Antagonistic Tribalism: the cement of political extremism

The social psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has achieved a certain internet notoriety recently, through his lectures on the analysis of cultural myths and stories and, in particular, his moral opposition to mandated speech in Canadian law and the encroachment of the radical left in academia and social institutions in general, has, it seems to me, struggled to find a conceptual language in which to position himself as a politically neutral arbiter, amid claims that he is a ‘right-wing’ or even ‘alt-right’ ideologue. He claims that it is easy to distinguish when the right has gone too far – when it makes claims of racial superiority – but the consequences of pushing a radical egalitarianism, which is what Peterson identifies as the distinguishing mark of the left having gone too far, are less obvious to many, despite the millions of corpses sacrificed to this idea in the twentieth century.

While Peterson’s formulation captures something of how the extremes of right and left are bad in different ways, it doesn’t in my view capture the way in which they are fundamentally similar: both right and left – and, indeed, all other forms of extremism, such as religious and environmentalist extremism – are committed to a form of tribalism that negates the developments in individualism that are the hallmark of the modern world of individual liberties, relative prosperity, relative peace and relative freedom from suffering. The forms of society either envisioned by or instituted by extremists offer no such relative bounties, but unbounded and, therefore, unrealisable visions, resulting in social catastrophes when they are forced on recalcitrant populations.

It is important to analyse the aetiology of extreme tribalism, because humans are tribal by nature. Although we are physically constituted individual, we are social beings, and this is manifest at a fundamental physical level, in our genetic makeup and in our hormonal responses to others. At the psychological level, we are attuned to seek tribal allegiances, which can be interpreted liberally to include everything from family, to ethnic identity, profession, religion, political affiliation, nationality, football or baseball team, hobby clubs, and so on. One of the features of social media sites is the emergence of spontaneous tribalism among those who find common identity in a shared interest. I drive an older car and have noted the tendency among drivers of the same model (me included) to acknowledge each other on the road, establishing an immediate if evanescent identity. We have a capacity for tribalism, both profound and trivial.

Tribalism means more than just a sense of identity, though. To belong to a tribe also involves a value judgement that the tribe with which we identify is ‘better’ or ‘superior’ in some sense. Henri Tajfel, a French social psychologist and pioneer of social identity theory, claimed we make a distinction between an “in-group”, to which we belong, and an “out-group” to which the rest of the world belongs, privileging the former as the basis of our social identity and sense of worth. This is the unassailable logic of the tribe; from this it is not difficult to see wherein many social tensions and conflicts have their root. What mitigates this in modern developed societies is the existence of multiple belongings, riding on the individualism which has emerged in modernity, but which has a long pedigree in the West with roots in antiquity. In the modern developed society, characterised by a high degree of political emancipation, economic autonomy and liberal education, the individual is not beholden to a single, totalising identity, but is free to build a complex self-identity through belonging, whether profoundly or superficially, in multiple in-groups, which has the effect of fracturing the monolithic cohesion of the out-group.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that individualism is universally accepted or necessarily a stable element of liberal democracies. The criticism is often raised that individualism is just an excuse for selfishness, that it is fundamentally immoral or amoral. I would counter that selfishness is inimical to the individual and to the idea of individualism, which has at its foundation the well-being and enhancement of the individual. Nevertheless, there is a justified concern that the focus on the individual in society undermines the cohesion of the broader society by a focus on the desires and interests of individuals to the detriment of duties and responsibilities to others. For this reason, I prefer to speak of transcendent individualism, which specifically includes sociality and areas of spirituality as dimensions of human development. Most advocates of individualism are in fact advocates of transcendent individualism. Yet, the widely-held misunderstanding about individualism and the minority of people who justify the bad choices they make, in terms of their health, education, prosperity, relationships and happiness within an individualist framework, declaring themselves to owe no duty to anyone else or to any moral standards, makes the philosophical foundations of individualism particularly prey to absolutist and tribalist critiques.

Having asserted that political extremism of both the left and the right share a commitment to tribalist ideology, despite obvious ideological differences, it is necessary to distinguish the tribalism of such extremism from the natural tribal affiliations we all experience. I believe that can be summed up in two words: stance and strategy. The stance of extremists is antagonistic: they revel in hatred and conflict, whatever fine justifications they may dress it up in; they develop a hypersensitivity to perceived injustices, whether personal or against the group they identify with; they categorically reject the safeguards to extreme stances which the culture around stable democracies have built into them – tolerance, dialogue, the willingness to listen and learn, respect for truth and evidence, compromise, perhaps even a willingness to change. The strategy is the polarisation of society into antagonistic tribes and the elimination of the ‘other’, the out-group, using the power of the state.

This road to the tribalising of erstwhile democratic society can be considered to take place through four stages. The first is the identification of a cause. Usually, it is a particular grievance held by one section of the population. This is frequently, though not invariably, associated with a pre-existing identity, such as a religion or an ethnicity; if such a correlation between identity and grievance does not exist, it must be manufactured. The second stage is the gradual identification of the individual with the cause and the withdrawal from multiple belonging which we said is characteristic of societies that have individualism as their basis. This is accomplished simultaneously through polarising propaganda which draws a clear line of demarcation between the virtuous “we” and the inauthentic, suspect or heinous “other”. Obviously, in such a confrontation the subtleties of complex social problems and the complexities of self-identity through multiple belonging are lost. The third stage is then to enter a period of increasing insulation of the tribe from reasoned debate and engagement with, and increasing hostility towards, the identified other. This is also marked by the maturation of the political culture of the tribe. The fourth stage is the overthrow or subjugation of the state – whether that be through a campaign of terror, a putsch or a ‘long march through the institutions’ – to capture the instruments of state power.

The outcome of a society overturned by such antagonistic tribalism does not have to be theorised, as the evidence is abundant in history, ancient, modern and contemporary. It is worth noting some of their common characteristics: suspicion of and hostility towards outsiders leading to frequent warfare; expectation of absolute conformity to traditions or the ruling ideology and ruthless suppression of dissent; the practice of barbaric forms of punishment, including mass killing of their own people; changes in power through violent removal of incumbents. Should the argument be made that these are the perversions of the ideology rather than the successful embodiment of it, one only needs to point to the same features in primitive tribal cultures – only the scale is different. These are not features of the developed democracies we generally inhabit today, because the development of an individualistic culture has mitigated the worst features of tribalism. However, the persistence of unresolved problems and the emergence of new ones in imperfect societies create conditions under which ideologues, rather than attempting to solve real problems, can promote absolutist fantasies as remedies to problems they have augmented or exacerbated.

The role of the state in a democratic society to counter such tendencies should be to maintain the basis of individualism within society, in order to maintain and develop the foundations of freedom, knowledge, well-being and prosperity. It is this foundation that encourages multiple belonging and the growth of complex identities across and transcending narrow sectarian ones. There are certain things a government should not allow: the existence of alternative (religious) systems of law or education that undermine transcendent individualism and multiple belonging and entrench tribal identities; political, religious or other ideological groups that operate on an exclusionary principle and advocate hatred of others and incite violence or the overthrow of the state; and any moves to suppress freedom of thought and speech.

This last point, freedom of speech, needs to be addressed in particular. We have moved from a society in which there was a consensus across the political spectrum that freedom of speech was a fundamental right, to one in which this is considered to be a right that advantages the dominant oppressive class in society, by both the far-left and, increasingly, the far-right. The left maintain, with some plausibility, which makes it difficult to see through the sophistry, that freedom of speech can be a cloak for permission to engage in ‘hate speech’ against unpopular minorities. True, if one is inciting violence against a person or group, but that is a crime under existing law (and has been for a long time); however, ‘hate speech’ is a term of such vagueness and elasticity that it encompasses everything from genuine incitement to violence to any opinion that might make someone feel uncomfortable (i.e. that they disagree with) or vicariously consider may be demeaning to a particular (vulnerable, so claimed) minority, as a precursor to the victimisation/oppression of that minority. There is evidence that rightist groups have started using the same strategy, particularly on campuses that are dominated by left-wing academics and students.

In psychology this chain of assuming the worst possible outcome on the slenderest of probabilities is known as ‘catastrophising’ and is a vector of mental illness. Nevertheless, the passionate intensity with which such scenarios are portrayed – in the language of risk assessment, high impact, without the concomitant low probability being considered – is such that an increasing number of academic institutions have been convinced to dismantle their commitment to genuine free speech. The danger for society is that free speech underlies the mechanism of the growth of knowledge and the identification of error, upon which the universities have their rationale, debate takes place in public and in the media, and which forms the basis of the other freedoms we enjoy.

There is a dimension of personal responsibility to this. Being that we are tribal in nature and have lived in tribal cultures for far longer that we have lived in individualistic ones, there is a strong propensity to be swayed by appeals to tribalistic urges, including negative propaganda, negative rumours and negative stereotypes. Sometimes we need no external catalyst, but are primed to categorise someone and assume the worst of someone on the basis of a perceived shared identity, ignoring and collapsing the likely complex self-identity of individuals on the basis of limited information and experience. This tendency is countered most effectively by personal knowledge of people from many different backgrounds (interestingly, opinion polls – in the UK at least – show a consistent trend of the greatest opposition to immigration in areas that have very little of it). Sometimes this is not enough; when social stressors are high, such as terrorist attacks or the pernicious influence of political propaganda, there is a strong reversion to antagonistic tribal mentality, projected onto individuals symbolising the ‘other’. At such times it is particularly important to remind ourselves and others of our cultural and philosophical commitment to individualism, multiple belonging and complex identities – our own and probably that of the individual we are in danger of pigeonholing and disparaging.

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The Just Society: Equality or Freedom?

In A Theory of Justice John Rawls conducted a famous thought experiment. He asked, if we were to imagine, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, being born into a world in a position somewhere on the scale of unalloyed privilege and crushing poverty, what would be the type of social system we would advocate. Rawls assumed it would be reasonable to choose a society in which economic justice of a distributive nature prevailed, on the likelihood that we would be more likely to be one of the multitude of the poor than the small fraction of the privileged.

Rawls attempted to derive in a purely rational manner the proper balance between freedom and equality. This has, indeed, been the central narrative of political discourse for at least the last century. It has been assumed that the rational position is a centrist one, forging a middle point somewhere between the two poles of freedom and equality. Although in American terms it was considered radical and A Theory of Justice is considered a liberal left academic touchstone, from the perspective of the present Rawls position seems mildly quaint. The middle ground is now largely out of favour and this is perhaps a timely moment to reconsider the prevailing political narrative. I happen to think that Rawls is wrong: from a point of logic, ethics and the facts of history.

To begin with, the contiguity of freedom and equality is the wrong juxtaposition. Freedom and equality are not opposite ends of a spectrum in which the Aristotelian mean is the just position; they are contradictory ideas which compete for the same space. Therefore, it is impossible to derive a stable balance between them. Logically, if you favour freedom, you cannot accept the idea of equality; similarly, if you favour equality, you cannot logically tolerate freedom. Some, like Rawls – though, I suspect, fewer than in the past – argue that we need to compromise: we accept limitations on our freedom for the sake of some equality (although, strangely, I never hear people arguing the opposite; it seems the argument only goes one way). However, the reality is that the advocates of equality are never content with some equality. In the end, everything must be levelled, to the point of absurdity. It would be reasonable to assume that this might have less to do with the idea of equality as an abstract principle than with its advocates; but even this obsession can be explained by an analysis of equality.

Freedom and equality are, in fact, only related by the concept of power, and who holds it. In freedom, power is distributed; so, the closest we get to equality is when we are free. In equality, power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and even the few controlled by the most powerful; so, the only sense in which we are equal is an equality of powerlessness. To paraphrase Orwell in Animal Farm, everyone is equal, only some are more equal than others.

Despite freedom and equality (or their advocates) competing for social space, there is an ethical difference between them, which to my mind is like the difference between light and darkness. Belief in freedom must logically be accompanied by a belief in tolerance. If I believe in freedom, I do not believe in it only for myself, but for everyone, because the fact that it is distributed guarantees my own freedom. Just as I have a right to my thoughts, words and actions, so do you and everyone else, except inasmuch as the exercise of your right would deprive me of mine, for example by intimidating me or killing me. This is a perfectly reasonable and realisable state, in a society in which everyone shares that fundamental belief. It does have vulnerabilities, though, to pathological liars, the intolerant, those living at the extreme and those whose tendency is to usurp power.

That vulnerability is exploited by ideologues, who manifest all the traits just described. The love of freedom grows out of the philosophical discovery of ignorance, expressed eloquently by Socrates, but reaffirmed in the scientific revolution and accompanying Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. Ideologues first trait is absolute certainty. That means, bluntly put, they believe a lie, as truth is an evolving quality, ever pursued but never finally attained. If you are certain of something, there is a tendency to think everyone who disagrees with you is a fool or a rogue. There is, of course, a reasonable degree of certainty, which anyone having a point of view is expected to possess (otherwise we would have nothing to say), but it is tempered by an openness to correction and development. The ideologue, though, cannot bear correction and hates the open debate of ideas. The more unreasonable the belief the more vociferously its opponents must be attacked, and in the most extreme cases, be silenced. That is why the ideologue loves power, because it is a means of controlling knowledge and protecting certainty.

