education, dealing with the environmental catastrophe, and eradicating hunger. Globally, ICAN reports that the “annual expenditure on nuclear weapons is estimated at USD 105 Billion – or $12 million an hour. Unsurprisingly America spends the largest amount by far; equivalent in fact to the other eight nuclear-armed nations combined. Between 2010 and 2018 the US will spend at least $179 billion and probably more, while 50 million of its citizens live in grinding poverty.
In 2002 the World Bank forecast that “an annual investment of just US$40–60 billion, or roughly half the amount currently spent on nuclear weapons, would be enough to meet the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals on poverty alleviation by the target date of 2015.” But the powerful and tooled up prefer to invest in an arsenal of total destruction. It makes no sense; it is another example of the insanity that surrounds us.
The irrational political choice of maintaining a nuclear arsenal is justified by duplicitous politicians as a means of establishing of peace; it is they claim, a necessary deterrent against aggression. This is not only dishonest, it is totally f
alse logic: far from making the world a safer place, the very possession of nuclear weapons by any one country allows for and encourages there proliferation, thereby increasing the risk of them being used, or accidentally detonated.
If retaining nuclear weapons is not to deter would be invaders what is the reason for the massive financial investment and the dangers that are inherent in patrolling the Earth with these weapons of total destruction?
National image and bravado, the men with the biggest sticks ruling the roost, sitting around the UN Security Council (a remnant of the past that should be scrapped altogether) is, no doubt, one factor, but the primary reason why the nuclear powers consistently block moves to rid the world of these killing machines lies in the world of business. The companies and financial investors involved in developing, manufacturing and maintaining the weapons as well as trading in related technology, parts or services do not want to see an end to the cash cow of nuclear indulgence.
In its detailed report Don’t Bank on the Bomb ICAN relates that in America, Britain, India and France private companies are given contracts worth billions of USD to develop “new, more useable, and more destabilizing nuclear weapons.” In Russia, China, Pakistan and North Korea this work is done by government agencies, where no doubt corruption is rife. Financial institutions, including high-street banks and insurance companies, are investing in companies involved in manufacturing and maintaining nuclear weapons; such organizations should reveal their investments and be boycotted by the public. I would go further and say that investment in firms connected with making these abominations should be illegal.
If peace is the collective objective, nuclear weapons must be regarded as a major obstacle and those connected in their construction, including investors, seen as collaborators in the creation of an atmosphere of mistrust and conflict, facilitators of fear and insecurity. The contemporary threats to national security come not from potential armed invasion, but from terrorism, cyber-security issues, poverty and the environmental catastrophe – which, unless drastic steps are taken, will result in an unprecedented worldwide refugee crisis. In the light of such threats, nuclear weapons as a so-called deterrent are irrelevant.
Peace will not be established by ever-larger arsenals of nuclear weapons held by more and more nations, it will be built on a firm foundation of trust, and as Pope Francis has said “on the protection of creation, and the participation of all in public life,” as well as “access to education and health, on dialogue and solidarity.” It is by negating the causes of conflict that peace will be allowed to flourish. Such causes are rooted in social injustice, community divisions, prejudice and discrimination, competition and inequality, and must be countered by demonstrations of tolerance, the cultivation of cooperation and expression of compassion.
Anxiety and depression are at unprecedented levels worldwide and the numbers are growing. The World Health Organization (WHO) describe it as an epidemic, and estimate that 615 million people are suffering from one or other of these debilitating diseases. A staggering number, that in all likelihood is an indication only of the depth of the problem; anxiety as documented by the WHO, is primarily a developed nation’s issue. The 800 million living in extreme poverty in India for example are not polled, and are too overwhelmed by the daily demand for survival to even question if they feel depressed or anxious; so too the 500 million living on the margins of life in sub-Saharan Africa, or rural China.
What are the factors that create such a fear-inducing, hostile environment; why do so many people regard the world as unkind, intolerant – life as something to be feared?
The royal radio station, BBC Radio 4, recently ran a programme dedicated to anxiety. It was a ‘phone in’. Listeners were invited to share their stories of anxiety and those of their family members. Many callers spoke of being reduced to tears, when listening to the accounts being related often by parents: children unable to face school, teenagers who cannot leave the house, middle-aged men too anxious to face the world and women unable to step out of their homes and engage with life for fear of ridicule.
