All posts by Dr Arian Bloodwood

Being a Good Debtor

debt burdenPart of being in business is that clients owe me money. And part of being an accountant is acting for clients when they owe money.  So I regularly get to play on both sides of the debt equation: being both Creditor (they owe me) and Debtor (I owe them).  This piece is about how to manage  things well as a debtor – how to be a Good Debtor.

For most people being in debt is incredibly stressful. Our culture sees debt as bad: we talk about the ‘debt burden’, and the ‘debt trap’. Having a mortgage is seen as a kind of moral negation: signing the mortgage is to “sign one’s life away”.  Understandably in this cultural context, not being able to pay your bills brings up feelings of shame, anxiety, embarrassment and fear.  These emotions can make it really hard to act simply with self-compassion and clear communication.

Understanding Power

There’s several things, though, that can really help.  First is understanding power.  When you “go delinquent” on a debt, i.e. you don’t pay when you should, suddenly you have a lot of power.  In effect you hold someone else’s money, and you are saying you won’t give it to them.  You are, at one level, unilaterally tearing up the implicit contract you and your creditor agreed to initially when they agreed to supply you and you agreed to pay.

If your creditor is a corporation, then there’s not much emotional charge involved. But debt collecting for corporations is costly – staff, lawyers, communications resources, collection agency fees etc etc.  They’d rather not be doing it. Your power in the situation is forcing them to spend money on something that’s not actually their core business.

If your creditor is HMRC or any tax authority, the situation is slightly different. You have the added power of being able, potentially, to draw public scrutiny if you are creative and energetic enough.  HMRC is constantly (and quite rightly) under scrutiny, and is sensitive to this as an organisation.  It has a whole set of standards it is obliged to stick to in dealings with taxpayers – and you can at any moment publicly claim it is not doing so.

If your creditor is a small business, then your power is much more significant.  Your creditor may be sole operator – in which case it can easily seem personal to them.  They fear that you’ve just pulled a power move by saying you’re not going to give them the money which is rightfully theirs.  This power aspect is a huge contribution to the difficulty and very high charge around debt collection particularly for small creditors.

Actions

So far and away the most important thing you can do to be a good debtor is to clearly acknowledge the debt.

Because of the shame and fear which often comes up when you can’t pay your bills, it’s incredibly tempting to project your own emotions back on to your creditor by blaming your creditor in some way: their service wasn’t very good, or their invoice is wrong, or late. Or they didn’t give what you specified. It goes on and on.

If any of those things actually are true, then they need to be addressed as issues in their own right.  And they are not the same as the issue of acknowledging the debt.

Clearly acknowledging the debt makes it clear to the creditor that you are NOT unilaterally throwing out your mutual contract. Rather, you wish to honour the contract, and there is a much more specific and much smaller issue, which is that you just can’t pay at the moment.

By far the best way to acknowledge the debt in practice is to be proactive in your communication. Don’t wait for your creditor to chase you.  As soon as you know you can’t pay on time, get on the phone to them, email them, text them – whatever.  This indicates more strongly than anything else that you care about them, that you are aware of your debt and you want to clear it.

This works even with large corporations and government bodies.  Even though you’d only be dealing with a functionary with, in theory, no emotional investment in what you do, that person will be making notes on your file, which all build up a picture of you as a good debtor – someone they don’t have to worry about.

Even if your situation is dire, e.g. you’re not going to be able to pay for maybe a year or more, large organisations would rather put your file in a holding tank for a long time than take legal action against you – because legal action is costly, with an almost guaranteed eventual failure if you have no money. So why would they throw good money after bad.

The same is true of the small operator too:  their best bet is to try to accommodate you and support you to improve your situation.  But small operators get much more antsy, because they are much more vulnerable to your power.  If you and they have no personal connection or are not connected via community, then they have no information about your integrity.  There is the constant doubt in their mind that maybe you’re just having them on, or that you are not reliable.  So small operators need more frequent reassurance that you care about your debt to them.

What is incredibly reassuring here is that you do what you say you will do.  It doesn’t matter how bad your situation is, or how long you will take to pay.  If you say you will do something then do it.  This says “integrity” more strongly than anything else.  That’s why it is much much better to be realistic in assessing what is actually likely in the near future for you with money, and much better to be honest with your creditor about what you can and can’t do.

