Eric McBough’s presidency of the English section of the Theosophical Society brings many tabu topics in the TS to a head. One of them is money.
Blavatsky had a horror of ‘salaried priests’ and was proud of not taking a penny of the TS money*. She lived off her (Russian) money and the generosity of her friends (though a full inventory of her economics has not been made I think). The profit made through The Theosophist (in those days it actually DID make a profit) went right back into the TS itself. Staff, maintenance, that sort of thing.
That’s the story and I believe it. However, Blavatsky was an aristocrat (technically a former aristocrat) in a world where that still meant something. Her policy would, in effect, limit people from being active in the TS based on their personal fortunes or lack thereof.
In other words: the idea that spirituality should be free is effectively an elitist policy.
I’ve been wrestling with this issue for years. For instance, in Lucifer7 for Oct. 2004 I numbered the following issues with salaried priests:
- Salaried priests have a tendency to tell people what they want to hear, because their livelihood depends on it
- Salaried priests are best off (financially) when people feel dependent on them. So they have a stake in telling people that their competitors, for instance the salaried priests of other religions, are fundamentally wrong. There financial well-being is supported by making people dependent on them in all kinds of ways.
That’s all true. However, avoiding money doesn’t actually get rid of any of this. Whether one takes money or not, any author or lecturer will have more success if they tell their audience what they want or expect to hear. And being controversial, like I’m being on here, doesn’t come with many rewards at all – money or no.
4 years later I was myself in a position to have to decide what to do about spirituality and money. So one of my first posts on my blog All Considering was about how donations and spirituality mashed. In fact I’ve blogged about money quite a bit over there.
But what’s the deal with the TS and money?
Eric McBough is accused of making money selling courses. I have several sources on this issue, so I’ll assume it’s true that he sells courses. The question is:
- Do they contain original material?
- Are they sold at a profit?
- What happens to any profit he makes?
- Does he have an independent fortune so that he can afford to sell the material through the TS instead, so that the money goes to the TS instead of himself?
I know: the usual TS policy is that writers are unpaid: they’re supposed to do their work for free. The result is, btw, that the best of our authors get their work published elsewhere. The people who DO get paid are the editors (not enough people are willing to do that work for free any more – I’ve seen that shift happen in the Dutch TS over the past 17 years), publishers and printers.
Even volunteers want at least a return on their costs: travel expenses and the like. I’m a volunteer for the Dutch TS still and get a volunteer allowance – if I may translate the Dutch term roughly.
My point is that the TS is working on an outdated model. We treat our workers abominably. Not only is nobody considering their ‘career options’ (as in: where would you like to be in 10 years time), because that would be encouraging ambition… ** but it also has the result that the work itself isn’t valued. That’s what happens if work doesn’t get paid: people start taking it for granted. If it’s not visible on the annual loss and gain reports, the work is invisible.
I don’t have a solution.
The fact is, I make money writing about spirituality. My spiritual content online makes me about half my income. I justify it by the fact that this money actually makes me more, not less independent. Independent enough in fact, not to need the TS as a platform anymore. Also: the material I put online is super accessible: it’s paid for by ads, not by people having to pay to get admission. Of course my money is hardly made through blogs like this one. So in becoming less active in the TS I am actually, in a sense, following the money.
Anybody who has a problem with this should consider that my business model isn’t so different from that of the traditional media, including the theosophical magazines till recently: magazines and newspapers get paid for by ads. Sure, subscribers pay something too, but that’s hardly enough to account for the paper, printing costs and postage.
The fact is: anybody judging Eric McBough on making money on teaching theosophy should look at the totality of his economic circumstances. Is he paid by the English section to BE president? If not, than I’m sure that he puts in way more than he gets back in return. It’s a hell of a job: president of a TS section. I don’t envy him at all. And whether he’s fit for the job or not – I’m sure it’s darn stressful to have to deal with the visibility of his job. The criticism. The feedback. And in his case, so I’m told, nothing in his past prepared him for that side of the position. Few things could in fact, as online visibility is rather a new thing. The TS as a whole is still learning to deal with it, as governments and corporations all over the world are.
So, although it should be clear from previous posts on this blog that I’m not his fan, the issues about being paid are NOT among the ones I can personally get excited about. As a theosophical movement it’s high time we reconsider how we deal with money, volunteers and workers.
Theosophical managers should be asking themselves: are you being fair to your workers? Are you using spiritual excuses to treat them badly? Members should ask themselves to what extent the way the TS is organised limits the amount of candidates for positions like the presidency.
* Though I’m pretty sure Blavatsky spoke out against this issue as well, the phrase ‘salaried priest’ actually appears in the famous Maha Chohan letter. I have not been able to trace it to writings attributed to HPB herself.
** Not encouraging ambition is actually a great way to prevent people from turning into good authors, lecturers and the like. It was very frustrating for me that I was ‘protected against myself’ in my early years in the TS by not being asked to take responsibility and take part in meetings. I do wonder at it in hindsight. While I was serving coffee and not being invited to the meeting about the management of the event the coffee was served at, people my age were busy organizing stuff in student organisations and things. As a student it should have been LOGICAL and HEALTHY to have to organize things, fall on my face making mistakes etc. As a smart 20-something year old that was the sort of experience I was SUPPOSED to have.
Don’t get me wrong: I did get that kind of experience in the TS in other groups. These days the excuses for not giving me responsibility are running out. As in: I’m no longer buying them. Which is the main reason I’m becoming less active. And yes, I would have been willing to do them for nothing more than getting back the personal costs I make.