Realsociology

A hyperreflexive blog focussing on critical sociology, infographics, Buddhism and extreme early retirement

How the median income earner could retire at 52

Posted by Realsociology on September 3, 2014

Over the summer I worked out that a 35 year old earning the median salary could potentially retire at 52, if they just stop buying crap they don’t need now. In contrast, the expenditure levels of the average worker-consumer effectively tie them into working until the current standard retirement age of 68.

This post is simultaneously a critique of the ordinary worker-consumer and of the Extreme-Early-Retirement model, which I don’t think can be applied in its fullest sense to an average person in the U.K. (Although if someone wants to modify my stats using different investment models to see if the retirement date could be brought forward, I’d be interested!).

In this blog post I compare two hypothetical 35 year old individuals (4) who both earn the median UK salary. One individual has average consumption and expenditure while the other has in mind the goal of retiring as early as possible and so is much more frugal, without completely having cut themselves off from society.

As testimony to my lack of Open Office Calculator and Inkscape skills, this is represented below:

Ret Info

To make reading this more meaningful, you should refer to this spread sheet throughout – Comparing 33 years of expenditure

For the sake of making an easy comparison, I’ve used expenditure figures based on one person living alone for the remainder of their life, and imagined that they have just bought their first property at the age of 35. The reason for selecting a 35 year old is because this is the age by which most people are settled into a stable career, and this is also the age by which most people are at least starting to think about retirement, if not yet looking forward to it in the near future. It also happens to be the age at which today’s typical graduate student can reasonably have expected to have paid off their student debts and have some kind of savings towards their first property. Although the figures in each expenditure category will vary considerably depending on variables such as age, or household make up, the levels of expenditure are generally not going to be that far away from how the majority of people spend their money for much of their lives, and thus most people should at least recognise something of their own and their friends’ expenditure habits in these figures.

However, to satisfy those who just can’t get over the problems of using averages when variables which will differ widely, I’ve included a link (4) to the spread sheet where I’ve done my calculations so you can add in your own expenditure and income levels in order to personalise these calculations for yourself, or you can even modify at a deeper level to add in things such as inflationary effects, investment returns and changes in circumstance over time.

The purpose of this exercise is to put in the starkest terms possible how many years and months (expressed in decimal terms) of one average human life one individual would have to spend working to buy certain things for the remainder of one’s normal working adult human life. In those stark terms – The expenditure levels of the average-consumer effectively lock them into working until the current standard retirement age of 67-8, while the frugal-consumer, assuming they maintain their frugal levels of consumption, will be able to retire when they are 51, or 14 years earlier, or in half as much time as the average consumer on the average wage.

 

Executive summary – A comparison of the 33 expenditure patterns of an average-consumer compared to a hypothetical frugal-consumer.

As far as I see it, there are three main factors which work together to keep the average 35 year old worker-consumer locked into the need to work for 33 years until they are 67-8. In terms of overall expenditure, the single most significant item is the 25 year mortgage with massive interest payments (costs 9 years). However, this lock in occurs primarily because the high cost of car ownership (costs 5 years), and what I can only characterise as fragmented expenditure on a range of unnecessary consumer frivolities (costs 4 years), which together means that a person earning the average median salary has no choice other than to drag the mortgage out over a 25 year period, and accept the attendant massive interest costs.

In contrast, what I call the frugal-consumer chooses to get rid of the car and buys a bike (saving 4 years), radically reduces consumption of frivolities (saving 2.3 years), and in addition makes some relatively marginal savings on necessities (saving 1.5 years) such as food and utilities. Taken together, these changes in lifestyle allow for an 11 year mortgage repayment term and much lower interest payments as a result (saving 2 years). All of this, factored with the lower cost of living, mean that this individual could potentially accrue enough savings over 16 to years to pay for 33 years worth of frugal consumption, allowing for an early retirement age of 52.

In future blog posts, I’ll compare expenditures across four categories – housing, transport (focusing on the car), consumer frivolities and things which may be reasonably regarded as necessities.

If you can’t wait, you can always buy my book and help me retire a few minutes earlier…..

 

Boring but important – A few (selected) notes on data sources and expenditure categories and statistics

Categories of Expenditure In my analysis below I have four main expenditure categories, mainly drawn from The Office for National Statistics’ Family Expenditure Survey (5) -Mortgage repayments -Transport costs -Necessities – food, utilities, council tax, clothes, pensions contribution, communication, maintenance of dwelling, health -Consumer frivolities – recreation and culture, restaurants and hotels, ‘miscellaneous’, household goods and services, alcohol and tobacco and education.

To get my figures for individual expenditure based on one individual living along I’ve mainly used the data from the ONS’ family spending survey and divided by the average household size (2.4 people) where it makes sense to do this (dividing makes sense for clothes, but not for council tax). Because the figures are mostly weekly, I’ve multiplied by 52 to get the annual figures and then 33 to get the 33 year overall expenditure to the normal retirement age. I’ve calculated how many years working it would take the average consumer to pay for one category of expenditure earning the median net salary by  dividing the total cost of 33 years worth of expenditure by this figure (£21, 240). Where housing costs are concerned, I’ve used the figures for the cost of repaying the average mortgage which is £121 000 according to this is money (6).  Here, for the average-consumer repayment is over a 25 year term, while for the frugal-consumer, the repayment period is over an 11 year term.

Median Income

According to the UK Annual Survey of hours and earnings (7) median, full-time gross weekly earnings stands at £517.00 per week, which amounts to (*52) a median gross annual salary of £26884, which equates to a take home annual salary of £21, 240, or a monthly salary of £1770 after income tax and national insurance are taken out (£408/ week for those who like to work in weeks).

Potential problems with my modelling

Firstly, I don’t take into account inflation, I’ve just worked out everything at today’s prices, and neither do I take into account any returns you might make investing rather than paying down the mortgage, which is the main early-retirement strategy in my scenario. However, these two things being equal in both my average and frugal-consumer examples, you are still a lot better of spending as little as possible on anything other than the mortgage or savings. Another potential limitation of the model is that it is mainly based on someone having a stable job, and being single, although it is possible to ‘stick to the programme’ while moving around jobs and holding down a relationship, maybe even kids, just a lot more difficult.

 

References

(4)See the spread sheet above

(5)Office for National Statistics – Family Spending 2013 http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/family-spending/family-spending/2013-edition/index.html

(6)http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/mortgageshome/article-2553023/Two-thirds-time-buyers-turn-Bank-Mum-Dad-deposit-help.html

(7)ONS – Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings 2013 – http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ashe/annual-survey-of-hours-and-earnings/2013-provisional-results/stb-ashe-statistical-bulletin-2013.html

Posted in But what can I do?, Capitalism, Infographics, Retirement - Early, Things I like, Uncategorized, Work | Tagged: , , | No Comments »

Increasing income inequality in the UK

Posted by Realsociology on August 30, 2014

I thought this infographic showing income inequality was worth sharing (From the Equality Trust) –

income-inequality-uk-2

Unfortunately (if you think income inequality is bad!) things have got even worse since 2012!

Britain’s top executives are now paid around 130 times their average employee, according to analysis released today by the High Pay Centre think-tank. 

Income inequality has got a LOT WORSE in recent decades. In 1998, the average FTSE 100 CEO was paid 47 times their average employee, which means that while average incomes have stagnated in relation to the cost of living, the incomes of the very richest have almost trebled in 15 years.

The video below illustrates this in stark terms by comparing the typical wage of a nurse with that of a typical CEO, the headline figures being as follows:

  • A CEO earns as much in 3 days as a nurse does in a year.

