27. The civilised society

Ch 27

The civilised society

The need for a new place to stand

It’s a pretty grim picture I’ve painted in the first three Parts.  And, like many things you see on television, it may not match your own experience of life to date.

But one problem is that much of this is not directly visible to us as individuals in the affluent world.  And, what’s worse, the gradual deterioration of things is not often evident till the change starts to happen fast, or we tip into a new state.

We have to take these things at least partly on trust – that we are despoiling the land and the oceans at such a rate that they will lose their capacity to support us in the not-too distant future; that we are pumping carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at rates which will lead to radical change in our climate; that we are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of species; and that a significant proportion of our own human species live lives which are brutal and lacking in dignity.

And, as I have discussed, there are whole industries devoted to taking our attention off these subjects, by denying them, by casting doubt on them, and by competing for our attention.

Yet the surveys seem to show that most of us, in our hearts, know that something is badly wrong[i].  And the “something” is the system that has led us to this place.  The unholy alliance of the pursuit of profit with the morality of social Darwinism is quickly turning our green and beautiful planet into a turbulent, hot, dry, sparse, and crowded place.

And it is not the crowding as such which causes the immediate problem.  It is the consumption of the 1.5 billion affluent people.  If all 7 billion of us consumed at the average level of North America, we would be using four times the planet’s ability to regenerate itself.  If we consumed at the level of the wealthier half of Americans, it would take 8 to 12 or more Earths to support us.

The super-wealthy lifestyle is not one we can all aspire to.  If you doubt this, follow up the recent descriptions by businessinsider.com of what being super-wealthy can mean in terms of goods and services[ii].

Nor should we aspire to great material wealth, as discussed previously.  Beyond a certain point well below that of the super-wealthy, material wealth adds little to human satisfaction.  And, in a world of material limits, this is needless luxury.

The system which created and sustains the super-wealthy is not going to provide the solutions.  The idea of trading our way out of climate change by setting market prices on carbon would be unlikely to have any real effect on our levels of carbon use, and would simply create another windfall for the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

The idea of an untested geo-engineering solution to our carbon problem is just Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”) all over again, but with possibly fatal consequences for humanity.

And the idea of more and better food from further development of industrial monoculture and newer (but fewer) strains of seeds, is simply a gift to the owners of Monsanto.

We need a new place to stand.  And that place has to reject many of the underlying values of our current system, and to operate by principles which, by and large, have been around for a long time, but are currently unfashionable.

This does not mean I think we can go “back to the future”.  The old straw-horse of “socialism versus capitalism” is of no use to us.  We need to build a future based on “both and”, on both the strengthened individualism that has emerged over the last century, and the collectivism that is truly at the heart of human progress.  Thatcherism and Reaganism – the most visible elements of the neoliberal revolution – touched on something important to all of us, about personal autonomy.

The problem is that it has gone too far.  It preached and encouraged extreme individualism (“There is no such thing as society”).  Which, as we all know when we think about it, is utter nonsense.  All humans exist, from cradle to grave, in a state of near total interdependency, with each other and with the planet.  The neoliberal aim of persuading us all to maximise individual consumption is what creates the shambles we have now made of our common home.

We need to add back some of the collectivistic values that are essential to a functioning human society.

I know that scorn will be heaped on the suggestions I make as “naïve” or “unrealistic”.  Yet many of the things I will propose are being done in various parts of the world, as people push back against the momentum of the wealthy world’s profit machine.

It is not clear to me what a truly sustainable and regenerative society would look like, and it’s probably impossible for it to be clear to anyone.  This is because the future has infinite possibilities, and how we see things today may be radically changed as we develop new modes of working and thinking.

I describe my own current, personal “utopia” in the section after next.  But I have no great personal investment in attaining this specific vision.  Because to me, society is a process, not a state.  It needs some underlying stability to function, but it has to be dynamic in managing and developing itself.

And a “civilised” society is one whose underlying stability is based primarily on shared values and genuine consent, rather than on coercion and/or bribery.

