Dancing on a pinhead

This blog first appeared at http://www.respublica.org.uk/item/Dancing-On-A-Pin-Head

Phillip Blond and I have just spent an interesting weekend in Wales at this event. Phillip gave an inspiring speech on his thinking to which Charlie Leadbeater responded with an equally inspiring view from the left. What was most fascinating was that by the end of the debate it would have been hard to put a cigarette paper between their positions and visions for updating our badly malfunctioning political economy. That two such thoughtful progressives from the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ had such similar perspectives on the problems, causes and solutions was intriguing.

OK so there were some differences of opinion. But these seemed rather like dances on a pin head. Charlie seemed to have a slightly less pessimistic view of just how ‘broken’ our society is than did Phillip. And the real rub came down to their respective views on virtues and values.

Phillip had argued that the rampantly atomised and individualised consumerist society we live in needs to revert to a more associative, relational society where we think of ourselves more as citizens linked through community than consumers linked through purchasing habits. Only then can we fill the spiritual vacuum, reverse rising social entropy and mend the broken society. I argue the same thing for the same reasons and also because such a shift would also lead to a much more sustainable lifestyle as well as improved wellbeing.

Phillip called for a new social settlement, the civic-middle and an associative state. He felt that the language of subjective values won’t get us far and that instead we need to tune into the virtues. He called for mutually discerned and contested common virtues by which to live and to define a new political economy fit for the wellbeing and sustainability challenges of our times.

Charlie then gave his perspective. He laid out a landscape on which there are two different versions of political economy. In Hobbes’s Leviathon state people do things for you – but also to you. So in this ‘for and to’ society we make a deal with the devil. To get the things done for us by the state we have to put up with the things being done to us. The effect of this is that, rather than protecting people from a chaotic self-interested world, we have internalised self-interest which has led to rising uncertainty and insecurity.

Charlie pointed out that societies like Denmark which have managed to combine the best of the state and of community are highly successful in so many ways. But the UK is not Denmark. He went on to compare the above ‘for and to’ formulation and contract to a ‘with and by’ one. He discussed how Winstanley’s Diggers philosophy and movement was based on relationships and a social order that evolves out of mutualism. This is a ‘with’ the people/citizens and ‘by’ the people/citizens version of events. Charlie called on us to ‘not look up but sideways’ to bring about this more ‘with and by’ format. Now of course anyone in tune with Phillip’s thinking on mutualism, and indeed Cameron’s, will have noticed a great similarity of thinking here.

This also resonates with my thinking on the need to shift the corporate form towards employee ownership and co-op/mutual forms and with the work of Nobel winner Ostrom. Perhaps we are not just nasty, solitary and brutish creatures. Perhaps indeed we need to and can tune in to the citizen side and away from the consumerist side in us all. As Noam Chomsky says, ‘there is the gas chamber attendant and the saint in us all’. Its to social norms, the values and virtues around us which mediate between to two. And surely its the job of politics to provide a vision of this and deliver a political economy and updated capitalism which can support its flourishing?

Charlie suggested we need a combination of both the ‘for and to’ and the ‘with and by’. By taking the best of both and discarding the worst of both he feels we can find a better way. If one applies that to an updated capitalism I guess one would seek to merge the best of the democratic and associative principals and outcomes of mutualism with the best of the efficiency, enterprise and dynamism of markets.

I think there are many of us from the left and the right who are tired of the atomised, individualistic, consumerist and ‘for and to’ state of society. We are reaching out for something different. Initiatives like my favourite, the Transition Towns movement have given up waiting for Big Business and Big Government to provide solutions. They are the living, emergent example of ‘with and by’ society. Local people – butchers, bakers, candle-stick-makers, teachers and mothers – doing things with each other to bring about new forms of relations, production and consumption led by the citizens. They don’t look for things to be done for them. And they are no longer willing to have things done to them.

This ‘with and by’ society has much in common with Phillips associative-democracy. I think the key difference between these two similar versions of vision is that for Phillip the virtues are solid and timeless whereas Charlie takes a view similar to Amartya Sen wherein the virtues are to some extent emergent and fluid and alter relevant to time and circumstance.

Well OK so that’s a key difference. Perhaps Charlie feels Phillip’s idea of virtues is a tad conservative and catholic. Could one man’s version of virtue could be another man’s vision of hell? But I’m not convinced by the idea of a great gulf here and somehow I suspect these two thinkers have more in common than they might be willing or able to see at first glimpse.

I’ve suggested to Charlie and Phillip that they write something on the above together. I hope they take me up on the idea.

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