Tolerance in the Age of Stupid

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them — Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1676

The burden of unbounded knowledge weighs heavily on those with open minds. Those trapped within a specific moral code express righteous indignation that their beliefs should be called into question by others who have swallowed the red pill of delusion.[1] It is far easier to make snide and abusive remarks in preference to engaging ideas that could question our very identity. This, I must explain, is human nature. It arises intuitively as we start to associate with those who share the same moral narrative. As soon as this morality of mind is embedded, we become blind to alternatives. Any conscious reasoning, or even empirical evidence, that challenges this moral compass we find disturbing. Often it becomes intolerable. Then we lash out.

A lack of tolerance in society is unfortunate at the best of times. These days it could impede any kind of civilisational security or development. Our self-righteous instincts, in combination with the habit of analysing information in ways that confirm our inbuilt biases, frequently lead us into situations where alternatives are shut down before we have a chance to reflect on them deeply.

Intuition traps us in a comfortable moral stasis, allowing strategic reasoning to play only a subordinate role. When (or if) we finally admit strategic analysis to intrude on our emotions, it is usually limited to a cursory study from within a dualistic Cartesian container.[2] As soon as we uncover evidence that supports our predetermined views, we stop exploring and resist any further inqury. We fool ourselves that we have found the truth.

A critical outcome of this lack of openness to pluralistic moral worlds, to a broader strategic inquiry, accounts for our current inability to find solutions to any number of paramount issues with sufficient ingenuity and gravitas. We seem to have landed in an emotional and cognitive gridlock — but fail to recognise that fact. Instead, we conclude the best way to make further progress is to persist with our present narrative, policies and behaviours — often with greater fervour.

This choice seems to be based on hubris: an assumption that human ingenuity allowed us to triumph over other species, conquer nature, and solve every adversity we ever encountered. In other words we feel we have reached a pinnacle of civilisational sophistication and invulnerability.

In such a context all other options — such as conscious evolution, avoiding used futures, adapting to unfamiliar circumstances, or adventuring into the unknown by design (unless we count returning to the moon, which is the flavour of the age once again) — become so irritating to our fragile psyche that we push them to one side in favour of a cautiously methodical maintenance of the status quo.

Any philosophical theory about the nature of knowing, including dualism of course, inevitably has far reaching effects on our understanding of reality. If taken as self-evident, it becomes the foundation on which all new knowledge is constructed. Moreover, through the use of a self-reinforcing vocabulary, the theory typically excludes other ways of knowing (equally valid epistemes and moral worlds) that might conflict with the inherent axioms of our current paradigm.

An example of this would be the two distinct impulses contained within the phrase conservative or progressive. In this case the language implies there can be no cross-over. It is impossible to be both conservative and progressive. The vocabulary confirms boundaries that must not, indeed cannot, be crossed. This is a false dilemma. Quite apart from using progressive solutions to advance conservative values, it would seem entirely feasible for an individual to be both progressive and conservative.[3]

Such theoretical frameworks rarely get questioned, despite their internal inconsistencies, inherent limitations and self-defeating consequences, yet they shape our existence. When they no longer work as intended, and we start to recognise that, a cognitive crisis occurs. Unable to break through a self-imposed threshold, we resort to repeating what we know ad nauseum, convinced that this will produce different results.[4]

There are several existing crises affecting our species where blind adherence to the status quo is being applied almost without challenge. The field that should probably concern us most in this regard is the wielding of power through politics, economics and production.

We know from quantum science that everything is interconnected, and that separation is an illusion. Politics, economics and production are complex and dynamic. Their entangled nature should probably defy any attempt at discrete analysis — and yet we mostly think of them in distinct compartments, with their own unique properties, and a limited number of intersecting elements.

At first there were a sufficient number of improvements to the quality of life for us not to question the use of dualistic logic from within a specific moral frame. In truth we probably tended not to notice the range of limitations and self-defeating consequences that economics and politics generated. We were happy to overlook these, put up with them, or complain vociferously about them when they started to impact us personally. But when flaws in any system become publicly noticeable, compliance quickly deteriorates in favour of more overt demonstrations of our displeasure.

