At the cusp of the widespread adoption of computers in our world, a visionary Japanese sociologist Yoneji Masuda (widely credited as having foreseen the information society) wrote that, “Mankind has so far experienced two great social revolutions; at the base of these great social revolutions are innovations in the system of social technology…” (Yoneji Masuda, 1985 – Three Great Social Revolutions, Prometheus, 3:2, 269-274)
Masuda noted that revolutions only take place when many different technological innovations join together, take root across society, and result in a rapid expansion of a new type of societal productive power (with new norms and values). They are, to put it another way, those technologies (for example, writing or the internet) from which society can never go back. The agricultural revolution allowed humanity to exploit usable and edible plants and animals, fundamentally revolutionising our survivability and sustainability as a species. The industrial revolution made it possible to transform natural phenomena into useful goods, and fundamentally transformed the economic, social and political structure of our world.
“Mankind is in the process of emerging into the third societal technology” notes Masuda, “We are moving toward the 21st century with the very great goal of building a global informational civilization, the historical monument of which will be only several chips one inch square in a small box.”
At this point, some perspective is important. Professor Betram M. Gross, one of the great social scientists of the 20th century, wrote that, “…in the long course of human history, the idea of ‘civilisation’ has always rested upon some distinction between the more advanced and the less advanced. This distinction has usually been made by looking backward. Thus the philosophes of the French Enlightenment regarded themselves as civilized in contrast with their more feudal forebears. The leaders of empires-both agricultural and industrial -felt that they were spreading civilization as their armed forces achieved hegemony over those whom they described as barbarians, savages, and primitive tribes. Yet if truly moral instead of purely technological standards are used, the picture looks somewhat different. Indeed, we find no other animal species that has been as savagely destructive as human- kind. In moral terms, civilization is some- thing that has not yet existed.” (Public Administration Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1971, pp. 259-297)
Every revolution brings the promise of a better future, and while we have made immense progress in many ways, our society is still blighted with the spectres of inequality, injustice and instability- affecting our economic, political, social and cultural realms. It seems we have become the embodiment of the Greek myth of ‘Narcissus,’ fatally obsessed with our own reflection; ceasing to ask the big questions around why we do what we do, and why things are the way they are.
In these exclusive interviews we speak to Professor Theodore Zeldin (International Best-Selling Author and Scholar), Rutger Bregman (Author, ‘Utopia for Realists’), Paul Mason (Award Winning British Journalist, Broadcaster and Author), Andy Stern (President Emeritus, Service Employees International Union) and Paul Ladd (Director, UNRISD – the United Nations Institute for Social Development). We discuss the social, economic, political and cultural challenges our world faces, and look at potential solutions to create a better future for humanity.
After graduating from London University (Birkbeck College) at the age of 17, and then from Christ Church, Oxford (with Firsts from both), Theodore Zeldin helped to build up St Antony’s College, Oxford as the university’s postgraduate centre for international studies, and was its Dean for thirteen years.
His history books have focused on the role of the individual and of the emotions in every aspect of life. His 2000 page History of French Passions, in five volumes: Ambition and Love, Intellect and Pride, Taste and Corruption, Anxiety and Hypocrisy, Politics and Anger, won Britain’s top historical award, the Wolfson Prize. It also gave him a unique status as “the most popular Englishman in France” (Le Point). He is frequently invited to speak on French radio and television, and to French business and public authorities. He was president of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais Planning the Future Commission in 1993-5, adviser to the French Millennium Commission, and presenter of the Prime Minister’s web site, and most recently a member of the Attali Commission advising the President of France on economic revival. He has been made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France and called “the world’s foremost authority on Frenchness” by Time Magazine.
His book on Happiness, his Intimate History of Humanity and his BBC lectures on Conversation marked the expansion of his research to the art of living. His writings have been translated into 24 languages. He became a member of the BBC Brains Trust and made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
His project on The Future of Work, initiated with support from the European Commission, inaugurated his development of a new model for business. Picked as an international thought leader by Fast Company, and as “one of Britain’s finest intellects” by Management Today’s New Guru Guide, he has been active in the executive leadership programmes of Templeton College Oxford and been made a Professor honoris causa of HEC, the Paris Business School, and a Fellow of the World Economic Forum. He has been invited to address and advise top decision-makers in finance, law, medicine, IT, consulting, transport, manufacturing, design, arts, advertising, government, and international organisations. The Independent on Sunday named him as one of the forty world figures whose ideas could have “a lasting relevance in the new millennium“.
He is a Patron of the new National Academy of Writing, a Trustee of the Wytham Hall Medical Charity for the Homeless and the Amar International Appeal for refugees, co-founder and now patron of the Oxford Food Symposium for the study of international gastronomy and formerly on the Management Committee of the Society of Authors. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard and the University of Southern California, and has lectured in 15 countries.
Rutger Bregman is one of Europe’s most prominent young thinkers. The 27-year-old historian and author has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics. His History of Progress was awarded the Belgian Liberales prize for best nonfiction book of 2013. The Dutch edition of Utopia for Realists became a national bestseller and sparked a basic income movement that soon made international headlines. Bregman has twice been nominated for the prestigious European Press Prize for his journalism work at The Correspondent. His work has been featured in The Washington Post and on the BBC.
Paul Mason is an award-winning journalist, broadcaster and author. He is the former Channel 4 News Economics Editor and was formerly the programme’s Culture and Digital Editor. He was Economics Editor and Business Correspondent for BBC Newsnight from 2001-13.
Mason is an intelligent and vastly experienced journalist with a great track record in scoops. He is a widely respected commentator on economics, society and culture. His role at Channel 4 News includes reporting on economic issues all over the world including the culture wars and social changes which have been unleashed in the past decade with the growth of social media, rolling revolutions and unrest.
In 2001, Mason joined the BBC 2 television programme Newsnight as Business Editor. His first live appearance on Newsnight was on the day of the September 11 attacks in 2001. At Newsnight he covered stories as diverse as the corporate scandals of Enron and Worldcom, Hurricane Katrina, gang violence in Liverpool, the social impact of mobile phones in Africa, and the rise of Aymara nationalism in Bolivia. In 2008 Mason appeared as the key talent in a new five-part BBC series Credit Crash Britain.
Mason spent the first ten years of his working life as a professional musicologist. In 1991 he became a freelance journalist, and from 1995- 2001 he worked for Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, on titles including Contract Journal, Community Care and Computer Weekly. As deputy editor of Computer Weekly he was part of a team that uncovered a series of IT disasters and controversies. During the dotcom boom Mason launched E-Business Review and was consulting editor for the launch of CW360.com. He also contributed articles to the Daily Express and the Mail on Sunday.
