Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Do you ever ask yourself “what’s going on?” I’m sure you do. There’s a trend which seems to be at it’s peak just now (at least, I’m hoping it’s about to decline!), which you can trace back to Enlightenment, the development of positivism as a philosophy and, emerging from that background a belief in the power of capital and reductionist science to produce both our globalised financial/political power elite and scientism (the belief that science, and only science, can reveal “truth”).

I recently watched Inside Job. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. It’s the clearest explanation of the 2008 financial crash and its roots I’ve read or heard. The frustrating thing about Inside Job is how it reveals that the same elite is still in power, still in the money, and still in control.

Then I read an article by Sam Harris in The Nation.

More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes. (This strain of positivism is not to be confused with that of the French sociologist Auguste Comte.) The decades between the Civil War and World War I were positivism’s golden age. Positivists boasted that science was on the brink of producing a total explanation of the nature of things, which would consign all other explanations to the dustbin of mythology. Scientific research was like an Easter egg hunt: once the eggs were gathered the game would be over, the complexities of the cosmos reduced to natural law. Science was the only repository of truth, a sovereign entity floating above the vicissitudes of history and power. Science was science.

What’s the connection between this and the financial crises? –

During the past several decades, there has been a revival of positivism alongside the resurgence of laissez-faire economics and other remnants of late-nineteenth-century social thought. E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) launched pop-evolutionary biologism on the way to producing “evolutionary psychology”—a parascience that reduces complex human social interactions to adaptive behaviors inherited from our Pleistocene ancestors. Absence of evidence from the Pleistocene did not deter evolutionary psychologists from telling Darwinian stories about the origins of contemporary social life. Advances in neuroscience and genetics bred a resurgent faith in the existence of something called human nature and the sense that science is on the verge of explaining its workings, usually with reference to brains that are “hard-wired” for particular kinds of adaptive, self-interested behavior.

Beginning to see the connections?

Then along comes Adam Curtis’ new documentary on BBC2, All Watched Over by Machines of Love and Grace. What a strange title! It comes from a poem of that title by Richard Brautigan. It’s a three part series, and this first episode focused on Ayn Rand and her disciples, including the still influential Alan Greenspan. What a disturbing piece! I found it alarming to see such an emphasis on selfishness, such disdain about altruism, and such delusional belief in the power of “rationalism” to control outcomes. But these ideas still seem to be the foundation of the current power base in the world.

When I started this blog, and titled it “Heroes not Zombies”, I wrote about how to make zombies – and, later, I wrote about limits to control. Are there signs of change?

I do think the next wave will be based on an understanding that the world is not predictable, not controllable, and that human beings are not best served by being dominated by power elites, or so called “experts” (“scientific” or otherwise!)

But it’s a long road ahead……!

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While away on a trip to Japan recently I came across a news item about Bhutan’s development of a national happiness index. I’d read about this a few years ago and thought it was interesting but maybe just a gimmick or a passing fancy. I think it was the King of Bhutan who decided that instead of measuring and reporting the “GDP” (“Gross Domestic Product”) of the country each year, it would be more useful to measure and report the “GNH” (“Gross National Happiness”). Well, apparently others, including the IMF asked the rulers of Bhutan exactly how they thought they could measure such a thing, and this has encouraged a wide-ranging and elaborate process of developing and experimenting with “tools” to measure the GNH.
They decided that happiness involved significant achievements in each of nine core dimensions of which happiness and well-being were constituted.

1.    Psychological Well-being
2.   Time Use
3.   Community Vitality
4.   Culture
5.   Health
6.   Education
7.   Environmental Diversity
8.   Living Standard
9.   Governance
Each of these domains is made up a number of indicators and you can read descriptions of each of these dimensions and their indicators here

This work is way too vast to reproduce in a blog post but I encourage you to follow the link to the Bhutan government’s site about this and have a browse. The range of questions they ask is astonishing, comprehensive and holistic. They have a distinct cultural flavour which is appropriate to Bhutan but the general principles are certainly transferrable to other cultures. What fascinates me is the emphasis given by the this approach on the subjective experiences of the population. It seems a serious attempt to put the sum of personal experience above the sum of material goods and wealth.

