We need to globalise identity politics

With which collective of people do you most identify? Robert Peston, in his recent book WTF, raises the important question of identity politics. He asks: When questioned, do you describe yourself as English or British? There appears to be a strong correlation between people who describe themselves as English and people who voted Brexit, and between those who describe themselves as British and those who voted to Remain. I’m sure that much could be written and implied about such a correlation, but I shall resist. Instead I want to first share my own personal response to the question, and then make some general comments about the (hopefully) continued evolution of humanity.

When asked a formal question regarding my nationality or country of birth I have always replied “British” or “UK”. Reflecting on this response, however, it occurs to me that this is a likewise formal reply – I have always said it in a formal ‘matter of fact’ way, in a way devoid of any deep emotional attachment, and in a way that has little or no bearing on my political identity. And reflecting further, and no doubt opening myself up to a salvo of rebuke regarding elitism and privilege (none of which can possibly apply to my life), I would say that I actually identify myself as European. The whole structure of my thinking, my world view, has been developed by reading European philosophy, particularly French, German and Greek philosophy. And this philosophy cannot be separated from European literature, history and politics that, in various ways, has both promoted the spread of different philosophical approaches and caused them to go in and out of fashion. No, on reflection I am European – no other political identity comes anywhere close to explaining who I am. But is such an identity actually practical?

I can understand why someone would identify themselves differently, with a far smaller collective – one confined to a much smaller geographic area and one with a far greater degree of homogeneity. We have evolved to strongly favour our in-group – our tribe or community. Instinctively recognising a member of your own group through often subtle differences in physical characteristics and behaviour has had very obvious survival advantages. Through such instincts we have been able to assess the degree of threat from a person not personally known to us without the slow and cumbersome use of reason. During our evolutionary history our fledgling reason, in certain situations, has been too slow in assessing risk to life, and in many situations still is. Such evolutionary traits are surely at the root of human prejudices – our ability to ‘pre-judge’ a person based purely on a few simple characteristics. Instantly recognising a person as a stranger or non-member of our community, and as a result judging them as a threat to that community, has been a positive aid to human survival during our long evolutionary history. But this human trait has long passed it’s sell-by date. Not only does it no longer offer a survival advantage, it actually threatens our survival.

Some people would use the above argument to justify prejudice, and many other human traits, as ‘natural’. The fallacy of such an argument springs from the very nature of evolution itself – that evolution means evolution, that human traits are not fixed but adapt to circumstances. And the circumstances of human life on this planet have changed very drastically from those of our distant ancestors. One of the great problems we face is the relative speed (and acceleration) of social evolution in relation to biological evolution, and the struggle of the latter to keep up. Our current social life (and in this I include our political and economic life) is evolving at a rate quicker than it ever has in the past, largely on the back of technology that connects humanity across the world. Whether we like it or not we are becoming increasingly connected at the global level. Communities and groups of people who were once unknown to each other, and therefore not to be trusted, are now known. And once known, they no longer become such a treat. And of even greater importance, such treats that do exist can now be assessed through reason. But it’s not just that global humanity is becoming known to us – in so many ways global humanity is becoming actually connected to us. It is now next to impossible for any community to be independent. In all aspects, the political, the economic and the environmental for example, human life is becoming connected at the global level – and we desperately need to see, understand and act on this bigger picture.

So I fear that even my identification with Europe is fast approaching its own sell-by date. It may explain where we’ve come from, but it neither offers a route map to where we’re going nor, in evolutionary terms, offers much of a guide as to how humanity (a highly connected and inter-dependent humanity) will survive the many threats to its existence. We need to identify with a global humanity – a global species that needs to learn to respect and understand its relationship with the whole of the ecosystem in which it is embedded. This is a big ask. It is oh so much easier to identify with a relatively small and clearly defined group of similar people. But such an easy and comforting identification will, in all likelihood, prevent us from seeing the bigger picture upon which our long term survival depends.

