It's Time For A New Bottom Line:
People yearn for a connection to others, not just material wealth
By Jonathan Freedland
Giving up smoking? Wimp. Vowing to shed the pounds? Loser. More regular trips to the gym? Skipping dessert? You're a big girl's blouse. Changing the world? That's different. That's a serious new year's resolution.
The man making it is Michael Lerner, erstwhile spiritual guru to Hillary Clinton, editor of Tikkun magazine and coiner of one of the buzz-phrases of 1990s America: the politics of meaning. Later this month he will found a new movement at a conference in New York, inaugurating his most ambitious project yet: the Tikkun Community, a worldwide fraternity dedicated to nothing less than the transformation of modern life.
Sure, his nerdy spectacles and bird's-nest haircut make Rabbi Lerner easy to dismiss. And yes, his Tikkun.org website strays dangerously close to flaky psychobabble. And yes, he is based in San Francisco. Yet Lerner - with a track record in the movements for US civil rights and against the Vietnam war, as well as a clutch of death threats against him for his peacenik stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - has become an unlikely hero of the American left. The cult may even be spreading here: when the IPPR thinktank played host to him recently, the large London venue was crammed - with an overflow crowd pressed up against the windows outside.
His message is, in his own words, "unashamedly utopian," aimed at the ancient, Jewish goal of tikkun olam - healing the world. That partly translates into the same wish-list sought by most progressives - peace, social justice, a clean environment - but with one key difference. His starting point is not anger with economic inequality or a raging desire to redistribute wealth (although that's a Tikkun aim). No, he begins in the realm where the left has for so long feared to tread: the spiritual.
What Lerner diagnoses as the 21st century world's great sickness is the triumph of the material over the spiritual. Materialism - the belief that the only things that exist are those we can verify with our senses - is, he says, the "dominant religion" of mankind. One can challenge it in one's own home or at the weekend, but in the public sphere, materialism rules.
The result is that we value only what we can measure or see. Maximising wealth and power are the sole goals of work -since more abstract (Lerner would say spiritual) notions of duty, service or creativity cannot be measured. What's worse, says Lerner, "We take those values home," regarding even our friends and family as means to an end. Note the way old people, who need friends the most, have the fewest, because they have less tangible rewards to give back. Note the commitment-phobes who shop around for a partner who can satisfy all their needs: governing their heart by the rules of the shopping mall.
Yet this creed of materialism, spreading across the planet via globalisation, is making us miserable. We all work too hard, complaining that we have no time for the things that really matter. If in doubt, read Jonathan Franzen's outstanding new novel, The Corrections, for a survey of the new American depression - the anomie and ennui that comes from placing prosperous consumption above simple human connection.
Once again, Lerner is straying out of traditional left terrain here, calling on psychotherapy as much as economics. And yet he is surely on to something - realising why politics has been losing out to the self-help manuals as the place people look for solutions. His message is a wake-up call for the left, telling them they have to address not just people's pay and the services they use, but their inner, emotional lives, too.
He has some more alarming news for progressives: the far right, he says, has already cottoned on to this spiritual deficit. Nationalists and fundamentalists of various hues have understood people's yearning for something larger, for connection with others, and they have sought to feed it - by telling people they are valuable, not as generators of income, but as members of a tribe. (Think of the imams who converted Richard Reid from a petty criminal into a would-be suicide bomber.)
The social-democratic left has offered no such compelling message. Tony Blair, like Bill Clinton before him, promises education that will equip kids to compete in the global economy - regarding children as mini-earners, not small people. The old left's demands for economic equality were incomplete, too, amounting to a plea for "an equal chance to get our snouts in the trough". Economic sustenance matters, of course, says Lerner; but it's not enough.
Instead, what's needed is a "new bottom line" - a way of seeing the world which refuses to accept the current, materialist premise. Corporations would no longer be judged by their profit and loss, but by their impact on the environment and the lives of the people they affect. They would have to submit to an "ethical impact report," and could be denied the right to trade if they failed to meet the terms of a social responsibility charter. Likewise, schools would be rated not just on exam results but on their success in turning out caring children, respectful of the people and space around them. The new bottom line would apply similar, enlightened standards to every institution in our lives, from supermarkets to hospitals and prisons.
It sounds like dreamer's pie, high in the sky. But Lerner is ready for that charge. "Feminists refused to be realistic - and they were right!" he says. They set out to change the world, too, with a list of demands dismissed at the time as utopian, flaky nonsense. Three decades later, nobody is laughing. The same goes for civil rights or gay rights.
But Lerner's confidence has deeper roots. He is an American Jew and both America's founding fathers and Judaism share an animating creed, as worth hearing in 2002 as it ever was: that humankind does not have to inherit the world - it can make the world anew.