He has been twice shortlisted for the Orwell Prize, won the Wincott Award for Business Journalism in 2003, the Workworld Broadcaster of the Year in 2004, and the Diageo African Business Reporting Award in 2007. His report on the social movements behind Bolivian president Evo Morales was cited when Newsnight was awarded the Orwell Prize in 2007. He was named the Royal Television Society’s specialist reporter of the year in 2012 for his coverage of the economic crisis and social unrest in southern Europe.
Andy Stern is President Emeritus of the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the fastest-growing union in North America. One of the most connected Democrats in Washington, Stern and SEIU were widely credited for helping elect Barack Obama in 2008. In fact, Stern has visited the White House more frequently than any other single person during the Obama Administration. During his fourteen years atop SEIU, Stern turned it into a potent political force and he was named one of the 50 Most Powerful People in DC. He has been profiled in a cover story of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, as well as on 60 Minutes, Charlie Rose, and Bill Moyers, and in Washingtonian Magazine, McKinsey Associate, Fortune, the Economist, Business Week, Modern Healthcare, and the Washington Post. In September 2009, he was Chris Wallace’s “Power Player of the Week” on Fox News. A frequent guest on The Glenn Beck Show, some have referred to Stern as “Glenn Beck’s worst nightmare.”
As both a labor leader and an activist, Stern is a leading voice and a prominent advocate for people who work. Called a “courageous, visionary leader who charted a bold new course for American unionism,” Stern’s practical solutions to achieve economic opportunity and justice for all workers have earned the respect of workers, business leaders, and policy makers on both sides of the aisle. He is the author of A Country That Works, which outlines a practical, cooperative approach to promote economic growth in America. In early 2010, Stern was appointed by President Obama to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, along with such luminaries as Alan Simpson, Alice Rivlin, Anne Fudge, and Erskine Bowles.
Under his tenure as president, SEIU bucked the trend and through its signature national and global organizing campaigns Justice for Janitors, There Is No Place Like Home, Kids First, and Sodexo, grew by more than 1.2 million workers, turning traditionally underpaid service work into jobs that can help support a family and lift up a community. During the health care debate, Stern and SEIU were some of the most influential players. He was credited with playing a major role in the bill’s ultimate passage.
Paul Ladd took up the position of Director of UNRISD in October 2015. Previously he had been at UNDP, where he had most recently been Director of the team supporting consultations and technical inputs for the 2030 Development Agenda. The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) is an autonomous research institute within the UN system that undertakes multidisciplinary research and policy analysis on the social dimensions of contemporary development issues.
Previously he led UNDP’s policy team on ‘inclusive globalization’ – including trade, development finance, and migration. From 2008-2009, he provided support to the Office of the UN Secretary-General on the financial and economic crisis, and engagement with the G20.
Before moving to New York, Paul was a policy adviser on international development for the UK Treasury, including the period building up to and through the UK’s Chair of the G8 and European Union in 2005.
Previously he had been Chief Economist and acting Head of Policy with UK charity Christian Aid, the UK Department for International Development’s economic adviser for South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland, and a financial adviser in the Central Bank of Guyana.
Paul received his BSc in Economics and his MSc in Quantitative Development Economics from the University of Warwick.
Paul is an International Geneva Gender Champion. He has committed to ensuring that relevant gender concerns feature in every piece of published UNRISD research and to seek gender balance in the Institute’s network of collaborating researchers. UNRISD supports the International Geneva Gender Champion initiative’s Panel Parity Pledge.
Q: What is utopia?
[Rutger Bregman] ‘Utopia’ means both ‘good place’ and ‘nowhere’. Utopias can help us to question the status quo. For example: why have we been working harder and harder since the 1980s? Why is 60% of your income dependent on the country in which you happen to have been born? Why do we still have poverty in our rich countries? Utopian visions of a radically different world don’t give us the perfect answers, but they help us to ask the right questions.
The problem is that we don’t really know how to think utopian anymore. For most of history, there was only one utopia: the world in which many of us have now arrived. Remember: in the past almost everyone, almost everywhere, was sick, poor, hungry, dirty and ugly. The past is a very harsh place indeed, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that for centuries people dreamed of a Land of Plenty where the rivers ran with wine and pancakes grew on trees.
Yet here we are, we already have fast-food, climate control and much more. In the past few decades we’ve seen astonishing progress: violence is on decline, diseases are being eradicated, life expectancy is growing, we’re getting smarter and smarter – you name it. The problem of my generation is not that we don’t have it good. The problem is that we can’t come up with anything better. ‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, ‘ Oscar Wilde once wrote, ‘for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.’
Q: What does a well-functioning society look like?
[Paul Ladd] Inclusion and sustainability are the key to better functioning society to the ones we have today. I’m not talking about a utopian perfect society where everything works well all the time, that would be equally boring and non-disruptive. In the very recent decades, we’ve suffered from unsustainable models across our society with varying degrees of exclusion.
Inclusion is about every sphere of life; economic inclusion, recognition for work, employment, entrepreneurship, ability to access paid work and so on. In politics, inclusion is about having the ability to participate if you want to, have your voice heard, and have your elected officials act on that. Inclusion also means fair access to natural resources- clean air, clean water and the natural environment. If you have exclusion in any of these dimensions, society will not be as good as it could be.
If society borrows from one part to give to another, i.e. strengthening your economy by running down your natural resources or social capital, you will never be inclusive or sustainable.
Q: What’s wrong with us?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] We have ideals which date from many centuries and millennia ago, and these ideals have frequently led to disappointment. Justice, prosperity and peace have not arrived, despite all our hopes over many centuries. We have changed so much in the past few centuries, that it’s time for us to go further and invent new ideals for our changed world.
We are many times more numerous and have much better education and technology than when the structures of our society were invented, we are a different kind of human being. An old typewriter simply isn’t sufficient for our modern world.
As a society, we have a habit of seeking out the new however what we usually agree-on is simply a modification of what we did in the past, a repetition.
We need new ways of remembering. Instead of looking at the past as something to be destroyed, and something that needs to be replaced, we have to understand it. To have a new vision of our future, we need a new vision of our past, and move forward with experience and not ideology.
Q: Do we realise how dysfunctional our world is?
[Rutger Bregman] There was a poll last year in the UK that found that 37% of British workers think they have ‘bs-jobs’. These are the jobs that even the people who have them consider meaningless. And it’s a huge phenomenon. Even though we’re richer than ever, many of us aren’t living truly meaningful and fulfilling lives – we lack real freedom. Modern capitalism encourages us to buy stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,’ someone at Facebook recently lamented.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. For decades many thinkers, from Bertrand Russell to John Maynard Keynes, thought that capitalism – as a fantastic engine of prosperity – would bring us ever shorter workweeks. And indeed, from 1850 until 1980 the workweek kept shrinking and shrinking. But nowadays, we have forgotten the old utopia of leisure.
