Neoliberalism as the Religion of the Economic Elite

Dr. Ambedkar submitting the first draft of the Indian constitution to Dr. Rajendra Prasad in February 1948

Examining parallel examples of segregation and inequality, Manjusiha explores the possibility of a spiritual revolution

One of the first things we had to do, when we organised our Tower Hamlets mayoral debate last year at the LBC, was decide who to invite. It might seem straightforward: just invite the candidates and be done. But there were ten of them (all men). This was the first time we had organized such an event and we wanted to make it manageable. There were also concerns about what we would be bringing into our shrine room. In a Panorama programme aired just before the election, BBC reporter John Ware said that with ‘a long history of bare-knuckle politics,’ Tower Hamlets may well be the most political borough in Britain. He added: ‘Those who have done twelve rounds here tell me it’s rarely been more brutal than it is today.’

We decided, in the end, to invite just the candidates from the main parties. The questions then became, ‘Who are the main parties?’, and, ‘Is UKIP one of them?’ David Cameron once described the party as ‘mostly a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists’. Yet the answer to the second question seems obvious in retrospect, given how far UKIP has come. Now, following success in the European elections and with representation in Parliament, UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s claim that his party could find itself holding the balance of power in May is quite plausible.

The rise of UKIP, together with the fallout from the Scottish referendum, means that independence will be a major theme in the coming general election. Another big theme, made most visible by the Occupy movement and receiving ever more academic and political scrutiny, is inequality. An Oxfam report from two years ago found that, by January 2013, the richest eighty-five people in the world had as much wealth ($1.7 trillion) as the poorest half of the world’s population (3.5 billion people). These are incendiary statistics, and they are only getting worse. Danny Dorling, a Professor of Geography at Oxford University, notes in his book Inequality and the 1% that by March 2014 ‘just the 67 richest … held as much wealth as the poorest half of all humanity.’ It is not hard to see why a growing number of people, including Dorling, recognize ‘growing income and wealth inequality … as the greatest social threat of our times.’

Tower Hamlets is one of the most unequal boroughs in the UK, which would go a long way to explaining why it is also one of the most political

London displays a concentrated version of this global trend. The capital has become home to more of the super-rich than any other city on the planet, according to Dorling, yet it also has ‘the highest proportion of poor households to be found in any region of the UK.’ According to the Financial Times the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, where the LBC is based – to focus in a little further – is the third most deprived in the country, while having the second highest average yearly salary. In other words, it is one of the most unequal boroughs in the UK, which would go a long way to explaining why it is also one of the most political.

How, as Buddhists, should we engage with these issues – and with the often rancorous political discourse that surrounds them? We have, I believe, an invaluable guide in Bhimrao Ambedkar, the Indian social and spiritual revolutionary, who converted to Buddhism at the end of his life. Coming from the bottom of the heap of the Indian social hierarchy, from a so-called ‘Untouchable’ community, it is unsurprising that Ambedkar fought against inequality. He described the Indian society of his time in a chilling metaphor – as ‘a multi-storeyed tower with no staircase and no entrance. Everybody had to die in the storey they were born in.’1 He also has much to tell us about independence and nation-building: he was the architect, in the wake of independence from Britain, of the constitution of India, the world’s largest democracy. What can he teach us, as we approach perhaps one of the most important general elections in a generation? In his book The Untouchables Ambedkar tells us that ‘Hindu society insists on segregation.’ The caste Hindu would not live in the quarters of the Untouchables and would not allow Untouchables to live inside Hindu quarters. This ‘fundamental feature of Untouchability as it is practised by the Hindus’ is not a temporary suspension of social interaction – it is ‘a case of territorial segregation and of a cordon sanitaire putting the impure people inside a barbed wire, into a sort of cage.’ Ambedkar was speaking out against a ghettoization that continues in many parts of India to this day.

Tower Hamlets

Closer to home – looking at a housing crisis in London that has been brewing for thirty years – is the increasing economic stratification we are seeing effectively causing social cleansing in our borough? It is often through housing and the taxation related to it that the poorest are punished, according to Dorling. And ‘today it is easy for right-wing councillors to suggest that there should be no council housing in inner London boroughs [i.e. including Tower Hamlets], that only the rich “deserve” to live there, and that the poor should travel in the morning from far away to service the rich, clean the streets, work as security guards and staff the shops.’ An episode of Channel 4’s How to Get a Council House that was aired just before our mayoral debate showed that this is happening on the ground. Set in Tower Hamlets, and centred on the council’s housing office diagonally opposite the LBC on Roman Road, it showed council officers remarking: ‘Nobody who is benefit-dependent, and not in a permanent property, will be able to live in Tower Hamlets, and this is going to happen in the next six to twelve months … The heart’s going to be ripped out of the borough, with a lot of people who closely identify with Tower Hamlets being forced to move way out of the area.’ Are we moving, then, to ghettoization – to having a servile, poor majority living on the periphery and serving a privileged interior?

