Why Progressives Can’t Progress & Conservatives Can’t Conserve

Joshua Malkin argues that the foundational principles of our long accepted political philosophies are no longer able to hold the contradictions of a technological, globalised world.

Seductive Liberty is over- rated, unless we put Good Will and Compassion before conquest and self-interest.

Righteous Equality is over-rated unless we put Respect For Diversity before sameness and conformity.

But Mutual Fraternity is always under-rated because it requires us each to take responsibility for our own power and for what we create in, and extract from, the world.”

The amplification of power for good or ill, which technology now bestows upon us, comprises a totally underestimated step-change in society that has overtaken us without our realising it. This constitutes a completely different political context which requires a new level of institutional and individual maturity.

“When 21st century Caesars have the technological, scientific and financial power to undermine, unpick and undo Creation, then the question arises, what is and is not Caesar’s? And to whom should we render it? What is our duty?” [i]

This new era of intensified human power urgently requires an evolutionary mind shift. It forces us to reconsider our picture of the human, both collectively and individually, as a being endowed with god-like powers of creation and mis-creation which demand a new level of ethical responsibility by means of a heart shift – the transformation of free will into good will, from independence to interdependence, that is both self-limiting as well as creative. Put another way we might say that our task is to use our intelligence regeneratively to protect life, real value and create wellbeing.

The problem with liberalism, conservatism and socialism is that they are no longer capable of fulfilling the main purposes of good governance – protecting the sacred and addressing our power to create and mis-create. But a new kind of democracy – based upon fraternity and human fellowship –  as opposed to liberal democracy based on failed concepts of liberty or equality, is beginning to emerge that potentially can do so.


What does it mean to be human?

The times we are living through have been described as a ‘fin de siecle’ era, when an old world is dying and a new one as yet has not been born. Often, in such times of uncertainty, instability and change it is understandable that people retreat to old answers within a worn out logic of old certainties that has already passed. Becoming either more left wing or more right wing, promoting either free trade or protectionism or ‘making our nation great again’ are all familiar examples. However, even in turbulent times, occasionally something comes along that shifts our perspective to refresh and reorient our gaze by renewing our wonder.

Recently millions of people have found wonder and awe in watching the miracles of nature that the BBC’s ‘Blue Planet’ documentaries reveal about our abundant living world – the only one – which as yet, present scientific knowledge can say for certain contains life within the unimaginable scale of the whole, known universe.

In these films it is not just every species that amazes, but the rich pattern of diversity itself, as we glimpse how each species fits within and is dependent upon a greater whole. Yet what remains taken for granted is the mystery of the extraordinary species that is examining, recording and celebrating the rich diversity of these ecologies. So it is timely to reflect again on our capability as human beings, not only to create the technology to observe and document the living world, but to appreciate each species as much more than a meal ticket.

Because humans have become a force of nature, how we explain ourselves to ourselves has significant implications, not just for the kind of society we make, but for every creature of every species on Earth and no doubt at some point, beyond.

Our image of the human being has not kept pace with our technological power, our scientific capability and the globalised results they have created. So what might a dispassionate observer – a cosmic film-maker for example – think of us?

In the modern era, we have come to see ourselves as separate from and above nature, above creation and for many as separate from God. The popular media see the human being as an intelligent animal, which at different times is depicted as a machine with a brain like a computer or a calculating predator, or a conditioned robot or a rational economic actor that is inconveniently capable of irrational emotion. These superficial equivalences completely underestimate what we are and are premised on a populist version of a secular kind of scientism rather than a science, which to date cannot fully explain the fundamental laws of the universe and has no comprehensive, provable explanation of consciousness, despite our technological successes.

One might say that in many important respects human beings are inconveniently not ‘evidence-based’. So,  We need a meta-level explanation, to see ourselves more clearly, of who and what we are that is useful, fruitful and coherent and is not reliant on the literal measurement of things that intrinsically cannot be measured. Because, ‘even where science offers understanding of how things work, it doesn’t tell us what they mean’. [ii]

In short, our secular society needs a new story to live by that science to date has been unable to provide and which takes into account our power to create and our ability to experience material reality in seemingly non-material ways.

It is clear that we are inherently inventive creatures and our power to create is both formidable and wide-ranging. For example, just as human ingenuity has allowed us to create ethical vegan menu choices of meat substitutes such as mock duck and mock chicken, super-rich tech-driven corporations using artificial “intelligence” are already well embarked upon a quest to create mock humans.