  • A CEO earns more in a year than a nurse will earn in her entire life.

  • If we redistributed the income of the top 1%, then on average each household in the UK would be better off by £3K a year.

 Related questions you might like to think about include….

1. Why does such income inequality exist?

2. Is this fair? (are CEOs worth 130 times more than their average employee?)

3. Is income inequality good or bad for society?

4. If you’ve answered ‘no’, and ‘bad’ to questions 2 and 3, can anything be done about increasing income inequality?

Posted in Changing Britain, Infographics, Marxism, Wealth and Income Inequality | Tagged: , , | No Comments »

Early Retirement Extreme – A Summary

Posted by Realsociology on August 27, 2014

EREI came to conclusion over summer that if I could make this 6 week holiday my life, my life would be a lot nicer. Hence why I’ve got the early retirement bug and hence this blog post summarising the following book -

Early Retirement Extreme offers a critical intellectual framework for rethinking your approach to retirement that would allow someone on the median salary to retire several years earlier, and the more you earn, the earlier you should be able to achieve this goal. (The book has helped me (on £40+K) to work out an 8-12 year early retirement plan, which I’ll post on later).

Early Retirement Extreme is not a step by step guide about how to achieve early retirement. It is a critique of the paucity of normative ways of thinking about work-consumption-retirement and an overview of an alternative way of thinking about this nexus which ultimately means working and consuming less and retiring a lot earlier than normal.

If I could pick one single stand-out idea which captures the ethos of the book it is this: If your current yearly income is £10 000 and you spend 75% and save 25%, it will take you 3 years to accumulate enough savings to take 1 year off. If you invert this ratio by spending 25% and saving 75% then after 3 years you can take 9 years off.

While this hypothetical example doesn’t factor in real-life variables such what you might actually be earning, or inflation or interest on savings, it does illustrate the central principle of the book – Whatever your income, if you get used to living on as little money as possible and save as much as possible, then you will be able to retire A LOT earlier than the norm. In this model, early retirement will also require you to invest sensibly (this is not an anti-capitalist manifesto!) and develop a range of skills (social, physical, practical and technical) which will make you a more resilient person who is able to meet their downward-adjusted needs and wants with much less money.

By saving 75% of his income Fisker managed to become financially independent in five years, ane the blog recommends that you aim to save at least 40-60% of your income to make early retirement possible (I’ve managed 56%).

In Fisker’s model, the first step to early retirement is to get over the habitual way of thinking about work as something we do for 40 years, and to get over the idea that a high-level of consumption is what we do with those small chunks of time when we are not working. In his view, many of the consumer goods and services which are regarded as normal have little real value, and as examples he lists everything from kitchen gadgets to gym memberships but also cars and higher education.

Instead of working-consuming for 40 years, Fisker suggests that we stop consuming and start saving and we spend our non-working time developing ‘resilience skills’ which will make us less dependent on money. He suggests four types of skill – practical (e.g. building your own house rather than paying £100K interest on a mortgage), technical (a diverse range of professional skills), physical (being able to cycle rather than needing to drive), and social (sharing a house rather than living alone).

Each individual will approach early retirement in different ways depending on their own specific circumstances, and Fisker sugggests that it is up to the individual to weigh up their own talents and find their own individual (or couple/ small network) path to retiring early – In this vision, thinking for yourself, and creativity are crucial.

The fact that the idea of saving 75% of your income will seem unrealistic to most and down-right impossible to many is, to Fisker, simply a sign of how colonised our minds have become by societal work-consumption-retirement norms and very early on in the book Fisker contrasts his own creative ‘renaissance’ approach to early retirement to the slavish mentality which keeps us chained to our sub-optimal 40 hour a week/ 40 year career working norm.

He uses Plato’s cave analogy to illustrate how we have become wage slaves, the wall in his modern rendering of this tale representing us being trapped by the multitude of things we mistakenly think we need. However, unlike physical walls, our chains are mental, because rather than using our imagination to creatively break free of this cycle, we develop excuses which keep us locked into this cycle of a long-career and short-retirement.

Fisker criticises what he casts as the ‘wage-credit-spend-consume-retire on a million-cycle’ – Into which we have been duped. He is especially critical of our wasteful consumption practices – we are taught to be materialists through toys from childhood and later on our mortgage-purchased houses become places in which we store stuff which goes largely unused.

As briefly outlined above, rather than spending, Fisker’s solution to breaking free of this cycle is simple – spend less and save like what appears to be crazy to build a relatively small retirement pot. His own version of retirement really is extreme – saving 75% of his income, it took him 5 years to retire on a third of the median income (something like $700 annually), reducing his expenditure to the very basics of life and finding creative ways to enable him to live on less.

Given that he lives on $7000/ year, it seems reasonable to assume that he had an income of $30 000 over these five years of saving, meaning that he has ‘retired’ on an income pot of $150 000, although it will almost certainly be more than that given that he appears knowledgeable about investing.

Obviously this is more than most people will be earning in their late 20s/ early 30s when he started out on his early retirement mission, but Fisker holds that it is the 75-25 ratio that is the crucial thing, and more crucially, the mindset to spend as little as you can by finding creative ways to avoid the con-of-consumption and save what remains.

If you haven’t already done so, I thoroughly recommend checking out the early retirement extreme blog which has details of many people on a mission to retire early, and in a future post I’ll put together a number of links to U.K. based early retirers…

You might also like…

How the median income earner could retire at 52

Your Mortgage or your life…

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For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until one of us decides that we should part

Posted by Realsociology on August 23, 2014

After a year’s break I’ve now got the time to start blogging again…. here goes…

Lots of useful ideas in this 30 minute Thinking Allowed podcast on Love, which focusses on the idea of lifelong love and its relationship to marriage…

Just a few of the key points made throughout the programme (NB this is from memory)…

While the feeling of being ‘in love’ might be the same in all socieities, our ideas and expectations surrounding this emotion, and especially its relationship to marriage are shaped by the society in which we live, so yes, even elements of love are socially constructed! To my mind the key point of the podcast is that we now have higher expectations of marriage than ever before in history – The norm today is to see marriage as primarily about love and passion, as a sort of constant high of mutual emotional fulfilment and not primarily about duty.

To illustrate this all we need do is go back a hundred years or so and look at Britain and France – Marriage was much more of a practical arrangement – It wasn’t based on choice, your family had much more of a say in who you got married to, it wasn’t based on finding a person you have a special emotional connection with,  it was based on financial necessity (for women especially) and carrying on the family name. Historically, in this context, people had very low expectations of marriage in terms of love – marriage was about duty, not about ‘passion’.

Today (obviously) most of us expect to have a choice over who we get married to, and the norm is that marriage is about an emotional-connection (love) at least as much as duty. The downside of this is that we expect more than ever of our marriage partners. The person we commit to as a life-long love partner is expected to be a superb lover, devoted parent, attentive counsellor… and there is an expectation that the passion is to be kept alive throughout the relationship. There is an incredible pressure put on ‘that one special person’ to meet the emotional needs of the other (and the children) in today’s marriages.

Of course these high expectations of marriage do not live up to the mundane-reality of married life, which goes some way towards explaining the high divorce rate (as well as the number of extra-marital affairs).

