Mirror reflections: fundamentalism and the market economy

Allenna Leonard
28 May 2003

Since the destruction of the World Trade Center, both terrorism (with its links to Islamic fundamentalism) and intensified security (with its encroachment on civil liberties) have been part of our lives. As a practising cybernetician, I have asked myself what perception of circumstances could have led to the terrorists’ acts of hopelessness and defiance? In short, what were they reacting against?

The market’s overweening power

The extent to which the rules of the market economy trump any and all other legitimate concerns has struck me for some time. It seems the market economy is as rigid in its demands as any ayatollah.

As a ‘cradle capitalist’ living under a liberal government, I find this irritating and distasteful. So, it is predictable that some denied access both to the comforts of a consumer economy and to the rights of modern citizenship find these demands intolerable. If ruling elites flaunt their wealth while the majority of people live in poverty, discontent is inevitable.

As my partner, the late pioneer cybernetician Stafford Beer was fond of saying, “The purpose of a system is what it does”. The current system produces luxury at the top, anxious comfort in the middle, and misery at the bottom.

One of the activities Stafford and I enjoyed was touring the cathedrals in Britain. A favourite was Durham Cathedral, with its 900 years of history. What impressed me most was the sheer reach of the Church. The Prince Bishops of Durham had their own army, minted their own coin, directed trade and industry, provided education, sponsored the arts and determined social relations as well as pronouncing on the theological, moral and ethical questions of the day. The Church even had its own legal system, and its wrongdoers were not subject to the king’s law.

Today, it would be hard to refute that such influence is held by the market. It is so much a part of our environment that we don’t notice how inescapable it has become. Economic considerations routinely conflict with the preservation of the natural environment, human rights and social justice, and they usually prevail.

Not even the rights of small countries to support a viable agricultural and industrial sector, or of large countries to protect their populations from being made guinea pigs of genetically modified foods, are safe. International trade agreements such as Gatt and Nafta protect commercial interests, but there is no comparable international protection for human beings or for nature.

Yes, we will protect the environment if it isn’t too costly: even better if we can develop new industries that will earn higher profits than the polluting ones. Yes, human rights are important, but not important enough to turn away from cheap oil, cheap labour and rich markets. Yes, it would be nice if the small banana producing countries in the Caribbean could earn a living, but we mustn’t allow exceptions to trade agreements that favour large plantations, even if that tilts farmers toward growing illegal drugs to survive.

And yes, it would be nice if ordinary people in countries run by despots had legitimate means to address their grievances and achieve their dreams. But, unless these despots openly defy the United States, it’s not our job to intervene, even if that leaves an open field for those who use religion and its promise of rewards in the afterlife to motivate people to violent conflict and terrorism.

The west spurns its friends

The west has a poor record of supporting informed and progressive leaders in developing countries. For example, Mohammed Harbi, exiled from Algeria to France, has received death threats from the Algerian secret police, the radical Islamists and some ex-pied noir settlers who have not forgiven him for his role in Algeria’s National Liberation Front.

Ezatollah Sahabi of Iran became a dissident after the CIA replaced Iran’s president, Mohammad Mossadeq, with the monarchy. He was imprisoned by the Shah and then again by the Islamic Republic after he criticised them for their repressive practices. With power held by dictators, beholden or not to the west, and no space for democratic dissent, radical religious elements are likely to become the only opposition.

In Iraq, with the secular despotism of Saddam Hussein defeated, only fundamentalist religious forces are politically well-organised. It is not certain that the United States will be willing or able to stay until secular political groups can acquire enough legitimacy to govern. President Bush’s unwillingness to involve the UN in a meaningful way and his distribution of lucrative contracts to political supporters at home won’t help this process.

Two forms of religion

The system we have is perfectly designed to get the results we’re getting. Although no one could deny the improvements in human life and standard of living achieved through market economies, or religion for that matter, neither has the requisite variety to address the full range of human concerns.

To some extent, the great institutions of the market economy have realised this. A recent World Bank report sounds the alarm about a number of acute problems; for example, while goods are moving more and more freely, many people are trapped behind political boundaries in desperate circumstances.

There are a number of similarities between the demands of fundamentalist religions and those of the market economy. Fundamentalist versions of religion and economics are known for brooking no deviation from their central concepts and for taking many of their own precepts literally even in the presence of disconfirming evidence.

As participants in the market economy, we are called to attend to advertisements. On TV, commercials may run four or five times an hour for four minute intervals. How often can one open a newspaper or a magazine, without going through the ads? Where can one walk down a main street without seeing signs and billboards?

There are ads on subways and before feature films. Some ladies rooms present you with noisy commercial messages on a video screen if you want to dry your hands. Similar screens are being piloted in the back of New York taxis – one of the few commercial spaces left where people enjoyed some privacy. And the internet! Is that so different from ‘in your face’ religion with its frequent demands for public observance?

One of the distinctions between fundamentalist and modern religions is the way they address children. While modern religions teach children understandable lessons that relate to their own experiences, fundamentalist versions ask children to take on concepts that are far beyond their comprehension.

In television advertising, they actually speak about the ‘two to eleven year old market’. At the younger end of this ‘market’, they don’t even know what a commercial transaction means. Older children and teenagers do, but they are easily manipulated by advertising into making choices that are not in their own best interests. Commercials are dominated by snack foods that lay the groundwork for a lifetime of poor nutrition and expensive ‘branded’ toys and clothing.

Controlling minds, governing spaces

Many of us are put off by religions that regard people as of little value except as servants of their god. In the market economy, while we think we are customers because we have bought a ticket or subscribed to a magazine, we are also a ‘product’ and our value is based on our age, gender or income. This leads to bizarre outcomes such as people from the wrong postal code having their magazine subscriptions cancelled and discontinuing popular radio and television shows because their audiences were too old for the sponsors.

