There has been massive progress, we have come very far in a very short time. But we have to grow up as a species and apply ourselves; the challenges of the next 100 years are immense. Luckily there are many examples of what good looks like to give us inspiration and develop solidarity.
To what extent can we use what we know to explain the past?
Since knowledge is increasing all the time the way we understand the world is also changing, and so is our culture. Part of the answer to the old exam question “why does each generation re-write its history?” must be that each generation applies its own ideas to the interpretation of the past. Just how valid it is to do this the subject of debate about historical methods.
The human activity system of the past (or one of its sub-systems), is a snapshot of what it was like at that point in time, it no longer exists. We are observing evidence (archives, reportage, diaries and the like) which tell us about the emergent behaviour as it played out, through the nature, body, mind, culture and knowledge of the people then. Of course the historical human activity system was also dynamic and changed over time. The history of longer periods, revolutions and upheavals needs to address change as well.
The conclusion I have come to is that using current knowledge to highlight and explain things that would not be apparent to the actors is legitimate and necessary for full understanding, but it is difficult, we must be careful only to apply knowledge and not hindsight. We can deploy knowledge (as well founded belief) but not our own personal beliefs or cultural frames of reference.
We need to look at the big picture to see what is actually going on, bringing in factors which the historical actors themselves were unaware off. Systems thinking should change the way we tell our history and a holistic view yield some fresh insights. What insights and what are the political implications of their telling?
This is not a world history. Professional historians can supply those, and lots of compelling accounts going into what we know in detail for any period. Here I am trying to capture the salient factors that give shape and context to our shared human story.This is what history teaches me when I look at the big picture and take a step back.
Human beings are new to the earth and in a very short time have completely populated it. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by our success. The rate at which development is taking place is outstripping the ways of coping with it and transmitting knowledge that we learned through our evolution. We are inquisitive social primates, we are not going to stop inventing. Since we cannot stop we must learn control. This means we need new institutions, a new political economy that fits in with our evolutionary heritage but is capable of dealing with the challenges we face. A new political economy needs to be inclusive (we are all citizens and share the same fate) and it must be capable of much faster adaption. The current political-economy is just not delivering.
This is a high level review of the British political landscape, a description of current political system as it is; parties compete for votes in order to gain power through a parliamentary majority which will enable them to enact laws based on the policies that were put to the electorate. I’ll look at deeper questions such what is politics for and how democratic it is when I turn to the alternative vision.
If we set out to develop a better politics from our current politics the scale of change can look enormous. But the existing system contains within it rules and conventions that would allow it to evolve into something better. What is missing is both the political will and the necessary political capital – neither the vision nor the support currently exists.
When it comes to delivery the UK Civil Service is ranked 4th overall (InCiSE). But it does not feel like we have good governance. Democratic Audit identifies "unprecedented declines in the core institutions of the UK’s democratic system, particularly at the centre" (Democratic Audit 2). In many ways the UK is not as good as it likes to think.
Instead of engaging with its citizens the state now habitually sells assets and outsources or hives off services. With few exceptions these go to (usually large) private organisations. Even though they are running public services, commercial confidentiality throws a veil over transparency and hinders accountability. Public Services have a direct bearing on our lives. If they go wrong we suffer, our experience of the service is degraded.
Good governance is simply about management processes and accountability. When we insulate or remove services from users (who are citizens) by creating agencies, or by outsourcing, when we have cursory oversight there is no clear accountability. Management failings come in many guises: short term thinking, lack of investment, over-charging, loss of continuity because of management career hopping, hubris and the abouse of the right to manage, bullying, laziness, lack of direction, abuse of position power, group think, the list could go on an on. These are ever present, they are not selective they can occur in both the private and public sectors. Our current political economy does little to combat them, instead it provides a huge space in which they can thrive.
So far in current politics we have seen that it is difficult for cooperation to gain traction in a political system that is competitive, tribal and in thrall to the idea of competition, in poor governance that various forms of agencies, are remote from scrutiny. There is, in addition, an acknowledgement that there is a lack of participation and engagement which is a cause of concern, because there is little idea of how this can be combatted.
There are some massive challenges coming up that provide compelling reasons to adopt a different approach to political economy as matter of urgency, see (WEF Global Risks) and (Jackson and Webster). This is a short summary. I am trying to retain balance and not be unduly alarmist or pessimistic. Also look at the follow on discussion in Possible Futures, it is all too easy to envisage a perfect storm in the confluence of several of these sometime in the next 100 years and give up.
What might the future look like?
No one including me, can predict the future. All we can do is try and take a balanced view using current knowledge. Even then any sort of projection into the future remains difficult; as the finance industry says, past performance is no guide to future performance. If you want to see the next business failure look at those who are fat and happy now.
In the future, not only is the devil in the detail, but things can get better or worse. Broad shapes can be discerned but history happens one day at a time and each action causes a reaction. The various serious challenges we face cannot simply be extrapolated into the future: that would be a case of giving dominance to a single factor.
