Bulletin

Spiritual Anomie in Contemporary Societies

by Mahadev Shankar, GMT Trustee

“On the following day Dr. Bianchon accompanied the Baroness Adeline into the garden…….After the doctor was seated the Baroness and her family engaged him in a conversation.

“And what is the cause of this deep- seated evil?” asked the Baroness.

“The decay of religion”, said Bianchon, “and the pre-eminence of finance which has simply solidified selfishness. Money is the end of everything. Yet there are some kinds of superiority that rank above it – ability, genius, and service done to the State. But nowadays the law takes wealth as the universal standard of the measure of public capacity. Well then, between making a fortune and the depravity of speculation, there is no check or hindrance. For the religious sense is wholly lacking in France. And this is the opinion of every man like me who studies society at the core.”[1]                             Cousin Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac

The “loss of religious sense” or “spiritual anomie” that afflicted nineteenth century France remains a distinctive characteristic of contemporary societies.  Mahatma Gandhi, the towering spiritual leader for all times attributed the malais to  seven deadly sins: ‘wealth without work”, “pleasure without conscience”, “knowledge without character”, “commerce without morality”, “science without humanity”, “worship without sacrifice” and “politics without principles”.

Moral transgressions come in gradations of peccadilloes – venial, heinous or cardinal. It is when they result in serious injury to person or property that they become crimes. Despite that, the seven sins were deadly as they contain the seeds of destruction both of the sinner and society.

(i) Wealth Without Work

Human profligacy today goes far beyond the dreams of avarice, such as in the case of Bernand Madoff, a sociopath who caused the ruin of millions of people, and showed no remorse for his misdeeds.  Pretending to operate a huge hedge fund business, he offered a return of 12 percent per annum. In reality this was a classic Ponzi scheme, and he paid his “investors” out of the very funds he had taken from them. As long as new “investors” could be found he prospered; but when the money coming in no longer sufficed, the entire edifice collapsed.

Baring’s Bank collapsed in 1995 after suffering a loss of over 800 million Steling pounds as a result of investments in futures contracts entered into by Nick Leeson at its branch in Singapore.

The crash of 2008 and the bankruptcy of Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain [the P.I.G.S.] and the woes of Ireland and Iceland were all examples of this same syndrome. The miscreants were rescued simply because they were “too big to fail.”

(ii) “Pleasure without Conscience”;

It seems that after drugs, internet pornography is the biggest money spinners today. Grisly reports of rape, sexual assaults and incest carried out against females and  minors, is part of our daily diet; and it is very hard to believe that the sheer volume of pornography available today does not exert an insidious influence on sexual offenders.

Conscience enters into this equation when consent is procured by physical or economic duress, and the deal is especially heinous if the victim is under aged. Things become deadly when the voyeur is tempted into imitating what he has seen by sexually assaulting and even killing his defenseless victim. The brutal rape and murder of Canny Ong who was abducted at the Bungsar Shopping Centre or more recently, of a hapless college student in Delhi who was gang raped and murdered cannot be dismissed as isolated cases.

(iii) “Knowledge without Character”;

The character referred to here is the regard one should have for probity in one’s relations with others.  The print and electronic media in today’s world is pervasive and instant in the speed with which information passes from the transmitter to the receiver. “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” is a caveat to all that information given is biased, twisted, or spun to create a distorted result in the mind of the recipient. More often than not there is no adequate opportunity to verify the content. In the result the perception created supplants the truth.

Knowledge without character is deeply felt when a judge abandons his judicial oath and disgorges legal knowledge to deprive a litigant of justice, or when a legal officer subverts his knowledge of the system to facilitate a fraudulent claim.

(iv) “Commerce without Morality”;

Oil is the largest item in world commerce, and presents a classic case of “beggar thy neighbour” regardless of the all round hardships this will bring. Can the deliberate reduction of its price to less than $30 per barrel by the Saudi moguls be regarded as moral when it is being done to drive competitors out of business?

