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Saturday’s Guardian featured two very good pieces. The first was Ed Miliband’s talk of ‘the power of collective action’ and ‘vision of a society where self-interest and shared interest go hand in hand – one of the first pieces from a politician or government minister to have really excited me in a while. The second featured the historian Tony Judt’s argument that ‘we now have a second generation of people who can't imagine change except in their own lives, who have no sense of social collective public goods or services, who are just isolated individuals desperately striving to better themselves above everybody else’.

Both caught my imagination. Because it seems clear to me that any coherent progressive politics requires both a narrative of collective action and a policy agenda that takes into account and builds on the intersubjective character of human behaviour and identity. Here we are talking about a policy agenda that links individual freedom and collective responsibility in such a way that we think of both as two-sides of the same coin. Many of the negative aspects of modern society (e.g. hyper-individualism and declining levels of happiness) are related in my view to what we might call the ‘ideology of the individual’.

In the next couple of blogs, I’m going to throw out some ideas about identity and politics. This one will be more about identity and the second one far more about actual policy and thinking about how you make collective action possible.

Most of the people I read and agree with almost instinctively (or so it feels) are what we would call ‘liberals’. But I find myself increasingly critical of those who speak from within a tradition of liberal political philosophy. While having a great deal of sympathy with a great deal of this tradition of thought, fundamental problems with most liberal political thought is becoming clearer to me. It lack an account of collective social action and distorts human freedom by conceiving of freedom as the capacity to do or be what one wants as if the individual and collective can be fundamentally separated. Even Rawls who did so much to link liberalism to an egalitarian agenda never changed his mind on the fact that ‘individual freedom’ was always the ‘right’ that trumped all others.

It is my contention that citizens, public services and communities are at their best when working together for a collective (civic and social) purpose. This undermines the dominant understanding of people – represented in the political thought of Machiavelli, Hobbes, rational choice theory and common sense perception of human nature on the street more generally - as self-serving egoists primarily concerned with fulfilling their own individual choices separate from the collective interests of the communities in which they live. While the thinking of Kant or Locke, for example, certainly can’t be understood in such a way, they both share the view that the starting point is always a very abstract understanding of individuality that subtracts people from the material and symbolic lives they actually live.

Our work in Peterborough which is helping to create more sustainable levels of citizenship in the city needs a different way of thinking about relations between people in the city. The overriding importance placed on civic behaviour and the need to cultivate this in Peterborough is anchored in a particular understanding of people. People are fundamentally social animals and sustainable places are based not on the isolated acts of individuals but the web of intersubjective relationships people have with each other and their environment.

Following a rich tradition of thinking and research that has its origins in the early Hegel (see Charles Taylor’s book), I would argue that the interests of individuals within a community such as Peterborough can only be satisfactorily realised when the needs of the wider society and environment are attended to. Because of our social nature – a key finding of Darwinian biology as Dan Dennett argues - the formation of human identity and the types of relationship people have with themselves are fundamentally intersubjective, that is, dependent on the relationships we have with other people.

This model of intersubjectivity has important implications for the understanding of the good life. As Axel Honneth has argued, the good society - a society in which individuals have a real opportunity to realise their own ambitions and goals - is a society in which common values match the concerns of individuals in such a way that no member of that community is denied the opportunity to be respected and earn esteem for his or her contribution to the common good.

The classic liberal critique of such a perspective is that such emphasis on social solidarity and collective behaviour crowds out individual self-expression and freedom. But this is only from the perspective of a short-sighted liberalism that understands freedom as nothing more than the capacity of people to choose what they want. The Citizens of the Future programme being undertaken in Peterborough assumes a more substantive conception of freedom as the capacity of local people to shape the society and communities in which they live. If local people are to identify and affirm the identity of Peterborough in their behaviour by acting in more other-regarding ways, they first need to have a connection and stake in its future.

This talk of intersubjectivity is not abstract philosophical reflection - it’s grounded in developmental social psychology and object-relations psychoanalysis, which shows how clearly the formation of individual identity is fundamentally linked to intersubjective relations. Heidegger was right, we ‘are thrown into the world’ - but that world is always, from the very beginning, a complex web of forces and relations as he shows himself.

One of the most radical implications of our fascinating social brain work here at the RSA and emerging findings from the cognitive sciences more generally are, I would argue – and this is my interpretation and not the social brain team – is that human nature and biology is far more dynamic and open to change than many realise; perhaps more so than many aspects of the social world (e.g. inter-generational poverty) that we consider more capable of being changed through policy interventions.

This also forces us perhaps to radically re-think how we understand human nature. Perhaps human biology is so dynamic and its relations with social influences so interdependent and dynamic also that the very basis for talking of what is fundamentally human is called into question (a key insight of Deleuze)? And perhaps, a la Richard Dawkins in the Selfish Gene, what then defines us is the potential for substantial shifts in what we call our ‘human nature’? If this is the case, perhaps we need to think more about developing the intersubjective relations, structures, processes and institutions that are most likely to produce pro-social and pro-civic outcomes by working with the dynamic potential of our biology. This must form part of a progressive politics of the common good. How ironic that our biology and freedom are so mutually dependent, for it was the left who spent so long negating the importance of biology in order to make way for human action and freedom as if we had a choice between biological determinism (i.e. human nature) and social change!!

Apologies for this mud pit of questions and stream of consciousness. Responses most welcome…


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