By “infrastructure” I mean all the organizations that determine how societies and the world are run, and the thinking and politics behind them. The range of influences is vast – it must for example include our own upbringing; all education; business; the various churches; plus charities and ad hoc organizations like our own Real Farming Trust (which is also a registered charity); and all of them have their accompanying bureaucracies which often acquire their own momentum. But the most widely recognized, formal, and usually the most influential inputs are those of Governance, The Economy, and The Law. We have to get these right, or we’re in trouble — as of course is the case: for all the world’s present ills can be traced for the most part not to deficiencies in technique, or in human nature, and still less in the fabric of the Earth itself, but to bad or inappropriate organization.
The details of the infrastructure may in practice be infinitely varied – and how could it not be so? But that’s good: vive la difference. The individual quirks of societies and the people they include are the stuff of culture. But the general framework should surely be the same for all. For whatever form it takes, the infrastructure must operate in accordance with the bedrock principles of morality and ecology, and should aspire to the Goal of conviviality, personal fulfilment, and harmony with the natural world.
Whether and to what extent the government, the economy and the law can be said to be successful, should be judged according to whether they do operate within the bedrock principles, and whether they do lead us towards the Goal. Movement towards the stated Goal should be what’s meant by progress. Much of what conventionally counts as progress, including economic “growth” and fancier and fancier technologies, is often mere razzmatazz and often leads us further from what ought to be the Goal.
In practice, no society that I know about has ever sought specifically to conduct its affairs according to the bedrock principles, or geared its governance, economy, and laws to what I am suggesting should be the Goal, or expressly attempted to do so. Such airy thoughts have not been on the agenda. Nowadays, the most powerful governments seem fixated on economic “growth” and dominance, which is commonly construed these days as “market share”. But then, it’s largely because they are focused on wealth that dominance that they become the most powerful – and hence set the tone for all the rest of society. In short, the institutions that dominate the world are simply not designed or equipped to make the world a better place.
In the following I want to look at each of the three prime ingredients of the infrastructure: governance, the economy, and the law. Just to hammer the point: all should be rooted in the bedrock principles of morality (what is it good to do) and ecology (what is it necessary and possible to do). As discussed below, the bedrock principles are qualitatively different from, and are far more important than, any particular ideology.
Most governments through all of history have fallen far short of what is truly desirable and most still do – so would we not be better off without them? Do we indeed need governments at all?
Assuming we do need governments, what do we want them to do? What form should they take? How much power should we give them? How can we ensure that we finish up with the governance we need and want? How can we get rid of governments that aren’t working in our best interests?
Above all, why does humanity put up with the general awfulness? How and why do we allow inadequate and often criminal people to remain in power?
All these questions are crucial. But as with all big questions, none seems to be thoroughly addressed – or not thoroughly enough, and not at least by people at large, which in an alleged democracy is surely necessary. So here and in Further Thoughts is a modest contribution to the discussion that’s needed:
Do we need government at all?
Many serious, moral, and deep-thinking people these past few thousand years have concluded that we do not. Anarchism – as opposed to anarchy, which tends simply to mean disarray – is a respectable political philosophy. As outlined below in Further Thoughts, Tolstoy and his younger contemporary Peter Kropotkin were among its heavyweight advocates in late 19th century Russia as the tsars floundered and the bureaucrats proliferated.
But alas we probably do need governments of a kind – specialists and generalists who are best able to take decisions that affect us all, and to create some kind of coherence. But what kind of governments? Surely we can improve on what we usually finish up with?
How can we do better?
As always the complexities are endless but the underlying principles are simple. As follows:
1: Overall, the job of governments should be to enable and encourage good things to happen – where “good things” I suggest means the Goal, as defined above. Thus:
First,they should seek to enhance conviviality in society as a whole: enable and encourage what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” to poke their heads above the parapet. In the materialistic, ultra-competitive, neoliberal atmosphere of modern Britain the better angels are given short shrift, and the people who most obviously spend their lives in the service of others (nurses, care-workers, teachers) find it harder and harder to make a living at all. This isn’t how things should be or what government is supposed to be for.
Secondly, governments should help everyone to achieve personal fulfilment. That requires broad and versatile education for everyone, preferably throughout life; and opportunities to work at whatever is most satisfying – including work on the land!; and a reasonable and secure material base – house, food, healthcare. In Britain, still among the richest country in the world and well enable to afford all of these things if the wealth was equitably distributed, all is up for grabs.
Thirdly,governments need to look after the natural world – or at least to make sure that the people who know what they are doing (insofar as this is possible) have the freedom and resources to do what’s necessary. The biosphere should not be seen simply as the “environment” and attended to, if at all, as an afterthought; and certainly should not, as now, be seen simply as a “resource”.
2: All policy and all action must be rooted in the bedrock principles of morality (what is it good to do) and ecology (what is it necessary and what is it possible to do).
What government in the history of the world has ever sought explicitly to do this? To be sure, Harold Wilson in a campaign speech in 1961 declared that “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing” – which at least expresses intent. But neither Labour nor any major party in any modern state has ever seen the biosphere as more than an add-on – or indeed in this neoliberal age, as more than a “resource”.
Indeed, I venture that no political party in any powerful country has ever spelled out what out to be their task. Most seem content with slogans. “Make America great again”, said Trump. “Take back control”, said the Brexiteers. “Growth, growth, growth”, said Truss. Gross, gross, gross. Fatuous, fatuous, fatuous.
