A Cult Under Siege

It’s really a religion. A religion with more followers than for any other. It’s the world’s most destructive, insidious cult. It’s priests are busy burning us all in their furies to make us conform. It’s a religion to which the most surprising people belong. Just about all the world’s most empowered leaders, and then some. It’s a belief system that’s totally pervasive in universities, government departments, in our mega corporations and, generally without reflection, by people just like you and me.

It’s the cult of the free market. The gospel of neo-classical economics, the sacred creed of free markets left to do their thing. This is the very bedrock of those mountain ranges of government policy that direct and shape the way our world works; that defines how our leaders plan and how they react to the challenges that define and challenge the progress to which most of us aspire.

Just think about how entrenched this belief system has become. Look to any aspect of the mechanics of business, government or even sport and you will find this cult firmly entrenched. The fate of football stars, orchestras, newspapers, new technology TV’s and of our rainforests are all determined, more or less, through the battlefields of the market place. When performance fails to satiate the appetites of our market place gods, jobs are lost and systems collapse.

The market place is held to be the mechanism through which to resolve the tensions of demand and supply, to resolve the uses to which the world’s resources might be conferred. The market place is the place where all the world’s scarcities are resolved. Or at least resolved to the degree that lends the perception of credibility to the choices made, the losses we reconcile ourselves to bear, and the damages that our lifestyles might inflict. The market place is the lynch pin of economic-social (and, without recourse to a more sensible model, environmental) order. Just look what happens when the carpet of the market is removed: Zimbabwe, the genocide of Pol Pot and Stalin’s purges. We see these scary things and we renew our vows to the perceived perfections of the market place once more.

We know it’s a wild beast. We know the kicks it can inflict. It takes us in, it kicks us out. It bestows bounties beyond imagination for some, and the pleasures of rummaging for food in rubbish bins for others. It has leveled most of the world’s rainforests. It has given us global warming. It’s given us the iPod and the hegemony of the car. Money is the clothing of success; it’s lack thereof is nakedness; to be out in the cold. To be nothing. To no longer be a ‘factor of production’ in the economic machinery of the state.

Our faith in this cult is a heavy trip up-the-steps-to-the-headchopping high priest indeed. The blood sacrifices are a torrent through which we wade. Waterfalls of blood wash down the sacrificial steps of this high economic temple.

‘Yes, but…’ says the high priest. ‘We know the market place is less than perfect. That’s why we have politicians and leaders’. Their job is to – ‘keep hold of the reins and keep the saddle of the state out of the dust’. Economics is not, they’d claim, as clinically mechanistic as my rhetoric would suggest. Actually, the main job of economists, they’d say, is to work around all the damages that our wild free market rides incur; they make informed choices, give prescriptions for damage control. Their job is to hand out bandaids to the crowd fleeing the path of their rampaging market bull. Better the bull you know than the anarchy you don’t. Did we mention Zimbabwe?

This is my own personal tipping point out of the economics game. I was an economics professor before my market value declined to zero…(‘rightly so’, my critics would claim: ‘see the market works!’ they’d exclaim…). I refuse to play the game of apologetics. I prefer to trip a reset button on my 25 years of economics teaching and research to enable the space for a more lateral view. I am definitely not alone. I’ve known thousands of economics thinkers who take a more agnostic view; but by and large, they sit up the back and are removed from the influence their skepticism might otherwise inspire.

This is not the place for even more lengthy diatribes. Suffice it to say that my prescription is for a different role for those who seek to rein-in the wild horses of the market place.

Step 1 is humility. No one, no group of ones, no group of hundreds and certainly no enclave of priestly savants can ever, ever, know all there is to know about how markets work and why. It’s complexity theory at work. Market economics, despite the disciplinary fantasies of economists, is a nexus blending place of sociology, psychology, botany, … engineering, physics, Information Technology, history, … flag waving and bell ringing… all.

Knowing this, and few would deny, why, then do we continue to fantasise that markets work like machines? The most stupid manifestation of this particular delusion is the proposal to manage global warming with the nonsense of carbon credit trading schemes; to fight a fire with the fire that caused the fire that now enflames us all. Carbon trading is the response one would expect from a high priest seeking only to keep his job; to retain control over a problem that his profession, fundamentally, caused.

It’s time for leadership to be reborn. We need brains in charge. Not poll-driven puppets dancing on strings lynched to the thumbs of their high priest economics advisors. We need a purge of the bureaucracy. We need to purge all those with fixed minds. We need to purge all those who subscribe to the notions of command and control; to the management of our economies as a machine. We need to open the doors to the vastness of ordered open discourse. Deliberative democracy 2.0. We have the tools. We have the opportunities like never before to facilitate open-communicative planning and decision making; for community building around the needs and leadership of communities that are sensible as communities to the communities involved. Grass roots-up community building through open collaborative engagement. Powered by Web 2.0+

Step 2 is to engage collective vision. Communities engage to develop vision. Vision determines the limits to the machinery of the market place. Not the priestly pronouncements from economics 101.

I forsee a world where value is redefined. I forsee a world where grass-roots up community building will admit the premiums of the locally hand-made; where local is first and globalisation recedes to ever emergent, always reconfiguring strategic partnerships to value add what we do locally; and not the other way around! My vision admits the reinterpretation of a sustainable future, where sustainability becomes a composite construct of regionally comprehensible economic-community-environmental balance, contexted by the emergent pathways chosen by neighbors and neighbors of neighbors separated out to the full six degrees. The machinery that matters is collective dialogue, not a cult of unreflexive economic theory.

Every day, in every way, I see policy makers around the world striving and seeking to implement the vision I hold; to the degree that they are able before their insecurities of departure from the market-first cult re-seizes their minds. Cleverness keeps on creeping in. Sneaking in when it should arrive with a shout instead. Which is why I consider our current Global Financial Crisis to be such a wonderful opportunity as it leaves the legions of market-cultists stranded and floundering as the hurricane of their ill-conceived beliefs has left them high, dry and exposed. These are the times for new mental models to take shape and shape the world to come.

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