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The public realm faces significant challenges that cannot be adequately addressed by instrumental, utilitarian thinking. By public realm I mean the political economy and all the educational, commercial, civic and media institutions related to it; all of which, of course, have human beings inside them.

This is a hopeful point, not a council of despair. As thinkers like Steven Pinker are fond of reminding us, in some ways the world is not doing that badly at all; compared to much of human history, most of us live longer healthier lives in societies that are more or less functional and peaceful. Still, I'm not the only one who occasionally has the impression that, slowly but surely, we are losing our way.

Let's list some of these interrelated and mostly growing problems to see why:

  • Climate Change

  • Mental Illness

  • Political alienation

  • Work-related stress and unhappiness

  • Loneliness

  • Massive inequalities of wealth and income

  • Terrorism

Now look at a short video satire on how we tend to try to deal with such problems:

Note the line: "The point I'm making, Brian, is that....Growth will give us the money we need to address these very very important...other crap you're talking about."

There is something deeply deluded about fetishisation of economic growth, but I have written before about why it's no simple matter to get away from it - it's like we are on a bike which we'll fall from if we stop peddling...and we struggle to articulate an alternative means of transport.

The deeper issue is not the pursuit of growth as such, but the instrumental target-driven crudely utilitarian algorithmic mindset underlying it. In our engagement with Ian McGilchrist's work we look more deeply at this relatively 'hidden' mindset based on abstraction, measurement and control that dictates public policy, company strategy ('the bottom line') and even the decisions we take about our lives ('I have to pay the bills').

What can we do with that kind of hegemonic instrumentality?

I received a wonderful email from an RSA fellow Ian Christie last night in the context of helping to frame the over-arching message of our forthcoming report on spirituality, which included the following paragraph:

"I wonder if the framing needs to be about the post-extrinsic? We have had two centuries of a civilisation of unparalleled material progress, abundance and development based on extrinsic values (self-interest, materialism, economic growth, keeping up, social mobility); intrinsic 'beyond-self' and religious values have periodically been reasserted but they have lost their institutional hold and centrality to the stories that make sense of our lives. The extrinsic values celebrated by industrial society are now under real pressure in the West as scarcities begin to return and confidence in the future wanes, for good reasons of ecological disruption, social fragmentation and economic dysfunction and inequality."

Well said, and this analysis encapsulates why many prominent thinkers have been striving to articulate alternative approaches to building 'a post-extrinsic society'.

In Rowan Williams’s review of Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy, he pinpoints the premise of Sandel’s critique into excessive marketisation as follows: “The fundamental model being assumed here is one in which a set of unconditioned wills negotiate control of a passive storehouse of commodities, each of them capable of being reduced to a dematerialised calculus of exchange value. If anything could be called a “world-denying” philosophy, this is it...a possible world of absolute commodification. If we want to resist this intelligently, we need doctrine, ritual and narrative: sketches of the normative, practices that are not just functions, and stories of lives that communicate a sense of what being at home in the environment looks like—and the costs of failure as well.”

Similarly, in the context of 'political emotions' Martha Nausbaum writes that “Public culture needs something religion-like … something passionate and idealistic if human emotions are to sustain projects aimed at lofty goals… Mere respect is not enough to hold citizens together when they must make sacrifices of self-interest.”

And in How Much is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky present a detailed description of the good life and a rationale for its various elements as an alternative vision to modern capitalism, but in the penultimate paragraph of their book, without forewarning they write: "Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself to pursuit of the common good? We doubt it."

In the bestseller ‘Quiet’, Susan Cain makes some suggestions for how to restructure workplaces to rebalance the world towards a healthier mixture of introversion and extroversion, so that the value of the inner life is respected at scale. And in ‘The end of Power’ Moses Naim speaks of ‘the mentality revolution’ that is less deferential and grounded in networks.

Technology is such a huge feature of modern life that it has to be part of the story. In recent talks and books (links forthcoming) Jaron Lanier has connected technological infrastructure, including big data and micropayment to patterns of human interaction that are creative and empathetic rather than transactional at heart. Lanier argues that “It is impossible to work in information technology without also engaging in social engineering” and “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process”. Interestingly, he adds: “I like the term empathy because it has spiritual overtones…” and he wants to get away from the idea that human problems can be solved by setting information free because “Information is alienated experience.”

The most explicit expression of a need for new thinking that is less instrumental and extrinsic came from Common Cause and subsequent related publications and institutions, including The Public Interest Research Centre and The New Citizenship Project and perhaps even The Sunday Assembly.

My own view is that the problem with most of the above arguments and initiatives is that they don't go far enough. When I switch off my inner policy wonk I sense that we are pulling our punches. The instrumental mindset is so strong, pervasive and hegemonic that you don't realise it delineates your idea of permissible speech.

I now think you need the verbal equivalent of an axe to break through it, and some four letter words are called for. That's partly why I chose to frame our work on spirituality as 'Love,Death, Self and Soul'.

When people ask: what are you talking about? We need to be able say: economically we are certainly not 'in this together', but existentially we are and always will be. I want to talk about the stuff that really matters to people, all people, and I want you to talk about it too.

Dr Jonathan Rowson is Director of RSA's Social Brain Centre, currently finishing up a report on reconceiving the spiritual roots of the public realm, due to be published in December. 


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