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Humanity at a crossroads

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Interview with Ross Ashcroft
by Gill Fry

Ashcroft, an independent film maker in the UK, answers questions about making his landmark film, Four Horsemen. He discusses the basic fallacies and injustices inherent in the neo-classical economic system that has generated the current economic crisis. Reproduced courtesy Share International magazine March 2013.

Four Horsemen is an independent UK documentary, released in 2012, that questions the global economic system and suggests ways that we can reform it. The film includes a mix of powerful footage, animations and interviews with 23 leading thinkers including Noam Chomsky, Joseph Stiglitz, author John Perkins, children's campaigner Camilla Batmanghelidjh and former Wall Street trader and journalist Max Keiser.

On the Four Horsemen website the filmmakers state: "If more people can equip themselves with a better understanding of how the world really works, then the systems and structures that condemn billions to poverty or chronic insecurity can at last be overturned. Solutions to the multiple crises facing humanity have never been more urgent, but equally, the conditions for change have never been more favourable."

The film's director Ross Ashcroft was born in Liverpool, UK. He graduated from the Royal Agricultural College with a degree in land management and then worked in London's West End theatres as an assistant director. He co-founded the independent production company Motherlode whose debut feature film was Four Horsemen.

Gill Fry interviewed Ross Ashcroft for Share International.

Ross Ashcroft
Four Horsemen film director Ross Ashcroft.

Share International: What was the motivation to initiate this project?

Ross Ashcroft: Around 2006 we realized there was something really wrong within the finance sector. Some of the excesses were totally corrupt and unsustainable. So you are sitting watching one of the biggest heists in history and you have two choices: sit back and let it happen or do something about it. I started reading the economists and thinkers who had been marginalized and thought that all of them were really onto something. I thought the economy we had was totally dysfunctional, the way we ran it was 'nuts' and ultimately the whole thing was going to end in tears.

I used to think "leave it to the economists, they'll sort it out", but then realized that economics is too important to be left to the economists. The big revelation during making the film was that the Neo Classical Economics taught in Ivy League Universities, actually most Universities for the last 150 years, is utter rubbish.

So our thought was to tell a story that didn't just chase bankers around and say, "you're all bad", but to tell the overarching story that the economic rules of the game are not up to scratch, not fit for purpose. In fact they actively encourage us to trash the planet and each other in a vain attempt to progress. So the motivation was that this story needs telling.

We tried to get money for the film but it was almost impossible: everyone's house prices were going up and people would say there's nothing wrong with the economy. Then 2008 [the collapse] occurred and we said: "We told you something was going to happen." But people said: "Don't worry, they'll put it all back together and everything will be fine." So we just carried on making the film and released it in 2011.

SI: Why did you call the film The Four Horsemen?

RA: The Four Horsemen story is in the Book of Revelation so it has been in the common consciousness for some time. We wanted to hang the story on the modern Four Horsemen characters: a rapacious financial system, escalating organised violence, poverty or famine for the bottom billions and the exhaustion of the world's natural resources. In these modern times 'Four Horsemen' are colliding for the first time in human history.

SI: Why is the world's economy in such a mess?

RA: Neo-classical economics has delivered the world they have been asked to. It is that ideology that has got the world into the state we're in. One fundamental error is that people confuse money with wealth: money of itself is not wealth. Wealth is products, services and experiences that occur or exist in the real economy. The real economy is where you and I work. Money is created out of nothing by banks - out of thin air as a computer digit - and it puts pressure on the real economy, because that newly created money is used to acquire wealth and real services. Everything from food to fine art are experiences that everyone should be able to partake of, but they are pushed out of reach because of this created money which pushes the prices of everything up. Until we understand that money and wealth are not the same thing, we are going to keep creating more money at the flick of a switch, which will keep putting a squeeze on the real economy.

What you need for the cornerstone of a decent economy and democracy is a steady money supply, not a money supply that can be expanded overnight to fund a resource - war for instance. I'm not advocating a fixed money supply but a stable money supply that is monitored in relation to population growth and volume of trade. Our money supply needs to be issued by government not private banks and it needs to be thoroughly audited. You cannot just expand the money supply and allow inflation to seep in like we're seeing at the moment.

SI: Can you explain what took place in 1989 under Bill Clinton's presidency?

RA: Robert Rubin and Larry Summers who are ex-Goldman Sachs bankers, lobbied President Clinton to get rid of the Glass-Steagall Act. It has been catastrophic because the division between man on the street retail banks, and investment banking no longer exists. That [retail] money can now be taken from people's accounts and used for speculative investment to enrich the bank - we now are seeing the effects.

[The Glass-Steagall Act was formed in 1933 during the US Depression to separate bank's retail and investment operations.]

SI: I was shocked to see the cost of the 2008 bailout ($8.5 trillion) compared to the cost, in today's money, of World War One ($3.5 trillion) and the Vietnam War ($670 billion).

