The question to addresses is this; if we had a political economy based on what we know (that is the state of our current knowledge about the Human Activity System which we looked at in the Review section) what would it look like?
The Human Activity System has a context
The natural environment within which all human activity takes place is a complex closed system, therefore it is necessary for the political economy to operate accordingly. That means endless growth has to be redefined. My suggestion is that we measure change and look at the outcomes.
Buckminster Fuller famously devised an Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Fuller)
Recently Kate Raworth defined Donut Economics (where the objective is to support a social foundation that no one should fall below and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressures that we should not go beyond) (Raworth)
Tim Jackson describes how we can achieve Prosperity without Growth (Jackson)
Knowledge and the way we acquire it
If we are all citizens then knowledge should be open so that good decisions can be made. Policy has to be made pragmatically, based on what works using approaches which are multi-disciplinary and use systems thinking. There may be several ways to solve a problem, all need to be considered in the light of their consequences so that the best (must likely to succeed with least damaging consequences) can be chosen. Policy implementation would be based on small changes that can become self-sustaining, feedback loops allowing lessons learned and best practice to spread would be built in allowing solutions to be scaled up when they looked sustainable and support the creation of virtuous circles.
Our Nature and Physiology
Recognising we are part of the animal kingdom and have neurobiology that makes us behave in certain ways we would not be too idealistic but would seek solutions that are in tune with (go with the grain of) our natures. So for starters it seems to utopian to expect total equality; we are hierarchical as well as social after all but to quote Robert Sapolsky;
“When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before” (Sapolsky, op.cit p673)
So the political challenge is to the rest of the tribe, let’s keep those silverbacks in check. We should recognise the dangers of hubris and self-promotion in individuals and learn from the fact that many leaders display psychopathic tendencies by limiting their power (we’d keep our silverbacks under control).
We'd understand the power of groups for good and ill so we would have facilitation as our preferred model of leadership. To quote Thomas Paine:
“Mankind, as it appears to me, are always ripe enough to understand their true interest, provided it be presented clearly to their understanding, and that in a manner not to create suspicion by anything like self-design, nor offend by assuming too much. Where we would wish to reform we must not reproach.” (Thomas Paine)
We seek contributions to grow commitment to collective action. We would develop structure that foster co-operation and collaboration and discourage or damp down destructive and uncooperative behaviours
Recognising our propensity to act irrationally and emotionally we would build institutions based on what we know makes for good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour e.g. parliament in the round (structure), proper consultation (process), wider contributions (commitment). We would design things to make the right way the easy way, to reward collaboration and discourage selfishness
Mind and thought
Recognising brain plasticity learning and development has to be an ongoing process. And we also know (from psychology and business literature) how to engage people, win commitment and widen support, we know how to evolve co-operation and what sort of changes we could make to encourage a sense of commitment and cooperation.
Those embarking on political activism need to be conscious that they will be seen as exemplars for the things they advocate. If they are to advocate co-operation but are seen to be tribal, competitive and coercive the hypocrisy will be noticed. That means going on a journey to work out how to act in ways that do not lead to the narrowing of ambition to group interests or the escalation of conflict. This intellectual struggle is perhaps the most difficult, we can take inspiration from some of the great exemplars of constructive (rather than destructive) politics like Gandhi, King, and Mandela, but there are many others. When UCS ship builders went into receivership the union organiser Jimmy Reed and the Receiver worked together to salvage what they could, this required pragmatism on both sides. That was in what we remember as the crisis riven 1970’s, but just think how difficult it is to envisage such collaboration from today’s perspective. Nowadays the receiver just moves in and applies the rules (it’s not personal, your just part of a group that cannot compete).
For an antagonistic review of from the left see https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/08/reid-a25.html
Becoming an insider with the hope of winning changes from those who control things on behalf of those who don’t is the critical point at which many progressive politicians become part of the problem and lose touch with their support base. See Yanis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room, report of a conversation with Larry Summers. (Varoufarkis) as already noted in Part 1 - Our natural Selves.
The task is to change the prevailing culture from one that emphasises competition to one that emphasises cooperation. The contention here is that it works, and can be shown to be working; what is missing is the cumulative effect of the weight of the evidence that it is working, and the participation in politics of people who recognise this and take it seriously.
