In the rather dystopian times we live in, there is a need to counterbalance with utopias. In envisioning different futures, we find not only hope but also strategies with which to challenge the present problems. The Guardian is running a new series titled ‘Utopian Thinking‘, which I recommend following for this reason. I wrote an article for the series this week that I am also posting below.
My article is about not strictly utopian as it is also on the commons movement, which I believe is one of the most paradigm-shifting and alternative governance systems (to neoliberalism) for the 21st century. The commons movement is not about politics though, nor is it new per se; it exists it in some African societies as ‘Ubuntu’, for instance. Have a read.
In an interview with Woman’s Own in 1987, Margaret Thatcher said: “Too many … people have been given to understand, ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it.’” It’s a sentence that perfectly epitomises both the rise of neoliberalism – for which Thatcher can largely be thanked – and its death.
For there’s no doubt that neoliberalism – a system focused on free-market policies – is in decline after decades of dominance. As Aditya Chakrabortty argues in Guardian Opinion, we are witnessing its death.
George Monbiot similarly believes that neoliberalism is the ideology at the root of all our problems. But it is not only those you would expect to be critical of neoliberalism who are opposing it. Even organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, a champion of neoliberalism if ever there was one, openly question it too.
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that people do want government to deal with their problems – especially when it comes to issues of health, poverty, old age, disability and education. It is government intervention there that can give people faith in democracy. But the neoliberal state is too engrossed in corporate wellbeing to bother with social wellbeing. And so people are increasingly being thrust into the greedy hands of private firms for their basic needs.
As a result of this fragile social contract between the neoliberal state and its citizens, the same electoral coalition that voted for free-market capitalism in the first place is now voting to escape it. It should come as no surprise that, in despair, increasing numbers turn to alternative ideologies such as populism, identity politics and fundamentalism rather than the state for a sense of security. But the Brexit vote, the rise of Ukip, the NHS crisis, the election of Donald Trump and the advance of the far right are not the opposite of neoliberalism, they are the ideology’s culmination.
All this points to the need for a radically different system of governance. We need something that both retains the assistance that we once relied on the state for – such as the preservation of social and health services, the environment, cultural works and shared ideals such as democracy, freedom of expression and equality – and transforms human psychology; shaking up the status quo by acknowledging our dependence on one another, while also expanding consciousness by encouraging individual enlightenment.
We have never before been on a path that brought out the best of us in this way. We have never been very good to each other – nor to ourselves, or our environment. Understanding this truth is where real change starts from. We may have made tremendous advances economically, scientifically and technologically, but without matching psychological and social progress, those advances have only led us to where we are today – heading toward an environmental, political and social disaster of dimensions heretofore unimaginable.
A radically different future political system would set us on a new path, one where we protect things that are of shared value – healthcare, natural resources, culture, knowledge, the internet. It would not be a mere reshuffle of what we have now; but a completely different perspective for the future, a radically humane system of governance that isn’t caught up between state welfare or market monopoly, individualism or communalism, public or private. But one where assets; capital, nature and culture, are managed in ways that benefit all.
It may sound unrealistic that we’ll create such a transcendental system in the future but in fact the commons, which are “networks that groups of people can facilitate to pursue shared goals”, as defined loosely by David Bollier, provide a glimpse of what a post-neoliberal world could look like. We ought to take a look through the common window for a view of the most paradigm-shifting and alternative governance system for the 21st century.
There are many examples of existing commons; from platforms such as Loomio(an online tool for effective group decision-making), Bangla-Pesa (a Kenyan programme to help small business) and Farm Hack (a worldwide community of farmers) to political groups such as Podemos and Anonymous to knowledge databases, open source initiatives and Wikipedia. All over the world, groups of people are getting together to ensure that shared resources remain available for the common good. We can learn a lot from the commons movement. For example, as the campaigner Phil Byrne argues, Wikipedia provides a model of how we can manage our oceans, forests and climate.
I’m not saying that neoliberalism is altogether bad. With its emphasis on the individual, and subsequently on identity, we have it to thank for many discussions about race, gender, sexuality, religion and class equality. Also, just because an individual brings value to society, it doesn’t mean they should become a slave to it. Individuality is necessary for ingenuity. Further, from a global perspective, while free market liberalism has mostly been detrimental (in Africa, the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes forced countries to reduce spending on social welfare, and to grow exports and open markets leading to economic crises that the continent is yet to recover from), it has also empowered multilateral organisations such as the UN. A useful tool for positive change in the world.
Nor am I advocating for a fortification of big government. Having lived in Sweden before the country definitively started to privatise social services, I am aware of how similar a traditional state-regulated economy can be to a well-intentioned but controlling parent.
Yet there is no doubt that neoliberalism, and the far-right populism that it is morphing into, is dismal for humanity and the planet. Later in the same interview, Thatcher said: “There is no such thing [as society]. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” This attitude has wreaked havoc with our world. There is a society. And at present it is a bereft and desperate one.
Whether we like it or not, we depend on one another to a childlike extent – we eat what others have produced, we live in houses that others have built, we wear clothes made by others, we are educated by others – without society our lives would be impossible. And for a political system to work efficiently, it needs to consider this point – that human existence is bound together.
Image is by Squint.