The changing narrative – A new ontology for the progressive movement?

Have you ever wondered why the world works like it does? Why things seem skewed in favour of the rich and the powerful and why our so called ‘democratic’ systems seem so inherently unjust? Why we have rampant inequality, poverty, hunger and accelerating species extinctions and runaway global warming?

The answers are not simple because these problems are systemic.

The system within which we operate gives rise to the terrible outcomes listed above. But the outcomes are the expected, emergent behaviour of ‘managing’ our planetary affairs in the ways we do. They are the direct results of the way humanity has chosen to handle concepts like ownership, governance and economics.

We can sit around asking “why aren’t things getting better?” and protesting against the status quo but, ultimately, mitigating the outcomes and effects of a system which works in a certain way is like sticking plasters on a severed limb. It will never help. It might make the patient, and the helper, feel good in the short term but it will never address the underlying issues.

As Buckminster Fuller so eloquently proposed: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

So, in an attempt to address the problems with the present system by ‘building a new model’, a few years ago some brave colleagues and I embarked on a systemic mission:

Our aim was to co-create an increasingly democratic, equitable and sustainable society. Our mission was to normalize a worldview that was conducive to achieving our aim.

There are some important specifics in that mission. We took our anger at the present system and identified that “a new model” would not work without a compatible “world view” or “ontology”.

OK, so an “ontology” sounds complicated and slightly grandiose, but it’s a simple concept really – and one we, ‘the people’, need to wrap our heads around.

An ontology is basically a set of principles or assumption about how the world works; about the fundamental ‘nature of reality’.

Ontology derives from the Greek onto (being) and logia (written or spoken discourse). It is a branch of metaphysics, the study of first principles or the essence of things. You could think of it as “the underlying worldview about how the world works” or, “humanity’s basic beliefs”.

For roughly 400 years, since the church was usurped by science, and with it the prevalent belief system, the vast majority of society has operated according to some slightly skewed concepts about the nature of our global reality. We now live under the auspices of neoliberal capitalism, the proponents of which seem to have convinced everyone that people are naturally greedy, will always compete, that competition and therefore all forms of unregulated trade are ok and that the planet’s resources are here to be exploited. These questionable concepts have given rise to the idea of Homo economicus which portrays humans as “agents who are consistently rational and narrowly self-interested, and who pursue their subjectively-defined ends optimally”.

As my colleague, James Robertson pointed out, in his excellent write-up entitled Neoliberalism is shit the dominant social paradigm suffers from two fundamental problems:

  1. Neoliberalism has achieved compliance by convincing us that it’s the only game in town, inevitable and natural.
  2. Neoliberalism has persuaded us to adopt the values and worldviews that justify its legitimacy and our oppression.

James argues that “this is perhaps the greatest triumph of neoliberalism; the creation of a cultural project that seeks to popularise a set of ideological worldviews and assumptions to such an extent that they appear normal, natural and realistic.”

But these neoliberal world views do not stack up if you really think about how the world works.

At the core of the existing ontology is an underlying ‘axiom’ (a statement that is taken to be true, to serve as a premise or starting point for further reasoning and arguments) and this, thanks to Adam Smith, is the idea, that “…self-interest and competition lead to social prosperity as the act of competition creates incentive which motivates people to persevere…”. But we know now that axiom and the ontology it supports is not true.

Self-interest and competition have been good for the people at the top of the pyramid, for those that ‘own’ capital and have the ability to drive down the wages they pay others. But self-interest and competition have not led to “social prosperity” for the poor, in fact the opposite is true. The axiom is no longer valid.

So, if we want to change the way the world works, and address the inequalities and suffering from a systemic level, we can not build ideas and ‘further reasoning and arguments’ on an invalid axiom, and a broken ontology. We have to start afresh and build upon new foundations.