The belief in equality is an ideological position tout court. There is no equality either in nature or human society. The Procrustean critique of equality is already so well established that it needs no repeating. The socialist dogma of equality of outcomes is just an economic version of such crude egalitarianism and is impossible to realise where any spark of human creativity and freedom remain. It has been shown in practice not to result in greater equality, except in misery and fear for all but a tiny privileged minority. The liberal fudge of equality of opportunity is no more realisable, though a worthwhile goal if pursued intelligently, pragmatically and gradually. I will suggest such an approach (at least the theoretical foundations of such) towards the end of this article.

Being an ideological position, and embodying a fundamental untruth, any programme to implement equality must resort to lies, the denigration of critical voices, the capture of the levers of power in any society, and the use of those powers to force conformity to the dictates of the ideology. This is both the logical necessity of equality and the actual practice of its advocates. This is most obvious in totalitarian states of the left, though it is also manifested in totalitarian states of the right that have policies to ‘equalise’ society by removing undesirable elements. However, it is also seen in otherwise liberal democratic societies where the equality agenda proceeds stepwise by advancing the cause of groups that are proclaimed to be disadvantaged, less by addressing the root causes of their disadvantage, but by political activism and entryism to tear down the normative values of those societies and to brand the relatively advantaged as oppressors. Each step proceeds by labelling the cause promoted as addressing an ‘injustice’. However, the final result is not equality but conformity and the rule of a powerful minority.

If there is one sense in which I would accept the notion of equality, it is that we are at a deep metaphysical or mystical level of equal value as human beings, and that as members of the species homo sapiens we have a value above all other species. I would qualify that by saying that in a secular context our assessment of the value of any specific individual is driven by a host of symbolic, aesthetic and practical concerns, such as who they represent, how they present themselves and how they act. Nonetheless, a transcendent sense of human value, in which we feel called to work for the betterment of humanity and, particularly, for the lessening of inhumanity, is not only compatible with freedom; it seems to me to be the essence of freedom.

Turning then to freedom, it has become an accepted orthodoxy that science has demonstrated the non-existence of free will. This is only true, however, according to the canons of positivistic reductionism, and I’m not even sure of the status of this assertion in the light of quantum theory, which portrays indeterminism at a very fundamental level. Be that as it may, the experience of freedom is real at the human and social level; we know when we are free and when we are not free, because it is felt at the level of our perceived status in the social order and our experience of relative power or powerlessness, which is even manifested as a physiological response.

The moment I think or move of my own volition, I assert my freedom and my difference, which is manifest in the world, multiplied infinitely by all the individuals in the world. In the way I am, think and move I create inequality. Naturally, I am better at some things than any other random person and worse at some; which is true of all people, everywhere. Some of these attributes lead to power, influence and wealth, some to mediocrity and some to ruin. This effect is multiplied across all societies and creates the turbulent history of the world, an uncomfortable truth of how individuals, peoples and nations prosper, stagnate and decline.

The true dilemma of justice is not in the clash between freedom and equality, but the subtle negotiation between freedom and responsibility. Freedom guarantees the possibility of doing anything within your power. This is an exuberant, exhilarating, addictive human experience, and one in which individuals can blossom emotionally and intellectually and achieve unimaginable things. On the societal level it enables the conditions under which real human progress can be made. It also, of necessity, allows bad choices to be made, individually and socially. That includes the freedom to act criminally and psychopathically and endanger the lives and possessions of others. It also includes the freedom to be obnoxious or simply insensitive and offend others. It may also just include acts of kindness in good faith which are, nevertheless, unwelcome. It will inevitably include choices which impact on our health, education, career, livelihood, prospects for love and family, and overall happiness and quality of life. Since the outcomes can be so different, it is important to understand responsibility and the part that it plays in freedom.

Responsibility is not well understood, because few people think about it, and it is not part of our social discourse today, apart from sniping asides from the fringes of moral commentary. If most people have heard of it, it is probably as an admonition to bend to the will of the commentator rather than to act on their own will; that is, it is perceived as a threat to, or an imposed limitation of, one’s own freedom. It is true that the word is often uttered as a reactionary shibboleth without, however, having any specific content. This is to misunderstand the role of responsibility.

Responsibility is not the inhibitor of freedom, it is its guarantor. The first stance of the responsible person is to accept that they are free, in both an existential sense and as a social actor making choices. Without this affirmation there can be no responsibility, only obedience, and at worst, slavery. The great tragedy of much of human history and still much of the world today is that social conditions do not allow people to be free and, therefore, not responsible, though this number is, arguably, diminishing. The human thirst for freedom is unquenchable; we always choose it as an alternative to tyranny, especially when we have experienced the latter.

The second stance of the responsible person is to accept that their choices and the acts that flow from them all have consequences, for good and ill, for which they reap the benefits and the costs. With experience comes a greater ability to discern between the two and the wise person will not only make better choices but also choose to impose limits on their actions. The actions that destroy, deplete and offend are the ones that are most likely to result in a reaction that aims to curtail the freedom of the individual for the protection of the common good. For this to happen, the power of the community or the state must be invoked. Every invocation of the power of the greater collective or its authoritative representative entails a diminution of the freedom of the individual, which itself informs the state of freedom of the society. Consequently, that which guarantees the freedom of society is an act of self-limitation imposed on oneself for the sake of the greater good. It is something that emerges from the realisation and experience of the actual and potential consequences of one’s actions in the world and the harm that may occur because of them.

The third stance of the responsible person is to work for the common good, which is as close to a definition of social justice as I would allow. A commitment to justice in this sense is not a commitment to equality, but it can be compatible with a commitment to reducing inequality, particularly of opportunity. Justice, we might say, is relative freedom (rather than absolute freedom). Justice is the addressing of actual injustices, where there is the absence, limitation or oppression of freedom. It is not attempting to equalise everything by limiting the freedom of the majority in favour of a minority. People are not, and never will be equal in freedom, but it is not unreasonable to address that issue by increasing the freedom of the less free. One of the ways of doing that is education about freedom and the values of freedom, that come through a grounding in science, the humanities, arts and ethics. Another is through strengthening the character of people to be self-reliant and resilient, as well as generous in spirit. Physical disadvantages can and are increasingly be addressed through technological development, empowering people who have life-limiting conditions.

It would be naïve to think that we could do without laws and rely simply on the self-realisation of all the individuals with whom we share a society. There is an argument to be made, though, that justice and the common good can only emerge when there is a keen sense of individual freedom and a commitment to be governed by a state that protects and fosters that sense based on an evolving notion of truth. An over-strong state or community has ideological motives, degrades its commitment to freedom and replaces it with coercion, precisely because it cannot command assent. In a free society, the justification for the state is that it protects the freedoms of the people that it represents, internally and externally, and not the interests of a ruling faction.

The quest to build an equal society, on the other hand, requires totalitarian government precisely because of its fundamental impossibility. In addition, radical egalitarians feel no need to exercise the type of self-control discussed here in their treatment of other people, and feel free to offend, demean, ultimately to dispossess and eliminate those that they have determined to be the enemies of equality. Of course, this mistreatment of those they consider ideological enemies demonstrates the absurdity of their position, as believers in equality and warps, ultimately, both their sense of and realisation of justice.

 

 

The Unintended Consequences of Law

By Colin Turfus

It is a fact little known that the origins of the title of John Steinbeck’s famous novel “Of Mice and Men” was an ode “To a Mouse” by Scots poet Robert Burns a century and a half earlier. The reference is specifically to the following passage from the end of the penultimate stanza:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The poet, reflecting on how in ploughing his field he has wreaked devastation on a poor mouse’s homestead, highlights a theme which is no less relevant for us today than it was for Burns’ contemporaries, including the mouse; namely our frequent inability to foresee the potentially negative consequences of our plans and actions.

The theme is a perennial one in literature. Most of Shakespeare’s tragedies could be said to be poignant illustrations in one way or another of this principle. A quick search on http://www.goodreads.com reveals no less than 235  volumes currently in print titled with the theme of unintended consequences!

A more recent author who devoted his life’s work to elaborating on this theme in one way or another is Nobel prize-winning economist and social philosopher Friedrich von Hayek. His general thesis is probably most succinctly stated in his final, and relatively accessible work, “The Fatal Conceit” (1988), about which I have had cause to write elsewhere on the Societal Values website. The conceit of which he writes is that of governments or the supporters thereof who imagine that the state, by acting with the intention to address a problem or achieve a certain end, has at its disposal by virtue of it privileged position and power a sufficient grasp of what it needs to know to be successful in achieving the desired end.

I should also mention in passing Robert Turley’s 2008 book “The Rule of Law and Unintended Consequences“, which overlaps to some extent with the theme which I wish to explore below. He argues that the layers of amendments to the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, often interpreting language in the original documents in ways which it would not or could not have been interpreted at time of writing, often with the intention of bringing about changes in the ordering of society, are leading to unforeseen consequences which are often undesirable.

A real problem here is the ease which those who enact the original rulings in law avoid any sense of blame for the undesired consequences on the basis that, well, they were not what was desired. One could argue that what is going on here is a conflation of philosophical categories. When it is asked who or what is responsible for the present unholy mess, moral responsibility is typically denied by those who took critical decisions on the basis that there was no malevolent or mischievous intention. But that is a separate question from the question of causality: viz., whether, if a different decision had been made at the time, the current predicament could have beeen avoided. While the media are often energetic in pursuing the issue of moral culpability (we all love a scandal and generally celebrate when the scalps of politicians and lawmakers are collected), they show considerably less interest in what is surely the more important question, namely what can be learned from the situation to ensure a similarly unfavourable state of affairs does not recur. Such, if it is addressed at all, is likely to be through the setting up of a public enquiry which typically drags on for years and only reports back when the media (and consequently the public at large) have largely lost interest in the issue being investigated.

But the passing of new laws onto the statute books is only one way in which the mischief of unintended consequences is perpetrated in modern society. An increasingly common response to perceived problems or injustices is to call for increased regulation. For example the clamour has recently been renewed to implement the  recommendation of the Leveson Report to set up a press watchdog to whose jurisdiction newspapers would be required to sign up or else face draconian penalties. Whenever this proposal is resisted on the basis that it turns the clock back on hundreds of years of press freedom in this country, this argument is invariably countered by the suggestion that that is not the purpose of the watchdog, which is rather to empower the victims of media  (mainly celebrities it would appear).

Although the press continue bravely to resist, the encroachment of regulators into virtually every area of industry or professional arena, whether it be education, engineering, telecommunications, finance, insurance, aviation or the energy or automobile industries, the proliferation of red tape seems to know no bound. Of course, whenever this trend is challenged, the same tired old argument is trotted out that those who do not welcome each and every new initiative are in favour of deregulation and hence anarchy. Of course, it is always argued, the intention of the regulation is to prevent abuse and/or allow it to be addressed, so what objection can be raised against that? Well, if you don’t see the fallacy in that line of argument, you have not been paying attention…

However, rather than just lamenting the ever-increasing scale and scope of the encroachment of regulatory intervention, I would like to point out a more fundamental fallacy in the project to regulate our way to safety, security and prosperity. Let us ask ourselves, on what basis should we decide what is appropriate regulatory intervention in an industry, the operation of which is critical for public health and safety, or for the successful functioning of the national economy on which we depend for our livelihood?

In a complex industry, this is invariably a task which requires expert judgement. We would not expect the governance of critical industries to be put in the hands of anyone who was less than an expert. So it is that financial institutions employ ever-increasing armies of risk personnel and compliance officers to protect against mishap. And while schools employ few dedicated health and safety officers, an ever-increasing portion of each teacher’s time is eaten up by tasks required to comply with one or other regulation or other administrative requirement.

But is it “experts” who are in this scheme of things deciding how best to guard against risk or harm? While they may in moments of nostalgia have some recollections of a past life when human beings lived in a state of nature and evolved best practice based on experience, it is highly unlikely that any of the “experts” at the coal face of the industry, dealing with new issues as they arise, is afforded much autonomy to use their judgment or expertise to address them. Rather they will be expected to implement a policy which has been drafted and imposed by an administrative or managerial layer whose job is to do just that. There is no problem there, you may suggest, provided the policy is based on best practice. But where does best practice come from? Precisely from the experts with frontline experience, who find themselves being instructed by administrators who often have considerably less, or certainly less recent, experience.

But the problem does not stop there, because frequently those inside an institution are deemed insufficiently trustworthy or capable of codifying and enforcing best practice. For that reason external regulators have to be appointed and given draconian powers to perform that task. But how can someone who is not even a part of your organisation ensure your compliance with best industry practice? Inevitably, resort has to be made to the imposition of mandatory reports following a standard template, tickboxes and audit trails which can be inspected at regular visits. And before you know it safety, efficiency and best industry practice have become synonymous with compliance with the regulatory regime.

While this may work for a while, the inherent instability of this situation becomes apparent on a moment’s reflection. Prescriptive rules can only be written based on a fixed view of what the issues are. But if those rules are enforced and developed by a regulatory authority not working in one of the organisations they seek to control, they will not be aware of new issues as they arise. And those who are so aware are not empowered to address them because they lack either authority, time or motivation, or possibly all three, their main duty being to furnish evidence that regulations have been complied with. Furthermore the administrators above them are motivated the same way and in their dealings with regulators are unlikely to raise the subject of new issues they may be facing (even were they aware of them). More likely they will look to discuss with regulators only those issues brought up by the regulators themselves: the reward for being proactive is likely to be new requirements to implement yet more intrusive monitoring and evidence-collecting, all of which costs money and is damaging to their institution. It is not long before their priority has become to reduce to a minimum the number of points cited by regulators as requiring attention.

