Creating the ideal society?

I have finally got round to reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia For Realists. Apart from a lack of emphasis on our climate and ecological emergency (he refers to it, but not in any detail) the book reads like my ideal political manifesto. In it Bregman calls a complete change in our socio-economic model through the development of a replacement for GDP as a ‘measure’ of our national economic efficiency, the introduction of a universal basic income, and a significant reduction in the number of hours we spend in paid work each week. One of the main benefits of such a manifesto (apart from a massive reduction in the seriously harmful inequality that plagues our society) would the unleashing of human creativity.

Whilst directing this creativity into the arts (music, dance, fine art, poetry etc) would have a massively beneficial effect on human society, developing human creativity in general may well be they key to the long term survival of human life on this planet. All life on this planet is organised into complex systems nested within larger complex systems, with the planetary eco-system forming the largest. Each of these systems is at its healthiest when it is at a point that is often referred to as being ‘on the edge of chaos’, a state when the system can also be said to be at its most creative. To understand why I first need to explain what I mean by a complex system.

Complex systems are any collective of living units that are held together by a high degree of connectivity between the units – a connectivity formed through the flow of energy and / or information. So the individual bodies of humans and animals (indeed, all living things) themselves are complex systems, as are the communities they live in. A key feature of such systems is the emergence of novelty. These phenomena, like language, culture and the rule of law, cannot be explained through a reductive analysis – they are not simply the product of the correct arrangement of certain pre-existing ‘bits’; they are much more than the sum or their parts. This emergence of novelty is vital for their long term survival. It allows for the adaptation to changes in the system’s environment. But emergence of novelty is highly dependent the strength of the energy / information that connects the individual units.

In terms of human societies, lets call this connectivity ‘social norms’. Our norms, our bits of social connectivity, can be of different strengths, but they are vital. Without them there is simply no system, no structure. There is chaos. However, these norms can also be too strong. As I have said, all systems are nested within larger systems upon which they are dependent (for example for food to eat, water to drink and air to breathe), systems which are subject to constant change and uncertainty. If our norms are too rigid our societies are unable adapt to changes in our environment, but if they are too week they can easily fall into chaos . In the language of complex systems, the ideal balance is termed ‘the edge of chaos’. This is the point where the norms are sufficiently strong to maintain a high degree of cohesion, but sufficiently open to modification as to allow adaptation to a changing environment. And the one certainly in life (apart from death and taxes) is that our environment will change. It is a highly dynamic, complex system itself. A system can be said to be at its most creative when at the edge of chaos.

Because of this complexity, there cannot be a definitive way to organise society. There is no ideal system. Any system will allow certain social phenomena to emerge whilst repressing others. And whilst it will be impossible to know, in advance, what phenomena will emerge, it is totally impossible to know what is being prevented from emerging. What we need is not a definitive system, an ideal structure, but a system that is on the edge of chaos. Perhaps most importantly we need a system of government that can both adapt to a highly complex and uncertain environment, whilst accepting not just that they have not got all the answers, but that there are no definitive answers. We need a new system of government, one that is vastly more creative than the one we have at the moment.

Some system of proportional representation would be a large step in the right direction. We need politicians from different perspectives (perspectives that truly represent the views of the population as a whole) to sit around a table, to listen to the different perspectives, to accept there are no definitive solutions to our problems, and (above all) to be creative in their decisions. Our current, highly adversarial system is the antithesis of the creative consensus we need. Another step forward might be the introduction of citizens’ assemblies. And all this will be made easier to achieve is we start moving in the direction advocated by Bregman. The introduction of a universal basic income and a reduction in the working week will allow time for people to properly engage in government and decision making, and will allow us to become both more creative and less rigid.

One thought on “Creating the ideal society?

  1. This blog is an impressive undertaking, so I thought I’d comment just to show that at least one person has paid some attention to what you’ve written.

    I wasn’t sure when reading this entry what held it together (other than your own values and preferences, many of which I probably share).

    One contrast is epitomised by the phrase “music, dance, fine art, poetry, etc” which somehow reminds me of a kind of seraphic image of heavenly contentment, of beatific angels smiling and pursuing their respective arts in a world without care. Cushioned by the security of a universal income, warmed by a sense of equality and confidence in an adaptively enduring future, would I feel alive in such a world? It’s an emotion (or lack of it) that contrasts markedly with the edginess of the Edge of Chaos and leaves me wondering about the nature of creativity and its implications.

    For me, the Edge of Chaos is best read figuratively (though I’m unsure if you wrote it with that in mind). Its appeal is that it seems to aptly capture creativity’s subtle and changing relationship with both constraint and freedom, its dynamic interactivity between comfort and risk. Virginia Woolf summed up the need for resources (the comfort side) in her own special circumstances when she famously wrote “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.

    Perhaps the gap in your own text, linking utopia with creativity, is risk; and a question over whether the stated means will lead to the desired ends. Utopia can provide one backdrop for nurturing creativity, but might it not also stifle edginess and risk under (as it were) a hand-stitched comfort blanket of complacency?

    Creativity seems to play a dual role as both means and end; so we can also ask whether creativity now inevitably leads to more creativity in the future. I won’t answer this other than point out that there seems to be plenty of counter-examples of outstanding creative acts leading to stasis and paralysing reverence, in both commerce and the arts.

    So to get back to my original question (partly for stylistic vanity): we might wish to live in such a utopia, but will we actually feel we’re alive there?


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