Usury & Neighbourliness

It is a month or two after attending my first academic conference ever and I have a humble little thought that I am processing that I thought I’d share.

The conference is the Oceanic Conference of International Studies and it brings together a whole host of scholars from across the International Relations discipline. It was pretty big, with several dozen papers presented every day and 150-ish delegates from the region.

It was quite a buzz, in the geekiest sense of the word. Academic nerds are a special breed of their own, especially IR nerds and it was nice to talk to people who’s eyes didn’t glaze over as soon as you say ‘normative’ or ‘critical theory’!

The final address of the conference was a last minute panel of four delegates who were asked to give no-more than 15 minutes on what they thought is the biggest challenge for world politics in the next 10-15 years and what is the ray of hope shining through.

Three out of the four panelists presented climate change from three different angles and one discussed demagogic populism. They are all correct, these are significant challenges that we have to deal with. Populism and the return of strong man politics is actually killing people and climate change will transform the planet we live on irrevocably.

But… here’s my small contribution, these challenges are really only symptoms of a much deeper malaise. I would argue that both climate change and demagoguery are the result of human’s tendency to grasp and use everything and everyone for our own ends. We consume our planet with little thought of the consequences, elite political classes pit their constituencies against each other to maintain the status quo, ordinary people use their neighbour for their own petty gain, and so on an so forth…

This is the single biggest challenge facing the world in the next 10-15 years: kicking our habit of using people and things for our own selfish gain.

Shortly after I got back from the conference, a tragic series of events brought racial discrimination and tension in the United States front and center of the ridiculous 24/7 news cycle for at least a week. It further drove home to me that root cause of the malaise that pessimists seem to enjoy detailing is our infinite capacity to use everything and everyone for self-centered ends. At the heart of every mass shooting in the is a human being who uses other’s deaths to magnify himself (or herself). At the heart of the failure to take collective action against Climate Change is a the petty desire of prosperous nation-states to magnify their own economic prosperity in the short term at the expense other nation-states. Demagoguery and strong man politics are symptoms of a profound social disconnect, distrust and hostility between groups of people in society. Our neighbours become faceless scapegoats for our hardships. They are ‘takers’ ‘dole-bludgers’ who need ‘fixing’, as if you can just reprogram people to be made in our own distorted image of a ‘good productive citizen’ and strongmen promise to do that. They cynically, divide and conquer for their desire for power or ‘stability’.

In the last month, I have been musing on this thought and I stumbled across this from an intellectual I very much admire:

“We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable… But we have to love our neighbour because he is there – a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because because he is an accident.”

G. K. Chesterton, Heretics, 1905, Dover Publications Inc, New York, p99.

That passage totally blew me away, and I also had to read it three or four times (thanks prince of paradox and stupidly long sentences) and I will explain a little further.

Chesterton nails I think, the difference between humanitarianism and actual good ol’ fashion neighbourliness. Anyone can love humanity because its an abstraction. It’s faceless. It’s easy to love because you don’t actually have to do anything to prove it. You can be a self-indulgent prat and feel good about yourself for donating your collection of Degas to the Met because it is ‘for humanity’s enrichment’. You’re probably also a jerk who complains to the doorman about the homeless man who sleeps in the shelter of the forecourt of the Met.

Now, I’m not ragging on art, collectors and museums. What I am questioning is the way we use the abstraction of humanity (which likes art) to ignore the messy, frightening and very real, human neighbour (who requires beauty, and food, and shelter, and belonging). When individuals do not love their neighbour, it trickles up to the state and into international society. Citizens who are in a habit of usury have leaders who also in the habit of usury; leaders who see no issue with usury because ‘I have a mandate’ use their neigbouring nation-states in a zero-sum survival game, whether they invade, economically exploit, or ignore humanitarian crises.

For as John Paul II argues, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s use. We are not going to solve Climate Change solely by wrangling deals at International Organisations, politicking and educated polemics. We solve it by choosing to do what that which is the best interests of our neighbour; our actual neighbour next door, on our street and in our geographic region. Love is not soft, wishy-washy, let’s all hold hands and sing kumbya stuff. It’s hard and requires grit, prudence and foresight to stick it out when the benefits of doing so aren’t readily apparent. The world does need a little more love and more people and leaders with the courage to eschew humanity for their neighbours.


Compliments welcome, but I'll settle for criticism...

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