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[whitespace] Michael Lerner In addition to his latest book, 'Spirit Matters,' Michael Lerner is the author of 'The Politics of Meaning' and 'Surplus Powerlessness.' He edits 'Tikkun' magazine and is the rabbi at San Francisco synagogue Beyt Tikkun. For information about Beyt Tikkun and its high-holiday services, email [email protected] or call 415-575-1432.

Spirit Rules

The new global economy requires an equally new paradigm for success, one that incorporates spiritual consciousness, promotes corporate responsibility and expands the definition of bottom line

By Michael Lerner

MOST OF US KNOW that we are not simply the sum of our accomplishments. In fact, when most people say that they have a soul, they mean that they cannot be reduced to all that they've been and done, that there is something more--something that goes beyond the agenda set by parents, teachers, and economic and social pressures.

That "something more" enables us to transcend all that we've been encouraged to do and be--and become a higher embodiment of our deepest values and beliefs. To have this capacity is to have a soul.

The capacity for self-transformation and inner healing is part of what we mean by having a soul--soul is the part of us that energizes us to go for our highest ethical and spiritual vision of who we can be.

The hunger for meaning and purpose is as strong and central to human life as the hunger for food or sex.

Just as some social and religious orders demean or repress our desires for sex, so today we live in a world whose institutions and social practices implicitly demean or repress our hunger for meaning. This repression has led to a wide range of pathologies in daily life, and to an attitude toward nature which has brought us to the brink of ecological disaster.

And yet, though the dominant culture of our society celebrates itself because of its material success, though it imagines that anyone who has made it in the competitive marketplace must be a fountain of wisdom and encourages people to "look out for number one" (while doing its best to ridicule or expose as self-interested anyone who claims to be motivated by some higher purpose), many people are increasingly insisting upon some form of spiritual nourishment and grabbing onto whatever form of spirituality they can find that provides an alternative to the dominant culture.

Hungry for some community in which their need for meaning can be explored, some are attracted to a reactionary spirituality that is used to justify right-wing political agendas. It is frequently not the right-wing politics, but rather the safety to explore spiritual issues that attracts them to these communities--which are for many the only place they've ever encountered people who care about others and don't evaluate others by how wealthy, physically attractive, smart-talking or powerful they are.

The reactionary spirituality in these communities differs from the Emancipatory Spirituality I advocate. But I want to emphasize that people who choose a reactionary spirituality sometimes make this choice for a good reason: they are fed up with the one-dimensional and technocratic realities of daily life. On the other end of the spectrum we get another distortion. Sometimes the hunger for meaning leads people to glom on to flaky and narcissistic forms of spirituality.

I've sometimes lost patience with spiritual talk I hear emanating from "New Agey" sources because it seems as if "spiritual" is being used as permission to abandon serious thinking and open the door to every imaginable spiritual commodity.


Global Godliness: Celebrity Rabbi Michael Lerner shares his message that an 'Emancipatory Spirituality' is necessary forsurvival of the human species.

Spirit Matters: Official site for Michael Lerner's new book.

Tikkun Magazine: A bimonthly publication edited by Michael Lerner.

Beyt Tikkun: Rabbi Michael Lerner's San Francisco synagogue.


Globalization and the Web: The Latest Idols of the Marketplace

DURING THE YEARS surrounding the turn of the millennium the religion of globalized technology has been particularly successful in delivering its message: The miracles of technology, coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the entire world to unimpeded capitalist penetration, have created a brave new world of international humanity joyously linked together through the World Wide Web.

Our meaning and fulfillment will come through our Internet connections. In this new world, borders disappear, the nation state comes to an end, and we are on the verge of a new epoch in human history. The Internet seems to promise the ultimate expression of the miracles of science happily linked to an expansion of our material well-being (now we can buy things we never imagined before, and do so without ever leaving our homes). How can one be unhappy with a science that can so easily fulfill our material needs?

Globalization is certainly a reality. Global capital crosses boundaries, taking little, if any, account of the economic sovereignty of the individual nation states. As Israeli geographer David Newman points out, "The McDonaldization of the world's landscapes, which allows my Bedouin neighbours in the Negev desert of Israel to order a take-away burger and fries and take it back to a shanty town encampment which is still fighting to get a paved road and piped water from the government--this is true globalization of capital. So too is the sudden appearance of a North American out-of-town shopping plaza, including such corporate names as Toys R Us, Office Depot and the Home Center, where, until just a year or so ago, camels continued to wander the desert surroundings."

Globalization's cheerleaders note that the dissemination of information through cyberspace, email and other electronic media means has broken down the ability of governments to restrict information to their people alone. Instant information through the Internet and cable TV accelerates the process of turning the world into a "global village."