When the culture is inimical to waste principles like the polluter pays will become widely accepted. When the culture understands how short term business thinking causes societal problems we'll stop blaming individuals (for using and eating the wrong things) and start fixing the structure of the systems that make it seem like a reasonable choice when its a high constrained one.
Now, nearly all of the alternative is based on our collective knowledge; what it says about us, the world we live in, and our place within it. This is derived from the holistic/systems way of looking at people and culture, and whilst it is, to my mind, this knowledge that is compelling (with radical implications) there is one important respect in which the alternative is a matter of choice; the values that underpin it.
When the ethics and beliefs that go with cooperation are articulated loudly and clearly it will become normal to hear people advocating them.
They are in short;
- Freedom is limited by its impact on others (it just is, either they fight us because we impinge on them or we accommodate each other)
- That we act in ways we’d like to be treated (the golden rule, do unto others again because action leads to reaction)
- That democracy means the equality of human worth (which means that in politics we should not be able to talk about disempowered people with no stake in society and we need to find ways in which to stop money buying power)
- That the ends do NOT justify the means (again because all action has a reaction, it is necessary to craft means that will have the most likelihood of achieving the end, and to repeat it again you cannot force someone to cooperate)
- That when power has to be used the utility of the force to be applied is assessed rigorously – will this means help achieve our stated end. There must always be a space for cooperation to develop (Tit for tat and just war are elaborated on in On Power - Circumspect use of Power).
What have we established so far?
By looking at behaviour as an emergent property we can see that some of what drives behaviour can be changed, namely our culture and beliefs. By looking at our deep history and the evolution of life we have seen that people are naturally social and cooperative (at least as much as they are individualistic and competitive) (Sapolsky, p454)
We also looked at the Past, Present and Future
- We know that the world as a whole is a lot better than it was a generation ago and is continuing to get better although the knowledge is not as widespread as it should be
- We have seen that change is possible – society now is very different to what it was even 50 years ago
- We have some (potentially existential) challenges to face and must navigate ourselves though a growth in population that will test our ability to allocate resources and live together peacefully
Large amounts of our exiting culture and beliefs are out of step with what we know. We know how to get the best out of people but don't do it. We know that cooperation is a key driver of evolution but fetishise competition and take it to destructive levels. We know the world is complex but continue to look for (simple, point) top down fixes implemented by doing it to you not with you. We know that the world is complex and interdependent, that it takes multi-disciplinary teams, systems thinking and constant refinement to make progress.
Our overemphasis on competition and individualism at the expense of cooperation and collaboration creates many problems. If we make it a competition then it’s not a surprise if we get cheating, selfishness and zero-sum contests where for me to win you must loose. That’s not how families or clubs work, it’s not how communities work, it is not (if we are lucky) backed up by our day to day experiences of being with other people; but it is the dominant theme we seem content to let rip through our political and economic institutions. In fact it is eulogised.
We actually know that we have evolved to constantly adapt our behavior to our environment; so if we believe that zero sum competition and devil take the hindmost is the natural order of things and make it part of our environment, surprise-surprise people will adapt and become more competitive and selfish.
So what is politics for?
A major problem we have is that politics is seen as an organised competition to get control of the state. Our political process is designed to emphasise competition and encourages behaviours that are positively destructive when viewed from the perspective that cooperation is a good idea that leads to progress. Control of the state gifts the winner with the tools to impose change top down. One of the perverse effects of this system is that it encourages unhelpful behaviours. Anyone advocating cooperation either does not believe it or is shown up as a hypocrite (since they engage in the dirty business of politics). Anyone who really believes in cooperation is either traduced or side-lined – the political space does not exist for them to operate in.
Instead of a competition for control of the state suppose politics is a collaboration to achieve good governance. If we were to treat government as a necessity like plumbing, i.e. we need it to work but we don’t want it to become all consuming – we’d surely do it differently.
