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My progress to the positions advocated in this ebook has been long, sporadic and tentative. This is a work of synthesis and I use a lot of secondary sources. In developing the ideas to the point where they become a coherent argument I have used a number of tools and techniques. 

Problem definition

It seems reasonable to start with why write this ebook. For me the key issue is not that the current system is broken (it might be, but it has also delivered a lot of good), the big problem is that the way we think, conceptualise and justify it, the stories we tell ourselves about it, are out of fit with what we actually know and our persistence in the telling the wrong stories is now a danger to us. Put simply we still think we can exploit the world, that we are separate from the rest of creation and that we are driven by competition - when we were only a few million we got away with it, in a crowded world or 7 billion and rising, this is a recipe for disaster.

After completing my MBA in 1998 one of the things that stayed with me was that there was a lot of management literature that spoke to the good or improvable side of human nature. This was particularly evident in some of the behavioural science underlying Training, Development and Change Management. I was more and more struck by no only by the fact that organisations require cooperation within even as they compete but by the (to me) glaring contradiction that the practice of politics disobeys the prescriptions used in business for getting the best out of people at almost every level. In the trade of politics it is widely accepted that briefing against people, lying, and bullying are legitimate tactics. In many cases, because these tactics do not involve actual physical violence, they are embraced as part of the necessary realpolitik. We often here that politics is a rough trade, not as a problem but as a statement of fact. Precisely by reinforcing division and argument theses normalised political tactics make it harder for us to do what is needed vast amounts of energy are expended just arguing. We see little of the supposed dialectical process - thesis, anthesis, synthesis, we don't seem to reach a conclusion 

Root problem

So the root problem I am tackling is this;

How do we expect politics to work, let alone deliver a better society, when it is based on institutions and processes that encourage and reinforce unhelpful behaviours? If we want good governance we should use what we know to bring out the best in people (we could learn from the business literature). The day to day behaviour employed in the trade of politics is reinforcing exactly the wrong sorts of behaviour to deliver good governance. 

That started me down a number of tracks, as a result the scope of my study got wider and wider. What is politics for? Do we have to carry out politics the way we do? It is often defended on the least idealistic grounds that it is a way of resolving issues without violence. Is this enough? Is the political system so intrinsically different to the rest of life, that its a no go area for what we know about getting the best out of people? 

I also had to decide if I was dealing with politics, economics or society as a whole? In the end I choose to say I am dealing with political economy. Macro-economics has values embedded within it and politicians are nominally in charge of many aspects of macro-economic policy even though (very recently) central banks have been granted independence. 

Subsidiary related problems

Once I settled on political-economy I still had to address a range of related topics which went into some very fundamental areas. 

To what extent is human nature violent and competitive? If it is inherently violent and competitive I’d be on a fools errand imagining a better politics or society. Pessimism would be justified and we should count ourselves lucky to have the politics we do.

Are we right to justify the economic competition in our culture by analogy to the competition we see in the natural world? Known as Social Darwinism when it first emerged, it is still a powerful, albeit often tacit, assumption. It does have a massive pull however as we can see in idea that “there is no alternative” (Note: Anthropomorphising Competition).

How do we deal with power, both the power needed to affect change and the incumbent power, which will be opposed to change? Without addressing the practicalities of power any appeal to, or call for, a new politics must be also risk being wishful thinking.

If current political economy is not working what would an alternative politics look like? Can it be described? Can we find examples so it’s not just abstract theory? How would its practitioners behave – what strategy and tactics would they adopt? If you cannot articulate the alternative and show how it would be better you might as well give up. 


Hypotheses of holistic political economy

For what I define as holistic political economy I have developed what are essentially a number of hypotheses.

As I went deeper into human nature I ended up with some even more fundamental hypotheses: 


Knowledge, Values and Assumptions

I take knowledge to be well founded belief. However knowledge is incomplete, and provisional until proven and it is open to mistakes of interpretation. Because I am working at the highest level of system description possible, looking at the emergent property of behaviour, there will be debate about how much of our behaviour is capable of modification and whether or not it can make the difference I think it can. I will point out however that a lot of science is reductive so that

According to Joseph Schumpeter “Analytic work begins with material provided by our vision of things, and this vision is ideological almost by definition”(Schumpeter) so here are the ones I am using. I set off to derive a new or alternative vision of politics and political economy from first principles; if we based political economy on what we know how would we design it so that it suited people?

Lets unpack the values and assumptions behind that statement;

In addition there are some core values that support the positions I advocate. They are as follows (in soft systems terms they form the weltanschauung for the model of the human activity system I have developed)

These values can be derived from first principles and that is what I try to do where they are needed to make the case, see The Human System - The products of mind - a universal ethic?

Although I strive to make the derivation of a basic set of values from first principles logical they will not work for everyone. Even if they follow my logic they may disagree with it. For example one can take a view that, faced with a short existence in an indifferent universe, we had just better look out for ourselves; individually, familialy, tribally, or name your group allegiance of choice. In the end I concluded that the ancient idea of yin-yang was as close as I could get, the alternative I depict is a truth in dynamic tension with the current zeitgeist (of competition).


Human Activity Model

Development of the human activity model

The development of models is common within business IT as a way of mapping out the scope of computer systems (Note: Modelling). My reading suggests that those who study human behaviour do take multiple factors into account but I have not encountered this model. I hope it has some general utility.

