Society is falling apart, the world is broken; actually, we have all the answers, if we‘re really honest
In the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre I hope that anyone who considers themselves a 5 or more on a happiness scale from 0 to 10 will not be able to fathom how someone can plan, carry out, and advertise a massacre as horrific as this in a country where, it would seem, not much is lacking.
Social and other media is full of thoughts, prayers, and wringing of hands regarding how something like this can even be possible, and yet trans-disciplinary reading reveals that 1) yes, we know that society is falling apart; 2) academics, think-tanks, even schoolchildren are all aware of this and are working on it, but it’s not very well coordinated yet. We even actually know why this has happened and, at a very “lowest common denominator” level, we also actually know how to fix it. Now it’s just a question of sharing and coordinating the knowledge and insights, and putting them into practice; luckily, some of that is beginning to happen too.
The other day I read an exciting article in the Boston Review by Suresh Naidu, Dani Rodrik, and Gabriel Zucman, three top-notch economists, who have gathered a team of like-minded experts and suggested hands-on ways to make policy changes that will enhance what they call “inclusive prosperity”. Seen from the economist’s perspective, their policy recommendations should lead to a situation in which wealth is distributed far more evenly than it has been in the “neoliberal” age. Their manifesto reads: “We need to design policies and institutions that make inclusive prosperity possible and globalization sustainable—politically and economically.”
Neoliberalism (every man for himself) and capitalism (hoarding tangibles), the principle economic perspectives from the late twentieth century onwards, have taken a lot of the blame for the rise of the growing disparity in division of riches, the rise of right-wing popularity, and the climate crisis. Various writers have suggested that “capitalism” has failed and new economic models are required (Kate Rawson with “doughnut economics”; Eric Posner and Glen Wyle with a controversial new look at the power of auction).
Neoliberalism’s main character is Homo Economicus, a shady chap who makes his decisions according to what he’s “going to get out of it”. Based on the assumption that generally, this is how humans make decisions, models are created to describe and possibly predict how a society depending on markets (trade of goods) will function. Caveat please – this is a very simplified black and white description for non-experts in economics.
This type of thinking has influenced policy-making in the Western world extensively, and how dissatisfaction with this perspective turned into rage and a full-blown economics revolution I have described elsewhere.
Actually, all the evidence suggests that humans do make decisions according to what they’re “going to get out of it”, but whereas the neoclassical economic view assumes that this refers to tangible goods, the picture is a good deal more complex. And then again, actually, it’s really simple. Tangibles are easy to talk about. We can see them. With intangibles, it’s a lot more difficult and requires a more imaginative effort on behalf of the thinker – after all, they’re not “really” there, are they, those intangibles?
The economist’s view, that is, the discipline of examining how humans trade in tangible goods, is missing half of the picture, and this is the narrative between the lines of The Econocracy, the Boston Review article, and others. I’ve written elsewhere about Self Determination Theory, and as a model it comes n really useful exactly here: extrinsic basic human needs, regardless of gender, age or race, boil down to food, clothing, shelter. All tangibles, and exactly what economics is all about – how humans try to get more of them, possibly in the belief that they will be happier in the long-term if they do. We need economists to think up contingency plans to re-imagine how this “market” can work and how these tangibles can be distributed in such a way that no one is lacking.
The other half of the picture is about the three basic intrinsic human needs, namely, autonomy, relatedness, and competence. That is, feeling that you are free to make decisions about your life (coffee, yes or no, with or without milk), feeling you belong to a social group with which you identify (family, football club, choir), feeling that people with whom you interact appreciate you for who you are and the qualities you possess as a human person. As opposed to Homo Economicus, this side of the picture is difficult to describe, hard to understand, and maybe impossible to predict. It’s the realm of sociologists and psychologists, and formerly an area considered important in the studies of economics and which is slowly regaining significance.
Social scientists of all persuasions observe, describe, suggest changes, and we need them to do this, and to work hand in hand with each other. Producers of tangibles are easy to spot, but who produces the intangibles that turn out to be half of what humans need to be happy in the long-term? Who are the people who can offer you “flow”? It turns out that the answer to this is “Arts People”, particularly those involved in collective performative art such as choir singing (viz), dancing, acting, orchestra or band playing. Collective sports are not bad at this either, but the arts have the added advantage of avoiding a situation in which there are winners and losers – on stage there are only winners, or should be.
If economists are aware of the need for change and the role they can play in achieving this, it is not part of arts people’s studies to examine how their professional focus can impact society at the kind of level I am writing about today. An experimental course in social and cultural entrepreneurship at the Robert Schumann Musikhochschule in Düsseldorf, Germany, designed in collaboration with my colleague Sara Hubrich, began in April 2018 and intended (among other things) to raise awareness of the correlation between artistic authenticity and potential social impact (articles and website forthcoming).
The question of authenticity and its impact has reached the business world, but cutting music and other arts subjects from school curricula suggests that policy-makers have not realised who the “authenticity experts” are, and where this road is leading. Vivek Wadwha writes a pladoyer for the importance of the humanities (creators and curators of intangibles) in the world of tangibles: “The key to good design is a combination of empathy and knowledge of the arts and humanities. Musicians and artists inherently have the greatest sense of creativity. You can teach artists how to use software and graphics tools; turning engineers into artists is hard.” and “Tackling today’s biggest social and technological challenges requires the ability to think critically about their human context, which is something that humanities graduates happen to be best trained to do.”. He has identified the kind of cross-disciplinary dialogue that is currently lacking and that would benefit society across the board. Celebrated artist Olafur Eliasson writes about the “inauthentic” use of culture as a superficial promotional device, warning that doing this, policy “has failed to acknowledge that the cultural sector is the one that drives civic trust and social self-confidence. It is the culture that we have that gives us our shared identity.”
Empathy, human content, shared identity – these are all intangibles that fall in to Self Determination Theory’s basic intrinsic human needs. The correlation between a deficit of autonomy, relatedness and competence, and the rise of nationalism, xenophobia and terrorism has been variously documented by authors such as Noam Chomsky, Nabeela Jaffer, in an extensive study by Oliver Decker and Elmar Brähler of Leipzig University, and even noticed at a political level.
In the debate surrounding the necessity for economic growth, Alana Semuels reports economists saying that “it makes more sense to focus on measures of well-being other than growth”. As I see it, “growth” and “measures of well-being” do not need to be seen as contradictory. Until the economics world has a united stand on whether economic growth, or the growth of economic value, is necessary or not, I would like to suggest that the growth of value, as such, is a good idea. However, the growth of value includes not only economic value, but also non-economic value, doing justice to the “other half of the picture” that is frequently omitted at the level of policy-making.
In order to create policies that might achieve this, experts in economic value and non-economic value need to work together, and experts of non-economic value need to realise that they are exactly that. Maybe, if this dialogue can be initiated somewhere at some point, we can collectively use our knowledge and creative potential to pool the answers we variously have and, yes, actually fix society for future generations.