Summary

Being in debt is not a bad thing in itself.  At one level, when dealing with other small businesses, it is an opportunity to use your potential power as a debtor to strengthen community by drawing on the support of others. And, as in any power play, doing this takes attention and care and respect.

Being unable to pay your bills does not need to be emotionally dramatic. It can simply a situation to encounter – and it can be encountered with competence and ease with these basic steps:

  • Clearly acknowledge the debt.
  • Be proactive in your communication.
  • Be realistic about what and when you can pay.
  • Do what you say you will do.

Getting Help

For most people, dealing well with debt is a new set of skills.  So it’s great to get help while you’re learning.

You can talk with me about your feelings and attitudes, and we can develop possibilities and build concrete strategies.  And I can negotiate on your behalf in certain conditions.

And there’s loads of free help. Here’s four excellent starting points.

 

On “Closing the Sale”

01-pushy-salesmanRecently I was on the receiving end of the sales technique known as “closing the sale”.  This is where a seller elicits several “yes” responses from you and then keeps narrowing the conversation to the point where you say “yes” to whatever they are selling.

Ironically, they were trying to sell a program of coaching around business development, marketing and – yes! – selling.  At the start of the conversation I was very open to their program and what they had to offer.  By the end I was fuming!

You might say this conversation was simply an example of a poor salesperson.  But what else is “closing the sale” than an attempt to shift a potential buyer from “maybe” to “yes”?  This is of course a quite legitimate shift to make – but one that needs to be made by the buyer and not the seller!

But more interestingly, is what the technique of “closing the sale” says about the seller’s attitude to their product and to their clients.  All or only some of these may be true side by side:

  • a deep ambivalence on the seller’s part about the value of what they are selling.  They believe that the value is not apparent, or perhaps not really there at all. Closing down the conversational space reduces the buyer’s scrutiny of  the product.
  • overriding anxiety about issues internal to their business: meeting sales targets, or keeping busy, or pleasing a supervisor, or simply paying the bills.  These things are not the buyer’s business.  They could be very real for the seller, and the seller could potentially share them simply as a human being – but not by smuggling them in to the buyer/seller conversation!
  • the seller views the potential buyer as not fully capable.  The seller often sees their role in the sales conversation of “assisting” the buyer to make the key shift to “yes”.  In other words the seller believes the buyer is not capable of making this shift unaided, not able to make a clear decision for themself – an incredibly insulting belief.
  • the seller views the potential buyer as an object.  The seller really has no interest at all in the buyer as a real person, and simply wants the buyer to comply with the seller’s agenda.

Of course “closing the sale” works fine when you are just selling widgets, or a one-off experience – like a fairground sideshow for example.  You take the buyer’s money, they get the goods, and you never have to see each other again.  The value of what is sold is only momentary anyway, and who cares if the transaction is interpersonally messy?

“closing the sale” is closing off the path to real connection, and thus shutting down an opportunity

But I am selling an intimate service.  Although accounting is not generally seen as intimate, in practice it involves the client disclosing things that sometimes they don’t even tell their spouse, and on occasion have never told anyone.

As with lawyers, doctors, and the sacred professions*, my service works best when the client feels safe to be entirely authentic.  This safety is generated partly by me being appropriately open and boundaried in the interaction myself, and partly by according the client the respect that they are fully capable, that their process of living is fully legitimate as it is, and that their decisions are entirely right for them in the moment.

Of course I don’t always measure up in practice to this standard I set for myself – I, like everyone, am on the path of growth.  But it is my intention to move towards appropriateness and respect with clients at all times.  It would be impossible for me to commence working with a client on anything less than that basis.

“Closing the sale” is the antithesis of what works in my business. Were I to pursue it I would feel obliged to continue my distant, disrespectful or inappropriate stance with my client, because that is what they signed up for.  Or I would need to put a lot of effort into cleaning up the mess left by ‘closing the sale’ – apologizing, and establishing a new basis to proceed. Either path involves an enormous amount of energy which needn’t be spent if one simply doesn’t use the “closing the sale” technique.

What DOES work is simply having a chat.  In that conversation it becomes clear what is the quality of connection between me and the potential client. And then if the connection supports it, we sort out what we can go forward with, and how to do that.

