Research in psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology points to the same conclusion: Human beings are spectacularly unusual when compared to other animals.
We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies.
We are also the supreme cooperators. We survived the African savannahs, despite being weaker and slower than our predators and most of our prey, through developing a remarkable capacity for mutual aid.
This urge to cooperate has been hard-wired into our brains through natural selection. Our tendencies towards altruism and cooperation are the central, crucial facts about humankind.
Something has gone horribly wrong.
Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but perhaps the most powerful is the dominant political narrative of our times. We have been induced by politicians, economists and journalists to accept a vicious ideology of extreme competition and individualism that pits us against each other, encourages us to fear and mistrust each other and weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.
The story of our competitive, self-maximising nature has been told so often and with such persuasive power that we have accepted it as an account of who we really are. It has changed our perception of ourselves. Our perceptions, in turn, change the way we behave.
We have lost our common purpose.
This leads in turn to a loss of belief in ourselves as a force for change, frustrating our potential to do what Humans do best: to find common ground in confronting our predicaments, and to unite to overcome them.
Our atomisation has allowed intolerant and violent forces to fill the political vacuum. We are trapped in a vicious circle of alienation and reaction. The hypersocial mammal is falling apart.
Over the past few years, there’s been a fascinating convergence of findings in several different sciences, in psychology and anthropology and neuroscience and evolutionary biology, and they all tell us something pretty amazing: that Human beings have got this massive capacity for altruism. Sure, we all have a bit of selfishness and greed inside us, but in most people, those are not our dominant values.
And we also turn out to be the supreme cooperators. We survived the African savannas, despite being weaker and slower than our predators and most of our prey, by an amazing ability to engage in mutual aid, and that urge to cooperate has been hardwired into our minds through natural selection. These are the central, crucial facts about humankind: our amazing altruism and cooperation.
Our good nature has been thwarted by several forces, but I think the most powerful of them is the dominant political narrative of our times, which tells us that we should live in extreme individualism and competition with each other. It pushes us to fight each other, to fear and mistrust each other. It atomizes Society. It weakens the social bonds that make our lives worth living.
And into that vacuum grow these violent, intolerant forces. We are a society of altruists, but we are governed by psychopaths.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. It really doesn’t, because we have this incredible capacity for togetherness and belonging, and by invoking that capacity, we can recover those amazing components of our humanity: our altruism and cooperation.
Where there is atomization, we can build a thriving civic life with a rich participatory culture. Where we find ourselves crushed between market and state, we can build an economics that respects both people and planet. And we can create this economics around that great neglected sphere, the commons.
The commons is neither market nor state, capitalism nor communism, but it consists of three main elements: a particular resource; a particular community that manages that resource; and the rules and negotiations the community develops to manage it. Think of community broadband or community energy cooperatives or the shared land for growing fruit and vegetables that in Britain we call allotments.
A common can’t be sold, it can’t be given away, and its benefits are shared equally among the members of the community. Where we have been ignored and exploited, we can revive our politics. We can recover democracy from the people who have captured it. We can use new rules and methods of elections to ensure that financial power never trumps democratic power again.
Representative democracy should be tempered by participatory democracy so that we can refine our political choices, and that choice should be exercised as much as possible at the local level. If something can be decided locally, it shouldn’t be determined nationally. And I call all this the politics of belonging.
Now, I think this has got the potential to appeal across quite a wide range of people, and the reason for this is that among the very few values that both left and right share are belonging and community. In fact, you can see a lot of politics as being a search for belonging.
Now, we are creatures of narrative. Stories are the means by which we navigate the World. When we have no story that explains the present and describes the future, hope evaporates. Despair is the state we fall into when our imagination fails. Without a restoration story that can tell us where we need to go, nothing is going to change, but with such a restoration story, almost everything can change.
So in summary, our new story could go something like this.
Disorder afflicts the land! Caused by the powerful and nefarious forces of people who say there’s no such thing as Society, who tell us that our highest purpose in life is to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin. But the heroes of the story, us, we’ll revolt against this disorder. We will fight those nefarious forces by building rich, engaging, inclusive and generous communities, and, in doing so, we will restore harmony to the land.
And that story, if we tell it right, will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum. Our task is to tell the story that lights the path to a better World.