Anglo-American neo-liberalism is in palliative care — looking ahead

In the summer of 2015 I spoke to the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) Banff Summer Conference. To-day, I am back with the ATA, in Banff, with teachers and researchers from around the world (uLead). My role is different, and I will be speaking to a different issue, but I do want to restate how I see our context.

The famous Czech poet, dissident and (later, the last) president of Czechoslovakia Vaclev Havel said: “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something is crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself — while something else, still indistinct, is rising from the rubble.”

At least in my mind, Havel was alluding to a couple of developments that are startlingly clear.

The first is that we are being confronted by changes the likes of which humankind has never experienced since we emerged from caves.

We are faced with the certainty of profound changes during our lifetime. Some very reputable physicists are postulating that the universe is not objective, but subjective: that it has no origin or existence except as a reflection of some pre-existing ‘consciousness’. The famous astronomer, Sir James Jeans said: “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” I may well live to experience human contact with life on other planets, in other galaxies. The re-emergence of subjectivity in physics on one side, and contact with other life-forms on the other side — either of these would generate a substantial existential crisis for humankind. With genetics and bioengineering we are faced with the prospect of re-imagining what it means to be human. With neuroscience and linguistics we are faced with the prospect of reimagining our relationship with at least some other sentient beings. With robotics and artificial intelligence, we are faced with the prospect of reimagining our relationship with ‘machines’. With the changes in the composition of air and the content of water, and with our nuclear capacities we are faced with the prospect that the future may be bright, but humanless. Then we come to second order issues, such as the unsustainability of our current economic system. For the first time in millennia, our brain’s default condition is not wired for dealing with our current condition.

I believe that we can work our way through these issues successfully, but not by continued reliance on – or even acceding to — the reactions, emotions and thought processes that have kept us alive for thousands of years.

So Havel may have been speaking out of recognition of the changes we face.

He may also have been speaking out of the reality that all the rule systems we have relied upon for 200 – 400 years or more are in a shambles, and they are not trusted. When our rule systems break down it means that the underlying model no longer works for us. And virtually all our rule systems are breaking down. As rule systems break down the first thing that happens is that lazy and thoughtless people turn to anarchy and libertarianism. There is a brief fling with these, followed by the realization that we can’t live without rules, so we try to understand the emerging model and develop rules that conform to the emerging model.

More seriously, libertarian and anarchic outlooks are often cast as a rejection of rules altogether. In reality, they are a rejection of the existing rules by people who can’t think their way through to a new rule set but will gladly adopt one when others have done the heavy lifting.

The reality of the imminent demise of the social theories that have been the basis of our rules for 250 years or more should orient all of us away from succumbing to, or supporting, incremental improvements to neo-liberal outlooks, policies, and practices. The reality of the imminent demise of liberalism should orient us toward the invention and installation of new models based on confidence that a new story is emerging, of education and social democracy in a civil democratic society.

Anglo-American neo-liberalism// The ‘emerging’
Mechanistic // Organic
Individualistic/sovereigntist // Relational/non-sovereigntist
Atomistic // Molecular
Deterministic // Free will
Perfectible // Generative
Vacuous // ‘Wavy’ (transcendental)

Our commitment to dualism pre-dates North Atlantic neo-liberalism, but it has compounded the errors of NANL

The pure philosophy of liberalism (espousing the absolute primacy and autonomy of the individual, reflecting Newtonian mechanics, mechanistic models of social systems, rationalism/objectivism, and perfectibility), will not be able to survive the death of the ‘scientific’ model from which liberalism emerged. The death of liberalism will drag down with it our current ideas about the nature and value of competition and conflict, about autonomy and sovereignty, and it will drag down capitalism (although perhaps not a rule-based market economy).

We can see, in now well-established ‘new’ scientific fields (quantum physics, genetics, neurology), the vague outlines of the social theory that will emerge. Arthur Koestler wrote about halons in his 1966 book, The Ghost in the Machine. We are thinking more organically and less mechanically, more chaotically and less hierarchically, more adaptively and less rigidly, more relationally and less atomistically. The future is beginning to collapse in on us in ways western culture has not experienced in 2,500 years. Something is happening culturally, globally, that is beyond political parties, beyond individual thought leaders, and beyond economic circumstances.

Having said that, there are huge global processes and organizations that represent neo-liberalism, with access to all kinds of resources, and they seem eternal, immovable, and relentlessly protective of corporations, free market doctrines, competition, standardization, and the privatization of everything. To paraphrase Cassius, speaking of Julius Caesar: “Why man, liberalism doth bestride the narrow world, like a Colossus, and we small men walk under its huge legs, and peep about to find ourselves dishonourable graves.” We need to remember that Caesar died, notwithstanding the suggestion that he was an eternal colossus.

I repeat, liberalism is in palliative care. We already see evidence that the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, and similar organizations and institutions are finding their foundations being threatened, not as quickly as we might like, but they are being compromised. We are beginning to see some evidence that some of the leaders and elements of liberalism recognize this and are trying to defend their turf, or transform their organizations, or find a graceful exit strategy.

For some indeterminate time we will still be bound, more or less, by the legacy of Anglo-American liberalism. At the same time, we should be constantly testing the remaining strength of the chains. Each test will break one more of the old and very rusted chains. To quote Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

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