Brexit and divorce

When philosophers discuss intentionality they use the term somewhat differently from most people. In philosophy it refers to the relationship between a person’s mind and an object. So, for example, when a person loves, wants, or believes, the person that they love, the cake that they want or the story that they believe forms the intentional object, whist the loving, wanting or believing describes their relationship towards that object. For some philosophers this relationship is very problematic, but I’m not one of them. Personally I find it a useful tool to help clarify our thinking regarding the relationship between a single person (mind/brain) and whatever it is in the physical or social world that may have gained their attention. A person (the intentional subject) may claim that they believe in ghosts. Providing that we can be clear as to the intentional object (an agreed understanding of what a ghost is – even as an abstract idea) and the nature of the intentional relationship (belief being the ability of the person’s world view to allow the existence of an object that cannot be detected by the senses), there is little to concern us. We do not have to have evidence of the actual existence of ghosts to understand what the person means.

However, what I do have a serious problem with is collective intentionality – the supposed relationship between a group of people and an intentional object. Take the simple claim that “the people of Bridport support their annual hat festival”. Using the structure of intentionality it quickly becomes obvious that a clear meaning becomes difficult to find. First, we have an intentional object, the annual Bridport Hat Festival, for which it is easy to produce a non-contentious definition. Second, we have the intentional subject, the people of Bridport. Now things start to get more complicated. Is it claimed that all the population support the festival, or just some of them? And if the latter, how many? Then we have the intentional relationship, the support. Even if we can clearly define the group of people who form the intentional subject (which I doubt), how do we define what they mean by ‘support’? This could range from simply walking into town to observe the hats being worn and uttering positive comments, all the way to spending months creating the most elaborate hat imaginable and parading it in the streets on the day. Any definition of ‘support’ capable of including the entire range would be close to meaningless. OK, I know what most people’s reaction to such analysis is: in ‘the real world’ there is no problem, and trying to create one either gets you angry or sends you to sleep. And most of the time I agree with you. But there are occasions when the implications of such statements, and their meaning, have very serious consequences – and Brexit is one of them!

Many people compare leaving the EU to a divorce, and even if you are not one of them it’s a useful comparison to make to highlight the huge problems associated with the former. Most divorces have a structure similar to that of intentionality. For each party there is a clear intentional subject (themselves), a clear intentional object (their current partner, soon to be ex-partner), and whilst it’s often not easy to find clarity as to the desired new relationship, it is at least possible. You can choose to avoid each other, have nothing to do with each other if you wish, providing the needs and interests of any children are taken into account. It is at least theoretically possible for each party to be both clear and support the desired post-divorce relationship.

However, no such clarity is possible regarding our future relationship with the EU. Any statement along the lines of “the British people have chosen to leave the EU” is close to meaningless. Whilst it is reasonably straight forward to define the intentional object (the EU as an institution), it is next to impossible to have any degree of clarity regarding either the intentional subject (the British people), or the existing / desired relationship between them. In order to hold a referendum in the first place the very nature of this complex relationship needed simplifying and condensing down to a binary leave / remain question. This simplified people’s thoughts and feelings down to a level of abstract meaningless. The only meaningful statement regarding the wishes, desires or beliefs of the British people is that of those that who voted, at the time of voting 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain. It is simply impossible to extrapolate from this what the British people want our long term relationship with our ex-partners to be. The ‘British people’ cannot be regarded as an intentional subject. As a collective they are a vast number of biologically distinct brains whose minds are unique in the details of their loves, wants and beliefs. And within this collective there will be an almost infinite number of variations around a large number of different perspectives.

So where does this leave us? Well, because Brexit is claimed to be about giving control back the British people, and because it is impossible to have clarity as to what the British people want their future relationship with their ex-partners to be, we have to have the opportunity to either approve or reject the relationship negotiated on our behalf by a small group of politicians. A divorce agreement may be negotiated by solicitors, but it has to be either approved by the person on whose behalf the solicitor was working, or else imposed by a civil court. No Brexit agreement will be capable of capturing the wishes of everyone, that is just impossible, but the individual people of the UK must have the opportunity to decide whether the new relationship on offer is close enough to their own individually desired relationship to be acceptable – or not. It took a referendum to get us into this mess, and it will take another to get us out of it. After that…please, no more referendums – ever!




