What makes for a good society? And what is the relation of the individual to such a society? Those are the basic questions I ask you to think about this morning.
Note that I am not asking what THE good society is, as if there were a single, universal standard. Given the diversity of peoples and cultures in the world, each with their own history, such is not possible, nor desirable. Diversity of societies is to be celebrated, as it enriches human kind.
Also note that the question I pose asks about the relation of individuals to a good society. In many cultures that would seem an odd question. However, in our culture, with its extreme individualism, many hold to the sovereignty of individuals and even find the idea of society questionable. I’ll return to this point in a while.
For us today the basic question is what makes for a good society? My starting point is in two principles: the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the interconnectedness of all of us. These are, of course, basic Unitarian Universalist principles. But what do they mean? How is worth and dignity of each inherent? And how are we interconnected? Let me try to illustrate the answers with the following story that I heard at the UU Church in Asheville NC.
There was a monastery which had fallen on hard times. Its many buildings had been filled with young monks and its big church had resounded with the singing of prayers, but it was now nearly deserted. People no longer came to be nourished by the prayers and presence of the monks. Only a handful of old, old monks shuffled despondently through the cloisters.
One day, the abbot went on a walk with his friend the rabbi, who lived nearby. They walked, and talked, and at the end of the conversation, the rabbi said, “The Messiah is among you.” He told the abbot that he could tell the other monks, but once it was said, it must never be said aloud again.
The abbot returned to the monastery and told the monks what the rabbi had said.
They were all confounded. Whatever could the rabbi mean? Could it be cantankerous Brother William? Could it be mean and spiteful Brother Stephen? Surely it can’t be dirty and sloppy Brother John! Could the Messiah be the one young novice, petulant and withdrawn, and still to be named?
They were deeply puzzled by the rabbi's teaching. But according to the instruction, no one ever mentioned it again.
Days and weeks went by. The monks began to treat one another with special reverence and respect. There was a gentle, wholehearted quality about them which was hard to describe but easy to see. They lived with one another as if they had found something special, and went about their daily business as if they were always looking for something.
Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks and people again began asking to become part of the community. [http://www.community4me.com/rabbisgift3.html (adapted by Lisa Bovee-Kemper)]
This story illustrates what it takes to have a moral order, to make a human world. It takes recognizing the worth and dignity of others. The simple recognition of others makes fulfilling human relations possible and this leads to a sense of community.
But what do we mean when we say worth and dignity are inherent? Certainly worth and dignity are not part of our DNA. Rather, they are relational in that they refer to the way a person is regarded by others. They lie in a social relation. A social relation that, as the story shows, makes possible a fulfilling human relationship. So, worth and dignity are inherent in genuinely human relations. It is inherent in the human condition. Or, to put the point in philosophical language, recognition of the worth and dignity of others is an a priori necessary precondition of the possibility of human community. It is what makes human community possible.
This brings me to the second principle: our interconnectedness. It is that interconnectedness that makes for a society. When we recognize the worth and dignity of each other we enrich our life together and thereby enrich each other. The term ‘social’ refers to the interconnectedness of humans, an interconnectedness in which all are mutually constituted in and through relations to one another. It is as members of a community that the humanity of each is enriched. The individual identifies with the community; each shares in a collective identity. I am part of a we.
These days we hear a lot about individual responsibility. Not much is said of collective responsibility. But if we are all connected as a society, then I would maintain we are collectively responsible for each other. A moral order requires more than ethical behavior on an individual level. It also requires that the collective “we” care for one another. It requires that society fosters human flourishing.
The development of humans requires resources of various sorts, some of which may be held by individuals, others of which may be held in common. For example, a public library is a common resource that enriches the life of the members of the community of users. We see that here in San Miguel in the Biblioteca Publica. The public library in the small North Dakota town where I grew up was key in my development. So too was the public school I attended and later the state university I went away to. Such public institutions are part of the commons by which we as a community nurture one another.
The idea of the commons is one that we often take for granted, even though it is vital to a good society. We usually associate it with the common land in medieval Europe where peasants could collect firewood, nuts and berries and the like. It was a resource available to all even though it was not owned by anyone. Today we have public parks and squares that are also held in common. E.g. the Jardin here in SMA or in Boston where it is even called The Commons. These are public spaces available for recreation and conviviality that make a city a more human place. Even the streets are commons that enable us to move about in a city, something that would be very difficult if every square meter were privately owned.
But it is not only land that can be a common. There is the knowledge commons that we can now all access through the internet. All of the world’s knowledge, ideas and information is available to us with the touch of a finger or a few key strokes. This knowledge commons has immensely enriched our lives, although we still have to learn how to best use it. The commons also includes the air we breathe and the water we drink, public health facilities, and a host of other resources available to all and that enrich our lives.
Some kind of governance of the commons is necessary. The streets of a city would become hopelessly congested without traffic rules and police to enforce them as well as an intelligent transportation policy from the local government. The water commons that is our aquifer would become depleted without regulations governing extraction and use of water –and the enforcement of the rules. Ungoverned or poorly governed commons can be destroyed by over use or private abuse. In order for the benefits of a commons to be sustainable it must be governed by a public authority dedicated to the common good or by the community itself.
