In most societies since we became human beings, whatever form of government they have had, there has been a place for what is often called The Elders. These are people who have experienced life and usually have a more balanced outlook than the desperate young or the flagging middle-aged. It’s not always true, of course. Older people can be just as stupid as anyone else. They also may not know the technology of the times. It has always been observed, however, that a certain wisdom and philosophy of life have made The Elders’ judgments better and their vision longer.
Wisdom is not much prized today. The hysteria of the social media, the belief that ‘celebs’ are divine in their publicity and an obsession with money have driven thoughtfulness out of the window. The noise of modern media deafens us to the whisperings of conscience. So much so that we hardly ever hear that word used. The purpose of life is reduced to a debate about equality – badly needed, but action is more relevant than words. Those who preach it often don’t practice it. A wealthy person recently told me she always gave a few cents to the beggar selling tissues by the street elevator. She thought that this proved her generosity.
Of course the young can be wise, so can the middle-aged. By definition, neither have the experience of the old. Experience is not itself a guarantee of wisdom either, but without it intelligence is rough hewn. Then again, many of the old are also unpolished. Life doesn’t always provide the education for – or the friendship of – contemplation. A habit of Not Thinking is difficult to break. Addiction to Distraction is as compelling a drug as heroin or crack.
We are wasting the contribution The Elders in society could make. Look at the shambles of the UK, of the USA, of all western political systems, of democracy itself and of capitalism. Examine how it has come about and you will see that it is money-profit-target driven, short-term balanced and exclusively competition-based. Life should not be only about these things. When it is we behave like unthinking robots, trampling over our fellow travellers.
What is my conclusion to this train of thought?
I have many conclusions about how we should deal with a more productive society. Surprised to hear that word? Perhaps you thought I wasn’t talking about productivity? Well, I am. But about the productivity of a good life, a life fulfilled to the maximum. That is not a life of consumption, it is a life of creation. And my conclusion about The Elders is that we should reconstruct our political scenario in such a way that an Elders Congress would have a real – but not final – say in planning and forecasting. They should be able to have serious impact on decisions that will last. Their role should be more medium-term and long-term than instant.
There are many good people around. In the media I inhabit, people like Simon Schama, Martin Wolf, Mark Florman are excellent examples of some whose contributions extend beyond writing. Turning their creative thinking into political action is something they should be able to do without the scramble of the hustings. At one time, the British House of Lords used to fulfil such a function. Not any more. Now it is a chamber of political voices enticed to attend by fee payments that are rather more conducive to public service than is a wish to improve society.
Other strata of society can produce excellent thinkers, too. To pick the cream of these people, to encourage them to leave their political dogma at the door and to join a modest-sized assembly should not be too difficult. They already sit on commissions of enquiry, not a big step away from what I am suggesting. They might respond by saying they didn’t want to become politicians. I think this would be an irresponsible view. Our problem with democracy is that we have failed to make our voters understand politics. Yet we ask them to cast elective votes, even referenda decisions (and see where that gets us). Let us educate them and set an example.
With the threat of severe climate destruction and gross overpopulation of the planet we need all the brains we can get. Not to compete for office, but to assess the forecasts being made and offer advice on the best compromises available. If Brexit has taught us one thing it is that stupidly arrogant poses apparently designed to attract the populist vote work for politicians but not for voters. The future of the planet can only be assured by compromise.
It is time to call in the help of those who understand what that word means.