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Beyond freedom and equality
August 12, 2018
I’m reading and enjoying Sapiens, by Israeli academic Yuval Noah Harari. I've just reached the point where he discusses the existence of two essential but clashing political desiderata, freedom and equality.
I think there are more interesting rival basic desiderata.
One is what I call Self-creation. We make ourselves and our worlds: we have to. Whether our ancestors had to is a moot point. In the old days, there were template roles one could live without thought. But even then, exceptional people found themselves compelled to climb out of this mould. It’s what Socrates was talking about, 2,400 years ago, when he said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’. Among more recent thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Horatio Alger make odd philosophical bedfellows but agree on this: if you want anything in life, including identity and purpose, you have to get up and make it happen. You can, and should, get others to help, but ultimately, it's up to you.
Communism ignored this deep truth, saying that the State should provide everything. Envy-driven Socialism denies it too, snidely putting down anybody’s achievements to privilege, luck or breaking the rules. (Don’t worry, a right-wing tirade is not looming. There are other, more positive kinds of Socialist thought.)
I prefer the concept of Self-creation to that of ‘freedom’ because it is how, as adults, we make ourselves worthwhile human beings. Freedom is, perhaps, one precondition of this (but Viktor Frankl talked about Self-creation in conditions of the most unspeakable un-freedom). Sartre might say that freedom was the end outcome, too, though I’m not sure I’d agree: a lot of Self-creation seems to end up with acceptance of certain rules and truths. And can't pure freedom lead to destructiveness, of self and others? Self-creation helps us to increase our freedom and also to use it well.
Self-creation can sound a bit, well, selfish. It can become the mantra of the narcissistic. ‘It’s all about me!’ But that is part of the truth masquerading as the whole. There is a powerful balancing concept in our lives.
We are small-group animals: our ancestors lived in groups of about 30. We were not lone hunters like jaguars or cobras. We now also live in ever wider groups that ripple out from us: community, region, nation, faith, continent, planet. Harari points out that these two facts (our evolutionary small-group heritage and our sharing of wider identities) can clash. But both unite to point us away from the model of the lone individual. (I recall seeing a bumper sticker in America: ‘The Government didn’t help me found my Business’. No, but it provided a stable currency, the law, law enforcement, the highway on which the owner was driving his gas-guzzler, the internet he promoted that business on…) We are social creatures, with social needs and social duties to others. Our self-creation takes place in this context. We are social self-creators.
I thought I’d call this second desideratum ‘Sociality’. I don’t know why; it just sounds right. Just as I prefer 'Self-creation' to 'freedom', I much prefer Sociality to Harari’s ‘equality’. In systems theory – all the social units we belong to are systems – hierarchy is an essential feature of a functioning complex system. Evolution seems to demonstrate this: some animal groups live in leaderless herds or shoals, but zebras and herrings are not the brightest of creatures. Intelligent creatures all seem to live in groups with hierarchies. Human organizations of any size are certainly hierarchical. An idealistic friend was part of a communal enterprise, and it could never decide what to do. It did very little, wasting huge amounts of members’ time and energy debating (well, actually, bickering) about how to achieve unanimity or even consensus on courses of action. Modern Britain, which tried deciding a major policy issue by a Referendum, is suffering the same problem.
Our need for Self-creation gets us out of elitism and bullying here. While we are all inevitably trapped in functional hierarchies, we are all equal in our need to deal with our half-formed nature. We all have to create our characters, values, ethics, lives.
There is plenty of room for left-of-centre ideas in this model. For example, we should desire good education for everyone, not because it makes people ‘equal’ but because it helps people both self-create and contribute. It also makes society better: much crime is carried out by people who can’t read, which usually means people who weren’t properly taught to read because the money for the necessary one-to-one catch-up teaching wasn’t there.
An effective political ideology needs to honour both Self-creation and Sociality.
Right now, none of the main political parties seem to understand the need for this balance. The Labour party has swung back to ‘old left’. The Tories are still enchanted by the asocial fantasy of totally unregulated markets or are busy re-embracing outdated nationalism (or both). The Liberal Democrats are still trying to rediscover their soul after the trauma of coalition (quite why they were so traumatized is a bit of a mystery: parties do this all the time in Europe). The Greens have the most impressive starting point, our ultimate Sociality in sharing an endangered planet, but seem afraid of grasping the nettle of hierarchy.
Blairism, for all its faults, tried to create a balance. It hit the buffers through its reluctance to regulate the financial sector and through its founder’s excessive Atlanticism (and, I fear, his hubris). But it is probably the best place to start.