[Paul Ladd] As far as we can remember, we’ve never had particularly well-functioning societies against the criteria we may use today. We’ve always had wars, violence, domestic violence, gender inequality, exclusion from economic markets and so on. The difference now however is that we’re also facing this threat to our planet and our climate which could exacerbate many of our social and economic challenges.
Q: Why are people so unhappy with the deal our world gives them?
[Paul Mason] There’s a contradiction that’s obvious to everybody between the potential of the technological revolution they’ve lived through (in the developed world at least) and what society has delivered for them.
If you think about the past 20 years, we’ve been through boom and bust twice with the dot-com bubble and the financial crisis of ‘07/08. You’ve then had 8 years of complete economic uncertainty; and in that time, technology has revolutionised itself. Many people have got their heads-down and stuck into incredible innovations yet- what has it delivered? In the post 2008 developed-world, two thirds of all families simply cannot prosper.
The huge potential of technology has delivered very little in terms of the social and economic structures around us.
[Andy Stern] In the 20th century United States, as John F. Kennedy said, “a rising tide raises all boats.” In the 21st century however, the rising tide has only raised the luxury liners.
The United States economy has changed from the very simple formula that made our country successful. When you had GDP growth and productivity growth, you also had wage and job growth. Appropriately therefore, politicians used to say that if we grew the economy, everything and everyone would prosper.
At the end of the 20th century, we saw that wage decoupled from productivity and job growth. It took 20 years to recognise that transition, and now the same transition is happening with jobs. We have an economy that can grow- with increased productivity- but without producing wage and job growth.
People can tangibly feel this change every-day. You see it in the labour force participation rate with fewer people working now, more people on disabilities, more people underemployed and the growth of alternative work arrangements (part-time, temporary, and the ‘gig’ economy) impacting the way work is structured.
There are huge problems in the way people work, and only the top 20% of the workforce are benefitting. People are extremely, and appropriately, unhappy.
Q: What are the greatest crises facing our world?
[Paul Mason] Our world is facing many crises.
Climate change is real, and we’re seeing a big step-change in the rate of global warming. On top of this, we have conflict. Now don’t get me wrong, we’ve had periods of conflict before in the troubled regions of the world- but right now, it’s impossible to see these conflicts dying back to normality. In fact, it’s more and more likely that these conflicts will continue to a cathartic moment. We’re seeing over a million people cross borders to flee conflict, something which we haven’t seen since World War 2.
We have a creeping threat to democracy in the East of Europe- we have Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and Poland who are facing questions over the quality of their democratic institutions, and also Hungary which is facing concerns over its democratic process.
In 2016, we’ve also seen Brexit– a signal of the potential break-up and fragmentation of the world order.
The liberal middle-classes of Western Europe are feeling threatened, they simply don’t know what to do to stop their world falling apart.
Q: Will we ever stop fighting and being fearful?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] Violence is something built into nature. Nature is full of predators, all the animals around us eat each other, wars have existed since the beginning of time and we’ve even managed to transform physical violence into verbal violence meaning we now insult each other too.
We have violence in many of our relationships, even in marriages (50% of which end in divorce). We have xenophobia- which is expressed by contempt for different people and in work, aggressive personalities are considered the strongest.
We’ve transformed our fighting into sport, and now we choose to win our national battles on the football field.
So, what is the response to all of this violence? My answer is to say that instead of developing the idea of the individual as being someone who must try and win and beat everyone else, establishing independence- we have have to realise that each individual is original and unique and therefore discovering what other people are like is a task which will take us all our lives, and there is no violence in discovering other people. And that after all, is what life is all about.
The purpose of life is not to be rich, powerful and famous, but to discover what life is.
Instead of focussing all attention on saying that each person should find a soul-mate for example, we need couples of the mind. We need to see what thoughts are in others, and how those thoughts can inspire us. In this way, we can find a more exciting activity than fighting.
Fear is natural too. Every person is born with fear, every animal is frightened by anything that might endanger it. That’s built into who we are, and indeed our civilisations are based on fear; they promise to protect us from certain fears, but teach us to fear those outside our civilisation and that the unfamiliar should remain a source of danger.
The only thing that can diminish fear is curiosity of the mind.
When we see something that is dangerous, we need to examine it with care rather than running away. We must pull these things into their different elements, and do what scientists do with the physical objects of the world. They look at them more closely. Making things interesting makes them less fearful.
The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom showed we’re fearful of foreigners. Why? Because we’ve never spoken to them… we’ve never looked at them… we’ve never understood who they are.
Q: Will people ever feel safe and secure?
[Paul Ladd] It’s eminently possible for citizens to feel secure.
In more stable, peaceful settings, it’s not through a lack of ideas, resources, money or innovation that we’re not meeting people’s income, education, job or retirement security. We have public policies that are not making those things happen. We’ve got a fiscal system which should reward labour and entrepreneurship, but which actually rewards those who are not contributing to our world and who don’t work particularly hard, with huge amounts of money… it’s a Mickey-Mouse economy! People who do fundamentally useful jobs for society are not being paid very much, we have our balance wrong.
We need to change how we regulate business, how we keep tabs of inequality, and how we design our public policies. This would very quickly seep-through to enhancing the well-being, inclusion and security in these nations.
If you’re living in environments that have no physical security however, things are different. Billions of people around the world live in conflict and with high crime rates. Humans- at times- have a violent nature, but we don’t do much to tackle it. We haven’t done much to clamp-down on small arms, we proliferate larger arms, we’re bound to prolong conflicts because of minerals and commodities and so the way our society works can often stop us acting to stop these conflicts and acts of violence.
We have a moral and human rights obligation to protect innocent people caught up in violence and conflict. We must allow for greater refugee movement, asylum, and allow people to move to more peaceful parts of the world.
Q: Will we ever have a society free from prejudice?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] Prejudice is a very valuable, useful, simplification of life. You make decisions about categories of people and object so that you don’t have to think about them again. One might say that religions have contributed to prejudice too. When religions start, they are reflections about all those things we can’t understand, the mysterious. Philosophers and theologians begin to solve these mysteries with their ideologies and ideas and claim that those who don’t believe these ideas are heretics and must leave.
We have created prejudice as a part of our innate incompetence as a society, and it’s something we need to apply our minds to understanding.
