An interview with Marcos Arruda, a South American social activists who bases his economics on love.
by Dada Maheshvarananda
We meet an activist who bases his economics on Love.
Dr. Marcos Arruda is the director of the institute, Policy Alternatives for the Southern Cone of South America (PACS). He helps educate and train groups of working people in Rio de Janeiro to manage their own enterprises. He has a master’s degree in economics and a doctorate in education, and has written and co-authored more than a dozen books and over a hundred articles and papers.
Dada Maheshvarananda: You are one of the architects of the popular campaign about the Brazilian debt that culminated in a national plebiscite that was never done before. How did this come about?
Marcos Arruda: The Brazilian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CNBB), along with popular movements, trade unions and other social organizations like PACS organized a Symposium on the Debt in 1998. We decided to hold a public Peoples’ Tribunal on the National Debt in Rio de Janeiro in April 1999. The slogan was, “Life is more important than debt,” and it was a part of the international Jubilee 2000 Campaign to cancel the debt of the poorest countries. Nearly 2,000 Brazilian economists, church leaders, trade union coordinators, national leaders and community organizers participated. Professor Noam Chomsky pointed out the terrible injustice of spending 43% of the country’s yearly budget to pay interest on its US$241 billion external debt when half the population lives in poverty.
After that tribunal, we organized a national plebiscite vote on the national debt. More than 133,000 volunteers in all 27 states helped coordinate the 53,716 ballot boxes that were open for six days in September 2000. Though this was an unofficial plebiscite that was discouraged by the government, more than six million Brazilians cast their votes, nearly 7 percent of the voting population. Each ballot had three questions, all concerning whether Brazil should continue to pay its huge debt, much of which goes to speculators.
Ninety-five percent of the voters said no. We need to renegotiate the internal debt, we need to cut our agreement with the IMF and we need to make a new path for our country with a national development project.
DM: What about the threat of an economic embargo if Brazil or other countries refuse to continue repaying their debts? The US Treasury lists imports that defaulting countries would be denied, including insulin for diabetics! These threats are the reason why, until today, no country in the world has repudiated its debt.
MA: The threats are real; we do run the risk of suffering an embargo, especially if we elect a (truly) popular government. They are going to use the debt policy that we adopt as an excuse to actually undermine the viability of an alternative government…
We have to assert that the threats are dishonest, because they deny nations the right that enterprises have to declare insolvency. This is one reason why we are fighting for the creation of an international insolvency court, where nations can claim the right to say no to certain debts that they deem illegitimate or that overwhelm their capacity to provide for the welfare of their citizens. Jurisprudence does exist for this, even in the USA, which cancelled its own national debt after the American Civil War.
DM: In 1898 Spain, after losing its colony Cuba in the Spanish-American War, demanded that the newly independent island state must repay all the money it had invested there. In response, the US government declared that this was an odious debt that should never be repaid.
MA: One argument is that all creditors have entered a relationship with debtors, conscious of the risks. Every market transaction involves a risk. Most people who run the risk and lose have to pay the consequences. Why not the international creditors with respect to the debt of the poor countries? We can create certain mechanisms to allow the payment of the debt in terms decided by us, according to our capacity to pay. This is what was agreed between Germany and the Allied countries at the end of World War II.
So we believe we have strong political, social and moral arguments to put our case before the International Court in The Hague. We need a renegotiation to consider our people’s capacity to pay.
DM: One problem with capitalism is that it’s based on an idea of the 17th century philosopher John Locke, who said that we could buy land or other things, and use them as we like, because they are our personal property, they belong to us. This idea is opposite the perspective of all the Indians of North and South America, of all the traditional African societies, of all the ancient peoples of India, China and Australia, who never thought like this. They did not think that the land belonged to them; they believed that they belonged to the land!
Prout, the Progressive Utilization Theory, is based on the idea that the resources of our planet are a gift from the Creator and are the common heritage of humanity, to be shared. The welfare of all human beings, in harmony with the family of all beings and the entire planet, is a greater priority than any financial interest.
MA: This view argues that everything is one and we are interconnected and everything belongs to the same system or mega-system. We have to find a way to relate to the different parts of that system that both promotes the individual and fulfills the whole system.
We are working for an economy of solidarity. We call it socio-economy, or humane economy, just to include the concept of society and the human being with the economy, even though we believe that the concept of economy is broad enough, because it relates to the management and care of the home. We say that our first ‘home’ is our body, our physical being. Then comes the family, the community, the region, and finally the planet and the cosmos. We are responsible for all these ‘homes’.
