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Marx, motivation and the Power to Create

April 11, 2014 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

It was more than slightly intimidating earlier this week to host an event with David Harvey, one of the world’s leading Marxist thinkers. Nevertheless listening to the great man and reading his book I was reminded of why – although there are many powerful aspects of Marxist analysis – I have never been attracted by the whole world view.

It comes down to human motivation: In essence Marxists tend to blame what they see as the most regrettable aspects of human behaviour on the capitalist system. So, for Harvey, capitalism relies upon and inculcates blind greed among the capitalist class (exhibited, for example, by the efforts made by the very rich to avoid their tax obligations) while fostering a combination of mob consumerism and bovine acquiescence among most of the rest of us. Conversely, Harvey’s happy, enlightened post capitalist society seems to rely upon the emergence or a much more benign human psychology. Indeed Harvey is explicit about the importance to his case of a belief in the perfectibility of the human spirit – it is why he abhors the depredations of capitalism and why he believes in a radical alternative.

In contrast, I believe human motivation is both more constant, in that the same features and vulnerabilities express themselves – albeit in different forms – whatever the social context, and more complex in that – with Freud – I see inherent tensions playing out in the human psyche.

Crudely superimposing very basic elements of cultural theory and the Freudian account of the personality, I suggest we have three core drives: the pursuit of pleasure (roughly cognate with id, freedom, individualism), the pursuit of power (roughly cognate with ego, progress, hierarchism); the fulfilment of duty (roughly cognate with super-ego, universalism, solidarity).

While I am only too ready to believe that consumer capitalism encourages an idea of pleasure which is both insatiable and narrowly materialistic and that it therefore tilts the balance of human nature in a particular, problematic, direction, I neither think the inherent conflict between our core motivations is a characteristic of capitalism alone nor that this conflict will ever be fully transcended.

This takes me beyond a fairly well-rehearsed and probably simplistic critique of the Marxist account of human nature to the debate in the RSA about the set of ideas we call the Power to Create; ideas which might ultimately frame the major part of our work.

A concern in our internal discussions (soon we aim to open that discussion much wider) has been that the focus on creativity can seem individualistic and ethically empty. This is why we stress inclusion (releasing the creativity in everyone) and responsibility (creativity for the common good) alongside creativity per se.

Going back to my triptych of human impulses, creativity can be seen to reflect two impulses – the pursuit of pleasure and power – but not the third – duty and responsibility. For example, does a focus on creating new things imply complacency about environmental sustainability or is it incompatible with the idea that human beings should prize a capacity for stoicism, quiet reflection and humility?

There are two responses to this concern: First, creativity can certainly be applied to questions of ethics and duty (this is the inspiration for much social enterprise); second, creativity can be about how we achieve a higher trade off point in the eternal tensions between our desire for the good life, for achievement and status, and to be virtuous. Creativity can thus be linked to Robert Kegan’s idea of self authorship as the highest stage of human development.

It may indeed be the ideology of consumerism that leads us sometime to conflate the idea of enhanced human agency with a narrow idea of self interest and personal ambition. Yet far from greater self mastery (a belief that we can create the future we choose) being seen as a way for the individual to free themselves from their natural and social context, the ideal should be that it leads to a deeper awareness of our essentially social nature our relationship with the natural environment and to more fulfilling and benign ways of managing the inherent tensions between our different human needs.


Schools: clumsy synergy or load of codswallop?

August 20, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social brain 

A school system can be analysed at three distinct levels: national, regional or local governance, schools as institutions, and the system of teaching and learning. We can apply the three powers* framework to each level.

The goal of clumsy solutions is to combine the three powers by fostering forms of each which are both benign and compatible with the others. Such a balance is unusual and only temporary when it is achieved. The more normal case is for one perspective to dominate in something like the following way:

System governance:

Hierarchical orientation – Political/administrative centre takes responsibility in some detail for schools and what they do.

Solidaristic orientation – Direction provided by a closed circle of stakeholders, what Professor Rod Rhodes termed a ‘policy network’:‘a set of formal and informal institutional linkages between governmental and other actors structured around shared interests in public policymaking and implementation’

Individualistic orientation – Focus on quasi-market regulation encouraging and facilitating consumer (parental) choice and easing market entry and exit (take-over)

The school:

Hierarchical orientation – Power centred in the hands of the Head (and or governors), school highly structured around centrally mandated goals

Solidaristic orientation –Organisation driven by shared and co-produced mission with emphasis on wider social goals (in terms of both content of learning and school engagement with other schools and wider society).