I envisage this in contrast the the picture used to describe the current political process. Building on systems thinking and knowledge, we can see that the collective, collaborative and co-operative aspects of human nature just as important as our ability to compete and fight. Holistic Political Economy recognises that to manage our way through peak population, where there will be massive pressure on resources as the rest of the world catches up, we are more likely to succeed if we collaborate on the solutions. In the face of this challenge it chooses to try and build a culture of joint endeavour by nurturing and encouraging people to fulfil their potential. It tries to create virtuous circles, it insists on civic equality. It has structures to root the process of decision-making and problem solving in collective action free (insulated) from special interests. In short the holistic political economy provides the resources for all citizens to achieve their potential within sustainable global limits.
Simply stated in politics redefined, we have knowledge as the main input. Within the political process, instead of rivalry for control of the state we have two processes, policy making and policy delivery. The measurement of suceess is used so that we have an effective feedback mechanism. I don't want to be prescriptive here: many people can debate how this works in detail, what I want to establish is the fundamental difference between this and conventional (as is) politics.
Once we take on this definition the question changes from; how do we persuade people to support us and get control of the state, to what problems do we face and how can we best overcome them.
If we advocate cooperation and collaboration then because (excuse the cliché) "by their deeds ye shall know them" we require a set of politicians who "walk the walk as well as talk the talk". Not only that they have to "stick to their guns" that is they have to insist on the cooperative frame of reference for the debate with all it implies. If in an interview the question was posed “how do you encourage competition” the response has to be “we seek to encourage cooperation”. For sure we will only be able to go in baby steps, the point is that many of the small thing we will chose to do will be quite different from those on the current political agenda as a result of this thinking.
Holistic Political Economy
A society in which everyone has equal rights as a citizen, where no one can fall below the level needed for them to achieve their potential and in which the economy is managed within sustainable limits.
Those who want this fairer society must argue from first principles and insist upon it rhetorically. They must be fearless in the defence of civil society against the encroachment of market economics into places where it has no business to be.
Specifically, for politics, equal citizenship regardless of wealth, means that politics is about more that "holding the ring" between competing interest groups. For the politicians trying to change things there must be a recognition that change will be contested, requiring a doggedness and determination in the framing, advocacy and development of the alternative. They must be tireless in the identification of externalities and free riding, creative about the solutions and insistent that they are tackled.
If we can realistically (hope) to reshape politics we can also reshape business and change the balance of research and development that is undertaken: more butter less guns. We can start to think sensibly about how much is enough, products can be made sustainably, to last a lifetime, be regularly serviced and repaired and be disposed of with recycling that was designed in at the start.
When it comes to business and economics the settlement that is needed is one in which people outside any individual business, but who are impacted by what it does, have some rights over the way business conducts itself. In economic jargon free riding is stopped and there is no escape from its externalities. In addition all the people involved in any individual business are legitimate stakeholders, there has to be a balance between labour and capital (in old parlance). Business cannot act as it wishes in the name of freedom if the freedom it wins is at someone else’s expense – it takes society as a whole to regulate this hence my insistence on the use of the term political economy.
The challenge for action
If we characterise politics as a war, then that is what it will become. If we accept the above argument and the vision it points to, then the challenge for taking effective action is to break out of current practice.
What I mean by this is that politicians who want change must not accept the frame of reference of people who have totally different philosophical outlook. They must not settle for the amelioration of greed through taxation and try to compensate the poor though minimum wages and welfare. All the time they do this they are both fighting an uphill struggle to justify the cost, and have conceded the argument that there is another way of doing things. This is because the underlying moral framework that they have accepted (which creates the frame of reference within which they operate politically) is fundamentally opposed to what they are about.
Undoubtedly this will be difficult to change and I will address it head on when discussing the strategy and tactics of political action.
For now, I just want to establish that we can choose to believe in a better approach to political economy and work towards it. We can gain strength from knowing that it is doable and that an increasing body of knowledge backs this up.
This website is dedicated to showing that human behaviour is driven by many factors a lot of which we can control and that if we chose to, behaviour can be improved(Note: Who Influences Now?) By changing the paradigm, we can make a huge change to the Human Activity System, and in the details, by using systems thinking we can design in virtuous circles. We know how to do this, it is not rocket science, so the site highlights lots of examples of what good looks like.