Economic worries and divine intervention

Jonathan Dawson discusses the financial problems at Findhorn and the village's unique way of dealing

So, last week, I left the Findhorn Foundation dangling over the edge of a cliff (in the form of an £800,000 debt) and torn between divine guidance and economic discipline as escape strategies, with its bankers getting twitchy. In fact – I am afraid it is always thus with cliff-hanging episode-enders – the camera angle made the situation look more perilous than it actually was.

Though by 2000 the Foundation had run five straight years of deficits, a good chunk of this debt was incurred in one single necessary expenditure – the rewiring of its one of its two campuses, Cluny Hill College in the neighbouring town of Forres. Moreover, the Foundation had several million pounds worth of property assets and was never in any serious danger of going under.

Nonetheless, the very real liquidity crisis and the string of operating losses did raise important issues that went right to the heart of the community’s self-definition.

As explained in last week’s blog, guidance has always been core to the community’s decision-making processes. This has led us on many merry adventures that we would have been most unlikely to have embarked upon had we been governed by left-brain rationality and economic logic alone.

For some, this colourful and cavalier history appears to seen as proof that we are, in fact, exempt from the humdrum rules of the market. A number of senior members of the community, for example, left in protest when in the mid-70s the Foundation bought the hotel that now houses Cluny Hill College because it took out a bank loan to do so.

Such a course, so the argument went, was proof of a lack of faith in the community’s ability to manifest the cash necessary for the purchase. Since the decision to buy had been the result of guidance, so the logic went, we should have trusted that the cash would come in.

Similarly, by the late 90s, there was a voice within the community that the path out of our financial difficulties was by way of guidance and manifestation rather than self-imposed economic discipline. The former was presented as representing ‘abundance’ as opposed to ‘fear-driven’ thinking.

The then head of the Foundation’s management team, Mari Hollander, sees the period as an important turning point in the development of the community. Accounting systems and practices were improved, with each of the Foundation’s departments becoming more like cost-centres, with awareness for balancing costs and income. The Foundation received a few generous donations and sold several substantial property assets to members and supporters of the community.

Meanwhile, Foundation members rallied to the cause. A good number tithed and, where they could, deferred payment of their income to ease the squeeze.

In parallel, detailed decision-making, which had previously been in the hands of all the Foundation’s co-workers, was mandated to a management team – where it remains to this day. This team consults with a council of co-workers that sets strategic priorities on all key issues.

A five-year plan to get back into the black was designed. The goal was achieved in two years and the Foundation has made operating profits for each of the last five years.

Mari took a no-nonsense approach to the need for greater efficiency and financial savvy: “If we are to manifest our needs, we need to know what they are. If we are subsidising departments, we need to know.”

This is a down to earth wisdom that allows for the possibility that the divine may be found in the balance sheets as well as in the meditation sanctuary. That economic rigour and guidance allied with manifestation may be bed-fellows rather than in competition.

The trick, it seems to me, is to be aware of the financial bottom line but not necessarily to be driven by it. To leave space for the miraculous to happen, and to see economic intelligence not with suspicion but as a potential tool in facilitating the process. Do we have the balance right? Who knows? This is an ongoing and lively debate within an ever-evolving community.

An old traditional story has it that as the storm waters rose ever higher, a house-owner climbed up onto the roof of his house to escape the flood. Three times, rowing boats passed offering to take him to safety. Each time he refused to jump on board, declaring his faith in the Lord who he knew would come to save him. He drowned and went to Heaven where he asked God why He had let him down.

“I tried three times!”, God replies.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.