Originally published on The Fight to be Human
I just finished reading a book. A very good book. A book about the future. A book about the past.
The book is called Inventing the Future, and its focus is on politics, economics and technology. So not exactly easy reading. In fact, the first couple of chapters give a scathing assessment of left wing thinking. In particular, the book examines how left wing ideas have withered under the pressure of right wing economic policies. It explains how left wing thinking was once exciting and grand, and a hotbed of utopian ideas from flying cars to the colonisation of Mars. What I found most intriguing however, is how the book examines the inception of what we’ve come to loosely call “neoliberalism”.
Neoliberalism is a social, political and economic construct that values individual liberty. It puts emphasis on the mobility and the responsibility of the individual above all else, and over time this thinking has crept into all corners of western society. From the free market, to property ownership, to the deregulation of the banks, neoliberalism largely embodies our way of life.
Quite often when criticising the status quo, it’s very easy to slip into wishy-washy sounding, idealistic ramblings of a better world that don’t really mean anything because the argument can’t be pitted against anything in particular. We just complain about the general way of things.
But this book introduced me to an organisation called the Mont Pelerin Society, and reading about its formation literally had me on the edge of my seat. Literally.
The organisation was set up in 1947 in a post-war climate where society was ripe for change. An Austrian/British professor called Freidrich Hayek set up the group which consisted of economists, historians and philosophers, with the aim of spreading neoliberal thinking throughout society.
Strikingly the group, which already consisted of relative elites, understood that if societal change was to be created it would need to come from the movers and shakers; advisors, journalists, teachers, business leaders and ultimately, policy makers.
So that’s what they did. The Mont Pelerin Society spread its neoliberal ideas through elite networks using business leaders, academics, the press, think tanks and eventually filtering into politics itself.
I find this absolutely captivating. A bunch of people in a room discussing how they can change the world to fit an idealogical economic model. It’s probably the closest thing I’ve heard to a conspiracy theory that is genuinely real, and actually happened.
Politics and the fight to be human
What followed the inception of the Mont Pelerin Society (which still exists today) was several generations of creeping economic thinking which ascribed itself to neoliberalism. In particular, the era of Thatcher and Reagan saw an acceleration of this. Markets were systematically deregulated and workers unions demonised and demoralised, and the scene was successfully set for a ruthless dog-eat-dog world, both on an individual and industrial level.
And the old left referred to at the start of this book remains in tatters. Those traditional dreams of utopia, of collectivism and the abolition of poverty have been utterly decimated by rampant consumerism orchestrated by a ruling class which still seeks to enforce hierarchy and exploit social divisions to its own ends. The “new” left has been reduced to a large protest movement that only seeks to oppose the status quo without even trying to create a vision for an alternative world. At least, not an exciting vision that will engage your man-or-woman on the street.
The book goes on to argue that we need a return to utopic thinking. We need to create an optimistic vision of a society which is human-centred, not capital-centred. One that emancipates its inhabitants, removes social barriers and increases democracy. One that rejects the pursuit of status and money and instead promotes the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment; all those things that money is supposed to deliver.
The book advocates the idea of a reduced working week, meaning more leisure time for everybody. It also advocates the automation of as many jobs as possible, and the provision of a guaranteed minimum monthly income for all to cover a basic standard of living.
Utopia is within reach, but we can’t just blink and expect to be there. We must slowly but surely work toward a fairer, human-centred society. That, I’m afraid, is the monumental task facing the 21st century left.