RA: Actually it is way above that figure now. We tried to give perspective between the two wars and how much the recent bank bailout cost. People say we're going to have a third World War, but what they don't realize is that we're in the middle of World War Three: it is economic, silent and deadly. What we'll see in the next five years is currency wars between countries, and the human cost will be incredible.

Unless we are clued up about the economics and about what's actually going on we'll never be sharp enough to decipher the mainstream news. There are two ways of listening to the 'news': at face value or you start to get behind the headlines and understand what's really happening.

SI: So was the aim of the film to help people become aware of the flaws in our system?

RA: The real intent was to wake people up to the fact that they haven't heard all the alternatives. There are lots of alternatives out there but we are constantly being told by mainstream media that there aren't any. If we start to teach decent economics again and get rid of the neo-classical economic paradigm once and for all, that would be a start in the right direction.

Ideological control has been the cornerstone of keeping societies and the preferred modus operandi in place for years. In the film Gillian Tett calls it 'the cognitive map' and what is most important is what is being left un-debated or unsaid. What those in power didn't expect was internet enlightenment. People go online and learn for themselves and make their own minds up. With propaganda and lies you have to continually retell them to make people believe them, but thankfully that is happening less and less effectively. The intent behind the film was for people to get self-educated, to understand the systems and processes that we've created and to do something about them.

SI: The film has been seen at 26 film festivals. How are audiences responding to it?

RA: At all the festivals we've been to it has sold out. People said in the beginning "You will never sell this film" and "You'll never be able to get younger people interested in economics". They've been wrong on both counts because about 70 per cent of audiences are 35 years and younger. Those generations realize that for the first time ever the adage that the current generation will live better than the generation before may no longer be the case. So they are forced, by necessity, to re-engage. We are grateful for all the audience awards: it means a great deal as the audience voted for them, not a panel of 'experts'.

leading thinkers
Some of the 23 leading thinkers interviewed for the Four Horsemen documentary.

SI: Watching people interviewed from the Baby-Boom generation say "We've made some wrong choices" made me think how it's been such a materialistic grab in the last 20 to 30 years, and how strange it must be to be born into these times.

RA: We're in a consumerist stupor in the West and people are starting to wake up and realize that all you need is less and that a simple life is a great life. There are people who are very happy, the 'generation zero' who possess less than 100 items. All their music is on the 'cloud', and they're not at malls every weekend buying stuff they don't need, with money they don't have, to impress people they don't like! I'm not sure what happened to the Baby-Boomers; they seem to have thought that money and materialism brings happiness, which is ironic after the Sixties.

SI: In the last couple of years various films have been made tackling this subject from different angles, like The Story of Stuff,Capitalism: A Love StoryThrive. Does this show that humanity is waking up?

RA: Yes, it's a slow tsunami. To keep the ideological control will be almost impossible so there will be a new paradigm and it is being ushered in at the moment. Humanity is at a crossroads. It is between two worlds. We are watching the death throws of the old system - but it is not going to go quietly. My view is not to focus so much on the old system but focus on creating the new one, because the old system is doing a brilliant job of deconstructing itself; so just let it do that.

The most important thing is to start your own organizations and institutions, think about co-operatives and how you can work locally with people and skills that are latent in your area. In 10 to 15 years' time, when oil prices are sky-high and energy has become the new debate, the only way you can be prepared is through community support and by building solid communities. What we will see when that happens is the happiness index going up and less of the isolated individual. Margaret Thatcher's "there is no such thing as society" paradigm has run its course.

SI: What do you think of the Arab Spring and the demonstrations that have spread around the world?

RA: I'm not in favour of revolution in the bloody sense. My view is that revolutions are philosophical. When the thinking changes in the subtle realm then actions change in the physical realm. Victor Hugo said: "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come". So it's about changing the cognitive map. At present we have the best 'people-opportunity' in history and we shouldn't waste it. 2013 will be a momentous year for social change - just watch.

SI: And what about the problems we have caused to the environment?

RA: We have very little time and have to act decisively now. If we agree that human beings are generally predisposed to being reasonable and good, the question you have to ask is, what has driven us to enact the things we have done? You come back to neo-classical economics, which doesn't treat land as a unique factor of production, but conflates it with capital and encourages the trashing of land (in the broad sense of the word) and nature's resources to put it on a balance sheet as income. We use nature's capital and we call it income. People will look back at this time and think, "What were they doing?"

SI: Do you think people will start to sacrifice their personal desires for the greater good?

RA: Yes. I think the word sacrifice makes people recoil but it isn't a sacrifice as such, it's actually an incredibly elevating experience. But you can't understand it theoretically; you understand it once you've done it. Understandably a lot of people are scared to drop the 'here to be served' mentality, because for years corporations like L'Oréal have been telling people: "Because you're worth it".

People are starting to understand that retail therapy has been unsatisfying. Some are now dedicating themselves to causes greater than themselves, as opposed to dedicating themselves to themselves, which is basically the dogma of the consumerist culture.

