Manifesto for Social Progress
We are threatened simultaneously by polycrises from war, climate change, technology, social injustices and geopolitical rivalries.
There is no super prophet available who has the sufficient moral and credible standing to lead us all out of the current wilderness. Change is coming so rapidly and bewildering from all directions that in a world of specialist experts each in their own narrow fields, no single person has the breadth and depth of knowledge to explain simply to eight billion people how to act for social progress.
In 2018, 300 leading global social scientists (International Panel on Social Progress) worked together to produce a multi-disciplinary three-volume report called "Re-thinking Society for the 21st Century", considered then the cutting edge thinking on what is social progress and how to achieve it. Since the report was highly technical, Cambridge University Press brought out a simpler version called "A Manifesto for Social Progress: Ideas for a Better Society". Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's foreword recalled that 170 years ago, the era of social injustices from industrial capitalism produced a communist manifesto that claimed "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles".
The new manifesto argues that social progress can be enhanced through reforms in institutions and behavioural changes. The difference between the two manifestos is that the newer version is based on the latest empirical data and research.
The core idea of a good society starts from the premise that every human being is entitled to full dignity, irrespective of gender, race, religion, education, talent and productive capacities. Since human activity is changing the planet (the Age of Anthropocene), humans should be in the driving seat of change. Indeed, the mantra of environment, social and governance (ESG) means that improvements in the environment and addressing social change has to involve better governance. Since governance quality determines the final delivery of social progress, politics is all about how to achieve the three pillars of social equity (reduce inequalities between and within nations), freedom (expand and deepen basic liberties, rule of law and democratic rights for all populations); and environmental sustainability (preserving the ecosystem for future generations).
Conventional thinking about governance is often presented as a binary choice between state versus market. But in practice, there are many variants of mixed economies and political systems, in which state and markets are symbiotic, simultaneously working and fighting with each other. Whatever modes of governance, all must have bottom-up legitimacy and accountability, in which the link between leaders and communities have feedback mechanisms of empowerment, representation, participation and deliberations that mobilise change-makers for social progress.
The alternative is social regression.
Amid all the polarisation and contention, the book draws common lessons about social change, which can come from revolution or evolution, depending on the degree of imbalances.
First, deep social change often come from people, social movements and civil society organisations, rarely from top down. Second, democratisation and empowerment require the participation of and pressure by those stakeholders who are affected by change. Third, many experiments are needed to explore how to implement and adapt general ideas to local needs and possibilities for change to be accepted.
In short, the consensus of 300 social scientists is that there is no single model, no single recipe for transformation. Social change comes from diversity and openness to different paths to change, but it is important to adapt general principles of human dignity and needs to local contexts and possibilities, and to exclude all forms of dogmatic approaches.
The latest mid-term elections in the United States reflect this complex but deep shift after nearly six years of Trumpian politics that deeply divided the nation. Past mid-term elections have always been against the incumbent party, but this time round, the "red wave" shift back to the Republicans winning both the Senate and Congress did not happen. The Democrats did well to retain narrowly the Senate, and lost narrowly to the Republicans in Congress. A new Republican leader in Ron DeSantis has emerged as an alternative Republican candidate to Donald Trump for the 2024 Presidential elections. The election results signal that American voters prefer a move towards the centre after years of traumatic polarization.
In Bali this month, the success in their respective elections by President Biden and President Xi gave both the mandate to begin to calm down rhetoric after months of escalating US-China tensions. Differences will always exist, because progress comes from continuous work on change from individual to community to national and then global levels. To expect top leaders of state or corporations alone to do the heavy lifting will not work.
The social scientists' manifest has six ideas to change one's own life and the world. Climate change is complex system change, and there is no silver bullet or instant change possible. First, one could change through family, especially listening more to the young. Second, change can come from the work place, as one contributes through our jobs. Third, we can effect change through community. Fourth, we can change the market through our consumption and savings choices. Fifth, we can be a torch bearer to all we meet by caring and sharing. Lastly, we all should an active citizen, open and adaptive to change.
Change must take time, which means often painful or tortuous transition that cannot be avoided. Each generation must make their own mistakes or create their own opportunities for betterment. Change or be changed. The Malaysian elections this weekend will also decide the next step forward for Malaysia.
This is both the opportunity to either make lunch or be lunch.
Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow at Fung Global Institute. He writes on Asian affairs.