How do we measure, or otherwise assess, the progress or development of a society? The standard measure is through GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the total of all goods and services produced by a country in any given year. Politicians are obsessed with GDP, or, as they will prefer to call it, economic growth. Even politicians from the left (even JC) refer to economic growth as the main measure of the success of their plans and society in general. Why? Many philosophers have argued that all people really seek in life is happiness. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the English Utilitarian tradition, for example, argued that any action or activity is good when “the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it”, and that our overall aim should be to produce the greatest good (happiness) for the greatest number. So why don’t we focus on achieving happiness rather than economic growth?

Supporters of economic growth will argue that it is only through the accumulation of wealth that levels of misery and deprivation can be eradicated and happiness increased. This is true to the extent that a degree of wealth can certainly alleviate deprivation and supply many of the basic essentials that all humans need. It’s stupid to try telling a person without food or a home, without warm clothing and protection from the weather, that wealth would not increase their happiness. But research has shown that once personal wealth has reached a very modest level (approx. £16,000 per annum) happiness no longer increases. If this is the case, what is the point of striving for constant economic growth? Instead, why not try to work out how we can increase actual happiness? If you further factor in research that indicates a correlation between levels of GDP and inequality (that the richer the country becomes the greater the gap between the rich and the rest), and that a sense of inequality diminishes levels of happiness, such a question seems to make even more sense.

The pursuit of happiness, however, is not without its own problems. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the Paradox of Hedonism, a phenomenon first noted by Henry Sidgwick, the last of the great nineteenth century English Utilitarians. He argued that if you seek pleasure or happiness for the sole purpose of achieving it yourself, you will fail. Instead, you must pursue other goals that will bring you your desired happiness as a side-effect. Or, in the slightly more poetic words of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

So where does this leave our pursuit of happiness? Well, first of all, it seems obvious that of all the things in life to be desired, happiness comes out on top. We may desire many things, but only because we believe that they will make us happy. Think of anything that you desire, and then imagine possessing it but not being happy. The overall importance of happiness has been noted by philosophers at least since ancient Greece. Epicurus, for example wrote that we “pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.” But perhaps the paradox comes about because we don’t truly understand what happiness is. We certainly understand it differently from the ancients. Epicurus understood happiness in the negative – not what it was, but what it wasn’t; for him happiness was calmness of the soul, freedom from disturbance, the avoidance of pain and fear. Such an understanding certainly explains why a degree of wealth can produce happiness (in as far as it relieves pain and fear), but the continued pursuit of wealth only allows pain and fear to return.

The other ancient philosopher who placed happiness at the centre of his thinking was Aristotle. He argued that everything we do in life we do to achieve a certain end, a certain good, but when we examine these ends or goods we quickly discover that we seek them in order to achieve some further end or good. If we follow this line of reasoning through we discover that the greatest good, that which is at the end of the line of successive means and ends, is what he called eudaimonia. This is often translated as ‘happiness’, but, because what Aristotle had in mind did not have the subjective connotations we attach to the word, a better translation is ‘flourishing’. Eudiamonia is the sense of a life going well, and, for Aristotle, a life going well was always assessed within the context of the polis, the city state.

Eudaimonia was achieved through the development of certain character traits. The important thing about these character traits, traits like courage, is that they need to be developed over time, they need to be worked at, and that they form what he called a ‘golden mean’ – a balance between excess and deficiency. Using the example of courage, if developed in excess a person becomes rash, but if underdeveloped that person displays cowardice. The important point to take on board is that there is not a definitive state of courage against which all others can be compared. It’s a process of trial and error, and different situations require different displays of courage. But with practice and reflection a person can develop the ability to display the appropriate degree of courage for any particular situation. The more a person develops a whole range of character traits, the more his or her life can be said to be flourishing.

If transposed to modern society I would interpret eudaimonia to mean the development of range of character traits (not necessarily the ones Aristotle promoted) that give us the ability to respond appropriately and effectively to any social situation, to make good decisions, and to be a good citizen. If we can do this I not only believe that ‘flourishing’ would be a good description of the lives we are leading, but I suspect that we may become happy as well. May be, that by trying to be good citizens, that by concentrating on developing those character traits that allow our societies and communities to flourish, we would allow the butterfly of happiness to settle upon us.