According to Giddens this is all just part and parcel of living in a late-modern society characterised by reflexivity and greater gender equality – Today the normal relationship is what Giddens calls a pure-relationship – a relationship which is ‘internally referential and therefore ‘exists solely for whatever rewards that relationship as such can deliver’ (Giddens, 1991). Unlike in the past, the point of a relationship is not something which roots us in our community, or embeds us into society, or connects us to our god, the point of a relationship is to further our own lives for our own sakes. The result of this is that relationships simply last as long as they work for both partners – unlike in the past there is no other reason to keep the relationship going once it has stopped being fulfilling for both partners. 

According to Giddens there is nothing wrong with having high expectations of marriage and then moving on – this is simply the way modern ‘pure relationships’ are -  we pair up with someone, maybe get married, it lasts a decade or so, and then we move onto the next person, it is all just part of the ‘democratisation of daily-life’, and part of what he calls ‘confluent love’ – which, unlike ‘romantic love’ in modern society is based on finding that special relationship, rather than finding that special person, and to assist in this relationship we have (probably thousands, I haven’t counted) relationship and sex guides, and various marriage and divorce counsellors/ lawyers which have emerged to help us navigate through these occassional transitions in our personal lives.

From Giddens’ point of view it seems as if most people going into a marriage for the long-term are kidding themselves, and that the correct attitude to marriage in late-modern society should not be ‘until death do us part’ it should be ‘until one of us simply decides that we should part’.

On a practical and moral level I’ve no problem with this scenario – I think Giddens is simply describing the most appropriate type of relationship/ marriage (described variously as the pure relationship/ confluent love/ serial monogamy) which fits in with a late-modern society characterised by dual-careerism, near gender-equality and the eroding of traditional norms of masculinity and feminity – but I do see two potential problems with Giddens’ easy acceptance of this type of relationship – Firstly, this would be all well and good if people were honest about it – I don’t think people think of themselves as  being in ‘confluent love’ or in a ‘pure relationship’, and I’m sure people don’t talk about their own relationships in these terms (of course Giddens would probably just say this needs to evolve), and secondly (which is pointed out in the podcast – this type of serially monogomous relationship-lifestyle seems wonderfully applicable to kid-free cosmpolitans, but maybe it’s not so great when kids are involved, and long-term relationships do have this strong tendency to end up with kids being produced.

There was more to the podcast than this, but I’ll leave it there for now…..

Love  and  marriage

Related texts

  • The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution Claire Langhamer by Claire Langhamer.

  • Love: An Unromantic Discussion by Mary Evans

  • The Transformation of Intimacy – Anthony Giddens

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Free Journal Articles!

Posted by Realsociology on November 3, 2013

 

I like to keep up to date with current research, but not working in a university means I don’t anything like the access that bought-academics have.

No doubt there are ways of hacking into Athens systems and getting very broad access to all sorts of academic material for free. Unfortunately, while this is ethical (given that most publishers do absolutely nothing to justify the cost of their journals – all the intellectual labour is done for free don’t forget), this wouldn’t be legal, so I would not recommend this – There are however, a few ways you can get hold of journal articles for free….

The British Library – Of course you’ll need to be able to get up there, and you’ll have to register for a reader’s pass in advance – but this is a great way to get concentrated into some serious reading, given that’s pretty much all you can do in one of their reading rooms. The way to use the BL is to blitz it when you’ve got half a dozen or more expensive or otherwise innacessible texts to read. Personally I think it’s a great way to spend a Saturday. You also get free WiFi, and water (outside the reading rooms).

http://www.academia.edu/ – You have to open up a free account, but then you can search and download a whole range of presentations, books and journal articles. Some of these might be works in progress.

http://www.jstor.org/ – This is one for serious tightwads – the free account allows you to store up to 3 articles on your ‘bookshelf’ to read – Once two weeks have passed, you can store more. So you only get 3 articles for free every fortnight, but is’t better than nothing. There are also subscription options that allow you to download more stuff.

http://online.sagepub.com/ – Not normally free, but I mention this because at time of writing, they’d just ended a free trial period during which you could download most of their journals – keep an eye out for future trials, heavy on the sociology content.

Scribd.com – According to the blurb…. ‘On Scribd, readers can find everything from up-and-coming books by new authors, to court filings that have been making the news, to academic papers from scholars around the world. With a Scribd subscription, readers can have unlimited access to best-selling books and premium documents, and read them on any iOS and Android smart phone, tablet or desktop.’ OK It’s not free – last time I checked it was $8.99 a month, but you can always search for what’s there and then blitz-download…. As far as I remember I got ‘coming of age in second life’ and ‘fear of freedom’ from Scribd. NB although I do actually pay, I think you can get a lot of material for free, without subscribtion. Either way, it’s worth a mention here!

 

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Summary of Liquid Modernity Chapter Five – Community

Posted by Realsociology on November 1, 2013

Bauman starts of the chapter summarising the liberal-communitarian debate about the relationship beetween the individual and society.

He reminds us that the individual according to the likes of Kant, Descartes and Baccon, could come to truth by using pure reason, and that all individuals if just left alone from the distortions of community would arive at the same notions of truth.

Communitarians criticised this by pointing out that the individual could never be free because individuals are socialised – e.g. through language.

But Bauman points out that it was never clear whether the critiques were saying that the image of the self-contained individual was untrue or just harmful.

Today, says Bauman, the liberal-communitarian debate concerns whether or not liberating the individaul from communal constraints is good or bad. Also today, communities are more like a light cloak rather than an iron cage and the reason why we are concerned for community is because it is in decline. Furthemore, communities when spoken about are postulated – we can comment on them because we are not really bound by them, they are a choice.

Sociologically speaking, communitarianism is an expected reaction to the liquification of life…. yet today the word community is used loosely… the community in today’s communitarian gospel is not that of Gemeinschaft, it is to be chosen (and we have no choice but to choose) – a choice between different identity reference groups.

However…. the communal world is complete in so far as all the rest is… hostile – a wilderness with enemies. The inner harmony of the communal world shines and glitters against the background of the obscure and tangled jungle outside. It is there, to that wilderness, that people huddling in the warmth of shared identity dump (or hope to banish) the fears which prompted them to seek communal shelter. In Jock Young’s words ‘The desire to demonize others is based on the ontological uncertainties’ of those inside. An ‘inclusive community’ would be a contradiction in terms. Communal fraternity would be incomplete without that inborn fratricidal inclination.

(172-176) Nationalism, mark 2

The community of the communitarian gospel is an ethnic community – the choice is either between being at home or being homeless – it is an essentialising idenitity, (a master identity?).

Here Bauman argues that the nation state was the only success story of ‘community’ in modern times.  he discusses the similarities between nationalism and patriotism (both are basically agressive, not gentle) before suggesting that both are based on exluding others – nationalism is closed, and relies on the vomitting out strangers approach, but at least patriotism is more open ended, it invites people in – but only with the aim of ingesting their difference, still leaving others outside.

(176 – 182) Unity – through similarity or difference?

Both Nationalism and Patriotism depend on ‘othering’ – Unity comes from setting up a boundary and then emphasising the difference between us and them.

He now draws on Bernard Crick to propose another type of unity – that based on unity and conciliation – were people pursue self-identification in a multitude of ways and the ‘polis’ is one of onging negotiation and conciliation of differences.

This later, argues Bauman is the only one which is compatible with liquid modernity (so nationalism is no longer relevant?) – Now that disembededness/ individualisation etc. are so advanced, we must either construct a society in which different people can live together collectively, negotiating and reconciling their differences, or we create a society in which we basically avoid eachother and those who are different to us.

We seem to be in the process of creating the later, at least those in power do….. as evidenced in cyber-enclaves and gated communities, which are privatised solutions to insecurity which cost (while we leave the poor outside in ghettos).

