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Battle of the Beasts: Collectively Building and Maintaining a Meaningful Life

November 29, 2017

Battle of the Beasts: Collectively Building and Maintaining a Meaningful Life


November 29, 2017




  3. LET THER E BE MEA NING Pit one human against

    a chimpanzee and the chimp wins. Pit 100 humans against 100 chimpanzees and the humans win every time. What changes? Our ability to collaborate on mass is what sets humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. This ability to organise has given us an incredible advantage in meeting our material needs, allowing human communities to spread across the world and inhabit its every corner. Thus, it is perhaps ironic that the conditions that allowed us to pursue our material needs so efficiently ultimately led to the development of profound non-physical needs, which are now also primary to the human experience, i.e. the need for human relationship and belonging, which are central to our need for meaning, and which take place within community. We also construct meaning through the stories that we tell about our lives, which provide us with a way to make sense of what has happened to us, and frame where we are going. However, our individual stories only make sense within the broader context of the communities that we are a part of, and the collective stories (myths) that we share. In turn, these shared stories foster within individuals a sense of belonging to the group, facilitating meaningful relationships and anchoring their sense of meaning. Given the centrality of community to a meaningful life, it is significant that the role of community has dramatically changed in the last 400 years, moving from the very centre of our society to a nice to have. Formerly, you would have only participated in a few communities, but they would have provided the entirety of both material need and meaning. For example, 400 years ago an individual's economic security was provided by their extended family, and their work was organised through a guild. When we look at these communities with our eyes today, we see them as meeting material needs, but to the people that experienced them, we suggest it would have been much more than that. In these communities, they would have found connection, belonging, and self-actualisation. These communities would have met both material and meaning needs. For millennia, our myths and the people we shared them with were mostly confined to our local community, which was the context within which we constructed meaning and made sense of the world. Today, however, we are no longer dependant on the local community to meet our material needs, and this has had a profound effect on how we construct meaning and thus navigate the world. Over the past 400 years, we have seen a transfer of the functions the community once played to both the market and the state. Ideas that were once contextualised within a local community are now abstracted across millions and billions of people. Capacities that community once provided to us, such as sense-making and belonging, are being lost. THE ROLE OF THE MA R K ET IN OUR LI VES 400 years ago the role the market played was small and niche. As a rule, your economic world was rooted within your community, and for the most part, people produced things in their entirety. Nowadays, even making a pencil is a global effort. The community is no longer at the heart of our work. That by itself is not a bad thing. Indeed, many people believe it to be an incredibly positive thing. Hands down, the market has proven to be the most productive system to meet our material needs. 3 The Battle of the Beasts
  4. However, the market is more than an effective means of

    production, also impacting the community indirectly. For example, the concept of private ownership, on which the market is premised, is by its nature inherently individualistic. The ethos of individualism reaches well beyond the direct applications of private property, unconsciously driving how we organise society. This is seen everywhere, from the highways choked by cars with only one occupant, through to the homes which we build fences around. While collectively, we respect these boundaries, the market itself knows few boundaries. As humanity spread across the planet to inhabit every corner, so too, the market works to fill every gap in our lives. From childcare to our evening meal, slowly we have surrendered tasks once held by our community to the invisible hand of the market. THE ROLE OF THE STATE IN OUR LI VES 400 years ago, as with the market, the role of the state was small and niche. Unlike today, it did not provide education or health care, nor did it even provide personal security, which was supplied by your community. Instead, its primary purpose was to provide collective security against other states. However, in recent centuries, with widespread participation in the market, massive amounts of wealth have been produced, which has led to the growth of the middle classes. This enormous redistribution of wealth out of the hands of the ruling classes has resulted in a redistribution of political power, so much so that the locus of sovereignty has passed from monarchs and emperors to the people, with the birth of the modern republics. What has followed is an increasingly rapid expansion of eligibility for citizenship, from landed men to white men, to white women and beyond. Citizenship and thus political equality is now open to all, at least in theory. This emergent state produced legislation to facilitate market action, reinforcing the drive towards individualism. It also developed legislation to remove power from communities. For example, justice once dealt out by a local mob and family vendettas are now mediated by the courts, which are enforced by the state. Education moved from the family and the guild to state-run schools and universities. Undoubtedly, many benefits have flowed from this progression, and most people again would agree that overall it has been a positive thing. THE CUR R ENT CR ISIS OF MEA NING Despite their many indisputable benefits, the rise of the market and the state, have slowly eroded the role of community and the critical non-material functions it played in our lives. This erosion has led to a crisis of meaning. Depression, anxiety and ill-content feature more in our conversations than purpose, belonging and creativity. So how do we respond? A relationship is healthy when it is in balance. So too, society is healthy when it is in balance, and there are no asymmetries in power. For the last 400 years, the majority of our political theorists and economists have described society by the market and the state alone. Their underlying assumption has been that with the right balance between the market and the state, individuals would be free to pursue happiness. 4 The Battle of the Beasts
  5. However, by focussing on the market and the state at

