How should we carry the past into the future? This important question lies, often opaquely, behind personal, political and cultural dilemmas. Without the past we have no identity, we are not human; but the past can also be an invading army colonising our future and mercilessly wiping out the people we might have chosen to become.
Writing back in the 1950s Alan Watts’s ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ drew on eastern philosophical traditions and modern psychological insights to issue a rallying call for living in the present:
‘There are, then, two ways of understanding an experience. The first is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, and so to name and define it. This is to interpret it in accordance with the dead and the past. The second is to be aware of it as it is, as when in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future, let the present be all, and thus do not even stop to think, ‘I am happy’
Watts does not advocate forgetting or ignoring the past but that we should be mindful of the way in which, in the very act of meaning-making, we give the past dominion over the present and preclude the power and joy of unmediated experience.
While the feeling of transcendent ‘nowness’ may be rare to those of us who have not chosen the path of committed meditation we can more prosaically perhaps agree that in life’s journey the past should be a guide book of useful information, suggestions and stories rather than a rucksack of rocks.
Think also of heritage and place. There is a drive to build more new towns but whatever benefits starting from scratch might bestow our ambivalence about the concept reflects the sense that for a place to have identity it must have a past.
An RSA project is looking at the role of heritage in local social and economy strategy. It suggets civic leaders are aware of how the past provides identity and distinctiveness (dare I say ‘brand’) and in a nexus for civic engagement and social connection. Yet, too often, the heritage sector defines itself in terms of the protection of old stuff, forgetting that if heritage has no resonance beyond the historical it may survive but be inert.
The best way to protect the past is to think deeply and creatively about its contribution to the construction of a future sense of place. By choosing to be a site of contestation about identities and choices, heritage can secure its place as a social asset.
Then to politics: Thomas Piketty’s monumental work ‘Capital in the in the 21st century’ is rightly being seen on the left as one those rare debate-changing works. In it, the French economist argues that with the exception of the early and middle part of the twentieth century (when war, population growth and social democratic policies combined in a very particular way), earnings from assets have outstripped economic growth and thus earned income. Growing inequality between those who have assets, and are able not only to enjoy their fruits but grow them further, and those who do not is endemic to market economies. We mistook the exceptional cycle of the twentieth century as a trend but now we seem set back on the road to nineteenth century levels of profound inequality. Combine this with modest levels of long term growth and the prospects for those without assets are grim.
Piketty’s work raises many provocative questions and left of centre blogs are buzzing with them but one of the most important concerns time:
‘ …inequality expresses a fundamental logical contradiction. The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labour. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future’
And so to David Cameron’s apparent commitment to make a major cut in inheritance tax a priority for a Government in the middle of a deep austerity programme. What is it that we want to pass onto future generations? Surely love, self-worth, some sense of the responsibility and honour of standing on the shoulders of past generations. There is no reason why part of this legacy should not be expressed materially.
That parents do all they can to help their children thrive, that adult children strive to provide dignity and care to older generations, and that at death we pass on - if we can - assets which might provide our loved ones with opportunities or some resilience to misfortune; these are parts of the familial world we should honour and protect. But should the opportunity to succeed become a passport to entrenched privilege, should something to fall back on become a feather bed for the failed or feckless? Most of all do we want the result of yesterday’s races to become an insurmountable handicap system for tomorrow’s?
How does the past live in the future? It turns out this question is everywhere. Perhaps we should think about it more deeply and more consistently.
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.
Matthew Taylor Anthony Painter
Instead of hoping for national politicians to solve our hardest problems, we need to ask them for the final pieces of a puzzle we have started to solve together.