The future of the left since 1884

A Convenient Truth

Since the 1980s, progressive politics has been rudderless. Having lost its vision of how to create a qualitatively better society for everyone, radical politics has lacked idealism, a sense of purpose and the ability to inspire. As a result, politicians...


Since the 1980s, progressive politics has been rudderless. Having lost its vision of how to create a qualitatively better society for everyone, radical politics has lacked idealism, a sense of purpose and the ability to inspire. As a result, politicians seem driven mainly by short-term expediency, and great swathes of the population regard politics as not worth thinking about.

But there has never been such a crying need for a bold vision of the future. If we fail to reverse the policies that have been driving climate change, we face disaster on a world scale. Adverse trends have been visible for some time, the direction of change is beyond doubt and the main causes are understood.

Yet most of us shut our eyes to the problem. Moving towards sustainability looks like nothing so much as an unwelcome invitation to live in an impoverished version of our current reality. With the exception of more efficient new technology which saves us money, reductions in carbon emissions are seen as threatening many of the pleasures in life – from holiday flights to air conditioning. The environmental policies which we need have little chance of gaining popular support in societies dominated by consumerism, in which success means nothing so much as getting richer, and in which we are all manipulated by corporations hell bent on profit and expansion regardless of the consequences. We clearly need to find another approach.

Part of what blinds us to alternatives is that we see rich, developed societies as the peak of human achievement. But the truth is, despite historically unprecedented levels of comfort and plenty, our societies have many serious social failings and are not efficient producers of wellbeing. People experience much of life as stressful and many, particularly teenagers and young adults, are dogged by self-doubt and low self-esteem. Each year about a quarter of all British adults suffer some form of mental illness – particularly depression, anxiety disorders, and drug or alcohol addiction. Our prisons are full and overcrowded. Children face high rates of bullying at school. Self-harm – particularly among teenage girls – is rife. Low social mobility means that children’s life chances, far from being equal, are marked by major injustices. And, although research on both health and happiness shows the crucial importance of a fulfilling social life, community life in most areas varies between poor and non-existent. Many people feel isolated and most do not feel that the pleasure of spending free time with a group of friends is there for the taking.

So the task for everyone with any concern for the current and future welfare of humanity, is to think through how we can combine sustainable economic systems with genuinely higher levels of wellbeing.

This task is less difficult than you might expect. The key, as this pamphlet will show, is that the wellbeing of populations in the rich societies now depends less on further advances in material standards than on improving the quality of social relations and community life. Improvements in health, happiness and other measures of adult or child wellbeing are no longer linked to economic growth.

A growing body of research evidence makes it possible to track the deep sources of our society’s social and psychological malaise to crisis levels of self-doubt and insecurity about how we are valued. As settled communities have disappeared, we encounter each other as socially exposed, unknown individuals, whose worth we judge substantially from social position. Outward wealth becomes the measure of inner worth, while status and social position are assumed to be indicators of intelligence and ability. The effect is that bigger inequalities in material circumstances – in housing, cars, jobs, education – create bigger differences in social worth and bigger social distances. The larger the income differences, the stronger the impression that some people are extremely important and others are almost worthless.

What this means is that the greater the inequality, the more stressful social contact will seem and the more people will start to withdraw from community life. A great deal of research now testifies to the strong connection between societies having larger income differences and weaker community life. Indeed, the most fundamental benefit of reducing the very large differences in income and wealth which disfigure many societies is the improvement in the quality of social relations and the increases in social cohesion.

Because smaller income differences reduce the importance of status differences, they also reduce the consumerism which status insecurity intensifies. This is especially important because consumerism is such a major obstacle to sustainability. From the perspective of both human wellbeing and the environment, we have to replace socially and environmentally destructive status competition with the more affiliative social relations and community life which human wellbeing requires.

How then, can income and status differences be reduced?  There is, as we will show, ample evidence that the big changes in inequality reflect the shifting balance of political and ideological forces in societies rather than changes in impersonal market forces. We argue that the best way of building more equal and sustainable societies is to extend democracy into the economic sphere, so making income differences within organisations more sensitive to democratic pressures.

Where ranking systems and status divisions are strongest, and where the biggest income differences are created, is in business – particularly in large private sector corporations.  If you look at the studies comparing different business models, it turns out that more democratic models tend to have higher productivity. They also tend to be more congenial places to work.  This is true of companies with employee representatives on the board (a legal requirement in many European countries) as well as of companies which are either employee co-operatives or fully employee-owned. More democratic companies typically have much smaller pay differences within them. For this and a number of other reasons, we believe that they may provide the best foundation on which to create a permanently more equal and sustainable society. Indeed, we see the extension of democracy into economic institutions as the next major step in the long project of human emancipation.

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