    the expense of community, the very thing that provides the basis for happiness and meaning (once we have met basic material need), has been eroded. We are feeling this erosion profoundly. It is time we added a third pillar to account for the health of society - the pillar of community. Our intent is not to idealise and return to a time when community alone was the centre of our society. We would not wish that material uncertainty on our society. Nor would we advocate for a society based entirely on a structure with such a critical weakness in its tendency for insider–outsider distinctions which are the grounds for many conflicts. However, we do advocate that meaning need should find its place in balance with material need when re-imagining our society. We are unsure what this endpoint looks like, but believe that we are backed so far into a corner that we are not in a position to see our way out, let alone summon the will to change our circumstances. As a starting point, we suggest rediscovering the role of community in both the market and the state, at the very points where they are critically weak. PUTTING COMMUNITY BACK INTO THE MA R K ET The market has proven itself to be an unrivalled engine of production. In the last few decades it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and provided a quality of life the kings and queens of 400 years ago would envy. The idea of private property has been at the heart of this development. When I own something, I’m happy to invest in it to make it better. The incentives align for cumulative improvement, which sets the conditions for wealth production, and wealth begets wealth. This slow cumulative process has now been in operation for centuries, and the result is that the 1% own more than half of global wealth. This imbalance in wealth distribution produces an imbalance in power, and as such our politics, media, our very freedom is exposed to the will of the 1%. The market's critical strength is its productive power, and its critical weakness is its ability to distribute that power. Community has a potentially important role to play in addressing wealth distribution while creating a more productive market. We will look at three examples. The first, from Japan, looks at the distribution of risk within a community to meet the variability within the market, the second explores the role of positive social pressure within a community to create a more productive factory, and the third is an exploration of platform collaboratives. In Japan, the Toyama Bay fishing co-operatives studied by Platteau and Seki (2001) illustrate how community can be utilised to distribute the risk of variable catches and adapt to the introduction of new technologies through sharing income, information and training. Through training and information sharing they can increase their productivity and through the sharing of their catch the cooperative’s boats can fish riskier, more productive waters. This leads to higher profits shared by more people. These communities utilise their connection in increasing their productivity. The pooling of risk and expertise can be applied to any risky endeavour. On the factory floor of the U.S., we find a well-known example of the plywood workers of Oregon and Washington State where employment required ownership in the firm and ownership required employment. This all-in approach created a positive social pressure that needed less management oversight and thus increased total factor productivity, Craig and Pencavel (1995). It also provided a resiliency to the business that allowed the workers to face downturns collectively, but equally, share in the good times. 5 The Battle of the Beasts
  6. Finally, over the last ten years, we have seen the

    rise of the digital platforms that dominate markets. Take Uber, for example; it is currently valued around 50 billion dollars. While it plays an important role in matching drivers with a passenger, the driving is done by a third party. Digital platforms, on the one hand, are incredibly powerful as they capture the ‘network effect’, but equivalently they are vulnerable. If there was a competing platform that saw this value be distributed in a different way which significantly lowered the price of a trip (Uber takes around a 20% cut from the drivers) this new platform could capture the market, realise the real costs for the drivers, and redistribute the remaining value to users. While these examples are not without their challenges, they present enough of a picture to suggest that community may have an important role to play in the market. Communities can tap informa- tion that is often inaccessible to the market and draw upon incentives such as trust, reputation, and solidarity, as well as incentives such as retribution. We need to find these companies, invest in them, learn from them and share that learning. For a more in-depth exploration see Bowles and Gintis (2002). PUTTING COMMUNITY BACK INTO THE STATE The idea that the people are sovereign is the cornerstone of our state. We exercise that sovereignty by electing representatives who on our behalf create and enforce the rules that we all live by. Considering the size of modern societies, this is a practical solution to an important and challenging problem. However, it comes with several significant trade-offs. To remain in power, the political party must convince the people every 3-4 years that their policies best represent the people’s interests. As such, policies are too often limited to yield results within an electoral cycle, and the contest for public opinion focuses on a few issues that more often than not become ideological and thus work to drive us apart. We are left with a system that struggles to shape public opinion, and thus we have a policy environment that is unstable and inefficient. Equally, we lack the tools to meaningfully contest poor political decisions outside of the electoral cycle, compounding the inefficiency. In practice, we have a ‘thin’ version of democracy with poor instruments to produce public opinion rationally and lack recourse against poor political decisions that undermine our material and meaning needs. Community again has a potentially important role to play in creating a ‘thicker’ form of democracy where we have natural forums and aligned incentives within which to form public opinion. To explore this idea, we will look at several examples. First, we look at the evolutionary origins of reason, then to the places in which we gather for inspiration, and finally, we look to the movements and their example of resisting power. For the majority of human history, community was the forum within which we formed our ideas. In fact, the very process of understanding is a social process. New theories of reason put forward by Mercier and Sperber (2011) make the case that the cognitive tools we use to make sense of the world, such as reason, evolved to serve social functions. If we are going to cooperate with others, for example, we must have tools to assess character, behaviour, and honesty. Likewise, we must establish that we are trustworthy, justify our behaviour and persuade to our own ends. Reason allows for all of this. However, the critical takeaway from Mercier and Sperber is that, due to the social function of reason, it appears that we are significantly better at evaluating reasoned arguments than producing them. Said differently, if you don’t have someone to help you to develop your thinking, it usually remains shallow. In fact, it turns out that we are very good at this dialogical process, which leads us to the conclusion that our focus should not be on developing better reasoning skills (although that is always welcome). Instead, we need to create the space for dialogue. 6 The Battle of the Beasts
  7. It is true that places for dialogue do exist today,

