I was challenged the other day to summarise the insights, in terms of re-shaping economics, that I gained from writing the Shaihen Heritage series. That’s quite an ask – but I gave it a go. The books are my own personal journey of learning and discovery, so I don’t claim any of what I have to say is new. But this is it.
The core insight I discovered is that the only reality is life and death and the natural cycles and systems that arise from mortality. Everything else – the concept of a ‘Fair Land’, or any other vision of how human beings interact with each other and the rest of life on Earth, arises from human imagination. It’s a story. It’s only reality derives from the fact that a sufficient number of people believe the same story that it has agency in human society. It is “true” because we behave as if it is “true”.
So “capitalism” is a story, and “communism” is a story. The whole body of economic theory is a collection of stories.
If economics were a science, the stories would be continually challenged by rival theories. We would be looking at what happens when those stories are enacted, and how closely aligned the lived experience is to the theory. We would be continually adjusting the theory in the light of new information. But once we drew battle lines between the rival camps of “left-wing politics” and “right-wing politics” that was never going to happen. Each side claimed ownership of the ‘truth’ and saw theories which disproved their own tenets as enemies to be shot down, suppressed or denied.
That’s not science. That’s religion. The ‘continual growth’ theory of capitalist economics and the rampant, nihilistic consumerism it drives has the same hold on human imagination as any other heirarchical religion which sets up groups of humans as interpreters of God’s will. It cannot be challenged. Criticism is blasphemy. Dissent is a punishable crime. If the lived experience does not fit the theory, those in power (which, in a democracy, can simply be the majority of ordinary people) would rather deny the lived experience than adjust the theory.
The first thing we need to do therefore is to make economics a science, rooted in reality. We need to define its aim – which I suggest is to create a system that enables human beings to survive, and live peaceably alongside each other (since we have the capability to destroy ourselves and the planet if we don’t live peaceably alongside each other.) The economic system we create to achieve that needs to continually be taking soundings against reality to adjust the theory so that it functions as a chaotically adaptive system able to work within the constraints of the chaotic adaptive system we call “life”. Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Model” captures this far more learnedly than I can.
However, to lose the stranglehold of consumer capitalism and make the human behaviour change necessary for the survival of life on Earth, we need to be telling ourselves different stories. We need to go back to the root of reality, and re-discover our spiritual connection to warp and weft of life and death.
The story I subscribe to is that every human being is a sovereign individual. But we can only realise our potential as sovereign individuals by acknowledging that we are part of the chaotic adaptive system of life on Earth. That is what should govern our actions. When our actions negatively impact others and the natural world around us, they negatively impact on us too. We feel it in our bodies. It creates anguish in our large brains, to which different personality types respond in various ways – arrogant and aggressive denial, helpless despair and cynicism, or a courageous resolve to remain true to reality and re-write the stories we’re telling ourselves.
Humans are social animals – we cannot function as individuals without connecting to each other and to the culture shaped by our ancestors. But sovereignty cannot belong both to an individual and a nation. Thinking of ourselves as British or American, French or Russian, black or white, male or female, is helpful for building a sense of community, for understanding our past and how we belong together, but it is not helpful when it becomes exclusive and arrogant, when it starts telling a story that my group is superior to your group, or, worse, that my group has a right to steal the future from every other group. Culture and community should be about celebrating our humanity, not about oppression and dominion.
That’s about as good a summary as I can come up with.