As we enter a new decade (unless you think it doesn’t actually start until 2021 of course) it might be useful to ask ourselves what sort of society we want. Party politics can be a messy affair, so sometimes it’s good to stand back and ponder.
But to know what sort of society we want we have to know what sort of society we have now. Many will argue that what is often called neoliberalism is still the dominant ideology. This is the economic model based at it’s most extreme on the mythical Homo Economicus, an attenuated vision of human nature which assumes that we all act in our own rational self-interest. This is often accompanied by a world view that encompasses lower tax, deregulation and a much reduced public sphere. Many would argue, of course, that Homo Economicus is a false view of humanity and that we are, rather, a more social animal than it allows. Nevertheless, with the rise of the gig economy in which employers buy discrete packages of time rather than the person, and now draws in nearly five million people, this does seem to be an age of increasing atomization and alienation. What sort of society is this?
According to the psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm it is the ‘have’ society, which he contrasts with the ‘being’ society. The former is about an obsession with possessing and consumption, the latter is a process of living and growing. He gives many examples of what he means but the simplest involves types of knowledge: “Optimum knowledge in the being mode is to know more deeply. In the having mode it’s to have more knowledge.” It is sobering to think that the following words were written in the mid-1970s in his book To have or to be: “To acquire, to own and to make a profit are the sacred and unalienable rights of the individual in the industrial society.” What would he think of our society as we enter the world of the Internet of Things and our experience and data have become the new raw material of what Shoshana Zuboff calls Surveillance Capitalism? And again, his analysis of the threat to representative government is also of relevance today “For even the remnant of democracy that still exists is doomed to technocratic fascism – the very type of society that was so much feared under the name of ‘communism’ – unless the giant corporations’ big hold on the government (which grows stronger daily) and on the population (via thought control through brainwashing) is broken.”
Fromm claims, among other things, that the ‘have’ society has encouraged and embedded an intellectually passive ‘spectator democracy’ and argues that we should foster an active ‘participatory democracy’ replacing Homo Economicus with the critically engaged citizen. To this end he is an advocate of exactly the kind of deliberative democracy that Salisbury Democracy Alliance is campaigning for with its democracy cafés and so far failed attempts to create a Citizens’ Jury in the city. Even in the 1970s Fromm sees elections as degenerating into ‘exciting soap opera, with the hopes and aspirations of the candidates – not political issues – at stake’. Genuine conviction, he writes, requires two elements – ‘adequate information and the knowledge that one’s decision has an effect’. Wiltshire Council and Salisbury City Council take note!
Among his many recommendations is the creation of a Universal Basic Income, although he doesn’t call it that. “Many of the evils of present-day capitalism and communist societies would disappear with the introduction of a guaranteed yearly income. ” And again: “The guaranteed yearly income would ensure real freedom and independence.”
In what today, with the benefit of hindsight, seems to be unduly quixotic Fromm is optimistic about the emergence of the being society. He sees Medieval culture flourishing because ‘people followed the vision of the City of God’ and the Age of Enlightenment energised people with the ‘vision of the growth of the Earthly City of Progress’. The 20th century has deteriorated into the Tower of Babel. But he concludes: “If the City of God and the Earthly City were thesis and antithesis, a new synthesis is the only alternative to chaos: the synthesis between the spiritual core of the Late Medieval world and the development of the rational thought and science since the Renaissance. This synthesis is The City of Being.” It seems that we still have a long time to wait! But at least we can carry on trying.