Fundamentalist religions have strict rules about what you can and can’t talk about. In the mall where I used to live, the Salvation Army wanted to continue their practice of soliciting contributions for the needy at Christmas. Many malls forbid this but, in our progressive community, it was allowed – on condition that they use cardboard bells saying ‘ding’ and ‘dong’. Real bells might distract shoppers.

Restrictions on free speech in private commercial space are much tighter than most governments would even think of imposing. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer public spaces where public speech is feasible. This was a problem when I was active in local politics in the United States. We couldn’t afford TV or much in the way of newspaper ads and weren’t allowed in the shopping centres so we held up signs and passed out leaflets at traffic lights like squeegee kids. So much for public speech.

Religions often have an ‘elect’ with special privileges; so does commerce. Some well-known politicians raised ‘cash for questions’ or sold their attention to constituents who bought expensive tickets to receptions and, coincidentally, came to favour policies advanced by their contributors. Probably the worst example was when the second Bush administration invited the energy companies, including Enron, to formulate policy for the Department of Energy – and weren’t even ashamed to admit it.

This turns talking to one’s elected officials into a commodity. Fundamentalist religions and the market economy alike place little value on those outside their own circles. No money in poor countries to buy the branded drugs they need or develop them themselves (this after their herbal remedies are patented and they’ve been guinea pigs in the tests) – too bad. It is all ‘collateral damage’, but not wrong because there was no ‘intention’ that people die. Are they the market economy’s ‘infidels’?

Living in the “risk society”

Ulrich Beck proposes we think of ourselves as a “risk society”. Such a society is as much about the distribution of “bads” (or risks) as about the distribution of goods. Often, vital information does not get through as the hierarchy of wealth and power frequently precludes technical people and workers on the ground from having genuine communication with executive and political decision-makers. The people at the top can’t possibly have the necessary experience to understand these concerns.

As Stafford Beer used to say, the president of the organisation has the same size brain as the janitor. How can good decisions be made at the top without effective communication channels at lower levels? When catastrophes occur, it’s difficult to hold anyone accountable.

It has been widely accepted that the market is inadequate at calculating and accepting the full costs of its actions. Indeed, the practice has been to exaggerate the benefits while minimising the costs and structural adjustments. This phenomenon is most easily measured in the environmental field but it has equally serious impacts on social justice and human rights. The rules of the market drive behaviour in this direction although individual business people might prefer other alternatives.

With so many real demands for fairness, justice and a decent life falling on the deaf ears of the market economy, what else would we expect but a fundamentalist alternative with an equally implacable set of constructs based on intangible rather than tangible goals? This is no less true because some leaders in both camps are in it for personal power and wealth.

If we want to strengthen the hand of Islamic (and other) moderates, then they have to be able to achieve, and be seen to achieve, some real gains. The market economy extols flexibility when it comes to expecting workers to be mobile and show up if and when needed, whether or not companies incur any continuing obligation to them, move factories to cheap labour zones, or invest pension funds in corporate adventures.

Would it be impossible to pay living wages, or to make respect for human rights a condition of doing business? No amount of security can eliminate the micro-revolts of terrorism as long as there are people who are willing to die to inflict damage. The only way is to eliminate the sources of hopelessness and rage that fuel such profound discontent.

Reconfiguring Spaceship Earth

Polarities are dangerous if one cannot recognise that each pole can have more than one opposite. The opposite of one fundamentalism could be another, or it could be pluralism. The opposite of modernism doesn’t have to be reactionism or selective nostalgia for past values: it could be a rethinking of what it means to be passengers on Spaceship Earth.

The field of cybernetics and systems has much to contribute to the necessary public debate. It embraces complexity and the parallel perspectives of observers of a probabilistic world. It recognises chains of feedback loops that may have an effect far from, and disproportionate to, their origins. It takes as given a number of process laws, such as the ‘law of requisite variety’ that states that a regulator of a system has to have as much variety at its disposal as the system it is trying to regulate. Does any public body presently have the variety to regulate, say, the biogenetics industry?

A cornucopia of concepts, models and tools – many of them interdisciplinary – are on offer.

Critical systems theory, hermeneutics and experimental epistemologies look at power relations, assumptions and frames of reference.

Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory, systemic anthropology and family systems deal with individuals and small groups.

Beer’s Viable System Model and Russell Ackoff’s Interactive Planning are among the tools that address organisational structure; designing in as much autonomy and democracy as the situation allows.

Forrester’s System Dynamics and other simulation packages, applications of Hubert Maturana’s basic research on biology, Prigogine’s work on non-linear systems, help understand the interaction of traffic patterns as well as chemicals. All draw upon understanding dynamic behaviours and how they interact.

The systems field has used its own concepts to pioneer approaches designed to make debate more authentic and inclusive – and used some of their own professional conferences to try them out. (See the New Economics Foundation’s Participation Works: 21 techniques of community participation for the 21st century, 1998).

Beer’s Team Syntegrity process is a good example: it draws upon geometry, neurophysiology, communication theory and psychology in an intense planning protocol that shares maximum information in a non-hierarchical format.

It would be nice, but not necessary, for a political party to take on this body of work. All of us who have a stake in this complicated and confusing world have a duty to make public processes work. If we can’t do this, we will find ourselves in a dystopia built by the short-sighted and whoever wins – at whatever cost – the battle to impose a simplistic solution.

The first step? Start talking. Ignore soundbites and spin doctors. Start today using today’s tools to address today’s problems.

Allenna Leonard is president of the American Society for Cybernetics. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of the Society.

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