Individualistic orientation – School sees itself as a market player driving in turn a ‘sink or swim’ culture in which success is rewarded and failure seen as the responsibility of individual teachers or pupils

Teaching and learning

Hierarchical orientation – Focus on knowledge, subject and traditional (sage on the stage) model of pedagogy

Solidaristic orientation – Focus on learning process as collaborative (both between teachers and between teachers and learners) and on wider development of pupils as ‘rounded citizens’.

Individualistic orientation – Focus on developing pupils’ capacity for self-directed independent learning and self- determination; explicit encouragement of experimentation and innovation

The downside of each emphasis differs from domain to domain but, in general, hierarchical orientation risks being bureaucratic and overbearing, solidaristic being introspective and producerist, and individualism encouraging atomism and attenuated social responsibility.

Of course, these are highly simplified descriptions but they give some sense of the inherent possibilities and frailties of each emphasis. More interesting may be to superimpose this framework on current Coalition policy and on various explicit or implicit alternatives.

What might be termed Gove-ism combines an individualistic orientation at the level of the system (Academies, Free schools, consumer-focussed information) and a hierarchical one at the level of teaching and learning (standards, focus on traditional subjects and forms of pedagogy). While thinking systematically about schools as institutions is largely absent, the effect of Government policy tends to be to reinforce hierarchical control by ‘heroic’ head-teachers.

In contrast, what might be termed naïve progressivism tends towards solidarism at each level while tending to understate the inherent frailties of such an emphasis.

The clumsy approach seeks to combine all three power sources at each level.

Thus the system of governance provides hierarchical leadership by setting a clear but flexible long term strategy, providing an intelligent but challenging framework of accountability, and being a powerful advocate for schools in the wider polity. The governance framework also taps into (and fosters) solidarity by seeking to craft an open and inclusive dialogue which recognises and honours the agency of each stakeholder. The aim is to design an enabling system which maximises the degree of devolution from the centre and freedom at the level of the school and classroom.

A similar mix is recommended at the level of the school although here leadership is more personal while, in relation to solidarity, there is strong emphasis on responsibilities beyond the school. Teachers are held individually responsible for their performance but there are also powerful system of professional support and development (you must swim but there is a shallow end and lifebelts).

Things are more complex in terms of teaching and learning. A clumsy solution seeks to identify and promulgate those forms of practice and knowledge in which there really is one best route for learning. However, such codes are both underpinned by and interrogated through inquiry based practice based on a model of professionalism which sees outcomes emerging through collaboration between teachers (inside and outside the school), between teachers and learners and between schools and wider society. The goal of enabling children to be independent, self-motivated leaners and citizens is paramount, but there is also practical commitment to addressing the imbalances in social and cultural capital which make such a goal much harder for some than others.

To some this may appear like progressivism reheated, to others a back-door way of legitimising unpalatable elements of reform. But perhaps a more common reaction will be that just given by my long suffering PA Barbara (never a fan of Cultural Theory) ‘Matthew, what on earth are you going on about?’.


*Derived from Cultural Theory in which there are four including the non-active frame of ‘fatalism’


Does the freedom to speak infringe the freedom to be heard?

March 6, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Social brain 

The classic liberal position is that stated by John Stuart Mill:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or mental, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right.

However, in the general interpretation of this principle there is a small problem and a big one. Anti-state libertarians often forget that Mill aimed his injunction not just at Government – as if often imagined – but also at constraints on action imposed by the private sector and by social norms, which complicates things substantially. More fundamentally, it turns out in practice that the distinction between behaviour that only has an impact on the individual and behaviour which has social externalities is rarely clear cut. One example is car seat belts. Of course, it is the person who goes through the windscreen who suffers most from not wearing a belt but there is also a much weaker but much wider impact in terms of the cost to us all from resulting NHS care and higher car insurance.

One of the most fundamental of freedoms is free speech. Here it is generally thought that the right to speak one’s mind is much more important to protect than the right not to be forced to hear things which may be construed as offensive. Nevertheless, there have been many ways in which freedom of expression has been constrained, historically in relation to decency and blasphemy, more recently in relation to attacks on racial and religious groups. Some progressives – among whom I am one – worry that we may have gone too far in protecting the feelings of groups at the expense of individual freedom of speech.

Now, some new and disquieting research adds an extra twist to the debate. The study conducted by two professors at the University of Wisconsin explored the impact of comments made in response to an on-line scientific article about the risks of nanotechnology. Here are their findings in a nutshell:

‘The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.’