Let’s talk about…death

Why, you are no doubt asking, is this guy writing about death? And why would I want to read about it? After all, it’s hardly the most engaging or inspiring of subjects. But that’s my point. Why don’t we talk about it? Back in the eighteenth century both Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin thought that there were only two certainties in life, death and taxes. Fast forward to the twenty first century, and, if all the leaked papers are to be believed, we are down to just the certainty of death. So accepting that this will happen to each and everyone of us, without exception, why don’t we openly discuss what it means to us?

I have pondered this question many times, but it’s current incarnation is the result of two nearly back-to-back, yet completely unrelated occurrences. First was a conversation in the pub last Thursday evening. For no apparent reason two of us ended up discussing how inevitably, once you reach a certain age, you become very aware that you have already lived far more days than await you, and that you have already consumed most of your life experiences. So, what to do with the days that remain? A popular option at this point is to compile a ‘bucket list’. But isn’t this just an excuse for some middle-class indulgences? And apart from the obvious waste of resources just so that we can have the satisfaction of having had certain experiences before our ability to experience them ends, there’s also the obvious point that we can’t take these experiences with us. Experiences are only of value if we still able to consciously recall them! So, rather than focusing on activities that distract us from our finitude, would this not be a good time to take stock of what we have so far taken from, and contributed to, society, and, more importantly, what we have done for future generations? The problem with such reflection, of course, is that it would probably bring our own inevitable death too far into focus. I suspect that we are too fearful of such self honesty. But why? What have we to fear?

Which brings me to the second occurrence. The following morning, purely by chance, I happened to catch a programme on Radio Four on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Some years ago I did quite a bit of work around his work, thoughts which came flooding back to me as I listened. Epicurus was famous for his materialism and support for ancient atomism. He didn’t go as far as to deny the existence of God / gods (that would have been far too dangerous in a very superstitious Athens) but he did argue that they took no interest in human affairs – so were not to feared. Coupled with this, he also argued that death was not to be feared. He did not believe in any afterlife, and therefore he did not believe in any punishment or retribution for any behaviour deemed wrong by non-existent or non-interested gods. Life was purely a material phenomenon. Therefore, death “is nothing to us, since while we exist, death is not present, and whenever death is present, we do not exist.” He adds: “The wise man neither rejects life nor fears no living.”

If, as Epicurus argues, because we cannot actually experience death it makes no sense to fear it, what is there to fear? Well one obvious reply is a painful death – a situation in which the process of dying is long and painful. Another is the fear of incurring an injury or contracting a slow degenerative disease which so erodes our quality of life that, whilst any physical pain is numbed, our emotional or intellectual pain at not being able to do any of the things which make life worth living is overwhelming. And, arguably, if these emotional or psychological pains were numbed with pharmaceuticals in the same manner as we expect physical pain to be, in what sense (other than a purely basic biological one) could we say that life still existed? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but my point is that we tend to shy away from discussing them. It may be that discussing the issues involved together with our associated thoughts and feelings with friends and loved ones, that bringing our private anxieties and nightmares out of the shadows, would, in itself, reduce any associated fear.

Another fear arises from our attachment to others. We quite naturally feel grief at the loss of someone who was significant to our life. A significant other person is a main character in our own life narrative, and their loss affects the meaning and worldview that this narrative gives us. Likewise, again quite naturally, we are no doubt are aware of the sense of loss that our own passing will have on the personal narratives of those we hold dear. But again, if we were more open about our thoughts and attitudes towards death, if we not only tried to rationalise our fear of death but our fear of talking about it, perhaps we would develop better emotional health, and that as a result we would be better able to recover from the loss of loved ones. Our background health affects our ability to heal and recover from emotional trauma as well as physical trauma.

If we were able to talk more freely and openly about the inevitability of our own death perhaps, as we reach that point in our life where we suddenly realise that we are about to grow-out of middle age, we would be better able to reflect on what we have achieved and what we will leave behind. If we do this on our own we tend to focus on personal achievements and material inheritances, but if we were able to reflect in a more open and inclusive atmosphere perhaps be would be better able to review what we have achieved collectively, and perhaps, far more importantly, what sort of world we have left for future generations to inherit.