This is now the situation with politics, economics and production. In politics pitiful levels of public discourse, prompted by biased media coverage and second-rate journalism, are met by a volatile mix of indifference and scorn from a public fed up with self-serving game playing. The unrelenting focus on patching up the present too, by relegating the future to a footnote, has captured the attention of the Greta generation worldwide.[5]

This also accounts for the escalation of activist intransigence, resulting in much civil disobedience, we are witnessing around the world. Even scientists are now endorsing mass civil disobedience to focus attention on the need for climate action. Beyond ideology, this rage is coming from a general public increasingly awake to the procrastination, opacity, and prejudicial practices, in addition to the use of strong-arm tactics and increased surveillance, used by so many governments today under the guise of securing law and order.

From China to the US and everywhere in between current political models lock us into an ideological gridlock of some form or other. This at a time when external ambiguity and volatility makes dualism and moral posturing look positively naïve and, frankly, crass.

In a world where our most life-critical systems have to cater for billions of people, moral intuition, dualism, and excessive compartmentalisation shut down any deeper inquiry in terms of unfamiliar dynamics, shifting needs and relationships, or changes to the status quo. In fact these habits lock us into rigid win-lose structures where trade-offs, invariably confined to disconcertingly awkward compromises, attest to the primitive nature of the human condition.

This lack of intellectual sophistication and imagination has far-reaching consequences. It is the chief reason why democracy is in such a shambles. Moreover, we are complicit actors in the entire charade. Politically speaking, it prevents us from setting aside narrow partisan views. It restricts our ability to imagine anything other than the left-right structure that is at the heart of everything we take as gospel. It prevents us from calling for collective action on global issues without impulsively labelling this a form of socialist-inspired doctrinal regulation. For three or more years at a time it hands the power of the state to the whims of a single group — effectively dividing society along ideological fault lines. It also sustains the illusion that a system of elections, where every citizen gets the chance to vote for a conservative or a socialist party (or whatever labels happen to be in vogue) to represent their complex set of values, is the epitome of democracy. All things considered, how could that possibly be the case?

Corresponding beliefs have been carried over to economics and production. The essence of capitalism is simple: the use of capital investment to create new wealth, thus boosting affluence and lessening the likelihood of poverty. Originally virtuous, we have permitted avarice to warp practice to such an extent that capitalism now fulfils the needs of fewer and fewer people than ever before.

Social stratification encourages the concentration of wealth in fewer hands. This sustains inequalities between the ultra wealthy and the average worker. It ignores merit, favouring private ownership over employment. It also allows a handful of large corporations to monopolise the healthcare, energy and food industries — where profits for a relatively small group of shareholders are routinely put ahead of social and community wellbeing.[6] But it gets worse…

In spite of the recent failures of market economies to address inequality, neoliberalism has dominated conventional thinking for the past half century. The interlocking policies of privatisation, lower taxes for business, deregulation, and greater power for shareholders, have intensified the one-sided nature of capitalism, yet made it even more pervasive.

Socialist forces, on the other hand, have been concerned to reframe society’s views about prejudice, social identity, responsibility and freedom. And while their agenda certainly exposes the hard edge of capitalism, it fails to address how wealth and work can operate any differently in a modern society. No attempts to soften those hard edges — including the B-corp program, consciouscapitalism, natural capitalism, or the recent spruiking of a Green New Deal, do anything to alter the fact that capitalism now generates more misery than joy; more poverty than wealth.

There have been immense efforts by conservative economists to make capitalism appear inevitable, depicting any alternatives as sheer fantasy or fraught with complications. The reply from progressives has been trite and nostalgic. Seemingly unable to come to terms with the fact that Marx and Keynes, two of the most notable critics of capitalism, died decades ago, the economic imagination of left-wing scholars has remained stunted.

It is not as though there are no reasons for a more forensic examination of the system and its foibles. In recent years the capitalist system has started to fail without much help from critics. Rather than viable, widely shared prosperity, it has yielded wage stagnation, greater numbers of workers in privation, deepening inequality, immense household and sovereign debt, across-the-board crises in financial services, populist paroxysms, and the imminent breakdown of the planet’s ecosystems.