There's no question that world markets are expanding, just as they have been expanding for the past five hundred years. And there are few impediments to the rapid conquest of the globe by high-tech communications.

But no matter what percentage of the world's population enjoy the information superhighway, the majority of the world's people continue to live in conditions of subsistence and poverty. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees worldwide who do not have jobs or any way to feed their families.

Nor has information ended ethnic oppression or the desire of the previously oppressed to have separate and independent national boundaries. Ethnic cleansers in Kosovo came from the highly "wired" and technologically sophisticated Serbian society. Israelis have the highest rate of cell phone usage in the world, but manage not to hear about the systematic torture of Palestinians or the outrageous behavior of West Bank settlers.

As David Newman points out, "a globalized world is not a multicultural world. It is one in which uniform standards are imposed by a small elite upon the rest, normally for their own economic benefit. It is a world where a relatively small number of powerful governments and corporate companies have succeeded in imposing a postmodern version of neocolonialism, without the need for military intervention, on large parts of the globe who do not yet have access, and do not yet enjoy, the levels of technology which are being churned out by Microsoft on an almost daily basis. It is a world whose standards are being reduced to the plastic, lifeless, noncaring control of chips and satellites, while the human dimension and the rights of the individual are pushed aside. It is certainly not a world without borders, but one in which some borders have become more permeable and open to transboundary movement, while others have remained as closed and as sealed as ever before."

Globalization is not spurred by a new desire for global democracy and an understanding of our common human fate, nor by a desire to overcome millennia of demeaning "the other." Rather, it is fueled by the globalization of selfishness, the desire of major corporations to find new markets for their products and their information.

That does not mean that there are no positive aspects to globalization. There are. But unless the globalization of capital is balanced by the globalization of Spirit, the world may face irreparable environmental damage that could ultimately end life on this planet.

Material Need

GREED IS A disease of fear. To the extent that we have come to believe we can't count on others, we tend to protect ourselves as much as possible by accumulating material goods, money, power, sexual conquests or something tangible.

This is not entirely irrational.

In times of crisis, people have historically pulled together, delaying their personal gratification for the common good. To do that people need to trust that others will do the same. But what if you live in a society in which corporations pour poisons into food, air and water because doing so ensures a high level of profits? What if you live in a society in which most people have come to believe that everyone else is going to rip them off unless they do the ripping-off first?

In such a society, urging people to reduce their level of consumption in order to protect people in other parts of the world is whistling in the wind. People will be unwilling to make those choices if they believe that they will be the only jerks who pursued a selfless agenda. That's why, even though most people agree with ecologically oriented parties like the Greens or the New Party, they don't vote for those candidates. They are convinced that everyone else will vote according to selfish interests and that they'd better do that as well.

Ecological programs can never succeed unless ordinary citizens are willing to face a reduction in the level of consumption, willing to pay higher prices for nonreplaceable energy sources, and willing to support programs for international planning on how to use the world's remaining resources.

Similarly, when asked to support programs that constrain corporate selfishness, many people are reluctant to impose on others an ethos that they don't believe they can follow in their own lives. In my view, the quality of people's lives can dramatically improve if we revamp our whole system for ecologically sustainable production and consumption. But most people mistakenly believe that to be ecological will require immense hardships, and they interpret environmentalism as a demand that they stop using their computers, enjoying beautiful furniture and wishing for comfortable homes. Fearful that they must give up their VCRs and compact discs, their web surfing and their networking, many sensitive people see themselves as "just as bad as the corporations," and thus feel very conflicted about constraining corporate power.

Corporate Environmentalism

SOME CORPORATIONS are environmentally sensitive. Others are taking steps in this direction, if for no other reason than because they imagine that a percentage of their potential consumers will be more interested in them if they show environmental awareness. So, there are environmentally sensitive programs in many corporations. In some there are even attempts to take environmental issues into account when making fundamental investment decisions.

But it's amazing how few these are.

And the reason is simple: corporations are set up to make money, and the corporate boards will honestly explain that they have a "fiduciary responsibility" to their investors to make as much money as possible. The bottom line for most corporations is maximizing profits, and corporate leadership which failed to do so would quickly be booted out.

So, when someone tells you that there's a new spirit of corporate responsibility, ethical awareness or ecological sensitivity, be sure to ask one question: "What is their bottom line when it comes to corporate decision making?" Similarly, when you hear that corporations are considering double or triple bottom lines that include ecological or moral considerations, ask again: "What happens when the corporation recognizes that it can make more profit in the next 20 to 30 years following Path X but that Path Y will be more environmentally sensitive or ethically congruent with the values of love, caring and community?"