Politics on the edge of chaos

The times they are a changing! Following the vote to leave the European Union, whether we like it or not, life in the UK will change. Even if, by some miracle, we do not end up leaving the EU, British political and economic life will never be the same. Whilst many ‘brexiteers’ dream that these changes will be the dawn of a golden age and a cure for all our ills, many others feel that we are sleep walking into chaos. I would probably situate myself in the latter category – but (potentially at least) in a positive way. I don’t think a little chaos will do us too much harm. It could even do us some long term good!

Critics of the current government, quite correctly in my view, point to the lack of a basic plan as to not only how they should respond to the vote to leave, but to what leaving actually means. The government itself appears chaotic, with one crisis following another; their negotiations with the EU regarding our terms of leaving reflecting this chaos. At the heart of all this is the fear of uncertainty. People from other EU countries living and working in the UK obviously fear the uncertainties regarding their status, whilst business leaders point to their need for certainty on a number of key economic issues. However, if we take a lesson from complexity science we should be re-assured that too much certainty is as unhealthy for us as too little certainty, that too much order is as bad as chaos, a total lack of order; that systems are at their healthiest, and at their most creative, when they are on the edge of chaos.

Complex systems are systems that have a very large number of highly connected parts. Whilst these parts are usually only connected to each other at the local level, to their immediate neighbours, by relatively simple ‘rules’, because of the overall richness of these connections, and due to features such as feed-back loops, the flows of energy or information through the system produce phenomena that cannot be reduced to their parts. Any living cell or organism is an example of such a system, as are individual plants or animals, as are any colony of plants or animals. Nature presents us with sets of such systems nested within larger, more complex (greater number of parts and degree of connectivity) systems, which in turn are nested in even more complex systems – and so on and so forth. None on these systems are closed: there are flows of energy not only within each system, but through them – flows that connect them together. And most importantly, the greater the complexity, the greater the degree of uncertainty.

OK, end of science lesson. If you want to know more contact me and I’ll recommend some excellent books on the subject. The point I’m getting to is this. Any system you look at is nested within a larger system that forms its immediate environment – an environment that is constantly changing due of the complexity of its environment. In order to survive, any system needs to be capable of adapting to changes in its environment – changes that it has no control over. If a system has too much order, if the ‘rules’ that hold it together are too rigid, it becomes incapable of responding to these environmental changes and eventually stagnates. On the other hand, if the system is chaotic, if there is too little order, too few ‘rules’, then any change in its environment forces it to simply break-up. A system is at its healthiest when it has sufficient order to keep its parts connected when change occurs, but not so much order that these connections are prevented from adapting to the changes. Such a system is often described as being ‘on the edge of chaos’. This is the point when it is also at its most creative.

Social systems are complex systems – possibly the most complex systems we can image. Their parts are individual human beings connected to each other by sets of habits, norms and laws. If these sets of connections are too rigid, too prescribed, there is little or no room for innovation. There is no social action outside of what is permitted. Such a social system would be fairly described as totalitarian. All such systems are doomed to fail at some point – they simply do not possess the ability to respond to perturbations in their environment. And one of the few certainties in life (other than death and taxes) is that the environment will change at some point – sometimes radically.

The hippy or anarchist dream of total freedom is equally doomed to failure. Any social system held together with very few or very weak norms and laws may be idyllic whilst its environment is benign, but if and when a sudden change in that environment creates a severe perturbation to the system it will simply break up. But such perturbations should not be feared. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that they should be welcomed with open arms. They are not only a way of testing both the robustness and the flexibility of any social system, but also its potential for creative adaptation. But to be truly creative we may need to go to the very edge. Much needs changing in society, but history has shown that revolutions do not work; they end in either chaos or totalitarianism. Healthy and creative change takes place at the edge chaos.

Back To The Future

A report in today’s online edition of the Guardian (03.11.17) warns that “Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers around the world face their cities being inundated by rising seawaters if latest UN warnings that the world is on course for 3C of global warming come true.” Before you read on, please stop and attempt to imagine just how many people that is. Hundreds of millions!