It has also lost the confidence and trust we once lavishly bestowed on it. The global financial crisis of 2008, together with the previously unthinkable government actions that brought that episode to a halt, discredited two basic neoliberal orthodoxies: that capitalism cannot fail, and that governments cannot (should not) intervene to change how the economy works.[7]

Following that event too many people began to realise that the system only worked for people with wealth. This should have been a stake through the heart of capitalism. But like a zombie it somehow continued to stagger on. Meanwhile the underlying structural deficiencies in the banking system still remain unresolved.[8]

At least there is now grudging acknowledgement from many quarters that a different kind of economy is needed: one that is fairer, more inclusive, less exploitative, and less damaging, both to society and the planet. If we are to imagine a new kind of economics more suited to our times it will need to deal with the problems of ownership and power. It should avoid being grounded in any single ideology. It should be redesigned from first principles. And it should ideally transcend left-right dualism.

In conversations I have conducted with a range of economists over the years there seems to be support for a new type of economy — but with conditions. The new system would ideally:

· Bring real benefits — material, financial and psychological — to all stratas of society (inevitably there is always some dispute as to what that actually means)

· Offer a satisfactory way of democratising economic power — preferably so that it is held by everyone, just as political power is held by everyone (in theory) in a healthy democracy.

The key concept of inclusive ownership, which would presumably underpin any radical redistribution of economic power, is by no means new. Economic democratisation has been debated by a number of think-tanks, particularly the New Economic Forum in the UK, for many years. For those with socialist leanings it is easy to see how a compelling business and social impact case can be made for such a revolution.[9] It is far less clear to the business establishment and high wealth individuals.

One can argue that allowing employees to take a stake in every company, co-operatives to flourish, and city counsellors to reshape their economies in favour of local needs, are desirable and relatively easy to enact. Without some kind of transformation, after all, the increasing inequality of economic power could make democracy itself unworkable.

Besides, if we really believe in the principles of democracy, and want to continue living in democratic societies, giving communities the responsbility for shaping their local economy makes a great deal of sense. It could also help rejuvenate the civic impulse to engage in political decision-making. Citizens are likely to feel less frustrated and indifferent if they are included in the economic choices that affect their lives.

The main stumbling block would be for these proposals to be cast and viewed from within orthodox ideological battle lines — for the reasons mentioned at the beginning of this essay. They must be seen to transcend such polarities in fact.

Real economic democracy is about eliminating exploitation through the redistribution of wealth and income. But it is also about the redistribution of power and control. This is no simple matter. It entails reimagining key relationships: above all between capitalism and the nation state, between workers and employers, between local and global economies and, more profoundly, between those with economic assets and those without.

Putting social imperatives before commercial goals is the most revolutionary facet of such a proposal. Yet if we are to improve how capitalism works, in ways that are emotionally and logically agreeable, as well as unconstrained by conventional ideologies, reforms like these need to be desired, embraced, and driven by both employees and consumers. While central governments would invariably have a role in that, it could never be one of control.

All of this implies economic democracy cannot be imposed and will possibly be slow in coming. As tangible proof that sound economic decisions can be based on more than neoliberal ideals, it would need to gain broad acceptance from the community. Frankly, that will not be easily from a business establishment whose moral world has been shaped by laissez-faire capitalism and ensnared by its exploitative economic practices. For a century or more we have been taught that the raison-d’etre of business is profits and share prices. These trump all other measures. As a consequence shared wealth is anathema to most corporations. We can expect them to resist any attempt to redeploy power away from institutional investors, shareholders, and management towards all stakeholders as a collective.

It does not have to be that way of course. Corporations are extraodinary social institutions, immense powerhouses for coordinating productive capacity across an extensive network of individual and institutional relationships. There is no sacrosanct law about who should control a company, how it should operate, or who should have a claim to its surplus. Nor is there anything preordained about existing, alarmingly unfair, distributions of power and reward within them. There is actually nothing to stop us reinventing the corporation, or organising it differently, if that is what we want.

If we allow dualism to prevail, any conversation will revert to a debate between collective or private control, in much the same way politics is reduced to egalitarianism or oligarchy. There is little doubt that private dominion and oligarchy would win such a debate given their current wealth and influence. But this would be to the detriment of society as a whole and probably unsustainable in the long term.

Setting aside dualistic logic in favour of a more all-encompassing inquiry is feasible — probably with a great deal of effort. But our only real opportunity for the political and economic reforms we have examined here will depend on jettisoning any static ideological morality. Cultural psychologists will maintain that is an impossible task. It would certainly require a degree of tolerance for sundry moral norms, together with an empathy for others, both of which elude us today.

