My friend asked me a question; Where are the statesmen? Where have they all gone? For the sake of some clarity, I defined statesmen as people who were highly respected for their integrity, were highly ethical and moral and showed long-term vision for their people and countries and spent their lives in helping their people achieve that vision and not in amassing personal wealth. When I did my back-of-the-envelope analysis to see when this lifeform existed, I came to the period 1800’s-2000’s; a period of roughly 200 years. To give this a more appreciable face, take Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of this period and Nelson Mandela as the last statesman standing. With his death in 2013, they became extinct. So, what happened? What went wrong? How is it that there was a time when like the Woolly Mammoth, statesmen walked the earth but today they don’t. How is it that they failed to reproduce their kind? Is it because like the climate change that killed off the Mammoths; cultural, psychological climate change, made statesmen of the like of Lincoln and Mandela, perhaps icons to worship but not to emulate?
I did a back-of-the-envelope recall of history. What I have is as follows: Starting from the beginning of recorded history, we have states which were the property of rulers and their families. These rulers amassed wealth through conquest. It was a simple grab-what-you-can strategy, aided by ever more powerful weapons and military organization and tactics. That gave rise to the so-called ‘Great Conquerors’ starting with Alexander of Macedonia, and on to Julius and Augustus Caesars of Rome, Cyrus of Persia, Pharaohs of Egypt, Umayyads (Abbasids didn’t do any conquests), Genghis and his sons and grandsons, Ottomans, Saffavids, Moghuls, Spanish, British, French, Germans, Dutch, Portuguese, the Vatican (directly and indirectly) and the list goes on. All of them did one thing very well; i.e. wage war. They looted, plundered and colonized. Revenue sources for them were two; immediate plunder of warfare followed by taxation of the subject people. It is not for nothing that it is called ‘spoils of war’. War spoils. Never builds. All this continued to World War I and in a slightly different way, since nation states had by then taken the stage, it continued until World War II.
The point to be noted here is that the purpose of all war was conquest of territory, loot and subsequent tax revenue. In some cases, this was open and blatant. In others it was called ‘civilizing barbarians’, ‘Holy War’, ‘Crusade’, ‘White man’s burden’ and so on. Soldiers benefited both from the spoils of war which they looted on their own and what the ruler dished out when the counting was done. In the case of most rulers, their people were given land in the conquered territory and settled there as a prize of war for them and as a safety measure for the rulers. In the case of the Roman Empire as well as many others, this significantly changed the demography of the region and enabled better policing of those territories as well as tax collection. In short therefore, rulers ruled and amassed wealth because their people were willing to support them at the cost of their life if necessary, in exchange for the crumbs from the table.
Post the World Wars, came the period of decolonization. Freedom struggles started in all colonies. Some won their freedom after long, protracted and bloody conflict. Other colonies were freed because they were no longer financially viable to maintain as they had been bled dry and now the colonizing countries had to spend their own money to maintain the colony. So, they granted them ‘freedom’. These freedom struggles shifted the focus of people from materialism (amassing wealth through conquest) to higher goals of freedom, nation building, social change and realigning values. People had to and were ready to submit their personal aspirations to the higher goals of nationalism and patriotism. Freedom is heady stuff. It was during this period that we see the likes of Lincoln and Mandela; my two symbols of the kind of leader that one can call ‘statesman’ and not merely ‘politician’. There were others but these will suffice for this discussion especially as they bracket the period between 1800 and 2000.
Simultaneous with the wars and in many ways fueled by them, the Industrial Revolution metamorphosed into the military industrial complex that we are familiar with today, producing myriad products and services for mass consumption. Apart of course from weapons of war. People needed funds to buy stuff and that fueled the banking system. It is not that there were no banks before World War II. Banking was well established with almost the same financial instruments from the time someone had money and someone else needed it. Jesus spoke about the bankers and money lenders. Shakespeare wrote about them. The Roman Empire ran its entire commerce through bankers. Medieval European monarchs, to a man (or woman) were in debt up to their gills. But after the World Wars and successful freedom struggles, banks became accessible to the common man and woman through what we know as ‘Commercial banking’. Money was made available, not for any altruistic reasons, but because owners of products needed a market for their produce and banks enabled those whose desires (or needs) exceeded their means, to achieve those desires by enslaving themselves to a payment schedule for the rest of their lives. That kept them out of trouble as they were too busy paying to worry about anything else, which suited those who ruled the roost. Rome invented the circus. We invented Hollywood, Bollywood, Tollywood. Both serve the same purpose. Keep people distracted and steer thought into the channels that the establishment wants them to think along. Add to this all the TV shows, football, cricket, shopping, advertising, social media, FB algorithms; all things that I don’t think I need to explain to anyone today. But do reflect on them to understand how you and I are fish on the end of the hook, enjoying the taste of the bait, not realizing that we are there for one reason only; to be reeled in for the fisherman’s sport and profit. Shopping, sports and sex are the formula from the beginning of recorded history to keep the population subjected, distracted and obedient.
