On wine, The Boss and bird song

It’s Monday morning. And despite the sun being out my mood is less than sunny. I’ve already has a brief rant to anyone who will listen on Dorset Council’s Teams about my feelings of impotency regarding (what I consider to be) the Council’s slow response to our climate emergency. Perhaps I should have drunk less wine over the weekend, but I need something to look forward at the end of the week. And two experiences last Friday evening, an hour or so after wine o’clock, were of lasting value.

The first resulted from a desire the listen to The Boss, and in particular from listening to the last track on Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album – ‘Reason to Believe’. I’ve always been struck by the line “At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe”, but on the this occasion it seemed to have a bigger impact that usual – an impact that haunted me all weekend. Regular readers of this blog will now that I have often talked about the essential role stories play in our life; about how we construct / adopt stories that allow us to make sense of our experiences and give meaning and purpose to our lives. To my understanding this an existential human need. We cannot survive without meaning and purpose. No matter how hard or chaotic our lives are, no matter how much our focus is on material survival rather than intellectual contemplation, we are forced by a deep need to believe in some purpose bigger than our own life – even if that purpose is the belief (for example) that it’s a dog eat dog world and that I am, therefore, entitled to take any action necessary to stay alive. My point is that this story does not need to be true, we just need to believe it to be true. We need a reason to believe.

This experience has had two further effects on me. It fanned the flames of the socialism that has been burning within me since my teenage years – though, to be fair, this was more as a result of listening to Bruce in general than this particular song. People at the lower end of the social hierarchy are being disproportionally hit by the current pandemic. Those on low wages are least able to take any financial hit, let alone the hit that is going to be struck by the biggest economic recession since the depression of the 1930s; their jobs are most at risk, especially those on zero hour contacts; social distancing is so much more difficult when you live in high density housing with no garden or outdoor space of your own; and going into self-isolation is close to impossible for large families with a limited number of bedrooms. It also made me feel so much more understanding of those people who, at this time of crisis, have resorted to weird conspiracy theories to explain what is happening. Whilst a part of me will always remain critical of such theories and intolerant of those who resort to them, I can at least comprehend the role such theories play.

The second experience came shortly afterwards when I took my partner’s dog for a short walk before we ate. The streets of Bridport, and our nearby park, were silent. A silence that you would not normally believe possible for an early Friday evening. Well, actually not quite silence – the sound of birds was overwhelming, and not a little eerie. When I returned home and told of my experience I was informed of a recent explanation made by the folk singer Martha Tilston, who has suggested that the lack of traffic noise is allowing the mating calls of birds to be heard more clearly and over greater distances, and this is generating a lot of bird activity. Another example, then, of how this enforced lack of human activity is having a positive effect on both non-human animals and the planet.

I really hope that we can take some of our experiences and learning with us to the other side of this crisis. I really hope that the value we have been placing on health and care workers, on delivery drivers, and on foreign workers lasts. I hope that the general degree of civility and social cooperation that I’ve experienced continues. I hope that we are better able to appreciate the effects human life has on our only planet and the other life we share it with. And I hope that we do not forget the shortcomings of a market led economy and the value of cooperation over competition.

Reflections on the common good

A few days ago, in response to a question raised by a friend regarding the ethics of sunbathing in the park during the current crisis, and an associated article in the Guardian, I tweeted: “Yes, solidarity is important, but not the solidarity of a collection of individuals. We are who we are by virtue of our relationship to others, so perhaps we need to reflect on how our actions contribute to social flourishing, to the common good.” I quickly realised, however, that I failed to express my meaning clearly enough. This may have been down the sheer inadequacy of Twitter as a platform for philosophy / ethics, or it have been a lack or clarity on my part. Either way, I would like a second go with a few more words at my disposal.

For those of us on the left of the political spectrum in particular, the idea of solidarity is held in high regard. The suggested unity of interests, especially among those of the same social class, has historically been associated with strength – the strength to overcome oppression. And there is also the strong implication of being unified in our endeavours towards a particular outcome. Whilst I do not want to dismiss these notions out of hand, I would like to question this implied unity. In fact, if I’m being honest, I have a problem with the notion of unity itself. My concerns come from my understanding of complexity and complex systems, or what the French philosopher Michel Serres has termed ‘the multiple as such’; sets “undefined by elements or boundaries. Locally [they are] not individuated; globally [they are] not summed up”; they are neither an aggregate nor discrete. No collection of people, no matter how big or small, can be defined by either the individuals who make up the collective or by the collective as a whole. This is because the relationship between group members is too rich, too interactive, and too subtle. From this highly dynamic relationship (referred to as “background noise, the murmur of the crowd”) novelty is always being created. In the language of complexity science, any group of people form a dynamic complex system which is self-organising. This means that structure emerges. If structure is applied, for example by defining the overarching task or purpose of the group, either the group will only function in a limited setting (like a sports team) or it will loose all creativity and eventually stagnate and die.