Of all the different beings on the planet, we are the ones endowed with a reflective consciousness that not only gives us more power, but also more responsibility over this Creation. We are doing very badly in respect to our responsibility.
DM: Prout believes that the capitalist system is bankrupt; it doesn’t work. Prout incorporates free enterprise in small businesses for non-essential items, but the majority of the economy will be cooperatives, with large-scale key industries run by local government on a ‘no profit, no loss’ basis. What is your vision of a post-corporate, a post-capitalist world?
MA: Let me praise the Proutist movement for being one of the very few working towards a new, holistic, comprehensive economic paradigm. I believe that we need the vision and the dream, and at the same time, we need the clarity of strategy to understand how to build from the existing reality of today the paths to bring this dream into reality.
At the first level, I would say that we need a world based on the values that I summarize in the name of Love. Love means recognizing that humankind is diversity, that I am not an island, that we are together.
DM: You wrote about these ideas in your book with Leonardo Boff, Globalization: Socioeconomic, Ethical and Educational Challenges.
MA: Yes. So I talk about love as a sort of thrust coming from within human beings and Nature, and it is thus a natural law, not only a moral statement. We are called to be in convergence with one another. Therefore, we are challenged to create an economy that develops this convergence and not one that breaks us apart as the capitalist economy does.
We need to acknowledge the earth as a limited planet that offers us a limited amount of goods and resources, and we have to confine our needs to that which is available. We have to think of ourselves not only as the current generation, but also as a sequence moving in the direction of something else beyond the existing humanity. So, we are responsible for future generations and for the evolution of the human species. To use the language of Teihard de Chardin or Sri Aurobindo, we need an ultra-human species that goes much beyond the existing limits of our humanity. Therefore we need to create a new lifestyle and a new pattern of consumption that is much more humble and limited than the existing one.
Another element that is crucial is the change of values, attitudes and behaviors. I argue in favor of a strong process of education of ourselves, of citizens of all ages, for the struggle within, the struggle of ourselves with ourselves, with the old attitudes, behaviors and ways of relating. This is the internal enemy. Without us tackling that enemy, we will not create a new world, but reproduce our old values with a new dress.
DM: In 1970 the Brazilian dictatorship imprisoned you for nine months and tortured you. Amnesty International helped to pressure the government to release you, whereupon they forced you into exile for 11 years. How did that very hard experience affect you as a spiritual person and in your struggles to change the world?
MA: I was 29, teaching literacy to working people in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and I was motivated to help them organize for social emancipation. I got a job in a foundry of a large transnational company to help organize the workers. The police discovered I was a geologist, and concluded that the only reason I would be working in a factory was subversion. My arrest, torture and near death was like a revolution for me. It was an actual experience of being at the brink of death and then being reborn. Being given life again was such a privilege that I began recreating the meaning of my life.
So my social work is inspired by the belief that we are not working for only a new political and social order, to get State power and then transform things from up there, (but) to transform human beings.
My work now as an educator is to help people realize their potentials and capacities and help them realize that they have to trust themselves to become the subject of their own development, transformation and spirituality.
DM: One very serious problem lies in the imposition of pseudo-culture, or ‘cultural invasion’ to use Paulo Freire’s term. Capitalists use the mass media to teach people to be consumers, that your greatness depends on what you buy and the clothes you wear. Spirituality teaches the opposite, that everybody is beautiful on the inside. One of the ways to see through the hypocrisy and lies of pseudo-culture is through meditation. Meditation calms and focuses the mind, and reminds us what is lasting. What is your experience with meditation or other spiritual practices?
MA: I believe that our spiritual being is what gives us life. Our challenge is always to get more connected with our spiritual being. My personal technique is to do meditation every morning and throughout the day. My meditation is a synthesis of what I learned as a Jesuit seminarian in my youth, combined with other practices from other wise people, including Teilhard de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo, Buddha and Taoism. My way is to adapt from these something that would help me throughout the day, taking seven steps and trying to concentrate on different dimensions of my being and my day. My meditation helps me to continually connect with the Divine in me, as well as with the Divine in everything I do, and in every person and being that I meet and relate to.
Dada Maheshvarananda is a monk, social activist and author working in Brazil. He can be reached at maheshvarananda(at)prout.org .