But programmed algorithms that can create mock “love” in robots will surely never equate to human consciousness, which freely chooses self-sacrifice and self-restraint for the purposes of relating to each other, to the world and in protecting and nurturing life.

Even within the limits of secular, linear, materialist science – given the manifold legions of complex interdependent, chemical, physical, energetic, biological and cultural systems, that make each of us able to think, feel and act in a millisecond with sophisticated discernment and focused strategic and relational complexity – it is doubtful that artificial general intelligence will be able to replicate the human being, even with the billions and trillions of dollars that the military-industrial corporations are currently spending on creating an omnipotent, perfect machine for exterminating life!

How We Deal With Power

This juxtaposition raises the most important challenge of being human – how we deal with power – particularly how we deal with our own power to choose what to be and what to become.

Fin-de-siecle’ periods come about because the way we collectively see the world no longer fits our reality. The problem with liberalism, conservatism and socialism is that they are no longer capable of addressing our individual and collective power to create and mis-create.

The horizontal broken frame of the left – right spectrum has lost the ability to deliver the main purposes of politics

These include:

  • protecting the sacred (what we hold most dear)
  • constraining power that is self-serving whether of the market, the state or the individual (that degrades the common ground of  well being)
  • facilitating a hopeful culture of human evolution [that addresses who we are becoming] to leave a long term legacy for the future as much as merely managing resources
  • providing a frame of purpose to enable the economy to evolve a sustainable, generative life-enhancing model.

In contrast, the new political spectrum is vertical, integrative and evolutionary. [iii] It is vertical because to evolve we have to deal with the responsibility and consequences of power, which left to its own devices is hierarchical and, in contrast to human fellowship, compassion, well being, civil society and love has an impulse that has no brakes. Power of itself lacks any inbuilt self-restraining mechanisms.

Put another way the left – right political spectrum deals with other peoples power and not our own, through oppositional might rather than the moral power of human fellowship or love

The societal equivalent of the love that holds a functional family together is mirrored in the ethical values of civil society – namely respect, responsibility and reciprocity which build trust, safety, purpose and ultimately prosperity. This requires a social maturity equivalent to the feminine and masculine archetypes of the mother and the father who are motivated by service to the whole family as opposed to romanticised notions of the warrior and the maiden who both seek conquest and are seduced by the means of conquest.

Civil society is the associative social and economic space between and beyond the control of the Market and the State, where people are free to associate, relate, create, collaborate and reciprocate [in families, friendship groups, communities and through social enterprise]. It is a self-organising sector governed by the values of mutualism, which are protective of the foundational economy of the household and the relational value of the commons – the shared resources or value that are embodied by the services that humans and nature exchange.

If we still believe that the solutions required to meet the challenges of the 21st century lie only within the market or the state, then we are trying to deal with them through what is a part of an 18th century story. It is time to move beyond the French Revolution and the reactions to it.

The perspectives of liberty and equality areno longer able to provide a frame within which to appreciate in practice what it means to be human because both are based on the exercise of power rather than of fraternity, compassion or love.

If we adopt an ideology where we first demand liberty in the name of our own self-interest, we also have to accept the unrestrained freedom of despots – those who feel entitled to use their power to limit the freedom of others. The result is a conducive context for narcissists and sociopaths [for those who are self-regarding, extractive, domineering or degenerate]. This is the liberty of the freeloader’s market founded on the principle of maximising profit and power, rather than the ethical market principle of fair exchange or mutualism.

On the other hand, if we first demand literal equality, we demand sameness of others and reject diversity, enabling those with the most power to impose their version of sameness [political correctness] upon the rest, whether these are the state, the church, corporations or the BBC.

In contrast, human fellowship supports the equality of all beings to be themselves but this fellowship also requires accepting responsibility for our impact on others rather than our entitlement to act in whatever ways we want. Equality is not literal nor is it essentially about rights, it is about equality of being before a higher law – not literal legal equality that squashes diversity.

Social justice can not be achieved by a conformist, censorial orthodoxy of sameness delivered by statist bureaucracy or legal regulation. Fairness is not the same as equality.