The housing situation was paralleled in the world of work. The Untouchables were forced to do the dirtiest, most demeaning tasks whilst living outside the village in a condition of economic and political slavery. ‘The only reason they were not actually bought and sold in the market place,’ according to Sangharakshita, was that they were, in effect, public property – ‘meaning that the Caste Hindus could do with them as they pleased.’ Our employment prospects are surely quite different to this. Talk to many UK residents under twenty-five, however, and you may start to see similarities. A fifth of under twenty-fives were out of work at the start of 2014, according to Dorling. Of the remainder who were employed, ‘most were working part-time or on zero-hours contracts, or were on probation, or otherwise without any security. Many were working for free as interns, under the guise of training or “work experience”.’ Wouldn’t these people be paid, he asks, if our economic system were working well? Forcing people to work for free through schemes such as the euphemistically titled ‘Help to Work’ ‘puts the UK in danger of breaking international laws on slavery’. Ambedkar has said that slavery is not merely a legalized form of subjection; it is a state of society in which some are forced by others to accept ‘the purposes which control their conduct’. This, he says, is a condition that ‘obtains even where there is no slavery in the legal sense.’

Then there is education. The Untouchables were not allowed into the Hindu schools, ‘which in any case were in effect Brahmin schools, being run by Brahmins – who were the learned class – mainly for the benefit of Brahmins.’ Sangharakshita goes on to say that the main reasons the Untouchables were barred was because contact with them was seen as polluting and because what was taught was not for their ears. These are very different to the reasons for the extreme polarization we see in our own education system, where children are more segregated than in almost any other comparable country. But could it be producing similar outcomes? Almost all of the UK’s richest one per cent are privately educated. This ‘creates an elite that often has little respect for the majority of the population [and] thinks that it should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else.’ Yet countries committed to high-quality comprehensive schools tend to top the international education tables.

What underpins and perpetuates this segregation and inequality? The subjugation of the Untouchables was sanctioned by the Hindu scriptures. The equivalent, in our materialist, consumer society, is neoliberalism. Core doctrines of this religion tell us that welfare and state intervention are counterproductive. That a well-functioning market is all that’s required to protect the weak. That privatization and the corporates are to be followed in all things. And that the measure of the worth of all things is economic, rather than whether something is right, beneficial or humane. Who are the promoters and protectors of this modern-day doctrine? The Brahmins of neoliberalism are, in a word, the establishment, which Owen Jones, in his book The Establishment, characterises as being organized around ideology rather than around class or caste. Neoliberalism is a faith that serves the interests of its most ardent devotees because it allows them to milk the state for their own benefit and protection rather than for the common good. The rise of UKIP and other anti-establishment groups across the western world is, in this analysis, no surprise.

What is our equivalent of this peaceful revolution? Boycotting the polls altogether and participating in a programme of mass civil disobedience, as advocated by Russell Brand?

Given the gulf in wealth between the UK and India and the centuries of oppression experienced by the Untouchables – now referred to as the Dalit community, ‘the downtrodden’ – these comparisons might seem stretched. At the same time, deeply stratified societies are bound to feel strong resonances with each other. And if the comparisons are valid – if Ambedkar’s tower is an apt image for the economic, political and social stratification we have seen developing in many western and westernizing economies in the last thirty years – what is our equivalent Ambedkarite revolution? His solution was, in effect, to leave the oppressive social system that he had been born into, by becoming a Buddhist along with nearly half a million of his followers. ‘It is hardly surprising’, as Sangharakshita puts it, ‘that on the occasion of his conversion … Ambedkar should have felt as though he had been delivered from hell’. On the momentous day, Ambedkar said: ‘I renounce Hinduism which is harmful for humanity, and the advancement and benefit of humanity, because it is based on inequality, and adopt Buddhism as my religion.’ Having enshrined equality into the constitution, having fought politically in support of human potential, he took his final, decisive step, and left the social system altogether.

What is our equivalent of this peaceful revolution? Boycotting the polls altogether and participating in a programme of mass civil disobedience, as advocated by Russell Brand? Or perhaps Ambedkar would encourage us instead to agitate for a written constitution in the UK, and for reform of our wider, European, community. To enshrine in law the values that we, as Buddhists, see embodied in every human’s highest potential: courage and connection instead of fear and fragmentation in the face of a more interconnected, globalizing world; radical self-responsibility and moral leadership instead of blaming others – the poor, immigrants … even the superrich, the establishment – for the problems in our society; truth rather than superficiality, spin and the cult of personality; growth in general wellbeing instead of in GDP and inequality.

I think Ambedkar would tell us, in our own situation here in twenty-first century London, that we can use the ‘tools’ we are given at the Buddhist Centre in whatever way we like. That we will, with application, experience some success. He would tell us that these tools only really work, though, if we apply them to a much larger organism – a divided society – that is also of our own, collective, making, and to look beyond that, in turn, towards self-transcendence.

  1. Quoted by Arundhati Roy in her introduction to a new critical edition of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste (Verso Books, 2014)

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