He now sites Sennet who puts a pyscho-sociological gloss on this….

The image of the community is purified of all that may convey a feeling of difference, let alone conflict, in who ‘we’ are. In this way the myth of community solidarity is a purification ritual…. What is distinctive about this mythic sharing in communities is that people feel they belong to eachother, and share together, because they are the same… the ‘we’ feeling, which expresses the desire to be similar, is a way for men to avoid the necessity of looking deeper into each other.

Bauman goes on to say that this is also a bid to avoid confronting vexing questions such as whether the self, frightened and lacking in self-confidence is actually work loving in the first place and whether it deserves to be the basis of a design for society.

In another place (In search of politics 1999) I have discussed the unholy trinity of uncertainty, insecurity and unsafety… each one generating anxiety… with the access to the sources of these out of reach, the pressure shifts elsewhere, to the realm of bodily, domestic and environmental safety. As a result the ‘safety problem’ tends to be chronically overloaded with worries and cravings it can neither carry away or unload. The unholy alliance results in the perpetual thirst for more safety, a thirs which no practical measures can quell since they are bound to leave the primary and perpetually prolific sources of uncertainty untouched.

(182-184) Security at Price

Communitarianism assumes that the cost of increased security is individual freedom. The two cannot be increased simultaneously. Also, the vision of communitarianism is one of an island that protects against the stormy sea, the idea of mastering the sea itself is already abandoned.

Bauman now draws on Durkheim – Society for Durkheim (a view credible at the time) is that body under whose protection we shelter from the horror of our own transcience…. he cites the following quote to emphasise how irrelevant Durkheim’s vie are today… ‘Actions which have a lasting quality are worthy of our volition, only pleasures which endure are worthy of our desires’.

The body and its desires are now longer lived than in Durkheim’s day, but nearly everything else is more transcient – hence the body (along with community) is the only place we can look to for security.

He rounds off this section by suggesting that the body and the community are the only places where we might find security and certainty, and they are lonely places. This has happened because the Nation State has dissolved itself of the responsibility of providing security, or of guaranteeing the security of its citizens.

(185-192) After the Nation-State

There is little hope of salvaging the security and certainty servicecs of the state. This has been erroded by the new global powers (of capital) with the awesome extraterritoriality, speed of movement and evasion/ escape ability; retribution for violating the new global brief is swift and merciless. Indeed, the refusal to play the game by the new global rules is the most mercilessly punishable crime, which the state powers, tied to the ground by their own territorially defined sovereignty, must beware of committing and avoid at all cost….. More often than not, punishment is economic. Insubordinate governments, guilty of protectionist policies or generous public provisions for the ‘economically redundant’ sectors of their populations’ would be refused loans or denied reduction on their debts; local currencies would be made global lepers, speculated against and pressed to devalue, local stocks would fall head down on global exchanges… global investors would withdraw.

Sometimes actual war is necessary, as was the case with Yugoslavia….

Bauman now outlines how history up until heavy modernity was a war over space….. between the settled and the nomads, bewteen the bigger and the smaller,  no longer, today the war is between the quick and the slow. He then argues that what global capitalism wants is the right to be free from commitments, while leaving the tricky issue of security to local goverments, at whatever level these exist.

Four pages are now devoted to outlining the failures of NATO’s attempts to police conflicts. Bauman argues the trend is likely to be to less engagement in local conflicts (the let the war burn itself out approach), before rounding off the chapter suggesting that globalisation has lead to increasing conflicts between communities rather than promoting the peaceful coexistence of communities.

(192-199) Filling the Void

Following Hobsbawm – TNCs would prefer a world with no nation states, or at least smaller states, because these are less powerful and easier to buy. Bauman likes Gidden’s juggernaut analogy, and further suggests that nation states desperately try steer it competitively – they have no choice but to try and attract economic forces favourably because votes depend on it.

The future is one of either supranational regulatory institutions or increasing precariatisation (following Bordieu) – Either way the NS will decline… If this continues, and possibly loses its monopoly on coercion (one if its defining features according to Weber and Elias), it is not at all certain that less violence would be the result. We might just see violence descend to the neo-tribal level.

What could fill this void are what Bauman calles explosive communities, which are born in violence and require violence to continue.

Bauman now draws on Rene Girard’s work on the role of violence in community. Gerard argues that a violent urge is always seeting beneath any community….. To deal with this it needs to be channelled and it is channelled outside of the community – Boundaries are drawn, others created, and unity of the community is periodically enforced by choosing victims from the others to sacrfice. (NB this is all very abstract!)

He now makes a few qualifications, but to be honest I only skim read the rest of this section as I’m not especially interested in this aspect of Bauman’s work at this time, although the point seems to be that explosive communities require violence to define themselves.

Cloakroom Communities

Bauman rounds off by saying that such explosive communities are also cloakroom communities – I’m not sure the word works, it’s supposed to capture their addiction to spectacle the high emotion. He also calls them carnival communities, a better choice of word.

Finally, Bauman mentions that such communities offer no means of grounding the individual, they do not adequately address the destabilising forces which give birth to them!

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Capitalism, Globalisation, Postmodernism, Sociological Theory | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Work in Low Pay, No Pay Britain

Posted by Realsociology on October 30, 2013

In this latest Thinking Allowed podcast on ‘Low pay, no pay’ Britain Laurie Taylor talks to the sociologist, Tracy Shildrick, about her prize winning study of individuals and families who are living in or near poverty. The research was conducted in Teesside, North East England, and focuses on the men and women who’ve fallen out of old working class communities and must now cope with drastically reduced opportunities for standard employment. To my mind, this is a good in-dept illustration of what life is really like for a section of the Precariat (although Shildrick would be more cautious).

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The research is based on the book (published in 2012) – Poverty and insecurity Life in low-pay, no-pay Britain by Tracy Shildrick

This book explores how men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced and where people exist without predictability or security in their lives, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many.

Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment.

Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women this research challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain.

Below is a summary of the main points of the podcast

  • The low-pay no-pay cycle is much more common than long-term unemployment. Most people intreviewed were committed to work, even though the jobs they did were not ‘comfortable’ jobs. This was one of their most consistent findings…. which in part explains why these people go back time and time again. This of course is the opposite to what we here in the media about people ‘languishing on benefits’.
  • It is not a guarantee that taking up employment will mean an individual is going to better off than on benefits. Most people were ashamed at having to claim benefits.
  • Jobs typically did not last long enough to take workers away from poverty.
  • In work-poverty is – 66% of poverty live in households were at least one person is in-work.
  • The types of work include factory jobs, bars, customer service, often run through agencies.
  • For the people interviewed these type of jobs are not stepping stones to something better – they get one foot on the rung of the ladder, get knocked off, and have to climb back on again.
  • Shildrick is not convinced that the term ‘Precariat’ is accurate enough to describe adequately the experience of all people who are sometimes put into this category. She argues that the experiences of the people she interviewed are different to those of a graduate working for a few years in similar jobs (although the people she interviewed do seem to fit into the definition of the Precariat used by the GBCS below)
  • In response to the idea that better training is the solution to helping people in these jobs, Shildrick suggests we need to look at the bigger picture – society needs these jobs – we need to think ahout how to reward them more appropriately.

Shildrick suggests that it is ultimately employers who have the power to help people out of this cycle. Unfortunately, the trend seems to be of employers being increasingly inflexible while demanding that employees be more flexible.