This estimate is based on three degrees of warming melting sufficient ice for sea levels to rise up to two metres. A rise of ‘only’ fifty centimetres would submerge 10% of Bangladesh. A two metre rise would result in many major cities across the world, including Miami and Shanghai, being submerged. Where are all the residents of these now underwater cities going to move to? If we think that we have global immigration problems now, what will it be like when this almost unimaginable number of people start to look for places of relative safety to move their families to? Or, more pertinently, why are we not taking this threat far more seriously and being far more proactive in taking preventative action – now? Part of the problem are the time scales involved. According to the UN scientists, we are on course to hit three degrees of warming by the end of the century – and we are just not very good at dealing with such a temporal distance.

During the course of their evolutionary history, humans have never had to deal with such long range predictions. Consequently, as Antony Giddens points out in his The Politics of Climate Change, “People find it hard to give the same level of reality to the future as they do to the present”. This is a phenomenon that social psychologists term ‘future discounting’. It means that a small reward or risk possibly impacting on our lives tomorrow is of far greater significance than a larger reward or risk that is likely have an impact next year, and that next year’s potential reward or risk is of far greater consequence than any that might have an impact in ten or twenty years time. The future seems to gradually fade away into ever increasing obscurity, loosing both focus and reality. So, how can we bring the future into some degree of focus?

It is at this point that I have a problem. I face a paradox in my thinking. According to one fork of my dilemma, I am forced to accept that life is inherently uncertain. All life, and social life in particular, is highly interdependent, highly complex and very dynamic. Following complexity science, this means that, because of the sheer scale of connectivity and the number of feedback loops involved, novel features and phenomena should be expected but accurate predictions should not. In fact, the only certainty is that we should expect unexpected. In terms of the accuracy in predicting the future you only need look at the claims that have been made by ‘futurist’ television programmes (like Tomorrow’s World), together with those contained in science fiction films and novels, to realise just how difficult (if not down right impossible) it is. Whilst on the other hand, how many of the technologies that have really changed our lives (like the internet and mobile phones / computers) were actually predicted?

But according to the other fork of my dilemma, I just can’t avoid the belief that ignoring the views of 97% of climate scientists, whose claims are based on solid empirical evidence, and whose predictions are often expressed in terms of probability rather than certainty, is not just poor risk management, but is unethical in the extreme. One area of ethics that is insufficiently discussed is our responsibility to future generations. Surely we have a moral obligation to our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and all the generations that follow? An obligation to have not allowed huge areas of habitable space and food growing land to be consumed by the oceans? An obligation to have not allowed mean global temperatures to have risen to such an extent that the amount of land with a climate capable of supporting human life has been reduced to a tiny percentage of the Earth’s surface? No, ignoring these predictions is unethical in the extreme. But how do we overcome our predisposition to future discounting? How do make the predictions for ninety year’s time feel real and relevant?

One way forward would be to return the past, to ancient Athens and the ethics and politics of Aristotle. In his ethics, Aristotle argued that when we act we do so to achieve some end that we consider to be good, and that when we examine these various ends we quickly discover that they are not just ends in themselves, but means to some further end, some greater good. This process can be continued until we arrive at the greatest good. This good he named eudaimonia, a term that has often been translated as happiness, but is more accurately translated as flourishing. Likewise, in his politics he argued states are partnerships formed with the aim of achieving some good, and that “the partnerships that [are] most authoritative of all…aim at the most authoritative good of all.” Collective eudaimonia.

In these terms our political partnerships are about working together to achieve the flourishing of human life. This is the greatest good, and the final end of any number of personal means and ends relationships. If we could develop a common conception of what flourishing would entail for the whole of human life on Earth we would have a Common Good that would provide the end point and goal of all our individual stories. It would unite these stories into a common narrative and make the future seem a very real concept, one that has both a rational and emotional dimension and establishes an ethical commitment to future generations.

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.