The progressive movement has made some great strides and had some great moments. Occupy, The Arab Spring and other moments of compassion and collaboration have shown there is growing unease with the present system. But these moments have been fleeting and easily broken because they were not built anything solid. They contained elements of the right ingredients like shared purpose and common values but they were still coming from a place of opposition to a failing model, rather than proposing a viable alternative built on a new set of assumptions – a new ontology for a new world order.

My colleagues and I spent a long time discussing ideas about how the world works in order to create a list of fundamental assumptions about how the world works which we broke down into two sections entitled ‘human behaviour’ and ‘reality and existence’. The idea was to try and develop a new base ontology which would allow us to explore the possible implications of these assumptions. We wanted to see whether, given new groundwork and new foundations, this new perspective would offer us any fresh insight about ‘how best to organise society’ in order to achieve our aim of ‘co-creating an increasingly democratic, equitable and sustainable society’.

After several months, of occasional evenings drinking beer and discussing the way the world works, we filtered back our brainstorming and came up with the following list of ‘meta-assumptions’ which incorporated all others. Our criteria for a meta assumption was that they:

  • Can stand in their own right – needing no further supporting assumptions
  • Are direct observations of what exists
  • Can not be broken down by the question “Why?”

We may not have done a good, or by any means exhaustive, job but the works stands as starting point upon which anyone else is welcome to build. We’d love to know what you think of these assumptions and to hear other’s ideas.

Assumptions about human behaviour:

  • Both the dominant paradigm and people’s situation determine their behaviour
  • Human decisions are often made based on unconscious emotions
  • We are empathic creatures and essentially good, until proven otherwise
  • Through dialogical reflexivity humans can understand how they are conditioned and have some conscious control over their thoughts and behaviour
  • Complex decisions are best made by diverse minds
  • Success depends on how well we relate to everything around us
  • Joy comes from the bliss of connectedness

Assumptions about reality and existence:

  • We are yet to fully understand / define the limits of reality
  • Matter is energy – Nature is matter – Humans are part of Nature
  • All societies are complex, adaptive, systems that require flows of value
  • There is no such thing as good or evil just force relations of power (‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are only realised when assumptions are implemented in the social field)
  • Wellbeing is an emergent property of a system that provides its members with safety, security, feelings of competence, connection to others and the ability to act autonomously and be authentically engaged in their work and play
  • Nature is abundant

The next step of our plan was to work with other groups and individuals to refine our assumptions and the implications to which they lead, and to discuss and disseminate this worldview. OPEN 2019 will provide a space to further the ideas behind the work and develop the discussion.

Ultimately we have a long way to go – the neoliberal worldview is still dominant, but day by day it’s being undermined as its’ fallacies become evident. Like the first tiny hole in the dam which leads inexorably to the flood, the neoliberal model is breaking – now is the time to come together and co-create an alternative ontology upon which we can build a world which works how we want.

5 thoughts on “The changing narrative – A new ontology for the progressive movement?”

  1. Powerful stuff, Thank you for this point of view, and getting “ontology” into the discussion in a robust way.

    I have been looking into ontology in general ways for a long time — and have always felt this technology can play a very significant role in social change engineering (if that is what it is).

    Here’s a link to bunch of visionary stuff on general (“upper”) ontology — an attempt to define a “prime theorem” on this stuff at the level of cosmology — as the foundation for a transformative governance model.

    And here’s a database for social change engineering led by whole systems and resonant approaches:

    I just put this web project on that list.


  2. Adiron Corichi

    I like this a whole lot. I decided to play with it a bit and reinterpret each part through an enactive lens and am submitting here for perhaps some further discussion.

    First some basic jargon:
    Enactivism is a constructivist approach to cognition based on four principles. That the mind is:

    Embodied, “involving more than the brain, including a more general involvement of bodily structures and processes.”

    Embedded, ” functioning only in a related external environment.”

    Enacted ” involving not only neural processes, but also things an organism does.”

    Extended. ” into the organism’s environment.”

    I refer you to look it up on wikipedia for a more comprehensive understanding.