In contrast, “closing the sale” is closing off the path to real connection, and thus shutting down an opportunity for me to help empower others around money and thus to contribute to my community’s social capital.

* The Sacred Professions are “… professions in which the value delivered is something
intangible.  Musicians, artists, prostitutes, healers, counselors, and teachers…” Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics, p203

I’m so successful, my business is disappearing!

As my third tax season in London kicks off, I’ve just had a run of established clients emailing me saying “I’ve done my 2014-15 figures; can you just have a look over them?”

Success!

I’ve been working with these clients for 2 or 3 years doing Tax Coaching – working with them around their records, bookkeeping and tax.  And, hey – they’re really getting it together!  It usually takes 2-3 cycles of doing something to really learn it, and so it makes sense that my more established clients are building competencies and starting to stand on their own feet.

2015-09-21 12.47.02But also – oh damn!

I’m only going to get £60 out of them this season instead of a few hundred. The model I’ve had for my business has been to build up a stable of really great clients, everyone gets their needs met and we can all have a really great time as I devote myself to our gradually evolving working relationships.

I was getting close to that goal, but now my business is disappearing!

I hadn’t counted on the larger implications of my central guiding principle in working with clients: empowerment.

Empowering clients around tax, or Tax Coaching, is all about making sure they have appropriate SkillsKnowledge and Attitude to do their own tax. We work together in a circular fashion, cycling through all three areas over several tax cycles, with a mix of encounters with their feelings, practical exercises with records and numbers, and straight information on tax law. Gradually the client comes into a new relation with their tax return, as they build a new story about themselves as capable and confident to do what’s necessary, and have this story affirmed by their new experience.

I just love this process. I love being involved in the actuality of it.  I love the resulting change for the client.  And I really deeply love contributing these things to my community.  One of my dreams is to live in community in which money doesn’t represent power, or status, or worth, or legitimacy. Where money isn’t used as a stand-in for personal boundaries or a way to insulate us from our vulnerabilities. A community in which money is simply a tool, no more and no less important than other tools, and the majority of people feel easy and competent about doing whatever they do day-to-day with money.  A community in which, when a new project is conceived, people don’t go “what a great idea but, oh we can’t do it – we don’t have the money.” But rather people go, “oh yes that’s worth putting effort into. Now let’s get the resources together we need for it and create it.”

Moving towards this dream involves developing attitude, skills and knowledge, as I said.  But by far the biggest of these is attitude: the stories we hold and the feelings we have about money. Even when clients have the skills and the knowledge, what hangs around the longest is their story that tax is hard, money is hard, I’m no good with numbers, etc etc. I’ve heard several times in the last week from newly empowered clients “I was surprised how easy it was to do my tax.”

Every client who experiences this transformation of their experience with tax then carries that embodied knowledge with them as they move through their life and interact with others in the community. They no longer carry the tension of fear, shame, anxiety – or whatever it was – within themselves. And when they encounter those tensions in others they can say “ah, you feel that; yes – and you don’t need to you. It’s possible to become empowered. There is another way to be around tax and money.”

And maybe, too, having learned how to handle tax as just an ordinary thing like tying your shoelaces or doing the washing up, maybe their relationship with money might change in other ways too. They might feel more confident to track the money in their business more closely, and come into a more confident and affirmative relationship with how their business generates that money.  Through this they may feel more able to share their unique gifts with the community, and thereby enrich both themselves and the community.

In short, empowerment around tax can have ripple effects beyond the individuals who are becoming empowered. And this possibility excites me – hugely!  The more people I can empower around money and tax, the more social capital my community has. And the more ease, and pleasure.

So maybe my business isn’t disappearing after all. Maybe it’s morphing from an accounting service for individuals and small businesses into a community development project around money…

Money, relationships and physical survival

As children we are socialised into connecting money with physical survival. This is culturally specific – other cultures connect physical survival with the community and/or the land or spiritual beings. But in Western cultures (and many other cultures too) having no money brings up deep fears about not being able to survive.

