I’m really sorry for neglecting my blog for a number of months. As some of you may know, I took on a role with Tearfund, and am now in my 10th month with this wonderful organisation! The move to work in the international aid, relief and development sector has been a steep learning curve for me – relentlessly eventful! To say the least, it has kept me extremely busy. But I’m loving it!
I had a change of pace last week when I attended a leadership conference in London. I was really excited to get to this because I wanted to reconnect with Simon Walker, the keynote speaker whom I hadn’t seen since leaving my job in Oxford.
I was glad I went.
Rather than giving the usual spiel about leadership , Simon told those gathered a modern day parable or in his words “a deliberately child-like story”. This was in order to set the context for a discussion about the kind of leadership that is needed today. I was so fascinated by this that I decided to replicate his story here, in order to continue the discussion with others. Please leave your comments below. In particular about what you think we all need to be doing in order to co-construct a happily ever after?
Unfortunately, in this story, Shrek doesn’t come to the rescue!
Ridding the Land of Ogres by Simon P Walker
Few of us will be unaware that the times we are entering promise greater instability than perhaps at any point since the nineteen thirties. The final year of that decade marked the ultimate military facture, in the geopolitical landscape, of the creaking alliances tested in a decade of economic strain preceding it. That economic strain itself was itself an outworking of the collapse in market and asset values, and in economic confidence in 1929. And that collapse itself was the result of a gross inflation of borrowing and risk driven by unstoppable seduction of wealth preceding that, along with an unsustainable European truce after the Great War.
It seems that history does indeed repeat itself. Of course, it is not history per se, it is human beings. Individually, most religious writings, especially those of a Judaeo- Christian tradition, teach us that man’s heart is crooked and continually deviates from the course which is right, truthful, generous and kind.
It is not simply that individual human beings still behave crookedly; it is that collectively, our social and economic structures themselves repeatedly grow into distorted monsters which come to control the very masters who brought them to birth. The truth, at the present time, as in 1930 is that there is little any individual, or indeed any single government can now do to alter, let alone prevent the chain of events that will unfold in the coming years. Any restraining sticks or nourishing carrots have proved to be little more than temporary respites unable to reign in the power of the Ogre rearing its ugly head, with an appetite yet to be sated.
And what is that Ogre precisely?
Some might say it is the Ogre of Debt. Certainly the scale of indebtedness in several European governments, beyond of course Greece, Ireland, Spain and Italy, has now reached the level that stifles of growth. Our own UK debt, far too heavily invested in the financial sector itself and therefore particularly vulnerable to bank defaults, is itself enormous. Imagine a pile of £50 notes. If you had £1,000,000 that pile would reach about ten inches high. So, for example, a pile the height of the Canary Wharf tower so frequently on our screens right now, would be worth about 1 billion pounds. The government THIS YEAR ALONE is BORROWING ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY TOWERS OF DEBT to fund our public spending.
The Ogre of Debt alone will consume most if not all of any growth from our European fields this year, next and probably for many years to come. Others might say that it is the Ogre of Inequality. The government shored up public finances by buying private bank debt. In so doing, it perpetuated a financial culture in the city devoid of public responsibility. More serious even than that, it has preserved a new financial class where the basic tie between the nature of work and the appropriate reward for that labour has long since and utterly been destroyed. When Lord Turner described too much of the activity of the Financial Services sector as ‘socially worthless’ he was describing the most destructive aspect of this Ogre’s behaviour- that it believes it has a right to consume what it can take from the fields of the land without recognising that all wealth has to be created; created, ultimately from what is actually, concretely, substantively dug out of the fields. Something has to be grown, built, created, mined- be that food, be that intellectual knowledge, be that machinery manufactured from raw materials. If you make it possible for a speculator to create money unrelated to the actual concrete, fundamental value of what they invest in, purely within a self referential trading system (which is how the market now functions) then you have created a landscape of pure Nietzschean power. Be of no doubt such Ogres have the capacity to ravage the fields, and exhaust every single labourer that toils in them.