    and that community continues to be an important place where our ideas are formed, challenged and strengthened. For example, our views about education are shaped by the school community we participate in. Our political party, or the conservation association we are part of, play a role in shaping our opinions. Indeed, the spaces to generate public opinion exist. They are the very communities we already meet in. The question is, how do we nurture these communities’ ability to build collective rational opinion and create a forum in which these opinions can constructively interact. For better or worse, an existing example of this are the labour movements, in which people have gathered in the ‘natural’ forum of their workplace, building a common opinion and collectively lobbied for that opinion. For many years this allowed unions to play an essential role in constraining the market and protecting the rights of workers. Over time, most labour movements have been slowly weakened by the state and market, although some organised into political parties before this took place. The same occurred with conservation movements. The problem with this model is that political parties dominated by single agendas don’t reflect the diversity of issues that impact society, and thus struggle to build public consensus. It is imperative that we give a voice to the communities that shape us, without requiring them to become political parties to find that voice. Communities also guard our ideas. We are more isolated than ever in making sense of our world, and as such, we are vulnerable to what our newsfeeds tell us about the world. Without a secondary voice to help us question, we are laid bare to the influence of a well-paid campaign. Of course, the benefit of seeking others’ opinions is undermined if we only mix with those who think like ourselves, in which case our own ideas are never truly challenged. As such, it is a fundamentally important duty of a citizen to participate in diverse communities. While these examples only begin to illustrate what is needed, they attempt to demonstrate that community has a central role in the construction of public opinion. We need to look to, learn from, and where appropriate, invest in movements around the world which are putting community back into the state, and share that learning. COMMUNITY, STATE A ND MA R K ET WOR K ING TOGETHER Finally, we turn to the company that we work at, SecondMuse, for an example of market and state participation in community. In collaboration with the New York City (NYC) Economic Development Corporation, we run NYC’s largest Hardware / Advanced Manufacturing incubator, FutureWorks. At the core of FutureWorks is a community of entrepreneurs trying to make it as a startup. As with the fishing communities in Japan described above, this community shares resources, information and training to ultimately de-risk an incredibly risky endeavour. The differentiating factor here is the city office’s participation, creating policy and employing targeted funding to meet the needs of the community and support the development of the sector. Four years ago an Advanced Manufacturing sector in NYC was an ambition; now it is a reality. With the city’s support, this community has been central to the growth and development of that sector. 7 The Battle of the Beasts
  8. SHIFTING THE FOUNDATION There are many challenges facing our society,

    from climate change to immigration, through to racism and poverty. There are also significant efforts to meet these challenges, including the set of goals for humanity enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, these efforts are built upon the foundation of our society. As such, how we construct our society constrains our ability to meet these SDGs. How we view our place in that society equally constrains our ability to reach these goals. As our meaningful connection to each other continues to weaken and segment, we begin to look towards those who look like us, and we forget that we are all in this together. In this paper, we do not attempt to re-imagine what society should look like. Instead, we attempt first to motivate an end goal for society, in which the pursuit of meaning is in balance with the pursuit of material need. Secondly, we illustrate a first step to help get us there, by rediscovering the role of community in both the market and the state. We hope that if we can take this first step, we will begin to see a path towards realising our end goal and discover a life that is full of meaning. Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (2002). ‘Social Capital And Community Governance’, The Economic Journal, 112 (November), F419–F436 Mercier, H. and Sperber, D. (2011) ‘Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory’, Behavioral and brain sciences, 34, 57 –111 Pencavel, J. (2002). ‘Worker participation: lessons from the worker co-ops of the Pacific North-West’, Stanford University, Department of Economics (June). F422. Platteau, J.-P. and Seki, E. (2001) ‘Community arrangements to overcome market failure: pooling groups in Japanese fisheries’, in (M. Hayami and Y. Hayamii eds), Communities and Markets in Economic Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 344–402. 8 The Battle of the Beasts