This was as small study and focused on a subject on which the respondents has little prior expertise (although it was also found that scientific knowledge didn’t act as a barrier to what the researchers call ‘the nasty effect’), but the idea that angry and abusive messages are more influential is clearly worrying.

This may be another example of how our actual responses defy what we would like our reactions to be. Writing on the day of Prime Minister’s questions, there is an obvious resonance with political campaigning. I remember years ago as an idealistic and naïve researcher with the Labour Party talking over a proposed campaign with a senior politician. I was about to caution against an approach which focused on attack. I said something like ‘The thing about negative campaigning’, meaning to end with ‘it turns off voters‘, but before I could finish she butted in; ‘the thing about negative campaigning is, Matthew, that it works’.

Our inconsistency is not surprising. Our basic human reactions evolved in a world before advertising and PR. In this world of authentic communication extreme reactions would be an indication of extreme feelings which would often be an accurate warning of danger. Also, parents will socialise children to assume that ‘don’t touch that’ screamed as the infant reaches wet fingers towards a plug socket is more important that ‘don’t do that darling’ soothingly uttered as she tries to dip her fingers in the trifle.

Whilst we might consciously dislike abuse and name calling, emotionally we react on the basis that it is likely to indicate real threats. This chimes with the way the abusive comments about a balanced article about nanotechnology increased people’s perception of the risk of that technology.

But back to freedom of expression; while I am not for a moment calling for any legal constraint on people’s right to express anger and strong opinion perhaps we should encourage stronger social opprobrium on the grounds that such expressions aren’t just the business of the person expressing them but impact on the ability of their rest of us to offer and hear more calmly expressed views. Also, when it comes to structured contexts such as debates, public consultations and on line comment spaces, the research suggests that as well as constraints on things like the time a speaker has, the maximum length of a comment, and prohibitions on slander and obscenity there are grounds in common good for strong guidance on the manner in which people express their views.

I’d be very interested to hear readers’ opinions – politely expressed, of course.


Sharpening the care diamond

February 27, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, Social brain 

A society’s capacity for providing care (which, as one reader pointed out to me, is not the same as how much it cares) can be seen as a diamond comprising the market, the state, close family and the wider community.

Thinking about how to generate more and better care involves looking at how we might increase the contribution from each source but also thinking about the relationship – sometimes additive sometimes subtractive – between them.

Care funded by the state is perhaps the most straightforward to analyse in the sense that it is fully stretched and it is difficult to see any significant increase in capacity in the foreseeable future. In terms of the overall pattern, the last decade has seen an increase in state support for child care (although under the Coalition it has been a  case of swings and roundabouts as the child care element of tax credits has been reduced but the entitlement to nursery provision has increased). In relation to adults and older people, some national care-related entitlements have been tightened while at the local level provision is now limited to the most needy.

The market for care is also very stretched. The private provision of care is expanding in line with need but in all domains of care there is a major affordability gap between what the market can offer – even paying rock bottom wages – and what most people can afford. Austerity is also putting ever greater pressure on the publicly funded aspects for private care. For example, there is a growing gap between the cost the private sector charges self-funding clients of residential care and what it is able to charge increasingly cash strapped local authorities.  Coalition ministers had expressed the hope that the implementation of a new long term care funding framework could create an opportunity for a new care insurance market to emerge. But such hopes have been expressed – and dashed – before.

When it comes to families the top line is that informal familial care is the bedrock upon which the whole societal care system rests. On the one hand, nearly all parents enthusiastically provide loving care for their children; on the other, a recent ONS analysis of the 2011 census estimated the total weekly provision of informal adult care in England and Wales at 3.4 million working days (up substantially on ten years ago). In rough terms, valuing an hour of unpaid care at the minimum wage level this means that unpaid care is worth about £170 million per week or about £8.5 billion per year. In fact the value is much greater as those cared for at home are also being housed and fed by their loved ones.

Arguably the problem of informal care by families is oversupply. While parental negligence and ‘granny dumping’ is still very rare, some care, both for children and adults, is not as good as it could be if informal provision was mixed with formal care. Vitally for the economy, levels of employment of mothers and people over fifty are lower in the UK than many other advanced economies. The need to provide care and the costs of buying it are the crucial factor inhibiting mother’s employment and an increasingly important factor keeping older people from full time employment.

This leaves the fourth point of the diamond, the community. We might define this as the contribution voluntarily made by people other than close family to the provision of care. This primarily comprises volunteer time but other contributions include money (in the form of philanthropy), the provision by employers of flexible working and, more generally, the framework of norms and values which shape the status of caring and the degree to which we see it as a collective responsibility.