The myth of individualism

The myth of individualism

I have been, and will continue to be, highly critical of neo-liberalism – the spread of the core values and concepts of mainstream economic theory into all areas of social life. But even without this spread, these values and concepts are themselves fundamentally flawed. Economic theory, at least since the time of Adam Smith, has been built upon the notion of rational self-interest, that we use rational thought to pursue that which is best for ourself as an individual, and that if unimpeded this will translate, as if under the guidance of an ‘invisible hand’, into what is best for everyone. In its turn, this economic theory is built upon the liberal premises that we are all, in some fundamental sense, individual, and that not only does our rational ability set us apart from animals but that this ability is our default setting.

I would guess that most of us take the claim that we are individuals to be self-evident – but self-evidence can be misleading. There are at least two aspects to individualism: that we are all unique; and that we each possess a fundamental core that is the real me. The first of these is undoubtedly true. It is impossible for anyone else to have exactly the set of experiences and perspectives on the world as I do. And whilst I think that such an understanding is the best argument for democracy (that as there is no definitive perspective on the world the best we can achieve is the synthesis of as many as possible), it is not the classic liberal understanding. This understanding makes the concept of being an individual to be something fundamental to being human. It is based on a clear mind / body distinction that assumes the existence of some kind of individual essence or soul that is the recipient of our experiences rather than the product of them. Whilst his ‘self’ develops relationships with other ‘selves’ it is fundamentally distinct from them. There are two major flaws with such an understanding of the individual. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support such a claim, and, because it is fundamental to so much else that we believe in, we are blinded to the true nature of our social relations.

Social relations are not forged by the interaction of atomised individuals; they are inter-subjective in their very nature. We are not individual subjects who establish relationship with each other, we are inter-subjective beings who develop (or are able to develop) a unique perspective on the world. In technical terms, our individuality, such that it is, is emergent from the social process not fundamental to it. We learn and develop our ability to speak, think and form concepts only through our inter-action with others, upon who we are inter-dependent. Without others we are nothing – we are only biologically human, not human in the full sense that we use the term. But because the liberal myth of a fundamental individualism has penetrated to the very heart of Western culture it not only ‘feels’ intuitive and self-evident, it has distorted much of our social fabric.

The internalisation of this myth has led to a false dichotomy that has dominated politics since the Enlightenment, that of freedom versus equality. Put very simply (possibly too simply – sorry) politicians on the right have tended to champion the cause of freedom in the belief that our individual identity and interest is only a matter of our own concern, and should not be restricted by the actions of others. Politicians on the left have tended to focus instead on the notion that we are all born equal and that our equality needs protecting in the face of the greed and self-interest of others. The problem is, of course, that focusing on one inevitably leads to the reduction of the other. Allowing an ‘individual’ unlimited freedom to pursue their own self-interest will inevitably allow some people (those, for example, who are either born stronger in one way or another or who are born into a dominant family or class) to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of others and create inequality; protecting an equality that is not there by nature will inevitably put restraints on very capable ‘individuals’ and create a sense of frustration and possible anger. But the dilemma is a false one. Rousseau was wrong, we are not born free. We are born totally dependent on others – not just physically dependent, but emotionally and psychologically dependent. We need others in order to grow emotionally and intellectually. We have evolved to our current position of ecological dominance not because we are the biggest or the strongest, but because we can co-operate and work collectively.

And the famous American Declaration of Independence was wrong, very wrong, when it claimed that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. We have not been created, we have evolved, and the notions of equality and rights have no place in our evolutionary past. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that human rights should be dismissed. Far from it. It simply means that we need to recognise that we have created the notions of human rights and equality because we recognise that they are good; that as human society becomes increasingly more complex endowing each other with certain rights and endeavouring to create more equal societies increases our ability to co-operate and work collectively, which in turn enhances the probability of our future survival.

Individual self-interest has also become the bedrock of capitalism, the liberal economic theory and system that emerged from the Enlightenment and which now dominates our global society. However, this self-interest is only partly founded upon the myth of individualism – it is also founded upon the myth that this self-interest is pursued rationally, and that rationality is the dominant feature of humanity. Whilst I would be the last person to dismiss the importance of rational thought, this importance comes with three caveats: that our emotional being is of equal importance (in some scenarios, of greater importance); that we are only born with the potential for rational thought; and that both develop only through our interaction with others. But more on rationality in the next thrilling instalment.

