Change the Dominant Idea

March 10, 2021

Green journals spotlight projects around the country with stories showing people doing good things.  But what are most Americans thinking?  I’m an issue and electoral campaign organizer who does endless door knocking, phonebanking and event coordination. Through this activity I know the outlook of the people I deal with in several communities in eastern Pennsylvania.  Liberals and conservatives alike basically believe in the classical liberal doctrine upon which the country was founded.  This is centered on the idea of freedom.

Our big idea of freedom belongs to a series in Western history.  That history shows that one after another such ideas become dominant, determine the zeitgeist for a certain period, break down into contradiction and then a replacement big idea arises.  In our time the destruction of resources, people’s health and lives is due to industry and individuals pushing the limits of  liberal freedom.  The present crisis is the material expression of the big idea of freedom hitting the wall.

Because it has defined the zeitgeist, people have taken the idea of freedom for granted.  Yet it was conceived by Enlightenment thinkers who presented it through the myth of the social contract.  According to that story God created humans in a state of nature in which each one exercised virtually unlimited God-given freedom to seek their own self interest.  A moment came when they formed the social contract and established a government which placed some limits on that freedom to protect everyone’s rights to life, health and property.  At the same time it protected their right to exercise their remaining unlimited natural freedom.

The social contract story reflected the science of the time.  That was classical mechanics which depicted the universe as composed of discrete elementary particles and collections of them, all having internal inertial states of motion and operating strictly in accordance with Newton’s Laws.  Applied to humans this model defined people as discrete individuals whose nature it was to serve their own self interest, thus validating individual freedom as the supreme value of liberal political theory.

Claims for individual freedom today that include refusing to follow COVID public health rules, rejecting regulation and defying criminal laws now threaten life on every level.  Freedom has become slavery to the global power elite and to leaders who, in Orwellian fashion, represent slavish allegiance to themselves as freedom.

The next big idea is fast emerging. “Water is Life” and “Black Lives Matter” are literal expressions of the new supreme value of our time.  That life is the current priority is underscored by the urgent attention now demanded by the pandemic and climate change.   These two issues have ascended to the top of a long list of abiding threats to people and the planet.

As the previous big idea of freedom rested on the foundation of Enlightenment physical science, so the new big idea of Life is backed by today’s life science.  No longer are organisms understood as discrete entities whose sole purpose is their individual survival.  Now the world is defined as so many whole living systems and living parts of those wholes.  According to this view each organism functions to sustain itself while it sustains the whole systems of which it constitutes various parts.

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Applying this model to humans means that people are whole living beings who are at the same time living parts of multiple other whole living systems.  By nature individuals function to sustain themselves while they sustain these larger systems.  The latter include particular local ecosystems as well as the total biosphere.  Among them are also human communities which exist at multiple levels ranging from villages to nations and finally the global population.

Human communities contain specific functional systems, similarly to the way that a body contains systems that perform the functions of circulation, digestion and so forth.  One such structure in the community is its government whose function is to secure the well-being of all the members and the community as a whole.  As the government is a vital part of the whole system, every person who is a part of the community plays a role in sustaining it.  Also as every cell in the body participates in all its system’s processes, so every person participates in their government.

The new big idea of Life gives rise to a new conception of the social contract.  It is every person’s commitment to function as a citizen of their community to secure its well-being and that of all of its members.  People are parts of multiple communities, so this commitment applies to all the jurisdictions of which they are citizens.  Meanwhile, communities are parts of many other living systems, so the social contract requires ecologically-sound practices on the part of individuals and the full hierarchy of political bodies.  In this way the social contract secures for everyone the primary freedom to live as well as freedom to participate in robust democracy.,

The perfect structure for actualizing the big idea of Life is created by the global plan for degrowth and establishing largely self-reliant and sustainable local economies that conserve the environment. This model centers people’s lives in their communities and thus provides for the local participatory democracy required for them to fully honor the new social contract.  Far from reducing individual freedom, it liberates people from innumerable onerous constraints imposed by the current political economy.

As it defines each person as a vital part of multiple living systems constituted by communities and their political bodies the new big idea transforms people’s conceptions of themselves and others.  For it means that someone else’s condition affects me and vice versa.  This is actually a simple truth that is now becoming fully evident especially in regard to politics.  People whose adverse economic or social situations causes them to not vote or oppose the public interest bring harm to me.  Conversely, my support for the conditions that produce their misfortune injures them.  It is always correlative.  In a properly functioning living system different parts do not harm but rather support one another.

The old big idea of freedom for everyone to seek their own self-interest with minimal limits has brought us the triple crisis of pandemic, climate change and assault on democracy.  A life-affirming economy that supports the most robust democracy will take time to achieve.  It must however be the ultimate goal of progressive action.  A major initial step is people consciously adopting the new big idea of Life.  As they do this they must further recognize that big ideas whose time is past don’t go down quietly.  Rather, they are displaced by people animated by the emerging zeitgeist determined to elevate the new idea to dominance.

My essay Freedom: A 21st Century Update – Phila Back expands the subject of this article.  It elaborates how classical liberal freedom has devolved into slavery and ways in which the sustainable community model secures real freedom.  It concludes with actions everyone can take now to put life first.


Teaser photo credit: Reading of Voltaire‘s tragedy of the Orphan of China in the salon of Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, by Lemonnier. By Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier – http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2013/old-master-paintings-n08952/lot.93.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24290430

Phila Back

Phila Back is an issue and electoral campaign organizer and independent philosopher.  Issues that she has worked on include land use and preservation, water, air, energy, mining, endangered species, public lands, climate, education, fair trade, healthcare, campaign finance reform and voting rights.  She has participated in an anti-poverty commission, revitalization plan committee and community garden project in Reading, Pennsylvania. In 2015 and 2016 Back published a series of articles on neoliberalism in The Lehigh Valley Vanguard. This work is the product of decades of training, experience and thought about how to get large numbers of people engaged in the democratic process.  She was a candidate for delegate to the 2020 Democratic National Convention pledged to Bernie Sanders. Back has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Reed College.

Tags: building resilient communities, freedom, social contract, web of life