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1. Be scared yes, but don't despair
We all have a role to play in creating a better world
This is the first in a series of long-form essays which will appear here over the coming months. To distinguish them from other pieces on the site, they are numbered, and are probably best read in order.
I’ve spent the last thirty years thinking about how we might make the world a better place - one in which the experience of life is improved for gradually more people. During that time, while progress has been made in many parts of the world, especially in respect of previously excluded or discriminated-against groups, and in helping millions out of poverty in China and India, the overall picture has been mixed.
This substack, as the title suggests, is about two things: progress - how we build a better world, one that is more just, inclusive and sustainable; and survival - how we ensure that the civilizational gains of the last few centuries are not reversed. Now you might ask: why not sort out survival first and worry about progress later? But that would be a mistake: progress and survival are two sides of the same coin. The survival of our possibly unique civilization is dependent not only on locking in historical gains, but also continuing to build on them: on making further progress.
In case you’re not entirely sure what I’m on about, here’s a list of the issues that I believe constitute a threat to the survival of civilization, and which are largely a consequence of our failure to keep the wheel of progress turning:
the failure to tackle the causes of climate change, or mitigate its effects;
growing inequality and deepening poverty in many countries;
increasing geo-political instability;
a trend away from international cooperation and towards nationalist isolation;
impotence in the face of mass migration;
a war on truth, with large numbers unable to tell fact from fiction;
a tendency on the part of governments to roll back hard won freedoms;
a failure of opposition to prevailing economic orthodoxy;
a lack of preparedness for foreseeable catastrophes, eg pandemics;
the possibility of technologies like artificial intelligence being used for malign purposes, to serve minority interests, or even escaping human control.
It’s quite a list. You may argue about how serious a threat each of these represents, but one thing is strikingly clear: politics, as we currently do it, barely recognises the severity of these challenges, largely ignores the threat they pose, and is quite unable to deliver effective solutions. Much of the writing on this substack will investigate the reasons for this failure and examine how we might reform our political culture in order to meet these challenges.
At the time of writing this opening piece (August 2023) there is ample evidence for the gravity of the situation. Dozens of people have died in Hawaii this week in unprecedented wildfires driven by climate change. Donald Trump’s indictment on more criminal charges seems only to have improved his chances of re-election next year. And yesterday, forty one desperate migrants drowned when their boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. I could go on, but I won’t. If a cursory glance at the news isn’t sufficient to persuade you that we urgently need to change direction, then nothing will. Thankfully, there are already millions of people who do recognise how serious the situation is and want to play their part in changing things, and so ensure that their children and grandchildren can grow up in a world that allows them to fully realise their hopes and aspirations. This substack is for you.
It’s not easy to find ways in which to make a difference. Too many people who do care, allow themselves to be dragged into the rabbit holes of ideology-riven politics, spending their energies shouting at anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs to the letter. Meanwhile the world burns, the migrants drown and Donald Trump continues to mock humanity from behind his lectern.
Should we be scared? Yes, I think we should. But we mustn’t despair. Let’s use our fear to motivate us to better understand how we arrived at this point, and how we might effect the kind of change required to save the planet and extend the benefits of living in prosperous, secure and free societies to many more people.
For the past couple of centuries, steadily more of us have come to understand that we have a role in creating conditions in which greater numbers might enjoy a better quality of life. Driven by moral advances, and assisted by scientific, technological and medical innovations, this project of ‘progressive’ politics has met with considerable success. But progress has always been patchy: some people in certain parts of the world have befitted greatly, while others have seen little or no improvement.
And where progress has been made, it has been difficult to lock in. It is punctuated by regular episodes of backsliding: the two world wars and, most egregiously, The Holocaust, are prime examples. As quickly as we convince ourselves that the atrocities of earlier stages of civilization are history, we are shocked to discover how quickly they can re-emerge.
In the pieces that follow, I hope to show that there are explicit conditions for progress, but that if we don’t take positive steps to nurture those conditions, not only will we fail to counter these, what the economist Nouriel Roubini has termed, ‘megathreats’, but historical progressive gains will inevitably unravel; a process that is already underway in parts of the world.