In the West money is a key index to the distribution of physical resources. In many cultures, people live within networks of gift and obligation, where physical resources are distributed according to the web of obligation relationships which ensure the whole community’s wellbeing. In contrast, Western culture sees people as “individuals”: atomised entities which have no necessary connections with each other, and whose interactions with each other are arranged as contracts between two “parties”.  Fulfilling the contract i.e. supplying the goods and receiving the money, finalises the relationship – it “cleans out” any obligations between the two parties.

Money is also something you can “have”, can accumulate and store.  Physical resources and social participation are accessed by “having” money – money is a gateway or entry condition for these things.  So in the West access to basic physical resources and social participation are highly conditional – they are not seen as a birthright by virtue of being alive.

Even though this is horrifically harsh at one level, at another level this commercial or “contractarian” approach was historically a massive step forward.  The benefit of inserting money into the community web is that it allows radical freedom i.e. it allows people to pursue life paths outside of the community’s norms. It means that individuals are not obligated to participate in the tightly woven kinship networks which are “traditional” i.e. they work by maintaining large areas of shared values and perspectives deriving from what’s worked in the past.

So in the West we have the freedom to do anything we want, as long as we are prepared to “govern ourselves” i.e. as long as we are prepared to comply with the basic game of generating money for ourselves (and some other things).  The 19th and 20th centuries saw this ethos gradually become established as the Western cultural norm.

Two quite unrelated developments in the last 30-40 years are now prompting some new directions.  Firstly, the dawning of “aquarian consciousness” or the “New Age” has seen the development of a wholly new set of technologies of selfhood and relationship. Building on the prevailing emphasis on individualism, these new technologies support us to become increasingly anchored in a self which is more internal and less reliant on external anchors such as marriage, job, money, and family.

Secondly, the rise of neoliberalism and globalisation has stripped away the last remaining vestiges of the pre-modern fabric of community, and thrown us in to the fully contractarian neoliberal “free market” in which “choices” proliferate as long as they are economic choices, and we must engage with these “choices” because there is less and less social security.

Increasingly people who are working with the first (i.e. a more internally anchored self) are questioning the amoral and impersonal basis of the second, and are asking “how can we do things differently?”

The opportunity is clear:  it is possible to reduce our need for money if we involve ourselves more in community relationships.  This is not to say we can do away with money entirely.  Rather, we can reduce how much money we need each week by sharing more, co-operating more, and being involved in more community activities.

But this goes against our Western heritage as individuals with radical freedom – and as a result increased co-operation and sharing challenges us at a very deep level.  We can meet these challenges and go through a profound transformation of self by becoming adept with the New Age technologies of self which enable us to successfully engage in relationships by being even more “selfish” or self-anchored than is customary in the modern West.

The change specifically around money which is enabled by this transformative self-work is to gradually loosen our socialised deep emotional connection between money and physical survival, and to harness some physical survival needs to relationships and community.

An example of how this can work is in house sharing. Many people share housing because they can’t afford to have a place on their own. In other words, what most people really want is their own place, their own home.  Sharing is largely seen as a necessary evil or a step on the path to something “real” i.e. their own home.

This view is based in the belief that it’s not possible to really feel “at home” with people who are not “family” (or perhaps not with people at all). Most people in house shares “put up a front” when dealing with housemates, and of course this takes effort.  But what if we could be “really ourselves” with our housemates? What if our housemates also wanted to do that?  What if we used these new technologies of self to build relationships with housemates which are not “family” in the conventional sense but are nevertheless intimate enough that we come to feel deeply “at home” i.e. safe to be our real self in their company?

This transforms a house-share situation from a burdensome or awkward arrangement which must therefore be only temporary into something which is deeply nourishing and therefore sustainable indefinitely. “Home” is neither “family” nor an onerous necessity through economic lack.  “Home” segues into “intimate community”.

What makes this possible is technologies of self which enable us to expose our vulnerabilities to a far greater extent because we are also able to set boundaries when we need to.  For most of us most of the time, personal boundaries and ours sense of safety are maintained by a collection of common social arrangements which are part of the structure of our lives. We live in spaces defined by physical walls which cut off interaction; we move between episodes of social interaction which have clear endings; we engage in contractarian exchanges which are completed; etc.

