While it is increasingly obvious that what we are doing isn’t going to work, what to replace it with is an even bigger unknown.
Critiques, which are always more numerous than solutions, have grown in number and in confidence over the last two years. Larry Summers’ pronouncement of “secular stagnation” was a start, the BIS’ warnings about international debt levels marked a broadening, and Harry Shutt and Paul Mason’s observations about the “end of capitalism” signify the emergence of angst into the general consciousness. These critiques all have perspectives longer than two quarters, and so are generally considered to be irrelevant by the financial community, which regards any future problem as something to solve in the future when it actually impedes the ability to extract profit in the immediate term. Central Banks would rather not admit that they are managing their affairs quarter by quarter, and talk up their long term desires and objectives, but their “data dependent” strategies expose their true occupations.
The overweight of finance has captured much of business and household activity, which would otherwise have provided the counter weight to short termism, and monetary institutions like the Central Banks have also been captured, as described above. So it is only the political realm that remains free to act, dependent on its ability to develop both the solutions and the leadership.
Solution sets doing the rounds today fall into two camps: reactionary and visionary. The reactionaries advocate some form of return to a previous time, to an old philosophy that depends for its validity on activating one or another base instincts for community or individual survival. The visionaries extrapolate the bleeding edge of our technological and financial frontiers to suggest a future that could only seem likely because it depends on the broad ignorance of the great majority as to the capacity and capabilities of both technology and finance. Jeremy Gilbert has written eloquently on the need to “modernise” the essentially reactionary impulses of the old Labour Party, and Paul Mason is a flagship advocate of the technological nirvana that could magically replace the current neoliberal ascendency.
What is not on offer is a grounded, practical solution that is not dependent on going back or flying forward. The space for action that is available in the political realm will only be activated if a solution set is available that is both modern and simple. The good intentions of both reactionaries and visionaries is not at issue, we can readily assume that every human has a rationale for their proposals, and that their objectives include the benefit of others. Good intentions are not the matter at hand, moving to sustainable human societies is the yardstick of our moment.
The call for modernity speaks to the essential requirement that we start from where we are, not from where we used to be, and highlights the primary weakness of all reactionary proposals, left and right. The visionaries’ insight that technology is part of the solution is effectively an aspect of the call for modernity, in that they are at least forward looking. But simply acknowledging that we have to start from where we are, and leverage the tools we have already developed, are but starting blocks on the journey we must make.
The foundation for a simple and modern solution set must be a solid understanding of who we are as a species, what makes us tick, and what are our most functional modalities. This is the essential excavation work that must be done first, before we latch onto policy solutions, and it is precisely what is absent on both the reactionary and visionary proposals.
What has made humans so successful is our ability to remain in cohesive groups with significantly individuated members, i.e. “society”. Both cohesion and individuation are necessary for the emergence of specialisation, and it is specialisation that enables the large scale societies we have today. Without specialisation we are but the rugged individuals of American folklore fantasy.
Nurturing specialisation must be the ascendant objective of a sustainable human society. That means always honouring variety, and always providing safety. These principles can inform a set of solutions that deliver on the goal of sustainability, and they are reinforced by the weight of their natural conformity.
The detail of what it takes to simultaneously support safety and variety can be found in the policy sets advocated at Standards of LIFE and here on this site, but what is essential as a precursor is to assimilate the vital importance of both safety and variety. Only when we have fully incorporated the central role that these features must play, and why, we will be able to make our way through the complicated detail of policy.
Understanding that safety and variety are differentiated aspects of specialisation, and therefore are manifested through different modalities, is perhaps the most modern aspect of this philosophy. Although safety and variety are intricately intertwined in a modern, advanced society, examination of the origins and principles reveals a discernible hierarchy. The emergence and development of variety is dependent on the presence of safety. It is only safe to become a specialist once one can be assured that others will help to fill the gap that specialisation inevitably leaves in its wake. Safety must then be the primary objective.
National security is a woefully narrow and inadequate definition of “safety”, for we are social creatures and a comprehensive and full understanding of the meaning of safety is social in nature. Safety that underpins a sustainable and successful human society is properly understood to be the unconditional provision of basic life sustaining services. The scope of what constitutes these basic services expands as a human society develops, until it fully incorporates the seven basic services: shelter, sustenance, health and care, education, transport, information, and legal safety services, including the infrastructure of effective democracy. As Roberto Unger has divined, the proper role of government must be to focus on this basic infrastructure layer of society as its preeminent preoccupation, including the development of “high energy” democracy.
Any solution set that is not almost single-mindedly focussed on the provision of social safety and the encouragement of variety and specialisation is not worthy of the challenges before us. The standards by which you can appropriately judge any solution proffered to you are:
- does it support the provision of unconditional safety for every citizen?
- does it support the development of variety and specialisation?
Failure to directly address these two questions in any solutions set proposed for human societies is a fatal (literally) flaw. Tactical objectives, such as increasing employment, protecting the environment, and reducing fiscal deficits, are all perfectly valid; however they will be unachievable without attending first to the essential strategic objectives of providing safety and supporting specialisation.