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Pragmatic Utopianism

Life Itself’s approach to social change is labelled ‘Pragmatic Utopianism’. It differs from most other organisations seeking to improve society. Here, we outline the core commitments of this approach and in future pieces we will refine and flesh it out in greater detail. Whilst still at an early stage, we hope this provides a solid enough foundation for discussion and critique. 

The Primacy of Being

“Being” here is shorthand for ways of being. Individual “being” is our psychological and cognitive habits and processes, and, more than that, our way of “being in the world”, the way we see the world, the way it “occurs” to us.

Collective being is “culture”: the habits of individual and collective thought in the group, the stated and unstated beliefs and values, the rituals and practices. These two forms of being of course inter-depend.

A commitment to the primacy of being implies that being has priority over structure or technology. We, of course, acknowledge the importance of technology and institutions. However, in a context of material abundance it is a transformation of being — at the macro cultural level as well as at the personal micro-level — that will really make the difference: that will take us beyond the ceilings intrinsic to these other forms of collective development and into the realms of a truly utopian society (one that is radically weller and wiser than today). 

Note, the claim here is not that a cultural shift is necessary and sufficient on its own. Advances in technology and structure are both possible and beneficial independently of culture. Thus, we are not arguing for a sole focus on being. This is why we term this primacy of being: ontology coexists with technology and culture but has a primacy with regard to them. Advances in technology and structure, whilst useful, are necessarily bounded with regards to the improvements they will bring for human flourishing — if everyone were a millionaire there would still be suffering and dissatisfaction. It is this boundedness that leads us to emphasise being.

An implication of this position is that what we dub ‘techno-solutionist’ or ‘structural-solutionist’ interventions aimed at bringing about radical social change, from space colonisation to blockchain based economics to classical marxism, are all doomed to fail at root for the same reason. While, of course, in the history of utopian social movements there has been a number of failure modes, we hold that had these befallen them or not, all such movements would have been doomed due to the simple fact that they are inadequate in their incorporation of individual being and collective culture when considering levers for, and impediments to, change.

There is a further argument for the primacy of being in the case of collective action problems such as climate change. Here, a focus on being is essential to an effective response. There are in turn two subtly different forms such an argument could take. 

First, one might argue that if we had only devoted a proportion of the resource we have spent on thus far ineffective interventions at reducing our environmental destruction on work focused on changing our cultural relationship with the planet and environment, and in trying to cultivate a sense and mode of being that is more intertwined with the natural world, then we would be in a far better position with regards to the spectre of climate change. In other words, we might be able to muster an adequate response through other means, but it would simply be more efficient if we would (have) focus(ed) on being. Given the impossibility of constructing a relevant counterfactual for comparison, such a claim is of course hard to support evidentially. However given how short we are set to fall from our already over-modest climate targets there remains quite some intuitive plausibility.

The second claim is that, without a focus on being at their centre, any solutions to such collective action problems will not be as effective as they could, or in fact need to be. It is not that different methods (focus on being vs technology and/or structure) are differently efficient at reaching the same threshold of response adequacy, but that this threshold is in fact different. Such a claim also differs from the first argument for the primacy of being in the following manner: while the first argument holds that, even if we did manage a maximally effective technical or structuralist response to such problems, we would fall short of a utopian society as the human flourishing this entails is a matter of being, and cannot be technically or structurally secured. This argument by contrast holds that, irrespective of considerations of flourishing, without a focus on being our responses to these problems will fall short. How would this be so? The answer is that climate change and other such collective action problems have a common root, and that root is in our being. We could imagine that a flurry of investment makes viable carbon capture and storage technology readily available within the next few years, averting the worst of the climate crisis. Nonetheless this solution, while solving the problem at the superficial level, leaves us little better equipped as a collective to deal with future existential risks and collective action problems. We are then resigned to a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole, scrambling to address each such threat as it arises. To draw on a medical analogy without addressing being our responses will continue to simply address symptoms, without curing the disease. In this sense, they will never be as effective as they could be. 