[Paul Ladd] Within each country, gender equity looks very different. There are places in the world that have made huge progress by- for example- subsidising childcare and maternity leave. The role of gender however is so entwined with culture, religion and social values, that it needs to be negotiated at the local and national level to have any meaning. It’s not something that can be mandated from outside.
At the global level, many organisations have been part of a movement for greater gender equity and less discrimination- but you cannot translate this to national movement or action without an organisation on the ground to ‘claim’ responsibility. Women’s movements need to claim their own rights in each country and each nation- as we saw in the UK at the turn of the last century.
Q: Can we eliminate poverty from our world?
[Rutger Bregman]I think eradicating poverty is an investment that pays for itself. The math is pretty simple: a 2013 study estimated the costs of child poverty in the U.S. at $500 billion a year (in terms of higher health care costs, crime rates, policing costs, etc.). Eradicating poverty would cost about $175 billion. Poverty is hugely expensive – we cannot afford it.
There’s also a lot of research that shows that poverty is all about context. Poor people are not making dumb decisions because they are dumb, but because they’re living in a context in which anyone would make dumb decisions. Eldar Shafir from Princeton University has shown that poverty is comparable to losing a night’s sleep or the effects of alcoholism. You lose about 13 to 14 IQ points.
So I think it’s pretty obvious that we shouldn’t just treat the symptoms of poverty, with nudges or more education. We should go to the core of the problem and eradicate it – we are more than rich enough to do so.
Q: Will we ever beat inequality?
[Paul Mason] There are ways that post-capitalism can work to de-weaponise inequality in an unorthodox way.
Think of the precariat; people working in a coffee shop or a fast-food joint and doing another job in the evening, with no job security, who are taking home 12-13,000 a year. Old style socialism tries to redistribute to that person through taxation of the rich. However, the rich can evade such taxes as a lot of their income comes from assets (often offshore) rather than wealth-creation.
The first act of redistribution that would mean something to that precarious worker is free-transport. The state should step into the transport arena and provide a basic level of transport, for free. Then you don’t have to worry about 12-13,000 a year wages so much because your transport costs will come down.
The next thing the state could do is provide cheap or free housing. That’s what my Grandma’s generation was given in the late 1930’s when they were given a council house. They were given a house to live in, and I remember it well. It was a semi-detached corner house with a garden! They could hardly believe their luck, they had previously lived a slum. The rent was negligible, you didn’t have to worry about it- and you had tenure for life which even passed to your kids. We don’t need to do all these things of course, we could have long-tenures and perhaps remove the ability to pass those properties to your kids (we live in a more mercurial society where we don’t want to create generational living in basic housing). Building a lot of houses and renting them out to people cheaply- or for free- suddenly makes it survivable to be a member of the precariat, and it’s a more realistic route to redistribution. More so than creating a bunch of jobs at a car factory and redistributing to those families only through taxation.
The third thing we need to do is provide more goods free or cheaply through collaboration. We need to encourage people at a local level to get together good and services and think about quite alternative models; for example, Cafes that serve food that’s given away for free by supermarkets because they can’t sell it. There’s one of these already in Leeds, and perhaps every town needs one.
These are the models that post-capitalism is built on.
Q: How did neoliberalism become the dominant structure for our economy?
[Paul Mason] Neoliberalism didn’t just ‘emerge,’ it was imposed.
People of my Dad’s generation lived a very solidaristic, communitarian lifestyle where you helped your neighbour. Anybody who behaved selfishly and broke the implicit rules of this Keynesian era was seen as a pseudo-criminal.
My Dad’s generation had to be forced to behave differently, and this was achieved through 4 years of mass-unemployment. This taught people to look out for themselves, to not behave like spivs, to take what was there and survive. The organised labour movements and societies that looked after each other were broken apart, often- in countries like the United Kingdom- quite brutally.
Around the 1990’s, neoliberalism seemed to work. You had financial stability, inflation targeting, the appearance of cheap-goods from China and lots of new technologies. After 2008 however, clearly it doesn’t work.
We can’t just critique neoliberalism from the perspective of the past, it’s here now and we have to move beyond it. Neoliberalism is not an ideology, it’s a model that worked for a bit, now doesn’t, and now we have to move forward from it without destroying some of the positive things it’s delivered to us.
Q: Why is money the core of our society?
[Paul Mason] Money as an expression of value is meant to be all we think about, and to a neoclassical economist someone like Jimmy Wales shouldn’t exist. He spent time and resource setting up a product- which is now one of the most influential and important in the world- that is provided for free (or through donations). When I write for Wikipedia, Adam Smith-esque economics tells me I’m being irrational and that I should be writing for money.
A lot of people understand implicitly that we already have two economies. The commercial economy where everything is done for money, and another economy where- if you throw a gift in? sometimes a gift comes back to you. People negotiate in their own lives between these two economies, but economics only understands one of them- the commercial, money-driven market economy. As yet, our economics cannot understand the economy of collaboration, of open source, of gift, of influence that people actually live within.
Q: Will we always need politics and nations?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] Most people would assume that politics are inevitable, but when you think about it… politics have recently been discredited by their inability to fulfil promises and predictions. There is a great deal of distrust around politics, and therefore it is right for society to challenge whether politics are the solution for our problems. Society assumes that if we elect the right person, our problems will be solved.
People who go into politics do so with illusions of what their power can achieve. Anybody who has had any bit of power knows that one has much less power than one would like to think one has.
When you find people standing to become President for the United States, the most powerful position in the world, they are asserting they would like to be a God, solving everything.
The idea that there are mass-resolutions that will solve everyone’s problems through passing a law for example, is simply untenable. These solutions have not worked, and often produce perverse results.
We need Nano-Politics. Something comparable to what is being done in the physical sciences, where we study the minute particles- every person who exists- and inside each of them, the ambitions, fears and feelings which are difficult to discern. It falls upon each individual to create relationships with others that remove fear and prejudice, and begin to form collaborations.
People seem to talk of nations as these immovable entities, but we must remember that nations themselves have not been around for very long. There are alternatives. When the Roman Empire collapsed, all the armies, authorities and power disappeared- with people being left to their own devices. What happened then was interesting. Instead of establishing freedom, you quickly found that certain members of these little villages made themselves into the bosses of these villages. You will always find members of a society that want to dominate others.
The only replacement for the concept of a nation is the interaction of people across borders, and this is happening today with abundance. One of the fastest growing industries in the world is hospitality and travel. There are billions of people who travel, and we are finding ourselves in a new-form of nomadic search for enlightenment and connection with other human beings. This is the new form of nation.
We are told from an early age that there is great significance to where we are born, and that we will have great shared values with our neighbours and this patently is not true. We see that every nation is divided in traumatic ways.