In relation to this aspect today sees two contrasting contributions. This Guardian piece from Erin Mee underlines how much unmet need for even for the simplest forms of care there is lurking in every community. NESTA has today published a new report on a system response to , the Endowment is also calling for new ideas for its website celebrating innovative responses to ageing .

As NESTA says, many innovations can work alone and do not require or benefit from a system wide approach. But, as the report also says, despite lots of activity and concern about ageing social innovation is lagging behind technological innovation and we have a very fuzzy idea of what actually works, which is perhaps why we need to shift our whole orientation.  But if we do need to look at the system, what is the system? Is it the system of ageing, the system of care, or more narrowly the system of older care and the system of child care?

My feeling now is that, firstly, there is something essential to the human activity of providing all forms of care, and, secondly, there are common issues and dilemmas in the mixed systems of care which apply to children, adults and elders. This is why it is caring which should be the focus of our system view rather than a particular demographic group.

But, as is always the case when I start thinking in earnest about my annual lecture, I may well change my mind several times before I reach any kind of conclusion.


How not to make friends and not to influence people

September 26, 2012 by · 13 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, Social brain, The RSA 

Did my isolated upbringing stop me becoming Prime Minister? As I traipse from party conference to party conference for (actually rather good) RSA events, I am reminded of how important a skill it is for politicians to be able to remember a good proportion of the hundreds of Party activists who know them.

Sadly this is a skill I lack. This was brought home to me when writing Monday’s post about the evolutionary foundations of human motivation. In it I mentioned research  on the evolution of leadership and followership undertaken by Professor Mark von Vugt.

It is a great thing nowadays that having identified an interesting academic one can often find lectures by them on the internet. So a few days ago I entered ‘Mark von Vugt’ into Google and pressed the video link. I was delighted to see that the first lecture to appear took place last year here at the RSA. The problem was the identity of the chair of the event – me!

I have always been very bad at remembering faces and names (interesting how these nearly always go together). It seems this affliction is getting worse. I have tended to attribute my failing to three possible explanations: one self serving, one self critical and one neutral. Perhaps it is because I give lots of lectures and perform from time to time in the media that more people know me than I know. This doesn’t however explain why I have forgotten chairing an event and conducting an interview with a fascinating academic only a year ago. Maybe, my frailty is a reflection of my arrogance and self obsession; whoever I meet the most memorable person in the interaction is always me. Or is it a genetic flaw?

My father is just as bad. Indeed one of his former wives (yes, I know) used it as a punishment. Normally, when she saw the telltale signs of non-recognition on Laurie’s face after he had been enthusiastically engaged by someone who seemed to think themselves a good personal friend, the agreed procedure was for her to break into the discussion, look at the interlocutor and say ‘Hi, I’m Laurie’s wife, I don’t think we’ve met’. But if Laurie made the mistake of leaving the house in her bad books she would change her approach, looking at her husband and playfully saying ‘Laurie, I don’t think I’ve been introduced to your friend…’

On reflection I have opted for a different explanation. For a variety of reasons I had a pretty isolated childhood. Not only do I have no brothers, sisters or cousins and only one grandparent who was much involved in my upbringing, but my folks moved around the country in my early years and had little scope to build up a close circle of friends. Nurture rather than nature may also explain Laurie’s failing – although he did have siblings they were younger and my father has also told me his parents rarely invited friends into their home.

In our modern service economy a good memory for faces and names can be a vital quality (arguably of much greater value than much of what children are taught at school). And networking skills are important to everything from being a good citizen to – as I say – succeeding in politics. The hypothesis is that children with smaller social circles in their early years (say, between birth and three years old) develop weaker faculties for interpersonal recall.

Here indeed is a neat research project for a student doing a psychology masters: choose a sample and give them a questionnaire and a test, the former  covering their childhood and the latter testing their recall.  If my theory is right there will be a strong correlation between the size of the infant’s social circle and later aptitude.

If this proves correct there will be a case not only for strongly encouraging parents to bring their infants into regular contact with a group of other people,  but also for developing corrective interventions to strengthening the frail memories of the more isolated.

But, much more importantly, it will prove (a) that my failure to become a successful politician was not due to a lack of effort or talent and (b) nor, as it as widely alleged, am I rude, self obsessed and arrogant. Instead, I will be rightly seen as the innocent victim of a deprived childhood who has battled bravely in the face of almost overwhelming odds.

Indeed, this is just what I told an old student colleague of mine who approach me recently in Asda. Now, what was his name?


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