The institution of commons is particularly important in a good society. Like all institutions, the commons educates us to a way of being. While a capitalist market educates us to a competitive individualism, a commons educates us to a nurturing community. And through the commoners participation in the governance of the commons, we are educated to democracy.
Today a lack of understanding and appreciation of the value of commons is leading to their widespread privatization and destruction. For example, in our 2012 presidential election, at one point President Obama asserted the importance of public goods for individual success. He pointed out that no entrepreneur succeeds by himself alone. His business depends on public roads, an educated workforce, and a host of other such public goods. His Republican opponent was quick to attack this view, asserting “I built it myself,” echoing the refrain from the Frank Sinatra song “I did it my way.” This was an appeal to the asocial extreme individualism in our culture that was given political expression in President Reagan’s branding government as the enemy rather than as the instrument by which a democratic society can govern itself. Unfortunately, candidate Obama did not take up the challenge to defend the commons of public goods.
In a democratic society that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity and interconnectedness of all its members there would be an expansion of commons. That is, there would be an expansion of free access to common resources that enrich us all. There would be social institutions that guarantee and protect the commons. For example, when radio was first developed it was treated as a commons. The airwaves were considered public airwaves, not private property. Private parties could be licensed by government to operate radio (and later television stations) for the public good under regulations designed to assure fair access to all points of view. But then in the 1980s as neoliberalism swept through the body politic, the fairness doctrine was abolished and the airwaves were effectively privatized. No longer a democratically governed commons, no longer a public good, the media are now controlled by large corporations and answer to their interests rather than the public interest.
Other commons are also under threat of privatization. Public education, the internet, public broadcasting, national parks and public lands, even our streets and roads are under threat, not to mention the earth’s climate on which we all depend. As we struggle to defend the right to health care, to preserve a livable climate for ourselves and our children, for a public education that enriches our lives, we are reclaiming the value of public goods, of commons. In this we need to boldly assert the value of government as an instrument for promoting the common good in a democratic society.
Unchallenged, the neoliberal ideology has reigned as the dominant public ideology for the last 35 years. It has been used to justify deregulation, privatization of public goods, and a host of corporate friendly policies that have weakened democratic self-government. It was UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals, individuals each seeking their own self-interest. This is a core tenant of neoliberalism. And its implication is that collective action for a common good is ruled out as an infringement of individual freedom. This is what President Reagan was saying when he branded government as the problem. But isn’t a democratic government simply the collective action of citizens doing for themselves what they cannot do as well as individuals? Government becomes the problem when it is captured by special interests for their private benefit. But a democratic government empowers people.
More and more of our common affairs have been turned over to market forces where large corporations are the dominant power. Even associations of citizens are viewed with suspicion. Only private associations based on self-interest such as corporations are seen as legitimate. These “free market” policies have increased the freedom only of the rich and powerful.
At this moment, the US has a new president who is determined to double down on this neoliberal agenda of deregulation and privatization. In response, a reawakening of civil engagement is sweeping the county. People are mobilized by outrage against presidential actions that violate fundamental moral principles – principles based on our interconnectedness as a human society that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all humans. We are called to resist this evil, not just because of the racism he has unleashed, but because his neoliberal agenda will destroy the already weakened institutions that constitute a good society that nurtures our human development. While we resist, at the same time, we must also look beyond to the kind of society we hope to build through our struggle. I believe that the core of such a positive vision is to be found in institutions that strengthen those common resources that enrich our lives and nurture human development. As we struggle against the “deconstruction of the administrative state”, perhaps we can come to appreciate once again the value of public goods.
In our struggles we need a clear vision of the society we seek. A society where, as in the story of the monks, we view each other as if others were the Messiah, because we all are the Messiah, the redeemers who can save the world. We aim for a moral order where we foster the full human development of each by building common institutions that provide the resources needed for human flourishing. The full development of each is conditioned on the full development of all. That is the key to building a good society.
* Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, March 19, 2017. For 40 years Dr. DuRand was a professor of Philosophy at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He and his wife Julie moved to San Miguel in 2004 where he co-founded the Center for Global Justice. A life-long activist for social justice, he has marched and sat in, been arrested for acts of civil disobedience, organized, and lectured widely on various social issues. He has published two books: Recreating Democracy in a Globalized State and Moving Beyond Capitalism.
BRIEF READING LIST
Anatole Anton, Milton Fisk & Nancy Holmstrom, eds., Not For Sale: In Defense of Public Goods (Westview Press, 2000)
David Bollier, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons (New Society 2014)
David Bollier & Silke Helfrich, eds., The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State (Levelers Press, 2012)
Cliff DuRand, “Commoning Together” in Moving Beyond Capitalism, Cliff DuRand, ed. (Routledge, 2016)
Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, “Building the Commons as an Antidote to the Predatory Market Economy” in Moving Beyond Capitalism, Cliff DuRand, ed. (Routledge, 2016)
Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, 2010)
Jonathan Rowe, Our Common Wealth: The Hidden Economy that Makes Everything Else Work (Berrett-Koehler Pub., 2013)