Links -

1. This seems to be a good in-dept illustration of what life is really like for a section of the Precariat

2. Also a nice illustration of the effects of living in liquid-modernity – The reality is actually bleaker for them than the above research might suggest – As Zygmunt Bauman reminds us (in Liquid Modernity)- ‘The bottom category are the easeist to replace, and  now they are disposabe and so that there is no point in entering into long term commitments with their work colleagues…..  this is a natural response to a flexibilised labour market. This leads to a decline in moral, as those who are left after one round of downsizing wait for the next blow of the axe.

Winner of the British Academy Peter Townsend Prize for 2013 How do men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced? Are we witnessing the growth of a new class, the ‘Precariat’, where people exist without predictability or security in their lives? What effects do flexible and insecure forms of work have on material and psychological well-being? This book is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between social exclusion, poverty and the labour market. It challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain. Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment. Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many. – See more at: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781847429100#sthash.8EnqVw5J.dpuf
Winner of the British Academy Peter Townsend Prize for 2013 How do men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced? Are we witnessing the growth of a new class, the ‘Precariat’, where people exist without predictability or security in their lives? What effects do flexible and insecure forms of work have on material and psychological well-being? This book is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between social exclusion, poverty and the labour market. It challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain. Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment. Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many. – See more at: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781847429100#sthash.8EnqVw5J.dpuf
Winner of the British Academy Peter Townsend Prize for 2013 How do men and women get by in times and places where opportunities for standard employment have drastically reduced? Are we witnessing the growth of a new class, the ‘Precariat’, where people exist without predictability or security in their lives? What effects do flexible and insecure forms of work have on material and psychological well-being? This book is the first of its kind to examine the relationship between social exclusion, poverty and the labour market. It challenges long-standing and dominant myths about ‘the workless’ and ‘the poor’, by exploring close-up the lived realities of life in low-pay, no-pay Britain. Work may be ‘the best route out of poverty’ sometimes but for many people getting a job can be just a turn in the cycle of recurrent poverty – and of long-term churning between low-skilled ‘poor work’ and unemployment. Based on unique qualitative, life-history research with a ‘hard-to-reach group’ of younger and older people, men and women, the book shows how poverty and insecurity have now become the defining features of working life for many. – See more at: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?K=9781847429100#sthash.8EnqVw5J.dpuf

Posted in Book reviews, summaries and excerpts, Capitalism, Changing Britain, Neoliberalism, social class, Wealth and Income Inequality | Tagged: , , | No Comments »

Summary of Liquid Modernity Chapter Four – Work

Posted by Realsociology on October 29, 2013

Chapter Four – Work

Bauman begins by citing, amongst others, Henry Ford as an example of someone who epitomised Modernity’s attitude towards work in relation to time. Work, done in the present, was valuable because it was driving history forwards. Those in power had such a belief in their hold over the present that they could look forward with confidence, feeling they could plan the future, control it. Progress, says Bauman, is a declaration that history is not relevant.

(132 – 140) Progress and Trust in History

Progress stands not for any quality of history, but of a self-confidence in the present. Faith in progress stems from two things – the belief that time is on our side, and that we are the ones who make things happen. As Alain Peyrefitte put it – the only resource capable of making mass transformations is trust in society now and in the future we will share.

Are we propelled into the future by the horrors of the past, or are we dragged towards it by the hope of better things to come? The sole evidence by which to make a judgement is the play of memory and imagination, and what links or seperates them is our self confidence or its absence. To the former, progress is an axiom, to the later the idea is laughable.

Aside for H. Ford quote about excercise – ‘Excercise is bunk. If you are healthy, you don’t need it; if you are sick, you won’t do it.’

Today, we have lost our self-confidence and thus our trust in progress because….

Firstly there is a lack of an agency able to ‘move the world forwards – this is because the state remains fixed to a locality, but power flows well beyond its reach, and thus power has flowed from politics – thus we no longer know who it is that is going to move society forwards (thus our main question is not what is to be done, but who is going to do it)

Secondly, the idea of the ‘great society’ is dead – The ones that were planned (Marxism and economic liberalism) have both failed to live up to their expectations, and anyone who proposes a grand plan today is laughed out of court.

However, the modern idea of progress, even if there can be no salvation by society, is not one that is likely to end soon….. the life of modern men is still understood as a task, something to be worked on, it is something to be made…. The question  is, what might progress actually look like in the age of ‘no salvation by society’?

The idea of progress has been deregulated and privatised – deregulated because the offers to ‘upgrade’ present realities are many and diverse and whether something counts as an upgrade is open to contest, also we can’t be certain if what we do will result in upgrading) , and privatised because individuals are called upon to use their own individual wits to improve their lives.

He now quotes Beck’s risk society – The tendency is towards the emergence of individualised forms and conditions of existence….. one has to choose and change one’s social identity as well as take the risks of doing so…. The individual himself or herself becomes the reproduction unit of the social in the lifeworld.

The problem is that the feasibility of progress rests on our hold on the present but we llive in a world of universal flexibility… under conditions of acute and prospectless Unsicherheit, penetrating all aspects of individual life – the sources of livelihood as much as the partnerships of love or common interests, parameters of professional as much as cultural identity, modes of presentation of self in public as much as patterns of health and fitness, values worth pursuing as much as the way to pursue them. And we all know from experience that plans may not work out like we plan them.

Bauman now suggests that Chaos Theory in science fits the mood of liquid modernity perfectly.

Where science and work use to anchor us to the present and guide us to the future (basically giving us structure), now they do not, and as we lose hold on the present, the less the future can be embraced… Stretches of time labelled future get shorter and the time-span of life as a whole is sliced into episodes dealt with ‘one at a time’. Continuity is no longer the mark of progress, life has become much more episodic.

Jacques Attali suggest that the labyrinth is the image which illustrates our ideas of the future. Chance or surprise rule in the labyrinth rather than pure reason.

Today work does not offer us a secure route to the future, it is more characterised by ‘tinkering’, and it does not have that fundamental grounding feature it had in the heavy modern period. For most people work is now judged on its aesthetic value – how satisfying it is of itself…. it can no longer give us satisfaction on the basis of ‘driving the nation forwards’, instead it is judged on its capacity to be entertaining or amusing.

(140-147) The rise and fall of labour

This section is simply a classic statement that industrialisation lead to freeding labour from the land, only to be tied to the Fordist Factory, but at least unionised Labour and Capital were equally as tide to eachother – and came to be backed up by the welfare state. All of this gave some measure of stability.

(148 – 154) From marriage to cohabitation

The present day uncertainty is a powerful individualising force. It divides instead of uniting. The idea of ‘common interests’ grows ever more nebulous and loses all pragmatic  value.

He now follows Bordieu, Granovetter and Sennet to flesh out how changes in the conditions of unemployment have led to workers seeing traditional unionisation as being inadequate because of episodic, temporary work placements – there is little change for mutual loyalty and commitment to take root and this goes hand in hand with disenchantment. The place of employment now feels like a camping site.

Bauman likens this loosening of ties between labour and capital as being like cohabitation…. in the background is the assumption of temporariness….. but this disengagement is  unilaterial,,,, capital has cut itself free from the needs of this particular bunch of labourers. Capital, of course, is not as volatile as it wants to be, but it is extraterratorial, lighter than ever.

To an unprecented degree politcs has become a tug of war between the speed with which capital can move and the slowing down capacities of local powers to ward off the  threat of capital disinvesment, and paradoxically, one of the ways local authorities can keep capital in place is by allowing it freedom to leave.

Today, speed of movement has become perhaps the paramount factor of social stratification and the hierarchy of domination…. The main sources of profits seem to be ideas rather than in material objects… and the objects of competition here are the consumers, not the producers.