To me, the “capitalist” societies of the “West” no longer look dissimilar to the “totalitarian” societies of the “East”.  Both were founded on visions of a better society, both were initially egalitarian and democratic.  But the one group moved seemingly inexorably from a base of individual freedoms to a social Darwinistic nightmare whose cracks are papered over by distraction of the population.  And the other moved from a more collectivist approach to a highly centralised and coercive set of societies.

Both need to be rejected.  But the egalitarianism and democracy on which they were founded remain as important as ever as bases of society.  The issue is not the dreams of a better society with which they began.  The issue is the ways they evolved, with various degrees of rapidity, as wealth was redistributed and power-spans increased.

A first word about Utopias – dreams of a better society

Most Utopian visions are about a “future state”.  And often, one person’s Utopia is another person’s dystopia.  At the moment, our human world is being driven by a “Utopian” vision of humans as individuals and consumers, being serviced by the magnificent innovation and production engine of capitalism.

Terry Eagleton puts it like this,

“A virulent form of utopianism has indeed affected the modern age, but its name is not Marxism.  It is the crazed notion that a single global system known as the free market can impose itself on the most diverse cultures and economies and cure all their ills”[iii].

The capitalist dream is their Utopia.  It has already led to despoilation of the planet, the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, and widespread injustice, hunger and untimely death.  But capitalists still believe in it.  They claim that “many have been lifted out of poverty”.  This is true in one sense, that there are many more people surviving on the planet, but it is also unclear how far this is actually attributable to capitalism rather than better governance and social systems.  And it is also becoming all too clear how few years remain in which it will be sustainable.

The capitalist Utopia is a vision which sabotages Maslow’s famous hierarchy of human needs, the two lowest of which are “physiological” (ie water, food and shelter) and “safety”.

Ch 27 illus 1Maslow’s hierarchy of individual human needs

Basic needs of food and shelter are not being provided by stable systems, but are increasingly at the mercy of “market anarchy”, where physical supplies are at the whim of suppliers and middlemen, and food prices skyrocket and plummet to line the pockets of people who have no role at all in their production and distribution.  And arms suppliers sell to whoever can pay them, destroying safety and creating endless conflict, mostly in already poor countries.

If you’re hungry, cold, prone to disease, and uncertain of your own personal safety, you cannot rise up through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  The world is deprived of your ability to act as a true citizen.

The capitalist Utopia is also dependent on sabotaging Maslow’s two middle levels – love/belonging and esteem.  It is based on encouraging individual competition and consumption, at the expense of others.  If you are focussed only on your own perceived needs and satisfaction, the world is again deprived of your ability to act as a true citizen.

A note in passing on Maslow’s hierarchy.  It is in itself a strong expression of the current cult of individualism, with personal development (“self-actualisation”) at the top of the hierarchy.  The actual evidence is that love, belonging and esteem are at the top – that the happiest and most fulfilled people are those who have rich relationships with their family and community[iv].

But any argument I might make about what should be at the peak of the hierarchy is irrelevant to the key point being made, that the capitalist Utopia is based on denying a core set of human needs.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and such parallel documents as the Earth Charter[v], express a different Utopian view of the world.  They are grounded in a vision of human dignity rather than a set of economic mechanisms based on greed.

In essence, the capitalists say “we’ll build it, and they will come (if they can afford it)”; the alternative vision says “let’s build it together”.

A second word about Utopias – my own

“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people, sharing all the world….”
(“Imagine”, John Lennon)

Imagine!  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

My personal Utopia is a world based on the premise of this verse of Lennon’s song.  A world based on a foundation of human solidarity, or mutual support.  A world where there is no ownership, to exclude people from participation, and where “nobody goes hungry while another eats”[vi].

Today, we have more than enough food, and plenty of distribution capacity, to achieve the “nobody goes hungry” bit, for a few decades anyway.  No ownership might take a little longer.

Ursula LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed” expresses the details of my Utopia far better than I can, through its description of the world of Annares.  In it, the principles of human solidarity and individual freedom both support and challenge each other.

Spoiler alert: If you’d like to read the book itself, you might want to skip the rest of this section till you have read it, to form your own view. My description below confines itself to the political-economic aspects of the book, but it does give away a lot of the basic story, and not nearly as artistically as LeGuin allows it to unfold.

