Toilet cleaners are my heroes: musings on a better society

I’ve been thinking about what kind of society we might have in the future, what kind of society I’d like to see develop, if humanity survives the current scary but rather exciting period of turmoil and change. And I’ve written some of it down.

I’m nervous about posting these thoughts. I’m nervous that what I’m about to say has already been said — or debunked! — more coherently by someone much more distinguished than me. And there’s not one ‘ism’ in it, except right at the end. But what the heck.

What would it mean to have a good society, a just, harmonious, peaceful society?

My current answer is that in an ideal society, everyone’s needs would be met, at all the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (see my previous comments on this). Physical, psychological, social and spiritual needs. For everyone in the world, young or old, male or female or in-between, able-bodied or not, able-minded or not. (Human, animal or vegetable? Hmm. Maybe.)

For 100% of needs to be met 100% of the time for 100% of the people is maybe impossible — a theoretical outer limit, like absolute zero or infinity — but I see no reason why we can’t move closer and closer to it. When I look at history — especially as a woman! — it looks like we are moving closer to it. As transport and communication improve, and as psychology and neurology develop and start to merge with the ancient Eastern study of mind and body, we are gradually becoming more conscious of one another’s needs, less inclined to violent conflict, and more gentle with our children.

So what would it take to have a society where everyone gets their needs met and nobody gets left out? And where nobody is abused, violated, coerced or neglected — where no-one has that much power over others?

A workable society would have decision-making carried out at the appropriate… level isn’t the word, too loaded… sizeis more what I’m after. Or sphere. Decisions affecting a household made by the household; decisions affecting a village, by the village; a city, by the city; and so on, all the way to the world: decisions affecting the whole world made by the whole world. Decisions made by the group they affect, rather than being imposed from the next level ‘up’, or imposed by a leader who is supposedly at the same ‘level’ but isn’t really.

Being a leader in a hierarchical system is pretty uncomfortable. You’re not really a member of the group you’re leading, you stand outside it. Leadership can be very lonely. And there’s always going to be someone who hates you! In a non-hierarchical setup there might be no leader, or there might be temporary leaders depending on the situation. A trusted person might take responsibility for coordinating the group. They might be chosen by the group or they might be someone who comes forward to serve (not boss!) the group. But nobody will be able to coerce anyone else to obey them. There’ll be guidelines for behaviour and activity, but people would follow them because they buy into them — because they are involved in the making of the guidelines. Decisions would be made using methods that are okay with everyone. It might be consensus, it might be a vote, it might be letting a trusted leader decide, or it might be some combination. If we’re steering a boat through a patch of icebergs we might not want the whole crew at the wheel! but if we’re deciding where to build a tramline, a consensus solution reached at a community meeting might be more appropriate and would allow for brainstorming, for new ideas and innovative concepts to be discussed.

In spheres where it is not practical for everyone to meet, even electronically, decisions would be made by working groups. What sort of decisions? For example, at the city size, there’d be decisions about providing services like sewage, transport and health care that need large numbers of people to cooperate… industrialised production, perhaps… library and information services… communications services, without which none of this could work in the first place. Why working groups? Because you wouldn’t want to have a city-wide referendum on every little thing. I think it would be better to have groups made up of people who are interested in contributing in this way and who are trained to be experts in their field, trained by the working groups and perhaps also by training groups.

But the actual structure isn’t the point, here. I can imagine all kinds of workable possibilities, and the groups and boundaries and guidelines would be fluid, dynamic, always changing.

Getting rid of the coercion, the physical and economic threat that pervades current society in all spheres from the domestic to the international, is what will make it work. For this to happen, would you have to do away with money, exchange? I suspect so — but perhaps not. Private property? perhaps not completely… but it would help a lot if people could stop comparing themselves to others, measuring status, by how much people have. I’m not keen on status at all, deep in my heart I believe status is bullshit, really… but I’m aware that not everyone feels this way. Status measured by how much people contribute, that might be okay: a person who gives a great deal would have a higher status than a person who behaves lazily and selfishly. At the moment rich people have high status just because they have a lot, and it’s this mindset that needs to change. If you could change this mindset you could still have exchange and private property but it would have a different meaning.

People’s various needs would be met by the various groups they belonged to, and the provision of needs would not be linked to contribution. Everything would be voluntary. No coercion. A person who is too lazy to contribute would… well now, what would happen? Well, if they were denied their basic needs they would probably turn to crime, so it would be better to just give them their needs anyway and just factor that in. However, if we go a bit deeper here and look at why they are not contributing, perhaps it’s just that they haven’t found the work that is right for them and could use some help to find it. Perhaps our system needs to be adjusted to accommodate them. Perhaps we need to adjust our way of doing things so that the person becomes engaged and wants to join in.

All kinds of contributions would be valued and recognised, from public-toilet cleaning to neurosurgery. (Toilet cleaners are my heroes. There’s no point having your brain in tiptop order if you can’t relieve yourself without risking infection.) People could do what they enjoy, what they excel at, and also feel good about taking a turn at the less pleasant tasks like nursing the terminally ill and dealing with the sewage.

You would still have miners, perhaps large mining organisations. It’s difficult to imagine any sort of human civilisation without metals. Even if we didn’t have money. Gold and diamonds have a lot of industrial uses.

You would still have farming. We’ve got too many people to live by hunting and gathering. There would be large and small farms and gardens run by people who are good at organising or who particularly enjoy farming and gardening. Lots of people would help with this, I think — they’d get a lot of satisfaction from doing their bit to help grow the plants and animals that provide their food, textiles and other raw materials.