In the long run there are only two questions that will determine the future for our species: Are we wise enough (smart enough) to survive our own success? And, if so, How can we all get along better? These are deceptively down-to-earth questions. Unfortunately they have no easy answers.

[1] A reference to The Matrix movie trilogy in which the protagonist Neo is given the choice of taking a red pill, which will disconnect hom from the matrix, or a blue pill where his consciousness will return to the hallucination in which nearly all humans spend their conscious extistence. Neo swallows the red pill and the matrix dissolves around him.

[2] An oft-quoted example of dualism is the separation of mind and body. Mind-body duality represents the metaphysical proposition that mind is separate from the body and that each has its own essential nature. Unsurprisingly this philosophy infects everything we do today.

[3] Thus the literal meaning of the term conservative, one intent on conserving whatever is good for humanity, is ruled to hold an opposing view to that of a progressive — even though within the context of a topic such as climate change, for example, conservation (of the natural environment) could be considered the most progressive form of action.

[4] Coincidentally this condition of extreme irrationality is what psychologists refer to as insanity.

[5] Although most media attention has been given to Greta Thunberg, other equally significant youth activists include Xiye Bastida, Jerome Foster II,Alexandria Villaseñor, Haven Coleman, Kallan Benson, Jamie Margolin, Isra Hirsi, Vic Barrett and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (US), John Paul Jose (India), Luisa Neubauer (Germany), Holly Gillibrand (Scotland), David Wicker (Italy), Lilly Platt (The Netherlands), Saoi O’Connor (Ireland), Leah Namugerwa (Uganda), Anuna De Wever (Belgium), Zel Whiting (Australia), Sohanur Rahman (Bangladesh), Nathalie Hoang (Tahiti), Brishti and Ujan (India), Surendra Shakya (Nepal), Krishna Ariola (Philippines), Kaisanan Ahuan (Taiwan), Zhao Jiaxin and Howey Ou (China), and Eyal Weintraub (Argentina).

[6] As surface water becomes more scarce and more expensive, and the value of groundwater increases, underground aquifers are becoming the new frontline in the battle for control of water resources. Large agricultural investment corporations are buying up large tracts of land anticipating the price of water will increase exponentially in the future. In many countries there is no limit to how much water one company can control and the acquisition of large volumes of groundwater licences has many concerned the resource is not being adequately protected. Meanwhile Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman Emeritus of Nestlé that boasts worldwide sales of $7.7 billion in bottled water every year, maintains a view that access to water is not necessarily a human right.

[7] I hesitate to suggest that government action in 2008 was totally beneficial. Indeed John B Taylor, a professor of economics at Stanford University does not rule out government itself as a major culprit. His research shows that government actions and interventions, not any inherent failure or instability of the private economy, caused, prolonged and dramatically worsened the crisis.

[8] There is even a darker side to this analysis however — one infrequently discussed or understood. As I pointed out in my book, The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, our most troubling issues are aggravated by the easy elevation of those exhibiting sociopathic behaviours into leadership positions. Those who lack empathy are able to do whatever it takes to make the most money. Studies have shown that immense wealth kills empathy and money translates directly into political power. It is no surprise that we now find ourselves ruled by sociopaths.

[9] Bernie Sanders recently proposed a plan to transform and democratise economic and political rights by fundamentally rewiring ownership and control of corporate America as part of his campaign for the Presidency. Under his proposal companies would be required to share corporate wealth with their workers, transferring up to 20% of total stock over a decade to democratic employee ownership funds. The monopoly on voting rights that private external shareholders and their financial intermediaries have benefited from would be ended; employees would be guaranteed the right to vote on corporate decision-making at work, and have a voice in setting their pay, regardless of the kind or size of company or firm they work for. Corporate boards would be democratised, with at least 45% of the board of directors in any large corporation directly elected by the firm’s workers. And the outrageous power of asset management — whose actions have done so much to accelerate the climate crisis by continuing to invest heavily in fossil fuel companies — would be ended. Asset managers would be banned from voting on other people’s money — the collective savings of millions of ordinary workers — unless following clear instructions from the savers.

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future