When I started this project, I sent the following pitch to the Atlantic. Although it wasn’t accepted — no surprise for such a major publication — writing the pitch was still a helpful exercise for organizing my thinking. You can think of this as a rough outline for the ideas I’m working to unpack and explore:
We are, at this moment, living through a transition as profound as the shift from agriculture to industry. As observed by Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolffson, while the shift to a digital economy is yielding unparalleled “bounty” in the form of new knowledge, richer media, and greater personalization of goods and services, it’s also contributing to a number of challenges: economic dislocation, startling wealth disparities, greater virtualization of relationships, information Balkanization, and social polarization. Considered in this context, the challenges we face aren’t unlike the sooty skies of London during the early industrial age, or child labor and unsafe working practices, or any of the other social challenges wrought by the shift to an industrial economy.
The question we need to answer is how come liberalism is proving so incapable of marshaling a response? If the answer were simply structural inequality and globalization, then why do so many vote against their economic self-interest?
My argument is that the root of the problem is the shaky anthropological foundation upon which liberalism rests. Because liberalism tends to conceive of humans as sovereign individuals instead of social creatures, it’s led to a political culture that holds individuals’ economic wellbeing and capacity for self-expression as the highest ends. We shouldn’t discount the progress that this worldview has helped us achieve. But as we shift to a digital economy, built upon technology designed to rend us apart, we should recognize that this vision of human nature is ultimately incomplete.
What’s missing from today’s liberalism is a recognition of the moral importance of social connection and community. As documented by Yuval Harari in Sapiens, humans have always lived in group settings characterized by diverse cultures. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone makes a related observation, demonstrating that communities with the highest levels of social capital (connections plus engagement), tend to also have better performing economies, better health outcomes, and better functioning governments. And then of course, there’s the reality of each of our lived experiences. George Valliant writing in the Atlantic in 2009 observed that those who have the highest life satisfaction are those who have the richest relationships. Communities aren’t just how we survive; they’re how we thrive as individuals.
The recognition that it’s through communities that individuals find meaning, direction and purpose isn’t a new one; it goes back to the Greeks. As we press further into the digital age, rediscovering this idea is essential if we’re to create a society and politics than can hold itself together as technology, globalization and demographic change work to pull us apart.
What would this new politics look like? For starters, our language about rights would be enriched with a vocabulary of “duties,” or what we owe each other. It would be more local in nature. As observed by James & Deborah Fallows, communities that talk the least about national politics, tend to be making the most progress on local quality of life issues. It would be inclusive, recognizing that communities are enriched by the infusion of new people and new ideas. It would be obsessed with fostering connections between people, places and institutions. And finally, it would be heavily committed to the sanctity of democratic processes, recognizing that inclusive political institutions are essential to balance the inevitable tensions between individual potential and community wellbeing.