It was more than slightly intimidating earlier this week to host an event with David Harvey, one of the world's leading Marxist thinkers. Nevertheless listening to the great man and reading his book I was reminded of why - although there are many powerful aspects of Marxist analysis - I have never been attracted by the whole world view.
It comes down to human motivation: In essence Marxists tend to blame what they see as the most regrettable aspects of human behaviour on the capitalist system. So, for Harvey, capitalism relies upon and inculcates blind greed among the capitalist class (exhibited, for example, by the efforts made by the very rich to avoid their tax obligations) while fostering a combination of mob consumerism and bovine acquiescence among most of the rest of us. Conversely, Harvey's happy, enlightened post capitalist society seems to rely upon the emergence or a much more benign human psychology. Indeed Harvey is explicit about the importance to his case of a belief in the perfectibility of the human spirit - it is why he abhors the depredations of capitalism and why he believes in a radical alternative.
In contrast, I believe human motivation is both more constant, in that the same features and vulnerabilities express themselves - albeit in different forms - whatever the social context, and more complex in that - with Freud - I see inherent tensions playing out in the human psyche.
Crudely superimposing very basic elements of cultural theory and the Freudian account of the personality, I suggest we have three core drives: the pursuit of pleasure (roughly cognate with id, freedom, individualism), the pursuit of power (roughly cognate with ego, progress, hierarchism); the fulfilment of duty (roughly cognate with super-ego, universalism, solidarity).
While I am only too ready to believe that consumer capitalism encourages an idea of pleasure which is both insatiable and narrowly materialistic and that it therefore tilts the balance of human nature in a particular, problematic, direction, I neither think the inherent conflict between our core motivations is a characteristic of capitalism alone nor that this conflict will ever be fully transcended.
This takes me beyond a fairly well-rehearsed and probably simplistic critique of the Marxist account of human nature to the debate in the RSA about the set of ideas we call the Power to Create; ideas which might ultimately frame the major part of our work.
A concern in our internal discussions (soon we aim to open that discussion much wider) has been that the focus on creativity can seem individualistic and ethically empty. This is why we stress inclusion (releasing the creativity in everyone) and responsibility (creativity for the common good) alongside creativity per se.
Going back to my triptych of human impulses, creativity can be seen to reflect two impulses - the pursuit of pleasure and power - but not the third - duty and responsibility. For example, does a focus on creating new things imply complacency about environmental sustainability or is it incompatible with the idea that human beings should prize a capacity for stoicism, quiet reflection and humility?
There are two responses to this concern: First, creativity can certainly be applied to questions of ethics and duty (this is the inspiration for much social enterprise); second, creativity can be about how we achieve a higher trade off point in the eternal tensions between our desire for the good life, for achievement and status, and to be virtuous. Creativity can thus be linked to Robert Kegan's idea of self authorship as the highest stage of human development.
It may indeed be the ideology of consumerism that leads us sometime to conflate the idea of enhanced human agency with a narrow idea of self interest and personal ambition. Yet far from greater self mastery (a belief that we can create the future we choose) being seen as a way for the individual to free themselves from their natural and social context, the ideal should be that it leads to a deeper awareness of our essentially social nature our relationship with the natural environment and to more fulfilling and benign ways of managing the inherent tensions between our different human needs.
As we begin to imagine the post-pandemic world, we need to challenge our use of old metaphors to allow for new narratives and better futures to emerge.
With the post-Christmas resolutions looming, when we try to address the worst of our seasonal over-indulgences, the question remains: how can we give up bad habits for good?