Through our travel and our interests, we are creating something new, something collaborative, something less-institutional.
[Paul Ladd] The concept of the nation is a relatively new concept, but that said- it’s been a progression in institutions to elect and pay taxes to governments that then provide support to people. You need a unit of management… In recent decades, there has been a trend of decentralisation and localisation- but not in all countries.
We will see administration reflected at the national level for a very long time to come.
There are so many functions of the state however, which are becoming more meaningless for governments to control. Whether it’s information, goods, ideas, pollution, services or people- there are so many things that can cross borders and the concept of the nation state is certainly under threat.
I would hope that we see more cooperation and collaboration on those crucial issues facing our world which will require multilateral and regional coordination. This is the area that governments have been slow to perform on as they feel it compromises their so-called notions of sovereignty.
The idea of the state isn’t dead, if we got rid of governments at this time- our world would get a lot worse. Governments do however, need to consider where they have the most influence in their society.
Q: Will people ever trust government?
[Paul Ladd] If you look at some of the dynamics, particularly in Europe and North America in the past few years, we’re seeing a movement away from the centre-ground to the populist right or left.
People are becoming disaffected because they’re not seeing their concerns listened to, or their demands met. Governments have often been blaming other people for their lack of performance which can often be explained (in reality) from not wanting to act, or not being able to.
Whether it’s migration, climate change, or even the economic position of a single country- many things are now outside a government’s control. A government cannot- itself- promise jobs, reduced migration, better performance on energy and climate change. All these things require collaboration internationally and any political party or figure who says they can tackle these things alone is- frankly- lying.
Governments need to return to basic values like honesty, transparency, respect, listening and so on. They need to be honest about what can and cannot be done, and what the barriers are to achieving what the public want.
People don’t see politicians as being truthful, and that’s a problem.
Q: Should we have open borders and free migration?
[Rutger Bregman] The idea of open borders is definitely the craziest idea in my book. But that’s because it’s about the biggest injustice of our time: the world is wide open for everything but people. Goods, services, and stocks crisscross the globe, but only 3 percent of all people worldwide live in a different country than the one in which they were born. We know from standard economic theory that this is hugely inefficient. International trade has made the world much richer in the past 200 years, but for many people, the world is still an open air prison.
60% of your income is dependent on the country in which you were born, which means that, globally, a huge amount of human talent and potential is being wasted. Seven different studies have shown that, depending on the level of movement in the global labor market, the estimated growth in “gross worldwide product” would be in the range of 67% to 172%. Effectively, open borders would make the whole world twice as rich. So this is not about redistribution of the global pie, it’s about making that pie much, much bigger.
It’s also important to remember that everything we consider ‘civilization’ nowadays – from democracy to equal rights for men and women – were once regarded as utopian fantasies. Maybe in a century or so we’ll look back on our borders the way we look back on medieval torture today. I’m not saying we should remove our borders overnight – I just think we should remember that migration is the most effective tool in the global fight against poverty.
[Paul Ladd] The way our societies deal with migration is, frankly, a huge knot of hypocrisy.
Societies and economies would benefit tremendously from increased and better-managed migration that also protects people as they travel. You don’t make things without people, or deliver services without people, you need labour! It’s nonsensical to have fluid markets in goods and services, and not in labour.
We also have an obligation, in all countries, to accept people who are having problems elsewhere due to conflict, violence, discrimination or poverty. The world has the resources and wealth to make sure people don’t have to be subjected to these things.
It surely would do the world a lot of good and strip out the xenophobia and suspicion that exists about different nationalities and cultures if people spent more time together.
For many reasons- economic, security, political, social and cultural- we need to improve people’s tolerance.
Q: Will we always need each other?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] I’m a Trustee of a charity that deals with refugees in the middle east. We recently had a visit from a number of Sheikh’s, who lived in great isolated places and looked almost like the prophets of the Bible. They were untouched by modern technology. I asked them about loneliness and they could not understand the word.
In an elementary society, everyone knows everyone else and everyone has a big family. Loneliness is not a new invention. The ancient Indians’ decided that Earth was created because the first God didn’t know what to do with himself, and wanted others to be around.
Loneliness can be expanded to the idea of isolation. We are increasing the amount of isolation we suffer through differences in our education, through differences in our professions, through limiting our curiosity, through segregating our cities, through limiting passports and so on.
Q: Should we have a universal basic income?
[Rutger Bregman] A basic income is absolutely crucial if we want to give people the opportunity to decide what they want to make of their lives – what kind of ‘work’ they want to do. Many people fear that a basic income would lead to mass laziness, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Most people are creative beings who want to do something, to get up in the morning and add something of value.
In the 1970s several large-scale experiments in the U.S. debunked the idea of mass laziness. In Denver, for instance, the researchers reported that “The ‘laziness’ contention is just not supported by our findings. There is not anywhere near the mass defection the prophets of doom predicted.” Some people put in less hours in their paid job, but that was always offset by more time invested in education or looking for a better job. In another one of the trials, in New Jersey, the high school graduation rate rose 30% among study subjects. The basic income gave people the freedom to quit their bullshit jobs and do something else in which they could make a real difference.
There’s been a vast amount of new research in this area recently that has correlated “free cash” with reductions in crime, child mortality, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, and truancy, and with improved school performance, economic growth, and gender equality. Poverty is not a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash. And these studies demonstrate that, time and again. If you want to galvanize people, the solution is not to lead them around by the hand, but to give them the means to achieve something on their own.
[Andy Stern] The one policy observation that civil rights leader Martin Luther King, the conservative Charles Murray and the economist Milton Friedman would all agree on is that the welfare system we created in the United States did not end poverty. As Martin Luther King said, we [the United States] wanted to end poverty, and the best way to do that was to give people money.
It’s very clear that we know the level of income it takes to end poverty, and the question therefore is whether we will deal with that directly or through a variety of indirect programmes.
We also have to determine whether our welfare policies are a matter of freedom and choice- meaning that individuals are given income and are allowed to choose how they pursue their lives, or is this something that the government imposes via jobs or requirements on income. This is the fundamental question we need to answer before determining whether our path is Universal Basic Income or Guaranteed Jobs.
When Richard Nixon was President in 1969, the United States became the country in the world that has come closest to having a universal basic income. A Republican President in a Republican House passed universal basic income and the Senate defeated it because it was- in today’s dollars- around U$10,000 a year, which they thought was insufficient. Then? It disappeared somewhat from political discourse as the economy and nation began to face other difficulties. Universal basic income has not been ‘resisted,’ per-say but rather until recently, it has been outside our dialogue. Our current welfare system has proved incapable of ending poverty, and technological advances have shown a capacity for exacerbating inequality, and that’s why the discussion around universal basic income has come to the fore again.