Some argue that the fragile human psyche and the tendency of people not to empathise with their fellow humans make the pursuit of progress futile. But human beings don’t all share a common psychological character, nor do we all suffer an inability to empathise. Humankind comprises billions of people with widely different world views and contrasting moral outlooks. Many already believe in the possibility of a better world, and most would like to see it, even if they have doubts about how it might be achieved. Certainly, others are more pessimistic and even cynical, or simply don’t care, but if we can identify the causes of these contrasting outlooks, and gain a better understand of how some people come to adopt a more morally ambitious world view, then perhaps we can turn ‘human nature’ into a power for good.
Many of those already so motivated choose politics as the vehicle for their aspirations. But as a means for creating a more just, inclusive and sustainable world, political institutions have lost the capacity to effect change. Politics is often described as ‘the art of compromise’, a process through which the interests of competing groups can be, more or less, reconciled. This strikes me as a wholly inadequate objective, because it assumes that human beings will be forever split into competing groups with irreconcilable interests. And it ignores what we all have in common. These supposedly irreconcilable interests are a created by those with power; the kind of people who have always sought to divide society in order to further entrench their own privilege. There will be more on this crucial topic of class struggle: it’s as relevant as ever, if not in the outmoded form by which most people understand it.
Even if the reconciliation of competing interests were the best we could hope for, compromise has become a dirty word in politics. Many of today’s politicians take great pleasure in baiting their opponents. The veneer of civility in politics has long since worn through.
The extension of improved economic security and enhanced life opportunities to greater numbers in many countries since 1945 has made us complacent about the future. An economic system that delivers security to appreciable numbers has convinced us that the struggle for social justice has been won. And because we like to think of our own time as more civilized than previous eras, we are deaf to calls for further progress, content to rest on the fading laurels of our forebears’ achievements, instead of recognising how much work remains to be done just to protect those historical gains.
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Today the world finds itself in a struggle between established liberal democracy, which has lost its power to persuade people of its merits as a force for good; and authoritarian nationalism, a doctrine that, while never supplanted in many parts of the world, now rears its ugly head everywhere, precisely in reaction to the failings of liberal democracy.
This project argues for the possibility of an altogether different way forward, one that rejects the spectre of authoritarian nationalism but acknowledges the failure of liberal democracy. I’m not suggesting that these two political systems are equally bad, only that democracy has lost much of its power to keep authoritarian nationalism at bay. As democratic governments have given up on promoting majority interests, many citizens have themselves given up on conventional politics and started voting, albeit unwittingly, against their own interests. When established democracies start electing anti-democrats like Donald Trump, we are clearly in trouble. We need to work out how to transform democracy from ‘the worst form of Government except for all those other forms’ to the unassailable and universally-supported only game in town.
If politics is not fit for the purpose of helping us navigate our way through the current crisis, then we must change the way we do politics. We need a new political paradigm. The current one, constrained as it is by notions of left and right, is no longer up to the task.
Over the last four decades, with the political right in the ascendancy, considerable progress has nonetheless been made in respect of equal rights for minorities and greater equality for women. Yet the problems we face are growing, not reducing, largely as a consequence of failings in the system by which we satisfy our material needs: the economy. In economic terms, the left still relies on an armoury of interventionist weapons which has barely been updated since 1945. The centre appears to think that if we just turn the clock back thirty years to the days of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, all our problems will miraculously disappear. In the meantime, and as the world races away from this outmoded thinking, the conservative right is happily dividing up the economic spoils of a world in perpetual crisis among its friends. Ideologues of left and right seem to enjoy endless battles for the soul of our societies, oblivious to the fact that such battles have no winners and serve only to distract us from tackling the very real threats to our collective wellbeing.
