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Four faulty assumptions of both the Left and Right
LF26 | Politics as usual has failed. Here are four reasons why.
Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for the presidency in 1968, [said]: “Fellowship, community, shared patriotism—these essential values of our civilization do not come from just buying and consuming goods together.” They come instead, he went on, from the kind of work that allows a person to say, “‘I helped to build this country. I am a participant in its great public ventures.’” - Michael Sandel, The Atlantic
This article was prompted by a question I was asked this week about my politics. I realized that I didn’t really fit in the Left<>Right axis (though more Left than Right if pushed), because I don’t feel either side is asking the right questions.
Brexit and Trump were failures of imagination by politicians of all sides, as neatly laid out in The Tyranny of Merit. The Left and Right have been serving up slightly different flavours of a flawed consensus economic narrative that has optimized GDP growth, embraced globalization, ignored externalities, and ceded too much power to corporations.
Here are four dangerous and false assumptions that seem to have shaped mainstream political thinking for the past few decades.
1. People want to consume, not contribute
The past several decades have seen politics of the left and right converge to support a ruinous free-market-economics, growth-at-all-costs, globalization-fuelled consumption boom that has increased isolation, dislocated people from place, burst our planetary boundaries and, more subtly, glorified the idea of consumption over the contribution.
Even the word ‘contribution’ sounds gauche. Filtered through my upbringing in the UK, US and now Australia, ‘contribution’ sounds like it sits alongside crunchy granola, tweed jackets, and a vicar’s wife devoutly baking scones for the village fête.
In a world in which people are deemed to only want to consume, ChatGPT is making the issue of consumption vs contribution particularly timely.
2. Place doesn’t matter, but countries do
The Left and Right both signed up for unfettered globalisation. While Clinton, Blair and Obama were more likely to talk about guard rails and retraining to mitigate the impacts of outsourced jobs, we all enjoyed cheap imports. It was left to those on the Right to react, in clumsy, knee-jerk ways, calling for shutting borders and immigration controls.
Covid-19 showed the frailties and dangers of global supply chains that stripped countries of their ability to create products (such as masks) to look after their citizens. Modern economics is place-less - any native American or aboriginal Australian will point out the absurdity of ignoring place in society.
On the other hand, politics is still a very national concept. Despite trust in federal politicians being less than 20%, both sides seem to cling to power. Admittedly, money and defence are national, but so much more of what makes life meaningful takes place at the local level or via online networks. Whenever America has an election, I remark how it’s a shame that the rest of the world can’t vote, since we’re going to be affected.
3. Humans are a special case
Both sides of politics support an economic model of generally free markets with externalities happening ‘outside’ the system. This belief comes from the idea that humans are separate and apart - we have dominion over nature. The rise of Judeo Christian religious beliefs over the past couple of thousand years (God created the earth in his own image…) made human activities special, and was exacerbated by philosophers such as Descartes, who contrasted rational man with everything else. Nature became a ‘natural resource’ to plunder and we did that with abandon.
4. Capitalism and competition are the same
Peter Thiel argues convincingly that a true capitalist detests competition - they want a big moat and monopoly profits. It’s only recently with Lina Khan’s arrival at the FTC that things are being shaken up. Before that, it’s been four decades of steadily rising corporate power via tech consolidation and a very limited interpretation (‘consumer welfare’) of US antitrust rules.
So my manifesto for a new form of politics would start with these four pillars. It would dive into and highlight case studies, weak signals, and emerging ideas that show a better way, such as:
Contribution. Web3, otherwise known as the creator economy, promises to radically reduce the barriers to ownership, has created a new class of digital products that can be exclusionary. It’s time to build, a manifesto by venture capital firm, Andreesson Horowitz, is in the spirit of contribution too.
Place. Any number of local innovation ecosystems to point to, I’d suggest looking at Boston / MIT’s work on Longevity Ecosystems / Hubs in particular.
Externalities. Creating new systems-thinking approaches that take full account of life’s circularity is what The Capital Institute is doing (am participating in their excellent course on Regenerative Economics). And more tangibly, paying people for decarbonizing the planet, an idea from Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterful The Ministry for the Future.
These ideas are early threads, but the growth of the Teal independents in Australia is well inline with this. Will watch with interest if there are politicians willing to dive into these difficult but worthy topics.
As always, feedback and suggestions welcome.