The end consequence of all this, an entirely foreseeable one, I would argue, is that organisations’ risk management policy ceases to be looking at the real risks which are coming up inside the organisation and is reduced to addressing instead the risk of attracting regulatory criticism. Stultified, inflexible, mechanistic rules purporting to reflect “best practice,” focussed usually on addressing the last big crisis drive out expert opinion based on more recent experience of current issues as the practitioners whose previous insights provided the authority based on which the regulatory prescriptions were justified are marginalised and reduced to passive “rule takers.”

Such consequences may not be intended; but they are foreseeable.

Nietzsche and Weber: Transcendent Individualism as Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucratic Rationalisation.

 

Introduction

Modernity has been characterised not only by the great benefits brought by the increase in scientific knowledge and the technologies that have flowed from it, such as increasing wealth and convenience, improvements in health and well-being, and access to enormous amounts of information by ordinary citizens, but also by the increased possibilities for the documentation, regulation and control of our individual lives by governments, corporations or the cooperation of the two which technology has facilitated. This was already foreseen in the nineteenth century by one of sociology’s founders, Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the iron cage’ to characterise the growth of bureaucratic rationalisation in capitalist society. Other writers of the period also perceived this tendency within modernity, notably Friedrich Schiller, and Franz Kafka in The Trial. Over the intervening century the bureaucratic state has slowly but inexorably been stretching its tentacles into every aspect of social life, and this development has gathered pace with the advent of big data. With the convergence of government with big data, such as the establishment of a social credit system in China this tendency is now reaching its apotheosis in the ‘digital state’.

The argument made in this essay is that while technological developments have facilitated the drift towards the digital state, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the promises that the digital world holds, while neglecting the matter of our spiritual being, specifically the rationality, freedom and moral individualism which is the foundation of a sustainable democratic order. While responsibility for this neglect cannot ultimately be laid at the feet of anyone but each of us individually, there are cultural currents that define the social context in which we are brought up, educated and live our lives, and those currents are driven by thinkers of great perception and boldness. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one such thinker. His influence on the twentieth century, if largely unacknowledged, has been profound, as various aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, existentialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. By advocating hedonism as a positive virtue, Nietzsche unleased the genie of irrationalism in Western culture, where it has played havoc with our thinking and institutions since.

I will briefly review four aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy and their influence on European culture1: the Übermensch, transvaluation of values, death of God, and the eternal recurrence. As post-modernism is the contemporary intellectual legacy of Nietzschean philosophy, I will consider how this legacy is taking forward the programme of transvaluation, and the influence that is having on the modern culture and, specifically, on individualism as the bulwark against the bureaucratic state’s total dominance. Finally, I will re-evaluate Nietzsche for insights that might yet reinvigorate individualism and the democratic tradition.

The Transvaluation of European Thought

Like Weber, Nietzsche observed the increasing bureaucratisation of European society and, while like Weber, he saw this as rooted in Christian doctrine and values, unlike Weber, he was not merely content to objectivise these values as structural components in a ‘science’ of society; instead, he called for the wholesale transvaluation of our value system. Under the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, he developed his ideas of the will-to-power. Nietzsche saw the phenomenon of bureaucratisation as a moral failure of Christian civilisation, particularly as represented in the bourgeoise life of the middle classes, and this failure as arising from the weakening effect of Christian values such as humility, meekness, love and charity on the will-to-power. In place of these values, he sought to instil what he saw as the aristocratic values of the past, those of the warrior code of the pagan gods.

Nietzsche stands in opposition to much of what we think of as philosophy in the Western tradition, usually discussed along the dual traditions of rationalism and empiricism, which can be traced back to the debates of the ancient Greeks, although inflected through the ideas of medieval scholasticism. Rather, he made a turn into mystification and mythologisation through the medium of analogy and aphorism. His most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, uses the figure of a hermetic seer, nominally based on the actual founder of the Zoroastrian religion2, who descends from his mountain to speak about the Übermensch (Over-man, more commonly translated as Superman) and announce the death of God to the world.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. Despite the middle classes embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, they are consistently a target for elitist figures, including the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. One can see Nietzsche’s point to some extent; although most of us in the West at least are middle class, to aspire to be middle class is to accept a place in Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of an increasingly regulated existence. To the extent that we are aware of this, we feel a call to resist, and the Übermensch offers us one model of resistance. For reasons that I will develop further below I think it is the wrong model; not wrong absolutely, but too partial to address our current requirements. What it does suggest is that resistance has an element of danger, both risk to ourselves and – at least potential – threat to others.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche believed European civilisation was on the verge of sliding into nihilism. The cause of this catastrophe he argued was that Christianity was effectively emasculating the population; belief in the afterlife, values such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness, and turning the other cheek in the face of hostility, were diluting the will-to-power necessary for the vitality of a culture. As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, announced the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. His riposte to Christian belief was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. This is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, and then imagine living it without a single regret. Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life, but a Dionysian existence of excess without shame.

Is it true that belief in an afterlife encourages apathy towards social development in this world? One can see logically why it could be true, but there is no compelling evidence that there is a causal relationship. The Victorian period in British history was marked not only by a strong religiosity, but also substantial social reform frequently motivated by religious belief. Nietzsche obviously moved in more genteel circles, in which an insipid form of religious observance encouraged passivity rather than social engagement. This coincided with the rise of more bureaucratic states in Europe as urban populations rose with the development of capitalism and industrialisation driven by scientific discovery. Together they created a pliant cultural milieu, in which the individuality of the individual was subsumed in a culture of mediocrity. Against this reality Nietzsche railed and called for a transvaluation of values, something that entailed the wholesale replacement of the Christian virtues and the values arising from the Enlightenment with the pagan virtues of the aristocratic warrior, the elevation of a Dionysian view of human life and potentialities.

One sees something like a need for a Nietzschean reaction to the present-day dominance of illiberal values, which, together with the rise of digital technology, have emasculated the vibrancy of Western and other developed cultures. We are a few steps away from becoming vassals of a totalitarian digital state. The implementation of a social credit system in China is the precursor of what may happen globally if present trends continue, because it has a logical inevitability as well as an intrinsic appeal to the powerful. However, There is a terrible paradox to Nietzsche’s revolt against the Christian and humanist traditions of European culture; standing outside the mainstream and preaching a philosophy of the extreme – a heady mixture of violence and hedonism – against the suffocating dictates of reason and conventional morality, has weakened very core values of European and Western identity and stability and allowed the influx, cultivation and nurturing of extremist ideologies at the very heart of many of our academic institutions.

The Susceptibility of Post-Modern Societies to the ‘Iron Cage’

The ‘iron cage’ of Weber’s imagination is as apt a description of the social trends we see today as it was of his own time. Two new factors have been added: the emergence of digital technology which has accelerated and augmented the bureaucratisation of the state and its intrusion into more areas of individual and family life; the rise of a rights-based illiberalism which necessitates, increasingly, the use of the tools of state power to implement and police its diktats in every corner of society.

How have we been enticed into the iron cage, and how do we continue to live there for the most part unaware of our imprisonment? Answering those questions fully would require a historical and psychological account to be given and I am neither a historian nor a psychologist, but from a socio-philosophical perspective it can plausibly be argued that a Nietzschean transvaluation has in fact occurred. European civilisation has been based upon individualism derived from both classical Enlightenment values and Christian values. This type of individualism has provided people with the tools for both internal resilience, that is inner conviction in an extrinsic truth, and the ability to call out wrongdoing and transgression in the name of a greater good, not only moral but also social. At the same time, it has also bred a belief in fundamental freedom and tolerance, meaning an acceptance of that with which one did not necessarily agree. Beyond this, these fundamental values have provided the basis for a shared understanding and belonging in a web of communities, both secular and spiritual, in which disagreements could be discussed in a more-or-less civilised manner. It is this individualism which has now been severely weakened.

How is it then that a culture that underlay Western individualism has been so etiolated? I think that the seeds lie already in how Christianity and humanism developed through their institutional embodiments. In some respects their positive strengths and values made them susceptible to the enticement of alternative – more extreme – interpretations of their virtues. These forces include the emergence of a culture of groupthink. At some point in the development of human rights thinking, the notion of group rights became accepted. This went against the very idea of human rights in its original form, which enshrined the right of the individual to be protected from the power of the state. The protection of the rights of a group requires and inversion of this priority, that is the interference of the state in the rights of individuals in freely expressing their views on groups considered vulnerable. Of course, it can, and is, argued that this represents progress in social matters; nevertheless, it was a breach in the protection of individual rights. The expansion of this initially laudable idea of the protection of vulnerable groups has continued apace, until it has come to occupy almost the entire discourse on human rights, and where group rights conflict with the individual right of self-expression or conscience, almost invariably group rights – the protection of one’s rights as part of a collective identity – take precedence in any legal judgement.

A second related threat is the progressive undermining of the spiritual and secular values of European civilisation. For reasons that it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider, spiritual and secular values, while often in tension, exist in a symbiotic relationship. It has often been noted that the particular religious legacy of the West has been instrumental in creating its intellectual culture. Attempts to distil the essence of rationality shorn of this historical and cultural context have inevitably run into paradox. At least since the French Revolution, though, the intellectual culture of the West has been increasingly hostile to religion, and this has permeated almost every institution and medium of mass communication. For example, the EU is an attempt to create a European identity based entirely on secular values, without any reference to its shared religious history. To some extent this trend is understandable, as it can be seen as a reaction against the past historical abuses of power of the Christian churches and the wars of religion. However, the lessons of the French revolution should disabuse us of the idea that reason alone is the guarantor of a just social order. I suspect (though I have no evidence for this) that religion creates a context of rules for an extended community in which reason can operate but is constrained; freed of this constraint, reason has nothing to operate on but itself, which at least explains the self-destructive tendencies in the hyper-rationalism of post-modern philosophies such as deconstructionism.

Post-modernism is doubtless the principal contemporary ideology with a Nietzschean lineage.3 Its indebtedness to Nietzsche is two-fold: on the one hand is its clear inheritance of Nietzsche’s diatribes against Christianity and rationality, though reinterpreted through a Marxist appeal to equality to the downtrodden (replacing the industrial proletariat with whoever can conveniently be labelled a victim of western power structures) and the subtle use of dialectic that allows the play of meaning to the verge of semantic nihilism; on the other hand is its incessant narratives and barely concealed love of confrontation and transgression: Foucault’s discourses on power and ‘symbolic violence’ (basically everything), anti-imperialist, radical feminist and queer theorists that subject even science and mathematics to their victimological hermeneutics, to the current vogue for ‘safe spaces’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘trigger warnings’, that foreclose open debate and precipitate pre-emptively defensive acts of violence. Nowhere is this postmodern dialectic more revealing than in its apologetics for radical Islam, despite (or is it because of?) its anti-rationalist and anti-science fundamentalism, its oppression of women, support for global jihad and dreadful human rights record.

Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’

Is it possible to interpret Nietzsche for a route out of the iron cage, towards which, I have argued, he has unwittingly helped entice us, by creating the cultural shift in values that is facilitating the advent of the totalitarian digital state? I believe that a reading of Nietzsche can be foundational to a reassessment of individualism moving into the emerging information age, both of its rationalistic elements and of its Christian morality. I will focus on two of Nietzsche’s concepts, the figure of the Übermensch and the eternal recurrence.

The Übermensch has been criticised as a type of proto-fascist ideal. They live by an aristocratic code of superiority, the will-to-power, which is what attracted the Nazi theorists to the idea and it is certainly true that the Nazis appropriated the terminology for their own propaganda.4 The delineation of the idea in itself, therefore, makes Nietzsche responsible to that extent. That, however, can be said of almost any idea: that it is subject to misinterpretation and misappropriation. A reading of Nietzsche on the subject should be enough to correct that criticism. Fascism is a branch of socialism that identifies the state with national identity rather than the industrial proletariat. The Übermenschen live by their own values, not by the values of the collective. They have no allegiance to the state, to an ideology, to a collective identity or obedience to a Fuhrer, which is where Nietzsche and fascism part company.

I think Nietzsche was right to critique the dominant values of the culture of his time, particularly the way in which Christianity, with its focus on sin and salvation, diminished the image of man and reduced the capacities and potentialities of life in this world with the promise of a better life in the next. He was also right in predicting the slide into nihilism that occurred with the two world wars. It is possible that the very culture of inadequacy and dependence which he lacerated was instrumental in the rise of Hitler, who came as a messianic saviour to the German people. However, the image of the Übermensch should not be appropriated wholesale, but accepted critically as a corrective to the weaknesses of the dominant European culture. Particularly at this time, as people are becoming in thrall to the new digital culture and the possibilities for radical government control over the actions and thoughts of their citizens, Nietzsche’s Übermensch holds out the possibility of the individual citizen becoming more dangerous to the power of the state.

That said, this does not require a total transvaluation of the sort proclaimed by Nietzsche. Many of the values that he criticised have an important place in our culture and our psychology. The fact is, we are physically and morally limited and fail or commit sins. All cultures have evolved methods for individual and societal healing, such as confession, punishment, contrition, mercy and forgiveness, depending on the nature of the crime. I suggest rather than a rejection of the values of the culture of which we find ourselves a part, we should engage in a more critical appropriation and individualisation of those values, accepting the positive aspects and resisting attempts by the state to coerce us into its desired patterns of behaviour. It is to redress the balance in the relationship between the state and the citizen, which has flowed in the direction of state empowerment during the last 100 years. It is not a repudiation of statehood, but of the totalitarian bureaucratic state that is threateningly just over the horizon. It is also to accept the responsibility for becoming a better citizen, who holds the state to account.

The idea of the eternal recurrence (or eternal return as it is also known) is probably the most difficult of Nietzsche’s ideas to fathom. I have offered my interpretation above, and on the surface a more morally odious and nihilistic idea can barely be conceived. Yet I want to turn that on its head now, and consider how that might yet presage an important philosophical turn in European civilisation. The eternal recurrence, on Nietzsche’s own understanding, means to live beyond not merely belief in a life after death, but beyond belief itself, in a world of values. It is to live in the eternal present; not so much to live hedonistically in the present moment as such, but to live one’s values as if they are eternal values. Nietzsche therefore declares that the age to come is the new axial age, in which matters of value, whether they be religious or secular, take precedence over the matters of ontology and epistemology which have hitherto been the central concerns of philosophy.

Just as Nietzsche could not contemplate a transvaluation of European civilisation without a mythological underpinning, so too a reinterpretation of the eternal recurrence as a paradigm shift to values-based culture has its own mythology, which is best described by Maurice Berman’s concept of ‘the re-enchantment of the world’, which  emerged in a book of the same name on the philosophy and psychology of science, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians in the late twentieth century. Coming full circle, it was, ironically, a challenge to Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other. The disenchantment of the world is the spiritual precursor of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationalisation.

The idea of re-enchantment fulfils the need in a thoroughly secularised age for a sense of the transcendent in human life. That could be transcendence in the religion of our own culture, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure, or in love. Seeking transcendence of our ego, our experience of the self, is not only an expression of our freedom and individuality, but also our desire, as an individual, to belong to the human community. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, therefore finds a more benevolent interpretation in what I call transcendent individualism, a philosophy of the self that is at the heart of resistance to the iron cage.

To speak of transcendent individualism as benevolent does not, though, mask its threat to the forces of bureaucratic rationalisation. The modern capitalist society requires us to be good workers and consumers, whereas socialism requires us to be good citizens of the state. Of the two prospects, given the choice, people have chosen the former on the whole, and the former almost universally after having experienced the latter. But the state in either case has no intrinsic interest in us as individuals, only as functional parts of its operational whole; it defends us against enemies, feeds us, educates us, provides we remain in reasonable health, and perhaps employs us, because that is the requirement of its own survival – indeed without doing those things we would call it a failed state. Paradoxically, then, though the state is, in the end, just individuals, as a deontological entity, it abstracts the individuality of the individual and, if it becomes too powerful it crushes the natural state of free thought, free expression, free action and free association that underlie authentic social belonging.

Transcendent individualism, by resisting the encroachment of the overgrown state into more areas of our lives, is the guarantor of the continuing vitality of the society of which the state is an important part. It addresses philosophically an issue which has been neglected in recent debates on democracy, the importance of individualism as the foundation of democratic societies, without reducing it to the consumer of capitalist requirement. It does not shy away, either, from the notion of democracy as a messy, conflict-ridden and sometimes revolutionary force. I do not foresee a reduction in conflict in democratic society in the future, as there will inevitably be clashes of values, but this is the essence of the form of society that builds itself on the value of the individual, one that must be eternally vigilant of collectivist tendencies and the stultifying oppression of bureaucratic rationalisation.

Notes

  1. I have referred to European thought and European culture rather more than the more general term Western thought and culture, firstly because this is more representative of the cultural milieu in which Nietzsche moved and wrote, but also because, although there are continuities with Western thought and culture more generally, some of the criticisms, e.g. of the character of Christianity, discussed here do not necessarily apply outside Europe.
  2. The modern-day Parsees of India, a small but influential community, are the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religion, which was once widespread throughout central Asia. Its influence is even apparent in Jewish and early Christian theology.
  3. Nietzsche’s relationship to subsequent developments is disputed and paradoxical, as it seems he is held responsible for precipitating the things he warned against. He likened Christianity to a slave mentality, making a virtue of weakness. Today postmodernism – which does have an authentic Nietzschean heritage – underpins much of social justice rhetoric and activism, yet reproduces this mentality. Similarly, while he warned against nihilism, he is considered by some a nihilist philosopher.
  4. It is known definitively that Nietzsche’s links to Nazism arose through the emendation of his archive posthumously by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was married to an believer in Aryan supremacy, and was later herself a National Socialist sympathiser. Through the bowdlerised works, Nietzsche came to the attention of Nazi theorists and leaders.

 

Selected Bibliography

Peter Baehr (2001), The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, History and Theory Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 153–169, May 2001

Ernst Bertram (2009[1918]). Nietzsche: Attempt at a New Mythology [Translated by Robert E. Norton]. University of Illinois Press.

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Simon Denyer (22 October 2016). China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives. The Independent (online): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-surveillance-big-data-score-censorship-a7375221.html

Graeme Garrard (2008). Nietzsche for and against the Enlightenment. The Review of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Fall, 2008), pp. 595-608

Richard Jenkins (2000). Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Universal Basic Income and the promises and perils of a leisured economy

‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ (Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program)

Introduction

Until recently few people would have heard of Universal Basic Income (UBI), despite the idea having been around for more than 200 years.1 Although it has gone under various names and had various proposed formats (such as basic endowment and negative taxation2) they are all basically the same proposal: that every single person should receive a fixed stipend from the state, regardless of wealth or need, and then be able to choose whether to exist on this or to top it up by working. Its attractiveness is its simplicity – cutting through the complications of means testing – and its ethical appeal to the equal worthiness of human life that has garnered support not just from the left, for whom the appeal is obvious, but across the political spectrum. There is, though, a pragmatic reason for the growing interest in UBI: real concern that the effects of labour outsourcing and automation are having on the continuing existence of many jobs in developed economies, and the political fallout that may arise (some will say it has already begun) as a result, is beginning to be taken seriously.

Like all grand ideas, especially those that unite opinion across a wide spectrum, there are also voices that raise pertinent objections from various perspectives. One is around cost and effectiveness. Some maintain that it is affordable3 and the only thing lacking is the political will to implement it, others that if it were to be set at a rate that would be effective it would be unaffordable4 and, moreover, if it were set at a rate lower than this boundary of effectiveness, poorer households would be worse off than they are under existing benefits system. There is also resistance to the idea of well-off individuals, in no need of financial support, receiving it of right as a bonus, despite this being the point – that it is given universally, regardless of circumstances. Another area of contention is around socio-ethical and psychological issues. Advocates5 of the UBI say that it will free people from anxiety in the face of job loss or being chained to a waged job, allowing them to be creative: to dedicate themselves to art or music, say, or to engage in voluntary work, while others may choose to start their own businesses; thus, it has the potential to reinvigorate culture and even the economy. Opponents6, though, state that it will create a disincentive to work, even undermining the work ethic of entire nations.

I am not placed to judge the economic merits of this idea. Those who are interested can follow up the sources cited in the endnotes. Nor am I qualified to express more than an opinion on the possible psycho-social implications; there are around a dozen medium-size pilot schemes7 of UBI taking place worldwide at present, and the outcome of those will have some bearing on whether individual countries decide to implement them on a larger scale. However, they will have to overcome political obstacles, even if they are roundly endorsed at the experimental level. My purpose in this essay is to critically evaluate the viability of UBI as a social policy and advance a philosophical argument that work constitutes one important aspect of our human value and that a work-free, or ‘leisured’ economy risks diminishing that value, to the extent that we should be wary of the radical restructuring of human society entailed by UBI.

The periodic recurrence of the idea

The fact that UBI has been around for a long time but never been implemented suggests that it is a periodic response to economic crises that tends to fade once the particular crisis has passed. In this case I am not just referring to economic crises like the financial crash of 2008, which has many precursors, but the economic threat implied to individuals’ means of support by new technologies. Today it is the advent of Artificial Intelligence and robots through which many of the jobs we take for granted today may disappear, but this threat has been a real feature of the economic landscape over the past two centuries. The spread of new industrial centres in England in the eighteenth century, driven by steam power, created an enormous dislocation of the population from rural to urban areas. Much the same happened in America in the 1920s and 1930s and is happening today in China. The eventual outcome, in every case, has been increased prosperity (granted that that does not take into account the tally of human misery in the process, or the sacrifice of those who did not live to see the benefits). Moreover, work has never disappeared; only specific types of work have become extinct, to be replaced by jobs required by a new economic infrastructure.

Nevertheless, like the story of the boy who cried wolf, this does not mean that the threat of the extinction of work per se is not a real one this time or the next time. Predictions that the era of free market capitalism, and the social relations that this entailed, are over are not to be lightly dismissed, if indeed the very idea of work on which capitalism has been predicated is headed for oblivion. While it can be argued that the free market has successfully adapted to a largely service, finance and consumer economy, it could be countered that moving the agricultural and industrial jobs – that is, the jobs that ensure that we are fed and have things to buy and sell – offshore to more economically advantageous environments in the developing world, where labour costs are much lower, has condemned us to living in a virtual economy, running on extended credit. Certainly, the size of the deficits in post-industrial nations suggests that this might be the case. If that is so, when there are no more developing countries to which to relocate industries or outsource our agriculture, that might precipitate the end of capitalism.8

Such is, of course, pure speculation. I find more persuasive the argument that the free market is a spontaneously arising feature of every human society, from the simplest to the most complex, because it is human nature to trade, both for necessities and for luxuries. And trade both necessitates, as a precondition, and involves, as a consequence, work of some form or other. That is not to say that the free market principle has not been expropriated and exploited by powerful institutions, of which the capitalist (and socialist) models of economic organisation are the most recent in our historical experience. However, I believe human ingenuity, fostered through the free market, will continue to deliver technological innovation and economic advancement, of which work will always be an integral part, though the nature of work will continue to evolve, and, probably and hopefully, the economic system will evolve in the direction of greater justice and individual empowerment.

Therefore, while we cannot rule out the possibility of UBI being adopted in advanced economies, the historical precedent, and human nature itself, suggests that we are more likely to see an evolution in the type of work and types of jobs available, rather than the disappearance of work and the emergence of a purely leisured economy, though that does not rule out the emergence of a different economic system and economic relations. However, I doubt whether UBI will play a significant role in this future; in some respects, I believe it would be a dangerous and retrograde step, for reasons that I will set out below.

The nature of human value

One of the plausible moral arguments for UBI is that it appeals to our sense of fairness, that everyone should be treated equally, based on our common humanity. Though this intersects with a Rawlsian interpretation of justice ‘behind the veil’, this is not uniquely a sentiment of the secular left, but an idea deep in the anthropology of the monotheistic religions, of man as a created being possessing intrinsic value, and thus due a portion of the earth’s bounty. While I think the idea of intrinsic value is important for human societies, I do not think this is the way we think under normal circumstances; it is, rather, something we take refuge in in extremis, when the normal basis on which moral judgements are made and societies are ordered has broken down, as in natural disaster, in encountering the victim of violence or other criminal acts, or in war.

Intrinsic value makes sense in a theological context, for belief in a divine creator and sustainer, arbiter and dispenser of justice is the ultimate bulwark against chaos. The problem with intrinsic value as a secular concept is that it is essentially a static concept – that, of course, being its virtue and utility. But under normal circumstances we would want to know why something is valuable, not just that it is. This calls for a more dynamic concept of value, one in which the value of something is determined in a relationship between a valued object and a valuing subject, in which both the subject and object have conditions attached to them. From this perspective, intrinsic value can be seen to be a terminal, peripheral or extreme type of value, which sees value as only inherent in the object completely independent of the subject.

When the object under consideration is a member of human society, specifically a player in the economic order of society, this means that the economic value (which I am not claiming, by the way, is the only measure of human worth, just the relevant one in this context) is also established in a relationship, between what society, represented by an employer (of whatever type), needs and what an employee has to offer. From this point of view, no form of government support can ever, or should ever, be more than a transient solution to real financial need, not a permanent state instituted to fix a hypothetical problem. This is what existing systems of income support already accomplish in the real world, albeit imperfectly.

Like all arguments that are deductively arrived at, there is a danger of a reductio ad absurdam. If we were to state that there are no circumstances under which people are valued, and thereby economically supported, outside of their economic contribution, this would be the logic of the workhouse or the concentration camp. In developed economies we do not let people starve and we try to ensure that, as far as possible, people have the means to attain the basic requirements of life, such as health, education and employment. What concerns me is that this could merely be a contingent state of affairs resting on tenuous philosophical foundations (such as intrinsic value, which could be eliminated by the progressive secularization of society), rather than having a sound economic rationale supported by a more plausible theory of value.

The most obvious resolution of this issue is that developed economies invest in potential economic value as well as exploit actual/realised economic value, investing – through policy, education, the health services, professional training and guidance and, if necessary, income support – in those who are not presently economically viable, which does not undermine the premise that economic value is established in an economic relationship. Both historically and at present, bringing formerly marginalised groups, such as women and the disabled into the workforce, correlates strongly with economic development.  However, establishing that there is a strong case for investing for potential, where the norm is to be economically active, is not the same case being made for UBI, in which the assumed norm is to be economically inactive and where economic activity is a choice rather than a necessity. In some sense, this seems to be establishing that humans have no economic value and that they are therefore superfluous to the economic system, which would be a dangerous idea in the hands of a totalitarian state.

The presumption of freedom and development

I mentioned in the introduction that one of the arguments raised against UBI is that it would discourage initiative. This is yet to be proved; projections from the effects of existing benefits could be misleading, as UBI would be given to those over a range of very different social and economic circumstances, rather than targeted at specific groups in society, such as the unemployed and disabled, who will consist of a proportionately larger percentage of individuals experiencing severe obstacles to employment than the general population. My criticism of UBI is not that it necessarily discourages individual initiative, but that its wholesale implementation in a country risks arresting social, political and economic development. I think one of the reasons that UBI has supporters on both the left and right is that sizeable segments of both political persuasions believe in static visions of society: the left in a socialist utopia that will never exist and the right in a golden age that never existed. I believe they see in UBI at least an opportunity, and perhaps a tool, to realise their vision.

Both static and dynamic visions of society grapple with human nature, and any nations seeking to embody these visions would have to meet the requirements and desires of their populations and utilise their talents. The problem is that how people define their needs is relative to the broader social expectations, and they have the nature of escalating once a certain basic level is met (take health care in the NHS as an example), until they become indistinguishable from desires. It could be argued that advanced automation will remove the cap on our wants (being infinitely adjustable upwards) and the requirement for any productive skills, and that our lives can be geared towards leisure – and production only to satisfy aesthetic desires (rather than fulfilling basic needs). It is interesting in this regard that Elon Musk and Marc Zuckerberg, two of the most powerful tech innovators, are public supporters of UBI.9 They have been at the forefront of the technological revolution that is changing the nature of work and making many of the jobs we do today redundant.

The examples of Musk and Zuckerberg and their ilk illustrate one of the paradoxes of the advocates and supporters. These innovators have taken advantage of the opportunities of their socio-economic environment, the scientific, technological, educational and cultural vectors of their time and fashioned new possibilities for the rest of us to interact socially, intellectually, commercially and romantically (and, yes, erotically), yet in supporting UBI they implicitly assume the next generation are to be condemned to a life of consumption and leisure, rather than working to create their own technological miracles. Although I would not want to dismiss genuinely held humanitarian fears, part of the resolution of the paradox may be that the Silicon Valley luminaries see their role as quasi-messianic, as ushering in the end of work and leading us into the land of milk and honey, represented by the leisured economy of UBI, rather than as particularly fortunate exemplars of the principle that work can be empowering and transformative. They have perhaps unintentionally fallen into an eschatological vision of the future of human society as static, as terminal, whereas all experience suggests that it is dynamic and endlessly evolving. UBI could potentially lock us into a static form of society in which there is no development, or – even worse – one in which development is entirely out of our hands and in the hands instead of autonomous technology.

These diverging visions, of static and dynamic societies, engage with human nature in diametrically opposite ways, the static by attempting to limit the needs and suppress the desires of their populations and the dynamic by being shaped by them. One of the reasons for caution regarding UBI is that it can only be administered by the state. Some, admittedly, see the state having a lighter touch in administering UBI than is the case for means-tested benefits, and support it for that reason. I do not think we should be so blasé. Until now, our relation to the state in democracies is fundamentally one of tolerating its power over our lives for the benefits it brings; however, in theory at least, we are free agents who have the power to hold it to account and limit its authority in certain regards. The basis of that freedom in law is property and the means to support oneself. If these would become the sole monopoly of the state, we would be relinquishing the last vestiges of legal autonomy; essentially, every person would become a vassal of the state.

The verdict

While the future is open, and the challenges posed by AI, automation and the limits of capitalism are not to be underestimated, I think that UBI is unlikely to become the prevalent economic mode, and nor do I think we will settle on a sustainable model for its widespread, yet alone ‘universal’ implementation. The experiments are ongoing and we should take heed of the economic, social and psychological outcomes of those trials. Until now, though, there has not been an economic case established, as all the existing programmes have required an enormous investment with no predicted economic output, the financial equivalent of nuclear fusion. Moreover, the purported technology, which is supposed to put us out of work and, at the same time, generate the wealth to support our lives, has not yet arrived, and I suspect, also rather like nuclear fusion, it will prove to be permanently just around the next corner.

Apart from the practicalities, I think there are philosophical and ethical objections to UBI. In every society, from the most primitive to the present, humans have been economically active; in fact human nature defines what the economy means. I do not believe that the financial transaction can be separated from human economic activity, in other words, that there exists an ‘economy’ apart from human economic activity. The financial transaction is the expression of an economic value which is determined in a relationship of trust between economic agents, one offering goods, skills and services and the other paying for them. I would go as far as to say, were this separation to be possible, it would negate the economic value of human lives and diminish human value overall and, therefore, should be resisted at all costs.

The discussion around UBI raises legitimate issues around the quality of life, as many people – particularly young people – work in poorly-paid jobs with no security and few prospects of advancement. Even for those in secure work, there is the prospect of a lifetime of “wage slavery”. There are no easy answers; pointing out that workers today live and work under better conditions than those of previous generations does little to allay the sense for many that life is unfair, because we invariably compare ourselves with others whose circumstances we consider more favourable. One of the more positive outcomes of the 2008 global economic downturn is the number of people who have started their own businesses, and it may be that while this may not presage the next wave of innovation (this is more likely to arise initially from government funding of research in universities and industries such as defence), it demonstrates a willingness of people to be more flexible, perhaps accept a simpler life, and a desire to be more in control of their economic fortune.

I expect rather than the abrupt collapse of capitalism, there will be a transition to a new form of economy marked by advanced technology, superabundant information and a free market in which the autonomous economic agent will be empowered. Work does not make us free, but it shapes our freedom, and is the basis for almost everything else we do that is valuable. I consider that UBI will always be a recurring but peripheral phenomenon in this future.

 

NOTES & SOURCES

  1. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), one of the founding fathers of the United States and the author of The Rights of Man (1791) was an advocate of ‘basic endowment’.
  1. The Republican president Richard Nixon proposed a UBI scheme, called ‘negative taxation’ in the 1970’s. However, it was rejected by Democrats on the basis that the proposed rate was set too low to offer sufficient support.
  2. Affordable
  1. Unaffordable
  1. Supporters
  1. Opponents
  1. Ashifa Kassam (24 April 2017), ‘Ontario plans to launch universal basic income trial run this summer’; The Guardian (online) at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/24/canada-basic-income-trial-ontario-summer
  2. Paul Mason (2015), PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. London: Allen Lane.
  3. Jathan Sadowski (22 June 2016), ‘Why Silicon Valley is embracing universal basic income’; The Guardian (online) at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/22/silicon-valley-universal-basic-income-y-combinator

‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique

Introduction

‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.

Conclusion

The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.

 

Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.

In Defence of the Open Society against its Enemies

No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude (Karl Popper)

It is just over 70 years since the publication in 1945 of Karl Popper’s most widely known and influential book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Written during the war years while in exile from Austria, Popper considered it to be his contribution to the war effort, as it sought to expose the faulty philosophical foundations of totalitarian ideologies such as fascism and communism. Popper identified, in particular, the tendency to historical prediction or ‘historicism’ that proclaimed the inevitability of the social forms advocated by these ideologies according to supposedly scientific laws of historical development. Thus his criticism can be considered an extension to political philosophy of his earlier and more important work on epistemology, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (published in German in 1934), that is, a critique of the epistemological foundations of these ideologies, and indeed of all ideology. The open society, exemplified by liberal democracies, Popper considered the only form of government able to effect political change without bloodshed and to undergo evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) development through piecemeal change and problem-solving. Notwithstanding the debates within scientific and political philosophy having moved beyond Popper’s contemporaneous concerns, his central epistemological concept of falsifiability, with its entailment of transparency and truth-seeking, has particular relevance to this information age, but is a principle which is markedly absent from interactions within the present political, economic and social fields. Some commentators see in this the demise of liberal democracy. I believe that while open societies have vulnerabilities, they are both more robust than these commentators allow and need to be more strongly advocated than we seem willing to do at present.

To drop the anti-historicist baton for a moment, if history has any point, or purpose, it is the struggle for human freedom. While freedom can be variously defined, all freedoms reside in empowerment, whether that be political, economic or moral freedom. What is certain is that all people, everywhere, desire these freedoms, even if, in some cases, that appears to be the freedom to relinquish their freedom by merging into the collective, the rigid, the backward, the insular, the dysfunctional and of course the criminal. These are the enemies of the open society that must, paradoxically, be tolerated even as they are resisted, even those who utilise the freedom of open societies to proselytise their diatribes against freedom. This paradox nevertheless elevates open societies above all other, for they enable the conditions that – given enough time – expose false theories and beliefs, false promises, false policies and false lifestyles to scrutiny and the unremitting evidence of consequences. Freedom involves risk and risk-taking; open societies can seem chaotic, but it is the chaos of dynamic disequilibrium from which innovation and change emerge. However, to reaffirm the anti-historicist perspective, it would be wrong to assume, pace Fukuyama, that liberal democracies represent the end point of history; they embody, imperfectly, a principle of the growth of knowledge that has had precursors in history that were prematurely extinguished, but appeared fully-fledged in Europe in the eighteenth century: that is the scientific method.

The scientific method is not exclusively about the accumulation of scientific knowledge in a narrow sense that is the specific concern of scientists; it is rather a generalised account of how we learn, which is given specificity in the scientific context. Knowledge as such is the interaction between ideas, in the form of theories, beliefs or opinions, and information, in the form of facts and data about the external world that constitute evidence. This much was practiced by Aristotle and the Arab scholars of the golden era of Islamic civilisation, but it was Francis Bacon who systematised it as a method and laid the groundwork for modern experimental procedures. After Bacon the general assumption was that gathering sufficient data was the basis for sound theorising. Popper however pointed out the logical error in such an inductive approach, in that no number of confirmatory examples was sufficient to verify a theory, but a single counter-example was sufficient to falsify it. Instead, he insisted bold imaginative conjectures should be subject to repeated attempts at falsification. This raised the epistemological threshold considerably for the acceptance of theory, to such an extent that practicing scientists, like the rest of us, largely ignore these strictures in the pursuit of knowledge, and accept the balance of probabilities. Popper’s deductive theory is more like a theory of truth; truth which, according to philosophers like Kuhn, can never be realised, but only approximated more closely. Nevertheless, it remains as a reminder of the standard to which, logically, we should subject our beliefs, opinions and theories.

There are numerous implications of the theory of knowledge for the open society. First, we should be free and educated sufficiently to think boldly and imaginatively about any subject. Secondly, individuals should be free to express any opinion and respect no orthodoxy in the pursuit of truth. Thirdly, beliefs, opinions and theories of whatever kind, whether philosophical, religious, moral or scientific, should be considered tentative, however plausible or implausible, until there is confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence. Fourthly, while persuasion is a legitimate means of transmission of ideas, coercion never is. Fifth, there should be some presumption of respect for people as individuals as free and rational, though not necessarily for their beliefs. Sixth, society as a whole, and at regional and local levels, should be attempting to manage conflict and be committed to finding solutions to problems. Seventh, there should be transparency and the free flow of information. Eighth, there should be a universal commitment to the recognition of and correction of error. Ninth, open societies should empower their citizens, economically, socially and politically, that they can participate fully in the life and development of their society. Tenth, we as individuals should be committed to the improvement of our lives and our societies. These seem the most obvious corollaries.

Modern liberal democracies are not paragons of the open society; it remains something of an ideal. They are rather experiments, each of which have particular virtues and are grappling with particular vices. Yet they embody enough of the principles to be far preferable to any other social form. This alone explains why millions of people are on the move to escape persecution, war and poverty, or the grinding weight of custom and inequality, and make their way to developed countries. This creates problems for open societies, but by their nature they are solution-generating and self-correcting. It is, of course, on this basis impossible to determine what the solution to any particular problem, for example mass immigration, should be. In the short term I suspect there will be a number of solutions, some more viable than others, and hopefully we will learn from the best and improve our strategies. In the long term, the only solution is to transform all societies into open societies. This, though, can only be accomplished on the basis of the principles outlined in the paragraph above, not through military conquest. We have sufficient problems of our own to address. This naturally gives space to the enemies of the open society, the ideological opponents of freedom, to attack the very idea. They cannot do this, of course, resorting to the principles and strategies outlined above, but rather by misinformation and coercion, and, more subtly, by undermining belief in freedom (and its attendant responsibilities) and restricting opportunities for free speech.

Reason justifies open societies as the only desirable future for mankind and reason is their guiding operative principle. Passionate concern, dogmatism and pessimism are inimical to, and are inevitably generated by ideological opposition to, open societies. Nevertheless, attacks on reason come from some surprising places. Universities, which once were bastions of academic freedom, now incubate extremism on one hand, but on the other, under the influence of anti-rationalist postmodern philosophy, forestall the expression of unpopular or challenging opinions by ‘no-platforming’ certain speakers lest some people feel ‘unsafe’ or ‘uncomfortable’, though more probably lest they be disturbed from their dogmatic slumbers.  The law is another area where decisions taken on purely legalistic technicalities can have far-reaching and chilling consequences for transparency. A law being considered at the moment would effectively end the free press in the UK, at least their ability to investigate potential scandal and corruption, by creating a no-penalty right to sue a newspaper if someone considers their privacy to have been invaded. Welfare is another system that seriously endangers individual empowerment and initiative. Compassion, which is a human virtue, experienced by the strong for the weak, can become a vice when it is institutionalised and merely perpetuates that order of power rather than ending it. Low educational ability, despite universal education, much of it free, is strongly indicative of poor life chances in employment, physical and material well-being, prospects for marriage and social status. In many developed countries we are too tolerant of poor educational outcomes and economically supportive of their attendant lifestyles and the subcultures that perpetuate them.

