We've had months of discussion (and confusion) about the Big Society, years of entertainment from Big Brother, so perhaps it's only timely that this week will see the launch of some Big Ideas.Oh, really?
This is the territory explored in a pamphlet calling for a "21st-century Enlightenment" to be published this week. "Big" in this context clearly cannot be dismissed as a marketing ploy; ideas don't come much bigger.Well, if we can’t rely on the Royal Society of Arts to save us all from annihilation, who can we rely on, I always say…
It's an intriguing set of ideas pulled together by Matthew Taylor (former Downing Street policy adviser to Tony Blair), in part to sketch out what an institution founded in the 18th-century Enlightenment ought to be doing – the answer being to generate the 21st-century Enlightenment, and this is now the new strapline for the Royal Society of Arts. No small ambition here.
The questions that underlie Taylor's pamphlet are echoed in the soul-searching around Labour's defeat: what do words such as liberal or progressive mean, and what kind of politics do they require?Do you mean the original definition of those words, or what the now-corrupted term says to people?
We already know what kind of politics they require, thanks very much…
…can we still have faith in an idea of progress when the very inventions and ways of life that were thought would bring it about – market capitalism and individual freedom – are wreaking unprecedented environmental destruction?Yes! Let’s smash market capitalism and individual freedom! That way lies enlightenment, I’m sure!
There is a deeper problem about anchoring the effort to defend progress in the 18th-century Enlightenment: it lands you squarely in a fraught argument about Eurocentrism. Too often citing the Enlightenment is a precursor to an attack on other systems of thought – such as Islam; too often appeals to an Enlightenment legacy are a code for privileging this European period of intellectual creativity.Do you really believe that the west hasn’t brought progress to the world? Particularly in comparison to Islamic societies?
At its crudest, it can amount to a land grab for civilisational superiority in which the west has brought progress to the world.
You are, I presume, allowed to drive to work, to work, in fact. To submit articles for a national newspaper damning the society that provided you with every privilege?
To wear as little as you like, secure in the knowledge that any assault on your person will not be blamed on your dress?
We need to live very differently, and that requires thinking very differently. What's required is another revolution of the mind, a paradigm shift in human consciousness.Why, exactly, do we need to ‘live differently’?
And just who is ‘we’?
Are you going to ‘live differently’, Madeline?
Just as the scientific insights of the 17th century led to the Enlightenment's profound shifts in the understanding of the individual, and the idea that the social order could and should be changed, so Taylor hopes science can prompt dramatic shifts in self-awareness, in how we understand human behaviour so that we replace individualism with more socially connected relationships of solidarity.Ah. Now it all becomes clear…
The second source of his optimism relies on heavy borrowing from the recently published The Empathic Civilisation, in which Jeremy Rifkin argued that history is marked by human beings' increasing empathy for others…Oh, dear…
Empathy can save us, believes Taylor; it is vital to negotiations on how we share out natural resources, and vital to ensure harmonious co-existence on a crowded planet.Yes, we need to join the Collective, eh, Madeline? Emulate bees and ants?
Taylor's faith in empathy is widely shared, for example by those campaigning on aid for the developing world.Well, of course it is. They are pretty keen on anything which pries money out of the banks of suckers.
They need to eat too, after all.
Ethical reasoning and debate need to be resurrected. We need an ethics that challenges the dominant logics of market, bureaucracy, and scientific and technological development. Just because something will sell doesn't mean it should be sold; just because something can be discovered and developed doesn't mean it should be – now so painfully evident in the Gulf of Mexico disaster.Yes!
Say ‘No!’ to discovery and development! Say ‘No!’ to human progress and invention! Join us toiling in the fields night and day! Follow Madeline to…
Hey! Madeline, aren’t you coming?