    Affordances: are any item in any environment that is perceived and related to.

    Beginning with the nature of reality
    1) Reality is limited by our understanding of it, our understanding of it is limited by our capacity to understand. Our capacity to understand is limited by the ways and means through which we understand.

    2) The universe seems to be a series of embedded systems. Some of these systems are self-perpetuating metabolisms. Humans are a subset of the self-perpetuating metabolism class.

    3) All human societies are manifestations of the human capacity for coordination. The successful coordination of which depends on shared perceived affordances.

    4) Good and evil exist only to the extent that they indicate cohesion and contra-coordination to perceived social value object, that is, any affordance that is shared, and valued most.

    5) Humans embedded in a human society, feel well-being to the extent that they feel an embodied coordination (internal and external relatedness) with others to the perceived social value objects of that society.

    Assumptions about human behavior

    1) Human behavior is shaped by the interplay of the perceived and embodied environments.

    2) Decisions are a type of enacted behavior highly influenced by the above principle

    3) Humans are highly coordinated and cooperative. This capacity is often sensed through and manifest by the feeling of empathy.

    4) dialogical reflexivity, along with other methods of perception expansion and alteration (I swear this isn’t a dog whistle for substance use, though it doesn’t exclude substances.) can help humans become aware of new affordances of which to relate, calibrate, and coordinate to.

    5) Complex decisions are best made by the coordinated problem solving of diverse minds

    6) Success can be defined by how well we relate to the affordances in our environment upon which our survival and well-being depend.

    7) Joy is an embodied indicator of how well one is relating to ones afforded environment.

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  4. I’m all for exercises in intellectual creativity where we come up with new and interesting ways of looking at reality and human life, but with all due respect I get more than a little suspicious when people who embark on such projects do so out of some desire to make the world a ‘better’ place. Not that the world at present isn’t a terrible mess — it emphatically is — but I’m deeply doubtful that coming up with some new and ‘better’ way of viewing and understanding reality is the way to clear up this mess.

    For one thing, if this new ontology — or narrative or whatever — is to be adopted (voluntarily!!) by the world, it must be of sufficiently vast scope to prove itself capable of accommodating the cultural and intellectual sensitivities of well nigh all of the world’s peoples. Good luck achieving that, given the sheer diversity of human beliefs, some of them not getting along very well at all. But if instead we simply FORCE on the world what we fancy to be a perfect system which we have finally worked out at last, we’ll merely be following the footsteps of the European colonialists of old, who seriously thought the same regarding their own beliefs.

    There’s frankly something to be said about some of the metaphysical systems philosophers of the past have come up with. Often they’re just TOO logically neat and tidy; flesh-and-blood humans, with their messy physical and emotional needs etc, are irrelevant or even nonexistent. Hence Plato’s Republic, in which children are to be separated from their parents at birth, weak children are to be disposed of, the ideal ruler should have no emotional ties with his parents or siblings (or even know them), etc.

    Ultimately I think intellectual ideas are simply not enough by themselves, necessary though they may be. They need to be based on a powerful, transforming VISION of a spiritual nature. This personal epiphany must be so powerful and uplifting it changes your life completely, making every moment of your life an inspired one. Then people around you will notice and be lit by your fire, and real change will finally be possible. Mere intellectual concepts and arguments will never be able to achieve that. The Buddha most probably had such a vision, as probably did people like Jakob Böhme and Angelus Silesius. Trouble is, you can’t have such a vision as and when you want it; and people who have this sort of experience seem in very short supply these days, being furthermore pooh-poohed upon by most intellectuals.

    All things said, I fear we may just have to let the whole (bloody) mess the world is in today unfold all the way to its sorry end while we prepare for own physical survival and that of our loved ones as far as we can. Maybe it’s part of some cosmic cycle; the darkness of our collective folly leads to ruin, but from the ruin a new dawn arises — and so it goes.

    My two cents. Take or leave them.

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