Guiding the Tide: Working with the World Waiting to be Made

We need not look so far into recent events in order to see the consequences of our failure to consciously shape our time in the direction in which it itself is already heading.

Instead of working with the reality at hand we have instead invented all sorts of arbitrary programs for how we think social life should be. But social life will not suffer this. Like the surging of the oceans, it will go its way according to an inner lawfulness. If we do not listen to this lawfulness, we can and should expect nothing other than an ongoing tidal wave of disastrous events.

To look at one example among many, we can see all-too-plainly in present day Europe the consequences of overlaying a social program onto a social organism that has already begun to ‘move’ in a particular direction.

At present, it is unsure whether or not Greece will remain within the confederation of nation states known as the European Union (EU). The reason given for this? It has not been able to account for itself economically. Because of this, Greece has become part of an ongoing debate about whether or not to approach economic problems with ‘austerity’ (essentially, the state spending less) or ‘growth’ (essentially, the state spending more).

Leaders at the recent G8 Summit in the USA have rightly said that this perceived duality – austerity or growth – is a false debate.[1] They are right, however, not because austerity and growth, hand in hand, can fix the problems we currently see, but, rather, because such a debate belongs only to the surface-level of the problem. It takes place only on the level of the social program which hovers slightly above the actual currents flowing through social life itself.

In order to truly get past this false debate, therefore – in order to truly come to some meaningful pictures for how society itself is already seeking to be – then we need to get past this surface-level of contemporary thinking and its slogans. Only in this way can we come to any real understanding of the direction in which society is already heading, and how we can work consciously with it in order to guide it towards health.

In England, at present, we are observing the implementation and effects of so-called ‘Big Society’.[2] Essentially, this amounts to the trimming-down of an overweight government – an overweight political / rights life. Whether or not we agree with what is taking place is not so much the point. The reality is that, faced with economic difficulties, the UK government is reducing its control over services that it was once responsible for. It is, essentially, handing control of many of these services to civil society – to community and other such organisations. The rationale for doing this, according to the government, is to transfer power from “politicians to the people”.[3] The economic effect is, of course, that it saves the government money.

Whatever the rationale, and whatever the result, however, it is more important to observe that this is actually taking place. The government of a once, so-called, global empire – the government of a country in which modern economic life really took a foothold; the government of a country that is part of the G8 and that remains a global power-house – is actually attempting to shrink. It is attempting to limit its control over the community sector – or, more broadly speaking, civil society as a whole. That is, political / rights life is attempting to shrink back from its control over cultural affairs.[4]

Again, the most important thing to observe is that this is taking place. It is a social fact. The consequences – the way in which it is handled – however, are the result of approaching the situation in an as yet one-sided manner. This is one situation.

Another important social fact that we must not overlook can be found in the many ‘revolutions’ that have taken place around the world in the past year or so. To Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere in the Arab world, we must also add the Occupy movement in the USA (and globally), as well as the many protests taking place in Russia. What we are seeing in each of these cases is the standing up of non-governmental and non-economic individuals and groups against the way in which their country is currently operating. We are seeing, essentially, civil society saying that their freedoms have been encroached upon either, predominantly, by the state (in the Arab world) or by economic interests (in the Western world). (Even in the case of repression by the state, however, economic interests have played a central role, and vice versa.)

Whether or not we agree with such revolutions is, again, to miss the point. If we are to look simply at the facts, we must say that we can clearly observe here the way in which civil society is pushing back from its own sphere of influence and activity the tides of government on the one hand, and business on the other. Not only that, it is attempting to push economic interests out of government. Civil society, as representing values, identity, meaning and norms – that is, all things cultural – has been pushing back polity and economy into their rightful places – into their lawful currents or streams.

A further, essential, observation involves economic life itself. What we can clearly observe is that business – as representative of economy – has completely permeated political / rights life, as well as cultural life. Elections are bought and sold, laws are created by lobbyists, and so on. At the same time, our schools and universities have become mere training grounds for the so-called ‘workforce’ – education has put itself completely at the service of economic life. We are more concerned in producing cogs in the wheels of the economic machinery of the world, than we are in producing free-thinking and creative human beings who are able to re-imagine and re-create not only economic machinery, but the social organism as a whole. These are also facts.

The stream of economic life, in flowing over the other streams of society – over culture and polity – has become a kind of toxic, black oil slick, suffocating the life of the social organism – and of the human beings – struggling to live beneath it.

And yet, again, we are seeing civil society stand up against this slick[5] and push it back – changing the course of the tide. Not only that, however, we also see, from time to time, government attempting to push business back into its rightful place, however feebly. The inquiry into the media practices of News Corp is one such observation we can make in this direction. If we observe it clearly, we can see that, in this case, the UK government is engaged, however consciously, in a pushing back of business from out of both political and cultural life. Political because of the political influence such businessmen as Rupert Murdoch wield; and cultural because the media is in reality a cultural institution wishing to be free of both economic and political control.

