Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet, published in 1775, famously inspired the Declaration of Independence.
The title in itself, contains a very important lesson. Paine’s basic ideas and reasoning in Common Sense was, well, common sense. And today – a bit dated it must be admitted – it still sounds very solid. The declaration of independence, and the French Revolution in 1793, seem to indicate that many people agreed with Paine that it was indeed common sense.
I am going to propose that want counts as “common sense” from one age to the next, one culture to an other, and so on, vary over time. Our sense of common sense today is different from the common sense of say, the ancient Egyptians, who worshipped, among other things, the Dung Beatle.
Common sense shifts then. Our common sense is different from Paine’s. The means and causes by how and when this happens is impossibly complex, even though we try to influence it everyday. Events, consequences, jokes, experiences all flavor our individual sense of common sense.
What we call “Revolutions”, whether political, scientific, etc, can be ultimately seen as revolutions in what passes for common sense.
Let’s apply this today’s poisonous politics. Common sense in our society favors the rhetoric of economic neoliberalism. Never have I seen people so swept away by rhetoric in the face of their own self interests.
How can the Left recapture the high ground of common sense? The Left is stuck in the past – a different past then the past of the Right, but it is still a past. The Left must totally re-articulate itself. The welfare state – despite its success – must pass.
The environment. Already the ‘environment’ is a cliche – and it is a tragedy that the party of Theodore Roosevelt and the foundation of the national parks now functions effectively as climate change deniers – but the environment is the ultimate check on neoliberal economics because, like war, it is the ultimate reality check.
It may be too late to change the vocabulary of global warming and the ‘environment’, but it needs to be couched in terms of sustainability, efficiency, longevity; passing along a functioning world along to future generations.
Real, local communities must be emphasized, with real entrepreneurship and small businesses. It must be made clear that if you actually support small businesses, then support for Republicans is worse then support for Democrats.
Profit as a means, and not an end. Happiness and human dignity and genuine pluralism as the end. A recognition that being human is necessarily inefficient and that is how it should be.
Asking people to think seriously about what sort of society and world they want to live in. Do we actually believe in democracy? Because history shows that democracy needs a high level of economic quality to function, as today clearly demonstrates.
These are some of my basic “common sense” ideas. I think the entire Left is still searching for the right terms and the right argument, and this is my simple contribution.