A recurring theme was a lack of self-confidence and an inability to live up to expectations – perceived or actual. Expectations constructed at school where competition and conformity rule the classroom, within relationships in which a list of qualities and attitudes are deemed to be required, and at work where the profit imperative rules and those who maximise returns, succeed. Debilitating feelings of inadequacy and inferiority flow from such negative, restrictive ideas of self, causing inhibition of all kinds (mental, emotional and physical) and feeding anxiety. Such effects make it more difficult for people to step into unknown areas, enquire, take risks, try something new, apply for work, dare to fail, raise their hand with an opinion or question, challenge authority – parents, teachers, employers, ‘the state’.
‘Status anxiety’ and ‘image anxiety’ were repeatedly mentioned by the listening experts, unfamiliar terms to the layman; symptoms of our materialistic, image-conscious times – which impacts on all, but afflicts young people particularly. In Britain The Guardian reports that “anxiety disorders affect one in eight children. Research shows that untreated children with anxiety disorders are at higher risk to perform poorly in school, miss out on important social experiences, and engage in substance abuse.” And in the US, anxiety blights the lives of 25% of teenagers (30% of girls), under pressure no doubt to meet an unattainable ideal: look amazing, pass exams, achieve great grades, be sporty, dance well etc., etc.
“It started when I was 15,” Claire says. “When I realised that I wasn’t pretty or intelligent, or as good as I thought I was.” After suffering with the condition for 11 years she was forced to take a month off work – from her ‘dream job’ with Penguin in London. The panic attacks from which she has suffered since she was a teenager had started to dominate her life. “I thought: I need to do something about this, because panic attacks are the worst. You feel like you’re going mad, like you’re going to die; worrying about everything, feeling out of control, wondering what you sound like and what you look like. The voice in your head, it’s constant. You can’t stop it. It’s exhausting.”
Image and status anxiety relate not only to physical appearance, but the conditioned image of who and what we are, or think we are in the context of a society that judges by looks, position, wealth and social background; status – the station attained or bestowed – conditions how we are seen by others, and is regarded as all-important. In such a shallow social environment the accumulation of material riches is given undue emphasis. The meeting of need – food, shelter, health care and education – is replaced with the fulfilment of desire, the cultivation of want. Sufficiency is laughed at, abundance encouraged, waste and the erosion of human dignity ignored. And if, as is the case for the majority, the means to satisfy the pressure to consume compete and dominate, are lacking, self-worth falters, anxiety envelops, depression threatens and suicide lies in wait. And for those able to shell out on all that is decreed desirable, the weight of expectation and comparison amongst peers brings about its own pressures.
Economic inequality and anxiety
One of the major causes of anxiety is wealth and income inequality. Evidence published by Richard G Wilkinson, author of The Impact of Inequality shows that in developed countries, mental illnesses “were three times as common in societies where there were bigger income differences between rich and poor.” Meaning “an American is likely to know three times as many people with depression or anxiety problems as someone in Japan or Germany,” where inequality is not as extreme. Inequality feeds a range of negative social issues, a distrust of other people being one. This, Wilkinson says, is “partly a reflection of the way status anxiety makes us all more worried about how we are valued [or devalued] by others.”
The division between the comfortably off and those struggling to survive on poor wages or low benefits is growing, and the gap between the stupendously rich and the rest is greater than it has ever been; in January 2016, Oxfam UK reported that a mere “62 people [currently] own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population [3.6 billion people whose meager wealth has shrunk by a trillion USD since 2010]…. this number  has fallen dramatically from 388 as recently as 2010 and 80 last year”, an inevitability within a system that is inherently unjust – and by design. This is the Age of Inequality; it is a gross form of social injustice, a moral crime that creates divisions, feeds (understandable) resentment and works against humanity’s essential unity. Peace and harmonious living is impossible whilst extreme poverty and excessive wealth exist. This suits the ruling elite – a privileged coterie made up mainly of the wealthy, corporations and banks – they do not want the masses to be economically secure, emotionally stable or psychologically content; a perpetual state of unease, insecurity and fear is cultivated to facilitate the greatest degree of control, allowing for the manipulation of behavior, the exploitation of millions, if not billions and the erosion of human dignity.