The kind of political and economic changes required to save the planet, to reduce inequality, increase economic security and extinguish the factors that encourage so many people to embrace unreason, go beyond mere tinkering. They will need to be at least as radical as the changes implemented by western nations in the aftermath of World War II. Outlining a new political paradigm, one capable of transforming the structures and institutions that shape our lives by encouraging a politics based on explicitly-stated values, and around which consensus can be established, is the ambitious objective of the this project. Most people just want to get on with their lives in a society where they can earn a reasonable living and do so in the expectation that their children might enjoy the same. Despite the much-heralded benefits of globalisation, this is still not the experience of the majority of the world’s people. A new way of thinking about politics is essential if we are to extend the benefits of civilization to more human beings.
Adopting any political position that slots in neatly somewhere along the left / right spectrum (and that includes moderates who think of themselves as centrist) is bound to fail. Taking a political position that sets you against large numbers who have a quite different world view only serves to drive a greater wedge between people instead of encouraging them to find the common ground essential to creating the consensus on which progress depends. More people need to understand why the current political paradigm is not fit for purpose. And that requires recruits from all points on the spectrum: left, right and centre.
This substack is a work of philosophy first and foremost. It may draw on other disciplines: history, economics, political science, sociology, psychology even evolutionary biology, but as a work of philosophy, it is a speculation on possibilities of collective human existence far into the future, with a built-in bias in favour of less suffering and more people living happier, fulfilled lives. While this approach requires us to consider all that has gone before, both in terms of historical thought and actual historical developments, it also demands that we take a step back and return to first principles. There are reasons why centuries of technical advance, and improvements in human ingenuity and understanding have failed to eradicate hunger and homelessness, for example. A first-principles approach will enable us to identify these reasons and work out how to overcome them.
We need to imagine the kind of world we would create if we were beginning from scratch, but with the knowledge and experience of generations of human beings to guide us. Of course, current efforts to mitigate suffering must continue while we work out this new political paradigm and implement the structural changes it demands. But in order to achieve more than mitigation: to create conditions in which more people enjoy greater security and no longer require such sticking-plaster interventions, we must start to think differently.
To those who decry all of this as naïve utopianism, I say this: tell that to the homeless young person dying of cold on the streets of Chicago, to the mother in Malawi forced to walk miles to find medical treatment for her malnourished child, or to the refugee children in Poland forced from their Ukrainian homes while their father remains to defend their country from an unhinged fascist aggressor. Are you seriously saying there is nothing to be done to improve the life experiences of these and millions of others whose daily struggle we can’t even begin to imagine?
This not an argument for equality. It is argument for less inequality in a world in which everyone is able to provide for their essential material needs. This is hardly utopian. It’s the kind of world that many of us in richer nations take for granted. What gives us the right to keep this privilege to ourselves? And if your answer is: ‘of course it would be nice for everyone to enjoy such benefits, but it’s simply not possible’, then keep reading.
The biggest obstacle to creating a better world is ourselves, or rather our inability to agree that such a project is worthwhile and how best to go about it. And surely, if a better world is possible, why would anyone choose not to support that project?
The pieces on this substack come under three headings: Context, Commentary and, occasionally Culture. Under the former you will find mainly long-form pieces looking in depth at issues we must consider if we are to find effective solutions and develop an alternative politics capable of setting humankind firmly on the path to progress. Under Commentary you will find pieces responding to current events, along with reviews and critiques of what other thinkers are saying on these issues. And under Culture I will celebrate some of the things that make life worthwhile, not just as an antidote to the relentless work of finding a way through our current malaise, but also because it is through culture, creativity and the arts that we humans are able to transcend the daily grind of securing our material needs and maximise our enjoyment of life. Although the long-form pieces can be read in any order, the numbers attached to them reflect an order of sorts, so if you’ve decided to binge read the whole lot, you might want to stick to that order.
Always concerned with improving the lot of ordinary people, the economist John Maynard Keynes told us that,
‘the difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds’
Most of the ideas outlined in the pieces that follow are hardly new, it’s just that they have not, as yet, been coherently expressed in a way that might allow a narrative to emerge that people in sufficient numbers can understand and embrace. It’s the story of how our remarkable civilization might survive the 21st century not just intact, but in better shape than any of us thought possible.