Our way through: Part one – Enlightenment’s dimming light - RSA

Our way through - part one: Enlightenment’s dimming light

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  • Democracy and governance
  • Economy

"Only by creating better life can a better system be developed." Vaclav Havel.

The past decade and a half has been a bracing period. By the time we entered the 2020s, an unravelling was apparent. The first flare back in 2007 was a global financial crisis. The second was a set of political storms where populist forces, signals of popular unmet economic, cultural and psychological needs, were in the ascendancy. Alongside these forces global movements for justice found their urgency and voice, not least in respect of confronting structural racism. The third was a pandemic, a reminder of the real ecological boundaries we face. In the background, whole areas of Earth were burned to the ground, our atmosphere polluted, earth denuded of a diversity of species, buried and poisoned by toxic waste. All these forces wrapped around one another and pulled each other to-and-fro. The limits of this way of existing as humans on this planet are upon us.

We are at modern society’s outer edge. The project of the Enlightenment is dimming and more of the same values and the political economy and society they surface cannot enable us to resolve the global problems we face. One America is already too much and with China heading that way in consumption and environmental degradation terms the global impacts will be devastating. Something must evolve and fast if we are not to crash into these limits that have become apparent. COP26 was a step; many, many more are required. First there was the unravelling, but unless we face it then there will be reckoning – for many, though innocent, there already is.

There is a volume of documentary evidence behind the nature of these multiple crises. Whilst we should constantly remind ourselves of the depth of the challenge, and it is at scale, there are two urgent questions that are needed if we are to find a way through. In the words of Arundhati Roy, who do we want to be at the other side – through the portal? How do we travel with that sense of purpose and deep values as we confront the future? Survival requires us as societies to rapidly learn together and evolve.

To make the transition relies on developing three inter-connected and mutually reinforcing values: home, community and democracy. Through these we will develop a sense of the ‘lifeworld’ we wish to safeguard. The German philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, sees the lifeworld as a space of human interaction and civic community and see its interface with big systems of money and power – human creations but distinct forces from the ‘lifeworld’ – as the critical site of human progress and well-being. Creativity happens at the frontier between the lifeworld and big systems.

What is meant by ‘home’? Some elements of home are in proximity. They are our close relations, those we care for directly and receive care from, as deep commitment rather than reciprocated self-interest. Home is a state of what Michael Tomasello has termed, collective intentionality. Any account of the future will need to have a convincing account of close relations. Increasingly these relationships are mediated by technology and we need to develop a more conscious account of how technology can and should act as a bond rather than a thinner of human relations.

There are seemingly more distant aspects of ‘home’ too – most particularly the natural environmental into which we are woven. And there we have been committing acts of domestic harm: polluting the atmosphere, depleting the stock of species, and poisoning the water and the ground with toxic waste. This two century long destructive streak is now visible and realised. There is a common understanding that change must come: but how and how rapidly? How can we develop an even greater collective sense of the need for rapid and radical change? And how can we begin to evolve systems of money, power and technology to respond to this new ‘common sense’? How can our future be one that regenerates nature as well as ourselves?

However, a loud warning is necessary here. If this project is a purely technocratic one or one in which our traditional attachment to nature – for example through the re-wilding movement – detaches from sensitivity to human needs then this journey will either remain incomplete or will simply run out of time. This may be a challenge with ideas around ‘de-growth’ which subordinates humanity to nature (and in so doing retains a hierarchy and separateness – albeit one that is flipped from our current modus operandi) rather than ‘post-growth’ and the regeneration movement which situates nature and humanity in tandem and mutual reinforcement. Time boundaries are real when it comes to restoring our home. And that is why ‘community’ is an essential second foundation.

If people do not feel supported and nurtured during the transition, that their needs will not be met, then populism will provoke a backlash that we can’t afford. Populism is ultimately an elite manipulated response to real and perceived unmet needs. The cost of regeneration and transition away from the deep decay of home will weigh too heavily on the weakest shoulders without a further reorientation of the systems of money and power. At a basic level this is about economic security and a sense of meaning and identity through work paid and unpaid – including in the home and community. These are the necessary conditions for a legitimate transition through climate emergency.