Political Ontology

The commitment to political ontology amounts at its most basic to the claim that ‘being’ and politics and fundamentally intertwined.  There are three interrelated, yet distinct senses in which we view this as being the case.

At the material level it is a simple fact that politics is inescapable in life — politics understood as the modes and structures of collective organisation. This is as true in the monastery as it is in the parliament. A proper response to the problems of collective action and coordination is necessary for any realistic theory of social transformation; all the spiritual insight in the world is insufficient to transform society without a proper theory of political economy. Thus when we discuss ontology this must always be situated firmly in the political context.

At the deeper level, it is not just that both political and ontological thinking must be placed side by side in a vision for social transformation. Instead, it is that ontology and politics cannot be considered independently at all. The two are so fundamentally interlinked that there is no way we can discuss political transformation without in the same breath discussing transformation in being, and similarly cannot begin to advocate for a change in being without as a part of this also advocating for a change in politics.

Our thoughts around how to organise society are, whether we see this or not, underpinned at their root by our conceptions of the good and of the right. Even in cases where political decisions appear more practically motivated, for example voting on the basis of who will be ‘best for the economy’, these are underpinned by implicit ethical commitments. Questions over what constitutes a good life, how the burdens and benefits of cooperation should be divided and so on are all grounded in our conception of ethics. What we deem to be the ‘correct’ answers  to these questions will determine the way we would wish to see the groups we are part of organised.

This ethical perspective is in turn heavily influenced by the nature of our being. 

One only has to look to the history of slavery, or our present day animal farming, to see an illustration of this effect. A conception of ‘who we are’ as intrinsically superior beings in turn leads to an ethics that sees no wrong in the oppression of those deemed lesser. 

This relation of influence, from being to ethics to politics, also runs in the opposite direction. There are feedback loops between the politics we seek to bring about and the nature of our being. A prime illustration of this effect can be seen in the work of Rawls. Rawls was a brilliant and critical thinker. Nevertheless, when crafting A Theory of Justice, Rawls, a straight white man raised and residing in America, devised a conception of the perfectly just society that bore striking resemblance to the pluralist liberal democracy around him. This is no critique of Rawls, it is simply a demonstration that, who Rawls the man was, and his way of being in the world (to borrow Heideggerian parlance), was a product of the society around him. This in turn shaped an ethics and view of politics that has become incredibly influential across the West, cementing a liberal paradigm which will continue to influence the next generation of thinkers once more.

Yet more striking is the growing understanding of the ways in which our surroundings can influence not only the immaterial aspects of our being like our ideas, but the very physical underpinnings of our existence. A higher level of literacy, for example, has been shown to reduce an individual’s ability to recognise faces as the parts of the brain associated with this ability are reprogrammed to better deal with language. The culture we are immersed in, which can very much be understood in terms of our broad definition of politics, affects the physical form of the organ that most determines how we exist in the world.

The final sense in which we view politics and ontology as interrelated is somewhat more nuanced. Being is political also in the sense that the essence of the good life is political. Remember we are using politics in the broadest possible sense here, simply as the organisation of collectives. This position of course has echoes of Rousseau and his conception of ‘civil freedom’ as democtratic self-governance, but deals explicitly with the good life and human flourishing holistically. Utopia and flourishing, on the understanding used here, are definitionally impossible without politics. Each of us having all our needs and preferences satisfied on an individual basis does not amount to a utopia. Instead, and in line with the section below on interdependence, flourishing and utopia rest on our successful interbeing with others. The pursuit of a good life is a shared, not an individual enterprise. Given this intrinsically collective component of flourishing, we cannot detach our understanding of being from how we organise ourselves together.

Wisdom and The Suprarational

The Enlightenment’s privileging of rationalism as a mode of engaging with the world brought with it much welcome progress across all areas of humanity. In doing so, however, it left a legacy that has seen us throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater when it comes to spirituality, and all modes of cognition that are beyond what rationality can tell us about the world. Whether this is interpreted in line with McGilchrist’s thesis of the left hemisphere cannibalising the right, the interior view of the Wilberian Upper-Left quadrant being rubbished by the advances of modernity and postmodernity or simply humanity losing touch with the more mystical facets of our existence, the conclusion remains the same.