Rather than relying on structural aspects of situations to maintain our personal boundaries, a deeper connection with our inner world enables us to detect our safety needs “on the fly” and to communicate those to our companions in ways which enable us to stay safe AND stay in connection.  This means that the episodic nature of interactions which is currently largely organised for us by the structures in our environment no longer need to occur for reasons of psychic wellbeing or personal integrity.  Episodes of interaction end for purely physical reasons – you want to go to place X while I go to place Y.  Or I want to spend 1-2-1 time with you, then you, then you.  Even though we are physically separated the sense of connection can continue, the openness to that person or people continues internally, and thus psychically we stay in relationship.

In this context, sharing physical resources becomes simply a matter of practical organising rather than coded negotiations around personal boundaries.  Financially this is an enormous benefit since in our affluent society there are vast quantities of physical resources available around us all the time which are inaccessible to us simply because of relational difficulties.  But in practice the vast majority of those physical resources lie idle most of the time or are used for only a short time before being discarded.

There is a huge world here to explore.  House sharing is only one example – obviously it can be applied in many areas of life.  Of course there’s many reasons to explore what’s possible in relationships – not just to do with money!  And there are many doorways into it.  Our relationship with money is just one doorway in, and the questions I ask in relation to money are: how do you organise your physical survival? And how do you arrange your social participation?  Making shifts in either of these areas brings up our “stuff” about money and about relationships and, ultimately, our “stuff” about self.  And that’s where the work begins!

Tax coaching: how it works

My guiding theme with clients is empowerment: supporting the client to move beyond negative and even crippling stories about money, and come into a positive relationship with managing their money where they feel they are steering things from a place of confidence and pride.

Often people are prompted to come to an accountant for their tax.  But more and more of my clients don’t want me just to do it for them. Many people for whom their business is their spiritual path recognise that their growth requires them to address their difficulties with money.  One area which is often difficult for people is tax returns.

The shit with tax returns

The most immediate and obvious difficulty with tax returns is a deficit of information.  Often people simply don’t know what the rules are about tax, or how those rules apply to their situation, or the meanings of specific terms. And these things are often incredibly difficult to find out.  Not knowing what the rules are means most people are operating in a situation in which they don’t know whether they are complying with them or breaking them.  In behaviour research, this is widely recognised as the most stressful situation possible.

Another common deficit of information is what you need to tell HMRC, and what you don’t need to tell them.  Related to this is not knowing which numbers to add up, so it’s impossible to collect the necessary numbers in an ordered way.

Also with tax returns is the added concern about whether one has the money to pay one’s tax bill.  Once the tax return is done then the tax must be paid.  But of course we don’t know how much tax we have to pay until we’ve done the return.  A vicious circle! Add to this the common shame about not having enough money, and many people simply put off the whole thing.

DearHMRC_snoopyFinally, and most complex, is a very common inner process about authority figures. A tax return in essence reports your money activities to a government authority.  So our “authority issues” can readily come into play – often a potent mix of anger and fear which undermines our confidence and can cloud our capacities for mental activities like dealing with data, sorting and categorising, and so on.  The combination of authority issues and shame around money can be sufficient to entirely freeze a client and prevent them from taking any action, sometimes for years.

There’s several things I do to reduce the tension for clients around all this.  I know what the rules are, so the rules-conflict issue can be readily dissolved simply by sharing that information.  And I can also work with the client to estimate their tax bill without them having to file a tax return.  Then we can talk about them budgeting to pay their bill, or negotiating a payment plan with  the tax authority.

Also in a sense I stand in between the client and the ‘authority’.  Because I deal with that authority every day I anchor and embody an attitude of confidence and and personal agency.  Even though the client may not feel that within themselves, when they are working with me that confidence and agency is in their field – and so it is there to draw upon to the extent they are able to.  I hold a space somewhat akin to a therapeutic space: bracketed off from the full range of day-to-day concerns, so that the client can find the internal space to identify where they are at for themselves around money and recording their money activities.

Tax Coaching

Once they have identified their current relationship with money we can start to change that within the practical activity of doing their bookkeeping together.  This is what I call ‘tax coaching’: gradually helping people to be able to do their own tax returns.  Actually, filing the return itself is no big deal – it only usually takes about 15-20 minutes online these days. What IS the big deal is doing everything beforehand leading up to the filing: collecting the info about your money, putting it into some sort of ordered format, and assessing the numbers that come out the end.

