“The greatest barrier to the economic transformation we seek is not corrupt politicians, greedy CEOs, or even the destructive institutions … It is a flawed cultural story that misinforms our collective understanding of our nature and possibilities as humans and of the world we inhabit.” David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy
The two dominant ideologies for the past forty years have been neoliberalism and postmodernism, which are the twin pillars of the 200+ year experiment in trying to build a global society based on the premise that self-interest and individual material gain is legitimate, even praiseworthy, on the basis that private vices yield public benefits. Karl Polanyi called this experiment “The Great Transformation” and warned about the dangers of a market disembedded from society. Postmodernism has exposed the core failing of the Enlightenment – the splitting of science, education, politics, economics and religion into separate and distinct spheres of human knowledge, similarly disembedded from society and often at odds with each other and vying for dominance, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Technology now offers the solution of reimbedding everything in society through a grand narrative that not only corrects the mistakes of the past but also lays the foundation for a new post-industrial, post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-everything 21st century civilization. The future our ancestors dreamed about is finally here and it is bright, but it needs a new cultural story to make it a reality.
The key to the new cultural story lies in understanding the immediate past. 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. This the flawed cultural story that has given rise to an insidious form of corporatist rule 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. This comes on top of two world wars, concentration camps and gulags and a global financial crisis that has left the global economy on life support with “quantitative easing” (yes, printing money) in the drip. It is one giant mess, compounded by the political left getting lost in the anti-humanist strand of postmodernism.
Getting lost in anti-humanist postmodernism
Postmodernism as social commentary emerged in the post World War II period in academia and in the social sciences based on the ideas of a group of French philosophers including Jacques Derrida, Michael Foucault and Jean-Francois Lyotard.
Most of the commentary is tediously long on rhetoric and obscurantist to the point of being incomprehensible and yet, despite this and the questionable genealogy including association with Nazism, various debacles and self-refutating key arguments, it has not only gained traction but, according to David Ernst has “ascended to the heights of our culture: the nihilism in the common presumption that all truth is relative, morality is subjective, and therefore all of our individually preferred 'narratives' that give our lives meaning are equally true and worthy of validation.”
Moreover, it has evolved and morphed driven by the political left who see in this philosophy both an explanation for the ills of the modern world and the justification including the methodology for dismantling existing concepts, beliefs and customs to arrive at a new type of society, yet to be defined.
The problem with this approach is that, barring the shenanigans of some evil genius operating in the background, it is inadvertently reinforcing the existing and collapsing neoliberal socio-economic paradigm. Worse still it is disarming the progressive left to the point of becoming inconsequential because of the association with radical ideas that are not just questioning but also attempting to dismantle key institutions of society in areas including education, science, politics and law based on a poorly defined, unproven and, arguably, a nonsensical philosophy.
The unholy alliance
The unholy alliance of postmodernism and neoliberalism fosters a nihilistic loss of faith in the future, resulting in chaos, disorder and erratic voting patterns that is handing power to the populists, narcissists and the megalomaniacs.
This is a recipe for another descent into global conflict, except this time around it will be armed with nuclear and biological weapons and with leaders shortsighted, crazy or desperate enough to use them. In the end it can either be the road to tyranny of outright totalitarianism, or it can be the road of chaos we need to traverse in order to emerge into a post-industrial, post-everything 21st century civilization, the likes of which history is yet to record. The former is the road we are currently on, but technology offers a fork in the road to the latter by addressing some of the valid criticisms and concerns of the postmodernists, with real solutions.
Let’s begin by addressing the nihilistic loss of faith in the future which can be traced back to the neat definition of postmodernism provided by Jean-Francois Lyotard, author of the Quebec government commissioned report entitled: The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge, first published in 1979.
In this report Lyotard defines postmodernism as “incredulity regarding metanarratives” and translates this incredulity into a program to dismantle all metanarratives, once and for all, in favor of the relativity of individual, little narratives or “les petits récits” as he called them. As such it becomes an attempt to complete the Nietzschean-Heideggerian enterprise of the destruction of metaphysics and the result brings into question the key ideas of the modernism of the Enlightenment – the belief in progress, reason, rationality, individualism, science, rule of law, human rights, humanism and, even, democracy.
Increasingly, this questioning is now translating into a loss of faith in all areas of society and getting to - what should be an unthinkable point - that the only solution to this mess is to burn it all down (or elect a "chaos" candidate to accelerate the process), in a nihilistic wildfire that reflects and feeds on the death of hope - the poisoned fruit of this aspect of postmodernism.
To be fair, postmodernists are often at pains to point out that postmodernism, rather than offering a solution, is a form of radical critique that looks for fissures and cracks that seem illusive to reason and beyond rationality entrapped in the logic of an existing paradigm.
Most of the postmodernist critique, however, can be characterized as word games masquerading as insight and wisdom but ultimately proving vacuous and hollow as the various postmodern hoaxes have demonstrated by showing how even the experts cannot tell the difference between valid comment and nonsense, much to the chagrin of the peer review process. Einstein put it best when he said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Yet, postmodernism does pose a very important question about the modern, interconnected world of competing cultures, political structures, religious affiliations and differing social expectations in relation to fairness and justice: How do we arrive at some sort of compromise that suits everyone and thus legitimizes knowledge and, more importantly, legitimizes decision-making and action? In an article entitled: Toward a Postmodern Theory of Law, Ana Julia Bozo de Carmona writes that our current concept of the law is a myth “because the concepts and ideas that we human beings use to make the world surrounding us intelligible and manageable have changed their content and lost their quality of ethical references that legitimize the law. I refer to such concepts as responsibility, liberty, authority, scientific knowledge, justice, right/wrong, etc..”
