Mind-forged manacles

The activist Daniel Pinchbeck reflects on the mind-forged manacles that stop humanity from addressing the planetary mega-crisis and achieving metamorphosis. We must take a leaf from the spiritual holistic approach.

Back in the Sixties, the visionary scientist Buckminster Fuller foresaw only two outcomes for humanity: utopia or oblivion. Either we continue our present social and political arrangements until we destroy ourselves, or we rapidly transition to a new social system, allocate resources rationally, and elevate the human community, as a whole, to an abundant state of being. I remain convinced that Fuller was right.

Our civilisation is a planetary suicide machine, rapidly annihilating the biosphere that sustains us. We are spewing more than a million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every hour. Our oceans have become 30 per cent more acidic in the past 40 years, as they absorb excess carbon. Climate change is proving to be an erratic and complex process, but the great danger remains that we will soon hit a tipping point where we unleash rapid, unstoppable warming.

We face other ecological problems that are equally severe – a quarter of mammalian species, perhaps all species, will disappear within the next 30 years. We can’t predict when our industrial monoculture’s radical assault on the biosphere will induce feedback loops that cause the ecosystem to shut down, like a planetary heart attack, but the prospect is neither distant nor implausible.

Our post-industrial infrastructure remains fragile, toxic and perilous, while instruments of mass destruction proliferate. Climate change has caused increasingly unpredictable weather, with “once in a century” super-storms, tsunamis, earthquakes and floods now happening every year. Will nuclear power plants in America or the UK do better than Fukushima in the wake of an earthquake and tsunami? When resources become scarce, will aggrieved nations trigger nuclear contact? Will enraged individuals turn to bioterrorism? As sea levels rise, what will become of the hundreds of millions of environmental refugees?

While our current system enhanced the quality of life for vast populations, increasing lifespans and improving access to goods, services and communication technologies, it also created incredible, horrific inequities between the haves and have-nots. Since the Second World War, the US and its European allies have mastered the use of debt as a weapon of domination and control.

The planetary mega-crisis cannot be solved in piecemeal fashion – the symptoms are aspects of a universal disorder, a systemic disease. The only conceivable response is the rapid construction and universal dissemination of a comprehensive alternative, a new “operating system” for human society. Revolution is an antiquated term that refers to older political and social arrangements. What we require now is more like a metamorphosis, where we consciously transform our existing infrastructure from within and without, utilising archaic techniques and postmodern technologies to bring about a polar reversal of values and behaviour.

Our social and cultural evolution appears to be an extension of natural or biological evolution, and follows the same principles. In nature, evolution leads from primitive competition to sophisticated symbiosis, coordinated co-operation. As an example, our bodies consist of hordes of micro-organisms that once fought for resources until they learned to work together.

We are in the process of realising that humanity, as a whole, is a planetary superorganism, a sentient swarm constantly altering and transforming the ecology that sustains us. Confronting the mega-crisis that threatens all life on earth, we will either die off or we will transition from domination and aggression to co-operation and sharing.

It has been noted that one cannot solve problems at the level of consciousness that created them – problems “dissolve” when we attain a more encompassing awareness. In our present dangerous circumstances, we can no longer maintain an oppositional world-view. We must, instead, adapt the mystical perspective that recognises the universe and the self as one indivisible whole.

The process of transformation has many dimensions, for the individual and the collective. Today, many people are discovering their beliefs and behaviour patterns to be rooted in subconscious programmes, imprints from early childhood. We must break free of these programmes that are running us – what the poet William Blake called “mindforged manacles”. As we awaken to the reality of our precious, perilous situation, we can take responsibility for changing it.

The flip-side of the negative potential for planetary apocalypse is the prospect that we can reconstruct human society rapidly, using the communications infrastructure and social tools that evolved in the past few decades. Sustainable technologies for permaculture, bioremediation, holistic health, rainwater harvesting, alternative energies, and so on can be mass-distributed. We can use mass media and social media to disseminate a new set of values and principles that supports a holistic and sustainable way of life. Facing rising seas, we can construct eco-cities that act as scaffoldings for living systems, supporting local communities, with food and energy produced on site. Through a co-ordinated movement of civil society, we can dismantle the military-industrial complex and institute a peaceful world.

If this seems impossible to conceive, we must take a moment to recall how many seemingly impossible things have come into being. The human imagination remains an unlimited resource. Perhaps we subconsciously created this planetary mega-crisis to force ourselves to unleash, as an immune system response, the full power of our creative ingenuity, to reach the next level of species consciousness.

The choice is ours, as the future remains to be written.

Daniel Pinchbeck is an author. Follow his work at: danielpinchbeck.net

Would the UK have coped better in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster? Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.