However, this Ogre is not simply the new financial class, which like our new detached political class is an entirely recent social phenomena. No, appallingly, this Ogre has not one but two heads. The other insatiable head is the now vast dependent, non-working population. Whilst one Ogre’s head is grotesquely dressed in the gold of the elite, the other suckles upon a baby’s bottle.
One of the reasons that we have fed the mouth of the bejewelled Ogre for so long is that he rarely speaks, whilst his Siamese twin is vociferous and from his mouth has come the bleat of poverty. He speaks a story of deprivation in which the contents of his stomach, he claims, are constantly drained away by the bowels of his greedy Siamese twin. He complains of being always hungry, of being unfairly treated. In the face of the contrast, the labourers in the field redouble their efforts, believing that, if they can only make the financial Siamese Ogre bigger still, then the poor, impoverished twin will suckle sufficient nourishment from its healthy sibling.
The name of this two headed Ogre is not as commonly thought ‘inequality’; it is Entitlement. For both the rich and the poor twin ravage the land because they believe they are entitled to it. The one head, represents the entitlement the financial sector believes it has to unimaginable personal wealth, and public bail out to prevent its demise. The other, is the entitlement the non-working sector believes it has to unending public welfare in response to its endless cry for more. In years when the rains fell and the harvests were good, we were able to feed both heads and both stomachs, with enough left over for the farm workers to enjoy a decent surplus themselves. But the drought has been upon us for three years now. The artificial irrigation programme of the government has now run out of water. Most of the water it so liberally sprinkled on the fields simply ran off, or seeped through, for the government had never really understood that the problem, fundamentally, was not with the drought, but with the quality of the soil of its land. In the face of a desiccated landscape, appeals for the farm workers to grow more crop from their sorrowful and exhausted fields are forlorn and pointless.
Think back to August 10th- that Monday night as we all watched, glued in disbelief to our television screens, as shops and streets were ransacked across the country. Our social contract is, truly, beginning to collapse before our eyes. An uneducated, employable underclass is beginning to dislocate beneath our feet. A superfluous and astronomical financial class has dislocated above our heads. In the middle an exhausted, indebted working population is left defending its assets, working in the real economy, only for 50% of its earnings to be removed to fund the two parasitic populations who feed upon it.
The Ogre of Debt; the twin-headed Ogre of Entitlement. There, however, is a third destructive figure that an increasing number realise stalks the land. It is the Landowner himself. One of the great surprises of the recession has been the resistance of property prices to fall. By most international reckonings, UK property values are the highest in the world- perhaps 20-30% overvalued. Yet they have not, at least around London and its Southern environs, tumbled with other asset classes. Why is this? Perhaps me explain. The Ogre of Debt and the Landowner who owns the land on which the former lives, have struck a deal. The Ogre of Debt understands that if he consumes all of the produce from the land as he is entitled to, he will destroy the land AND the farmers who live on it. Finally he too will die. The cunning Landowner has realised this and bargained accordingly. He will keep the Ogre of Debt from losing his asset, his very life. But in return the Ogre of Debt will have to accept only slice, a sliver of the interest, of what he was receiving before the drought.
The fact you must understanding about the Landowner is that he is now getting old. Over the years, the Landowner has been able, to buy more and more land from the Ogre of Debt. As a result, the value of land has gone up, and the rent the Landowner has been able to charge to the tenants who farm the land has risen. Much of the debt used to buy land twenty or thirty years ago has now been paid back to the Ogre of Debt, and the Landowner is now very rich. In recent years, the Landowner’s children too have bought land from the Ogre of Debt. However, because the price of the land that has been owned by their father had gone up so much, they had to borrow more from the Ogre of Debt than he did. The Landowner increasingly had to help his children to buy their land as prices were so high.