Wealth inequality translates into unequal education health and employment opportunities, differing access to arts and culture – which are becoming increasingly elitist – gated worlds of privilege for the rich and run down ghettos or uniform housing estates for the poor. Social divisions, fear and exploitation are fed, attitudes of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subservience cultivated. In a study headed by Sheri Johnson at the University of California, Berkeley it was found that conditions such as “mania and narcissism are related to our striving for status and dominanc
e, while disorders such as anxiety and depression may involve responses to the experience of subordination.”
Under the current socio-economic model, ambition is promoted and people are encouraged to strive for ‘status and dominance’ – it’s a ‘dog eat dog world’, ‘everyone’s out for themselves, look after number one’ and such like. The epidemic of anxiety and depression is but one consequence of such a selfish, violent environment. If we are to substantially tackle the worldwide mental health crisis we need to replace such worn out destructive attitudes with values that unite people, encourage cooperation, sharing and mutual understanding. When such principles of goodness prevail, a healthy society will evolve with social justice and trust at its heart, diffusing tensions, making the realization of peace a possibility.
In addition to social pressures, a variety of situations and emotional demands trigger anxiety: Uncertainty, and the longing for security – emotional, romantic, economic, health – the reactions of others to what we say and do; anxiety that one may lose a loved one to death, to someone else, through a misunderstanding, a ‘falling out’. Anxiety is fear; it inhibits and conditions action. Freedom from anxiety will naturally follow the overcoming of fear. Fear is complex, of course, subtle and hard to reach, entwined with desire and pleasure. Freedom from fear and its crippling effect is dependent on release from desire and pleasure, this the Buddha made clear: in that treasure trove of truth, the Dhammapada, we find(chapter 16 verse 212) “from pleasure arises sorrow and from pleasure arises fear. If a man is free from pleasure he is free from fear and sorrow.”
And as the great teacher J. Krishnamurti put it “fear and pleasure are the two sides of a coin: you cannot be free of one without being free of the other also. You want to have pleasure all your life and yet be free of fear—that is all you are concerned about. But you do not see that you feel frustrated if tomorrow’s pleasure is denied, you feel unfulfilled, angry, anxious and guilty, and all the psychological miseries arise. So you have to look at fear and pleasure together.”
Psychological fear is a product of time, not chronological time, but time as thought; we are anxious, not about what is actually taking place, but what may happen in the future – whether that be moments, days or years ahead: the coming interview, making the next month’s rent, meeting a new person, etc. Claire, “like Freud defines her anxiety as a threat that is objectless, and located in the future.” Place oneself firmly in the now and mitigate the impact of psychological fear – admittedly easier said than done. Total commitment to the activity of the moment, with no thought about its result, impact, success etc., will help hold the mind steady, arrest its momentum; as the Buddha taught “when you walk, just walk, when you eat, just eat.”
Strategies that reclaim control often prove helpful: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is recommended by various mental health charities, and can be beneficial. Whilst we all have the responsibility to change the way we individually respond to life as it impacts us, it is clear that the present socio-economic atmosphere encourages certain behavior and creates the circumstances in which fear is, if not inevitable, highly probably – certainly to those with a sensitive nature and a predisposition to worry. A new and just system is urgently needed to allow people to live healthy, harmonious lives free from anxiety. One that isn’t rooted in competition does not revolve around money or foster comparisons. A model that instead of promoting selfishness and greed, encourages values arising out of a sense of unity and brotherhood: cooperation tolerance, understanding and fairness; Principles of Goodness that have been buried under a stifling blanket of greed and suspicion.
Our problems, individual, collective and environmental are interconnected. Anxiety, like many other crises facing humanity, is part of the river of consequences flowing from a certain approach to life. We have allowed systems of governance and control to evolve that work against humanity’s inherent unity, are detrimental to our health and the well-being of the planet.
