Towards my new progressivism - part one


  • Social brain

In my earlier posting I promised to explore some ideas for a new progressivism growing from the rubble of the hegemonic individualism of the last thirty years. This turns out to be a lot more difficult to write than it seemed when I was thinking great thoughts out running in Saddleworth. Still, on the basis that this is a blog posting to stimulate debate rather then a meticulously argued thesis, here goes.

The individualist paradigm rests of a series of interconnected views, assumptions and methodologies. Politically, individualists see the promotion of personal freedom as both the means and ends of progress. Analytically, individualists see society as no more than the aggregation of individual preferences and actions. The content of those preferences is sufficiently explained in terms of each person maximising utility based on a perfect knowledge of their own best interests. Whilst this idea is best understood as a heuristic device (the ‘least bad’ basis for policy, perhaps) rather than an attempt to describe reality, it relies upon and reinforces the importance of conscious human calculation as the driver of behaviour; the invisible hand is powered by individual choices.

Social progressives are unwilling to leave progress to the aggregation of individual choices. The fulfilment of human potential requires more than freedom, it depends upon access to a culturally determined range of resources. Progressives are not satisfied with the individualists’ absolute notion of ‘freedom from’, wanting to balance against it the inherently negotiable idea of ‘freedom to’. ‘Freedom to’ is socially constructed and socially realised therefore the individual can only be fully understood in relation to society. Society acts upon the individual and has its own dynamics beyond the aggregation of individual preferences.

There is nothing new to this; it is political philosophy 1.01. But in recent years, as the critique of political and analytical individualism has grown, three important new arguments have been added to the progressive case. First, measures of self defined well-being at the aggregate level contradict the assumption that greater freedom leads to greater personal satisfaction. As Avner Offer shows in ‘The Challenge of Affluence’, and as research by Andrew Oswald and by Richard Layard has reinforced, greater personal freedom and affluence do not seem to be leading to more enjoyable lives. Also, greater personal freedom seems to be associated, if anything, with a higher incidence of pathologies ranging from obesity to violent crime.

Second, social science (in particular social psychology and behavioural economics) has convincingly demonstrated the systematically non-utility maximising nature of human preferences and actions. For example, human beings are bad at both calculating and acting upon what is – according to their own stated views - in their best long term interests. Quite apart from its impact on individuals this can have problematic social consequences, seen, for example in the inadequate pension savings rate in societies like the US and UK which most emphasising economic freedom.

Third, neuroscience has finally exploded the myth that human behaviour can be fully, or even adequately, seen as being primarily the result of conscious calculation. Most of what we do (arguably, all that we do, but this is a bigger philosophical question) is the result of unconscious responses to external stimuli. The mind does not police the boundary between the individual and the world outside, instead the individual is a nodal point in a web of unconscious stimulus and response. Indeed, from the perspective of neuroscience it is easier to argue there is no such thing as the individual (understood as the conscious, independent decision maker) than there is no such thing as society.

Based on a crude understanding of evolution and a superficial interpretation of human behaviour, individualists used to claim they were the hard headed realists while progressives were starry eyed idealists (all too ready to turn into authoritarians when their hopes of human perfection were thwarted). But we now know beyond question (as if there was ever any doubt) that human beings have socially constructed identities, that they rely on social interventions to provide the conditions to develop their potential and their scope for well-being, and that the choices we make are as much if not more dependent on the social context in which we find ourselves as any fixed individual preferences.

At the level of the individual, the new progressive agenda differs from a more traditional social democratic perspective in insisting on a more nuanced, ambitious and research-based idea of capacity and well-being. To be sure, freedom and fairness are likely to be important components of the objective conditions for, and subjective experience of, well-being. But the way we experience and express freedom, and the translation of objectively fair rules into a society in which people both feel equally valued and committed to reciprocity depend upon the development of individuals as social actors and the creation of the contexts which encourage individually fulfilling and socially benevolent preferences and actions.

This implies a series of connected aspects of a new progressive agenda.

A wider frame: New progressives believe it is useful for society to seek to define and pursue human development and well-being (whilst recognising the definitions will be contested). This is not simply about maximising the potential for free choices but about creating the context and capacities for wise choices.

A greater ambition: New progressives believe that through social action it is possible (and desirable) substantially to increase aggregate capacity and well-being. This goes beyond achieving higher levels of equality and material wealth to a qualitatively different level of individual and social functioning. Progressives argue that such a shift may be necessary if human beings are to manage key aspects of the modern world including globalisation, climate change and technological complexity.

The good individual in the good society: Progress for the individual relies not only on ‘freedom from’, nor even ‘freedom to’, but on the individual’s place in a society that nurtures, develops and continually reinforces the individual’s potential as a social being. Politics should be largely concerned with debating what kind of society this is but the evidence suggests it will have relatively low levels of social inequality.

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