New ideas for a depolarised and less dangerous form of politics
We have framed political discussion for at least the last century in terms of left and right. We talk about fascism v communism, socialism v conservationism, liberalism v neoliberalism, religious fundamentalism v environmentalism. The US election offers only two options — one is moderately left, the other extremely right.
The Polarisation of Politics
In the States, here in the UK and elsewhere, we are becoming a world polarised and paralysed by our views, so much so that we have started to define people by their politics. The miraculous combination of billions of cells, trillions of electrical connections that make each of us who we are, our consciousness, compassion, experiences, capabilities — all reduced to, what, who we want to lead us? Donald, Joe, Borris? Really?
Our intensely polarised politics is grinding to a halt.
Well-oiled politics is important. It allows us to address our differences peacefully. History teaches us that the alternative to the political resolution of differences is violent resolution. It also teaches us how appalling are the outcomes of violent resolution to the vast majority of people, terrible for the majority of winners, even worse for the losers.
Politics is currently stuck between left and right. It is a destructive vision. We need healthier politics that can transcend the impasse. We can achieve it by expanding the direction of focus from left and right to forwards and backwards as well.
How does this work in practice? How can we define a political vision based on progression and regression instead of just left and right?
To understand how it works, it helps to understand how society develops.
The Ages of Society
Before communities coalesce into a deliberate society, they are largely self-sufficient. They offer what, by today’s standards, are little more than subsistence living. They are safe places. No hospitals, no unemployment benefit, high infant mortality, a low average life expectancy. A key characteristic is the absence of protection against the elements or against others. This is the age of Pre-Society. It is mainly anarchy.
The next age arrives with the emergence of a strongman (we need a gender-neutral term for this), seemingly without exception, who subdues enough competing strongmen to establish the basis of deliberate society. People are safer than in Pre-Society, providing they do not seek to undermine their leaders. Centralised management allows economic structures to emerge that usher in the huge economic gains of specialisation. It also offers material protection through economic gains and physical protection through military primacy. A key characteristic is thecentralisation of control both economically and militarily. This is the age of Autocracy.
The next age delivers further gains that are achieved through decentralising elements of economic management. Autocrats tend to be good at building and maintaining centres of power but less versed in economics. So decentralisation offers significant economic and social gains through innovation and greater productivity as investment and management are influenced by more people with more diverse perspectives and skills. A key characteristic is partial decentralisation of economic management, whilst centralisation of military capacity is retained. We do not currently have a term for this stage of society. It is not Democracy, as many would have, because democracy is a structure of politics, not an outcome. For want of a better term, I refer to this as the age of Representative Government because its outcome is a fairer and more equal representation of the interests of all members of society in the application of social and economic policy and the distribution of society’s output.
A Progressive Form of Politics
Within this perspective of society, the politics that draw society toward anarchic tendencies is described as regressive or moving backwards. Where society tends towards Representative Government, it is described as progressive or moving forwards.
Some would bristle at the idea that moving from Representative Government to Autocracy is backwards. It is an entirely valid personal aspiration be governed by an autocrat. In that respect, the direction of “forwards” is not intended to denote that a representative society is better than and autocratic one. Rather, there is compelling evidence that the overall outcomes of society, measured in terms of sustainable collective human quality of life for members of society, improve as society moves from Anarchy, through Autocracy to Representative Government. The direction of travel is defined by the presumption, which is not accepted universally, that the goal of Society is to maximise the collective quality of life for its members.
How does this help the current breakdown in politics?
Using this frame of reference, the difference between left and right is no longer characterised as two competing ways to move society forwards. Rather, it is more concerned with how different groups shares in society’s gains. At their extreme, both fascism and communism have some key attributes in common. They both centralise both military control and economic management. In that sense, they both occupy the same stage of progression. Neither delivers better overall outcomes than the other. Where they fundamentally differ relates to who occupies the top seat and how the method by which they persuade the population to support their continuing leadership.
Left v right politics is less about the quality of society and more about who are the winners and losers. That is what makes it divisive. In the US, the whole of politics is steeped in a zero-sum game - if you win, I lose and vice versa. It is not good for the health of society at large. And in the midst of the current COVID-19 crisis, it turns out to be particularly unhealthy for a colossal number of individuals within society too.
Within this frame of reference, capitalism and democracy are means by which to achieve greater degrees of economic and social decentralisation. Neither seeks to undermine the essential centralised military control, although each has its own ideas on securing that control. Discussions about the how law and order works are partly about fairness, such as structuring the system of tax and social safety net, and partly about retaining effective centralisation of control, such as equipping and empowering the military and police force.
The concept of politics driving society forwards and backwards will not reduce society’s complexity or nuance. It will not put an end to the internal struggles around self-interest. But it adds a different, collective dimension through which the current rigid polarisation that threatens the very fabric of politics might be softened. And for everyone who buys into the goal of society as maximising the collective wellbeing of its members, it offers a whole new set of ideas and language through which politics might become driven more strongly by the principles of interdependence, justice and accountability to all members of society.