Compassion during the crisis

Compassion for all - including bankers and politicians - will help society weather the economic cris

The Buddha was an ordinary human being who lived a remarkable life. An Indian prince, he gave up everything in search of the truth. The truths he discovered speak to us across all cultures and ages. He discovered and taught that human dissatisfaction is caused by three “root poisons” of the mind: greed, ignorance and anger. The Buddha also taught that we can move beyond these poisons and wake up to reality. In fact the word Buddha means “one who is awake”.

We can see how greed and ignorance have contributed to current economic conditions. Recent events in the financial markets and economy have undoubtedly been a “wake up call”. People are suffering from financial losses and from uncertainty and fear. A new reality is dawning and it has been a shock. The Regan-Thatcher years are dead due to the widespread acceptance that unchecked markets do not best serve us.

During those years people were encouraged towards selfish greed. Bankers became greedy for profits and became more creative about making money from nothing - inventing new financial schemes, mortgage products and ways of “offsetting” risk. The result of these developments? A full blown asset price bubble followed by the inevitable bust: collapsing asset prices, mortgage foreclosure, unemployment and business bankruptcy. It is clear no risks were offset, merely swept under the carpet until the world economy tripped over it.

Wisdom cuts through ignorance. The last three hundred years or so has seen mankind develop a wealth of knowledge and skills to manipulate our environment. Knowledge and skills are not wisdom though - indeed they can be applied in unwise ways. From today's economic situation it is clear that financial skills and knowledge have been applied in unwise ways.

It is not only a short term lack of wisdom that troubles us. This world has finite resources and for a long time lone voices have been pointing out the impossibility of permanent compound economic growth. The ecology movement has grown up during the last forty five years or so and has cohered to become politically influential. Unfortunately, despite the efforts of international institutions, the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer - and the environment continues to degrade.

These issues need to be addressed and slowly the economic paradigm is shifting. We need now to develop the wisdom to use our knowledge and skills properly. We must learn to live in a peaceful and sustainable way. This will demand the development of a new economics based on “simplicity, need and sufficiency” and not on “complexity, greed and power”. It will involve massive social, economic and financial change. It will take time.

For these reasons we need to develop compassion not just for the starving, but for the super-rich, bankers and politicians too, because if we are to solve the underlying ecological and economic issues – which can not be separated - these people will be experiencing more change than any of us.

Matthew Jee is a former stockbroker, merchant banker and financial publisher. In 1997 he left the world of finance and worked on a Kibbutz in Israel. Two years later he became a Buddhist under his Tibetan Master, The Venerable Khandro Rinpoche. Matthew now writes under the pseudonym “The Irreverent Buddhist” and is the owner of a non-sectarian internet discussion forum for meditators.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue