Socialism and a Natural Contract

For many years I regarded myself as a socialist – and part of me still does. I only joined the Green Party in 2010 because, having read their election manifesto, I realised that they were more socialist in their outlook than Labour had been for many years. So, now that Corbyn is leading Labour and socialism is no longer a dirty word, an obvious question to ask is: Why do I not re-join Labour? The short answer is that during my time in the Green Party my eyes have been opened to a vitally important aspect of politics that Labour at best pays lip service to, and often ignores. It’s a dimension of politics that has been largely ignored over the centuries, and certainly one that has not fed into the theoretical base of either socialism in general or the Labour Party in particular. This dimension, following the French philosopher Michel Serres, I call the need to develop a ‘natural contract’. Without it the long term survival of homo sapien is at risk.

Serres’ basic argument is that throughout our history we have focussed, almost exclusively, on our relations with each other, and, in so doing, have largely ignored our relations with nature – to the serious detriment of the natural environment upon which we are all totally dependent. There are obvious exceptions to this gross generalisation, but in terms of the most influential theorists and centres of power, this is undoubtedly true. Our historical focus has been on establishing a social contract, not just formally by way of some social contract theory by the likes of Rousseau, Hobbes or Rawls, but by default in our struggles for political power, control of resources, and alleviating the social injustices and hardships that have dominated these histories. Traditional conservatism, for example, argues for the maintenance of ‘traditional’ social relations and institutions, whilst modern ‘conservatism’ has totally embraced the economic relations of neo-liberalism as a means of problem solving. Liberalism argues the case for the liberty of the individual to pursue a life of their own choosing, whilst socialism focuses on the need for social solidarity and co-operation. In general, none of these approaches comments on our relationship with our natural environment. If they do it is purely as a resource to be used, as a licence for us to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

If we are to survive on this planet, Serres argues, we now need to develop a natural contract to sit alongside our social contract – a ‘contract’ that makes explicit our relationships with our planet and non-human life as well as with each other, with our ecosystem as well as with our social system.  However, I have come to realise that we need to go beyond this, that we don’t so much need a natural contract to sit alongside our social contract as a social contract to be embedded within it, in the same way that our social systems are embedded within our ecosystem. Within the socialist tradition there has been some acknowledgment of this. Marx, for example, noted in his Economico-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that “Nature is man’s inorganic body…Man lives by nature. This means that nature is his body, with which he must constantly remain in step if he is not to die.” However, this understanding was either lost or ignored by later Marxist theorists, and has certainly been ignored by modern day social democratic parties. Up until the election of Corbyn the British Labour Party had progressively fallen under the spell of free-market economics, and since then only seems to refer to ‘environmental issues’ because it’s polite to do so. There is absolutely no indication that the current Labour Party recognise the need for such a contract.

A natural contract of the type I’m calling for needs to be developed around an understanding of complexity science, around an understanding of how dynamic and complex systems (as all human social systems are) are embedded within larger dynamic and complex systems, and how all these systems are part of a highly complex and inter-dependent eco-system. In effect this means that any social contract we adopt needs to be symbiotic in its relationship with our ecosystem, not (as it currently is) parasitic. Having adopted such a natural contract, a contract that is non-negotiable in as much as its terms are revealed by science, all changes to our social contract, all policy decisions, will need to consider: their likely effect on the ecosystem; their likely effect on other global communities; and their likely effect on future generations. And all these considerations need to be calculated in terms of probability, not certainty. A fundamental feature of complexity science, one that politicians are grossly negligent in ignoring, is that all complex systems (all natural systems, including human social systems) are inherently uncertain. There is, and cannot be, certainty regarding any decision – we can only act on probability.

The political adoption of such a contract means much more than having environmental policies and accepting that climate change is an issue we need to consider. It requires that all policies start from an understanding of the embeddedness of the particular social system within the ecosystem, and that the outcomes of any decision are assessed in the same manner. In terms of socialist policy, this means that mitigating the worst effects of climate change and environmental degradation is more important than protecting jobs in manufacturing industries (especially if those industries use non-renewable resources to generate power, are energy intensive, or produce nuclear weapons). It also means: adopting a completely new economic model (such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics); taking the concept of subsidiarity seriously by aiming to decentralise power and the economy (and therefore allow communities to tailor strategies to their own locality) rather than increasing the power of the state; and increasing the involvement of all citizens in the decision making process by ensuring that all levels of government are as inclusive of the plurality of perspectives as possible through the adoption of some version of proportional representation.

Is reason ethical?

In my previous blog I argued that neo-liberalism, and the ‘classic’ economic theory upon which it is built, is fundamentally flawed – flawed on two crucial counts. First, because of its belief in individualism, that humans have an essential individual ‘self’ that is the recipient of our experiences rather than a unique personality that is the product of them. And second, because of its exclusive focus on our rational faculty. My gripe here is nicely summed up by George Monbiot in his most recent book: “In no aspect of our lives do we behave like the calculating machines – using cold reason to interpret and promote our self-interest – of economic mythology”. Please do not misunderstand me. I fully support the use of reason in many aspects of our lives. It is vital to the clearance of much of the gunk that clogs our social pipes. What I object to is the implication that reason is our only tool. Specifically, I suggest that emotion provides the ground to all our ethical responses to others, and to focus exclusively on reason in economic theory is to render that theory unethical.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that the root of our sense of right and wrong is well and truly planted in our evolutionary history, supplied neither by cold reason nor a super-natural being, and that this root is precognitive and emotional. Patricia Greenspan, for example, has argued that “What we seem to have…as innate bases of ethics, are first, some primitive states or elements of emotion…secondly, a set of mechanisms for emotional learning, or the transfer of emotions.” In other words, the core of that which we generally regard as ethical or moral first emerged as an evolved emotional response to a situation, a response that provided an evolutionary advantage and which has since been developed through social and emotional learning.

I am not arguing that this emotional root explains all our various and wide ranging ethical theories, but I do agree with Greenspan when she says that whilst “the content of ethics may be supplied by various sorts of cognitive judgment…their motivational force – the effect moral judgements have on behaviour, what makes them moral judgments – depends on the possibility of recruiting emotions for initial learning.” Irrespective of any rational thought process that justifies a particular action, what makes that act a moral act, what supplies the imperative to perform the act, is its emotional base. But not just any emotion, fear or disgust for example, provides the base for such ethical judgements. These judgements require an emotional connection with the social other, they require a degree of concern or care for the other. And it this aspect of our ethical life that is so glaringly absent from classical economic theory. And at the very core of this concern for the other is our ability to empathise.

Martin L. Hoffman, one of the leading researchers in the field, defines empathy as “an affective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own”. According to Hoffman, empathy is at the root of our moral responses, responses that develop over time and with the aid of our evolved cognitive abilities. Hoffman cites five modes of empathic arousal. The first three of these (mimicry and afferent feedback, classical conditioning, and direct association) are preverbal, automatic and involuntary. They are well and truly rooted in our evolutionary past and we have little or no influence over their development in our early years. The last two modes, however, are what Hoffman describes as ‘cognitively advanced modes’ – modes that are developed using the developed (and developing) cognitive abilities of the human brain, and (most importantly) “add scope to one’s empathic capability and enable one to empathize with others who are not present”. So, for example, evolution has programmed us to have an empathic response to a member of our family in distress. A mother cannot avoid feeling distress at the distress of one of her children, but, in terms of our evolutionary past, would have had far less concern (if any) for the distress of children in another community. But we have since evolved the ability to imagine what we would feel if these other children were our own to the point that we can be in tears at news pictures of children suffering on the other side of the world. And not only have we developed the ability to feel this suffering, but have developed the rational ability to do something about it.

My point is simply this: Ethical judgements and actions have both an emotional and a rational element. We are motivated to act in an ethical manner because we feel an emotional attachment to another person or group of people, and then, on the back of this feeling, we use our reason to both extend the scope of this feeling and to decide on the best course of action to take. Economic acts, acts purportedly made in rational self-interest, acts devoid of an emotional (empathic) connection with other people, cannot be ethical; and any economic theory that only acknowledges rational decision making is, by definition, unethical.