We are at a pivotal, fascinating and dangerous moment. Let me explain in 550 words.
The polymath Professor Peter Turchin of Duke University takes the study of society to a new more scientific level. As a mathematician his goal is to use data analysis to disclose deep patterns in human history and from this to offer reliable predictions. Right now he is reducing the odds on collapse or revolution.
In essence, Turchin argues that civilisations and eras go through cycles in which levels of inequality grow, driven by a combination of changes in power and population. This in turn leads to a decline of public consent and some kind of transformational shift. He argues that we are nearing the peak of one of those cycles marked by massive inequality, falling living standards and high levels of public anger.
The week’s stark evidence of declining incomes and rising poverty levels in the UK go alongside further evidence of collapsing public trust in the political class.
In a recent RSA talk about his book ‘Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea’ economist Mark Blyth points to similar evidence on living standards and inequality. Austerity, he says, is the misguided attempt to deal with the economic crises by punishing the victims – those already poor and in debt – but as this doesn’t work (either economically or politically) sooner or later the only alternative is to take money off those who continue to hoard or accumulate it. This is why David Cameron, a Conservative Prime Minister who is instinctively hostile to both business taxes and international policy co-ordination, is touring the world trying – unsuccessfully it seems – to win support from the G8 to tax the income of our largest corporations.
In the terms of my three powers framework, the forces of hierarchy (Government) are realising that their ultimate priority – the maintenance of order – means that they must respond to the growing solidaristic backlash of resentment from an immiserated population by taking on the individualistic, free riding ethic of global capitalism. Nor are Prime Ministers alone; some of the world’s richest individuals – people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are also aware of the crisis and the need to squeeze the ‘fat cats’ to save the system.
Turchin describes the historical precedents:
Unequal societies generally turn a corner once they have passed through a long spell of political instability. Governing elites tire of incessant violence and disorder. They realize that they need to suppress their internal rivalries, and switch to a more co-operative way of governing, if they are to have any hope of preserving the social order. We see this shift in the social mood repeatedly throughout history — towards the end of the Roman civil wars (first century BC), following the English Wars of the Roses (1455-85), and after the Fronded (1648-53), the final great outbreak of violence that had been convulsing France since the Wars of Religion began in the late 16th century. Put simply, it is fear of revolution that restores equality.
Mr Cameron’s equivalent of ‘suppressing internal rivalries’ is trying to persuade Canadian PM Stephen Harper and the other G8 leaders to back a global tax regime. But the possibility that the global political elite has the commitment, insight and unity to head off disaster seems slight.
We need change and for the cycle of growing inequality to reverse, but revolutions are dangerous things. For the sake of peace, justice and progress I hope the Prime Minister’s briefing pack contains some powerful history lessons.
A short trip to Scotland provokes three connected thoughts:
I asked a number of people this question: Is the looming referendum on independence crowding out and diminishing other conversations about the future of Scotland or is it provoking a deeper debate about alternative Scottish futures? Answers were generally closer to the former. But the most interesting response was that the former is true of the political class and the national media, but the latter of the conversations taking place in civil society. The idea that the public might be having a more sophisticated debate than the expert political class might seem surprising. Perhaps, on reflection, it is not.
The politicians are transfixed by each other as they compete for victory next September. They are, as is the way with political debate, spending huge amounts of energy disingenuously caricaturing their opponents’ position. Ordinary citizens have much less interest in this point scoring and are much more capable of a conversation which focuses on exploring their own attitudes and aspirations.
A number of reports have considered the implications of an independence vote for UK third sector organisations. The RSA can be pretty relaxed about this. Not only is the Society registered as a separate charity anyway in Scotland, unusually for the sector, we combine a substantial commitment of resources to member (Fellow) engagement with a highly permissive framework for activity. Whilst the greatest synergies are achieved by Fellows picking up on the intellectual and human resources offered by the RSA’s work and the skills and enthusiasm already on show in the Fellowship, ultimately it is up to each region, nation or other network to determine how best it can contribute to the RSA’s broad charitable mission. Therefore, since we exercise minimum control over the decisions made by RSA Scotland, independence holds no threat. After all one of our most active chapters is RSA USA and as far as I know there are no plans in America for a referendum on rejoining the British Empire.
