As we go forward…

Most thinking people recognise that our society is at a turning point, one that isn’t just a matter of degree, but of kind.

That means that, as we go forward, we should take the opportunity to challenge every assumption we hold, every idea we don’t usually notice.

We should, in other words, shape our frame of thinking about things, and try to consciously influence our horizons of interpretation.

Take “how to organize”, for instance. Now would be a good time to stop thinking of the limited liability joint stock ownership corporation as the core model for how to do things.

It’s one model. It’s not the only one.

For the past few decades, in fact, we’ve been so sure that it’s the only one that we’ve migrated its thinking into the other types we still have.

“Run government like a business”, “public-private partnerships”, “management is management”, etc. are simply phrases that say “government bodies ought to be corporate in nature”. That the joint-stock part is a single share owned by the Crown makes no difference. They’re managed as though they are corporations.

New Zealand goes so far as to call its Deputy Ministers “Chief Executives”. Doesn’t that just say it all? — from a position of subordination to a position of unassailable leadership.

Friendly societies, co-operatives, true public services, organizations as tontines, as proprietorships, as family trusts, as community trusts, as joint partnerships — there are many other forms than just the corporation.

This, in turn, means we may start to think about size (is growth that important), about returns (maybe it’s a way to share income, rather than capital growth), about what being an owner means (by work, by investment: why should one exceed the other?).

It would also allow us to rethink public service once again.

Indeed, it would allow us to recover other terms from our past: vocation and calling come to mind.

We claim to honour work, but what we actually honour is money. There are many forms of work that we discount or dismiss.

Indeed, the whole notion of cutting the arts and humanities out of our lives (because there’s no money at the end of the road there) and having, instead, tens upon tens of “professional masters’ programmes” (because theoretically this subspecialty does have money somewhere) is merely the indication of how far we’ve taken this idea.

Well, that and the over-lawyering of society, amongst other indicators.

Does every dispute need to be solved by bringing a court action? Does every whim need to be catered to by bringing one?

Do patents still serve their original purpose — and is that purpose needed? What about copyrights? Do we benefit more when information is free to be used than we do when it is restrained? Does the originator benefit more in non-monetary ways, or is money and its control the only thing that matters?

We might also think carefully about the whole notion of personhood. Is some agency we create (a company, a society, a department of government) a person of similar or equal standing to you or I? Or should it be naturally subordinate, since at the end of the day it is nothing more than a pile of legalities, money and … us?

A society of endless growth (our old presumption) could afford some of the frictions we’ve built up. Can one struggling to innovate enough to manage steady-state living rather than collapse and crash do so? These are the kinds of questions we need to bring to the front of our thinking.

Without doing so, we shall continue to try to pour “new wine into old bottles”. When those bottles break (everything wears out, even our laws and our finances) the new is lost to the ground…

ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ (“The unexamined life is not worth living”, Socrates, in Plato’s Apology): this does not mean simply that we need as individuals to be philosophic and questioning of ourselves. Societies are politeia, humans working together: we must be equally resolute in examining our assumptions there, too.


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