In a year that has witnessed growing public awareness of various looming environmental disasters, from poisonous plastic to catastrophic climate change, and against a backdrop of… questionable decisions resulting from democratic ballots, the effects of which just keep rumbling on, pessimism about the human condition seems to be in vogue.
For the environment, a vague ‘humanity’ is the villain, a ‘disease’ or ‘cancer’ that has spread across the earth, leaving nought but destruction in its wake. The solution? Less of us, or, in extreme cases, none of us. For Brexit, Trump and other ‘populist’ developments, it is the ordinary citizen at fault, enjoying ‘too much democracy’, and making poor, uninformed, selfish decisions. The solution? Their role in governance should be strictly limited to periodical elections of wiser, more able folk who will make the better, correct decisions for us. The problem with both arguments is, of course, the finger being pointed at the wrong people.
When it comes to environmental issues, the simple fact is that we are not all equally at fault — not even close. It is the rich who consume vastly more than the poor, it is a handful of companies that are responsible for the vast majority of emissions, and it is systemic drivers (deliberate, political decisions) built into our economy that requires constant growth and exploitation, that drive climate change far more than an ordinary person’s consumption.
The same is true of the ‘too much democracy’ thesis — it misappropriates blame, but also rests on shaky logical ground (ironically). Surely, if ordinary people really cannot grasp hard truths and complexity, then any political prognosis offered by any ordinary person, the ‘too much democracy’ one included, should at the very least be treated with extreme caution? All it really amounts to is the political analysis equivalent of the non-sensical ‘this sentence is false’. The revealing fact here is that many espousing this belief often don’t really think of themselves as one of the ordinary or excluded — the dim-witted voter is the mythical other.
The tragedy is, of course, that it is by allowing political systems to be dominated by a handful at the top, disconnected from ordinary lives and local communities, that economic and environmental exploitation has run rife across the planet. The degradation of our natural environment is rooted in the same processes that structure the exploitation and political disenfranchisement of ordinary citizens (that has in large part led to the victories of Brexit and Trump). These are, of course, the processes of 21st century capitalism, and specifically its latest variant, neoliberalism, in its unrelenting pursuit of endless competition, profit and growth.
This system is not natural, as many of its proponents assume. Market systems came to dominate public life through a deliberate, gradual, forceful political project. Neoliberalism itself recognises this — it advocates for deliberate government interventions to craft, coerce and mould market or market-like systems across society. Neoliberal capitalism, often against our wishes and better judgements, requires, demands, constant growth, constant consumption, constant competition and acquisition, and such a system requires a certain ‘immunity’ from democracy — ‘expert’ decision makers, privatisation, deregulation, market forces rather than collective decision making… these things are designed to reduce the control democratic, collective decisions have over society. These are the things destroying the planet, and are also (partly) behind the resentment of mainstream politics that is aiding the likes of Brexit and Trump, but they’re not the only ways humans can live.
Instead of a debilitating despair then, a proper analysis shows us there are alternatives. The problem is not human nature, but rather current, specific human political and economic systems, systems that can be altered, but only if those that benefit the most from them (the richest in society) have power taken from them and given to ordinary people. It is an intensely anti-political position to advocate for less humans, and less political power for those that remain, as opposed to genuinely engaging in an attempt to build a brighter future for however many children people choose to have. Pinpointing something as vague and generic as ‘humans’ as the problem gives us no practical steps forward — it just leaves us seeped in depression and self-loathing, and contemplating horrifically authoritarian solutions.
Instead, we should trust, celebrate and empower people. An expansion of both political and economic freedom is not on its own the solution to social dislocation or climate change, but it is a necessary first step.
None of this means there aren’t genuine issues with political education and democratic decision-making, but they have their solutions. Breaking up the ownership of the press and encouraging more independent and innovative media sources will help diversify the flow of information. A more proportional voting system, more responsive and accountable MP’s and councils (deselection, right of recall and more direct engagement through citizens assemblies and referendums) and rooting out the influence of big money in politics will help our political system become a better accumulator of public opinion. Better political education, in schools, universities, in public broadcasting and in trade unions is important too, but done in a collaborative way that allows opportunity for genuine political participation, not just passive, patronising lessons.
And then — the most counter-intuitive point in the current political climate — we need to expand democracy. This means retrieving areas of public policy from private and ‘expert’ hands, but also spreading democracy beyond formal political lines — into the workplace itself, through nationalisation and worker’s and community control. Allowing ordinary people greater control over their lives, and for concerns about community and wellbeing to trump those of private profit, is the way to tackle our political and environmental crises — not demonising the human condition and curtailing its freedom.
As Naomi Klein has shown, it is ordinary people, working in their local communities, that are at the forefront of the fight against climate change. This doesn’t mean there won’t still be huge hurdles to face in terms of climate change, or that our behaviours and consumption patterns won’t have to change, but empowered local communities and disempowered global capital gives us our best shot.
We’ve fallen out of love with ourselves as a species. Human beings are frequently ugly, boring, cowardly, cruel and a host of other nasty things too. But we’re also beautiful, innovative, courageous, intelligent, miraculous and kind, and which of these lists we are depends in large part on the sort of system we live under. Between environmental Armageddon and political division and crisis, we’re constantly telling ourselves how awful we all are… meaning we’ve forgotten the best in us. With this we have lost the belief that we can actually craft a political, economic and social system that is just, honest and fair. In its place we have the deeply apolitical howl against human nature — and an existential malaise that offers us nothing to concretely tackle our problems with.
It’s time we celebrated humanity, empowered it, and put all our potentials to use in solving the multiple crises we currently face. Any political, religious or philosophical tradition that does not recognise the beauty of the human condition, the raw, powerful and incredible potential in human beings, and does not seek to harness, expand and enrich that, is not worth anyone’s time.