12 July 2016

From operative to speculative politicians

The more I chat with politically interested people, the more I become disillusioned. Outcomes for the people they purport to represent mean far less to them than the other things that go along with identification with a political party or opinion: belonging to a group of like-minded (good or 'compassionate') people; the joy of differentiating themselves from the other (evil) lot; participation in group events and rituals; the convenience of having an ideology that both explains the world and generates apparent solutions to its problems.

I am respectful of all this. I recognize the need of all humans to engage with each other, to sing or dance together, to share our hopes, to be with people who have a similar world view for whatever reason, to identify with a clan or tribe; above all: to belong.What I do find problematic, though, is that the 'rightness' of such belonging, the elation and joy that come with satisfying a genuine human need, can lead participants to prescribe policies that they try to apply to people outside their in-group, without seeking the outsiders' buy-in - without, indeed, thinking it necessary or desirable. I've written (frequently!) about how the over-arching goal of any institution, however well intentioned, initially, however hardworking its members, becomes more and more that of self-perpetuation.

Most of us, if we're allowed to express ourselves coolly and freely, want to live in some sort of welfare state, with a safety net for the disadvantaged. We also want a healthy, productive, wealth-generating business sector. Yes, there will be differences of emphasis and priority, disagreements about procedure. But our overall goals are not that different. Not so different, surely, as to justify the mutual hatreds that we are seeing in the politics of many western countries today. These hatreds could bring about calamity, in the form of weakened societies, prey to those with far less edifying ambitions. The old Arab proverb comes to mind: 'a falling camel attracts many knives'.

My response is twofold. The first (predictably!) is to advocate Social Policy Bonds. The ostensible reasons for our polarized, dysfunctional politics, are not so much about our goals, but about the ways we think they shall be best achieved. We could instead debate social and environmental outcomes, about which there is more consensus and more objectivity. On a global scale, for instance, we could target the sustained survival of our species, or world peace, or the non-deployment of nuclear weapons. At a regional level, we could target Middle East peace. At a national level we could target universal literacy, or improvements in crime rates or environmental health. People understand these outcomes far more than we do the intricacies and legalisms of policymaking under the current system, and the structures and activities of those charged with achieving our social goals. And because we understand outcomes, we can participate in the policymaking process. Nobody would be perfectly satisfied by the array of specified targets, but there would be buy-in - something we need and something missing in today's organization- and activity- based policies.

Less frequently have I mentioned my second response: the deliberate refocusing of ideological politics away from policymaking and towards other, more inward-looking, activities. You might have thought that the economic and social shambles that was Marxism would have expired with the old Soviet Union. But it survives in China and elsewhere, not as an economic system, but as an extraordinarily potent ideology about an economic system. Freudian psychoanalysis, though discredited as a therapy, survives as a cult revolving around the life and work of Sigmund Freud. There is not a single proven example of a visit to Earth by an alien spacecraft – yet opinion polls consistently show that more than half of adult Americans believe in such an event.

Could our political parties and their associated ideologues take the same steps? They probably wouldn't take the initiative, but if it became the only means by which they survive, then they would surely do so. A Social Policy Bond regime could accelerate the process. Parties and ideologues are concerned with personalities, ideologies, activities, funding and institutional structures, all of which are the supposedly rational basis for their existence from which derives the positive features of belonging. Social Policy Bonds would lead to new types of organization which would erode that basis - but not the more edifying need for bonding. There is a precedent, and it is the world of Freemasons. Some groups of working or 'operative' stonemasons began to allow non-masons into the guilds. Operative masonic lodges raised money by charging the gentry for admission to their "mysteries".  (See here.) The guilds and mysteries persisted after the great British and European cathedrals had been built. Operative masons declined in number; 'speculative' masons took over, and today there are around six million freemasons worldwide.

Could our politicians and those with a vested interest in the power-structures to which they belong and from which they derive inspiration be persuaded to give up their dysfunctional organizations and divisive politics, and become 'speculative' policymakers? Then we'd be free to focus on social and environmental outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people. I think everyone - politicians and public - would be happier if our potentially catastrophic 'operative' way of making policy became 'speculative' and focused more on inward enlightenment than on making an impact on the world.

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