Things would of course be further complicated if the RSA had physical assets north of the border: which brings me to my third point.
Under the calm but ambitious leadership of our Chair John Naylor, and with his strong group of active and committed Fellows, the RSA is going from strength to strength in Scotland. Meanwhile, I am increasingly convinced that the Society as a whole is starting – as I always hoped it would – to reap the synergies which emerge from the unique combination of our platform for ideas, our action and research and our increasingly engaged Fellowship. Put these two things together and you come up with the challenge I threw down to the Fellows at a well attended and enthusiastic gathering yesterday in Edinburgh.
Could, and how could, Scotland be the first place to replicate, albeit on a smaller, more focused scale, the full RSA offer (events, externally funded research and innovation, Fellowship engagement and empowerment)?
This is a big ambition but if I am right that the fulfilment of the RSA’s potential comes when the combination of its parts generates energy greater than their sum, this is surely the objective we should aspire to wherever we seek to make a significant impact?
A few days ago I received a letter from a distinguished RSA Fellow. He was dismayed by a quotation attributed to me in an article by the teacher and blogger Matthew Hunter in the periodical Standpoint.
This is the quote:
… The idea that education can only be improved through solving the root cause of social disadvantage has a rotten effect on our nation’s classrooms. Consider the following claim from Matthew Taylor, head of Tony Blair’s policy unit, now chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts and a prominent education commentator writing about a 2007 study into educational outcomes: “This unprecedented project has revealed that a child’s social background is the crucial factor in academic pefomance, and that a school’s success is based not on its teachers, the way it is run, or what type of school it is, but, overwhelmingly, on the class background of its pupils.” As a teacher, I find it hard to think of a sentiment that does more to undervalue the profession…
I didn’t recognise the quotation nor did I agree with its simplistic message. But as regular readers of this blog know, I say a lot of stuff and don’t always think before I write.
Fortunately, my ever assiduous PA Barbara sought out the source, motivated in part by Hunter attributing the quote to me in my role as RSA chief executive. She didn’t say ‘it’s one thing to look stupid yourself, it’s another to damage the Society’s reputation’, but I suspect that’s what she was thinking.
After a quick search Barbara found the quotation. Far from it the words being uttered by me as RSA CEO in 2007 as Hunter asserted, it was in fact from an article in 2006 by Matthew Taylor, the Guardian’s education correspondent. To add a touch of irony the article attacked a set of school reforms which, at the time Taylor wrote it, I was championing as a Downing Street advisor.
Matthew Hunter is a secondary school history teacher, whose traditionalist views have been praised by none other than Michael Gove. I assume that Mr Hunter offers advice to his pupils on the perils of on-line research. He might want to add the following lessons which I draw from this episode:
1. Just because something appears multiple times on the internet doesn’t mean it is right. It may well be the same mistake being repeated.To be fair to Mr Hunter the mistake was made easier to compound by The Guardian itself, which wrongly linked my profile to the by-line on the original piece (now corrected!). But as the original article is clearly dated February 2006 and Hunter attributes the quotation to 2007, I can only assume he got it from a secondary source. Mr Hunter’s article in Standpoint is now on-line so there is another source of the same misattribution. This underlines that you should make sure when checking something important on-line that you triangulate your sources and don’t mistake an echo for separate pieces of verification.
2. Don’t turn common sense off when you turn the internet on. Hunter’s piece refers both to my RSA role (which began in late 2006) and to my previous post as a Number Ten advisor (which ended in late 2006). Perhaps it should have struck him as odd that I should have somehow slotted in a period as a newspaper journalist between these roles, especially as I seem to have become an outspoken critic of the Government at the same time I was working for it!
