The collective pursuit of wellbeing

13 08 2013

The thing that amazes me most about the current financial crisis, and in particular its causes, is not the situation itself but our response to it. The vast majority suffer in silence or, at best, content ourselves by sharing our disgruntlement on social media.

It isn’t clear to me that this will always be the case; after all it was a simple dispute over the access and use of a public park in Istanbul that brought thousands of people onto the streets of Turkey to express their wider dissatisfaction with the government. I find it difficult to believe that none of us really cares and that we will all be prepared to simply sit in front of our TV’s shaking our heads at the latest excesses of capitalism, abuses of power or environmental catastrophe. So if we are sitting on a tinderbox just waiting for that spark to ignite our outrage and bring us all out onto the streets then it makes sense to consider alternatives to the current system, and to get them in place, before the whole thing blows. If we can’t stop the inferno then at least we can have something that can rise out of the ashes.

In order that people don’t continue to feel that they have no influence or interest in the way things are we need to create a people-centred economy rather than a society that focusses on, and celebrates, the mindless accumulation of possessions and wealth. The current model of capitalism, the Ango/American model, is characterised by both increased levels of inequality and decreased levels of wellbeing. This has had huge financial implications as the state, through the NHS and benefits system, has to up the bill. We have all become accustomed to the idea of maximising profit rather than maximising value in a wider sense.

Greed, the cult of the individual and philosophies of exclusion must be replaced by solidarity, community and inclusion.

From my perspective, while there is a need to create a new type of economy there is no need to create one from scratch; co-operative enterprises already have a business model that puts people at the centre of the decision-making process. By encouraging participation, by bringing people with shared values together working towards a common goal, individual and collective needs can be met.

A huge industry has grown up selling the dream of personal happiness and many thousands of books promise a quick fix for a better life. The happiness industry is like the diet industry, it survives and prospers because so many of its clients fail and have to come back again and again. While the industry grows, built as it is around individual goals and aspirations, wellbeing in society as a whole declines. How much better to take a co-operative approach and give people the means to help themselves by enabling them to co-operate with and support others. When we as individuals can find a common cause we are more open to the needs of others and this openess allows others to co-operate with us. At base level this is how early societies were established. Early humans could not hunt for large prey alone. It takes more than one person, even if that one person has a very sharp spear, to fell a mammoth! Societies grew out of the absolute imperative of co-operation in order to survive.

If the only common cause that can be found is standing together to collect job seekers allowance then is it really so surprising that wellbeing decreases? And we are born co-operators. Studies of infants have shown that from a very young age human infants will work together in order to solve a task that could not be solved by one alone. More than that, they have shown that if the rewards for working together are not distributed evenly the infant who has arbitrarily received a greater reward will share the unearned bounty with their collaborator! This sense of fairness when working together is what actually sets us apart from other primates.

This desire for co-operation and equity exists in the philosophy of Ubuntu. The most easily understood explanation of Ubuntu takes the form of a story.  An anthropologist proposed a game to children in an African tribe. He put a basket full of fruit near a tree and told the children that whoever got there first won the fruit. When he told them to run, they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that when one could have had all the fruit for himself, they said, ‘UBUNTU, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad? Now I don’t know whether this is an urban legend, so to speak, but it does sum up ubuntu accurately and sets a stark contrast to the individual pursuit of happiness.

Ubuntu asserts that it is society that gives human beings their humanity.  As with the mammoth hunting example, this co-operation for a collective good came about as each individual came together with others as a hedge against his own crop failures and where each individual has an interest in collective prosperity. Desmond Tutu explained it like this, ” One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World.”

The common good, “greatest-happiness principle”, is a philosophy most often attributed to Jeremy Bentham and developed by John Stuart Mill in the late 19th century. Mill argued that it is not one’s own happiness that matters but the greatest amount of happiness altogether and proposed economic democracy rather than capitalism, substituting worker co-operatives for capitalist shareholder owned businesses.

So from common good comes another co-operative principle, common ownership. In a business setting, there is empirical evidence of positive productivity gains from a worker take-over. There is also evidence that the businesses that result are more resilient to economic downturns. Workers often see potential in a business not seen by investors. By anchoring jobs and capital locally worker co-operatives have a significant positive impact on the social cohesion of the local economy.

On a global scale, nobody goes hungry because we have no food. Nobody is homeless because there are no building materials, nobody lives in poverty because there is no money.  People go hungry because the food isn’t where they need it at a price they can afford. People have no homes because they cannot afford housing. People live in poverty while, indeed because, a few accumulate massive wealth. We are accustomed to thinking that we live in a world of scarcity. We do not. We live in a world of abundance but one where that bounty isn’t fairly distributed.  Oxfam recently reported that “the world’s 100 richest people earned enough in 2012 to end global poverty four times over”. As a good friend pointed out when reading the first draft of this article, we can even take issue with whether the richest 100 actually “earned” their wealth at all.

And we need to feel that we have some control over our lives. Democracy doesn’t feel like democracy when decisions are taken far from the place where those decisions will have impact and by people with whom we have little or nothing in common.  Far too often communities have solutions thrust upon them, often from well-meaning groups. Solutions that probably seemed reasonable on paper but which lose relevance and resonance when parachuted into a community that has had no say in the process. Urbanisation and distant state control undermines empathy. We need to bring decision-making back into communities and allow people to have democratic control over their future.

Sociocracy offers a way forward in collective decision-making. This methodology has developed from the Quaker tradition of peace and of valuing the individual and from modern systems thinking. It differs from a democracy in that it is a method in which people work together to govern themselves. While it shares the values of democracy, equality and freedom, it is based on specific governance methods that ensure these values.  It is governance by companions, by like-minded co-operators if you will, based on each giving consent in the decision-making process.

Co-operative enterprise places people at the centre of economic decision-making which leads directly to a sense of fairness and equality. When we have a voice, when we have a fair say, when we are heard, we feel better about ourselves. In a very real sense, co-operative enterprise can be seen as the collective pursuit of wellbeing.