The aggregate enemy of the open society is collectivism and group-think. The foundation of open societies and our freedom is individualism. If for the moment we strip away all the cultural accretions, we are all fundamentally the same in sharing a human nature, as opposed to an animal nature. The frequent assertion that we are ‘nothing but’ animals, specifically mammals, results in a peculiar type of contradiction: the application of reason to cloak its own phenomenology. For reason is what defines us as human and not as animal. There is a qualitative difference; however much we see a spectrum of intelligence in the animal kingdom, there is, as Marxists would say, a tipping point at which the quantitative becomes the qualitative. Therefore, when talking of individualism, this is not to focus on the individual physical body, which is an adaptive form created by the forces of genetic mapping and environmental pressures, but the mind which is embodied. Reason finds the value of the individual in the unique individual mind and this is the foundation of freedom and equality, which are fundamental to the open society. Cultures and sub-cultures that exhibit the trait of differential evaluation of human worth, whether that is as someone to be controlled, as a possession, as a means to economic or social advance, or a sexualised object, exist still within the sphere of slavery and need to be transformed.

For some, individualism has a bad name. It is associated with selfishness and hedonism, as a denial of spirituality, altruism and collective duty, whether to the family, an institution or the nation. The first thing to say is that these arguments have been used throughout history by powerful individuals and elites to crush the aspirations of people everywhere, and they are also advanced by the ideological enemies of the open society. The second point is that, from a rational perspective, selfishness and hedonism are intrinsically inimical to individual flourishing which is both a pillar of, and a desirable outcome of, the open society. Laziness, greed, addiction, irresponsibility – the besetting sins of all societies – are harmful to the individual and to society, and a rational society should be doing all it can to curtail them. Selfishness, though, should not be confused with self-interest. Our life-long project should be the improvement of our selves. It is the nature of this self, though, that it is of interest, not just to us, individually, but to society as a whole. Society is not more than the sum of its parts, or at least only to the extent that it is an emergent property of social interactions. Therefore, society in the abstract has a vested interest in the flourishing of the individual, which means that as individuals we also have an interest in the advancement of others. This is different to the perspective accepted and encouraged in our present economic culture here in the West, which is implicitly a zero-sum game based on the Darwinian-Spencerian idea of the survival of the fittest, which in reality optimises outcomes for neither the individual nor the society.

Therefore the individualism which is suited to an open society has a transcendent quality, in that the self is continuously engaged in a project to extend its abilities. That transcendence can be counted on at least five major fronts: physical, intellectual, professional, emotional and social, which emerge from aspects of our evolved human nature: survival instinct, sexuality, sociality and spirituality. Each of the fronts  necessitates development centred around a cluster of values, for example – and this is merely a limited selection – ‘health’ and ‘fitness’ for the physical, ‘knowledge’ and ‘reason’ for the intellectual, ‘reliability’ and ‘expertise’ for the professional, ‘resilience’ and ‘warmth’ for the emotional and ‘companionship’ and ‘generosity’ for the social. These fronts are not isolated or competing aspects of the individual, even if in the past they may have been seen as such; they are complementary and collectively reinforcing. As our knowledge grows we are beginning to see a more rounded and more extensive picture of human possibilities. No one ultimately need be excluded from this vision. We already see, through events like the Paralympics, the range of possibilities that are opening up even for the disabled. New technologies promise the eventual elimination or circumvention of blindness and paralysis and the emancipation of their sufferers.

Open societies are not perfect, nor will they ever be; they are imperfect by definition. The difference to other social forms is that this fact is universally acknowledged, and this acceptance sets the stage for a programme of continuous improvement through problem-solving. The defence of open societies is ultimately the defence of a process, not a thing. Some people find this threatening, as they would like to retreat to a closed, unchanging world of certainty. Most of us at some time, if the truth be told, feel like this, but the enemies of the open society experience this as perpetual existential crisis. They should be tolerated but kept on the fringes. The growth of knowledge has enabled us to survive so far in a hostile environment and has succeeded in making human lives better, freer and happier. That is definitely something worth defending.

The role of community in the creation of value: the contribution of Stakeholder Theory

By James Walker

The weakness of traditional business ethics

The raw power of the markets, whether under mercantilism or capitalism, has always tussled with other powerful institutions, be they churches, philanthropic movements or governments, which have attempted to bring another set of values to bear, more human, social and compassionate. Today we talk about business ethics, but this idea, though fine in the abstract, is liable to be itself marketised, in the hierarchical world of corporate life, when the intrinsically spontaneous nature of human communal life is overridden.

Let me share a couple of imaginary workplace scenarios. In the first, a company holds a competition for staff each year in which they are told they must nominate some of their colleagues for a number of awards that have been created to show staff that they are valued. One of the awards is for the employee who best embodies the ethos of the company. The staff resent being forced to nominate colleagues. There is a high turnover of staff which means it is becoming increasingly difficult to build up relationships with each other or know each other on a personal level. Lots of people have had to reapply for their jobs due to the yearly restructuring of departments, and job titles have changed so much that nobody actually knows who does what anymore. The senior management team are insistent that all staff vote and when they don’t, they become angry.

In the second, another company is independently assessed for its ‘green’ values on a yearly basis. These ratings are vital in the sector for attracting new customers. When the auditors come to the company on Monday morning, the workplace has been transformed, much to the shock of the employees. Some ‘locally sourced, fair trade’ coffee has suddenly appeared in the kitchen. Posters appear in the hallway highlighting the importance of switching off computers at the end of the day. Projectors in meeting rooms are switched off. Once the auditing has been done the posters are taken down, the lights go back on, and the ‘locally sourced, fair trade’ coffee is replaced with the more familiar mass produced variety. The company is awarded a gold rating. The bosses are very proud and inform everyone by email.

The above scenarios highlight the kind of problems that arise when staff, who constitute a real community at the heart of every business, and the wider community in which the business thrives, are undervalued. In the first case none of the employees want to vote for a colleague as embodying the ethos of the organisation because they do not believe in the values of the company. These values are deemed duplicitous and the awards feel disingenuous. Senior management feel let down by their staff when there is a poor response and this is made known. In the second case the management are not concerned with living the principles of being a green company or encouraging their employees to do so as a contribution to the wider community. They just want to gain a high ranking so that their customers perceive them to be green. In both cases ethical principles have effectively become subservient to a short-term tactical advantage.

Stakeholder Theory attempts to address these shortcomings in business ethics by recognising the intrinsic communality of human interaction within the business world and incorporating the encouragement of this communality into long-term strategy. I will give a brief overview of Stakeholder Theory and then explain how I am attempting to apply its insights in my own work with large-scale digital literature projects.

An overview of Stakeholder Theory

A stakeholder is anyone with an interest or concern in something, especially a business. Therefore, stakeholders can be individuals, groups or organisations that are affected by the activity of the business. In terms of a traditional business we could define stakeholders as having the following roles or interest:

  • Business owner – concerned about profit and in some cases appeasing shareholders. They are aware of competitors. They are responsible for key decision making.
  • Managers – concerned about salaries and putting in place processes to achieve the owner’s goals.
  • Workers – want job security and good wages.
  • Customers – expect a certain level of service.
  • Suppliers – rely on the success of the business because they need organisations to buy their products.
  • Lenders – need paying on time.
  • Local community – the business could affect them in a variety of ways.

In addition to this we could also classify stakeholders as being internal or external to the organisation.

The key thinker on this subject is R. Edward Freeman of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He argues: “You can’t look at any one stakeholder in isolation. Their interest has to go together and the job of a manager is to figure out how the interests of customers, suppliers, communities, employees and financiers go in the same direction.”

Most importantly, he emphasises that business and ethics need to work in harmony. Whereas old school industrial capitalism had a faceless approach to business whereby ‘stakeholder’ really meant ‘stockholder’, Freeman argues that Stakeholder Theory gives a ‘face’ and ‘name’ to individuals. It brings in the human element that has long been missing from the workplace. He even goes as far as to suggest:  “What makes capitalism work is our desire to create value for each other. Not our desire to compete. Capitalism is the greatest system of social collaboration ever invented. It’s about how we cooperate together to create value for each other.”

This idea of ‘value creation’ is vitally important, particularly in that all stakeholders need to create value through their respective roles. This suggests equality, as well as an interconnectedness in the workplace. Value is not something that can be imposed or, as per my opening examples, fabricated. Through respect for each other and an awareness of how value is created, I believe the insights of Stakeholder Theory have the potential to turn any negative into a positive.

Applying Stakeholder Theory to a digital literature project

I am currently creating an interactive memory theatre (or cabinet of curiosity) that celebrates the life of a controversial writer from Nottingham. It will include artefacts in each drawer that tell the writer’s story. The writer in question lived a nomadic life, travelling the world in search of a community of like-minded people. Therefore, our memory theatre will retrace his journey, stopping off in the same cities and countries he visited. Audiences will be able to engage with the memory theatre through digital screens, adding their own memories and reactions to the selected artefacts, thereby enabling the memory theatre to gain in provenance as it journeys along.

The writer in question was born in a town northwest of Nottingham towards the end of the 19th century. During this period the area was highly prosperous due to growing industries and the development of the Midland Railway Company that enabled goods, such as coal, to be transferred across the country. Many people flocked to the area for work and the population soon began to expand.

Nowadays, local people resent the success of this author because he turned his back on his community and was highly critical of what he perceived to be the dehumanising effects of industrialisation: The mining industries at the time were the main employer. His novels contain many references to real people and real situations, many of which he barely attempts to disguise. This personal betrayal continues to anger generations of those affected.

Despite this, locals cannot escape him. A pub, café, community centre, school and roads bear reference to his name, as does the surrounding area. Given that his birthplace town is now a relatively deprived area, his success is constantly thrust at people and consequently he is resented by many. By applying stakeholder theory we have the opportunity to rectify this.

In October 2016 I got a call from a funding body saying that a local MP was interested in further commemorating the writer by putting a statue up of him in his home town and asking what I thought. I admitted I couldn’t see the point, as there were already two statues of the author located in Nottinghamshire. I am also sceptical of the gesture as the local Council has recently sold off a property associated with the writer. One more statue creates no additional value as far as I am concerned and would most likely involve commissioning a sculptor who does not live in the local area.

Stakeholder Theory positions ‘community’ as having equal say in how meaning is produced and value is created for all. The memory theatre project has the potential to repair damage in the affected community by employing a local joiner to help build the memory theatre as well as sourcing materials from local suppliers. In doing this, we open up the conversation from a different perspective. When we work with trades people we have the opportunity to explain why the memory theatre needs to be built in a particular way. We can discuss elements of the writer’s life that need to be drawn out in the design in a way that is not prescriptive but via consultation. We will put money in their pockets, something I am sure locals will be more pleased about than a random statue imposed on their town. They in turn will talk about the project with friends, in the pub. Culture, as Raymond Williams and many others have shown us, comes from below, not from above.

The writer at the heart of my project lived an incredible life. He suffered persecution and censorship for nearly everything he wrote. He lived large parts of his life in absolute poverty, often being put up by friends. He consistently defied authority and was highly critical of those in power. Post-2008 working conditions have produced a new class of worker – ‘the precariat’ – for whom every area of life lacks security (Standing, 2011), the writer’s message bears even more relevance. Consulting, listening and empowering the local community on my project is one way of getting this message across. Thrusting a static statue on them will only do more damage.

References

R. Edward Freeman (2009), Stakeholder Theory Youtube lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ih5IBe1cnQw

Guy Standing (May 24, 2011). “The Precariat – The new dangerous class”. Policy Network.

 

James Walker is a lecturer in Digital Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. He specialises in digital literary criticism. He is the editor of The Sillitoe Trail, which explores the enduring relevance of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and more recently Dawn of the Unread, a graphic novel serial exploring Nottingham’s literary history. www.dawnoftheunread.com

 

 

The rise of populism considered from the perspective of evolutionary constraints on our moral choices

May you live in interesting times (Confucian curse)

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites (Edmund Burke)

A scholar of impeccable academic credentials once suggested to me that revolutions are spaced about the average lifespan of a human apart, about 70 years. I was sceptical, as this sounded like numerology, but I did some digging and there are indeed some interesting patterns: the French Revolution (1789) to the European uprisings of 1848 is admittedly only 60years, but if the American Revolution (1776) is counted in, that is about 70; from there to the communist revolution in 1917 is roughly 70 years; and from the revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) is about 70 years. Of course these events are selective, and I am not suggesting there is a grand plan. However, they may point to an underlying truth: that real social change occurs in a highly disruptive manner, not as a result of gradual progress, and that this change is generational, as it takes the space of about two generations for the contradictions implicit in any system to become apparent and momentum for a new direction to grow to a critical point.

The historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn loaned the term ‘paradigm’ from the obscurity of the social sciences and controversially applied it to revolutionary changes in scientific outlook, in the process reinvigorating the concept, redefining and enlarging it and, admittedly, setting it on course to become the de rigeur cliché for any and all sorts of change; it is surely, though, something that corresponds closely to a paradigm shift that we are living through. We are now, in the West, standing about 70 years on from the end of the second world war, from a time when a transnational consensus was established around such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, the beginnings of the EU, the welfare state in Britain, the founding of modern Israel in the Middle East, the demilitarisation of Germany and Japan, the growth of the military-industrial complex in the USA, a period of US economic and political hegemony in general. Within this span many changes have occurred outside the western democratic sphere: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China as a communist nation and then as an economic superpower, the resurgence of Islam as a powerful political idea in the Middle East and beyond, the stirring of real political and economic progress in parts of Africa and in India. In the West itself cracks are beginning to show in many of the post-war settlements and institutions, while there is a pervasive sense of economic stagnation and the loss of international leadership, manifest in the seeming inability to deal with the crisis of migration and endemic war in the Middle East. It is against such a background that we are seeing the arrival of a new kind of politics, anti-establishment and populist in its appeal.

The spectre of populism seems to alight on its most prominent figures, such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders, focussing on their oddity, unsavoury characteristics or questionable beliefs. Although in the main it seems to be a manifestation of right wing politics, there are also populists on the left, such as Bernie Sanders, Podemos in Spain, Beppe Grillo and the Five Star movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece, as well as Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour party. It is interesting to note that a significant number of voters in America switched from Bernie Sanders, an anti-establishment left-winger, to Trump, rather than Clinton, an embodiment of the liberal elite. Populism has perhaps less to do with the particular political flavour than its anti-establishment stance and the identification, even if to some extent a fabrication, of grievance and loss within a significant proportion of the national population, a loss – whether of identity, jobs or prestige – caused by the policies of the liberal establishment, an establishment, moreover, that has profited by and large from these same policies. However, I want to propose a hypothesis that even underlying these more obvious political triggers, there is an actuality – not a perception – of moral decline that should be worrying us far more than it actually is.

Since such a hypothesis is going to enrage some people even before it is explained, let me first set out what I am not saying. I am not saying that people now are worse than they were in the past; human nature does not change much over time; however, the general belief is that we are much better, and this is an illusion. We may kill people less, at least in the developed world, but this is because of advances in wealth, technology, political structure, religious belief and law. We may believe we are more generous, and cite increasing donations to various causes, but altruism is a natural human trait which is found across all cultures and has no correlation with money (although self-congratulation may). In this context, it is worth noting the rise in xenophobic attacks with the EU referendum vote and with Trump’s election, which demonstrates how shallow the shackles of self-restraint are. Or the pervasive maliciousness of the online world which exists outside conventional social restraints

The roots of moral life from an evolutionary perspective lie in our sociality, and the natural institutions that both create and emerge out of that sociality. By this I mean those social bonds that are rooted in our biology: physical survival, protection, reproduction, genetic inheritance and genetic closeness. These are the underlying infrastructure – if one can call it that in want of a better term – of our sociality and the institutions of family and community, such as marriage, parenthood, kinship, friendship and economic occupation (which includes any activity to support the family and have standing in the community, whether that be hunting, farming or banking). There is no human society in which these things have not been fundamental, despite whatever other advances or changes have occurred. Societies have always flourished at a time when these institutions have been strong; and no society historically has flourished when these have been weak, neglected or under attack.

Moreover, in evolutionary terms, beyond our mere physicality we have an ‘excess’ in our neurological constitution (which we variously refer to as mind, soul or spirit) in which we entertain beliefs about the world of our experience. Interpretations of what this means for our self-understanding vary enormously – my own view is that in the primal state this is a survival mechanism – but whatever the ontological reality of our beliefs, they must not fatally undermine our natural sociality; if they do they will be eliminated by natural selection (on this point I am closer to Richard Dawkins than to Julian Huxley, Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, who believed that we have transcended natural selection). This selective process eventually manifests through the political process, particularly in times of upheaval.

The crux of my argument is that the liberal establishment has allowed and even facilitated the erosion of this evolutionary infrastructure of sociality, and that this has had a disproportionate effect on the less well-educated, less mobile and less wealthy sections of society, who in any society constitute the majority. Liberalism has not simply allowed the export of blue collar jobs abroad where labour is cheaper (to be often replaced by jobs that pay insufficiently for a person to buy a home, marry and raise a family), but, more seriously, has persistently undermined the foundations of family and community which enable the emergence of social solidarity. Economic hardship alone, while an important contributing factor, is not sufficient to accomplish this. For the past 50 years the liberal establishment, consisting primarily of academics, the media, and the entertainment industry, has moved forward an agenda of undercutting the foundations of social solidarity: marriage as the unique core of family life, the historical narrative of national identity, and also religion as one of the core facilitators of communal life. This agenda has gradually been institutionalised in education, law and politics. Whatever one’s political views, when teaching children gender fluidity becomes a greater priority than ensuring a sound basic education for all, when celebrating diversity becomes more important than celebrating full employment, we are entitled to wonder whether liberalism has reached its hubristic apotheosis.

As much as I am an advocate of maximising human freedom, freedom comes with its own built in constraints, an internal logic that freedom cannot undermine itself, that is, allow actions that result in its own destruction. These constraints are those determined by our evolutionary heritage and the institutional structures that emerge from them that constitute our social being, referred to above. That people choose not to marry or become parents, or choose not to marry but have children, or choose to divorce, or choose an alternative lifestyle, these are individual choices and rights in liberal democracies. Nevertheless, they have social consequences, and if these tendencies become prevalent they have demographic consequences. The influx of immigrants into Europe, for example, is agued by some as a necessity given the population shortfall created by a low native birth rate. This, of course, is not what people want to hear. We have become used to thinking about our sociality in purely individualistic terms, in terms of our freedoms and rights and of the social reality in which we want to live; but just as for all our cleverness and ingenuity we cannot ignore fundamental forces such as gravity, so for all our social experimentation we cannot ignore the evolutionary parameters of our being without consequences.

It is at the interface between individual choice and social necessity that the most interesting political choices are made and the most virulent arguments take place. It is likely that this argument will never be finally settled, as this dynamic of competing views is at the heart of democratic culture and ensures its adaptability to changing circumstances. Excessive liberality is bad for societies, just as excessive authority is, and when pushed to one extreme a counter-force inevitably appears. Populism, therefore, can be seen as a collective, unconscious reaction to the ills that plague modern liberal democracies. If it had not been Trump, Farage or Le Pen, other figures would have arisen with similar grievances and similar policies.

Therefore, to categorically assert that populists represent the doom of democracy is to be entirely enclosed within a dying paradigm and to misunderstand the underlying dynamic of the paradigm shift that they represent. To accuse them of being by definition anti-democratic is to have forgotten that democracy was, in the ancient world, and has been in modernity, a revolutionary force, representing more closely the wishes of the mass of people than any other system of governance that has existed. It is also to be wilfully blind to this system having been gradually hijacked by self-perpetuating elites who have empowered and enriched themselves. As long as people generally felt that they were making progress they were willing to acquiesce to the elites in Washington or in Brussels, but since the financial crisis in particular, and the increasingly widening gap between rich and the poor, or those simply struggling to stay afloat, there has been a growing anger on which populism has capitalised.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of uncertainty and potential for danger in these developments. In a recent article, the author Robert Harris argued that the political situation today resembles that of the 1930s more closely than any time since. I do not think we are even close yet, but the signs should serve as a warning. Berlin in the 1930’s was not only a time of great social unrest, economic turmoil and political agitation, but a byword for moral turpitude. Lest people think that these factors are unconnected, the National Socialists made great play of their intention to clean up Germany morally, which was one factor in their gaining popular support. The present populists are hardly moral paragons and tend to be morally liberal on the whole, but they advance authoritarian policies which could be a step in allowing more extreme policies to follow.

Karl Marx expected the communist revolution to take place in Britain, the most industrially developed country in the nineteenth century; that it did not may be due in part to great reforms in the Victorian era, in particular on the spiritual, educational and economic conditions of the working classes. The populist platform today could be derailed by centrist parties having the courage to undertake reforms of similar magnitude. Having said this, I have no expectation that people today will willingly change their behaviour, as it is human nature to resist difficult choices, moral or otherwise, unless circumstances force our hand. My hope is that our existing institutions are strong enough to withstand the uncertain times into which we are moving and that we may be able in hindsight to view this period in history as a time of readjustment in the balance of freedom and moral obligation within democratic society rather than the beginning of a civilisational holocaust from which we must build anew.

 

The shadow of value: money theory and the roots of economic anomie

In the West, our ambiguity towards money is expressed deeply in religion, politics and art. We have been beholden to the institutions that provide it as a necessity of life, but desired liberation from the corrupting influence of our dependence on our authentic nature. Through money we have both experienced the possibility of living pleasurably, and recognised its power to lead us astray. That ambiguity, and a measure of hypocrisy, is not merely historic, but pervades our society today: while we expect a decent standard of living, there is anger at gross inequalities of wealth, particularly in developing countries, although we may be ambivalent about their economic advancement; closer to home, our desire for personal wealth is often coupled with disdain for the foibles and vulgarity of the rich. This Janus-like relationship with money seems implicit in the nature of money itself. It may not be resolved, but this ambiguity might be explained and mitigated to some degree by understanding the roots of our economic anomie in the philosophical intertwining of the existential and monetary notions of value.

As with much thinking on any issue, the ancient Greeks thought about the problematic nature of money first, or at least mythologised it in this case, in the story of king Midas. The existence of money as a metal coinage was a relatively new invention, but already both its properties of great convenience and the temptation to excessive accumulation were appreciated. Midas desired that everything he touched be turned to gold and the gods granted him his wish, literally. Realising that he could no longer eat or touch those he loved, Midas begged to have the gift removed. This timeless fable teaches us that there are things that cannot be bought with money or gold, and suggests that the modern belief that everything can be monetised hollows out the very things we find valuable.

It is a feature of the word ‘value’ that it has two distinct meanings, that of moral worth and that of monetary worth, a distinction rooted in a common etymology which runs through most European languages, indicating that at some point they have been considered to be closely related issues. In fact, in two worldviews they have been and still are: Thomistic theology derived from Aquinas, with its notion of the ‘just price’ and the Marxist ‘labour theory of value’. Both theories have been superseded by market economics, in which prices are determined by supply and demand in the marketplace, yet continue to inform areas such as business ethics, the honouring of contracts and the critique of exploitation or capitalist excess.

My intention in this article is to explore the relationship between monetary value and existential value, which underlie, respectively, the prices we assign to goods and services and the values that shape our lives and institutions, and in this way attempt to understand the role of money in institutions and how this might inform economic life and our relationship to money. Clearly, to do this systematically would be a massive undertaking and here I am only developing some of the philosophical framework to underpin this project. In particular, I want to take issue with theories of intrinsic value, particularly Locke’s view of natural value and the labour theory of value, and to present a hypothesis that the moral dimension of monetary value exists at an institutional level rather than at a commodity or service level.

Money and monetary value

For an everyday reality that pervades our lives and our society, money is actually something of an enigma, at one level tangible and obvious, but on closer investigation something whose nature is surprisingly elusive. Clearly money cannot be identified with the notes and coins we carry around with us, firstly for the superficial reason that the currency we identify most readily with is not transnational and can only with some difficulty and cost (and even here the equivalence is not always transparent) be converted into another. Then, although we are not quite there yet, it is possible for us to conceive of a cashless society, in which all financial transaction will take place electronically, through the transfer of information in binary code. However, even more than these reasons, if we stop to consider it, the source of the agency that money confers to enter into economic transactions appears to be wholly mysterious.

The emergence of the digital economy and electronic money has popularised the notion that there has been an evolution in our economic transactions, beginning with barter, passing through the money economy, and now moving into the era of credit largely carried out invisibly. This view is based on what we could call the commonsense view of money, first advocated by philosophers such as Locke and Adam Smith, who drew on Aristotle’s and Homer’s observations in the ancient world two millennia previously, and it is the view still propounded in the majority of textbooks on economics (Graeber, 2011). However, it is demonstrably wrong. There is no evidence that any culture that relied on a barter economy ever existed (Humphrey, 1985). The alternative view, previously at the margins but gathering momentum in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, is that human economic activity has always in its foundations been about credit and debit.

Much of this reassessment is based on the century-old writings of Mitchell Innes (1913) and William Furness (1910). Innes pointed out that the earliest recorded notion of debt, found in the Code of Hammurabi, predates the earliest coinage by 2000 years, and that the repayment of a debt was considered to be a sacred duty. The foundations of economy have always been about the agreements between creditors and debtors, in which the origins and function of money is no more than a marker of that relationship and agreement.  Furness recorded the highly unusual money system on the Indonesian island of Yap, which consisted of stone wheels of various sizes known as fei. He noted that even when transactions were concluded the fei were rarely moved; change of ownership was merely acknowledged. In the most remarkable case a fei which had sunk to the bottom of the sea while being transported was still recognised as valid currency. In other words the currency functioned as markers of credits founded on trust. This view eventually won the approbation of economists as diverse as John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, though is still largely ignored in macroeconomic theory (Martin, 2013).