The character of “sports” as an honest competition of physical ability has been overtaken by its commercial possibilities. Illicit bookmakers bribe players to fix results on a global scale. Cricket is no longer a gentleman’s game. Even the prestigious Wimbledon Tennis Matches have not been spared the touch of the tar-brush. Our biggest money-makers today are professional footballers and sportsmen. Their backers organize both their contests and the paraphernalia in the form of sports goods, and a tie-up with huge betting syndicates. One only needs to look at the present predicament of Sepp Blatter and other high officials in the World Football Federation, or the allegations now flying about the massive bribes paid to secure the venue for the Olympics.

(v) “Science without Humanity”;

Benevolent science in the spirit of Jenner, Pasteur, or Edison and the humanists who followed in their footsteps has brought mankind to the pinnacle of well-being that we enjoy today. It is a sad contrast to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 – the most dramatic example of the abuse of science against humanity. Today the stockpile of nuclear weapons vastly more destructive than those used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki has proliferated to the point that civilisation as we know it may even cease to exist.

Fear of being attacked motivates countries to go nuclear. And ironically the only reason why they are not used is the fear of mutual destruction. This was echoed by Winston Churchill who said that our security rests in M.A.D (Mutually Assured Destruction). So, conventional armaments continue to proliferate world-wide to the delight of the arms manufacturers.  

Our main concern is with the merchants of war whose mission it is to manufacture increasingly efficient killing machines. Those who produce these items know they are meant to kill others, yet they continue to produce and sell them to willing buyers. Terrorists armed with automatic weapons and suicide vests are only at the end of this supply chain.

(vi) “Worship without Sacrifice”;

Sacrifice does not mean shedding of blood in His name, for His mercy and compassion are for all beings who owe their creation to HIM alone. Neither does sacrifice merely involve performance of penance, rites and rituals. Rituals may be learned from printed texts available to all and sundry, and permanently embedded in the elephantine memories of those who repeat them on a daily basis. There is no meaningful sacrifice involved in performing rituals or getting intermediaries to mouth long mantras without understanding the meaning or living the life.

As Voltaire said, “when it comes to money, the whole world belongs to the same religion.” Religious pretenders with their eye on the collection box or some higher office in the religious hierarchy exemplify worship without sacrifice. Indeed, religious bureaucracies the world over count their wealth in billions, and we wonder whether the ostensibly religious wars waged today is in reality a struggle for worldly resources and power.

(vii) “Politics Without Principle”

The duty of the State is to selflessly and impartially promote the greatest good for the greatest number and safeguard minority rights. To call itself a democracy, the State has to provide security for all its subjects,  abide by the rule of law and hold itself accountable to the people.

The sin of politicking is most deadly when Governments, whose sole business is to govern for the good of the people, enter the marketplace to do business backed by the people’s money or mortgage the nation’s wealth by providing guarantees to proxies.

Wasn’t it Clinton who said, “It is all about oil, Stupid!” This is in relation to the actual reason why Iraq was invaded. Bush and Blair tried to mislead the world  that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Neither of them has yet been held to account, while the misery inflicted on Iraq endures to this day.

THEN AND NOW

Whilst money was the sole driver in Balzac’s day, it was minted in gold and silver coins, and bank accounts were kept in ledgers subject to the strictest laws of banking secrecy. The fleshly excesses of the super-rich were a closely guarded secret except to a narrow circle of rich merchants and politicians, and outsiders relied on novelists to reveal the goings on. When their sins were eventually revealed, public shame and dishonor was such that those offenders either killed themselves or evacuated themselves from society to live anonymously in the country in poverty and squalor.

The bottom line however was that money was only a medium of exchange representing the true worth of goods and services transacted; and the currency note was backed by gold bullion in the vaults of the Bank which issued those notes. Today, money making machines can generate “wealth” exponentially without a drop of sweat or an ounce of toil; but the mind-set of the financial controllers has remained the same. The fiscal alchemy was formulated in the Chicago Stock Exchange at the nadir of the Great Depression in 1929 when some satanic genius initiated the idea that money could be transmogrified from a medium of exchange for goods and services into a commodity which could be traded across global frontiers. Thus was money also made the subject of “options and futures” and “shorted” at will. This is where the currency collapse of 1997 and the crash of 2008 had their genesis.[2]