For many clients all this seems mind-bogglingly complex, or totally overwhelming at first.  As we’ve seen above, clients can lack crucial information, are short of money, and have authority stuff running.  The idea of then sitting down and learning something entirely new just isn’t anywhere on the board at all.

But it’s definitely possible! Anwar Ravjani, who runs the fabulous bodywork service Embodiment Works, started with me in September 2013. He was determined to grow his business by doing some quite expensive training in a new area, but he had no spare money.  He sensed that there was a way to do what he wanted – if he could get out from under the terrible tension he felt around money and dealing with tax.

First I worked with him to record what had been happening with his money in the previous financial year. He had to do this anyway for tax, so it killed 2 birds with the one stone. I showed him how to download all his bank transactions, and how to work with them simply using some spreadsheet tools, to separate business from personal, and add up the business numbers.  He had to do this bit by bit – I usually suggest giving yourself some weeks or months to do it in, and to attack only a month’s transactions at a time.  This is about breaking down the job into small bits, with time to relax in between. And I was holding a space that knows it is possible to do, and it’s like doing the washing up: a simple procedure that gets done piece by piece.

After some months we had a picture of the 2012-13 year.  Then we could see what his actual income was, which prompted him to reflect on his income flow more recently. He was surprised to find it was more solid and more reliable than he’d thought.  This then enabled us to look towards the future and do some numbers to see how he could manage paying for the new training.  We found that with careful scheduling and some leeway from the trainer it could actually be done.  Then we filed his tax return.

I didn’t talk accounts with Anwar for 6 months.  Then he contacted me in mid-April saying his work was going better than expected and he was worried he’d have a tax problem.  Again the first thing to do was to get some numbers for the previous financial year, which had just finished 2 weeks before.  Again this took some time, but it was definitely quicker than the first time now that Anwar was clearer about what was needed.

With the numbers to hand we were quickly able to estimate what tax he would pay. Then we worked out how he could collect that money before the deadline in 9 months time.  With this out of the way, we filed his tax return.

Again I didn’t hear from him for a year. Then a few weeks ago he contacted me to say he’d done all his numbers for 2014-15 and could I cast an eye over them; the numbers said this year he would pay no tax, but he didn’t quite believe that.  We got together, I did some minor adjustments and we filed his tax return – all of which took less than an hour and a half.

We were both surprised by how quick it was.  Anwar said he’d gotten into a pattern of doing his accounts once a month because it was so easy and it gave him a feeling of being in touch with his money.  He was delighted in his new-found sense of competence with money, and how that empowered him in his relationship with money in his life. The focus had shifted from tax as a set of fear-inducing unknown rules associated with a threatening authority figure, to tax as a relatively small aspect in a landscape of complete information about money.  He reflected that, when we started 2 years ago such a situation seemed impossible.

I’ve found it usually takes three full cycles of doing something to really get the hang of it. For bookkeeping and tax this means doing three years of figures. I’ve now been established in London long enough that several clients have gone through this sort of transition.  It is really one of my greatest delights to be on that journey with them and to celebrate yet another member of our community who is empowered around tax.

Greece vs. the EU: recreating democracy and openness

Last week’s shocking interview with Yanis Varoufakis about the reality of the Eurozone’s core management structures has awoken me to the fragility inherent in democracy.  Varoufakis reports that the meeting of Eurozone finance ministers absolutely refused to discuss finance or economics. The main power-brokers centring on Germany’s Wolfgang Schauble did not need to discuss anything of substance or engage in order to find common ground.  Instead they went ahead and bulldozed the Greek team.

To have very powerful figures look at you in the eye and say “You’re right in what you’re saying, but we’re going to crunch you anyway.” … there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. …

As an Australian brought up on the anglophone view that political deliberation means adversarial competition between two simplistically opposing views, the Europe project has long fascinated me with its admirable struggle to find ways of living together on the basis of accepting difference.

The continent’s terrible history has awoken Europeans to the obvious fact that we are all here together, and we have to find ways of living co-operatively with each other.  We might not like our neighbours; indeed, we might hate their guts, and that might have been mutual for generations. But if we start fighting, we all know where that leads – and definitely none of us want to go there. So we’ve got to find a way to do it without fighting. Which, over the last 60 years has meant engagement and discussion and, above all, respect for differing views and the differences in situations.