We believe that the insights and practices of wisdom traditions such as Buddhism offer valuable lessons on how to improve our existence both individually and collectively. Not everything that lies outside of the rational is irrational. In fact we believe that the suprarational domain that has long been gestured to by wisdom traditions, and more recently by theories of embodied cognition, alongside both McGilchrist’s divided brain and Wilber’s Integral Theory mentioned above, must form a necessary part of any utopian existence either personal or collective.

Teachings of wisdom traditions play three interrelated roles in our thinking. The first is that true human wellbeing and flourishing, must be based at least in part on practices traditionally resigned to the domain of spirituality. The growing consensus around the benefits of mindfulness meditation provides one illustrative example here. 

The second is that, when attempting to make sense of the world around us, and act on this sensemaking to make decisions, we must supplement our methodological toolkit with approaches extending beyond rationality. It has long been acknowledged that humans are boundedly rational and that, given the vast and ever increasing complexity of our world, the rational processing of many economic and game theoretic models breaks down. The solution to this is not to try and keep improving our rationalistic abilities, but to also draw on processes that are not rational in nature. Examples might include using embodied approaches to engage with information, or adopting epistemologies in our models of the world which do not assume detached rationalism. 

Interdependence and Collectivism 

The third major insight from wisdom traditions which lies at the core of our approach is that of interdependence and collectivism. There is a sense of ‘one-ness’ that sits at the overlap between spiritual and psychedelic experiences, and experiences of ‘the sublime’ in nature. Similarly, understandings of causation in both philosophy and physics gesture to the reality that there is little in the universe that is causally independent of anything, and therefore everything, else. Working to shed the illusion of individualist separatism is at the individual level vitally important not only for improving wellbeing, but also to facilitate effective action around collective action problems.

The other consequence of this commitment is a radically different approach to tackling social problems and understanding human behaviour. In the former domain we overlap with many in the field of complexity theory by arguing that the fact of interdependence means that vertical, segmented responses to issues as discrete phenomena are hampered by their inability to take a holistic view. Again, the overlap here with the work of McGilchrist is clear to see. From medicine to the social sciences, we focus on parts rather than the whole. In doing so we neglect that the former is often more than the sum of the latter, and that we must tailor our solutions accordingly. Similarly, human behaviour and moreover human beings in their totality cannot be considered in a manner that detaches them from their social, cultural and embodied surroundings. Understanding phenomena such as knowledge and cognition require us to acknowledge the reality of our interdependence with the world around us, and to accordingly take an embedded view of human functioning. The abstractions characterising many more traditional models found in the social sciences are at best inadequate and at worst harmful to our pursuits of improving society.

[Radical] Possibility [aka Utopianism]

As the name suggests, Pragmatic Utopianism is by nature unashamedly utopian. We hold a strong belief that a radically transformed world is possible, and that this world is capable of meeting some plausible threshold of utopia in the flourishing it affords every one of its inhabitants. To pursue true utopia need not, on this view, manifest unrealistic idealism or a toxic, dominating hegemonism. 

We lay claim, then, ‘utopianism’ both because of a belief that society is drastically in need of visions of possibility that extend beyond the current limits of our jaded sense of collective realism and because we view the word itself as in need of healing. Through proper, careful usage we hope to recover the meaning of the term and restore to it the hope that has over the years given way to derision and suspicion. 

We sit apart from many others committed to ‘radical’ systemic change as the changes, and therefore world, we would hope to bring about are almost beyond the reaches of our present, socially conditioned imaginations. While ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, for example, would result in a society radically different from the one we have now, it still falls within the bounds of the imaginative Overton window that exists today; we can still very much picture what a world would be like, and how it would resemble our current one. A world of transformed being, on the other hand, is far harder to conceive of. It is for this reason that we view the construction of this narrative, and the invitation of people to explore the possibility it creates, as such important work unto itself.