[Paul Ladd] Universal basic income is an idea whose time- if it hasn’t come already- will come in the very near future. It’s certainly true that labour markets around the world are changing in terms of their interaction with technology. It’s also true that we may not have the need for as much labour in the future economy. We’re also in a world where there is a growing amount of unpaid (and therefore unrewarded) labour, which leads to many other forms of discrimination- particularly around gender.
The shifting of economic and political gravity towards the south and the east, and the changes coming from technological development are therefore going to have huge impacts on our global labour market.
There is a lot of resistance to universal basic income, with critics saying it may directly or indirectly reward ‘shirking,’ but much of the academic work that’s been done shows that not to be the case. There are a lot of questions around setting of amounts and so forth which will of course require more research.
Even if universal basic income is not the model we jump on, we have to strengthen the forms of social protection that governments and citizens put in place. We have too many people falling through the cracks at the moment. We have inequality growing in most countries which is leading to disaffection and may even lead to increased crime and violence. Society needs to find a way of including people- making them feel a part of the economic structure of society as a whole.
Q: How will technology impact our future economy?
[Paul Mason] We need to stop worrying about robotics and automation and understand that technology has three major impacts.
- Firstly; it blurs the distinction between work and non-work.
- Second; it disconnects work and wages.
- Third; it reduces the real value or price of many things close to zero.
Capitalism is designed to perform its usual process of adapting to create higher value work, jobs and products but with technology it’s unlikely to happen (though not impossible).
We are entering a post-capitalist era and its currently being resisted through instruments like monopolies, ultra-harsh copyright laws, state backing of specific companies and so on.
Instead of just backing the negative, the state should just back a bit of the positivity- create co-operatives and foster platforms for them (as we’ve seen with care workers in New York).
The state needs to protect and foster our futures, not just back the existing architecture of society.
[Andy Stern] The good news about technology is that it has actively been reducing the price of certain products and goods such as cell phones.
Reputable research from groups such as McKinsey, the World Economic Forum, Oxford University and from Nobel Prize Winners such as Joe Stiglitz and Angus Deaton all conclude however, that there is huge potential for a tsunami of disruption in the world’s job market- driven by advances in technology.
Take a look at self-driving trucks for example. In the United States, truck drivers are the largest job in 29 of our states. We have 3.5 million truck-drivers and 6.8 million people who support them (through insurance, auto-parts, repairs and so on). The technology for trucks to be self-driving is not science fiction, it’s real, and it will be deployed.
Take a look at the way Uber drivers function as independent contractors. It’s not hard to imagine being able to wrap-around portable benefits, changing social-benefits and also helping them better understand their rights in the economy. For those out of work, we can also look at our nation’s desperately needed infrastructure improvements and even things like national-service which could take people out of the labour market for a year or two. There are mitigating policies which we can- and should- take now, but when the Uber driver is replaced by the autonomous driver? Many of those policies will be insufficient to deal with the level of disruption and we need to prepare for that too with more fundamental reassessment of how work and pay function in our economy.
Q: Will we always need jobs?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] Work as it is now, does not suit the aspirations of educated people who want to discover what the world is like, do many different things, and don’t want to spend 50 years in front of a computer. There are now about 1 billion young people in the world without the kind of jobs that would suit their talents. Many of our best graduates are doing donkey-work, and so we have to invent new kinds of jobs.
We’ve done this before. We invented new kinds of jobs with the advent of industry, agriculture, government and the service sector. We now have to invent a new kind of activity that focuses on the enhancement of the individual, not just the making of money.
Society has to rethink what money is about, and why it matters to us.
We are in a state of transition, and we must not imagine we can just abolish the existing system. Instead, we must design experiments on a small scale, to see how things could be different.
People claim money is the source of civilisation when, in fact, it is the instrument by which governments have been able to increase their dominance, recruit supporters, and build alignments with certain people to the detriment of others.
[Rutger Bregman] I think we need to fundamentally rethink our whole concept of “work.” There’s a lot of paid work that doesn’t really add anything of value. For example, huge parts of the financial sector have become parasitical. If we would live in a real meritocracy and pay people for their true contribution, then many bankers would earn a negative salary.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of unpaid work that’s hugely important. Caring for children and the elderly, taking care of the household, volunteer work; the list goes on. My advocacy of a shorter paid workweek is, in fact, a call for more real work.
Automation will play a huge role in this regard. The radical freethinker Thomas Paine once wrote that ‘every machine for the abridgment of labor is a blessing to the great family of which we are part.’ And he was right. Economists sometimes worry about ‘Baumol’s disease’ – the observation that prices in labor-intensive sectors such as healthcare and education increase faster than prices in sectors where most of the work can be more extensively automated. But I don’t think this is a disease; it’s a blessing!
In our race against the machine, it’s only logical that we’ll continue to spend less on products that can be easily made more efficiently and more on labor-intensive services and amenities such as art, healthcare, education, and safety. Our doctors and teachers can afford to work less efficiently (more time for patients, smaller classrooms), because our machines are ever more efficient. That’s what progress should look like.
Q: How can our society respond to automation and robotics?
[Rutger Bregman] There’s a great anecdote from the sixties about the threat of automation. Henry Ford’s grandson gave labor union leader Walter Reuther a tour of the company’s new, automated factory, and jokingly asked, “Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?” Without missing a beat, Reuther answered, “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?‘
What we see happening now is that the richer we become, the less effectively the labor market is at distributing prosperity. If we want to hold onto the blessings of capitalism and technology, ultimately there’s only one choice left, and that’s redistribution. Of money (basic income), time (a shorter working week), taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots.
I like to see the basic income as a dividend of progress: it’s not something we earned ourselves, it’s because our forefathers worked so hard that we can now afford to give everyone a share of their accomplishments. So the basic income is not welfare in the traditional sense – it’s not about solidarity, it’s about sharing a gift from the past.
Q: Why is our society full of so many b******t jobs?
[Rutger Bregman] One of the big myths of our time is that wealth is created in the same place as where it’s being concentrated. The thing is: capitalism is not automatically geared towards usefulness, quality, and innovation. It’s focused on profit. Sometimes that leads to great contributions, sometimes not. From telemarketers to tax consultants, there’s a rock-solid rationale for creating one bs-job after another. You can get very rich without adding anything of value.
A British think tank once calculated that for every pound earned by advertising executives, they destroy an equivalent of £7 in the form of stress, overconsumption, pollution, and debt; conversely, each pound paid to a trash collector creates an equivalent of £12 in terms of health and sustainability.