Sure, the current EU as it currently stands is incredibly messy.  Sure, many people do still feel excluded. Obviously the project is not finished.  It took Europe several hundred years to start a democratic process – and it is not quite there yet.

Indeed Varoufakis reports that one of the EU’s core governance functions – management of the Euro – has no connection with democratic values or democratic processes at all. Varoufakis found that the Eurogroup, the Euro currency’s governing body, is

… a non-existent group that has the greatest power to determine the lives of Europeans. It’s not answerable to anyone, given it doesn’t exist in law; no minutes are kept; and it’s confidential. So no citizen ever knows what is said within. … These are decisions of almost life and death, and no member has to answer to anybody.

It often happens in new situations that new processes and governance systems simply emerge. At one level this is legitimate since newness is, by definition, unknown and so it’s not possible to plan every little detail of something that is not yet fully in existence.  A new system created on the fly can work out well when it stays close to the project’s original values, remains transparent, and is soon formalised once its shape becomes clear.

Clearly this has not occurred with Eurogroup governance. What was a democratic space has become closed out and replaced by a static and opaque power structure.

Varoufakis’ revelations alert me to a core quality of democracy, and in fact of any spaces in which respect, openness, transparency and acceptance are core values:  democracy and openness must be actively created and, once created, must be actively recreated against attempts to silence, to obscure, and to close down the space.

Doing nothing allows the forces of closure, injustice and domination to fill up and choke our communal space, our relating-space.  As Edmund Burke said in 1795:  “All it takes for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing.”

So we must do something – but what might that be?  It is common to claim that democracy must be fought for.  This perhaps has been true – maybe.  But I am increasingly of the mind that, as they said in the 70s, fighting for democracy (or peace, or openness) is like fucking for virginity. Indeed, I would argue that fighting is precisely the thing which Europe has collectively learned actually doesn’t work.

What’s the difference between fighting and active recreation? Fighting is driven by anger, which is a reaction to forces of closure.  It’s a very natural, sensible and at one level wholly rational reaction to closure.  It’s a necessary reaction too, since anger is an energizing emotion which moves us to break free of restraints.

But when we engage by bringing anger we are also bound to the source of our anger, since without that source our energy evaporates. So we are reliant on the closure or tyranny continuing.  This is why so many protest movements eventually evaporate:  their driving energy actually comes from the existence of a specific situation. Once that situation changes the protest movement has no cohering focus. So protest movements do not continue for long enough to shape new realities or bring new forms into being.

Anger in response to tyranny or closure is natural and inevitable. But rather than use our anger as our driving force, we can use it as a very reliable telltale that something else needs to happen. We can rely on our anger to alert us to the need for affirmations of values, affirmations of goals, affirmations that democracy, openness, transparency are possible and are more important to us than the present forces of closure.  In this way we actively recreate what is of value to us, and actively recreate the future we want in the present.

It is very sad that Varoufakis resigned.  He has a richly elaborated vision of what is possible and a considerable skillset to enact that vision.  Despite the support of millions of people both in Greece and in many other countries, he was undermined by the large group of people who are cowed by the forces of closure and who would rather accommodate the pain of tyranny than affirm the possibilities of openness and democracy.

The diary of Thomas Wood

My dad’s family, the Woods, come from a coal-mining village just outside of Birmingham – a little place called Baddesley Ensor. My great great grandad Thomas was born there in 1813, and grew up with his surviving sister and seven brothers (4 died as babies).  As was the way of things then, the boys went down the mine, and some stayed their whole lives.  But Thomas got out of the mine and set up as a butcher.

I’ve been fortunate recently to come across a diary Thomas kept from 1865 up to his death in 1884.  It is not so much a personal diary in the style many of us keep these days. Rather, it is more akin to a family farm log. Significant family events are recorded, especially deaths. Major happenings in his church community especially significant issues raised at governance meetings.  Comments on the weather, strange or dramatic events in village, notable anniversaries, snippets of scripture.  But by far the greatest number of entries are to do with business:

1866 Feb 22 Bought of Mr Wilson’s 5 Fat Wheather sheep, 1 sheep 2.7.0; 4 [ditto] 3.2.0 a piece, I think they are worth their cost.