If you ask these questions seriously, you'll find out that much of what appears to be changing in corporations has more to do with hype and marketing than it does with a fundamental change in values.

Countering Globalization

GLOBALIZATION seemed almost invincible just a few short years ago. The World Trade Organization, created to facilitate this process, was ready to consider proposals that would increase the power of multinational corporations, giving them the right to sue national governments if they sought to protect their own industries or shield themselves from the onslaught of foreign capital.

In the name of free trade, environmental restrictions were challenged and "the right" to sweat-shop conditions was protected. Elites of wealth and power in Third World countries even insisted that they were serving the best interests of their own people by rejecting environmental or human rights restrictions. After all, they argued, if multinationals (largely based in the developed world) could be enticed to produce their goods in Third World countries without environmental regulations or a minimum wage, that would create jobs, albeit at $35 a week.

It seemed that the multinationals had the perfect solution: they could use capital-hungry elites in Third World countries to prevent environmentalists and labor and human-rights activists from pressuring first world governments to demand minimal safeguards in the process of globalization. Since the First World governments and media were primarily responsive to the needs of their corporate funders, it would not be hard for them to shed a few crocodile tears about their desire to be environmentally sensitive and supportive of human rights and living wages, but then argue that they were caught by their equally important commitment to helping poor people in the Third World who would best be served by not imposing "our Western standards" (for environmental safety, labor rights or human rights) in ways that would limit "free trade" and the benefits it would bring to Third World economies.

Imagine their surprise when, in the very last year of the second millennium, tens of thousands of demonstrators showed up at the World Trade Organization in Seattle to burst the bubble of governmental hypocrisy and insist that globalization without ethics would no longer be acceptable.

When armed with a spiritual consciousness, social change activists have a much easier time acknowledging that there are good aspects of globalization that need not be resisted. The Internet and other forms of global communication encourage the development of shared democratic and pluralistic values that bring distance-learning to people who might otherwise be isolated or confined to homes or hospital rooms, and facilitate the development of international citizen organizations which may become the foundations for international movements toward social healing and environmental sanity. One need not deny some of the benefits of globalization to challenge its seamier sides or insist that we create social, economic and political institutions that are more supportive of our growing sense of awe and wonder at the universe and our desire for ecological sanity, social justice and a world based on love.

Imagine, for a moment, a spiritually grounded social change movement that could:

  • Seek new measures of the quality of life that supplement traditional Gross National Product/Gross Domestic Product systems of national accounting. The King of Bhutan has recently called for a "gross national happiness" index. Such accounting would have to value unpaid caring work (e.g. parenting or caring for the sick or elderly) and what some economists have called "public goods" (namely the goods and services needed for global human security, survival and development--including peace, equity, financial stability and environmental sustainability).

  • Create mechanisms of accountability for multinational corporations. In my book Spirit Matters, I propose two first steps in this direction: the Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would require corporations to obtain a new corporate charter every 20 years providing they demonstrated a history of social responsibility, and the Social Responsibility Initiative which would make a priority of awarding public contracts to corporations with the best history of social responsibility.

  • Build institutions of civic society on the local, national and global levels that can operate as counterforces to the market and to global capital's international power base in media, governments and globalized economic institutions.

  • Develop programs to ensure that the earth's resources are shared equitably. Make decisions about production and distribution of goods on a democratic basis.

  • Create incentives for nations to reduce military spending and to direct resources toward building global economic well-being, adequate housing, education and health care, and ecologically sustainable production. For example, create an international fund that will provide development dollars for countries that significantly reduce military spending. To help reduce conflicts which led to military conflicts, create a truly effective peace corps. As a step in this direction, groups of social change activists are now developing plans for a volunteer army of nonviolent peacemakers that would work to de-escalate the tension in areas where conflict might lead to violence. The United Nations has lost much of its potential effectiveness precisely because it is seen as the handmaiden of great power interests rather than as an expression of the highest shared ideals of the human race.

  • Move from highly concentrated absentee ownership to stakeholder ownership of a society's productive assets. Each person should have an ownership stake in the assets on which his or her livelihood depends.

  • Create a Jubilee in which the international debt of poorer nations is forgiven if they establish democratic regimes with functioning guarantees of free speech and assembly, a free media, jury by peers, worker rights to organize, living wages, and ecologically sustainable policies governing their economic growth.

  • Make the funding of international and local media independent from global capital (whether directly from advertising or indirectly in the form of corporate sponsorship--the misnamed "public" radio and television which today is often another extension of the corporate mind-set rather than a serious alternative to it). Such media would give honest accounting of the seriousness of environmental problems and the most critical strategic alternatives available to the human race as we try to save the planet from further destruction of our life-support system.