To ensure public support for transition to be retained, a sense of shared risk and shared community will be necessary. There are two widespread barriers to such a sentiment: the ‘security trap’ and ‘crumbling ladder’. Both require communitarian responses.

The ‘security trap’ is about the tension people face between their need to earn an income, build an asset base, maintain their mental and physical health and care for themselves and their own. The ‘crumbling ladder’ of opportunity arises from deep inequalities and a system of lifelong learning that is concentrated in too few hands. The necessary responses come from unconditional sources of income, support for mass asset holding, jobs that pay adequately and workplaces that nurture well-being, relentless attention to and action upon exclusionary barriers of racism and sexism that deny ‘social capital’ systematically, and a realisation that all our lives have to be adequately balanced between the private, civic and economic realms. We have to celebrate learning and open out time, space and institutions to enable more to participate in learning through life. Should we not relentlessly learn, we will not be able to relentlessly adapt, restore and replenish. Community also requires strong collaborations of care to help support the young, those with multiple conditions, and the elderly and frail.

A strong community affords each of us a guaranteed income, access to fulfilling and enriching work, support for our caring responsibilities and the means to learn and progress. Such a community is one in which big systems are infused with the ‘lifeworld’ rather than the ‘lifeworld’ becoming infected and diminished by the impersonal mechanisms of big systems. Community, supported by an economic floor, is ultimately where we develop a sense of the ‘better life’. And there’s a bonus. Where we nurture this better life we open out to each other and a bigger future with a wider horizon. We capture time, unfreeze our minds, and create new connections. All of this is supported by cognitive science and experimental data. We know and yet we don’t act. And this possibility of a bigger future creates fertile ground for a genuine and rich democracy.

As President Franklin Roosevelt put it in 1944: “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”

Our next destination has to be one in which our relationships with each other and with the natural environment are nourishing and restoring. Some have argued that the urgency of climate emergency means that democracy may be an impediment on that journey, slowing us down and diverting us. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Like ‘home’ and ‘community’, our ‘democracy’ must evolve through this transition. And if it can evolve we will be even stronger collectively.

Whilst a commonplace observation, the experience of solidarity through Covid, most prevalent in the early wave, shows that we have greater reserves of co-operative capacity than a fraught democracy playing out multiple rounds of ‘culture wars’ might signal. We saw the shoots of what Rebecca Solnit has described as ‘paradise built in hell’. That paradise is mutual aid and assistance. There is something to be built on here. Democratic societies, encouraged in the right way, can resolve major generational collective challenges. And we start from a position of commitment. RSA data has shown that people want to make the transition but don’t feel they have a voice in the change. Alarm bells should ring once again.

Rather than resorting to authoritarianism in the style of China or technocracy, a richer, deliberative democracy, that nurtures democratic practice will support the voice of community to help to avert backlash. Experiments in democracy across the world point to this developmental effect of deeper democracy. People evolve their thinking and therefore their values and action. Again, the empirical base is strong as gathered by Claudia Chwalisz and others. We have thrown away much of the solidarity that was developed in the pandemic, but at least we now know its potential. Albert O Hirschman expounded the potential power of voice over ‘exit’ (populism) and loyalty (technocracy). Voice is a necessity rather than obstacle to transition.

Home, community and democracy are bound tightly together. The economic problem is the political problem is the ecological problem. At its core the problem is one of how to safeguard non-dominated human and wider life. How can we contain and humanise the big systems that surround and condition us? How can we restore the natural damage we have created? How we respond to these questions is foundational to us finding a way through.

This is Part One of a Three Part series.

Part Two explores the power systems of Money, Power and Technology and how they can corrode the ‘lifeworld’.

Part Three describes three pathways to transition through restoration a sense of home, community and democracy.

Download the full essay series - Our Way Through (PDF, 1.6 MB)

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  • Excellent post - look forward to parts 2 and 3.

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