06/12/16: An alternative to the spectre of violence and destruction that stalks today’s politics.
Politics is the art of accommodating conflicting desires and aspirations. The challenge is that we can never be certain of the interaction of outcomes any individual course of action. It helps to explain why politicians are so reviled in so many places. How much better off would we be if we could predict the future?
The Art of Prediction
Every human being is intensely complex. Physiologically, we have trillions of cells in our bodies which work in harmony. They give us our senses, our perception and they drive our behaviour. They are sculpted and fashioned by our experiences and how we understand those experiences. A lifetime of experiences is bound to throw up some really complex behavioural patterns.
If each individual is uniquely complex, it is not difficult to see why it is so difficult to understand how 7 billion unique people, each with their individual complexities and quirks, will choose to interact with each other. It is bound to be difficult.
Humans do not have the mental capacity to truly understand seven billion of anything. So we create simplified models that help us understand what is going on, in order to help us predict the future. This is why the economic and political models we use are so deeply important. Our failure to have predicted some of the economically and politically shattering events of the last decade or so highlight how poorly our existing models have served us.
So here is an updated model that should help us see better where we have been going wrong, with new clues on how to fix it.
The Politics of Shame
Most people are familiar with the traditional model of politics of a socialist/communist left wing, a liberal democratic centre and a capitalist/fascist right wing. The method of assessing the effectiveness of society is monetary wealth. It has merit, and has served us far better than previous models. But its shortcomings are unhelpfully framed in the past, not the present.
The model starts with shame. The Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen made an interesting point in a talk he was giving on poverty. He said that shame was a fundamental part of poverty. People in poverty feel ashamed of being in poverty. His then mentioned as an aside that, as best as he has been able to tell, this is a feature of poverty throughout history. If so, why?
People in poverty feel so ashamed, they are uncomfortable even to talk about their circumstances. It seems that has always been the case. The same is true of people with addictions. Most people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol hide their addictions. And of illness. People with cancer, HIV, or life-threatening illnesses have to summon up uncommon amounts of courage to open up to their families, associates or communities. And of abuse. Most women, men and children who suffer domestic abuse do so in silence. They are not free to share their troubles with others, because they feel humiliated, they fear they will be seen as weak or to blame for the daily terror they endure. It is still a major step for people who are homosexual or lesbian to “come out”. A woman who can see no future for herself other than by selling her body, or who is forced into sexual slavery, feels shame. And of so many other conditions to disadvantaged people.
Shame is associated with being part of a community. It is the very human way of pushing people to the fringes of a community, or pushing them outside altogether. If someone is shunned, they have no rights to participate in society. Once that happens, they have little alternative to anti-social behaviour to survive, because society does not provide for their needs in any other way. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Push people to the fringes and they are left with little choice for survival to act in ways that are not socially acceptable, which emboldens the pushers to push further.
The rejection of people through shame is a powerful tool because it is such a core part of our human constitution. There are three problems with using it in this way. (1) When it is used too widely, it becomes counter-productive. Pushing people to the fringes of society means their potential to participate in powering up the engine of production is wasted. (2) There are few rules that relate to pushing. At best, they are imprecise. It is frequently used unjustly, where blame is placed on people who are blameless. Once marginalised, they have no recourse to justice. (3) It is available as a tool for one group of people to use it to control the behaviour of others, denying freedom to the targeted group to live as they choose. This is the basis of what Shakespeare called the “mountainous inhumanity” of one group of people towards another.
A New Framework
To understand how society works, we need to understand a new concept. The polar opposites of a functioning society are not right and left. These alternatives are different flavours of the same political condition. The extremes are Contributions-based society and Control-based society.
Because these concepts are so fundamental to this alternative model, some explanation is in order. Throughout, it is worth remembering “gains” and “wealth” mean much more than monetary outcomes. A fuller explanation on using Quality Years to measure the economy is described in other articles/blogs.
A control-based society is one where control over others is what dominates the amount each person shares in the gains of society. Control is achieved by limiting access to freedoms or rights, limiting voting influence and applying a model of capitalism that favours and rewards destructive competition. In a political sense, it is associated with authoritarianism. Its outcomes are associated with inequality of opportunity to acquire wealth. Control is limited by central government, and also by groups or individuals who are able to exert undue influence over others. A simple example may be an employer with a predominant focus on short-term profits may establish terms of employment with an impoverished cleaner that help to limit their ability to realise their potential. A government may create legislation or a culture that has a similar effect. The key feature of a control-based society is that reward is based on control rather than contribution. Typically, the economic and social policies of control-based society are destined to fail. Control-based leaders tend to explain their people’s woes by creating a scapegoat. Like taking cocaine, it may provide some short-lived highs, but it does nothing to solve the underlying problems. False accounting dooms the general population to more years of woe, despite the promise of those blessed short-lived highs.
A contribution-based society is one where contribution to society has a substantial influence in the allocation of society’s gains. Production is sufficiently structured, and people are provided with enough security, freedom and rights that barriers are removed from their ability to contribute to the success of society in their own way. An example is providing opportunities for men or women rearing children to work at times that suit their family’s needs. Everyone is capable of realising their full potential, if they are minded to do so. Everyone has the same ability as everyone else to influence the way a country is governed, ensuring their interests are represented fairly. People’s reward is influenced with reference to their contribution to society. Individuals have more control over their own destiny. A contributions-based society is associated with stronger democratic institutions and cultures, with equality of opportunity, and with the supported empowerment of individuals.
There is a key requirement for any contribution-based society to succeed. It is a consequence of the shift in the balance of responsibility for an individual’s outcomes away from concentrated government, institutions, organisations and people of wealth towards the individual. A cultural shift is needed to ensure the individual has the requisite social awareness, skills and competence to be able to take on that responsibility in a way that both furthers their individual interests and strengthens the ties of society.
In every society, there are bubbles, pockets of communities, activities and layers of society that are contributions-based, and others that are control-based. The proportion and quality of each are what determines the overall state of each nation. Today, even in the most democratic nations on earth are more control-based than contribution-based. But there is a huge difference between those states that are more inclined to democracy compared with those more inclined to autocracy.
Predicting the Future
There is a key principle behind this framework that helps us to predict the outcome of society more reliably. It is this. The closer we get to a contributions-based society, the closer we get to equality of opportunity to acquire wealth. And the closer we get to this equality, the more potential we are able to realise towards powering the economy. A more robust, powerful economy, combined with a more advanced awareness of what constitutes a successful economy, provides us with new, golden opportunities to satisfy the needs and aspirations of all of society’s members.
My prediction is this. We will know when we experience a contributions-based society when the incidence of poverty declines, when the incidence of domestic, personal and social abuse declines, when personal stress levels abate and when humanity flourishes. We will know we have arrived when people who have been disadvantaged are not ashamed to speak out freely, and where shame is an emotion experienced by people who deny the rights of others and not by the people whose rights have been denied. We will know when we have arrived when a heart is what is found at the heart of society.