The New Enlightenment

Jun 11, 2020

Or, listen on Spotify

So often we focus our New Year's resolutions on our deficiencies of character or habits, imagining a future with a better job, six-pack abs, or a fulfilling relationship. Today, I ask you to extend this intention practice outside yourself and ask a bigger question, “What is your vision for the world you want to live in?” What are the attributes of that society? What are its values?

Hey, It’s Jeff. And welcome to a new decade of the Commune podcast.  

Happy new year to everyone. This is the time of year when we reflect, take a personal inventory and make resolutions for the year ahead. So often these resolutions address deficiencies of our character or our habits based on an imagined future, a future with perhaps a better job, six-pack abs, a fulfilling relationship. Today, I ask you to extend this intention practice outside yourself and ask a bigger question, “What is your vision for the world you want to live in?” Really take some time and imagine it in your head. What are the attributes of that society? What are its values? What are its structures and how do we create them?

As we move into the next decade, by any account a critical one, I am imagining the world I want manifest for myself, my children and all of society. It is in that spirit that I share these thoughts. 

It is undebatable that we need a road map for the next decade that can address both our personal health: the epidemics of stress, anxiety, loneliness and chronic disease and our societal well-being: social and economic polarization, the erosion of public institutions and the existential threat of global warming. 

We need to take a societal inventory and make a communal resolution not just to insure our special survival but to also manifest a world in which we can thrive, a world that is inspiring and not exasperating, that is connected and not fractured. 

I posit to you a New Enlightenment, a philosophy for harnessing our irrepressible creativity and innovation through a universal values-based ethos with the goal of forever altering the human condition. I truly believe that we can manifest the culture we envision, bending the arc of history towards justice, freedom, equality and togetherness. 

It’s not a small vision but, given where we are, how could it be. What we currently lack as a society is a unifying vision that galvanizes us to see the world as bigger than ourselves. Instead, we are atomized, bunkered in our mini-echo chambers, often lonely, exhausted and beleaguered. 

We have rallied around such clarion calls before. FDR’s New Deal promised a chicken in every pot creating systems and structures to dull the sharper edges of capitalism. LBJ’s Great Society promised to eliminate poverty drawing from the spiritual notion that a society should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. 

One of the principle roles of our government is to broker the balance between equality, our common destiny, and individual freedom as is largely defined in socio-economic terms. These transcendent visions put a finger on the scale of our shared common destiny and connected us around something bigger than our own individual plight.

Kennedy’s New Frontier proposed the unfathomable notion of putting a man on the moon. I often questioned the wisdom of prioritizing a lunar mission when folks here on earth were denied equal rights, access to quality education, healthy food and a safe environment. 

Then I heard the physicist, Neil Degrasse Tyson, talk about those first transcendent images of the earth taken from space. You have surely seen them. Our earth, this beautiful luminescent singular orb, majestic green-blue, without the invisible lines of nationhood. One world unfractured by our petty differences of race, religion and sexual preference. It is no wonder that, in 1970, less than a year after the giant leap, we celebrated the first Earth Day, established the EPA, made major amendments to the Clean Air Act and, two years later, passed the Clean Water Act. We were moved. Our consciousness shifted. Albeit briefly, we imagined a better world, and a better version of ourselves as stewards of this beautiful planet. And then laws were changed. 

What I am suggesting is not a change in government though certainly our government would be impacted. What we need is a change of consciousness spurred on by a transcendent vision, a mutual understanding that we are connected by a power greater than us and in service of something bigger than any of us can accomplish on our own. 

And, it is in this spirit, that I propose a New Enlightenment. 

And the reason I call it a New Enlightenment is because the values, or lack thereof, of the first Enlightenment which define modernity are no longer serving our society. 

To be clear, this is not a wholesale indictment of the principles sanctified by the Enlightenment: reason, rationality, science and individualism. Indeed, science is the centerpiece of the solution. Scientific innovation has provided us with medical advancements that save lives and alleviate pain, agricultural technology that could feed all the citizens of the world, an internet that democratizes access to education and information. 