The steps that I went through to develop it were:

  1. Define the elements that influence human behaviour – initially this was represented as a relationship diagram
  2. Define the diagram by grouping the elements together into broad areas

The elements and the way I grouped them

Element

Notes

Broad Area

Physiology

How the body works

Body

Brain

How the brain works

Body

Animal Kingdom

Which we are part of

Nature

Individual

As a primate

Nature and Body

Groups

As primate group

Nature and Culture

Artifacts

Something other animals also have

Nature and Culture

Self Awareness

Also referred to as self consciousness

Mind

Abstract reasoning

Ability to think, set and solve problems

Mind

Values and Beliefs

Thought arising from self consciousness not necessarily depending on knowledge

Mind and Culture

Artifacts

Tools – blanket term for every made thing

Nature and Culture

Groups 

Viewed as all human associations

Nature and Culture

Norms

Values and Beliefs

The beliefs we have that derive from culture including how we are expected to behave

Culture and Mind

Bounded Knowledge

The product of reductionism leading to “point solutions”

Knowledge

Integrative Knowledge

The product of looking at systems where emergent properties can be studied

Knowledge

Reductionism

Breaking something down in order to understand it

Knowledge Acquisition

Point Solutions

Fix the part

Knowledge Acquisition

Systems

Looking at the whole rather (or as well as) than the parts

Knowledge Acquisition

Dynamic proceses

Understand the process

Knowledge Acquisition

 

There are very many broad generalisations in the above, in particular the division between reductionism and systems thinking is a caricature. I have used this as a shorthand for the fact that we have to deal with more and more complexity and we are increasingly finding that multi-disiplinary teams are needed and that systems thinking is very powerful. 


The human activity model as an explanatory tool

I am aware that a model is just a map; it therefore shows what is important to the mapmaker and navigator (for now that may be just me). However that does not invalidate the map, nor does it mean that the map cannot cannot capture part of the truth. No model can capture the whole truth.

From the start I conceived the model as that of (the) human activity system. I wanted to strip out as much as possible to get at the essentials. It should be noted that

For example if we are considering an institution such as the NHS we will get specific instances for all of the individual elements; the artifacts will include all the medical paraphernalia and systems, there will be a set of norms and beliefs (code of ethics, rules for patient confidentiality, in general the way people think about their work), a body of knowledge (both medical and procedural) covering the way individuals and groups act and interact.

I did not, at first represent human behaviour itself as an emergent property of that system but worked within the broad areas. The individual elements of the the Human System, looked at on their own, are an insufficient explanation of the complexity of human behaviour we see all round us. But they do provide a starting point, here are mine:

The nudge unit (now privatised, for goodness sake) troubled me because it implies top down manipulation, even though it is also evidence of the realisation that small changes can be effective. Perhaps my reservation was the fear that this was just government becoming as sophisticated at manipulation as big advertising.

It was only when I put the model together and started it use it to explain things that I grasped the full implications. I had to rediscover Thomas Kuhn and also go back to Donella Meadows; the critical enabler of change appears to be paradigm shift (mindset change, change in weltanschauung). Suddenly some intractable political problems could be addressed. For example it is widely known that regulations can be gamed (we might say subverted) by those who oppose them. With a paradigm shift we can squeeze out the behaviour by creating a new norm. The paradigm shift needed is one that moves from competition to one of co-operation.

Epiphany; If there are two truths in dynamic tension (yin-yang, competition vs cooperation), the job of those who support the truth of cooperation is, above all, to stay true to it; something we have lacked in recent times. Left politics failed because it accepted the prevailing paradigm (of competition) and lost faith in the possibility of a cooperative alternative. If that is true it really does need the development of an alternative. That epiphany freed me up from conventional political thinking and enabled the main hypothesis to be developed. I ended in a place I didn't foresee.


Developing a vision holistic political economy

In order to use the model as an explanatory tool I developed a model of the way the explanation would work. (Note: Additional Hypotheses). Because it is described elsewhere I have reduced the Human Activity System itself to two subject areas in order to show how the vision of political economy is developed from it.

The boxes represent subject areas; collections of facts, evidence and when it deals with the future projections. The lines show relationships between them. The diamond shape at the end of the line represents plurality. The words against the line allow it to be read in conjunction with the subject area. Reading top down - pick a subject, find the text on the relationship above or to the right of the line and add the name of the subject at the end of the relationship.

Examples reading top down

Reading bottom up - pick a subject, find the text on the relationship below or to the left of the line and add the name of the subject at the end of the relationship.

Examples reading bottom up;

To envision a different political economy is just one way the model of the Human Activity System can be used.

 


Other useful models

In using “everything I have ever learned” I have come at political economy in a way that will seem unusual to political theorists and activists. I find a lot of what I learned doing an MBA and through practicing as an IT consultant/project manager useful.

I also make use of the following – freely adapting them to my purposes - full references are given where they are used


Knowledge Survey

Up to retirement my reading would be described as serendipitous. What I have attempted to do is bring my scope under control by fitting it to the model I have developed and extending my reading in a more organised was as a result. The main areas I have been exploring are; Economics, Human Behaviour and Evolution bringing in other topics as needed such as history, management, political philosophy, strategy and power. I make no claims to have conducted anything like a methodical literature survey.

If I look back on this it seems I am trying to use everything I have ever learned, checking it is (still, was ever) true and looking at the counter evidence. Always refreshing my knowledge and adding to it based on the scope I have set.

The Bibliography contains what I have taken from the books, and sources that I have used in the main argument, but I have not listed all the very many Business and IT Systems books I have used 

Systems Thinking

I have summarised systems thinking in a separate appendix. I wanted to apply systems thinking and analysis so far as I could because it’s a core skill from my professional life, I ended up using a lot from strategic planning see Appendices - Systems; an overviewadditional sources are listed at the end of that article