From: Carne Ross, New York City
To: John Burnside, Berlin
8 December 2014
We are bidden to consider the future. What a privilege to be asked! What a nightmare to contemplate!
Esther Dyson wrote to me to propose an appealing scheme of how to inspire communities to be healthier. She spoke too of how data and technology, on which she is more than expert, enable government to provide better services and be accountable to citizens.
Of course she is right on this point, but I think you and I would want to take it some way further. Esther’s model is the familiar archetype of representative democracy, where the many elect the few to provide services for them. It is a transactional model, technocratic, with success or failure assessed with measurement and metrics. What’s missing are some essential questions: Who is doing what to whom? Who has power and who does not? Indeed, what is it all for? Like Esther, I want better and more accountable services for everyone. But this is not enough. The contemporary architecture of representative democracy and a capitalist economy, within which these reforms would take place, is to me, and I suspect you, deeply inadequate. Its flaws – inequality, environmental destruction, to name but two – are all too evident.
Let us look to the future, which is the challenge posed by this series of letters. I tried to cast my mind ten thousand years hence, or a thousand. Of course it was impossible. I could imagine space colonies and eternally-pickled brains whose contents are stored in data clouds. But what’s the use of such piddling fantasies? It seemed more worthwhile to fantasize about an ideal. How would humans live in an ideal world? I did not imagine a blueprint of such a world: if the twentieth century has taught us anything, it must be that utopian designs are inherently despotic; whether communist, fascist or even neo-liberal. Humans are forced to fit the design, and not the other way around. I tried to imagine how a human would ideally live, a thought experiment which proved one thing: how pathetically distant our current “civilisation” is from ideal. But the vision thereby also provided a kind of target.
How should humans ideally live? They would be fed and housed in as much comfort as they wished. They would live as long as they wanted in beauty and perfect, athletic health (you and I, I fear, are some way from this ideal already). They would be free to die as they choose, for eternal life would, I suspect, be its own kind of hell (though I would be willing to give it a go). They would live in peace, without hatred or resentment. They would wallow in mutual love with other humans (perhaps they could enjoy the permanent sensation of being “in love”). I have long doubted the idea of living in “harmony” with heartless, brutal nature, but humans in this ideal conception would enjoy their planet, unthreatened by its depredations, and reaping from it all that they needed. They would be free of all coercion: no one would have power over anyone else. There would therefore be no government.
Their material needs and desires thus satisfied, humans would be free to indulge in what for me is the ultimate “point”, if there can be said to be such a thing, which would be the expression and enactment of all that is sublime and joyous of the immaterial: art, music, poetry (yes, John, you have a place there), love, sex (needless to say), pleasure, literature, voluptuous languor. There are not sufficient words for this fabulous realm; there is certainly no measure, which is why I recoil at our current obsession with metrics and measurable targets, and data: the things that matter most have no measure! It is there to be endlessly explored, imagined. It is the infinite.
Writing this today, I feel terribly sad and a little bit desperate. My expectation is that this ideal is, in reality, wholly unattainable. Looking forward once more, I fear that much more likely is that within a few hundred years, if not less, humanity will have successfully annihilated itself in ways already all too clear. Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. It seems implausible to expect that the bombs will never be detonated. We have already come very close to nuclear war on several occasions in the few decades since their invention. The supposedly stable framework of strategic theory – “mutually assured destruction”, deterrence etc. – seems flimsy at best, likewise, is the reliance on lots of buttons that must be pressed, or keys that must be turned simultaneously, as launch devices designed to prevent an accidental launch. Most worryingly, the proliferation of these ghastly weapons has already put them in the trembling hands of nutters like the Kim family tyranny of North Korea, and under the control of governments which could tomorrow be overthrown by millenarian extremists, whether religious or secular.
Then there is “the environment” where credible scientific forecasts of global warming are already painting a future of planetary catastrophe. A thousand years hence? Even getting through a hundred without mass starvation, war and species loss seems unlikely at this rate. God, I feel like should stop writing, pour myself a Highland malt and lose myself in your fine poems. No, I feel obliged to continue.