The interesting thing is if you look at the demographic of the rulers, you will see that it has not changed at all, except perhaps for the kind of clothes they wear. That changed from chainmail covered by ermine and mink, to business suits. The ‘mailed fist’ became more symbolic but no less lethal. Pre-World Wars and down through the colonial period, the ‘ruling class’ was a small group of men (with the very rare woman) who ruled with only one motive; personal profit. The cost didn’t matter at all. If it meant annihilating an entire population (Aztecs, Incas, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Hottentots, Bushmen, 2 million Indians…not end of list), then it was done by whatever means it took ranging from arranging a famine to smallpox infected blankets to simply separating the head from the body. Millions of Africans were enslaved and transported across the ocean to give their life and blood to build someone else’s nation. The list of what was done in the name of profit is well documented for the one who is interested in reading. It is not my purpose to go into it here.
The same profit motive continues, though the means have changed. Now the chains are greed and debt. The result is the same i.e. profit for the ruling class. That is why things that are clearly harmful to society are legal and are sold at a premium. I mean all kinds of addictive substances like alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco products, human bodies, gambling in many forms, the latest being football and cricket, porn (including child porn) … once again an endless list. Consumer perception is manipulated and influenced to make them buy this or that product and buy more. The infamous pharma racket is a case in point among many others. All to make profit, which is the final decider. I can’t forget to mention the biggest of them all, manufacture and sale of weapons of mass destruction. That is by far the most profitable which gives the best ROI. That is the reason there is more money invested in death than in life; in weapons research and manufacture than in cancer research and cure. When production and sale of weapons of mass destruction is a mainstay of the economy then all values, morals and peace vanish behind the smoke of bursting bombs and burning homes. Manufacturing weapons of mass destruction is the most immoral, despicable and abhorrent thing to do and has no moral justification. It must be stopped. It is the only reason for wars and as long as it exists wars will happen, and peace will remain an illusion. When people who go to work in these factories turn a blind eye and deaf ear to what their effort, energy, intelligence and industry are creating and do it in the name of supporting their families, we must know that there is something very seriously wrong with our society.
Actually, hold on, nothing is wrong. It is business as usual. Wars happens because wars make profit. Peace doesn’t happen because peace doesn’t make profit. Hate sells because hate makes profit. Love doesn’t sell, because love doesn’t make profit. It is not about good or evil. It is about profit. Whatever makes profit is good. Whatever doesn’t, isn’t. It may not be called ‘evil’, but it certainly won’t get any traction, funding, facetime, airtime or any kind of time. That is why global warming, water conservation, clean drinking water, alternate energy, poverty alleviation are all dragging and will continue to drag because they don’t make profit.
What does all this have to do with statesmen, which is the subject of this essay?
It is my conclusion that the world hasn’t changed very much, if at all from the beginning of recorded history to the present moment. The ‘Statesmen Period’, was a brief interlude thanks to some special circumstances while the ruling class changed their ‘clothes’. When they were done, they took charge once again. They moved from direct control by military conquest to indirect (but equally strong) control through debt. The latter has proved to be even more profitable because it obviates the necessity of spending money to administer another land, collect taxes, fight insurgency from time to time, maintain your own administrators and myriad other elements of colonization. Much easier and cost effective to allow local rulers to do your work and we don’t pay for their sins. Taxes are replaced by sale markup with the benefit that the population gladly and willingly pays out, while they resent being taxed. Losing colonies worked out very well, thank you very much. All you need to do is build attractive tax-collection centers, aka Shopping Malls and revenue flows in. However, where the inflow of revenue is threatened for any reason by anyone, the mailed fist does the job. When goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.” Fredrick Bastiat. Armies cross borders to open the doors of commerce. While they are there, they help themselves to whatever they can; a well-known soldier’s prerogative. Compliant local rulers are supported and protected, no matter how brutal or corrupt they may be. Non-compliant rulers are removed, very publicly and brutally, both to clear the blockage as well as to demonstrate to potential aspirants what their fate would be if they dared to buck the system. As Fredrick Bastiat once again said, ‘When plunder becomes a way of life, men create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.’
Statesmen became extinct because there is no need for them any longer.
