NSL Blog

Constructing an open society

July 24, 2012

This is an extract from No Straight Lines about the need for an open society.

Context: Tony Judt in his small but powerful book Ill Fares the Land explains the imperative to embrace an open society should be blatantly obvious: that freedom and equality should be available to all, and especially now. For example how can a man be sentenced to 10 years in jail for possessing 5,5grams of cocaine, whilst HSBC and other banks laundered billions of drug cartel money. You get the point.

Judt points to the tension between wealth creation and environmental protection, that we need to look for mutual restraint to allow for the possibility of an open society. I would add – an open society is a world in which we all have greater opportunity, where communities are more resilient and where shared knowledge, culture, education and civic empowerment become the norm. The point being that the idea of how our society progresses from this point forward must have an ethical and moral underpinning framework, something which our industrial institutions of government and commerce have sadly seemed to have recently lost. And for which the majority are now bearing the burden and the suffering.

Constructing the open society: In the face of systemic failure of banks, corporations and governance, we are I believe in the early process of responding to these challenges and in so doing are making efforts to build a more open society which must be premised on the golden rule explained by Robert Putnam in Making Democracy Work, where he says that low trust levels lead to an inability for large-scale cooperation[1].

Why is trust so important? Charles Handy states: ‘Trust sounds like a nice motherhood term; something no-one could be against, all warm and woolly. In practice, however, it’s difficult and tough.’[2] Putnam based his thesis on researching how democracy in the south of Italy was so fundamentally different from its counterpart in the north of the country. He observed that, historically, southern Italian society had been run by the rule of tyrannos – top-down government that was monarchist, and dominated by the church. Such oligarchies seek not to encourage civic engagement, agoras or participatory democracy, as they are seen as a threat to their very existence. In contrast, northern Italian society thrived under the watchful gaze of the Enlightenment, which encouraged the very activities that its southern brothers attempted to snuff out. Are many of the governments, companies or organisations resisting the migration to a new way of doing things any different? Therefore, our new literacy requires us to become more familiar with the deeper meaning of a sharing economy, so we can then understand not the mechanics of cooperation, but the reasons which relate so critically to the I + We = Why?

The open society and the gift economy: Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift explores the idea of the reasons why we share and why that is so important to us. He says the purpose of the ‘gift economy’ is to establish and strengthen the relationships between us, to connect us one to another. It’s the gift of exchange that brings social cohesion. Hyde talks about erotic commerce, derived from ‘eros’, which is based upon the tenets of attraction, engagement and union. In the gift economy, says Hyde, the more we share the wealthier we become, for it’s the circulation of gifts within communities that multiplies our connections and strength of relationships. Contrast that to a market economy, where we perceive value by hoarding commodities, not in sharing them. The modern marketplace has had a devastating effect on this fundamental principle of trade.

 I have hoped … to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.[3]

[1] Robert D. Putman, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, 1993.

[2] Handy, The Hungry Spirit, p. 187.

[3] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, 25th anniversary edn, Vintage, 2007.

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