The complexity of creating a new Story of Humanity
There’s a lot of talk at the moment, at least in the European space of social transformation, of our need to invent a new story. Not a story that we tell to our children at bedtime, though it could become one of those very easily. No, this is the story of humanity: who are we as a species? What defines us? What is the story of our history as a country, and as a continent?
We are being forced to think about these questions as the social structures around us crumble with the weight of COVID-19. Each one of us has become a philosopher, whether s/he likes it or not, because s/he has been almost forced to consider their own livelihood from a reflective standpoint.
First, we must set some boundaries for our answer to this question, and I want to use those of the school of thought called critical theory — at least as it has developed out of a Marxian and Hegelian tradition. All good critical theories must try to avoid dogmatism — they cannot propose some external criteria to which we then subject ourselves, because these criteria must be justified from some external perspective. This means that should not suggest, for example, that human beings should measure their wealth in lead balloons, and form a justification for that. It’s not effective because it looks at the human being from outside his material reality, and ignores the fact that he measures his wealth in ‘money’ and not in lead balloons.
To avoid dogmatism, we should look towards performing an immanent critique. This means crafting a new image of humanity based on what it is now, what it’s ideals are, and who we think we are at the moment. To forge a way forward for the future with a modified image of humanity is to take a snapshot of who we trying to be, and then try to realise this in different ways.
The immediate problem, when I begin to think about who we are right now, is that this view looks a little disappointing. With all the free time that we have on our hands because of COVID, many people have used it to watch Netflix, buy things on Amazon, and constantly update their Facebook profiles. Not all of us, but a huge number of people have. Instead of reading, learning, reflecting, the instinct has become to use our free time with these things.
What does this tell us about who we are, on a conceptual level? Mindless consumers, stuck to dopamine-inducing technological and systemic structures that move us without our conscious will? This is not exactly an empowering new image of who we are as a people, but it is the image that is more and more frequently being portrayed.
Hegel, it can be argued, viewed the human being through an expressivist lens, one’s actions in the world express his/her intentions, resulting in what is ‘inner’ becoming what is ‘outer.’ This process of externalisation is the work, or labour, of Spirit, for Hegel, but here we could understand this to mean the work of each individual. When you have a thought, you want to actualise that thought in the world: this is the process of moving from inner to outer. When you think about painting a horse, and then paint a horse, you have been through this process. Based on the above, what would define us now is still this process of expression, a movement from inner to outer, but the way that we know how to act, how to make our thoughts a reality, is through a movement from an inner desire to an outer consumptive fulfilment. We have desires or thoughts which we then fulfil by acting in the capitalist market, using the behaviour of consumption to achieve our aims.
This viewpoint is a complex way of saying that what we have become, what defines us, is to be consumers acting in a global market. And this is what you will read in any economic newspaper — any newspaper, for that matter — and in any analysis of what is happening to the country’s growth, and thus future prospects. The media also perpetuate this idea by promoting products to us through never-ending streams of visual advertising, designed to encourage us to consume more, act more in the world, and be better than those around us.
What this misses is the productive capacity of human beings, the reflective capacity of human beings, the communicative capacity of human beings. We are painted as only one part of a variety of commonalities in our species, which is a very reduced part at that.
But in creating a new image, or a new story of humanity, we must include this ugly consumptive part in there somewhere, because any picture of who we are would be incomplete — inaccurate, even — without it. We are consumers, led by dopamine hits from technological systems beyond our control. Any new image of humanity must recognise this blindingly obvious trait about ourselves, and not be led off by dogmatic visions of freedom and autonomy, as was the case for the natural rights philosophers, and many more theorists since then.
There is therefore a lot of thinking to be done on this question of creating a new human story. It has to include concepts that we’re coming to value now like diversity, and it also has to recognise the structures and the systems that make this human world run. The ‘localists’ who want to go back to each family owning their own farm haven’t included this ‘consumptive’ human in their story, or their image, and the capitalist/technological visions of the human race are trying to create a story that doesn’t leave room for the very thing it is supposed to explain — the human being itself. We are unable to integrate these, and many more viewpoints and stories, into one that accurately describes us, and sets us off in a direction most of us can agree is a good one.
This post has contained lots of complex terms and thoughts. It’s like a starting point, and overview, if you will, and in time, I hope to be able to fill in all the gaps and explain what it all actually means, and what we should do about it.
Jack Goldingham Newsom is the Chief Objektioner and Founder of the Objektion Project. We help people, social enterprises, and volunteer organisations to carry out their mission more effectively by challenging current ways of thinking, and developing new frameworks to support their vision.
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