Let me hasten to mention what we can all see clearly, ‘the people’ are very happy with the current system. The beauty of materialism is that like cigarette smoking, the gratification is instantaneous while the harm is invisible. You draw the smoke into your lungs and feel so refreshed and relaxed while some more alveoli are filled with carbon and your lungs are primed for cancer. Only, you can’t see it happening, so it is easy to ignore, especially since you are addicted to smoking. We are all addicted to materialism, violence, promiscuity, sensationalism, instant gratification of desire. We are blind to the harm this does to us personally as well as to our society. We don’t care that our way of life is disastrous for those who share this planet with us, animals, birds, insects, or even the earth, air and water. We simply don’t care.
All our heroes are those who make the most profit. I challenge you to ask anyone to name the top five leaders that he/she admires, and I will guarantee you that it will be businessmen. Buffet, Gates, Jobs, Bezos, Dell – or some such combination, but businessmen. Ask what about them that they admire, and they will mention net worth. Which means the money they have. Not their character, learning, wisdom, compassion or anything else. Just the amount of money they have. I have asked this question umpteen times. Not once did anyone mention a great scientist, social activist, philosopher, theologian, scholar, poet, dramatist, artist, surgeon, astronaut, researcher or teacher. It is as if such people and their contribution have no value. By our choices, we have trashed centuries of contribution that ennobles us and raises us from merely grubbing for money. None of the qualities which make us uniquely human seem to count. Only money. Only profit. We don’t see any need for statesmen.
But do we need statesmen and women, whether or not we see the need for them?
A simple question to ask in this context is, ‘Was the world a better place when Abraham Lincoln and Mandela were in positions of power or when George Bush (and now Donald Trump) and Jacob Zuma were in power?’
I say we need statesmen like an alcoholic needs a deaddiction clinic. The alcoholic won’t accept it, but without it he will die and take his family down with him. We need people who are not focused on profit alone but who can show us how we can gain quality of life by focusing on ethics, values and morals. The challenge is to demonstrate this in ways that will still make profit for them. Statesmen happened because circumstances enabled, even enforced, the natural selection of the best to deal with the great goal of freedom. As I said, freedom is heady, and it is a goal that people are willing to work for. Political freedom we may have achieved. But freedom from poverty, corruption, discrimination, injustice, oppression are all goals which remain on the horizon, unachieved. What we need is statesmen (and women) who will address these goals and enable us, as a global society, to achieve them. If circumstances create statesmen, I submit that those circumstances exist even today. If only we can recognize and address them. The tragedy is that as in my analogy about smoking, instead of recognizing that materialistic pursuit of profit at any cost as the cancer it is, we seem have created a mindset where it has become an aspirational goal. That is why I suggested the test of asking about who our icons are. That will tell us what we aspire to become.
Today the challenge is to bring about a change in perception where people learn to see the benefit (profit in perhaps non-monetary terms) in compassion, justice, empowering the weak, alleviating poverty, education, public health, alternate energy, husbanding resources, conservation and such world building (not merely nation building) goals. It is to inspire and lead this new effort that we need statesmen and women. When we begin to see that we are all interconnected in a very real sense and that we can only swim together or we will sink, that we will hopefully be prepared to change the destructive lifestyles that we have become used to. Aspiring statesmen and women must invent ways to convince people to make this change. For that they must first believe and then they must lead by example. Each statesman is guided by his/her religious/nonreligious philosophy. Therefore, it all depends on which philosophy is guiding him/her. Statesmanship can be constructive/destructive. It all depends whether destructiveness will be called statesmanship! The world listens with its eyes. It doesn’t care what you say until it sees what you do. Statesmanship is about creating a need for value-based leadership and then fulfilling it. Statesmanship therefore must begin within ourselves. Within our families and neighborhoods. We need to inculcate values of care and concern, kindness and compassion, the willingness to extend ourselves for the sake of others, and to find personal fulfillment in it. We must understand that it is uniquely human to work to help others who can’t help us and to work for a time that we will not live to see. After all, that is the definition of vision. Given access to technology and open source material, I believe that all that a child needs today are literacy and numeracy. That takes less than one year of learning. After that the child has access to anything in the world that he or she wants to explore. To decide what that should be, the child needs a value system, a criterion for judgment and decision making. That is why value education is so critical. That is why skills of critical thinking, decision making, communication, conflict resolution and a sense of trusteeship are so essential. Sadly, almost nobody teaches them in any school curriculum and even more sadly both parents and people running schools, don’t see the need. Children are the voiceless victims of their elders’ apathy.
This is what must change. The statesman within must be nurtured and allowed to flower so that appreciable change can happen in the world. The reality is that true happiness doesn’t lie in a shopping mall or buying stuff or in consumerism. It lies in seeing the smile on a face where you had seen tears a little while earlier and to know that you were the reason for that change. That is truly inspiring, motivating and satisfying.