The “collectivism” of mutual support on Anarres expresses itself in the complete absence of private ownership, the operation of voluntary production and distribution syndicates, and the social pressure to engage in community “kleggich” (tenth day “dirty work”).  The risks this collectivism entails include forcing conformity to social norms, and the aggregation of power wherever organisation is required.

At the heart of the political argument of the book is the decision of one individual and his friends to push back against the accumulation of power which is occurring at the centre, despite the apparent safeguards such as lack of any power to direct, and rotation of key roles.

The “individualism” of personal freedom expresses itself through the certainty that you will be fed, housed, and educated, and the complete freedom of choice you have in what you do.  The risks this individualism entails include “propertarianism” (hoarding and waste of resources), and “egoism” (acting against the principle of mutual support).

The tensions between these principles play out as the book unfolds, and are brought into sharp relief by the visit of the protagonist, Shevek, to their sister-planet, Urras, from which they had escaped 170 years before.  Urras is superficially a beautiful and bountiful planet compared with Anarres, which is dry and desert-like.  But in the country Shevek visits, underneath the surface, the ruling classes’ values of profit, power and possessions have continued the huge divisions in income, wealth and status which led Shevek’s forebears (the “Odonians”) to revolt.  The few have the possessions, and the many serve them, and try to survive.

LeGuin even gives us a vision of the Earth itself, after the triumph of the profiteers, through its Ambassador Keng.  Here is her dystopia.  And it is mine as well:

“My world, my Earth, is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species.  We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died.  We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt.  We destroyed ourselves.  But we destroyed the world first.  There are no forests left on my Earth.  The air is grey, the sky is grey.  It is always hot….You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert….We survive there, as you do!  There are nearly half a billion of us now.  Once there were nine billion.  You can see the old cities everywhere.  The bones and the brick go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do….We failed as a species, as a social species.”

There is no doubt in my mind that we are currently on the path to this Earth.  Mad Max’s world.  And even our survival as a species is threatened.  If we survive, it will be in a hot and broken world, more or less as described by Keng.

So, in summary, my Utopia is a world where our basic material needs are met by mutual endeavour, where waste and accumulation of possessions are minimised, where power-spans are short, where the tensions between collectivism and individualism are consciously played out, with neither being dominant for long, and where people are free, educated, and encouraged to develop their own human potential.

And, by the way, where long-range weapons are banned.

Such a Utopia would be in a state of continual change, at least evolutionary, if not revolutionary.  It could often be an uncomfortable place to be, as illustrated in “The Dispossessed”.  But it would never have the obscene divisions of wealth and poverty, of peace and conflict, that characterise our current human society.

And the “discomfort” would be one of its strengths.  Most Utopias visualise a fixed or stable society, based on “ideal” rules.  These must, by definition, become moribund and eventually overturned.  Only a society based on evolutionary and regenerative principles can last indefinitely.

I believe that, if we act quickly, we still have a chance to both have our cake and eat it – to keep a large proportion of the natural beauty and bounty of our Earth (Urras), by and while building something like the social and economic Utopia LeGuin describes (Anarres).

That’s not to say I am striving to make my specific Utopia come about.  As I said previously, I see society as a process, rather than a state.  What’s important to me about my Utopia is that it illustrates the underlying values which I think best represent, and should best guide, our actions as a species.

I believe that, if we did this, we might end up with a society somewhat like that of Anarres.  But, as a learning society, we might find new possibilities, and go down avenues we can’t even imagine today.

Our biggest failing is that we have applied most of our imagination and our resources to material technologies for the last 400 years.  We need to apply more imagination, and more resources, to our personal, governance and economic spheres.  Not with the aim of “quick technological fixes”.  But in the spirit of mutual support, of ensuring basic human dignity for all, and of ensuring the future bounty of our Earth.

Human solidarity as the foundation

My definition of a civilised society is one which continuously and effectively addresses those underlying issues identified in Part Three – greed, power, consent, guidance, and otherness.