Vision - Holistic Political Economy
In political discourse this change will be seen in greater participation, larger numbers of politicians willing to think and act independently and increased cross party cooperation. In the executive the emphasis will be on good governance with public oversight. Exactly how this can be brought about is the subject of the next two sections – Consider and Act.
The question to addresses is this; if we had a political economy based on what we know (that is the state of our current knowledge about the Human Activity System which we looked at in the Review section) what would it look like?
The insights we get by looking holistically at human activity, evolution and using systems thinking suggest that if we organise things in such a way as to reinforce success and encourage the best in people we would see the improvement both in outcomes and behaviour (because it is an emergent property of the whole system).
Best Conceivable Political Process
What good looks like, from the discussion about good characteristics, turns out to be as much (if not more) about building a good political process as specific social reforms. The reason for this is simple; to achieve consensus and commitment, for any changes to stick wider involvement is needed. Whilst our target should be to make society as good as it can be there will always be a need for trial and error. It will always be a work in progress.
A collective journey
You may feel that the vision is light on detail. Partly that is because it needs to be expressed in terms of broad principles on which there is a fair chance of getting agreement – the detail is the work of the collective.
Here are links to the many and various examples of people just getting on with it. When I think of rebalancing the economy what comes to mind is that it would be just as likely that a co-op is created as a plc. We are dominated by the idea that the job of the company is to maximise the profits for its shareholders (even when their ownership comes with no responsibility) and no matter what the additional costs are for society. These examples show a different mindset - one that works.
If all these alternatives were to become loosely coupled it would be clear just how vigorous and successful cooperation and collaboration is as a model. It would become very clear that the groundswell needed to bring about a paradigm shift in thinking about political-economy is not that far away.
I have only scratched the surface here but hopefully there is enough to get the point over. There are a lot of people out there just doing it, we can learn from them and build on their success. We don't need permission, we can just get on with it. We could use a raft of enabling legislation to put these aspects of political economy on a level playing field as we diversify away from our PLC monoculture.
Here are links to non-partisan, non-commercial organisations that are doing things which look as if they might be moving in the right direction.
These organisations have new or different approaches; they may be running on a break even basis or be charities, they all represent some aspect of the change that holistic political economy seeks but may not be full exemplars. All organisations can have weaknesses and I'm not claiming any of these are perfect. They all have something to contribute. Imagine of all these organisations (and all the ones I don't know about) were loosely coupled; anyone seeking hope, inspiration or help, would get a sense of the scale of what they represent. It would be clear that together they are more than the sum of their parts. I have a specific proposal about this in Part 4 - Tactics - Information, HoPEdia
Throughout this ebook I have stressed that the world is complicated and that power needs to be treated with circumspection. Where these organisations are having success they are on a small scale. We need to reinforce success, instead of being isolated examples they need to become exemplars that point to wider adoption. The same applies to the political alternatives, if these approaches can work on a small scale then the templates for success at a larger scale are lying around, ready to be scaled up.
When it comes to the deployment of technology to solve problems the issues of democracy, power and access get thrown into stark relief.
Instead of debates reaching a balanced conclusion what we see is intense lobbying on both sides (of an often false divide) to the detriment of accuracy. The business side talks up the benefits when it wants to go ahead with as little interference as possible. Opponents feel obliged to (over)emphasise dangers and risks even seeking bans. The issue for political economy is simply this. We clever monkeys will keep on probing and questioning and inventing things. The technology genie is out of the bottle and is never going back. We are too many and our impact is too big, we will live or die by our brain power. We have to get organised to deal with both the challenges we face and the technologies that we invent.
More and more people are seeing the bigger picture and joining the dots. Here are some examples of research and development which recognises the need to tackle the big issues and improve society in the future.
I have included new thinking in economics because it is becoming apparent to many people that there is no such thing as "homo econimus" (the assumed individual in classical economics which makes decisions based on rational, economic grounds). I have also included some links to sites that attempt to provide context and help develop a balanced view of what is really happening.
There is a lot of energy out there and many people are developing new ways of linking together that tackle the individualisation of society and divide and rule that accelerated over the last 30 years. There is likely to be someone out there who has had a similar problem and has been thinking about ways to deal with it. If they have not cracked the problem that may be abe to offer help support or just inspire you. Here are links to some sites offering help and resources online.
Grouping of articles looking at the past, present and possible futures
What a fit for purpose political economy, with associated political processes would be like. Here I try to describe it without being prescriptive. I say what it does and sketch in some essentials but at the detailed level this is open to democratic moderation, this is more about what than how.
Examples of what good looks like. These are important in the development of a pragmatic approach to holistic political economy. Finding what works (in business terms finding best practice), and then using it using it to build on means reinforcing success, this is quite different from developing policy (which may look great in theory but be unproven) and implementing it top down.