When I returned home, I stumbled on the “New Economics Foundation”  who have produced an interesting report entitled “National Accounts of Well-being” which compares quality of life indices across 22 European countries. This work covers some similar domains to the Bhutan work, but it reads almost like a subset of that latter project. In particular they consider Personal well-being, Social well-being and Work well-being. Social well-being is split into Supportive relationships and Trust and belonging, whilst Personal well-being is split into Emotional well-being, Satisfying life, Vitality, Resilience and self-esteem, and Positive functioning (each of which are further subdivided)
The results of this European work can be explored in a fascinating interactive website here

I find both of these projects fascinating. They demonstrate serious attempts to value human experience over that of indicators of material production and consumption. What do you think?

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I don’t know about you but in the middle of this “world economic crisis” I’m just not hearing what seems like a decent plan. The main so-called solutions seem to be about how to get people borrowing and spending again. But weren’t borrowing and spending actually at the heart of the problem? Wasn’t it the system which encouraged the unregulated pursuit of self-interest which produced exactly the current crisis? But tired old slanging matches between free market capitalists and state control advocates just seem like debates about who should hold the reigns of power. It feels like something more radical and new is needed. I found myself saying, don’t we need a society more based on love, than on power? (and does that mean I’ve never quite left Woodstock, flower power, and the “LA habit” behind?)
I’ve long since been impressed with the work of Richard Wilkinson and been convinced about his findings on inequality so when he commented on one of my posts recommending his latest book, The Spirit Level (ISBN 978-1-846-14039-6), I knew a trip to Amazon was imminent.
Most of The Spirit Level, which he has written with Kate Pickett, re-presents the findings and the arguments I’ve read before. If you’ve never read any of his work, then is, for sure, the best starting place. However, where it got exciting for me was at chapter 14. In fact, the last three chapters of the book were the three which gripped me most strongly.
The authors quote Thomas Hobbes who believed that there was always a danger of conflict in human societies as people competed over scarce resources, so the purpose of strong government was to keep the peace. You’ll be familiar with the Hobbes’ phrase that without such government life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Against this view they propose

“As well as the potential for conflict, human beings have a unique potential to be each other’s best source of co-operation, learning, love and assistance of every kind. While there’s not much that ostriches or otters can do far an injured member of their own species, among humans there is.”

They describe the ‘ultimate game’ where volunteers are paired randomly, one is given a sum of money and told to propose to the other a share of the money. If the ‘responder’ accepts the proposal both keep the money. If they reject it, neither keeps the money. Interestingly, what happens is that the commonest offer is 50%. This is despite the fact it’s made clear that there will be only one ‘round’ of this game and the volunteers will never meet again. ‘Responders’ reject offers less than 20% on average, so punishing greedy proposers. This shows two interesting human characteristics – co-operation and “altruistic punishment” which reinforces co-operative behaviour.
Somewhat startlingly, but undeniably, they claim that human beings have lived for 90% of our history in egalitarian societies based on co-operative, hunter-gatherer groups, and only with the invention of agriculture did dominance hierarchies develop.
Their conclusion is to call for more “affiliative strategies”

At one extreme, dominance hierarchies are about self-advancement and status competition. Individuals have to be self-reliant and other people are encountered mainly as rivals for food and mates. At the other extreme is mutual interdependence and co-operation, in which each person’s security depends on the quality of their relationships with others, and a sense of self-worth comes less from status than from the contribution made to the well-being of others. Rather than the overt pursuit of material self-interest, affiliative strategies depend on mutuality, reciprocity and the capacity for empathy and emotional bonding.

I think this hits the nail on the head. I think we need some bright minds to come up with the  detailed methods, but I do believe what we need now is a radical realignment of our energies and our structures away from the mistaken belief that competitive self-interest producing dominance hierarchies are the best model for society, back to our roots, to the 90% of our history, to

“mutuality, reciprocity and the capacity for empathy and emotional bonding”

Wilkinson and Pickett make it clear that their research has compared existing developed nations, not current models against a hypothetical utopian one. If we can reduce our enormous economic inequalities, we can look forward to less violent, more healthy societies. If you’re not convinced about that, read this book.

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Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech

I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed, moved and inspired by a politician’s speech, than I am by this one.

His beliefs about the possibility of change, the importance of hope and the need for people to join together to act as adults really strike the right chord with me.

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