At the start of 2015 I wrote a post about progress. At the time, I’d been reading some work by US psychologist and educational Howard Gardner and looked at notions of social progress and the role of education within this. Since then, I have naturally but not deliberately continued on something of an intellectual journey in which the notion of progress has always been there, not always in the foreground, but there nonetheless. Around about June 2015, I read a really interesting piece by Jonathan Rowson of the RSA. Rowson re-examines the notion of progress and suggests a spiritual quality, relating to personal and political transformation. I found this really provocative and a useful counterweight to John Gray’s dismissal of the notion of social progress, where he argues that scientific and technological progress does not necessarily transfer into other aspects of society.
Obviously in 2016, notions of progress have been shook to the core by Brexit and Trump, to name just two events. Much is said about Brexit and Trump. That they represent discontent in society; a growing feeling that some people who, for a range of reasons, had become disenfranchised. As a result they opted for electoral choices that fly in the face of values held by many people. It must be remembered, though this is an aside, that in the case of Brexit, a majority, and in the case of Trump, almost half of voters, actually wanted the option that others found abhorrent.
Does this signal a breakdown in liberal politics? This is the suggestion of John Gray. His argument features plenty of food for thought. Globalisation, both economic and political, has left many behind and in a range of ways. There are economic losers, whose jobs disappeared to newly emerging economies or whose wages have been under downward pressure due to foreign-made products. Of course, this is not purely an economic story. Communities and ways of life had their foundations shattered as factories and collieries closed down. This is just part of the wider issue that people do not feel that liberal politics, broadly defined, does not serve them anymore (if they ever did). Free trade, open borders, foreign intervention, even political correctness. Both domestically and abroad, people see what liberal governments offer and do not like what they see. At home, people want to see their job projected see traditional institutions, such as marriage, protected. Abroad, the great question of whether the Western model of democracy and human rights, labelled as universal by the West, could be successfully introduced to societies not familiar with them. Not only does this see backlashes abroad, as witnessed in post-invasion Afghanistan and Iraq, but also leaves people at home questioning the cost of such interventions, both human and financial. The sense that the UK and USA should put their own people first was a major thread of campaign narratives for both Brexit and Trump.
If you accept that these, to some extent, are failings in liberal politics, then one questions what the response of liberal politics might be. Here, Gray suggests that liberals simply suggest more of the same, just to even greater levels. I can see his point and don’t believe that moving to the extreme is a good response to another extreme, in the shape of populism or nationalism. Nick Clegg, in his memoir, supports the notion of acting from the centre-ground. I’m not sure if this is quite the same as what Gray advocates in suggesting that the political class need to re-address some of the values which underpin their countries. This itself is a key point which Gray makes – the future of politics is national, not global. Further acceptance of unrestrained, neoliberal globalisation does not seem viable.
So what is the way forward? What, if anything, can be identified as a common lesson from studying the victories of Brexit, Trump, the suggested death of liberalism and Nick Clegg’s call for centrism? I think it requires us -not just politicians, but everybody – to re-assess our answers to some deep questions. These questions can roughly be boiled down to what does ‘the good life’ mean?
I first came across this question in that book mentioned earlier, by Howard Gardner. Gardner, having moving on from multiple intelligences, now believes that the core purpose of education and society more widely, should be about truth, beauty and goodness. It should be about empowering people to lead fulfilling lives. Some would say that this amounts broadly to the ideals of progressive politics. I think it would be more productive to avoid anybody trying to take ownership of such a fundamental notion as how to lead a good life. Rather than suggesting ideologies address this notion, why not instead ask those deep questions such as: what should schools teach? What is the point of work? What should the role of the state be in people’s lives?
There is a growing interest, both academic and popular, amongst people, in happiness and wellbeing. Paul Dolan writes about happiness being down to choices, about a balance between pleasure and meaning. Simon Sinek talks about the importance of purpose and how living and working ‘together is better‘. These are just two of many thinkers on these important issues. Such interest acknowledges that many people don’t currently have the same opportunities either in terms of pleasure or meaning.
Paying attention to people’s lives, in a holistic way concerned with happiness and wellbeing, is not only about guiding policy choices for politicians, it is also about narrative. Clegg is not the first politician to recognise the importance of narrative. A narrative serves two purposes. It threads a link through a suite of policies, allowing people to see their collective impact and choose a clear future direction. It also allows people to understand their own lives. Focusing on the ‘good life’ and the importance of ‘good work’ sounds like a powerful idea to me. People will feel recognised by politicians and in turn will recognise how their lives can change.
Maybe this is a way forward to getting people to re-engage with a less extreme and populist kind of politics. It could help to call out those extremists and populists and expose the gap between their rhetoric and the reality of their proposals. Maybe it could also help people to re-identify with liberal values and politics. It should also bring the scale of politics down from the global and even the national, making it about people, their families and their communities. Maybe politics could genuinely be about the good life, for everyone.