Reframing the Human Canon

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Most readers are aware of my abiding concern that along with everything we have gained from our innate capacity for invention – the economic and material benefits – we have lost sight of what it really means to be human. We can argue for hours about the merits of the global economy, the role of capitalism, and free markets. We may even resort to using the same statistics to support our diametrically opposed views.

Conversations about those things that really concern us, however, such as compassion for our fellow humans, a love of nature, appreciative relationships, or the freedom to describe how we feel without fear of repression, are increasingly conducted in hushed tones, if at all. In that context I am reminded of Winston Churchill who, when it was proposed that his cabinet put a stop to funding the arts and divert the money into fighting Hitler instead, responded, If we do that then what are we fighting for?

Some vital notions about what matter to us sapiens are not secreted underground. They have no need to hide. For example, the beliefs we use to sustain the illusion of humanity’s progress remain in full view, yet out of sight – mostly undetected and unchallenged. If by chance they are disputed it is invariably done in ways that support or oppose a narrowly defined case without altering the underlying construct. An example relevant to this essay is climate change.

The science is indisputable. We must curb greenhouse gas emissions or risk perishing. But that challenges several key tenets underpinning the civilisational worldview – a framework that asserts our superiority over other species. Hindu, Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures all endorse our right to plunder the Earth. The ruling elite see no cause to change course by keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Meanwhile the right to express an opinion is used to confuse the issue by disputing the underlying cause of global heating. The behaviours arising from this confusion fall into two types: those who act to mitigate the impact of climate change – because they can see the effects already and feel obligated to prepare for the worst – and denialists who sit on the fence, asserting loudly their right to be heard and waiting to be proven correct. At no stage do we reflect on the beliefs that give rise to such folly. Instead we are content to vote for one side or the other.

In a recent article published in Medium, Joe Brewer [Cultural Evolution Society] indicated that a key hypothesis within which the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are framed is questionable, and that the Goals may be unattainable as a result. He argued that positioning the Goals within the constraints of the current neoliberal economic paradigm exhibits a distinct lack of inventiveness and that by overlooking previous social transitions key elements for the shift to a sustainable world are lacking.

Brewer has noted a complete absence of any reference to history prior to 1990 – the date chosen for comparisons of global poverty and hunger rates in the Goals. Accordingly he suggests those who drafted the Goals do not adequately comprehend how the world-system came to be the way it is, nor do the Goals as expressed show us that a different kind of economics and development is both necessary and feasible.

If Brewer is correct – and I believe he is – investigating the current worldview for potential flaws, and being prepared to craft a new worldview introducing alternative beliefs more in keeping with contemporary conditions, becomes critical to success, particularly if the UN Goals are as important to humanity as many presume them to be. Appreciating differing modes of economic activity, and how these reinforce certain social structures and mores, also becomes a critical factor.

We can get to a future where no one starves to death and everyone has their basic needs met. But any claim that this future is attainable with development-as-usual is as poorly informed as the climate deniers who cling to the belief that business-as-usual will be good for the planet in the long run.

The most popular economic models from the past encompass tribal egalitarianism, the various barter systems used by hunter-gatherer communities, informal trade networks, mercantilism and, more recently, the contractual prescriptions favoured by nation states. Each mode carries its own in-built conventions about what works best for the health of the society. But there are serious problems with some of these – especially in their most recent guise.

For example, many orthodox economists suppose growth, usually predicated as the consequence of a constant cycle of innovation through obsolescence, is vital for a healthy economy and, consequently, in the fight against adverse effects such as hunger, poverty and social polarisation. Most evidence, however, points to the contrary.

Under industrial capitalism the process of wealth accumulation, generated from all kinds of institutionalised production, has massively benefitted the affluent more than any other single group. Additionally, as the global economy has continued to expand, poverty and economic instability has increased. Today just eight billionaires own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity. It would be imprudent to demonise capitalism or to ignore the positive impacts free markets have had in helping people rise out of penury. But the fact that an ultra-wealthy elite are able to prosper compared with the one in every nine people who struggle to find food each day – is a demonstration of how warped we have allowed the global economy to become.

Extreme inequality of this type is as perilous as it is grotesque. It has resulted in the super-rich acquiring immense material wealth – but also the power to bend rules and policies in their favour. But this is only one factor. We have permitted the more predatory aspects of industrial capitalism to prevail almost unchecked. As a result we are burdened by financial systems distended with debt, a repertoire of complex and opaque devices designed to evade tax or facilitate dubious arbitrage, and trade treaties designed by a powerful elite to benefit themselves.

Brewer notes that in developed and developing countries alike, the lowest tax rates, the best and most comprehensive health care and educational options, and the chance to influence how the society works, are given to the wealthy and their children. Meanwhile many of those who suffered at the hands of slave-powered empires, or were exploited by the conquering and pillaging of their lands by colonialist nations, live in abject poverty. According to the United Nations this latter group numbers around 4.3 billion people.

The neoliberal economic paradigm keeps tensions between the creation of wealth and the creation of poverty in a state of equilibrium. No system can deliver what it has not been designed to produce. If the outcomes do not match our intentions there is no other option other than to change the system’s constraints. Yet any serious proposal to effect radical changes to the global financial system are routinely ridiculed and judged far too disruptive to the established order. Of course. That is the point!