He now cites Reich’s four categories of work…From top to bottom – decreasing status.

Symbol manipualtors

The reproduction of labour

Personal services

Routine Labourers

The bottom category are the easeist to replace, and they now they are disposabe and so that there is no point in entering into long term commitments with their work colleagues…..  this is a natural response to a flexibilised labour market. This leads to a decline in moral, as those who are left after one round of downsizing wait for the next blow of the axe.

At the other end of the pole are those for whom space matters little – They do not own factories, nor occupy administrative posititons – Their knowledge comes from a portable asset – knowledge of the laws of the labyrinth…. to them novelty is good, precariousness is value, they love to create and play and embrace volatility.

Bauman now relays a tale of being in an airport lounge and seeing two business men spend and hour and a half each on their phones conducting business as if the other did not exist – such people, he says, exist in outer space – they are not connected to any particular locality.

He now turns to Nigel Thrift’s essay on soft capitalism who focuses on its vocabulary – surfing, networks, coalitions, fuzzy logic…. this is an ambigous and chaotic world where knowledge ages quickly.

He rounds off by saying that those who are in charge are viritually networked and for them information moves at an incredible pace…. the life expectancy of knowledge is short, they live in a world of the perpetuality of new beginnings.

However, such people are ‘remotely controlled’ – they are dominated and controlled in a new way – leadership has been replaced by the spectacle, and surveillance by seduction.

(155-160) Excursus: a brief history of procrastination

Cras, in Latin, means tomorrow. To procrastinate is to manipulate the possibilities of the presence of a thing by putting ott, delaying and postponing its becoming present, keeping it at a distance and deferring its immediacy.

Procrastination as a cultural practice came into its own with dawn of modernity. Its new meaning and ethical signficance derived from the new meaningfulness of time, from time having a history, from time being history.

Procrastination is what makes life meaninful. To illustrate this, Bauman spends some time outlining the meaning of the pilgrim in modernity. The pilgrim is someone who is going somewhere, but they are alllowed the time to reflect on where it is they are going, thus the pilgrimage is meaningful. The pilgrim’s life is a travel-towards-fulfilment, and travelling towards fulfillment gives the pilgrim’s life its meaning,but the meaning it gives is blighted with a suicidal impulse; that meaning cannot survive the completion of its destiny.

Procrastination reflects this ambivalence…. the pilgrim procrastinates in order to be better prepared to grasp things that truly matter.

The attitudinal/ behavourial precept which laid the foundation of modern society and rendered the modern way of being-in-the-world both possible and inescapable was the principle of ‘delay of gratification’… without this, there is no idea of progress.

Procrastination, in the form of ‘delay of gratification’ (he’s pushing the definition of procrastination here!) says Bauman ‘put sowing above harvesting, and investing above creaming off the savings, but this delay also elevated the status of the end product to be consumed…. the more severe the self-restraint, the greater would be, eventually, the opportunity for self-indulgence. Do save, since the more you save, the more money you will be able to spend. Do work, sine the more you work, the more you will consume.

Owing to its ambivalence procrastination fed two opposite tendencies. One led to the work ethic another led to the aesthetic of consumption…. however, today we no longer value delay of gratification, this is just seen as hardship plain and simple!

Today we live in a ‘casino culture’ – we don’t want to wait for our pleasures, we want them immediately, in this moment, and moreover, each moment of pleasure lasts for a shorter and shorter instant… thus procrastination is under attack – under pressure are the delay of gratifications arrival, and the delay of its departure.

I think this might be the most importat bit….

In modern society, the ethic of delayed gratification justified the work ethic, and we may need something similar to in the consumer society…. we need the principle of disatisfaction to justify the central role of desire….

To stay alive and fresh desire must, time and time again, be gratified, yet gratification spells the end of desire. A society ruled by the aesthetic (NB not ethic) of consumption needs a very special kind of gratification, akin to the Derridean phamakon – the healing drug and poison both at the same time, administered slowly and never in its final dose…. a gratification not really gratifying.

Today, our culture wages a war agains procrastination, a war against taking distance, reflection, continuity and tradition, a war against what Heidegger’s ‘modality of being’.

(PP160-165) Human bonds in the Fluid World

The feeling of our time summed up in works such as ‘Risk Society’ involves a combination of the experience of…

insecurity -of position, entightlements, livelihood

uncertainty – about continutation and future stability

unsafety – of one’s body, one’s self and their extensions… possessions and neighbourhoods.

Bauman now suggests that, in terms of livelihood, unemployment is structural and all we need do is look around to see that no one is in a really secure job…. and in this context, immediate gratification is rational. It makes even more sense when we know that fashions come and go (enjoy it now or the moment is gone) and that assets can become liabilities.

Precarious economic and social conditions make people look at objects as disposable, for one off use…. the individual should travel light.. and we apply this to things as well as to human bonds (which rot and disintegrate if not worked at).

Partnerships today tend to be seen as things to be consumed, not produced. In the consumer market, the ostensibly durable products are as a rule offered for a trial period, return promised if the purchaser is less than fully satisfied. If the partner in partnership is conceptualised in such terms, then it is no longer the task of both people to make the relationship work – til death do us part no longer applies, as soon as our partner ceases to give us pleasure, we look to discard and replace them. This leads to temporariness in relationships.

There is also somthing of the self-fulfilling prophecy about this!

Perceiving the world, complete with its inhabitants, as a pool of consumer items makes the negotation of human bonds exceedingly hard. Insecure people tend to be irritable, they are also deeply intolerant of anything that stands in the way of thier desires, and since quite a few of their desires are bound to be frustrated, there are plenty of things and

people to be intolerable of. (NB I think he’s arguing that it is lack of face to face stable human bonds that leads to insecurity, unertainty, unsafety, and then that leads to insecurity). He rounds off the section by suggesting that consumption is also lonely, unlike production which requires co-operation towards a joint goal.

(165 -167) The self-perpetuation of non-confidence

Alain Peyrefitte suggested that the common, uniting feature of modern capitalist society was confidence – in oneself, in institutions and in others. They all sustained one another. Together, these three formed the foundational structure of modernity – enabling investment in the future. Employment-Enterprise was the most important of these.

This is no longer the case… no one expects to be in the same job ten years from now, and many of us would prefer to risk our pensions on the stock-market. Bauman also reminds us again of the power imbalance – the precariat especially, bound to the local, are incresingly subject to the whims of capital, which the state is unlikeley to regulate.  I think his point at the end is that the old labour movements are dead (again it’s not that clear).

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A few of my favourite Buddhist stories

Posted by Realsociology on October 26, 2013

Below are a few stories and passages which illustrate some of the key aspects of Buddhism. These provide an immediate feeling for Buddhism (in no particular order), important since Buddhism stresses the importance of whole-being engagement and conscious practise rather than just mere intellectualism.

I’ve selected these stories because they’ve helped with my own understanding of the ‘spirit of Buddhism’,  and together they remind me of the following core aspects of Buddhism.

1. Buddhism is about compassion
2. Buddhism is about just being happy and at peace
3. Buddhism is about well-being, inner peace and stability
4. Buddhism is about being here, now and not running away from your problems
5. Buddhism is about paying attention to everything you do.
6. Buddhism is about realising the inconceivable
7. Buddhism is nothing special

(Two quick qualifying points: this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and these texts do have overlapping themes so might illustrate many of the key ideas below.)

(1) Kusuda The Physician (from the sotry ‘stingy in teaching’)

A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.

“I cannot tell you what it is,” the friend replied, “but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die.”