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It was the school holidays and there were lots of teenagers in my local park. I sometimes spot them meandering home, but I rarely see them en masse as it were. Blind to the bluebells, peacocks and glories of nature all around us, they were glued to their palm-sized screens. What were they so engrossed in – some kind of game or trivial video, a map of the park perhaps, unnecessary given the proliferation of signs? Are they texting, e-mailing, or trawling through the Internet, or all of the above? If one did not know what these shiny seductive objects were, one might think that they controlled the person, rather than the other way round. And to a large degree they do.
For parents of teenagers, seeing groups of young people within a smartphone bubble, isolated from and, crucially, with no awareness of the environment around them or other people, is, I expect, commonplace. For me it was shocking. Equally startling and somewhat depressing was the herd-like behaviour. Where was the individuality here; has the uniformity of the high street or shopping centre, the café or restaurant, hotel or housing development infiltrated the minds of human beings, young and not so young? So it would appear.
There is tremendous pressure on everyone to conform to a particular stereotype, to be easily categorised as a certain type of person. The reasons are clear and predictably crude – to allow governments to build a database of who we are and what we think, and to enable advertisers to better target ‘consumers’. We’re no longer persons anymore of course, we’re vessels of consumption into which stuff, mostly stuff we don’t need, can be endlessly poured. The pressure to conform to a constructed ideal is perhaps most acute within youth culture; to look and dress in a particular way, act in a certain manner and want a specific lifestyle. Girls and young women are expected to be slim, beautiful, dressed in the latest high street fashions, which of course change with every season to maintain the consumer frenzy; they should be sexy and sexually active, glossy, as well as achieving high marks at school or University. For men or boys the predominantly macho image presented on TV, in films, video games etc., is perhaps even more prescriptive and inhibiting. The pressure is colossal: it is not accidental, and it is making lots of people, young and not so young, ill.
Independent thinking and creative exploration are key enemies of the forces behind this worldwide attack on true individuality, and so an assault on the creative arts is being waged in many developed countries. Under the spurious banner of ‘austerity’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’ – a set of far right excuses to justify decimating public services – funding to the creative arts; theatres, dance groups, Opera, ballet etc., is being slashed. The scope of work groups can offer is reduced, admission prices, already too high, increased, further restricting access to a predominantly elitist world. Education budgets are being attacked in many countries and art education (together with social science and physical exercise) in schools is the first to be axed or drastically reduced – despite the fact that it improves students’ academic results. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, “students who study art are 4 times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement and 3 times more likely to be awarded for school attendance.” The problem with creative education from the point of view of those who want a drowsy, frightened population that won’t challenge the status quo too loudly or think of alternative ways of running society, is that it stimulates independent thought, allows for individuality and feeds anarchic discontent.
Conformity together with fear is the cornerstone of control, and the current education system in most developed countries drives both into children from beginning to end. Conformity and competition are built into the system; both are crippling and inhibiting, feeding fear, and conditioning the mind, not just for childhood and early adulthood but often for life. As Krishnamurti made clear in Education and the Significance of Life, “conventional education makes independent thinking extremely difficult. Conformity leads to mediocrity. To be different from the group or to resist [ones] environment is not easy and is often risky as long as we worship success…the search for inward or outward security, the desire for comfort – this whole process smothers discontent, puts an end to spontaneity and breeds fear; and fear blocks the intelligent understanding of life. With increasing age, dullness of mind and heart sets in,” and whatever fight there was in the man or woman to begin with is drained away.
Add to the inhibiting education environment in which many young people find themselves, a social media blanket of uniformity, mainstream media – TV, radio, crass gossip magazines, trashy tabloids and dishonest advertising selling a hollow materialistic life-style – and the many headed hydra pushing people to think and act in a certain way, begins to raise its ugly head above the sea of stress, self-harm, and suicide. The inability to express oneself’ naturally and freely for fear of being seen to be ‘different’, inevitably results in stasis of some kind, which may lead to so-called disruptive behaviour, or some form of disease, mental or physiological.
Of course we all need to live within the moral codes agreed by society, but psychological and sociological conformity has nothing to do with respecting the laws and traditions of a country: they are to do with control and fear, and with the rise of the right that is now taking place throughout the world, such suppressive methods are set to become even more intense. True individuality – the manifestation of our innate nature, not the distorted individuality that places selfish desire and ambition above the welfare of others, should be encouraged and fostered, and conformity in all its devious, pernicious forms called out and resisted.