Saturday, June 9, 2018

Notes for a quadriformist manifesto — #1: some preliminary musings

Assuming the TIMN framework (Tribes + Institutions + Markets + Networks) is correct, America is in the early throes of trying to evolve from an aging triform (T+I+M) system into a more advanced quadriform (T+I+M+N) system. It won’t be a brief, easy, smooth, or assured transition. If we succeed, our society will be reorganized for the better, the American Dream revitalized. If not — if our leaders remain stuck in their old triformist ways of thinking and acting — we will lapse deeper into the stratified polarized rigidity that currently afflicts our nation, making systemic collapse more likely.

Americans are long accustomed to having a triform system — a liberal democracy where life revolves mainly around family and community (T), the government and public sector (+I), and the market economy and its private sector (+M). Those three domains have come to define how our leaders frame nearly all options for addressing policy problems: let government fix it, have the private sector do it, or toss it to family and community actors — or use a mixed partnership. For over two centuries, those three sectors and the options they offer worked well for propelling America’s growth as a great nation and world power. America became the paragon of a triform society, in a world where other liberal democracies have also emerged to develop their own triform systems, but most nations have had great difficulty getting beyond biform (T+I) systems, their clannish (T) societies subject to bureaucratic dictatorships and command economies (+I).

Today, America is near the end of its long successful triformist run. Indeed, it may have already ended, and we just don’t know it yet.

Our nation has become so advanced and complex, yet so afflicted with old and new problems, that those three options no longer suffice. Evidence of this is growing all around — especially in the hardened combative political fighting in Washington over whether to push the American people further in the direction of government or market solutions, without truly easing the burdens on family and community. America’s most dogmatic leaders — on the Right and the Left — keep doubling-down on ingrown beliefs that either the government or the market should prevail, as though those were the only two choices. Moderate leaders keep trying, and failing, to argue for mixed bipartisan solutions — but they too remain stuck in triformist frames. No leaders in Washington (and few elsewhere) see that our biggest social problems — notably, health, education, and what’s called welfare — have become so complicated, so confounding, that neither the government nor the market, not even public-private partnerships, seem suited to solving them anymore. Our society has advanced to the point that it is now fraught with discord and disarray across all three triformist sectors.

But where else to turn? How else to think?

The rise of each TIMN form is associated, in turn, with a revolution in the information and communications technologies of the time. Thus it’s the digital revolution that has enabled the rise of the +N network form. It’s rise has already had profound effects on all areas of society, inspiring new ways of thinking and doing. But it has yet to have its principal TIMN effect: the creation and consolidation of a new sector of activity. As it matures and takes hold, aging contentions that “government” (+I) or “the market” (+M) is the solution to particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to new ideas that “the network” (+N) is the solution. Quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies will then grow to outperform and supersede the world’s triform (T+I+M) kinds of societies.

As occurred during nascent phases of the prior TIMN forms, it’s still uncertain what this new +N sector will end up being named, what exactly its purposes will be, what actors and entities will constitute it, what laws and regulations will be needed to promote and protect it, and how it will achieve financial viability. Other social theorists who’ve seen that a new sector is emerging, consisting mainly of networked non-profit civil-society NGOs, have tried naming it the social sector, third sector, citizen sector, social-benefit sector, plural sector, public-interest sector, civic sector, nonprofit sector, voluntary sector, and commons sector. At present, TIMN aligns best with the expectation that this new sector will be a commons sector. The idea of the “commons” has taken a beating in the past, but it’s finally making a comeback.

In the TIMN progression, whenever a new form arises, the actors and entities that come to embody it increasingly take over those functions and activities for which they are best suited, and which the older form(s) and sector(s) were performing with increasing faults and inefficiencies. This dynamic takes hold because societal complexity at the time outgrows the limited problem-solving capabilities of the older forms. That dynamic attended the evolutions from early tribal, to state-centric, and next to market-centric societies. At present, this dynamic appears to apply mostly to America’s most complex social problems — especially health, education, welfare, the environment, and related types of insurance. They appear to qualify for an eventual migration into a commons (+N) sector, one that may operate best as set of networked non-profits, cooperatives, trusts and other associations committed to serving the common good, separate from but in cooperation with existing household (T), public (+I), and private (+M) sectors. This new commons sector would be about the kinds of “assurances” (not “entitlements”) that an advanced quadriform society can and should warrant for the common wellbeing of its people.

Make sense? Sound feasible? Time to start deliberately moving in +N directions?

American liberalism and conservatism, once great triformisms, have both reached their limits. They cannot be restored to greatness if America is to keep progressing, for they are increasingly incapable of fully framing and solving the negative externalities and other problems created by decades of advances in America’s complexity. The divisions afflicting our politics — between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals/ progressives, the Right and the Left — keep fueling battles for the hearts and minds of triformists. Worse yet, today’s conservative Republicans and others on the far Right often act more like tribalists than triformists. Much of conservatism has been taken over by ideological deformers who want to overemphasize one TIMN form or another (usually “the market”), without understanding that the forms function best when each functions within its limits and in balance with the other forms. Meanwhile, leaders among the Democrats remain just as stuck. However, unlike their Republican counterparts, they may be floundering partly because they sense that something radically new (like +N) is in the offing, though they can’t quite grasp it yet. Elsewhere, in various progressive NGOs devoted to rethinking America’s future, matters aren’t much better; they too persist with triformist frames — most just keep attacking what’s become of capitalism.

Meanwhile, I am trying to be a quadriformist. Whether I end up a conservative or liberal quadriformist remains to be seen. What’s important right now is to be a quadriformist of some sort. I await your becoming one too. Fortunately, we are not alone. There are at least three other efforts underway arguing that a fourth something is emerging — a form, sector, relational model, or mode of exchange —that will lead to radical changes in how societies are organized. Those other efforts are well to the Left of TIMN, but they too help show that quadriformist impulses are stirring that will reshape the way ahead.

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