EQ + Effort

The challenges of the 21st Century are relational in character, and so beyond the meritocracy that characterised the 20th Century - pejoratively, satirically, actually - lies something I will tentatively call ‘emotocracy’. In this emerging place ones intelligence quotient is very much less valuable than ones emotional intelligence or sociopathy in getting on. Effort though, like capital and enough privilege, is still very much required.

Ours is a time of fragmenting identities, of subjectivity and a cacophony of perspectives. Public life has been overrun by a tyranny of experiences and their concomitant feelings and ‘truths’.

From this white noise it is increasingly hard to discern an objective world to be grasped and understood. The grand organising principles and narratives of nation, gender, sexuality, race and class are being deconstructed and remade in new syncretic forms of self-determination by young people negotiating the lived reality of twenty-first century cultural politics. These identities and voices aren’t going anywhere. They are multiple, emotional, and grounded in the mundane and everyday; in family life and the multi-lingual and multi-cultural classroom, lecture theatre, consulting room and high street; in love lives and working life; in the physical and the digital.

On the other hand, twenty-first century populists sound their trumpets and whistles with new temerity and precision. Around them coalesces a followership for whom these howls of postmodernity are unsettling and complicated to navigate. A return to lives lived with the containment that cultural homogeneity offers, where the head of the family, head of the church, and head of state all look the same and say the same things, seems to them a seductive antidote. It’s a place where personal responsibility for my actions and words is cocooned by the predictability of our sameness and where nationalism endures the disappearance of nation states. Neither are these identities (yet) going anywhere. They are imagined and romanticised for sure, but they too are real lives being lived by real people. Not all of them are bots.

On the other hand the polarisation of public debate and political life is not all of who we are. It rarely cuts through the noise and ‘structure of ill-feeling’ made by these poles but in everyday life there remains much civility, goodwill, compromise and generosity to be found. Competence and kindness are quiet but they really are everywhere if one cares to notice them. One wonders why we don’t.

On the other hand there is no question that the public realm is filled and strained by the petty resentments and nastiness created by these two opposing forces screaming at one another. Petty of course undersells some of the violences and horrors unleashed by this climate and the technological connectedness that mediates it. It also does no service to the scale of damage meted out by thirty-years of widening and entrenched material inequality that structurally mirrors and delivers the poles of contemporary public ‘debate’.

On the other hand by any objective material measure human beings have - in general terms - never had it so good. We’re now more likely to die from old age than some infectious disease, and there is today much less starvation than there is obesity, and far fewer of us killed in war than die by suicide. So why do we appear so low in mood and outlook? Why are these objective measures of human welfare going one-way and our subjective experience of wellbeing the other?

On the other hand we ought to remember that the dialectical push-pull of these poles is the same as it ever was. Two existential visions of the future bashing up against one another for ascendency politically and culturally isn’t new, it’s the history of human histories. But neither is it an academic exercise reducible to the relevance of an old textbook. It lives in the intergenerational discomfort about Brexit that sits around the family dinner table, in the violences of rising hate crime, in the silences and the bystandings, in #MeToo, Black Lives Matter (and the retort #alllivesmatter); it lives in the hiring practice, the marketing campaign, the trolling, the editorial line and the cries of “Fake News”! Most fundamentally it lives somatised in the feelings of anger and the anxiety created by the perception you’re living life in a landscape painted by the Other.

On the other hand, postmodernity is a sea of voices, experiences and feelings bobbing around in cultural echo-chambers and bumping into their opposites really only very rarely. Public life can appear and no doubt is shrill, unreasonable, defensive and even violent, but in an important sense we’ve never been more insulated and unwilling to countenance the reasonableness and perspective of others. We are withdrawn and imprisoned by individualism, and we are lonely.

And yet and yet. The 21st Century will in the end be read as many histories not one. The challenge will be whether we are capable of synthesising the many ‘other hands’ and feelings of the emotocracy we inhabit into a sophisticated and relational view on the objective world; into an ability to categorise and prioritise suffering, both ecological and human, and take determined action for all our sakes. At a meta level we have to find a way to heal our seared social fabric that doesn’t involve ‘winning or losing’. And we have to rediscover a relational geopolitics that builds bridges not walls. At an institutional level we have to find a way to build a more relational and less transactional welfare state, a more co-operative labour market and a more consensus driven politics. For individuals, particularly the young, we have to find a way to bestow on them the ability to deal with change and negotiate skilfully an unstable and global labour market, where automation and the scale of human diversity means the capacity for reinvention, creativity and ultimately emotional intelligence is a pre-requisite not just for personal success, but sanity.

For me, the challenge of the 21st Century might be couched in these broad and reductive terms; do we, individually, collectively, possess the emotional intelligence we’re going to need in re- making this world from the multiplicity of competing experiences and futures laid out before us. Because to do so we are going to need to (re)discover reserves of geopolitical, institutional and personal empathy in ways that don’t just deconstruct and trash, but create and nurture. The polarity and challenge of our postmodern time is not left/right or young/old, its actually break/ create. 21st Century postmodern cultural politics has left the shattered pieces of our social settlement strewn across the bedroom floor, and it will take love, more than brains, to make the world anew.

Originally written for the Young Foundation Beyond Meritocracy Anthology.

Simon Newitt