Sunday, 1 March 2015

Politics & the Cooperative Gestalt

A core aim of politics is to get people to experience the world in ways that certain pronouncements and policies would resonate with them much more than others. It is no coincidence that public relations, opinion polls and political strategies have become inextricably linked.

Whether the majority of people are, for example, becoming more disposed to view human suffering as being primarily down to the personal flaws of individuals, or essentially caused by institutional failings, can have a key impact on what kind of political platform will win the most public support.

People’s tendencies to take one view or another on these matters are often shaped in turn by where they stand in relation to three pairs of dichotomies regarding, respectively, the attitudes, beliefs, and commands we encounter in life:

1. Deference to the values & preferences of a privileged few v. determination to regard all needs and desires as equal.

2. Absolute certainty & faith in established dogmas v. pervasive scepticism & iconoclastic embrace of the new.

3. Compliance with the rule by one unquestionable individual (or group) v. insistence that everyone should choose for oneself without any collective requirement.

Depending on which combinations prevail in one’s mind, one would be disposed to back those politicians who appear to chime with that psychological frame. And while the Right might have been in the past characterised mostly by the former position in each of these dichotomies, and the Left often presented as gravitating towards the latter, contemporary politics tend to mix and match. In fact, a recent tendency amongst many politicians has been to say that the ‘centre’ is what they are about. But without showing clearly how that differs from the more familiar dichotomies, their stance has come across as something akin to:

We appreciate the concerns of the privileged should not be too hastily brushed aside, but we don’t want to ignore the needs of ordinary people. We are not certain what we believe but we don’t want you to doubt everything we say. And we don’t like a powerful few dictating terms to us but we don’t like leaving decisions to individuals either.”

In short, bland and vague. And some have reacted against this centrist platitude by dashing headlong to one or another pole of the old dichotomies. Thus libertarians wanting to shrink governments to nothing, and anarchists wanting to see the back of all corporations. Traditionalists invoking religious purity or national pride to attack anything they dislike. Radicals impatiently dismissing all social or economic reforms as too slow and too cautious.

But politics does not have to be about either the muddled middle or polarised opposites. The dichotomies outlined above can be displaced by an entirely different set of dispositions – namely, the Cooperative Gestalt.

According to the cooperative gestalt, the most constructive way to interpret and respond to our experiences consists of being disposed to:
• Upholding or revising our attitudes towards other people so long as that leads us to show greater mutual responsibility and respect in our dealings with other people.
• Assessing the claims made by anyone in relation to the extent it has been subject to cooperative enquiry whereby provisional certainty is granted so long as the door remains open to revision based on new evidence or argument.
• Backing decisions that have been made with genuine citizen participation so that all those affected by the decisions are able to make a meaningful contribution to them before they are finalised.

A politics that speaks to and reinforces the cooperative gestalt is one that rejects not only simplistic extremes, but also has no time for mechanical triangulations that merely take the midpoint of rival views. It provides a real alternative that engages with human propensity towards reciprocity. Historically, it evolved out of the cooperative-communitarian tradition, and has in the past inspired progressive movements that draw people together to preserve valuable relationships and healthy differences, as well as curtail threats to common wellbeing and corrosive inequalities.

It is time politicians learn to reconnect with this inclusive mindset, and focus on applying it to the development of policies that will bring about a more cooperative and sustainably prosperous society.

You can read more about the cooperative-communitarian tradition by going to:
‘Communitarians: an introduction’ (short article); or Communitarianism (book-length exposition).

For the connections between the cooperative gestalt and:
A. Lifelong Learning: see ‘The Cooperative Gestalt’;
B. Political Reform Movements: see Against Power Inequalities;
C. Dystopian Visions: see ‘Cooperative Gestalt & Dystopian Fiction’.
D. Corporate Social Responsibility: see ‘The Cooperative Gestalt Approach to CSR’.

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