Anger, ressentiment and the neo-liberal virus

The peace and tranquillity that followed the political storm of six months campaigning (first for the county council election, and then for the general election) has allowed me some time to reflect on just what the hell’s been happening in politics over the course of the last year. It all started, of course, with the EU referendum result. Whilst the vote to ‘leave’ was a shock, it wasn’t so much a shock as the unearthing of a general and wide spread sense of anger in the country. And his shock progressed to unbelievable levels with the election of Donald Trump, a result that again revealed huge levels of anger and frustration. But how do we explain this anger? And how do we respond?

In The Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra argues that this chronic anger, this contempt for the ‘establishment’ and the ‘political elite’ expressed in the UK’s vote to leave the EU and the election of a celebrity businessman with a huge ego, is the result of a general sense of ressentiment. Following Nietzsche and several others, Mishra defines ressentiment as an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” The best way to explain this intense feeling is through its main contemporary cause, the rise and global victory of neo-liberalism.

As Stephan Metcalf has recently pointed out in an article for The Guardian, in recent years the term ‘neo-liberalism’ has “become a rhetorical weapon, a way for anyone left of centre to incriminate those even an inch to their right”. It’s a term which those with an interest in politics but little understanding of economic theory have taken to refer to some extreme form of free-market capitalism, and a term which the average voter has probably digested as a piece of meaningless jargon. It is, however, also a term that describes not only a very real and actual phenomenon, but one which demands to be widely understood and debated. Over and beyond its association with global free-market economics, neo-liberalism describes how the values of free-market economics have spread, virus like, to infect the majority of human activity – most pertinently health care and education. For most of the life of capitalism, social values have been supplied by religion. This has acted as a counter-balance to the market, and kept it firmly ‘in its place’. But with the general decline of religion, and with the strong advocacy of the administrations of Reagan and Thatcher, the values of the market place now dominate all society.

Whilst ‘the market’ has had some success in alleviating extreme poverty and promoting technological solutions to a number of social problems, it is built on a number of false premises, premises which are now free to spread beyond the market. Standard economic theory, for example, is built upon the notion of rational, self interest – that we are naturally rational animals who, if unrestricted, will use our reason to promote our own self interest, and that this self interest, as if guided by some ‘invisible hand’, will metamorphose into the best interest of everyone. The trouble is, of course, that we are only partly rational (emotion plays a highly significant role in driving our ethics), and that we have evolved to co-operate with others, not to be in constant competition with them. In allowing the ethos of the free-market to dominate all areas of human activity we are effectively allowing life to imitate art, we are turning naturally caring and cooperative animals into the competitive, greedy, self-centred consumers described by economic theory.

But it’s worse than this. Neo-liberalism, in order to generate the consumer demand that is its life-blood, promises much more than it is capable of delivering. Members of hard working families, free of external restraints, are not only capable of achieving the life style they desire, they deserve it. Wealth, power or celebrity status are all there for the taking if only we have the motivation and are prepared to work hard. And a few people have so achieved. But only a few. And that’s the problem. Our free-market economy has increased the total wealth, but only a small minority have benefited. For most people levels of wealth and living standards have at best stagnated, and for many they have actually declined in recent years. Because of the spread of the neo-liberal virus, this failure of the market to deliver is an existential failure. When the values of the free-market are our values, when the meaning we ascribe to our life is derived from our role within this market, when the market fails to deliver we experience existential failure. We feel angry. We feel ressentiment. And in particular, we feel ressentiment towards those who have very obviously succeeded: the perceived elite, the establishment, foreign workers taking our jobs and houses. And this indiscriminate and unspecific anger is only made worse by the extent to which ‘their’ success is rubbed in our noses by the media.

But what is to be done? How do we allow other values and meaning to enter our social lives? Part of the problem is that the current situation has slowly evolved. It is not the result of a grand conspiracy, and those who have promoted free-market values (well most of them anyway) have done so with the best interests of everyone in mind. Simply attempting to install a contrived set of values would fail miserably, even if such an enterprise were possible in the first place. And before anyone assumes that I’m calling for a return to religious values – I’m not. Not only do I think it impossible to return to any past set of values, I firmly believe that because religion is based on false premises it should not serve as a source or justification for any value system. So what is to be done?