Towards a grand narrative for the 21st century
The remarkable story of human progress from the caves to the moon and beyond!
All social change, all revolutions, in fact, all history is driven by grand narratives. These narratives explain why things are the way they are, how they can be and ought to be, and what we need to do to get there, both as a society as well as individuals within that society.
Today, as we stand on the brink of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — potentially the most far-reaching revolution of all — it is an opportune moment to reflect on the story of human progress and, through the process, reenvision the future through a grand narrative for the post-everything 21st century.
This essay is included as additional background reading regarding this project and serves as an indicative roadmap of development, if we can get the first phase off the ground.
The story of human progress begins with the realization of the efficacy of cooperating for mutual benefit based on trust. Thus we see cooperation expanding vertically beyond the family unit and the clan to include villages of people. It then expanded to encompass cities, states and nations and now stands ready to span the whole world through the Internet, a global economic system and accelerating technological innovation. This expansion of cooperation is based on the idea of care for the other — “we first” — rather than the “me first” narrative.
Along the way and because of the limited nature of what constituted the “we” at different times, we had wars, conflicts, subjugation, slavery and colonialism. When the “we” expanded to include the colonized nations, colonialism ended. When the “we” expanded to include slaves, slavery ended.
The second way to trace the “we first” narrative is horizontally as it expanded to include women’s rights, civil right, gay rights and the rights of ethnic minorities, and it continues to expand. Apart from the folly of “identity politics” — an attempt to divide the “we” for political gain — this has been a healthy expansion but less healthy has been the economic expansion.
In the field of economics, the vertical expansion of the “we” has occurred through deregulation of economies and through trade. The guiding principle of interdependence through trade is failing because the horizontal economic expansion of the “we” has stalled at defining the common good in terms of commercial profit only. This can be likened to the social expansion of the “we” stalling at the point of the clan and this is the great failing of the current economic system. This is the reason why the richest clan — the 1 percent — now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
Technology now provides the means to resolve wealth inequality by expanding the economic “we” beyond profits to include social capital in all its forms. This will democratize economic power resulting in not just a more equitable way to share in economic prosperity generally, but also deliver practical solutions to economic challenges like job automation.
In the field of politics — the question of who makes decisions on behalf of society — both the horizontal and vertical expansion of the “we” has seen steady progress with the expansion of liberal democracy.
This progress has, however, stalled because of party politics and the undue influence of powerful lobby groups. This accounts for the rise of political tribalism at the national level and, at the international level, with the rising frustration of the inability to act to resolve existential problems like climate change.
We now have the technology to put democracy out of reach of the lobby groups by evolving democracy beyond party politics at both the national and international levels, not through some world government or union of nations, but rather through the adoption of a common vision.
Imagine every nation on earth having the same common vision and working independently towards its attainment — this is the potential and the promise of technology.
Along the way we recognized that certain behaviors build trust while others destroy trust. We refined the positive behaviors into moral values which we enshrined in our religions labeling them as virtues and their opposites as vices.
We discovered that living by the virtues while avoiding the vices did more than just promote cooperative effort based on trust; it actually opened a window to a way of living beyond the needs of the self and self-gratification to include others and our environment through love, compassion and empathy.
So profound was this experience that we concluded its origins must not be earthly but other-worldly; something linked to the eternal and unchanging — the concept of God.
This is the polar opposite of the Nietzschean/Battaille/Foucault anti-humanist philosophy of wallowing in and celebrating our most base passions as the pathway to enlightenment and to a higher form of being. So erroneous is this philosophy that our ancestors invented the burning fires and tortures of hell, as a disincentive to those naive enough to tread this broken path.
We learned that describing the result of living beyond the self is difficult, if not impossible, and the only word that comes close is the word “peace”.
The core message of Christ was love and peace. The apostle Paul began all his letters and epistles with the invocation of grace and peace. This is the “shalom”, the “salaam” and the “om” of every great religion. But this is more than just peace from worldly conflict, it is the peace of the heart and from this comes the notion of character building, something that has been neglected for too long, at a great social cost.
The forgotten Road to Character
In the Road to Character, David Brooks writes:
“Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion … Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline … They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them. They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so. After you’ve known them for a while it occurs to you that you’ve never heard them boast, you’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments.”
While the remarkable people Brooks describes can still be found everywhere, the ethos of character building is withering under the anti-humanist assault, which began with drug-fueled, “tune in, turn on and drop out” counter-culture of the 60s and gained traction with the postmodern super-relativist credo.
The result is a generation of sociopaths and narcissists that now occupy positions of influence and power that sadly extends to the very pinnacles of modern society and, even more sadly, to a generation of lonely and desperately unhappy people.
Emile Durkheim described this type of development as anomie and defined it as “a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals”. It is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community, resulting in fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values.
This is the sad and terrible downside of the anti-humanist strand of postmodernism and the results are heart-breaking in how societies everywhere are failing young people at the most critical times in their personal development.
Yet, it is also heart-warming in the way young people respond and turn their lives around once they are empowered by a more positive set of values. A post on the Jordan Peterson Subreddit bravely recounts a deeply personal journey from utter despair to a sense of wholeness, acceptance and happiness:
“I have never been happier, and I am now much more motivated in every aspect of my life … after finding new friends and becoming comfortable in my environment, those weekend drives home added up, dramatically changing how I think and who I am as a person.”
This post should be required reading for all young people struggling to make sense of the world.
But Jordan Peterson is only treating some of the symptoms of a deeper problem that postmodernism has actually exposed — the core failing of the Enlightenment — the splitting of science, education, politics, economics and religion into separate and distinct groups, disembedded from society and often at odds with each other and vying for dominance, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Scientists, for example, can build a nuclear bomb, but science cannot provide the answer to the question why or when, if ever, it should be used. Science is insufficient to guide society because science, by definition, is amoral.