The irony is that all these bs-jobs can only exist because we are incredibly wealthy. In a world that’s getting ever richer, where cows produce more milk and robots produce more stuff, there’s more room for friends, family, community service, science, art, sports, and all the other things that make life worthwhile. But there’s also more room for BS. As long as we continue to be obsessed with work, work, and more work (even as useful activities are further automated or outsourced), the number of superfluous jobs will only continue to grow.
But again: it doesn’t have to be this way. In my book I write about a study conducted at Harvard, which found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s brightest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants. Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, 20 years later the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance.
The upshot is that we’ve all gotten poorer. For every dollar a bank earns, an estimated equivalent of 60 cents is destroyed elsewhere in the economic chain. Conversely, for every dollar a researcher earns, a value of at least $5 – and often much more – is pumped back into the economy. Higher taxes for top earners would serve, the researchers write, “to reallocate talented individuals from professions that cause negative externalities to those that cause positive externalities.” In plain English: Higher taxes would get more people to do work that’s useful.
Q: Will we ever achieve work-life balance?
[Andy Stern] When considering the question of whether or not you can work less, the key is whether you have the economic security and stability that allows you to make that choice? (today’s wealthy individuals have this, but choose to work extraordinary hours in many cases). There is a question of choice, and we will get to a stage where- for large numbers of people- they could take less income if there were other forms of social support. We have the opportunity to create work-life balance, but this isn’t an economic decision; it’s a personal one.
Society has to separate the question of whether you can work less and whether you choose to.
The United States has gone overboard into a work-income centric life, and people- particularly older generations- have a different experience to millennials (who are now the largest group of citizens in our nation). People are looking for different futures now, they have access to travel, communications and knowledge and don’t necessarily see work as having the same purposeful results as my generation did.
As the number of interesting and stimulating jobs decrease, and the opportunity for more cultural and community engagement increases, we will see a shift in people’s behaviour and a shift in the structure of our communities.
A major conservative think-tank in the United States has written extensively about the Scandinavian model where people have a high quality of life because of all the support they receive from the state, and this allows them to have more time with their children, more vacations and so on. The region also has a willingness to engage in free-trade, has less regulation, and performs fewer interventions in the labour market.
We are going to see a world where people look at countries that have made different choices and ask why we can’t do that. People are tired of incrementalism and phony promises, and change is needed.
Q: What reform does our education system need?
[Paul Mason] We’re currently having a debate about the re-introduction of Grammar Schools when we should be having a debate about the introduction of diversity in education.
The current education system was geared around producing a neoliberal subject. They’re the most tested generation, with highly-uniform education. At worst, instead of rebelling in favour of diversity you are seeing students rebelling in favour of uniformity. In economics there have been quiet rebellions against change- people just want to get a job in the City and are happy to learn the orthodoxy to get there. We need to stop that.
Ecosystems that are diverse that can survive shocks, that’s the lesson of ecology which we see in the rain forest.
Diversity might be equally appalling to proponents of current education theory as grammar schools. We might need more places like A. S Neill’s Summerhill School or Dartington College. We might need to experiment a bit in educational provision. We need people who can survive the new world.
As automation, robotics and machine learning kick-in, it will alter what it means to be a professional. Linkedin and the World Economic Forum surveyed professionals around the global and found that the main skills that people list are social, followed by complex problem solving. Automation will remove complex problem solving from many people’s skills and job requirements. In IT and the Arts you will always do complex problem solving, but in areas like Engineering you may not need to do as much. The same may happen in Law, Accounting and other areas. How do we educate people for extremely high status and important jobs where much of the complexity is removed? That’s a challenge.
Q: Should we be measuring our economy and society differently?
[Rutger Bregman] The idea that the gross domestic product (GDP) still serves as an accurate gauge of social welfare is one of the most widespread myths of our times. Even politicians who fight over everything else can always agree that the GDP must grow. Growth is good. It’s good for employment, it’s good for purchasing power, and it’s good for our government, giving it more to spend. But in my book I note that, if you were the GDP, your ideal citizen would be a compulsive gambler with cancer who’s going through a drawn-out divorce that he copes with by popping fistfuls of Prozac and going berserk on Black Friday.
Our standard of progress was conceived for a different era with different problems. Our statistics no longer capture the shape of our economy. And this has consequences. Every era needs its own figures. In the 18th century, they concerned the size of the harvest. In the 19th century, the radius of the rail network, the number of factories, and the volume of coal mining. And in the 20th, industrial mass production within the boundaries of the nation-state.
Today it’s no longer possible to express our prosperity in simple dollars, pounds, or euros. ‘Value” and “productivity” cannot be expressed in objective figures, even if we pretend the opposite. Behind every statistic is a certain set of assumptions. So yes, I think we need new figures to guide us, because we need to change our assumptions about work, progress and wealth as well.
Q: How can we- as citizens- act to improve our world?
[Paul Ladd] Around the world, people are spending their entire lives being activists around particular issues. This is how movements for change are created. The world is not all bad, and there are movements and organisations that are improving the world at local and international levels.
If you have influence yourself, whether it’s economic, political or social- then you can make a difference.
Research is also really important, and can support the changes we need to make in our world. Research for example supports thinking around the benefits of migration, and whilst negative attitudes still remain- they are slowly changing for the better. Research around climate change on the other hand successfully managed to push that crisis firmly into the political realm to allow real-change to begin over the past couple of decades.
A few weeks ago, I gave a talk to a whole-bunch of new graduates who were going to work in banks, industry and parts of the real-economy that would never come anywhere near an academic setting or an NGO. I told these graduates that if they really believe in the career path they’ve chosen, they need to be mindful about their impact on the rest of the world.
Are you driving unsustainability? Are you excluding people? Are you investing in tobacco or other things that damage people? You don’t have to be campaigner, public servant or advocate, people have to realise that we have to collectively change our unsustainable behaviours otherwise the whole world will suffer.
Q: Will we ever be happy?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] When people say they want to be happy, what they really mean is that they don’t know what they want.
Imagine a young woman getting a visa to visit paradise. Everyone in paradise is happy right? She goes there, and visits all these famous individuals from history- Einstein, Newton, Henry Ford and so on. She discovers they all have unfulfilled ambitions, and realises that this is a world of suffering and so to imagine a world without death, illness, misery and suffering is not very helpful.
The present fashion, which David Cameron took up, to ask people whether they’re happy and to tell people the government can make them happy, is- in effect- telling people that the government wants to persuade them to be happy so that there are no revolutions.