Now the Landowner is shrewd. He realises that his children, now that the drought has come, will never be able to pay back the Ogre of Debt all that they owe him. However, by persuading the Ogre of Debt to accept only a slice of what he was once getting each year, the Landowner knows that he will stop the value of the land owned by his children from falling very far- because they won’t have to sell it in desperation it pay their debts. Not only so but the Landowner knows that, now that yields from the fields are declining and produce and commodities are scarce in all Kingdoms, prices will start to rise. The tenant farmers will start to demand to be paid more to buy their more expensive food (even though they are the ones who grew it in the first place).
Moreover, the Landowner has spoken to the King’s Treasurer who collects the taxes. The Treasurer is a very worried man because the taxes he can collect have been shrinking, as the yields from the land have declined. He is very interested in any way he can collect more taxes without causing a revolt amongst the workers. He has heard of a way of doing so, used by Treasurers in the last Great Crisis, in which the Treasury simply printed more coins.
“What? Create new money out of thin air?” The Landowner knew, as anyone would, that if you simply created more coins, each coin in existence would be worth a little less. Extraordinarily, from what the Treasurer has read in the archives, when this was done before, no one seemed to notice if it was done slowly enough.
The Treasurer explained, “The neighbouring countries will have to pay a little less for the grain grown in our Kingdom as a result, so they will buy a little more, which will raise more taxes. When the tenant farmers demand higher wages to buy the food that is now more expensive, there will be enough new coins to go around to pay each of them a little more, even though each coin is actually worth less than it used to. By doing this slowly, the tenant farmers will not realise that, even though they receive more coins each month, they are actually being paid less. And the Ogre of Debt will not notice that the hundred thousand coins he was owed is now only worth seventy thousand. As the Landowner you and your indebted children will not have to sell your land as you thought you would because are now paying the Ogre only a slice of what you paid before. Moreover, each year the total amount you owe will get smaller and smaller as the value of coins diminishes!”
The Kings Treasurer and the Landowner were very pleased with their plan and promised to keep it a secret, in particular from those who had been careful and prudent and not fed the Ogre of Debt; for of course, the value of their prudent pile of saved coins was being robbed from them daily.
Apart from the injustice of this, the Kings Treasurer and the Landowner’s plan, however, had a deeper flaw. Not being farmers themselves, neither understood the cause of real problems there were in the Kingdom.
The real problems lay deep in the soil. For years, in order to feed the demands of the Ogre of Debt and the twin-headed Ogre of Entitlement, the Treasury had encouraged the Landowner to make the fields as productive as possible. As a result, new kinds of farming techniques were researched and developed by the Professor at the university to increase the yields from the fields. Deeper wells were dug to get water from underground aquifers, to irrigate the fields so that they could produce a crop not just once but twice a year, even in winter! New strains of crop were developed that resisted disease and produced bigger heads of corn. New machinery was bought that could dig and plant vast areas of land quicker and quicker. Farm workers were trained and monitored to see that they were always producing more and more in less and less time. The kinds of crops to be planted were centralised so that you could ensure no fields produced an inefficient, or quirky and therefore (they feared) unsellable harvest. More and more young people were encouraged to work in the particularly productive areas of the farm, which produced a crop that could be sold to other Kingdoms.
And all the time, costs were cut and yields were increased in order to meet the annual targets the Treasury set to feed the two Ogres. Over the years, people forgot what the now monochrome land used to look like. And more to the point, people stopped asking whether the soil could continue to produce such a growing crop year after year after year.
The land has not always been so fertile. Centuries earlier, back before the great, great great grandfathers of either the Landowner or the Treasurer, the soil in this Kingdom had been very poor. Back then, the soil was stony, with hard foundations of masonry and rubble of old castles and fiefdoms which prevented much crop being sown. It was thin, so that people’s lives rooted only superficially and could easily be uprooted by a storm or a war or a disease. It was weedy, full of old beliefs and practices which suffocated education and growth for much of the population.