The theme of legitimacy is reflected in a lecture at Melbourne University on the topic of female genital mutilation. The instructor, Dr Juliet Rogers, put forward the proposition that the “true source of the trauma is not the practice of FGM itself but the violence of anti-FGM laws. After all, Western societies pressure women into body modification in the form of ear piercings—so who are we to pass judgment on those who practice clitorectomies and infibulations on children? And isn’t it true that legislators’ supposed concern with FGM is actually motivated by “Islamophobia”?’ While this viewpoint may offend the common sense of those brought up on the ideas of the Enlightenment, it is nevertheless a viewpoint that cannot be dismissed without some sort of reference to authority through legitimation.
Bozo de Carmona goes on to provide a clear summary of the current situation, the challenges ahead and, importantly, the failure of the postmodernist thinkers: “Legal and political philosophy must accept the challenge of re-thinking the meaning of our actions which overlap in a multicultural social age that we, as individuals, must understand and reorganize. Derrida, Rorty, Habermas, Lyotard, Deleuze, Guattary, MacIntyre, to mention only the most innovative thinkers in our discipline, insist on assuming the theoretical constructions of modernity just as they are given to us, with the purpose of criticizing them, but they remain incapable of or unwilling to conceive solutions that require adventuring much farther beyond the old paradigms.”
In the forward to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, Frederic Jameson is similarly critical of the shallowness of Lyotard’s conclusion: “Lyotard seems unwilling to do in the present text, namely to posit, not the disappearance of the great master-narratives, but their passage underground as it were, their continuing but now unconscious effectivity as a way of "thinking about" and acting in our current situation.”
We can understand Lyotard’s reluctance to posit the existence of a totalizing grand narrative because if it did exist, it would provide a way to legitimize truth and knowledge, reveal a common set of values with a common cultural heritage, provide guiding principles of moral behavior and the inspiration of a common purpose towards a universal goal. In short, it would put a Valyrian steel dagger to the heart of his anti-humanist philosophy.
In the history of human societal evolution, we now stand on the brink of achieving that for which so much has been sacrificed in effort, toil and blood – the answer to the question: How to live meaningfully in peace, prosperity and the greatest freedom? This has been the goal since the earliest of times underpinned by a grand narrative that was lived, rather than articulated, because it was a matter of life or death.
We now have the technology to give voice to this grand narrative in answer to the question of the ages, to fulfill the universal quest of humanity and to realize the end of history - the end point of mankind's social and ideological evolution with the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This will create not only a global conversation but also a new mechanism for sharing in economic prosperity, which will encourage closed regimes like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia to open up, in order for their citizens to benefit fully from this development.
Towards a grand narrative for the end of history
From the earliest of times we realized the efficacy of cooperating for mutual benefit based on trust, which quickly extended beyond the family unit and the clan to include villages of people, expanded to encompass cities, states and nations and now spans the whole world through the Internet and a global economic system.
This expansion of cooperation is based on the idea of care for the other – the “we first” rather than the “me first” narrative. We can trace the expansion of the “we first” narrative in two key ways. The first is vertically as it expanded beyond the clan to the village, then to the city, to the nation and now stands ready to span the whole world. Along the way, because of the limited nature of the “we” at different times, we had clan wars, state and nation 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 form of neoliberalism. Technology now provides the means to expand the economic “we” to include social capital in all its forms and thereby reimbed the market in society in acknowledgement of Polanyi’s dire warnings. This will not only provide a more equitable way to share in the proceeds of economic progress globally, but also 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 together 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 the values while avoiding the vices did more than just promote cooperative effort based on trust; it actually opened the 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. It 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 the truth. 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.
Fixing the fissure in the Enlightenment
We now have the technology to address the fissure in the Enlightenment by reimbedding 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.
The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency epitomizes the saying “cometh the hour, cometh the man”. History may well record that in his bombastic, chaotic, confrontational, accept no guilt and make no apologies style, and with his vow to "drain the swamp", Donald Trump, single-handedly but inadvertently, broke the spell of postmodern neoliberalism by turning postmodernism on itself to reveal its hypocrisy. For this strange turn of events, the world should forever be grateful, but Donald Trump is not the man to take it forward because his vision does not extend beyond “America first” which will only make America smaller through division, introspection, confrontation and isolation, just when the world needs America to be truly great.
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. It is resistant to reform and the end of postmodern neoliberalism will spell the end of the EU, at least in its current form. So, the British public, thanks to David Cameron, has got it right with 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.
The 2020 US presidential election provides a unique opportunity for the next US president to ignite the imagination of a new generation to the promise of liberty and democracy based on a common vision shared globally. To make the great American dream, grounded in the belief that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, the universal dream of humanity and to extend the “we” of democracy beyond party politics and national borders to include everyone, everywhere.
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.