The debate between either a free or state-owned / controlled press is as irrelevant as the debate between growth or austerity. It is a question of observing that the press – and media in general – will ultimately always seek its own freedom (as the internet clearly demonstrates). But the freedom it seeks is not economic (i.e. as a business free from government regulation), it is cultural. That is, media (and cultural life as a whole) tends always towards cultural freedom, and in so doing pushes back again and again both state and economic control. While the UK media inquiry argues in a round-about, mostly-unconscious and feeble way for this to happen, the stream of cultural life continues to flow its own way (again, as the internet, for example, clearly shows).

What we can also observe within economic life is, of course, that businesses continually attempt to push back what they call over-regulation by government. (The debate between state-regulation and the free market is another false debate.) This can be observed from the activities of the lobbyists in Washington, to the campaign against so called ‘mining taxes’ in Australia, which led, in part, to the removal of a Prime Minister.[6] Again, whether we agree with it or not, economic life does wish to go its own way, and to be free from the control of government. At the same time, it also wishes to be free from the control of civil society organisations that attempt to push it back into its own stream of activity. However, we must be clear here that, as our observations reveal, economic life, though it seeks to flow in a direction free from the influence of the other two streams of social life, it will (through its current unhealthy program / structure) tend towards, if able, a flowing over the top of the other two streams. Our observations show that this is the case. But why is this the case?

In the idea of the free market – in the so-called ‘invisible hand’ of the market – we have created a kind of programmatic intermediary that stands between human beings. In so doing it negates our capacity to perceive the real needs of one another. We become, as it were, removed from real economic encounters with our fellow human beings because we have entrusted this activity to an idea – to a program that stands between us – the invisible hand of the free market. In trusting in this free market with the fervour of religious belief, we have relinquished our power to perceive the true needs of our fellow human beings. When we see suffering, we pray to the god of the free market who will in time, hopefully sort it out. Where we see great wealth, we praise this individual as someone who the god of the free market has looked favourably upon, and we hope that we too, one day, may also receive such blessings. Like religion, there are those who are able, more so than others, to use the idea of the free market for their own gain. Unlike religion, however, the free market is built upon the premise that our own gain is all that matters. Greed is good. Social Darwinism has become the bible. We shall compete and the strongest will survive. In such a process, everything thereby becomes commodified: land, labour, capital, even money itself. This has become our economic program.

And yet, on the other hand, what we can also observe taking place in our time are more and more businesses which put an emphasis on economic exchanges not determined by the free market, but by human beings. Community Supported Agriculture, Associative Economics, Social Finance, Social Investing, BALLE, B-Corps, social enterprise generally, and so on, are just some articulations of a way of working economically which can be said to be based not on the program of the free market, but on human beings perceiving the needs of one another.[7]

It is important to note that such initiatives are able to flow into economic life because they began as trickles that flowed across from the stream of cultural life. Without a free-flowing cultural life, no such associative or collaborative economic thinking (or the resulting initiatives) could ever have come about. With this observation we touch upon part of the mystery in which the three streams attempt not only to separate, but to then re-align and work together towards health.

So far we have observed the way in which the stream of political or rights life is now attempting to pull back its influence from culture and economy, as well as, at times, keep economy in its place. We have also observed how cultural life is pushing back the streams of both economic and political activity into their rightful spheres, as well as influencing activity within those spheres (economics based on collaboration between human beings, political life based upon the democratic principle of equality[8]). And we have observed how economic life, seeking to be free of the influence of polity and culture, will (given its current unhealthy program) eventually seek to overrun the other streams of social life unless it is able to give up its worship of a false deity / idol – the invisible hand of the free market – and instead focus on economic facts: namely, the real needs of human beings. The impulse to do this flows, originally, from the wellspring of cultural life.

This is the way the tides of the world are currently flowing. These are observable facts. The question for us is whether or not we will choose to work consciously with the way in which the social tide is now blatantly turning, choosing to sculpt and guide it in the direction in which it is already moving. This is the direction of health.

Cultural life – education, the media, art, science, academia, agriculture, medicine, etc. – is clearly striving to be free in order that it may be able to provide a space where new thoughts are possible, and in order that it may be able to put these thoughts into actions which are in service of the needs of the other streams of social life. Freedom is the channel that must guide the stream of cultural life as it flows ever forward.

Political life is clearly striving for equality. No more can economic life influence the creation of and carrying out of laws – of the life of rights. All human beings seek to be equal before the eyes of the law, and also in the creation of laws. The direct, participatory and deliberative democratic movements, together with the Occupy movement, are clear expressions of this observable fact. The channel that will guide the stream of political life towards health is equality.

We are currently suffering, primarily, under the cancerous oil-slick of economic activity run riot. This is because, again, we have inserted a false program to govern it. At the heart of economic life, however, it itself seeks, as we have touched upon, to enable human beings to work together to meet each other’s needs. The channel we must consciously build for the healthy development of economic activity is not false competition based on illusion, but rather association, based upon economic fact.