3: Democracy is of prime importance. At the very least, as a casual acquaintance told Stevens the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, “We should be free to make our own mistakes”. Indeed. It seems perverse in the extreme to appoint people to high office who then make bigger mistakes than any ordinary person would have made. To be sure, democracy is immensely difficult – almost impossible to get right. But we have to stick at it.
But although the principles are simple, or at least are simply stated, the complexities as always are endless. Indeed they surely have occupied humankind ever since our ancestors first began truly to rationalize, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of years ago. All is discussed — or will be, in the fullness of time, with luck — in Further Thoughts. As always, please comment.
Further thoughts on Governance
Given that in practice we probably do need governments we need, first, to ask what we want those governments to do; secondly, to ensure that we install the kinds of governments we think we need; and, thirdly – and at least equally important – ensure that we can get rid of governments that fail to … Read more
Tolstoy no less in his essay “On Anarchy” in 1900 asked whether we need government at all and concluded that on the whole we would be better off without – provided we, people at large, take responsibility for our own actions and behave as moral beings: “The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation … Read more
Nothing is in greater need of a complete re-think than the discipline of economics. For it has two sides to it, and the two have never been satisfactorily reconciled; and this, in large part, is why the world is in such a mess.
Thus on the one hand —
The economy is the mechanism and the medium through which we are able to translate our dreams and aspirations into reality – or are prevented from doing so.
So in practice the prevailing economic system determines how we live, and how we can live. Indeed it shapes us: the kind of people we become; or at least has a very great influence. Thus it affects our attitudes, and hence the way we treat other people and the natural world, and the way that different societies regard and interact with each other and how the human species interacts with the rest of nature. Thus the economy is pivotal. It reaches into every aspect of our lives: psychological, political, moral, spiritual, ecological.
And yet on the other hand the economy is inescapably a down-to-earth material pursuit. In practice indeed the economy is played out as a game of money – where “game” does not simply mean “frivolous pursuit” but is used as in “game theory” to mean the sum of all the interactions between the interested parties (the players). In either case it’s a huge mistake to assume that “game” necessarily means “competitive”. Games can equally well be cooperative – as in the footballers’ “keepy-uppy”: where one or several players try to see how long they can keep the ball in the air just by kicking it. Indeed since all games must be played by rules, more or less by definition, all must to some extent be cooperative, since the game breaks down unless everyone agrees to play by those rules.
If we assume as I am suggesting that our aspiration should be to create an agreeable world in which we and our fellow creatures can thrive for aeons to come then we could say that the task before economists must be –
To devise a game of money that will enable us to create convivial societies and enhance personal fulfilment and keep the natural world in good heart.
To my knowledge, very few if any economists these past few centuries have ever defined their agenda in these terms. Some indeed have been enlightened moralists (including Karl Marx and Adam Smith — who are both ill-served by many of their followers) but none until recently has included the natural world in their cogitations. (Marx did at least acknowledge the existence and the importance of the natural world as many economists do not but he lived in the age before ecology so could not bring these concerns properly into the fold). Many – notably the modern neoliberals, who now prevail – have focused purely on the making of money, and made a virtue of this. “Growth, growth, growth!” was Liz Truss’s infamous battle-cry during her brief incumbency as PM. But what really matters is how the money is raised – in ways that help people and the natural world, or (as often is all too obviously the case) are damaging?; what the money is used for (projects that benefit us all, or more super-yachts?); and who gets their hands on it (people at large, or those who are already rich?).
There is much to discuss. More below in Further Thoughts. One caveat: I have never studied economics formally, and have read far too little. But I take heart from Kate Raworth’s comment in Doughnut Economics (2012):
“Every now and again, being untutored can be an intellectual asset”
In this regard my own credentials are exemplary.
Besides, it is clear, is it not, that the economy is far too important to leave to economists, who on the whole have a narrow outlook on life, and to politicians who on the whole feel the need to toe the party line. In this as in all serious matters we must all get involved.
Further thoughts on The economy
A (fairly long) shopping list of what seem to be promising ideas.
Economists are wont to cluster in think tanks and pop up on television to explain not only what is wrong with the economy but what is wrong with the world in general. In other words, because they are good at what they do and are wont to dazzle us with jargon and acronyms and mathematical … Read more
The belief that economics can be a science has led many an economist to search for the economic equivalent of E=Mc2 or the elusive Grand Unified Theory; a search for huge if not quite all-embracing truths that can be expressed as mathematical algorithms or, more simply, as slogans. Examples include Karl Marx’s “the workers must … Read more
As the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (1903-1983) put the matter in 1962 in Economic Philosophy: “All along [economics] has been striving to escape from sentiment and to win for itself the status of a science … [but] … lacking the experimental method, economists are not strictly enough compelled to reduce metaphysical concepts to falsifiable terms … Read more
A cautionary tale for all humankind for all time. Truly, Kwasi and Liz are the stuff of legend. If they had lived deep in antiquity they would still be remembered in fables and folk-tales, not as role models but as a warning to us all. For besides trashing the British economy in a few brief … Read more
The Law, like everything else, must be rooted in the bedrock laws of morality and ecology, and should be designed to help us reach the Goal of conviviality, fulfilment, and oneness with the natural world. In practice, although lawyers are often excellent – many are extremely clever and some are outstanding moralists, and courageous to boot – the law itself, both as it is framed and as it is practiced, often falls woefully short of what’s required. As always, we need to ask why this is so, and what we can do to make things better.
Of key concern – the greatest challenge of all – are the laws that now aspire to control the way the land is treated: who should own land and for what purposes; and – the even greater question – what the concept of ownership entails and whether it should ever be applied to the land itself: the all-too-finite “resource” on which we all depend.