    These are a few of the partial measures that could be enacted by a movement that defined the bottom line as love and caring, ethical/spiritual/ecological sensitivity, and the promotion of awe and wonder at the universe. Our environmental crisis will only be solved when such a movement develops.

    Until then, the momentum of the demonstration at the World Trade Organization may recede, criticism and mutual recrimination replace solidarity, and narrow reforms replace a larger vision of a planet saved from moral and ecological degradation. Though it may recede for years or decades, though the bureaucracy of social change may replace passion and vision, it will always be possible for that transformative energy to re-emerge. And the pain caused by living in a society without spiritual moorings will make people increasingly hungry for spiritual alternatives. Eventually, that hunger, united with an understanding of the destruction being done to our planet, will generate the kind of movement for Emancipatory Spirituality that can save us from ecological destruction.

    Conscious Choices

    WE ARE AT the beginning of a wonderful period in human history in which we are reclaiming our deepest spiritual understanding. The human race is ready to move to a higher level of consciousness and spiritual fulfillment.

    But we are also at a moment in history when an older way of thinking and organizing our lives is leading to deep inner pain and paralysis and to the destruction of the life support systems of the planet.

    There is no promise that Spirit will triumph before vast and irreparable damage is done to the environment and to our own souls.

    In fact, we live in a period in which the globalization of capital and the media's power to shape consciousness have reached new depths of perversion. We may well see a resurgence of confidence in the ability of our social system to provide material well-being for all, and a deepening commitment to the religion of money and material possessions. The talk of spiritual transformation will be dismissed as merely the momentary excitement that always accompanies the ending of a century or millenium.

    Yet it is becoming ever clearer to ever larger numbers of people that the values around which our society is organized today are not really working. No matter how clever the manipulators of consciousness and the marketers of material reality may be, they face a fundamental contradiction: Spirit Matters. It matters to every human being because we all have essential spiritual needs that are being frustrated and repressed in this social order. Those needs may be ignored by the media and we ourselves may tell each other that they aren't "really" that important. But they are there. They don't go away. All that we've repressed will one day return to our daily lives. The timetable is uncertain, and at the moment I am writing the power of globalized capital seems invincible. But this too shall pass.

    It will pass because people hunger for a deeper kind of recognition from each other than the current organization of society allows. It will change because people hunger for a life in which their spiritual needs are not relegated to the sidelines and to their weekends, but rather fully expressed and integrated into our daily lives. It will change because people need to live in a world based on love and on caring for each other. It will change because people are coming to recognize the intrinsic connection between the ecological crisis and the values of individualism and selfishness enshrined in the competitive market. It will change because people need a world whose social institutions are based in part on a joint sense of awe and wonder at the universe and on a collective understanding of our role as stewards and nurturers of Gaia. It will change because people will take seriously their own spiritual understanding of the Unity of All Being.

    There are many other developments that still need to be played out. In the coming decades, liberal and progressive reformers may yet have a chance to try the reforms and social experiments they've been calling for over the past century. We may yet go through a period of social democracy and attempts at economic democracy. I certainly hope so, given the likely alternatives. But ultimately even these solutions will be understood as far too limited for the problems we face as a human race.

    There may also be periods of political reaction--moments or even decades when fear becomes the dominant reality and people imagine that they can deal with the problems caused by our society's spiritual vacuity through institutionalizing greater forms of repression. As the ecological crisis deepends, fear may lead to repression.

    I do not have some Pollyannaish view that we are on a nonstop linear ascent to the good world or the messianic era. History rarely works that way.

    The central truth is this: we are embodiments of the Spirit of the universe, and have the freedom and consciousness to make significant choices. The pace of change will depend in large part on choices you and I and others make in the coming years, and how soon we are ready to act together toward achieving the kind of spiritual world described here.

    How quickly Spirit manifests in the world depends in large part on what you and I and many others choose. The more we trust each other and the universe, the more we fully embrace Who We Really Are, the more we will make the world safe for Spirit. And the safer it feels, the more people will start to come out of their own closets and acknowledge their deep hunger for a spiritually grounded life.

    This is a wonderful moment to be alive. We can already begin to see the outlines of a new consciousness that is spreading throughout the world. Nothing is more contagious than genuine love and genuine caring. Nothing is more exhilarating than authentic awe and wonder. Nothing is more hopeful than a genuine reorientation toward Nature. Nothing is more exciting than to witness people having the courage to fight for their highest vision. Nothing is more sustaining than a life filled with spiritual practices and joyful service to others.

    Spirit Matters.

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  • From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

    Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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