Transitionalism – Towards a New Zeitgeist

by on June 9, 2013

Hands on a globeImagine for a moment living in the not too distant future. You awake with loved ones all feeling rested and content, beginning the day with physical and mental exercises, meditation, eating a breakfast of high quality food, and looking to the day with a clear sense of purpose. Facilitated by greater physical and mental integration of individuals into the global network,  children attend virtual schools and machines driven by near-human levels of intelligence tasked with producing the goods and services you use as well as maintain infrastructure. You still work but what you do is desired and satisfying, integrated into how one lives and what one seeks to pursue. There is a sense of ease that comes along with interactions with neighbors, co-workers, being in gatherings because there are no ‘strangers’; everybody knows who one another is and something about them. Given people are more trustworthy, people are happy to do favors to help you out because they know you will be there for them if the need arises.

While changes are in process and there will always be problems to deal with. Generally, the situation around the globe is more stable than they were a couple of decades ago. Given the new technological advancements, 40 trillion dollars has been added to the globe’s wealth fostering a consensus among government and business leaders along with many among the general population, these funds should be used to eliminate disease, hunger, and poverty, to be replaced with a reasonable standard of living and quality of life and the opportunity for a good education for everyone. This was possible due to three fundamental changes. The first, all sectors of society; individuals, the business community, and governmental bodies came to recognize everything was truly connected. While there would also be contention over specific issues, people realized they were only holding themselves back when they considered themselves alone. The second was giving the environment equal consideration to the needs of people in how it is used. The dramatic growth of total wealth was due to not only the introduction and maturation of new technology, it was also the result of the effort needed to repair the damage already caused, and adjusting the human footprint to rest lighter on the planet. Marked productivity and savings gains were realized through the improvements in people’s health and in social stability by providing the road to a better quality of life and reducing, the effects of climate change. The third element was due to the rejection of both collectivistic and individualistic ideologies, favoring instead an open-ended communalistic approach that considers the needs of the community and of the individual as having equal value on one hand, and giving primacy to the world in which we live as opposed to the extra-natural world on the other. In the wake of the acceptance of these three precepts there came about greater social and individual stability and security, as well as greater general trust given the lower levels of anti-social activity. What makes this possible is accepting and living the concept of interconnectedness and mutual reciprocation, where a person strives to fulfill what is good for someone else and in doing so is able to satisfy their wants and needs because others are doing the same for them. This occurs between individuals, between individuals and companies, and individuals and government, establishing fully functional social integration.

In looking around today the likelihood for such a future might seem distant. Then again, so did the total turnaround of American public opinion in response to the attack by the Japanese in 1941 or the rapid change in America’s social values over the years related to who deserves civil rights. Then there was the collapse of communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, and, most recently, the sweeping away of dictatorships in Middle Eastern countries during the “Arab Spring”.  To avoid any unproductive discussion regarding the actual likelihood for such a future, it can be simply stated for those who seek it such a lifestyle is possible. Regarding the broader question, our scenario is not mere idle musing, but based on substantive projections. In a recent report issued by the McKinsey Global Institute, it projects the prospects for growth of the world’s economy on the order of 14-33 trillion dollars over the next 10 years based on the development of twelve key new technologies.1  The second projection pertains to the extent automation will replace humans in the workplace.2   As has been presented, both could be positive developments and people at all levels will derive benefit from them just as they have during all previous periods of technical advancement. However, given a continuation of present value systems into the next several decades, there is clear cause for concern. Everyone will indeed benefit, but the question becomes who benefits the most, and how will those advances find application, and for what purpose. Keeping with the trends of the last thirty years, the advances in the next ten will continue to advantage global and national elites in terms of not only the accumulation of wealth, but also more significantly, offering enhanced power and control guiding our future into dangerous territory.

Reasons for this are symptomatic of fundamental social dysfunction are found in the precepts of the current value structure.3 First, economic liberalism cannot work in the long term. This statement might strike one as odd set against the backdrop of a remarkable build of wealth worldwide over the last four hundred years. Still, it is appropriate to recite the African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.” In connection to our discussion here, we can draw the obvious reference to the resulting inequality with a few who will reap most of the benefits leaving behind everyone else. It is also can be seen as referring to a spiritual inequality within us. We become fixated on what is immediate in our lives, giving little thought to our spiritual core leaving it neglected and underdeveloped. From the social perspective, it is for this reason why religious charities and social safety nets continue to play a crucial, under appreciated – at times derided role – in the lives of many, and why socialism, even after repeatedly shown to be a failure still strikes a deep resonance in people around the world.

Liberalism’s identification of individuals in atomistic terms, and ignoring our fundamental social nature, has led advocates to claim a perpetual state of social dis-integration as not only a positive development, but also a ‘normal’ state of affairs. Everything that has benefits has costs, in this instance in fostering a widespread sense of isolation to the extent that twenty percent of the population at any one time feels the pangs of loneliness to the point it becomes a major source of unhappiness.4  Personal isolation creates a hidden, but significant cost contributing to the degradation of mental health, driving up demand for health services, and lost productivity. More substantively, social instability increases due to the prevailing lack of trust. Trust being, that which binds people together, is also degraded when one accepts self-interest and competition as part of one’s value system making it more difficult to establish and maintain. The consequences reach into all aspects of our lives from our most intimate personal relationships to the relationship we have with our government.

Lastly, liberalism is unable to shape the trajectory to a more positive future. On a practical level, the individualistic approach makes meeting the challenges presented to us more difficult. Consistent with Hobbesian and Lockean notions of the social contract, the loyalty of the parties involved starts and ends with their own constituency feeling little sense of obligation to any group effort beyond what is in their self-interest, returning us once again to the issue of trust.

Transitionalism instead offers the advantages that come with collectivistic and individualistic social systems while de-emphasizing their disadvantages. Individuals and society are different sides to the same thing; one does not exist without the other. Recognizing we are integrated with one another allows us to see clearly the value of trust, reciprocation, and cooperation and how it should predominate in all our interactions. Given that the question of meaning is our life’s focal point, we become self-aware of how we see the world and ourselves. In putting distance between us and our ideas we have the opportunity to see and evaluate them in more objective terms and not develop too strong of an affinity for any particular answer. In doing so we allow ourselves the chance to make better choices, and consequently we realize greater internal integration.

1Disruptive Technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy. McKinsey & Company, May 2013. (Page 11)
2Brynjolfsson, Eric and Andrew McAfee. Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Massachusetts: Digital Frontier Press,. 2011. Print
3Discussion of individuality and individualism. Wasley, Robert, Being, Meaning, and Transition. San Francisco: 2013  (page 22-26) PDF
4Cacioppo, John T. and William Patrick. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 2008. Print (Page 5)

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