Education can teach facts, but on its own it cannot build the character to use those facts wisely. Worse still, education disembedded from society can be used to indoctrinate rather than inform as has happened in many Western universities, resulting in a generation of graduates with a distorted world view.
Politics is the art of leadership but leadership without a guiding moral system becomes a play thing of the rich and powerful.
Democracy is government by the people but democracy without a guiding vision or guiding principles becomes what James Madison feared and warned against — mob rule.
Economics can lead to prosperity but, when disembedded from society, it can destroy the world through greed.
Religion can provide a pathway to a deeper understanding of life beyond the self, but alone it can become introspective to the point of being blind to the very truths it professes to teach and the tool of zealots and bigots.
The terrible institutional abuse of children is a direct result of the disembedding of religion from the broader society, as is the rise of Islamic terrorism with its beheadings streamed live to a shocked and disbelieving world, including the majority of Muslims.
This the fissure and the crack that postmodernism has pried open in the Enlightenment. But it is only a fissure and easily fixed, not a wholesale unraveling of the Enlightenment project as some are suggesting.
We now have the technology to address the fissure in the Enlightenment by reembedding the dispersed areas of social inquiry into society by articulating a grand narrative for the post-everything 21st century.
The result will be a restoration of trust through a power shift from the elites — politicians, corporations, econocrats, bureaucrats, mediacrats, technocrats, priests, imams, mullahs and rabbis — to the people through a common vision.
The process can be likened to how a board of directors takes control of a failing business by setting the direction with a clear vision statement and getting everyone to work together toward its attainment.
In terms of politics, this is the long-awaited third political force that will evolve democracy beyond party politics and national borders, driven by technology-empowered voters, united by a common vision.
Ending the unholy alliance of neoliberalism and postmodernism
One of the greatest benefits of a common vision will be to finally end the unholy alliance of neoliberalism and postmodernism. Together they represent the twin pillars of the 200+ year experiment in trying to build a global society on the premise that private vices yield public benefits — the idea that greed and self-interest become public benefits through the invisible hand of market competition.
Neoliberalism, through deregulation, has removed all barriers to the unbridled pursuit of profit (greed as a good), whilst postmodernism with its super-relativism is deregulating the social sphere to create the perfect consumer (selfishness as a virtue).
Together they complete the conversion of civil society to the market society, under an overarching ideology of postmodern neoliberalism whereby civil society is reduced to the economy, the economy is reduced to the market economy and the market economy is reduced to financial markets.
The result is a flawed cultural story that has given rise to an insidious form of corporatist rule (crony capitalism) that masks itself in choice, freedom and, even, democracy.
Karl Polanyi’s warning that “acceptance of market principles at the core of modern society invites disaster” is proving prophetic. Instead of the promised society-as-a-market utopia, we have the opposite: greater social division, personal alienation, increased civil unrest, erosion of civil liberties, destruction of the environment, a rising tide of mental illness, the greatest transfer of wealth in recorded history and the erosion of the very foundations of modern liberal democracies.
The above list of failure and misery can be laid squarely at the feet of this unholy alliance of neoliberalism and postmodernism, driven by the monster it created — exponential economic growth — on which it relies for its survival.
It is within this context that the deception of climate change activism can be clearly understood, which has little to do with saving the planet and all to do with raiding the retirement savings of millions of people and the public purse to the tune of US$100 trillion in order to save a collapsing and unsustainable economic model?
This is the sobering conclusion of a report by investigative journalist Cory Morningstar entitled: “The manufacturing of Greta Thunberg for consent”.
Al Gore and his growing army of UN sponsored activists are all about feeding the monster of exponential growth, while preventing the only real solution from emerging, which is to starve it into extinction by democratizing economic power.
The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency is also symptomatic of the failure of this toxic social and economic experiment. History may well record that Donald Trump broke the spell of postmodern neoliberalism by turning postmodernism on itself to reveal its hypocrisy.
For the UK, David Cameron played a similar role to Donald Trump by giving the British people a vote on whether to stay in the EU.
The result was Brexit and it broke the spell of the thoroughly postmodern and neoliberal EU — a lumbering, bureaucratic and unaccountable supranational government that moves its headquarters every month from Belgium to France at an estimated cost of over €114 million per year.
The EU is resistant to reform and the demise of postmodern neoliberalism will also spell the demise of the EU, justifying Brexit.
History will also show that we needed the “madness” of postmodernism to shine the light on the fatal flaw of the Enlightenment project in its shattering of human knowledge into tribes of competing disciplines that has culminated in a complete loss of trust.
Postmodernism, through its negation of grand narratives, has actually paved the way to a grand narrative for the post-everything 21st century, as a basis for realizing our common dream of peace, prosperity and justice for all through a people-first economy.
Technology presents an opportunity to reshape the world not through revolution, conquest or subjugation as in the past, but rather through a grand narrative that unites rather than divides, inspires rather than depresses, frees rather oppresses and charts a pathway to a collective future of inclusion and sharing that our ancestors could only dream about.
The first draft of this grand narrative, called “We First”, is now open and available for discussion and debate with the final form to be arrived at democratically, through online feedback.
Jurgen Habermas was right when he said that that the “Enlightenment was an unfinished project”. We are the generation that can progress it, and maybe, with a bit of luck, even finish it.
At this stage of history, one of two things is possible:
Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests guided by values of solidarity and sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny to control. Noam Chomsky
Let’s make sure it is the former not the latter.
Addendum and project road map
If we were to summarise the above as a grand narrative for the post-industrial 21st century, what would it look like? I've created a first draft and hope to develop this aspect in the second phase of the project.
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