March 9 Slaughtered a fat calf for Mr I Baldocks, price 3.0.0. Not a bad bargain. Mr Baldock feeds his calves well.

And it goes on like this for decades:

1877 Nov 6 Paid Mr Wilson for nine fat sheep 24.15.0.

Although these entries can become boring (as so much accounting can be), reading them with a different eye reveals what the business actually involved and how he ran it:  he drew stock from a radius of about 4 miles both at markets and from specific farmers.  Four miles is about a half-hour’s ride, and close enough to be able to walk the stock back to the shop within 1 & 1/2 or 2 hours.  He typically bought one cow/bullock or a ‘fat pig’ or 3 sheep every 2-3 days, and slaughtered, butchered and sold them while still fresh.  Before refrigeration this time cycle was crucial.

Sometimes Thomas would buy a small herd from a farmer, with the deal of being able to draw off the stock from the farmer’s paddock within a fortnight or so.  He could then just send one of the children every couple of days to pick up another animal and drove it back.

Thomas also kept pigs and regularly slaughtered the piglets and occasionally full-grown pigs.  And he bought in tubs of butter and big sacks of flour, which he would re-sell in the shop for a good margin.

Sometimes there was even stock for free:  Every late summer for days on end when the fish were running he and at least one of the children would go fishing in nearby streams and holes, coming back with catches of 5-20lbs which would also be processed and sold.

Thomas and his wife Ann had 12 children, 5 girls and 7 boys, all of whom lived to adulthood (a sign of increasing affluence).  It’s clear from the diary the children were integral to the business operation from early teen-hood, though only some of them showed definite interest. These latter started writing in the diary, at first just comments but as time went by duplicating Thomas’ recording of business activities.

Thomas’ six brothers also feature often, since they were all living in the village within a stone’s throw. One of his brothers actually died in Thomas’ living room, and he vividly records the shock and drama of this.

The village almost certainly had several butchers but clearly Thomas had a solid reputation among loyal customers whose support enabled him to send his children to a better life and eventually to build 4 cottages.  There was no question of ‘retirement’:  he just kept going til a health condition slowed his activities, until finally

1884 Jany 6 My dear father fell asleep in Jesus after a long illness he died triumphantly over death. Very happy.

 Reflections

There’s no account about how Thomas got going in business, but my bet is that he just started.  It wouldn’t surprise me also if Thomas started in the backyard where he lived.  The village was at that time a string of cottages fronting the road and backing onto fields. Space was just there.

He learned his trade as an adult; the 1841 census has him age 27 as a coal miner living with his in-laws, his wife and three young children. So somewhere there was a deliberate plan to change focus, though almost certainly he learned his trade locally, perhaps from a nearby butcher or farmer, perhaps even a relative since the Woods were thick on the ground in that village. And if he was competent and built a reputation for fair value, freshness, and pleasant company then his success was assured.

Speaking of relatives, it’s also clear that Thomas’ business went on very much in the community.  His seven siblings are always dropping in, he clearly relies on particular farmers for supplies, sometimes over decades, as is true of many customers also.  And his eleven children are incorporated into the operation as soon as was practical. Almost all the children ended up emigrating to New Zealand as young adults (that’s how I come from Australia), but because there were so many of them the youngest were still at home and working in the business when Thomas died aged 71.

There’s a great richness in serving one’s community in such a practical way for so many decades.  The embedment in community means one’s relationships both with suppliers and customers simply flow because they follow a familiar pattern.  Trust is continually created and affirmed.  And the continuity of unspectacular but steady money over a long period – the original basis of middle class wealth – also results in material ease.

Thomas was able to sustain his activity supported by family, church (he was devout), community and the fertile English land.  The question for many of us these days is different and more complex because our choices are at once far broader and far more constrained.  For example Thomas’s business was simply supplying an already well-recognised product without any agenda around spiritual innovation or social change.

For me, what is sustainable in the long term is very much about what feeds my soul, what is on my path, what resonates deeply with me and gives expression to those depths.  Our simultaneously broad-and-narrow range of choices with our desires for innovation and change makes this immensely tricky.  But alongside this there remains the very human and very fulfilling satisfaction, which we can share with even Thomas’s generation, of being recognised and valued in one’s community.