You would still have factories to make stuff (unless we want to go back to the pre-industrial age, and I don’t! No phones? No cochlear implants? No precisely machined mechanical parts? No bicycles? No solar panels? No thanks.) but if people were show up for work without economic coercion, what would have to change?

I’ll let you think about that.

In the society I’m trying to imagine, a lot of current tasks would be unnecessary. For a start, I don’t think you’d have police or lawyers. If money was still used, you might have bankers, but it’s really starting to look like the whole borrowing and lending thing was a bad idea (as Jesus, or whoever wrote that stuff, tried to point out). One of my hopeful predictions is that people will gradually lose faith in privately-owned banks and desert them in favour of community-based financial organisations.

What about conflict? What about violent crime? What would happen to a person who hurt another person? Or where people aren’t getting on, are finding it impossible to live harmoniously? This would be dealt with by the group of which both persons are a member, which might be family or household but might also be city or even world if a person hurt some random they met on the street. At the city level we might have a working group of people, call them counsellors, who are trained, train each other, to help those who get into this situation. To help them and perhaps their families talk together and understand what happened and grow and become greater people as a result of the experience. Each group could perhaps have its counsellors, people who are especially interested in helping others… but I hope that in an ideal world, everyone would be interested in that! A small family or neighbourhood group might not have any counsellors, but if they are having trouble sorting out a conflict they could ask for help from a neighbouring family or neighbourhood.

When I say families, I don’t necessarily mean blood families. I also mean people who have chosen to bond and perhaps live and work together in some way and who feel a sense of responsibility for each other, who love one another in a personal way.

A person could be a member of several families.

What if two groups have a conflict? For example, a conflict over who gets to use a patch of land. Or about how to use some external resource, how to treat some animal species, whether to log some patch of forest or mine some mountain. Whether to do some big concerted action like maybe sending people to Mars. Rather than having a fight they would talk and try to find a way through the difficulty.

There would have to be an acceptance that conflict is normal, that it is okay to be in conflict, that it is not a disorder, but that violence, especially group violence, is not an effective way to solve conflict.

It would help if people were not so attached to their outcome being correct. In the case of the patch of land, if everyone feels safe that their needs will be met, if people aren’t in fear of insecurity and hunger, then there wouldn’t have to be a war. The groups would either decide to share, or a second patch will be found, or perhaps they might just choose at random and the ‘losing’ group look for another patch… or perhaps the whole project might be abandoned and the interested parties would find some other way of doing things.

The groups might use a ritualised conflict to decide… throw a dice or have a game of football perhaps. This sounds silly, but chance is how lotteries are run and how cricketers decide who is going to bat first, and people are quite content to lose those contests, because they’re not personally attached to the outcome.

Aggression and violent feelings would be channelled into ritualised conflict such as sports.

If babies were raised in complete love and security there would be a lot less aggressive violent feelings anyway.

Perhaps if two people (two ‘men’, let’s say) really did want to have a physical fight to sort out a disagreement, it would be arranged by the group? No, that makes it a spectacle, glorifies it. Two men might have a physical fight now and again, to express their aggression and let go of it. If that didn’t work they could get help from other men in their group, and perhaps also from women, to sort it out. Perhaps they could be helped to find other more useful ways to channel their aggression and passion.

This kind of society does seem to be what we are gradually fumbling towards. There’s a long way to go, though, and we can’t get there overnight.

Perhaps the current totalitarian trend isn’t entirely bad. For those of us who didn’t grow up with all these cameras and rules it’s pretty uncomfortable, and the possibilities for abuse of power are terrifying, but I can’t help seeing a positive side: raising awareness that society as a whole is not okay, anymore, with people fighting, spitting, verbally and physically abusing their kids and spouses, driving dangerously, and generally not giving a damn about others. I suspect most grown-up people would support the police in enforcing the laws against violence, discrimination and the neglect of children. Perhaps a bit of coercion is okay, for now, if it helps people break the cycle of abuse that leads to rage and violence. Maybe. I’m not sure whether it’s worth the risk.

Coercion is so often used to protect money, to guard the greed of individuals and of amoral, inhuman corporations. Where it’s used for that, it’s a scourge. And where it’s arbitrary and unjust. And where the power of the state-sanctioned weapon-carrying agent is abused, not used to serve. Where the agent uses their weapon and position to express their own rage instead of to protect.

Anyway, that’s enough — for now! — of the sociopolitical musings of a middle-aged poet, parent, and occasional reluctant community leader. I don’t have a recipe for any of it, other than gradual change, gradual raising of awareness.

Robert Fuller has a pretty good suggestion though. He suggests we abandon rankism, which, as I understand it, means ‘us-and-them’ thinking. On his site Breaking Ranks, he says:

RANKISM: The Common Thread
Rankism is the exploitation or humiliation of those with less power or lower status. Simply put, rankism occurs when the somebodies of the world use the power of their rank to take advantage over those they see as nobodies. Rankism is the root cause of a wide variety of dominating behaviors.

DIGNITY: The Cure For Rankism
How do you change something that’s so pervasive and that has for so long gone unnamed? With dignity, Fuller says. Treating people with dignity, no matter where they fall on the corporate, social, familial, or political ladder is the key to overcoming rankism in all its manifestations. In rankist environments, creativity is stifled, students can’t learn, workers are disloyal, health is compromised, families suffer dysfunction, and victims want revenge. Dignity is the antidote.

I couldn’t agree more.

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