Empathy is the invisible force that holds society together. Roman Krznaric

Band-Aid Politics

The egocentric Western world view has boosted poverty and inequality. Instead of reshaping the system, the centers of power still support the “colonization of the mind”.

Our world today is a reflection of a world view and consciousness – including values, beliefs, habits, routines, rules and organizations – shaped particularly by the ‘Western world’. The leaders and the educated of the so-called developing countries have absorbed this worldview and it is reflected in the economic, political and social structures. As a result, despite the spread of formal democracy and mass education, inequality continues to grow – including in India and China.

The wealth and power of the world has been privatized and consolidated within a few hands. Corporations like Wal-Mart and Royal Dutch Shell manage revenues greater than the GDP of 171 countries, while 3.5 billion people – half the world’s population – live on less than $2.50 a day, less than the cost of a cup of coffee.

“The poor man is the head of the burial ground”

The world has adopted an economic model of market capitalism that ignores inequality and environmental destruction. Power inequalities exist even within households. The WHO estimates that globally, 30% of all women have been assaulted by an intimate partner and as much as 35% if outsiders are included. We are in this world and in this mess together.

The Western world view is centered on the individual: I, me, and the supremacy of the individual by maximizing exploitation of others and the environment. This focus on the individual is reflected in economic theory, political theory, educational theory and psychological theory. It is drummed into the collective consciousness through laws, images, metaphors, folklore, stories and songs in popular culture. For a few centuries, the driving force has been an economic vision based on self-interest.

There are cracks in this world view, but for the centers of power the conversation is about band aids rather than questioning and reinventing systems based on a new world view, on a new consciousness, and a new morality that is not premised on the individual, on superiority and exploitation.

In contrast to the centers of power, poor people have a more sophisticated understanding of reality as I have documented in several books. They are aware that they have not caused poverty. They understand power inequalities, systemic violence, and their systematic exclusion from lives of dignity. A discussion group of poor men and women in Kagera, Tanzania pointed out to a community official: “you see this young man, this executive officer. He is tiny. If I push him, he will fall. He cannot even carry a jerry can of water. But touch him and see what he will do. They have powers hidden in the rules they design. Their power is hidden in papers.” Another group said, “when you have no power, stop dreaming; you will have no freedom, no equality and democracy will remain a story to you.”

Poor men in Andhra Pradesh, India summarized power differences as “the rich man in the village is the head of the village; the poor man is the head of the burial ground.” Women described their limited life choices, as “there is a ditch in front of us and a well behind us”. Poor people differentiated between classical sociological definitions of power over, power to, and power with others. They added a fourth one: power within. Yet poor people remain largely optimistic, they keep trying, and want to remain rooted in communities. Migration is their last resort.

If poor people understand and ‘see’ systemic power differences that limit their life chances, why can’t we? We, the educated, were effectively colonized long after the institutions of colonization disappeared. The values of western culture remain deeply embedded in our current institutions – in the East and the West. The biggest impoverishment by the “West” was the colonization of the mind.

The British in India, for example, did not create the state to benefit Indians. The state was created to extract resources efficiently in order to ship them back to the UK, to collect oppressive land taxes, and to keep control over the ignorant and inferior masses. At independence these same state structures were handed over to natives, who drafted their own constitutions, but failed to dismantle the underlying structure and culture of superiority, control, and violence. The systems of control continue to be propped up by inherited colonial educational systems that cut off local imagination. Over the years the state has been effectively privatized for individual benefit, and corruption is the norm.

A “we” world view

What we now need is a moral vision that guides us to reinvent and re-imagine systems of power relating to the state, society, politics and business. These new systems must be based on a world view of “we” and respect, economy and trade based on sharing and enough, a society based on small interconnected communities imbued with equality and compassion, states based on respect for all people, and educational systems that let imaginations soar.

We as planet earth are collectively challenged to re-imagine a different future, use a new vocabulary, metaphors, images and stories. This will not emerge from our current political or business leaders, but from ordinary citizens, who engage in a new and deep conversation about change, organize themselves and let their voices be heard. And that is not enough. We then need to act inspired by our collective vision.

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