We seem to be faced with a world dominated by epic challenges which we (the most intelligent species ever to walk the planet) are both inflicting upon ourselves and are victimised by at the same time. Mass extinction, poverty, inequality, climate change, the rise of narrow minded populism that breeds hate and division.
Is change possible, without disaster, crisis, or violent revolution? Can we ever release the energy of what William James called ‘the moral equivalent of war’?It seems to me, as often pondered about on this blog, that we are desperate for a new narrative.
A narrative of hope- one that connects our intellect to our sense of decency. (A place that used to be taken in our culture by faith)
An economic narrative that no longer makes people subordinate to profit, or the life of the planet subordinate to ‘economic growth’.
A political narrative that rejects nationalism, borders, me-firstism, empire building/empire nostalagising. One that is prepared to engage with new ideas, no just defend old ones.
A life-style narrative that rejects the pursuit of stuff to fill the vacuum left by emptiness and pointlessness.
Narratives like this, of course, are dangerous- not just to elites. They can result in all sorts of unforeseen negative consequences, because they often both arise from and create, instability. Think of the great ideological clashes of the 20th C. Did they create the circumstances that led to war, or did they emerge from it? Either way, should this mean that we resist new ideas and refuse to dream of how things can be better? Do we stick with our current narrative? I would argue that increasingly, this is simply not an option.
So where are these new narratives?
If we were to choose one dominant idea that might be said to dominate our culture at present it is this one: individualism. We are all individual consumers with our individual consumer rights living in our individual boxes driving our individual cars. It is not surprising then that the narrative of change is often framed as an individual choice too. We can make different consumer choices- softer ones. We can recycle our stuff, grow a bit of our veg, make do with a bit less excess.
I am perhaps an embodiment of this narrative. I chose to go from a £50K pa salary down to living from odds and sods and planting my own poly tunnels. I might not change the world, but at least I can feel smug as everything else goes to shit.
And that is the point. Of course individual decisions are important, but only if they are collectivised. Only if we establish a mass movement of individuals will significant change be possible.
So once again, where are the narratives that will create this mass movement? Our political parties have become stalemated by a Brexit debate that entirely misses the point- like all binary in/out yes/no referendums are bound to when faced with issues that are so nuanced that they can mean whatever we want them to mean.
But the narratives are there, if you look for them.
It is perhaps unsurprising that in order to deal with inequality, both globally and nationally, we have to talk about tax. We have to talk about wages and we have to talk about poverty. We can not just blame poor people any more, we have to look at the actual causes and sustaining factors of poverty.
We have to look at how rich people stay rich. We have to examine how wealth impacts health. We have to look at the private education system in the UK.
We have to understand the impact of unequal trade on the poorest people in the poorest countries in the world.
We have to call out those who cry ‘fake news’ at anyone who mentions the uncomfortable desperate realities of climate change.
But understanding will only take us so far. We easily get stuck on defining what is wrong – we have to then decide what we are going to do to address the wrong we have discovered.
I think we have to start by talking about ideas- treasuring them, trying them out. We have to start a mass movement towards change by allowing voices who are proposing alternatives to be heard above all the other noise. So, to add my small piece to this, here are a couple of clips featuring Rutger Bregman, the young Dutch historian who wrote a book called Utopia for Realists.
The first clip is doing the rounds on FB- you may have already seen it. (Thanks to Andrew Hill for pointing me towards it!) The second is an interview with Owen Jones about the book.