What is to be done? Metrical improvement of government services doesn’t quite hit the mark, does it? I am not preaching revolution, for Hannah Arendt was right to say that revolution merely brings us back to where we started, usually, with much bloodshed and misery along the way. I don’t believe in violent overthrowor hostility. Together, we might just make it. Divided, we most definitely shall not.
I do believe that a cultural, political, and economic reformation is possible; a profound and magnificent reimagining of how we live and how we get by with one another. Humans survive together. Alone, we are nothing: life is not worth living. The most important question is not what we believe, where we’re from, what sex we are, or what kind of music, or food, or sexual partner we like. It is: how do we deal with Other People? Get this right, in the economy and in politics, and we might just make it.
If the ideal is humans who are comfortable, healthy, free from violence or coercion, then that is where we should start. This is not impossible even today. Put people first and central in politics and the economy. In ancient Athens, many citizens played an active part in deciding the city’s future. Today, “participatory” processes allow the mass – sometimes tens of thousands of citizens, men and women – to decide things like budget priorities. When all are included in these decisions, the resulting policies reflect all of their interests; they are more equitable. In comparison, supposedly “representative” democracies will inevitably create elites (the few elected by the many) who are inherently susceptible to the influence of – if not corruptible by – the most powerful, thereby exacerbating, rather than reducing, any existing power imbalance.
Inequality supercharges this problem. The rich are already powerful. The evidence clearly shows that “democratic” legislation reflects their interests (literally: interest on capital is taxed at a lower rate than earned income, so a wealthy hedge fund owner is taxed at a lower rate than his cleaner). As Thomas Piketty has so convincingly demonstrated, the rich are indeed getting richer, because, as he shows, the returns on capital are, in general, greater than the returns on labour. Not only are the rest not getting richer (at all), the poor are, astonishingly, actually getting poorer. We are living in the age of the globalized, mega-wealthy plutocrats who control vast sums of money, and thus vast numbers of people. They control politics, philanthropy, culture, and even ideas (the musings of a billionaire are deemed, in publications like The New York Times, much more worthy of publication than the musings of, say, a street sweeper).
Fixing democracy is only half the solution. We must also promote new forms of economic activity, where profits and agency are shared, not concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. Employee-owned cooperatives, whether a bakery or a bank, can be as successful as the egoist entrepreneur (an archetype that is much too celebrated in contemporary culture; every successful individual stands on the shoulders of many). This is not state control, or redistribution by taxation, which of course is a kind of coercion, something we wish to avoid. It is altering the form, and thus the outcome, of economic activity at source. If widely implemented, with good will, patience and perseverance (for nothing human is ever perfect), such methods may have rapid effect, especially since humans are now so thoroughly connected with one another, and ever more so. Changing the method is tantamount to changing the outcome because, as Gandhi stressed, the means are the end. Change the manner in which we interact with one another, how we govern ourselves, how we make things, how we flourish, and we change everything. We are no longer mere outputs of an ideological system, we are in control, at the centre, the point.
John, I know that you share these sentiments. The question now that I cannot answer is how do we foment this transformation. Stalin imposed Marx’s revolution, causing untold horrors. Our reformation must come by suasion, not coercion. It’s clear that the disillusionment with the current status quo is rampant. But it is a different matter to turn that negative into a positive impulsion to build new things, new companies, new forums for decisions. Expert craftsman of words that you are, I suspect you would also agree that words alone are not enough. Are we to be dragged under by our own cynicism? Or will hope come to our rescue?
My hope is succoured by the hundred tales I hear of people of similar mind taking their own course, building businesses, starting communities, tending to the vulnerable, sharing their labour, love and resources for goals far greater than mere money, for solidarity, for compassion, for mutual aid; they who celebrate the best of humanity, not the most selfish: a thousand paths in the same direction, towards lives that are lived fully, marching forward in step alongside other humans, respecting and loving them and in common purpose with them. These stories move me to the quick. There are legion. May they prevail.
Over to you, my friend,
Carne Ross founded the world’s first not-for-profit diplomatic advisory group, Independent Diplomat. He writes on world affairs and the history of anarchism, recently publishing The Leaderless Revolution (2011), which looks into how, even in democratic nations, citizens feel a lack of agency and governments seem increasingly unable to tackle global issues.
John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.