But then a great miracle had happened. About two hundred years ago, a generation of Landowners had grown up who cared about the soil and its capacity to support growth. They cared, not because they wanted more harvest themselves, but because they were appalled at the poverty, injustice and unfairness of those whose lot it was to scrap a living from the poor soil. They began to till the soil to make it less weedy, rooting out weeds of sloth and despair and hopeless and cruelty. They began to harrow the soil to make it less stony, slowly, over the years breaking up the huge piles of masonry and rubble which littered the landscape left from redundant castles of previous Landowners. They began to train the tenant farmers to have better skills and encouraged the brightest to develop new ideas and practices to improve the landscape. They reduced the hours demanded in grinding labour and set an age limit to free children to study and learn. They worked to improve health and prevent disease, which so often destroyed families leaving children orphaned. Thus, by improving the land, they improved the lot of the tenant farmers.
Not only so, but some built villages and towns for the tenants to live in, and others campaigned to change the laws to protect property boundaries so that assets could not be stolen or exploited. Some became law makers themselves to ensure that the vulnerable were protected and given rights so that each person had a right to education and to a place to live. They insured that, year on year, the quality of the soil improved by preventing the other Landowners from demanding too much rent, or forcing up yields, or denying the fallow year. Thus the land and its people flourished.
In those days, the Ogre of Entitlement had only one head and, in a great battle over many years, that head was cut off by the swords of education and opportunity and work. And the Ogre of Debt was kept within strong boundaries, under control, to ensure that he did not take control of too much of the land. In those days, Spiritual Seed also flourished and produced an abundant crop in the land. Spiritual Seed was known to have magic properties. Where it was sown it grew up and its fruits not only nourished the people but also, when it died, nourished the soil, enriching it still further. Farmers who sowed Spiritual Seed were encouraged because they were known to have the richest, most abundant land. Spiritual farmers were pioneers going out to regions of the land whose soil had still to be tilled, and harrowed and fertilised and, slowly, over the years even those parts of the land improved.
However, over time, a new Professor came to power he and his fellow Thinkers became sceptical about the powers of magic. Because no one could work out why Spiritual Seed produced social improvements, the link was questioned. New, modern science promised a more rigorous and reliable way of improving the land and over the decades, the role and freedom of the sowers of Spiritual Seed were restricted. Not only so, but they themselves gradually lost confidence and ceased boldly claiming that spiritual fruit was the cause of the land’s abundance. Instead, increasingly, they withdrew into their own private estates were they could continue to practice their arts less harassed by the sceptical intellectual elite. They did continue to serve the land, nursing broken plants back to health in the most scarred landscapes, but they lost the confidence to contribute to agricultural practice any more.
Many of the tenant farmers relished the withdrawal of the spiritual farmers, for they had demanded a certain self-discipline. The tenants enjoyed their new liberties and, because they had benefited from the education, freedom and opportunities grown by the spiritually regenerated soil, for more than three generations they experienced an almost hedonistic sating of their desires. Benefiting from fruits from the well nourished land, lightly taxed by the now restrained Landowners, equipped with machinery to improve their own yields, they enjoyed greater and greater wealth.
Moreover, realising that real power lay in possessing land itself, one brave young female Treasurer suggested that much of the land owned by the government should be sold off to the tenant farmers so that they too could become Landowners. In a small island, where land was always a measure of power, the offer was snapped up and the high demand pushed up prices. Little by little, the Treasurer agreed to lengthen the chains of the Ogre of Debt, because few of tenants could afford to buy the land entirely on their own. The Ogre, still chained, promised to obey his masters if he was granted a little more freedom. But it was the new Landowners themselves who year by year begged the Ogre to enter their new heartlands. They were thrilled to live alongside a small Ogre of Debt in the backroom so long as it meant living in a bigger house of their own. They laughed at their parent’s fear of the Ogre of Debt, confidently claiming it could be easily contained. After all, as prices soared, so in comparison to their homes, their own house Ogre seemed only to get smaller and smaller.
And so he did, until the situation I have just been describing arrived. It wasn’t, of course, their houses which the Ogre outgrew; it was their children’s houses, and their children’s children. For they of course had to buy a bigger Ogre and feed it more, and because houses were now much more expensive and, therefore, smaller, they quickly found themselves living in the only room in the house the greedy Ogre had not taken over.