And so how are these three divergent streams currently striving to re-align and work together? Cultural life, in order to carry out its task, obviously needs economic capital. The concept of Big Society in the UK already shows us that government is seeking to (further) remove itself as the provider of such capital. Rather, economic life, carrying out its true task of perceiving and meeting human needs, is also charged with the task of perceiving this general need of cultural life as a whole. Capital, beyond that needed to carry out the functioning and further development of business, seeks, rather, to flow to cultural life as a free gift.[9] It must be a gift, otherwise culture cannot flow down its necessary and lawful channel of freedom. As the ensurer of rights, it is the task of political life to ensure this capital flows from economic to cultural life. It is then the task of cultural life, in freedom, to see where this capital is allocated.

We may also ask, In what ‘mood’ does each stream wish to relate to the others? The answer can already be seen in the way in which the leaders of nation states meet with one another. In observing the way in which one country meets another (such as at the recent G8 Summit) we can have a feeling for the way in which each stream wishes, in truth, to encounter those of the other. The streams of social life within countries seek to meet one another in the atmosphere of mutual respect and interdependence with which the leaders of countries currently (or aspire to) meet.[10] (This can, of course, flow over to meetings with those beyond current state borders.)

This is how the already-present movements of the streams of social life are already flowing, and how we must observe them in order to comprehend how we can guide them in the direction of health. For if we do not, the levees we build against the tide social life through the arbitrary programs we create, will only serve to hold it for a short time. They are bound to eventually collapse under the weight of the lawful movement of the social currents of the world. Such a collapse will bring a tidal wave of devastation and catastrophe for a long time to come.[11] We must learn to work with the social tides of the world in the ways we can only touch upon here.

If we are able to rise to this challenge, however, we will build the necessary channels to guide the waters of the world in the direction in which they themselves have already begun to flow. The time for the levees and dams of social programs is over. We can no longer manipulate or hold back the tide for our own personal gain. We will drown under such greed and illusion as this, and the course of world events and world history will wash over us.

If, on the other hand, we can work consciously with the direction of world becoming, we will be able to create the right channels for and with social life, in order that each channel may flow in its rightful place, in its rightful way, in right relationship with one another. If this is able to happen, then will these channels become the arteries and veins – the lifeblood – that can flow through the social organism as a whole. And the organism can begin to breath new life, with its autonomous, yet interdependent streams working together in mutual respect – in a healthy flow throughout the entire social organism. In this way will the human being be able to find a social organism that supports the healthy development of his or her own organism. Then will the streams that flow through the human organism find right relationship with the streams that flow through the social organism. Then we will be able to find the one within the other, and rather than wave after wave of catastrophic social flooding (whose task it is to correct our misunderstanding) we will instead move with the whole course of world evolution, towards health.


John Stubley

[4] The UK government, like most Western countries, has already released much of its control over economic life.

[5] In an interesting word /meaning connection (‘slick’) we can get a feeling for both the ‘smooth’ and ‘glossy’ surface-level representation of much of the world’s economic activity, as well as the destructive nature of an out-of-control ‘oil slick’ – destructive, that is, for all that lives beneath it, and all else that it comes into contact with.

[7] Fundamentally, we can observe the way in which, in every economic exchange, both the buyer and seller receive something they want. In valuing your product over my money, I get what I want. In valuing my money over your product, you get what you want. I supply my money and demand your product. You supply your product and demand my money. Supply and demand exist on both sides of the transaction, making the ordinary duality of ‘supply and demand’ yet another false debate. The reality of the economic exchange, therefore, is that it strives to be a place where human beings are able to meet each other’s needs. This must become conscious, however. If it does not, we fall into (and thereby create) abstractions such as the free market and Social Darwinism, and the true activity that seeks to come into expression in all economic exchange slips through our fingers. If we are able to overcome this unconsciousness, however, we can move from illusory ‘win-lose’ economic exchanges, to real exchanges which may be expressed as ‘win-win’.

[8] As seen, for instance, in what the Occupy movement strives towards.

[9] To explore this flow from an accounting perspective see, for example, the work of Marc Desaules, particularly A Human Response to Globalization: Discovering Associative Economics (Switzerland: Associative Economics Institute, 2003, pp 88). One well-known example of an application / initiative in this direction is ‘Newman’s Own’, which donates all after-tax profits to educational and charitable purposes. This kind of movement of money, however, is itself striving to become the norm for every business’ after-tax and after-growth business profits.

[10] Many so-called tri-sector partnerships currently exist between government, civil society and business, but often without this necessary mutual respect, nor of a conscious understanding of the streams from which they draw their power, i.e. civil society from culture, government from polity, business from economy. For a detailed exploration in this direction, see the work of Nicanor Perlas, particularly Shaping Globalisation: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding (Philippines: Center for Alternative Development Initiatives, 2000).

[11] That which has been taking place – and continues to take place – in Syria is but one example of such devastation.

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2 Responses to Guiding the Tide: Working with the World Waiting to be Made

  1. Travis Henry says:

    Thanks for this John.

  2. Yes, thank you John.

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