3. Be particularly careful when using on-line sources to attack someone. We are all inclined to forgive well intentioned mistakes and I don’t for a moment think Mr Hunter’s misattribution was deliberate, but he does use my quotation as the fulcrum of his piece and is clearly intending to attack me and by implication the RSA. In a sense he succeeded: the Fellow who first alerted me to the Standpoint article was understandably angry that I should use my role to make such a dogmatic and sweeping statement.
These things happen. Through his blog site and Twitter I have politely asked Mr Hunter for an apology but none has as yet been forthcoming. But Matthew, if you do want to make amends and also show that humility is among your virtues how about using this case study in class? I am sure it will inspire your pupils that even ‘sir’ can make a mistake.
A few weeks ago I overheard a short domestic spat between two people who appear to have a very good relationship. Later, over a drink, one of the partners said something along these lines: ‘most of the time we got along great but I find it hard when we are trying to make a decision that he seems to be almost wilfully ambiguous about what he wants’.
Combining the insight provided by this Stephen Pinker lecture and my own obsession with the three core drivers of human action I offered an explanation:
“ Think of healthy relationships generally comprising three domains. The first – the interpersonal equivalent of the hierarchical domain – is where one person gets what they want because they have the power and authority. There will be agreement about the areas governed by this logic. It may be for example that one partner takes authority over domestic finances while the other is in charge when it comes to the social calendar. Mostly, we prefer having power to not having it but with power comes responsibility and the threat when things go wrong of a recrimination starting with ‘but I thought you were supposed to be in charge of…..’.
The second – individualistic – domain is where bargaining takes place. Here a partner pursues what they want but, albeit often only implicitly, trades preferences for those of the other partner. For example, the agreement to have a relative of one partner stay over might be traded for the freedom of the other partner to subsequently to have a night out with their own friends.
The third – the solidaristic – domain is where the partners act out of love. Acts here are selfless (which doesn’t mean they aren’t also pleasurable) and done to honour the relationship for itself. This motivation might lead a partner to go to great lengths to find just the right birthday present or to organise a romantic dinner.
The roots of ambiguity lie in seeking to manage the boundary between domains. Often, for example, one partner wants the other to do something out of love rather that for individualistic reasons (which might create the basis for a reciprocal expectation). A great deal of conflict in relationships relates either to such ambiguity, to what are perceived as inappropriate attempts to place acts in one domain rather than another or – worst of all – shift the domain after the event. An example of the last being when one person spontaneously makes the other breakfast in bed but then in a subsequent bout of dealing seeks to turn the act of affection into a bargaining counter: ‘surely I can watch the rugby after I’ve gone to the effort of making your breakfast’, to which the unspoken reply is ‘if I’d known the breakfast was a way of wheedling me into letting you be a sports moron I’d have given it to the dog!’
Thus the plea against ambiguity ‘why don’t you just say what you want’ misses the point: ‘if you only give me what I want when I’ve said it’s what I want your act will be transactional (individualistic) rather than affective (solidaristic)’
I am not telling this story to reveal some great personal insight: I am sure similar, and almost certainly more sophisticated, analyses of relational domains are to be found in a hundred and one other theories and anyway, as I say, I was very influenced by listening to Pinker. There were two aspects I thought worth sharing.
The first was another hint that the three active forces theory of social action described in my 2012 annual lecture may have a correlation at the interpersonal level. It is this capacity of the theory to be recognisable in day to day life, not just when looking at the big picture, which is one of its strengths.
The second was that, having apparently accepted my interpretation, my friend seemed more positively inclined towards their partner. This, I think, is because it meant their partner’s ambiguity was no longer something which felt threatening – a puzzle they couldn’t resolve – but was now a challenge to which they could rise (in this case to make clear that they wanted to act out of love not as part of a deal).
This reinforces another warm (not to say inane and pious) thought: in situations of conflict trying harder to understand our adversary’s perspective might seem onerous or even undermining to us, especially if we perceive their view to be irrational. But if we try not only to see things from their perspective, but also remember that their most basic needs and motivations are just the same as ours, this will generally make us feel less threatened and more inclined to act generously.
Of course, giving advice is so much easier than living up to it …!