The reason for this misunderstanding lies in the seventeenth century in the period when the Bank of England was being set up. Prior to the establishment of the bank, the ultimate source of the authority for the English currency was the British sovereign. Coins were stamped with the monarch’s image and minted in silver, theoretically to the value as stated per denomination. In fact, it was long recognised that the face value of coin and the price of silver frequently diverged, silver being more valuable that the actual coinage. This led to huge amounts of money being melted down and sold as bullion and the stock of coinage being vastly depleted as a result. The Bank of England, which had in the meantime emerged as a mercantile counterbalance to the monetary authority of the sovereign, saw the obvious solution to lie in debasing the metal in the coinage, alloying the silver, and thus lowering the actual value of the coins to or below their face value, thereby removing the motive for destroying them. Unfortunately, this pragmatic solution was overruled by Parliament on the advice of John Locke, the pre-eminent philosopher of his age and a hugely influential figure. Locke, a fierce republican, wanted the Bank to break entirely with the notion that the value of the currency was based on authority, such as the authority of the king, and instead base it on the intrinsic value of nature, such as that of silver. Locke’s suggestion was followed and the nation’s supply of silver coins was replenished, with both predictable and unforeseen disastrous consequences.

Locke clearly believed, or at least wished to assert for political reasons, that money has an intrinsic value, and the modern capitalist economy, whatever private reservations people individually may harbour, continues to function on the basis of this belief, using gold as the most common standard rather than silver. It is necessary, though, to analyse what the ‘value’ is that is the object of such a belief. The Lockean argument from nature can be dismissed out of hand. Value is not a property of nature, but of human judgement. Even if our currency were ‘worth its weight in gold’ (which it is not, by a significant margin), this would not constitute its value any more than it were worth its weight in manure, because the value of gold or manure is not ‘intrinsic’, but arises fundamentally from their utility, a distinction Pepper (1970) refers to as ‘value proper’ and ‘utility value’, the latter which we could also refer to as social value. The different social value ascribed to gold and manure arises from their relative rarity, flexibility and aesthetic appeal. Gold is almost universally considered beautiful due to its colour and lustre, and useful due to its malleability and ductility, qualities which obviously cannot be ascribed to manure. However, gold’s social value depends to a large degree on the technological capacity of the culture in which it occurs. Primitive cultures in regions in which it was naturally relatively abundant had little use for it outside decoration, and were happy to trade it for coloured beads. Unlike manure which is a good fertiliser and building material, useful in settled agricultural communities, gold perhaps had only marginal social value. This point does not seem to me to be undermined by any subsequent retrospective reassessment by post-colonialist critics.

One of the functions of money in monetary theory is reckoned to be to store value (Nesiba, 2013), which seems a not unreasonable proposition; that is, until we start to interrogate its exact meaning, whereupon it slips rapidly from our grasp. The way in which money stores value is like the way in which the sun rises, that is, metaphorically. Since money has no intrinsic value, either as a physical or digital currency, it cannot store value either. And since, with the exception of some hobbyists or collectors who may fetishize the physicality of money, we do not value money as such, but only its instrumentality, the idea of storing value is really just shorthand for the ability to exchange it in denominated amounts for the things that we deem actually valuable, or vice-versa, to receive it in denominated amounts for goods or services. What is ultimately valuable is that which makes human life liveable, bearable and pleasant, so it is in the social agency of money that its source of value is found.

To pursue this thought further, value does not inhere in money itself, but nor can it in the goods or services which are exchangeable for money, at a price determined by the market, as the same objection which was raised against the intrinsic value of money can similarly be raised against the intrinsic value of any commodity or service, that is, value does not exist in the state of nature. The question this denial poses, then, concerns the ontological foundations of the economy in which money plays such a crucial role. Marx (1859)advanced an alternative view of value: rather than arising from nature, the intrinsic value of a commodity represented the ‘congealed labour time’ of the industrial proletarian whose sweat and toil had manufactured it. Although this view, referred to as the labour theory of value, is disparaged by mainstream economists, and although I believe it takes too narrow a view, nonetheless, I will develop an important insight which I believe Marx had, which is that value is inherently social and that it is generated in the world of work.

Marx was motivated to blame capitalism for the dreadful conditions of the industrial working class which sprang up in the newly growing cities created by the industrial revolution. He identified the profit generated in the manufacturing process as an ‘excess’ derived from the exploitation of the workers who had created the value of the commodities, that is by paying them insufficiently for their labour. A clear objection to this idea is that the price – even the marketability – of any commodity is a function of its quality and the demand for it. If a manufactured item is shoddy or faulty it cannot demand the same price in the market as one which is made to high standards, regardless of the labour invested in it, while if there is no demand for an item, it will not sell. Price is determined largely by these two factors, quality and demand, and any business in order to be profitable, has to identify a market where a certain demand exists and strive for quality that meets the market’s expectations.

Money, then, neither has value nor stores it. As we discussed, according to Pepper there are two types of value, value proper and utility value. Money has utility, clearly, though it is a very specific type of tool, one whose usefulness is in being exchanged for things that are in turn useful or pleasurable to us, and therefore to that extent valuable. It has neither value nor utility intrinsic to itself, only as a medium of exchange. Money, though, is unique in that it is denominated and acts as a scaled measure of wealth. Unlike value, which is a function of judgement, wealth is a function of a social process; moreover, it is a social process in which existential and social values play a critical role. As already mentioned, economic activity can only take place on the basis of trust, and money itself exists as a place marker for relationships of credit based on trust. For much of history this was the common understanding of how money worked. It is only in the past few hundred years that this seems to have been forgotten.

Institutional wealth hypothesis

Rather than value, a nebulous term at best, I suggest it is wealth which both money measures and that links money to the value-driven activities of institutions.  By ‘institution’ I mean any human grouping that has some sense of a common purpose, some shared values, a degree of organisational structure however informal, perhaps some rules, and a boundary demarking inside from outside. This would include businesses and all manner of organisations and even individual family units. It would not, for example, include neighbourhoods as geographic entities, but would include neighbourhood associations. Wealth is generated by and accumulates around such institutions and their activities. We tend to think of wealth in opposition to poverty, but what I have in mind is relative wealth, wealth that can be an indicator of the relative performance of institutions. Rather than engage in a diatribe against the perception of poverty created in our society by gross inequalities of income, I suggest that wealth be thought of as a neutral term that can employed evaluatively across all cultures and historic periods and that poverty be restricted to its more ethical connotations, by which I mean a culture-dependent term of disparagement for lack of aspiration.

The hypothesis, one that does not seem implausible, is that wealth is generated in successful institutions. To emphasise, by wealth I am not talking about vast wealth, but wealth as a relative quality; some institutions, such as banks, are required to process huge quantities of money (leaving aside for the moment structural anomalies in the banking sector that governments are attempting to address), but others, such as voluntary or community-based organisations, might run on a shoestring but be fully functional in achieving their nominal purpose. All institutions need money to function and this has to be considered integral to the institutional ontology not as an add-on. It is also a necessity in a comprehensive theory of value to be able to offer explanations of economic value and explore any underlying unity between economic value and social value/values.

The great monetary settlement of the seventeenth century never fully resolved the issue of the nature of money, and Locke’s intervention saddled us with an erroneous concept, which has had consequences to this day. According to Martin (2013) the final authority for a currency is the people in democratic society, who invest their authority in the government of the day to make sensible decisions regarding the economy for the benefit of the people as a whole. Money is like language, in some sense, in that it pervades our culture and is ultimately controlled by no one (ibid); it is above all a social phenomenon, and always has been, although this has been forgotten by governments, the banking industry and by most economists, with rare exceptions like Keynes. Nevertheless, the current financial crisis has led to government intervention, some reforms in banking and some reassessment of economic theory in line with Keynesian thinking.

Wealth goes hand in hand with success in any venture, and that success is built by gradually building relations of trust around that venture. Building a successful venture requires a range of skills and the ability to work hard, for example, but the focus here is not on this range of skills but on the fundamental ontological requirements of institutional success, which requires the creation of multidimensional trust, both within an organisation and outside in relation to other relevant organisations and constituencies. As I have argued in a previous essay on values and institutional structure, relationships within any organisation are strengthened and organisational conflicts between different constituencies are ameliorated when shared values are sought and promoted alongside core values and organisational goals; in fact, the discovery of shared values in the context of the organisation is one of the fundamental responsibilities and ‘people skills’ that a leader of any organisation needs to manifest, as it demonstrates attention to the particular and the individual rather than just to the general and the abstract.

Trust is not something that can be established at once, and not necessarily easily, and it is something that can be rapidly destroyed. However, as Fukuyama (1995) has argued, trust is the fundamental value of social capital, one which enabled the growing prosperity of Europe through the early modern period. If this is true I suspect it is because, unlike other values which are (or run the risk of being) etiolated when they are monetised, it has the property of self-replenishment. The building of trust, therefore, should be a fundamental goal of every organisation. First, everyone feels happier when they are in an environment in which they feel trusted. When people feel happy they willingly contribute to the good of the whole and invest themselves, their efforts and time for the success of the whole. There is a common interest that whatever goods or services they provide should be to a high standard of quality, and when they are to a high quality the recipient of those goods or services will naturally be satisfied. Those who fund the activities of the organisation, whether consumers, shareholders, banks, or donors should be treated as extended constituencies of the organisation, common values discovered and a basis for trust and satisfaction established. This is the basis for success and wealth in any organisation. The same reasoning can also be applied to an individual and a basic social institution such as a family.

Potential objections to the hypothesis

An objection to this hypothesis would be that many organisations seem to function, even function well, while not adhering to this strategy. I would say that this is due to the dampening effect of society; changes rarely happen suddenly, but usually there is a cumulative effect before something becomes apparent. The economic crisis was building up and was predicted by some many years in advance, as indeed the recovery is many years in manifesting itself. When any institution fails, whether it be large or small, there are always underlying reasons, and those reasons invariably come down to human problems: the arrogance of a leader, the disaffection and even sabotage of those mistreated, greed and eventually dishonesty undermining trust. Even failure to adapt to a changing environment can be laid at the feet of systemic failure to seek common values, because that is a failure to draw upon the variety of skills, to discover and to exploit those skills, that any group of people bring with them. Edward Freeman (2010), in his writings on stakeholder theory, asserts that any business that is not seeking to keep all its stakeholders – such as investors, shareholders, banks, employees and customers – happy is a failing business. I have used the term ‘constituency’ rather than stakeholder, but the logic is much the same, although I have attempted to give a more theoretical underpinning to what stakeholder happiness actually comprises.

A second objection would be that wealth simply means the accumulation of money or its equivalent in assets. This is a commonly held view and it arises out of the mistaken understanding of the nature of money and economic value. This view justifies the moral view (not that I am saying that everyone who shares this understanding of money shares this view) that gaining money is a justifiable end in itself, and it does not matter the means by which one acquires it. Clearly, such a view underlies criminal acquisition, whether that be corporate crime, gang-related crime or street robbery. I have advocated the view that the acquisition of wealth should be understood as a reward for, or a consequence of, institutional strengthening. Theft short-circuits that process; it does not represent the justly deserved reward for valued activity, which reinforces the values of social institutions, but leaves the basis of social chaos in its wake: mistrust, fear and loss. Moreover, the empowering function of money cannot be fully realised; its power to purchase is always accompanied by fear of exposure, fear of punishment, mistrust of others and the knowledge that one is not truly worthy in that one has not been rewarded. As a society we are left to take effective measures to counter the increasing prevalence of this sort of activity and its social fallout, whereas we should be establishing as a norm the correct understanding of money and of wealth, that people can police themselves more effectively.

Money is a token that represents the wealth which is generated in successful institutions. In some respects it has similarities to Austin’s (1962) idea of the performative speech act, in that an exchange of paper, metal or electronic tokens effects a change in ownership and the conferring of rights. Money is effectively a symbol, which exercises symbolic power throughout society, for all social institutions. Externally it has the nature of a tool that quantifies wealth, which can switch between a physical format (currency and perhaps its bullion equivalent in extremis) and a digital format (as an entry in a ledger or perhaps now even as a digital currency, such as bitcoin). In this sense it is proper to speak of it having utility or use-value rather than value proper, in the same way that all things that can be defined as tools have utility, and only have value proper if they enter the sphere of our personal experience in the sense of evoking a (usually) positive emotional response. But as a symbol money also represents things that we recognise as social universals such as freedom, both freedom from want and freedom to choose, competence in earning a living and supporting oneself, and also things like moral obligation, such as to pay one’s debts, to care for one’s dependents materially and to contribute to the common good through supporting enterprise, inspiration and endeavour, supporting the needy, and paying one’s taxes.

Money has been one of the most powerful tools for liberation, as it has freed the masses from excessive social control and opened up the way for individual decision-making, risk-taking and enterprise, which has contributed to the emergence of economically vibrant and democratic societies. A further step is now needed to correct the social injustices that the wrong understanding of money has perpetuated, by a new consensus on its nature.

References

Austin, J.L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Freeman, E. R., Harrison, J. S., Wicks, A. C., Parmar, B. L. and De Colle, S. (2010). Stakeholder Theory: The State of the Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. London: Penguin.

Furness, W. (1910). The Island of Stone Money: Uap of the Carolines. Philadelphia, PA: Washington Square Press.

Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The First 5000 Years. NY: Melville House Publishing.

Humphrey, C. (1985). ‘Barter and Economic Disintegration’. Man, 20(1), pp. 48-72.

Innes, A.M. (1913, May). ‘What is money?’. Banking Law Journal, pp. 377-408.

Martin, F. (2013). Money: The Unauthorised Biography. London: The Bodley Head.

Marx, K (1859). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Nesiba, R. F. (2013). ‘Where did “money” come from?’ Western Social Science Association (WSSA) News, 42(2) (Fall 2013).

Pepper, S. C. (1970). The Sources of Value. Berkeley: University of California Press.