However, inherent to science and the scientific method is value neutrality.  We increasingly live in structures and systems that are devoid of values. The result is too often medical innovation gets channeled towards to the pharmaceutical industry, agricultural advancement is sponsored by Monsanto and the internet is leveraged to spread misinformation. 

We have applied science and reason to create structures and systems that maintain societal stability by creating a supposedly mutually beneficial economic relationship between people. This is modern capitalism, a reason-based economic system that is perpetually reliant on growth and constantly seeks efficiencies. 

We trumpet capitalism’s ability to lift up the individual. However, we have so sanctified its virtues that we have become blind to its moral shortcomings. Slavery, climate change, the drug trade, opioid addiction. These are the direct outputs of capitalism which, when unchecked, dehumanizes us in the name of efficiency and profit. Nobody gets up in the morning, even the oil and gas executive, with the intention of warming the global, imperiling our existence, but, in the absence of values, this is what naturally occurs. 

When our identity is solely economic, when our value is only perceived as a transactional unit, when we are stripped of our “political” life, of the bedrock of family, disaffiliated from spiritual beliefs and community, we become alienated, indifferent, apathetic and desperate for belonging. Sound familiar? Without universal principles to guide our lives, we either lose purpose or look for meaning through a myriad of addictions. 

This is rich soil for totalitarianism and, as you can see, all you need is a red hat, a nationalist slogan, ratchet up the fear, present some enemies … and people will fervently enlist in order to belong to and to believe in something. 

It is these very conditions of alienation that lead average people to commit unimaginable horrors. This is what the German political theorist Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. She was specifically referring to an unremarkable man of average intelligence with seemingly no racist proclivities named Adolf Eichmann who, in his quest for promotion and belonging, became the most prolific mass murderer in history. 

You do not need to look far in current America for examples of alienated loners devoid of values and community shooting up synagogues, Wal-marts and schools. 

When there are no eternal universal moral truths to guide us, we become mired in relativism, a dangerous place where values can be defined and co-opted by authoritarian regimes. These are the murky waters we are swimming in.

In a way, nothing that I am proposing is novel. The alloying of moral values which recognize our inherent shared destiny with the freedoms of the individual were memorialized in America’s founding literature in a single stanza, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In this one stanza, spiritual principles face off with the enlightenment values of individualism. The founding fathers were certainly not drawing from evolutionary biology when they posited the notion of equality. Darwin was not even born yet and, of course, from a genetic perspective, we are anything but equal. We are all genetically unique. The concept of equality was based in the Judeo-Christian philosophy that every person is born with an eternal soul and will be judged equally before God. 

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have become increasingly applied to protecting the individual’s right to own property and acquire material goods and services.

So, here, in the most famous line of the Declaration of Independence, you have the spiritual notion of equality in a tug of war with individual materialism. And, clearly, when 3 people in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 50% combined, the latter has won. We are wickedly out of balance.   

Our dominant religion is now capitalism. And, unlike other religions, we actually adhere to its precepts. And who could blame us as it offers us paradise right here on earth. No need to wait. Of course, the conflation of the pursuit of happiness with the accumulation of endless goods & services has not served us well. We live in a constant state of not-enough-ness and are constantly marketed trinkets and gadgets to address our deficiencies and salve our discontent. 

The New Enlightenment provides a values-based system for living. It does not seek veracity in blind faith to either true world theories or to science and reason. Rather it alloys spiritual principles with science, market-driven economic systems and social democracy. 

It dispenses with neo-liberalism as the New Enlightenment is built upon values that will not allow government to simply be an agent for private enterprise, to only maintain stability through serving the market and the private sector. 

This system is predicated on a commitment to universal truths that provide a perennial lens for our decision-making, that guide all of our works and actions on earth. 

These truths have been posited by every prophet, sage, poet and mystic for 3,000 years from the Buddha and Lao Tzu to Jesus and Mohammed. From Herman Melville and Gandhi to Amma and Martin Luther King. They are the following: love, compassion, tolerance, community, humility, charity, kindness and forgiveness. These truths transcend nation state and culture but do not replace them.

We instantiate these truths in our material, quotidian life. The measure of our societal success and integrity is measured by the degree we can align our works and actions with these principles irrespective of external circumstances. 