By this time, the new Landowners required every bit of yield from their land in order to feed their rapacious Ogres. Not only so, but the Ogre of Debt invited his brother, the twin-headed Ogre of Entitlement to move in who greedily gobbled up almost all of the food that the new Landowners could produce. No matter how hard the mother and father now worked (for both were required to feed the Ogres), they barely satisfied their demands.
By now, the situation was beyond the government’s control. They themselves had their own Ogre of Debt, vaster than ever before, and occupying most of the country. Simply to feed it, they needed every ounce of every crumb the land could produce and they could no longer restrain its relentless growth. He devoured the harvest and threatened to devour the people. Thus the government were consigned to continue with their hopeless plan to maximise productivity from the land, to increase efficiency, to drive every member of the population out to work, even getting the old to return to the fields and the young to work for nothing. Yet, all the while, it was not simply an exhausted, fearful population but a spent soil that was their greatest fragility. Worked seven days per week fifty two weeks of the year, twenty four hours a day, the land had no time to recover. The emotional, intellectual, social capacity of the soil diminished. The cultural and institutional depth of the soil shallowed. As a result, the mental health of the workers declined through anxiety and lack of stimulation. Homes were broken up as families had to disperse to farm fields miles away. The old traditions of stability- putting down deep roots- were swapped in the expediency of transience and mobility. People simply no longer knew how to live in the land any more. Moreover, they were taunted by both the heads of the Ogre of Entitlement; the one crowing about its fantastic wealth with no risks and no regard for those on whose land he feasted, the other bleating for yet more milk without ever lifting a finger.
And it was at this point that the drought came.
Whilst the drought hit everyone, this kingdom was particularly exposed to its effects. Naive commentators put it down to the cycles of weather; others blamed the lack of training and education. Few looked carefully enough to notice that, ultimately, it was that they had taken too much out of the soil that was the cause of all the problems.
A little band who had not lost sight of this fact, began to gather together and to plan what they could do. First of all, they mobilised those who were free- those who were not tyrannised by either the twin headed Ogre of Entitlement or the Ogre of Debt. They invited those who did not yet own land, or who owned their land outright and who still believed in working for a living, and those who saw that true charity was not simply feeding the mouth of the Ogre of Entitlement, to come to a meeting. And at the meeting, they explained about the desperate plight the whole country was now in. Soon it became clear what steps needed to be taken in order to stop further tyranny. Everyone agreed that it was not for their sake but for their children and grandchildren’s sake that they must act now because it was their land which was lying ravaged by greed and folly.
First of all, they agreed that the Spiritual Seed sowers would have to be mobilised again. This would involve both rebuilding their confidence, but also meeting with the policy makers and governors who controlled the borders and budgets around the land to persuade them to allow them back in. Some of the Spiritual Seed sowers had themselves forgotten how to till and harrow soil and would have to be re- educated. Everyone acknowledged that without the Spiritual Seed, and the spiritual fruit that grew from it, there would be no magic by which the land would be renewed.
Second, they agreed that an educational programme was required to build a body of new leaders who would have sufficient wisdom, strength and support to begin to lead the land back to the deep, sustainable ways. These would be men and women who could be taught to lead by the deep principles of the land; who would fight against the reign of the two Ogres of Debt and Entitlement, by forming a Fellowship committed to their overthrow. They would champion values of hard work, simplicity and stability. Everywhere these women and men served, the soil around them would slowly be regenerated.
Thirdly, they would ensure that these same mistakes would not be repeated by the next generation. They would commit to teaching their children about the land and training them how to steward the land so that it continued to bear a good crop. They would teach them virtues of gratitude for the abundance of the land, respect for those who work it, self restraint only to eat what is in season, service of others before self interest, and stewardship so that they could pass on their land in better state than they received it. Never again would a generation believe that you could take more out of the land year upon year, or take wealth from it without working in it, or hoard vast areas of land simply out of greed or fear.