With the advent of electronic banking there is no limit to the number of zeroes which can be added to the amount of money in global circulation. Trillions can be transferred from one bank to another in nano-seconds which is a million times faster than one can wink the eyes. When the pundits estimated that 500 individuals own more than the entire world population[3] they were NOT talking of sovereign governments which have now entrenched themselves in the world market as business entities in their own right or as government-linked companies supported by subsidies or guarantees to their creditors. One failure after another is glossed over by “bail-outs” and so the caravan lumbers on until even these “sovereign wealth funds” run out of cash. These entities the world over play a game by very different rules once cynically formalized as “privatize the profits and nationalize the losses.” The assurance is that Kerajaan punya wang tak boleh habis![4] Thus when Ben Bernanke[5] was asked where he was going to get the three trillion dollars [and still running ] for the “quantitative easing” of banks and financial institutions which had gone bankrupt but were  “too big to be allowed to fail,” he replied that he only needed to get it out of the computer in the Federal Reserve.

Before the rot started in the mid-eighties, the palliative that was administered by the policy makers for the grotesque unequal distribution of wealth was that there will be a “trickle-down” effect  from the super rich  to the middle and lower income groups, but after Bernanke and all the other bail-outs that we are witnessing is not a “trickle down” but a “sucking-up” of the scant resources of the general public, with increased rates and taxes to balance public and  corporate deficits. With the advent of the internet and electronic surveillance nothing is secret anymore. The monumental shows of conspicuous consumption and grotesque accumulation of wealth have become too big to hide. Believing that “Cash is King”, its practitioners no longer have a sense of shame or even a pretence at virtue and now literally do it “in your face.”

THE FUTURE OF SPIRITUALITY

The red line running through Gandhi’s seven deadly sins is the unbridled pursuit of money. Human profligacy today goes far beyond the dreams of avarice and its ultimate destination is Gehenna. The computer, the source of unlimited national money, has no conscience; and there is no limit either to the appetites of those who operate it. Gandhi’s seven virtues, corresponding to the seven deadly sins, like unto the seven colours of the rainbow, would have ensured the good life for us all.

Unparalled and universal greed by the powers that be has ensured that the dark side of each deadly sin has now been rolled into one black Satanic cloud which threatens to engulf the world. Surrounded by mercenary sycophants and toadies who only tell their superiors what they think their “bosses” want to hear, leaders lose touch with the feelings of the people whom they try to terrorize into submission with draconian legislation or in extreme cases, like Peron’s Argentina or Pinochet’s Chile with “disappearance” or outright brutal termination. It is in this context that we have to ask what spirituality is and whether it has a chance.

At its core, spirituality means the unwavering belief that our own self-worth and humanity is no less to be cherished than the worth and humanity of every other living being. It calls for compassion, honesty and reverence for the divinity within us and all living beings. The great paradox is that the less a spiritual person has, the happier he becomes; and the more the sinner adds to his tally the unhappier he gets. The individuals who own the wealth of the world and the politicians who exercise power over them constitute about 0.00001 percent of the world’s population, and we must remain hopeful that they will have their spiritual awakenings too. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are but two billionaires who have set up philanthropic foundations, and the number is set to grow.

The prevalence of aberrant social behavior across the seven deadly sins reminds us that we have “far to go and promises to keep.” There are hearts and minds to be won over to the conviction that personal fulfillment and the good life cannot be achieved without an abiding sense of spirituality.

Dato’ Mahadev Shankar is a retired Court of Appeal Judge, and currently a Trustee of the Gandhi Memorial Trust and co-chairman of Olympia College.
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[1] This excerpt from the novel Cousin Bette was condensed for brevity and italicized for emphasis.

[2] Please refer to the works of Gregory J. Millman including The Vandals’ Crown, The Futures and Options Markets and Around the World on a Trillion Dollars a Day.

[3] In 1850 the population of the world was only a few hundred million. Today, although it is in excess of seven billion, increasing at 21 million annually, some 61 individuals own more than half the rest of the world put together. It was also estimated that five hundred individuals owned more than the rest of the world’s citizens put together. For more information refer to the BBC programme One Rule for the Rich. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03fj80b)

[4] A snide statement in conversational Malay meaning‘government has endless money’

[5] Ben Bernanke served two terms (2006-2014) as the Federal Reserve Chairman of the Central Bank of the United States.