Thursday, December 7, 2017

Recovering Our Shared Ethos for Thoughtful Cooperation

1. What’s the problem?
Instead of slaying the five giants of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, New Right advocates have since the 1970s advanced an outlook that has not only helped them grow immeasurably, but also fuelled new threats such as climate change, xenophobia, and global plutocracy. From a conventional perspective, the New Right orthodoxy is presented as the only viable option – the alternatives being some outmoded ‘hard left’ doctrines, softened conservatism, utopian dreams of anarchic harmony, or simply extremism in one guise or another.

People do not readily see what other choice there is. Moderate liberal and social democratic approaches appear to be on the wane. Protest politics (e.g., anti-EU, anti-Clinton, anti-immigrants, etc) is on the rise with the outcomes often not helping those who protested or their fellow citizens. An invisibility cloak seems to have been thrown over the ethos of citizenship, reciprocity, and cooperative problem-solving. Why can’t we revive our confidence in this ethos, promote wider understanding of its relevance, and rally support for its application to tackle the critical threats our society is facing?

2. What is this shared ethos?
In headline terms, it is an ethos in support of mutual respect, inclusiveness, cooperation, informed deliberations, democratic participation, practical problem-solving as opposed to doctrinaire purity, and minimum standards of security for all. It stands against arbitrary rule, corruption, hateful prejudices, deception and misdirection, rejection of rational analysis, cruelty, exploitation, and widening power inequalities.

The historical figures who tend to be drawn on for inspiration (in the West at any rate) include the Levellers, the Enlightenment philosophers, Mary Wollstonecraft, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, the Owenite cooperators, J.S. Mill, Abraham Lincoln, John Dewey, F.D. Roosevelt, Clement Attlee, Karl Polanyi, Hannah Arendt, Karl Pooper, R.H. Tawney, and E.F. Schumacher. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does, more effectively than any single text, illustrate the dispositions associated with the ethos that is generally sympathetic to what these figures helped to advance.

3. An ethos of cooperation, not a philosophy of life
It should be pointed out at the outset that we are not looking to formulate a comprehensive philosophy of life, which can guide everyone about all their most important decisions in life. This is something people will fall back on diverse religions and secular ethics for guidance. But whatever deeply held views they may hold, if they are to co-exist in a mutually acceptable manner, they will need to follow an ethos/outlook that will enable them to engage in some form of open and fair give-and-take in establishing and supporting the social conditions that serve people well.

4. What difference would it make if this ethos becomes better and more consistently known and embraced?
Throughout history, vested interests defending the exploitative status quo have always resorted to stoking up fears that any alternative would lead to an extremist nightmare. And when only extremist voices are heard, the status quo gets a pass by default. It has often taken a concerted effort to present a united front for those who want to bring in reforms that accord with a coherent, fair, and progressive alternative before public support would shift towards the new option. Alas, offers of change are now all too fragmented; and campaigns pull in all directions with no common vision or narrative.

If our shared ethos can be articulated more effectively so that it is more visible and easier to grasp, it would raise the likelihood of it being recognised as an outlook that ought to be welcomed, and the related changes it champions should accordingly be more widely supported. The mere fact that it can be more consistently referred to would in itself gives it a more prominent profile.

5. What are we up against?
There are two main barriers that stand in the way of developing a common language for our shared ethos:
[A] The intellectual: the inclination to focus on differences and ignore substantial common ground has created a vacuum where resistance against New Right hegemony should stand. Whereas the New Right use words like ‘freedom’, ‘religion’, ‘patriotism’, ‘entrepreneurship’, in the vaguest sense to rally people with disparate views; its opponents splinter into a multitude of critics ever ready to point out the inadequacies of each other’s position, instead of joining forces to tackle their common foe.
[B] The organisational: many involved in promoting reform initiatives are reluctant to associate their work with a larger platform because they do not want to lose their distinct image. With identity politics, it is a question of being seen as having unique issues to address; with thinktanks, there is the need to secure funding by presenting their work as importantly different from everyone else; and with parties and factions within parties, there is the concern with attracting more members than their close rivals.

6. How are we to move forward with recovering our shared ethos?
Given that it is highly unlikely that different groups will agree to use a common language to position their shared aims, a more realistic approach would be to develop the language independently and apply it to activities of diverse reform proponents where these do reflect the underlying shared ethos. Rather than involving a selection of established organisations, which may pre-label what emerges as the ‘product’ of these organisations, a small group of individuals who are in tune with the ethos in question should work together to formulate a set of terms, narratives, and references to encapsulate the ethos.

The language developed can then be used to describe groups, thoughts, proposals, that reflect the ethos. Instead of asking diverse individuals and organisations to adopt a name/narrative that they may not want to run the risk of having their own identity subsumed under, the aim should be to generate widespread use of the name/narrative as a description of the ethos and anything that exhibits its features. Learning and promotional resources can then be publicised with the same description to reinforce its use. With an increasing number of writers referring to the shared ethos in common terms, more commentators will use the language and thus further strengthen its currency. Advocates for cooperation, community development and democratic collaboration insist we are stronger together. We should start with finding a common voice for our shared ethos.