“That’s fine,” said Kusuda. “I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?”

“Go to the master Nan-in,” the friend told him.

So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in.

Nan-in said: “Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat your patients with kindness. That is Zen.”

Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. “A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of your patients.”

It was not clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the fear of death*. So on the forth visit he complained: “My friend told me that when one learns Zen one loses his fear of death. Each time I come here you tell me to take care of my patients. I know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going to visit you any more.”

Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. “I have been too strict with you. Let me give you a koan.” He presented Kusuda with Joshu’s Mu to work over, which is the first mind-enlightening problem in the book called ‘The Gateless Gate’.

Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (No-Thing) for two years. At length he thought he had reached certainty of mind. But his teacher commented: “You are not in yet.”
Kusuda continued in concentration for another year and a half. His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and, without even knowing it, he was free from concern of life and death.

When he next visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled

(http://www.ashidakim.com/zenkoans/17stingyinteaching.html)

Commentary part one

Kusuda’s ‘access’ ‘no-thing was staring him in the face every day -  all he needed to do was to ‘lose himself’ in the practise of treating his patients with compassion. This short story should serve as a reminder that many of us, in fact, have ample opportunity to practise compassion in our day to day lives. Of course contemplation of Mu may have helped, but the point is, Kusuda was not living a robe wearing monk, initiated into any special sect, his life was nothing special’. In other words, there is no ‘great secret’ to Zen Buddhism. Developing the genuine intention of kindness is sufficient to release yourself from the fear of death  (*fear of death is one of the basic forms of suffering, one of the basic elements of our ordinary mundane existence).

Commentary part two

The importance of compassion is most commonly emphasised in The Tibetan Buddhist tradition, expressed below by The Dalai Llama:

‘Mental states such as kindness and compassion are definitely very positive. They are very useful… I would regard a compassionate, warm, kind-hearted person as healthy. If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door… You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, as you are able to relate to them much more easily. That gives you a spirit of friendship. Then there’s less need to hide things, and as a result, feelings of fear, self doubt and insecurity are automatically dispelled… I think that cultivating positive mental states like kindness and compassion definitely leads to better psychological health and happiness.’

Cutler, H. and The Dalai Lama, 1999 (p28)

(2) Take my Hand -  A Poem by Thich Nhat Hanh

Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will enjoy our walk,
without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Walk peacefully.
Walk happily.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.

Thich Nhat Hanh (2011)

Commentary

The simplicity of this poem speaks volumes. It is a perfect reminder that Buddhism is about peaceful contentment with whatever it is you find yourself doing, in this case walking:

Walk for the sake of walking, walk peacefully, walk happily, and do so in peaceful companionship with others. Walk, just walk.

(3) Matthieu Ricard’s ‘ocean analogy’

About five minutes in Ricard says…..

‘Well being is not just a pleasurable sensation, it is a deep sense of serenity and fulfilment: a state that underlies all emotional states, and pervades all the joys and sorrows which can come one’s way.  Look at the waves coming at the shore. When you are at the bottom of the wave you hit the bottom, you hit the solid rock, when you are surfing on the top you are all elated, so you go from elation to depression, there’s no depth. Now if you look at the high sea, there might be a beautiful calm ocean like a mirror, there might be storms, but the depth of the ocean is still there, unchanged.’

http://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_on_the_habits_of_happiness.html

Commentary

Here, Matthieu Ricard (2004) contrasts the analogy of waves breaking on a shore to the calmness of the deeper ocean to distinguish western notions of happiness from Buddhist notions. Ricard characterises the western notion of happiness as involving ‘doing something pleasurable’ which is analogous to surfing on the crest of a wave, but at other less-pleasurable times, we might be having our heads smashed against a rock onthe shore-line. Whereas in Buddhism, we are striving to develop a characteristic of mind that is more like the deeper ocean rather than the shoreline. Although there are still peaks and troughs of waves, out in the deep, the depths remain undisturbed. It is this deep and stable peace that we are striving for in Buddhism, a stable condition of mind that pervades and enables us to endure all emotional states, all the joys and sorrows that come one’s way.

(4) That’s Not Your Door

In Zen monasteries you must pay constant attention to what you are doing. All your activities are prescribed, and they’re carried out in deliberate stillness. After a time, this can get to you (as it did to one particular zen student) who went to see the master and said.

‘I can’t take this any more, I want out’

The master said ‘O.K, then leave’

As he started for the door the teacher said ‘that’s not your door’

Oh! Sorry.’ The startled fellow looked around and spotted a second door. As he headed for it the teacher said ‘That’s not your door’

‘Oh!’ He looked around for another door. He could see that behind the teacher was a little door normally used by the teacher’s attendant. As he headed for that door the teacher screamed at him ‘That’s not your door!’

Totally bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said. ‘What do you mean? There’s no other door! You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by!’

”If there’s no door you can leave by,’ said the teacher ‘then sit down’.

Hagan, S (1999, 34-5)

Commentary

Wherever you go, there you are. We’re always here, Examine your life and you’ll see this is the case. The master’s ‘sit down’ means to start paying attention to what’s actually going on, rather than running away from it. Right here, and right now, whatever it is you are experiencing, that is the thing to pay attention to. That is Buddhism, plain and simple.

(5) Every Minute Zen

Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: “I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.”

Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in’s pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.

http://www.101zenstories.com/index.php?story=35

Commentary

Buddhism is about paying attention when you are in formal meditation, you must pay attention in day to day life, to whatever it is you are doing, even the most mundane and ‘in-between’ activities. In fact, paying attention to the ‘in-between bits can be very useful practise, given that they actually make up several minutes, sometimes hours in our day. The Venerable Soto recommends paying attention to opening and closing doors, given this is one of those times when we are most likely to be thinking of something else (i.e. what is through the door); Thich Nhat Hanh once made a ‘pact with a staircase’ and every time he now climbs or descends stairs he is careful to do so mindfully.

(6) The Flower Sermon

One problem with any discussion about the nature of Enlightenment is that Enlightenment is something which transcends conceptualisation, and thus the actual experience of it cannot be expressed in words.  This is illustrated in the The Flower Sutra, within the Zen tradition which stresses wordless insight more than most other types of Buddhism.

Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching. But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching. When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak.

“What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”

Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor from that day forward.

(http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/flower-sermon.htm)

Commentary (by Zen Master Bon Haeng)

The Buddha was teaching about the essential nature of reality, an essence not separate from the everyday. It’s the essence we can experience of any and every thing, of every moment. It is just “thus!” Sometimes it’s called “thusness.” This experience is truly indescribable. It doesn’t need to be described because there’s nothing lacking. No words are needed and no words are adequate. This is a taste of “thusness,”…. You could say it’s the essence of life or of awareness, expressed in breath and consciousness and time and you all as one complete perfect moment.

(http://www.kwanumzen.org/2011/please-come-back/)

(7) Nothing Special – From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

If you continue this simple practice (zazen), you will obtain some wonderful power Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special. Strictly speaking, for a human being there is no other practice than this practice. Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature.

While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year your experience will become deeper and deeper, your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life.. The most important thing is to forget alll gaining ideas, all dualistic ideas. In other words, just practixe zazen in a certain posture. Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. The eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.

Suzuki, S, 1998 (pp46-48)

Commentary

Shunryu Suzuki single-handedly brought Zen to the West, and his life and words he emphasised the utter simplicity of Zen practice. Sitting in quiet meditation, giving yourself to your breath, just sitting there, is the core practise in Zen Buddhism. The problem with just sitting there is that it is too easy to fall into the habit of ‘trying to get somewhere’ or ‘praising yourself for getting it right’ or ‘imagining luminescent states’ which, actually, is differing to just sitting there. However, Enlightenment is both wonderful and nothing special, which is different to sitting there thinking how special the inexperience is.