Wherever there is change there is trepidation. The fear freezes people, but we have to keep jumping into the unknown, it is the only way to live.

SI: The economic hit-man's comment was interesting in the film: that he had never met a terrorist who had actually wanted to be a terrorist.

RA: Humanity does birth a percentage of people who are psychopaths and sociopaths and non-empathetic souls who don't understand the ramifications of their actions. Having met lots of 'terrorists' I agree with him - people do not want to be terrorists. As he says in the film, they want to be back home with their family on the farm but it has been taken (metaphorically or literally). When you start subjugating people to your dogma or ideology, and taking the land and resources off them, it's a very natural reaction. I am not condoning terrorist acts but it's a logical reaction when you start dispossessing people. Chomsky says that what they do to us is terrible, but it is only a fraction of what we do to them. When he says 'we' he is talking about the West, which relies on the industrial military complex profits, and Halliburton who then go in and rebuild [after a conflict]. The story is totally out of kilter and as conscious human beings we need to step back and look more broadly at the causes of terrorism because we don't need any more jingoism. I'm positive about this as I think there is more empathy in younger generations.

SI: Billions of people must be feeling worried and isolated about their financial situation, but the film shows us that we are in this collapse together, and that it's not our personal failure but a global collapse. Have you found that the film gives support to people?

RA: One of the intentions of the film was to put a message out there: "Don't worry, you're not going mad." I would say that 85 per cent of the emails we get are from people thanking us and saying: "I thought I was mad". The response is: " You're not mad. The system is mad and you're part of that system." They thank us for pointing out that the system is working against them and for making them feel sane again.

SI: Times are hard enough in the Western world, but what must it be like in the developing world, as the food prices keep rising?

RA: The human suffering is astronomical. It is tragic, but simultaneously it's hopeful because we humans are not very good at acting until we are pushed to the very edge. So people are at the point where they can't take anymore of the nightmare and the pain - so that's a hopeful situation because people are beginning to take action.

Speculation in commodities has become a principal source of investment bank profits. Goldman Sachs, Barclays, J.P. Morgan, Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley all go to absurd lengths to extract wealth in this manner. Goldman Sachs alone achieves net revenue of up to $5 billion a year from trading commodity derivatives. These people and actions are not worthy of a place in a civilised society. All this needs reforming.

We have to help those who are on the receiving end of this silent torture. The key point is that we have to pick the right change because if the ideological battle is lost again, which it has been over the centuries, we'll be back in the same mess.

SI. Why don't mainstream media report more on the suffering caused by this crisis?

RA: The mainstream media is owned by the FIRE sector (financial, insurance and real estate businesses) and they do not want to tell people what's going on because they make a lot of money when people don't know what's going on. That's not a conspiracy theory, that's the hard economics of it. If I owned a huge real estate business, and an insurance company that sat alongside it, and a credit creation business, the first thing I would do is go and buy a lot of media businesses to keep pushing my message into the public consciousness. I certainly wouldn't book films like Four Horseman to put on that station!

SI. Do you think humanity could share the resources of the world more fairly?

RA: We have to: resource distribution is another cornerstone. Two things have to stop overnight. One is speculation with derivatives for food and other essentials. You cannot have speculators in the West pushing up food prices for people who are poor in Africa and other places. Morally it doesn't stand up, and the economics do not stand up.

The second thing is we have to set up a tax system that allows people to enjoy the resources of their country. If we take oil or diamonds out of Africa, those people need to be properly compensated and that money used to build infrastructures, schools, railways, clinics and all the things a decent society needs to thrive. We have to readdress the idea of the commons and understand that shared ownerships are something that ultimately bonds every society.

SI. What are your future plans?

RA: We are making a sequel called Four Horsemen Blueprint looking at models, countries and organizations that are really getting it right. We need to give them a voice. South America makes me so excited and we are going to Costa Rica to talk to the political leaders and the people, and to look at a lot of the co-operatives that are springing up daily. And we are launching the Renegade Economist Academy to teach children and students how to live well during the age of consequence. I'm also working on a comedy feature - I need that!

SI. Do you think that human beings are basically co-operative?

RA: Totally. Human beings are only competitive and destroy one another because of the structures that have been put in place and the systems that we live under. Once you start taking those structures out the desire of humans to co-operate is way above and beyond the desire to kill and consume each other. We are predisposed to help each other, not hurt each other. Everyone says: "It's a dog eat dog world", but that's wrong. Dogs don't eat dogs - they help each other. Humans are pack animals too, and we have the same predisposition.

I'm a total optimist. I think that humanity's ingenuity can do it: there will be pain, we'll get a few things wrong, but overall we'll get there. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive.

For more information:

Four Horsemen: The Survival Manual, by Mark Braund and Ross Ashcroft published by Motherlode, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9563985-1-2.


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