Grouping of articles looking at the past, present and possible futures
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.