These principles will guide our structures and systems and demand an overhaul of how we calculate accomplishment. It will require the creation of new indices that measure the degree to which our performance is in alignment with our principles.

For example, we abolish the GDP as a metric for economic vitality as it currently exists without values, encompassing gun and arms sales, private prison revenue and cigarette and opioid sales. 

Instead, we instill values-based indices based on well-being, community engagement, environmental stewardship, peace, family and happiness, essentially the things that truly make life worthwhile. 

These principles will alter our corporate charters similar to the way B-corp election does. No longer will fiduciary duty be the predominant shareholder responsibility. Pharmaceutical companies will exist to make people healthier and get off of drugs, not addicted to them. Instead of degrading our soil and mass-producing processed sugar-laden food product, the bottom line of big Ag and the food industry will calculate the extent to which it regenerates the land and produces and distributes nutrient rich food. 

In the New Enlightenment, taxes can become increasingly obsolete as we don’t need to allocate them to environmental clean-up, exorbitant health care costs and wasteful defense contracts. The morale of employees soars as they believe in what they are dedicating their lives to. Quite simply, they have purpose and meaning. 

The New Enlightenment centralizes values and decentralizes decision-making. It encourages civic engagement through models of distributed leadership, by returning power to local communities and putting people in charge of their own lives.  

John Maynard Keynes wrote, “It is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits.” We optimize technology to share knowledge and software tools globally, which empowers people locally to use available materials instead of endlessly shipping goods around the world. 

Instead of kicking people off voter rolls, we prioritize civic engagement at all times as a means of constantly instilling meaning into our values. Like a singer needs an audience for her song to have meaning, our values need continuous socializing.  And to the end, we promote the vibrant public exchange of ideas of free individuals and build forums for this purpose. It is hard to hate people up close. The cowardly vitriol of the internet is neutered through in-real-life community. We reinvigorate the church but also utilize our secular spaces from social clubs to yoga studios, from living rooms to athletics fields to create forums for public assembly. 

We undertake large-scale projects focused on renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, infrastructure development, and space exploration that bring prosperity to our heartland. We wage war on poverty, not on poor people. These projects, like the New Frontier, capture our collective imagination and creativity. 

For those of you rolling your eyes, are you too cynical to envision a change in consciousness? This is not utopia. It is a set of principles that can guide us towards the world we all innately want. For those of you who doubt our human capacity for such a change remember this. 70,000 years ago, there was a great volcanic eruption that created the equivalent of a nuclear winter on earth. Ice sheets formed across the Northern hemisphere and homo sapiens dwindled to 2,000 people in East Africa. And from this place, teetering on the brink of extinction, we emerged to form great cultures, language, symphonies, literature and art. We invented instruments that grant us a glimpse into both outer galaxies and into the world of our microbiome. Our abilities should never be questioned. This is a matter of will. It is about shifting the focus of our consciousness.

To my atheist friends, bleak though you may be, this is not an espousal of institutional religion, but it does require tolerance and the humble acknowledgement that our five senses and the instruments science has used to enhance them does not provide ultimate veracity of the universe. 

To my religious friends across all denominations, this is not a disavowal of your traditions, it is an embracing and amplification of your principles and not your dogma. 

To my liberal friends, no more looking down your nose at people of religious faiths. Your arrogance does not serve you. 

To my conservative friends, remember that, at the core of your philosophy is conservation, conservation of our natural splendor, our air and water. And that you have no monopoly on morality or religion. 

The change we all thirst requires not only ideas but action, sacrifice and backbone. 

Our human condition, our laws, leaders, systems and structures will all change when we can alter the frequency of our global consciousness. And, like all great, lasting movements, this New Enlightenment is not going to cascade from the top down. It will need to germinate, sprout and grow from the ground up when we the people step into our civic duty and leadership. 

So, I ask you, as we enter into this new decade, “What is your positive vision of the world you want to live in?” “What are its values?” “And are you willing to bring this world into reality?” 

I believe that we together make a resolution for the next decade, a commitment to this New Enlightenment, to become the society we were born to be. 

I appreciate you listening. And I would love to hear from you about your vision for the world you want to live in. Please email me at [email protected].

My name is Jeff Krasno. And I will see you next week. 

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