To return to the pandemic. I have no problem at all with the desire for everyone to work together to achieve a specific outcome – for example, fight the pandemic. What I do have a problem with, however, is for the actions and behaviour of group members to be overly defined or controlled. This does not mean that I endorse a libertarian approach. Far from it. It’s rules and norms that hold the group together. But if these rules and norms are rigidly defined, if they are largely imposed rather than emerging from within the group itself, the group loses its creativity and ability to adapt to novelty. So in terms of the specific example that led to my initial, clumsy response (a Guardian article about people sunbathing in parks during the lockdown) I think that there should be a clear and specific objective (reducing the spread of the virus), together with clear guidelines for how to achieve it (social distancing / washing hands), but no rigid control of individual behaviour. If someone who lives in a flat wants to lie in the sun on their own and does so at least two metres from anybody else, what harm is done?

I think that I also want to make a wider ethical point, one related to Aristotelian virtue ethics, but the details of this may need to be deferred to another occasion. The gist of this, however, is that we are all highly interdependent on each other, and that our flourishing (a better translation of Aristotle’s ‘eudaimonia’, often translated as ‘happiness’), our common good, is achieved collectively by each of us developing certain character traits – character traits that facilitate our flourishing / common good. It would be for the greater good if we could all spend some time during this crisis reflecting on our own behaviour / character traits: deciding which of our traits support the common good and which don’t, then working to develop the former and weaken the latter.

Exposing the competitive myth

One of the prevailing myths of our global economic society concerns the supposed fundamental nature of competition. The origin of this myth can arguably be traced back to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. In this influential book Hobbes famously described the state of human nature as a war of all against all, as a war in which individuals are in constant competition with each other for scarce resources. In doing so he rejected any notion of a natural political community working together to achieve the greatest good for all. In fact, this state of nature was not very productive at all:

“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (XIII.9)

For Hobbes, it is the desire to rise above this state of nature that drives us to give up certain of our liberties to a monarch or government. However, by the time classic capitalism emerged as an economic theory, that natural state of man, his rational self-interest, was deemed a good thing. Basically, if left relatively unrestricted, and as if by some invisible hand, this self-interest promotes the good of all. And, by the time neo-liberalism took hold, this free market rationale was extended into areas of society that had previously been seen as outside of market influence.

This theory of human nature is quite simply wrong, and the atomisation of society that has resulted from it is grossly detrimental to human flourishing. My greatest concern, however, is that this understanding has been so absorbed into our common sense view of the world that most people, people who are not in the slightest bit interested in economic theory, just accept it as fact. It is relatively easy to argue against a theory, but a great deal more difficult to expose the error of common sense. The theory can be challenged by pointing out that for about 90% of human evolutionary history group cooperation has been more dominant than in-group competition. Not only have groups survived because cooperation within the group has proved itself to be of greater benefit than unbridled competition, but in many cases inter-group cooperation has proved to be of mutual benefit as well. Put simply, just about any modern evolutionary approach to understanding ‘human nature’ will provide a serious challenge to the core principles of capitalism. The real problem we face is that these core principles have been repeated and repeated so many times across recent decades that they have been absorbed into our ‘common sense’ view of the world, and challenging ‘common sense’ is never an easy task.

However, our response to Coronavirus, particularly the multiple responses that have emerged at community level across the country, are surely evidence that when we face a completely novel situation, one for which our we have no ready made habitual thinking to fall back on, we ‘naturally’ engage in cooperative, not competitive behaviour. Yes, there are still calls from a few on the right of the political spectrum, a small number of ardent free marketeers or extreme libertarians, who argue that doing all we can to preserve market competition is a priority, but they are very much in the minority. For these poor few, the ideology of the free market has so totally taken hold of their thinking that their natural cooperative behaviour has been completely suppressed. Fortunately, for the vast majority of us, this ideology has a less strong grip. Most of us feel a natural desire to cooperate in a crisis, not compete.

Our task then, the task of those of us to the left of the political spectrum, is to firmly re-establish cooperation as our default setting. Starting with the wonderful examples of community cooperation that have spontaneously emerged all over the country, we need to talk about cooperation as much as we can. We need to talk about it, write about it, and, most importantly, cite local examples of it, at every opportunity in all that we do. We need to do this until the idea of cooperation is so firmly embedded in our thinking that it feels like it has always been there – in other words, until it feels like just plain common sense, until it feels like the natural thing to do. Then, and only then, will left wing or socialist policies be met with a positive response from the electorate.