New times, new politics?


  • Behaviour change

There is a brilliant piece by my old friend Martin Kettle in today’s Guardian. In all the political breast-beating about the world after the crisis he sees something I sensed but could not name (though it echoes the thesis of my first annual RSA lecture).

The political classes are arguing about which of them and which of their ideologies is best suited to manage the post-crisis world. What none of them seems to get is that any plan that understands people as the object (whether they are the object of markets or the state) rather than the subject of change is doomed to failure. The current argument between left and right about how best to empower people is like a man with a fork and a man with a sieve fighting over how to bail out a sinking boat.         

This is a problem of social buoyancy. Politicians can only steer a boat that has the capacity to float. But over recent decades we have thrown too much civic ballast over the side and we have dragged on too much individualist cargo in its place.

This sounds like a counsel of despair. And if we had to rely on an ontology derived from an admixture of Cartesian dualism, neo-liberal economics and our flawed intuition, so it would be. Now is the time for us to call on a wealth of powerful analysis derived from neuroscience, behavioural economics, social psychology and moral philosophy to recast our very notion of who are and how we thrive as human beings.

Take just two insights and imagine, really imagine, how different our world would be if we lived according to them.

First, our personalities are less fixed and more dependent on the context in which we place ourselves than we think. While the things that make people feel good (family, friendship, altruism, good health, fulfilment in our work) are much more universal and constant than the booming messages of consumer capitalism beg us to believe.

Second, our brains are much more plastic (changebale and adaptable) than we imagine. All of us have huge scope to develop as human beings throughout our lives. What matters to that development is to do with inner reflection and social connection more than material success or hierarchical status.

This may sound pious and irrelevant to today’s scramble out of crisis. But one of the reasons the new world will see the West decline and the East rise is that, all in all, the citizens of the East have a more realistic and sustainable (which to some extent means humble and resigned) idea of what life involves. The simple fact that most of the West consumes more than it produces while most of the East produces more than it consumes is a powerful symptom of cultural difference.

We cannot simply abandon our own cultural traditions, and there is much of the West to cherish and preserve. But for leaders to construct a feasible future for our societies means citizens reimagining a feasible and fulfilling way of life for themselves.

But when will politics get anywhere near questions like this?

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