And its deepest foundation is human solidarity.  That is, solidarity about the fact that we are all human together.  In other words, the acknowledgement of the humanity and essential equality of all of us, and the promise of mutual support in ensuring that all have a genuine chance to live their lives with dignity, and in peace.

Each of us has the rights which are so well enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its codicils.  Well, each of us should have them.

Human solidarity means that each of us is also responsible for helping ensure that those rights are protected.  Social Darwinism is NOT the formula for a successful human society; mutual responsibility and support are – as they have been, through humanity’s brief existence.

The Alliance of Responsibility for Sustainable Societies [sic] recently developed a draft “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities”[vii] for the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference.  Its second principle is that “individual human beings and everyone together have a shared responsibility to others, to close and distant communities, and to the planet, proportionately to their assets, power and knowledge”.  This is a complete rejection of social Darwinism.

The core actual responsibilities identified are “…taking into account the immediate or deferred effects of all acts, [and] preventing or offsetting their damages…” (a complete rejection of externalisation of costs and damage), and “…responsibility to manage [natural resources] to the best of the common good…” (a complete rejection of private sovereignty over natural resources).

I will refer to other principles in this draft Declaration later.  We could do a lot worse than trying to apply them.

But the essential point is that “we’re all in this together”.  We will NOT solve the problems we face by division and conflict.  We will solve them when we learn to work together, on the basis of mutual respect.

This is not individualism (because each individual has responsibilities to the collective), nor is it collectivism (because the collective must protect the rights of individuals).  It is civilisation.

But human solidarity does NOT involve all of us thinking, acting and looking the same.  Terry Eagleton puts this pungently, on behalf of Karl Marx,

“Whereas many social thinkers have seen human society as an organic unity, what constitutes it in Marx’s view is division.  It is made up of mutually incompatible interest.  Its logic is one of conflict rather than cohesion.  For example, it is in the interest of the capitalist class to keep wages low, and in the interests of wage earners to push them higher”.

There is an important truth in Marx’s view – that individual, class, or other groups’ immediate interests often compete with each other.  And there is little doubt today that, as in Marx’s day, the enemy of the rest of human society is the capitalist system and the class of people who operate it.

But it is not the whole truth.  The means societies use to manage conflict and division need not simply be “whoever is strongest wins”.  It’s awkward to accuse Marx of social Darwinism, but there is an element of it in his thinking.

The reconciliation of conflicting interests is the highest form of civilised governance – it is what we should strive towards, and there are many examples of attempts to do it in the world today, up to and including the work of the United Nations.

Nor is a single model of society for all nations or communities even remotely possible.  Clive Crooks wrote “Ties [and differences – my addition] of history, culture and ethnicity are surprisingly durable”[viii].  His main concern was that nationalism should be “civic” (with a political culture based on shared attitudes and beliefs, but open to newcomers) rather than “ethnic” (which is exclusionary by nature, and more prone to perversion).

The underlying point is that many aspects of society are grounded in local geography, history and culture, and so any expression of the need for universal human solidarity should accommodate these differences.

But there is no doubt that a world of multiple societies, and multiple interests within societies, cannot work effectively unless it has some common foundations.

The “New Place to Stand” is my attempt at that common foundation of thought and behaviour.  Individual societies will however take actions which are in accordance with their own sense of place, their own history, culture, ethnicity and scale.

Read on, about “Working with nature…”>>
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[i] See for example Pew Research’s latest material, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/05/what-the-world-thinks-about-climate-change-in-7-charts/

[ii] See for example http://www.businessinsider.com/outrageous-ways-the-super-rich-spend-their-money-2015-7, or http://www.businessinsider.com/14-secret-services-for-the-wealthy-2013-6

[iii] In “Why Marx Was Right”, Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 2011, Kindle end loc 1146-48

[iv]  See https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/04/over-nearly-80-years-harvard-study-has-been-showing-how-to-live-a-healthy-and-happy-life/

[v] See http://www.earthcharterinaction.org/content/pages/Read-the-Charter.html

[vi] “The Dispossessed”, p237

[vii]  See http://www.alliance-respons.net/article-10_en.html

[viii] In “In Defence of Nationalism”, September 2014