Sometimes it feels like the only way to maintain a sliver of hope about the future of mankind is through blind faith betting against all the odds. So often, as individuals and as governments we seem bent on wresting our way in the world by sheer force. And we seem bent on achieving what we want with bigger and bigger weapons of mass destruction. This weekend the news is full of mass demonstrations and civil war by thousands of people around the world from Brazil to Egypt, from Turkey to Syria. It feels sometimes as if we are ruled by the evolutionary mantra that biggest is best and power makes right.
But taking a long — admittedly very long — view of history, I wonder if indeed we are learning something, and I wonder if the demonstrations on the streets of the world today aren’t a reflection of it. These demonstrations are often infused for demands for equality, for individual rights, for a limit to the powers exercised by those at the top. Are we creeping slowly to a recognition of our equality within a human community?
2500 years ago, Athens was ruled by a limited democracy. 800 years the Magna Carta brought the English king under the rule of law. It was another five centuries before the divine right to rule was abolished in Britain and it is a legitimacy that some governments still claim today. But the slow, often bloody, movement has been toward some form of equality. In Britain, in France, in America, and in the last century in Asian countries like India, and in former colonial countries in Africa democratic governments have emerged.
Communism is also part of this movement. It’s a system that may have failed in Russia and eastern Europe, but it was a system set up to serve the working people. Unfortunately, it merely replaced the ruling class with its own autocracy. People were theoretically subject to the common good, but in practice they were still ruled by a small coterie of the unassailable powerful.
Today many people are questioning the capitalism operating in democratic countries on the grounds that something has gone terribly wrong with a system where opportunity for the masses has been sacrificed to the power of banks and corporations. Unions were originally set up to protect workers against the blatant power of employers, but they were still the workers, still dependent on the companies who employ them.
In response, one of the things which has been happening to counter this fundamental inequality of power between employee and employer is that factories and services are being taken over by the workers themselves. Unions in America originally fought worker-ownership for fear that it would weaken their own power base. But many of them are now supporting worker-ownership.
In What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz describes examples of these worker-owned businesses flourishing throughout the United States. Here in Britain, I am personally acquainted with a supermarket and department store chain whose workers are all shareholders. The service and the quality of goods are noticeably superior to those of other supermarket chains. When jobs or wages need to be cut, it is the workers themselves who make the decisions. They are not imposed from above.
Even the Roman Catholic Church, that bastion of infallible hierarchical authority, is no longer able to continue as before without objections from within and without.
Are we then stumbling toward something better?
No system is ever going to be perfect. There will always be a tension between creativity and independence on one hand, and cooperation and predictability on the other. Progress cannot take place without failure and change, and we differ in how comfortable we are with risk. Nor is any system going to eliminate our drive to take care of ourselves first. No system is going to eliminate our disagreements. No system is going to make us all equal in our talents and gifts.
But our evolutionary strength is in our diversity, in each of us bringing to the feast some unique gift. Some systems are better at this than other, more constructive than others. And perhaps we are moving, as a species, to trying to set up systems that recognize that none of us are born with an intrinsic right to lord it over others. The right to leadership comes from the people who are led, not from those who impose their will on others.
Well, it’s a hope.
But maybe – just maybe – there’s a slim chance for us Homo sapiens after all.