For the past century or more, we have tolerated a clumsy situation where markets siphon wealth to the top of the social hierarchy and governments use a proportion of tax revenue to provide just enough benefits to prevent the base of the social pyramid from collapsing. This system of wealth production and distribution is designed to reward the wealthy and keep the poor in check. And it does precisely that.

This steady transfer of wealth from producers to owners is the root cause of the inequality that exists in the world today. Indeed the theory that economic gains primarily benefitting the wealthy — such as investors, businesses and entrepreneurs — will “trickle-down” to poorer members of society, creating new opportunities for the economically disadvantaged to attain a better standard of living, is now proven to be totally flawed. It is based on two false propositions: first that everyone eventually benefits from economic growth, and second that growth arises from those with the resources to increase productive output. In theory these both make sense. In practice it has proven not to be quite as straightforward.

If we cannot reinvent this false monetary dogma, that has been used as a justification for growing income inequality for far too long, the gap between the rich and the poor will continue to widen. But that does not encompass the full extent of the problem for this is not purely an economic issue:

  • In many countries an aging population is putting untold pressure on health care, welfare, housing, infrastructure, superannuation and taxation systems.
  • A potentially massive rise in unemployment figures must be factored in as services absorb the kind of artificially super-intelligent [ASI] automation previously only used in industrial manufacturing and farming.
  • And then, of course, we must discover how to value leisure as an exchange mechanism, much as we had to do in valuing labour a couple of centuries ago.

ASI is exerting a slow but continuous degradation on the value and availability of work. It is highly likely that super-intelligent robots will soon colonise every aspect of entrenched production – impacting entire professions and eventually eliminating swathes of teachers, prison officers, managers, accountants, lawyers, drivers and construction workers.

Most work in the future will require partnering between humans and technologies. Indeed the only tasks likely to be totally quarantined from the ASI invasion – and then only for the foreseeable future – will be those requiring a creative mind, fine judgement or compassion. These obviously include people that help others find and pursue meaning in their lives – like coaches and mentors, nurses, therapists, counsellors, leisure time advisers, and experience orchestrators.

Those who can manage the link between personal desires and happiness and the new technical possibilities will still be in demand. But traditional jobs that are routinised and susceptible to algorithms will inevitably be replaced by robots.

The social implications are too frequently ignored or misinterpreted, particularly as the consequences of automated work are likely to fall upon society unevenly. For one thing we are likely to see far less full-time work. The casualisation of the workforce that began decades ago shows no signs of slowing. Then the qualities and character traits capable of surviving widespread introduction of ASI into the workplace, such as social and emotional intelligence, a caring demeanour, experimentation and collaboration, are mostly feminine in nature. It should not come as too much of a surprise, therefore, that jobs undertaken by women are relatively safe (for the time being) while work typically performed by men is at risk.

At this stage we have not found any satisfactory answers to these issues, mainly because we are still seeking solutions from within the confines of conventional wisdom: the current supply and demand economic paradigm on the one hand, and the idea that work in itself is a necessary virtue – fundamental to our sense of self-worth and individual identity. These, after all, are two of the most important pillars of the civilisational model.

The widespread loss of jobs, the dilemma of how to cater for an aging population, and the imperative of sharing the wealth produced by society more equitably, will usher in a social and psychological transformation unlike anything we have ever experienced or imagined. This transformation will call for new narratives in addition to the discarding of obsolete dogma.

Ultimately the issue of forging a more equitable post-capitalist society must be framed by asking three morally challenging questions:

  1. How can we create an inclusive economic system that works for everyone irrespective of their status, gender, ethnicity or education?
  2. How can we shift from an extractive paradigm that threatens the survival of humans as well as other species to a more generative one nurturing all life?
  3. As intellectual and physical labour both draw near to extinction how should we reconfigure the relationship between work and play such that leisure, creative endeavours, and the orchestration of social experiences, are able to replace drudgery as legitimate and vital symbols of human actualisation?

If we look to history we see clear indications that a transition to a new social democracy and economic world-system is possible. It is also in the best interests of the super-rich to acknowledge and help facilitate such a transition – although many remain sceptical. But it requires the adoption of a new teleology based upon abundance rather than scarcity, an acknowledgment that a steady state economy is more viable in the longer term than one grounded in the need for constant growth, and a universal willingness to design current inequities out of the world-system.

These three constraints are at the heart of how wealth and poverty have been created in the past, clarify why the system has become skewed to benefit owners of material assets, and how equality can be deliberately designed into a more sustainable future worldview.

Sooner or later we will run out of jobs. It stands to reason that we need to redesign the viability of how wealth is produced and shared. This will require recasting the very notion of work and its place in society. Although it has many detractors, mainly because of the myths we have created justifying hard work, and is only a partial solution at best, the idea of a universal basic wage makes sense in the context of a more equitable future.

Having determined these important factors we can shift our attention once again to the Sustainable Development Goals.

It should now be self-evident that these Goals retain their relevance simply because they are the results of a world-system where poverty, inequality and injustice, are deliberately designed into the worldview. By reinventing the civilisational worldview, and by changing a few constraints in the current world-system, we can decide that poverty is unacceptable. In one metanoia we can eliminate economic discrimination and the effects this generates.

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