Functional families conceive of real wealth not as money but as psycho-social-eco-spiritual prosperity that is ultimately relational. No successful families are organised on the principles of our political economy – that is to say by measuring monetary turnover by GDP   ( which in the UK now officially includes the proceeds of prostitution and drug dealing) or by first past the post democracy where all the kids get a vote to not go to school and stay up and drink beer until 3 am because we should all be equal. Instead, successful families are focused on the well being of all, on the nurturing of capability, the acceptance of difference, the gift of self-restraint and are based on values that generate respect, creativity, courage and accountability and thereby nurture reciprocity.  This creates a context conducive of mutual trust and arises not from our inalienable rights but from our inalienable responsibilities.

A New -Ism For the 21st Century

Therefore the new -ism for the 21st century is mutualism based on contribution and fair exchange. Progressives can only progress when they let go of their literal egalitarianism and accept that fraternity requires respect for diversity to rebalance the state. Conservatives can begin to conserve when they commit, in freedom, to civil society and its values to rebalance the dysfunctional aspects of the market.

Putting human obligations before rights is totally consistent with social justice and with real wealth creation.

Mutualism is more radical, more compassionate, more disciplined,  more boundaried and more traditional than liberalism, socialism or conservatism. These outdated political philosophies ignore our personal and collective responsibility in bringing into being, either a life-enhancing culture of well being and human fellowship or a degrading culture of disharmony, ill-being and fear based on the entitlement of the most powerful.

Consequently Civil Society requires Compassionate Democracy not liberal democracy and the personal accountability and creativity that is consistent with human fellowship.

Our human obligation is to use our creative power to live as stewards of all life on Earth – even the lives of those of other identities, other species and other tribes. Rights are a birth-right given us to fulfil our obligations.

Therefore fellowship and fraternity must come above liberty and above equality. But currently, no political party stands for human fellowship before they stand for sectarian interests. They are above all focused on gaining power rather than taming [their own] power.

The new paradigm is about how we think, feel and act, personally and publicly, through good will and good practice, which in turn leads to good governance. This involves a re-balancing of the market and the state by resourcing and empowering the family, the commons, communities and civil society, in which care- ability and kindness are fundamental.

In liberal democracy liberty sooner or later becomes veiled anarchy because the freedom to be cruel and life-degrading is held equal to the freedom to be kind and generative, so power is put before compassion.

But vengeful oppositional responses to the abuse of power are insufficient to negate it. For example, egalitarianism in reaction to the excesses of libertarianism becomes part of the same worldview.  Literal equality also puts rights before responsibility or obligations, thereby crushing difference, diversity and creativity. Consequently, egalitarianism is part of the old narrative too.

Compassionate democracy is not at all about righteous moralism; it is simply about recognising the power of who and what we are and the responsibilities that go with having the god-like power to create, which has become more evident in a globalised technological world, and which we ignore at our peril.

The new politics requires we put fraternity – good will and human fellowship – above and before both freedom and equality. By doing so we co-create a context that is conducive to human flourishing and the amplification of human intelligence and human fellowship rather than the amplification of power.

Liberty and equality do not automatically result in civil society, but liberty and equality naturally follow from civil society.

Our responsibility and duty, therefore, is towards each other before any can be free or equal. If we put human fellowship first, we can truly celebrate our individual and collective power to create, for we are then acting in congruence with what Buddhists might call compassion and with what Christians might describe as the Christ gesture.

Our duty then is to act beyond our own freedom. Perspectives of liberty and equality, in their shadow forms of extractive self-interest and life-deadening sameness, are the antithesis of good will and ultimately against life. Both are based on power that has no intrinsic self-restraining mechanism. Therefore freedom and equality are unhelpful foundations for a civil society based on the values of respect, responsibility and reciprocity. It is these values that can restrain the amplification of power because they are the societal equivalent of love, which is intrinsically both generative and self-restraining.


From “Being well : Beyond Liberal Democracy Towards Compassionate Democracy” by J. P. Malkin [forthcoming]


From “Harmony” by HRH Prince Charles, Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly


J.P. Malkin The New Political Spectrum


See David Bollier on the commons – renewal.org.uk/articles/a-new-politics-of-the-commons

I would like to acknowledge conversations with Andy Bradley, Raymond Aitken, Claudius van Wyk, Andrew Scott and Sebastian Parsons in helping develop thinking in respect of the relational practice and civic value of compassion, the nature of equality, the evolution and image of the human being and the paradox of power.

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