I cannot be happy, and I don’t want to be. When there is so much injustice and cruelty in our world, so much violence and so many wars, how can you be happy? If you can be happy in a world like this, it’s egoism.
Q: What does it take to have a good life?
[Andy Stern] The ability to economically take care of your family is enormously important, as is the ability to retire with dignity.
The ability to live in a world where your children are able to live a better life than you did is important, and that is now- for the first time- at risk in the United States.
As Maslow would say, self-actualisation and the ability to make choices in your life; spend time with your family, travel, learn and do things you enjoy is crucial and takes economic security. We are human, and we have an innate need to pursue our aspirational dreams.
Q: Will we ever be content?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] The meaning of life is simply the discovery of what life is. You have to discover what it is, that other people have not yet done, that you could do. What is it that you could add to what has already been done, which might be of use to at least some people on this planet.
We have to get away from utopianism to see what our realities are. We need to think harder, not be superficial, and to take all views into accounts before arriving at our truth.
This is a vast programme, but we should not be fearful of that. We are trying to understanding the brain, which similarly contains billions of elements, but we do not abandon that.
I can’t promise you a better life, but I would like you to have a more interesting life- one that has more variety and discovery.
Q: What has been your life’s passion?
[Professor Theodore Zeldin] When I wrote my book The History of French Passions, it aroused so much interest in France that I was invited to participate in Government, business and society. Everyone wanted my advice, and I was liberated from academia. Academia said I could have been an expert my whole life on the subject I wrote my doctoral thesis about, and I could have continued to discuss that forever, but I have been freed from that, and that has been my life’s good fortune. How to get people out of their narrow lives is one of my ambitions in life.
Simply because I had a history teacher at school who was nicer than my science teacher, I became a historian. History is not what is taught in schools, but rather is the raw material of human experience. We have to see what we can make out of it that is more valuable to us, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.
I found myself writing the history of individuals, and looking at what happens in private, the real people- not what happens when people wear their masks in the public domain and pretend to be this and that.
The world is comprised of humans wearing masks, and I have spent my life getting behind them. People are unpredictable and fascinating.
When I wrote my doctoral thesis, I wrote it about a dictator called Napoleon III. Nobody had ever written anything impartial about him, they either hated or adored him. I approached all the descendants of the people who supported or were against him, and they allowed me into their lives- I was young, a foreigner and of no danger.
The value of being a foreigner and a stranger persists with me. One’s independent vision of truth is of use to others, it’s not the whole truth but stimulates people to think harder.
By getting people to talk, and by getting them to talk about things they have in common and not of their differences, things can change.
Q: How can we change our political economy for the better?
[Paul Mason] The pressing problem we have is that we must confront the elite and technocracy with the fact that the current system doesn’t work.
Once we’ve confronted the thinking people of the world that things aren’t working, we need to find political solutions. If we as socially-minded, liberal, progressive, globally minded people don’t find those solutions, they will be found in anti-democratic, conservative and nationalist solutions.
We need to stop obsessing about technological innovation and start thinking about social innovation, and social technology; devoting ourselves to innovations that make an impact on all our lives.
Q: How do ideas change the world?
[Rutger Bregman] I think that the Enlightenment model of how people change their opinions – through information-gathering and reasoned deliberation – is really a buttress for the status quo. Those who swear by rationality, nuance, and compromise fail to grasp how ideas govern the world. A worldview is not a Lego set where a block is added here, removed there. It’s a fortress that is defended tooth and nail, with all possible reinforcements, until the pressure becomes so overpowering that the walls cave in.
‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change,’ Milton Friedman once wrote. ‘When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.‘ So here’s the problem of our time: we live in an era of many overlapping crises (financial, climatological, spiritual, you name it), but there’s a lack of alternatives. I think it’s time to think utopian once again.
The story of humanity is filled with our constant struggle to know. For most of history, disease (for example) was believed to be the work of the devil and evil spirits. It was the ancient Greek philosophers who proposed that the body contained four ‘humors’; blood, yellow-bile, black-bile and phlegm- which, if out of balance were the cause of illnesses. For almost two thousand years, medics- rooted in this belief system- ‘treated’ sick people with horrific, painful and often lethal procedures including bloodletting, purges and emetics. The truths of humorism seemed inviolable, until 1858 when Dr. Rudolph Virchow published his book ‘Cellular Pathology’ signalling the advent of modern medicine.
More than any other ‘asset’ of our species, knowledge has retained a certain primacy, perhaps because it is our only defence against one of nature’s most powerful phenomena; fear.
The philosopher Kurt Riezler wrote that “Man’s fear is fear of something or for some- thing: of illness, loss of money, dishonour; for his health, family, social status. The relation of the first something to the second some-thing and their respective relevances determine the particular kind and intensity of our fear. The one and the other something have a definite nature. We know what they are like. We may not know which of several knowable possibilities will occur.” (American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 49, 1944, pp. 489-498)
Fear however does not exist in isolation, it is the ‘yin’ to the ‘yang’ of ignorance. “Man, as a striving being, finite, in a world that is never entirely of his own making, is forever in between some kind of fear and some kind of hope, some kind of knowledge and some kind of ignorance…” wrote Riezler, “Fear and hope are at odds: hope wants fear removed; it demands action. Fear lets hope dread its end. Fear, mingling in our hope, hope mingling in our fear-each pleads for knowledge against the other’s weakness for ignorance.”
This interdependency between the fear (of the unknown) and the hope of the known and yet to be known has fuelled our growth from Homo Predator, to Pastoral Nomads, Agricultural Societies, Industrial Nations and now into Information Civilisation. It has also fuelled our inequality, injustice and instability, and led to immeasurable suffering for billions in our history, and billions in our present.
For the first time in history however, the known is no longer concentrated into the hands of the few. The known is no longer something which can be easily weaponised, commoditised or hidden.
This society has emerged on the shoulders of 500,000 years of human development, during which time we’ve conquered our fear of nature- through agriculture, our fear of our weakness- through industrialisation, and now- the fear of the unknown itself- through information.
For all that we’ve achieved however, we must not fall into the trap of complacency our accomplishments have set for us. In our ascent of the utopian mountain, we still have a long way to climb.
“The Mountain of Us”
From familiar ground, I reached up to unknown,
And froze in time, becoming stone.
You came, and climbed on my shoulders and reached, higher.
And you too froze in time, becoming stone.
Then they came, and climbed on our shoulders and reached.
And they too froze in time, becoming stone.
More came, they climbed on our shoulders and reached.
And in time, they froze, and became stone.
We all came, and stood on each other’s shoulders and reached.
This mountain of us became our life’s pilgrimage. Our purpose.
And our world grew, with new horizons.