According to Wikipedia, Herbert Spencer the Victorian polymath whose achievements include being the founding father of British sociology:
‘…. recognised three functional needs or prerequisites that produce selection pressures: they are regulatory, operative (production) and distributive. He argued that all societies need to solve problems of control and coordination, production of goods, services and ideas, and, finally, to find ways of distributing these resources’
These three social needs line up reasonably neatly with the three forms of power (and ways of thinking about power) which I have derived from cultural theory and other frameworks; respectively hierarchical power, individualistic power and solidaristic power.
Like most sociologists up until the sixties, Spencer started from the question of how societies function and adapt. But forty years ago, or so it seems to me, a disastrous and mutually reinforcing split occurred in the social sciences. On the one hand, the core assumption of sociological theory came to be that society was a system of oppression and domination, practiced by the ruling class, and/or white people and/or men, and/or heterosexuals using a range of forms of economic and social control. On the other hand, economics came to be dominated by the assumption that markets function perfectly and guarantee the enhancement of human welfare.
As a consequence of this split, sociology became overwhelmingly a discipline of the left while economics became the science of the new right. Yet just a few years before this divide, functionalism was the most powerful school of sociological grand theory whole economic students were conventionally taught Keynesian lessons about the inherently dysfunctional nature of unmanaged markets.
Behavioural economics had already started to dent free market functionalism before the credit crunch came along and, in the immortal understatement of Alan Greenspan, revealed a ‘flaw’ in free market doctrine. If economics can rediscover market instability and even perhaps recognise gross inequality as a reflection of power and policy choice not simply the blind genius of the market, could sociology rediscover an interest in society as a functional system?
Given the generally downbeat way we talk about our society and its prospects, not to mention our current economic problems, this may seem unlikely. Yet social pessimism is arguably as much a symptom of our current ways of thinking as an accurate reflection of the what is happening in the world. As I have written before, distinguishing a trend from a cycle is the alchemy of social analysis, yet standing back from our current cyclical travails there is a strong case to be made both that societies are capable of solving hard problems and that most of today’s challenges are in fact the consequence of past successes.
If I had time I would create a Twitter account which every day published an uplifting fact about progress in the world or just in our own dispirited country. On Sunday I could have pointed out the incredibly fast decline in global levels of absolute poverty. Yesterday, I could have selected the evidence that most young people have gone a long way to shedding the sexism, racism, homophobia and disablism which their parents harboured and their grandparents wore with pride. Today, I could focus on the extra years of healthy living now available to most of us and tomorrow, perhaps, remind the naysayers that not only are children in aggregate better educated than at any time in history but it even seems that as a race we are becoming more intelligent. I might save for the weekend the fact that the human race is now less violent than at any time in its entire history.
With so much evidence of society’s health and adaptability, why is it that theories of social functioning continue to be so unfashionable? It is a question I am mulling over as I try to plan out a possible book based on exploring the three power sources (never forgetting the ubiquity of the fourth, largely passive, mode of fatalism). For while my annual lecture last year explored the problematic consequences of an unbalancing of the three forces (weak hierarchy and stretched solidarity forcing individualism to do too much work and encouraging social fatalism), further thought suggests that there are mechanisms which lead to such unbalances being corrected.
Having said which, I want to avoid the criticism often levelled at functionalism (or a least a caricature of functionalism) that it had no account of conflict and collapse. Whilst imbalances between the three active (and one passive) social forces do tend to correct themselves, many terrible things can happen on the way.
The argument I want to develop is not that we should simply stand back and let society progress but that we should see the challenge as helping along those processes of repair which are inherent. In this sense social analysts and policy makers are gardeners, not architects. Wise gardeners need to understand nature to respect it, to work with it, to recognise the limits that it sets, but also to adapt its processes to grow what we want to grow.
Early sociologists like Herbert Spencer tended to see society as like a natural organism with evolved and functional processes that we could understand and perhaps benignly influence. For reasons good and bad such social positivism has become thoroughly discredited. Are there any grounds for a comeback?