Hence why, as outlined in the very first section of his book (and his only book), just to take this posture (properly) and focus on the breath (attentively) and just sit there, without any gaining thought, this is all you need to do and not-do, this is the conclusion of Buddhism.

Bibliography

Hagan, S (1999) Buddhism Plain and Simple, London: Penguin

Howard C. Cutler and His Holiness The Dalai Lama, (1999) The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. Mobius.

Ricard, M, (2007) Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Atlantic Books

Suzuki, S (1998) Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, New York: Weatherhill

Thich Nhat Hanh (2011) The Long Road Turns To Joy: A Guide To Walking Meditation, Parallex Press, Berkeley, California.

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‘Buddhist Sociology’ by Inge Bell – A summary

Posted by Realsociology on October 24, 2013

Summary of Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

I haven’t done any commentary on this yet, but I thought I’d get this summary out anyway…

The first explicit call for a ‘Buddhist Sociology’ was made by Inge Bell (1979) who suggested that an examination of sociology from within the perspective of the ‘eastern  disciplines’ could  challenge some of the theoretical assumptions of Sociology,  inform research methods, and contribute to a critique of the profession itself.

Buddhist challenges to sociological notions of socialisation

In contrast to sociology’s view of socialisation as a mainly positive process, Bell conceputalised the realisation of Enlightenment as a process of desocialisation in which the individual unlearns everything society has taught them, including dualisms such as good and evil, subject and object, casting the enlightened being as one who, having gone through the process of desocialisation, was free to deviate from social norms and, able to see the world afresh without human concepts.

Bell further suggested that the process of realising Satori, or Enlightenment did not involve resocialisation, a process instead variously described as ‘assimilating a thought system which denies the validity of all thought systems; ‘regaining the qualities of childhood’, and ‘experiencing an expansive, unlimtied state of existence in which ‘every deed expresses originality, creativity…. [in which there is] no conventionality, creativity, no inhibitory motivation….’

Bell however did not entirely dismiss the utility of Socialisation, and accepted that there were some posiitve aspects, such as learning  language, learning to use technology and learning basic social codes, which she contrasted to ‘dangerous’ aspects of socialisation which were those tied to and generated by conern for the fate of the self, such as ideas about the afterlife; beliefs that one can be immortalised through celebrity, myths which justify the will to power, and the master illusion of the self as seperate from its environment.

Buddhist challenges to sociological conceptions of the self

Bell congratulated sociologists such as Mead and Bulmer for recognising that socialisation normally results in the creation of an ideal social-self, which is seperate from the ‘subjectively experienced self’, and that emotional problems such as anxiety can emerge when the ideal self and the ‘me’ don’t converge, but went on to criticise them for viewing the ideal-self as a necessary construction and a legitimate structure without which the individual could not function socially, and one which enabled goal-oriented behaviour, underlying a growth-process.

Bell contrasted this to the ‘Eastern view’ according to which the self is not a fixed entity, rather only a series of occurances and experiences,  and as such ‘I’ am merely a process, a continuous creation and re-creation, changing as ‘I’ enter each social situation. In such a view subjective reflections on one’s ‘ideal-self’ merely represent a refusal to accept reality fully (and thus one has to question the validity of engaging in depth-studies of the constructions of such ficticious selves)

Bell suggested that Peter Berger’s micro-analysis of the self came closest to Buddhist conceptions of the self, evidenced in such lines as ‘deception and self-deception are at the very heart of social reality….. in the end we must return to the nightmare moment when we feel ourselves stripped of all names and identities’, but criticised Berger for seeeing the proccess of realising one’s lack of self’ as a wholly negative process.

As a way of overcoming the attendent fear at the ‘death of the self’ Bell argued that we should incorporate the possibility of an Enlightened being into Sociological analysis, a being who plays many roles but does not use them to confer a sense of self; and one who has seen through the view that the self is normal and inevitable, but none the less goes on as before, but does so with a sense of lightness.

Finally in this section, Bell pointed out that incorporating an Eastern sense of self into the sociological imagination would help us realise that there is something more valuable than the conceptualising, knowledge creating ntellect, called basic intelligence, which is our ability to perceive and deal with reality without reference to accumulated knowledge.

A Buddhist contribution to methods

In a relatively short section on Metholodogy, Bell suggested that the Eastern paths could offer social researchers a  potential way of going beyond the distortions which arise because of self-interest and to engage in genuinley value-free research.

She celebrated Mannheim, Mills and Gouldner for their realisation that to do so man must understand his own position in history and how this shapes perception, but then argued that intellect alone was not enough to lift us above our values. To illustrate this, she cited the example of Mannheim (Ideology and Utopia) who, having developed an analysis of how social position formed ideology, went on to evelate his own class, the ‘social intelligensia’ to the position of the only group in society capable of seeing objectively.

Bell concluded that self-interest is rooted not in intellect, but in emotion, and so in order to transcend self-interest, we need detachment from our emotions, and ultimately to detach ourselves from self. She went on to say that enlightenment must revolutionise the practise of Sociology, which to my mind implies that Bell was suggesting that some form of spiritual training towards self-transcendence is necessary to realise a truly value-free sociology.

Toward an Enlightened Sociology

In this section, Bell vents her frustration at the fact that Sociology has almost nothing to say about how students might actually live in order to raise the quality of their lives, and that this should be remedied by restoring teaching, and personal contact between teacher and student as a central value of the profession in order to encourage students to engage in ‘enlightened self appraisal’.

She suggests that the teaching of Sociology would be most useful if it focused on encouraging students to reflect on what can be changed, as well as offering adivse on how to cope with what cannot be changed. Bell believed that at the root of all of this lay a deep-appraisal of the universe and one’s place in it, which meant getting over the notions that ‘good’ is whatever contributes to ‘my happiness and security’ and ‘bad’ is whatever threatens these things.

As a means to develop such an outlook, she suggested that the teaching of Sociology should focus on developing students’ empathetic understanding, rooted in cultural relativism which could be promoted  in a number of ways: students might be required to live in some unfamiliar part of society for a year, they might be guided into what she calls ‘sociadrama’, involving taking on the roles of others, as well as visits from various people.

Toward a Practicing Sociology

In this section Bell criticised the profession of Sociology, on a number of grounds for being full of ideas about reforming society, but making little connection between these ideas and their day-to-day actions. She cites as examples:

  • Theorising about community while junior colleagues suffer from insecure positions.
  • Moaning about inequality while thinking their own students are unworthy of their attention.
  • Claiming to be concerend with improving society yet being primarily concerend with career advancement
  • Supporting the competitive system of publish-or-perish which leads to a obstructive body of material that demeans those who write.

Ultimately Bell argued that the problem of professional Sociology was that it demythologised American culture, only to replace it with the myth of ‘academaya’, where the professional role was one of striving, competing and deadly seriousness. She saw all of this as a highly developed form of concern with the ego which propogated the idea of goal-orientation as the only possible mode of human conduct. In Bell’s own words…. ‘we enlighten our students to the edge of liberation only to ensnare them again in the authority structure of the acadamy and the related professions’.

Bibliography

Bell, I.P (1979) “Buddhist Sociology: Some Thoughts on the Convergence of Sociology and Eastern Paths of Liberation” in Scott G. McNall, ed. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology. New York: St Martin’s Press.

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