In my forthcoming annual lecture I offer an explanation for our apparent inability to make progress on challenges most people would like to see addressed; like providing dignity and decent care for all old people, increasing social mobility or achieving a more sustainable model of economic growth. I argue that there are three basic sources of social power, hierarchical authority most often associated with the state, solidarity most often associated with community, and individualism most often associated with the market.
The problem is that in different ways, and together as a whole, these sources of power have dried up. I explore the problems facing hierarchy (incompetence and low public trust for example) and solidarity (as a consequence of diversity and social polarisation), and argue that while individualism is powerful, it is also narrow and in many ways self defeating.
However, the problem with individualism is not so much that it has, under its own volition, mutated into something malign. Like the other social forces, the dangers of individualism are the flip side of its strengths, the latter including creativity, ambition and drive. However – as we saw in the financial sector – individualism unchecked by wise and trusted authority or the binds of solidarity and social responsibility tends towards selfishness and irresponsibility.
The characteristics of a well functioning society, organisation or strategy is the balance of top down (doing what you’re told), lateral (doing what others do), and bottom up (doing what you choose) ways of seeing and pursuing change. When one dimension fails not only is its power for constructive change lost, but it leads to the other dimensions being overloaded.
I came across an interesting case study of this phenomenon reading reviews of a new book causing much debate in America: The Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes. The book is an attempt to explain the multiple failings of authority in the US in the first decade of the 21st century (ranging from Enron and Worldcom to Katrina and Iraq, to Catholic priests and sports administrators).
I have read only the reviews (we will try to lure Mr Hayes over to the RSA some time), but I find it easy to believe the book’s account of how meritocracy has failed, placing particular emphasis on how elites close ranks and self perpetuate. Hayes’ solution is more controversial, although he is far from alone in advocating it. In essence he argues that meritocracy can only work within limits to overall levels of inequality. When society is highly unequal the rewards for staying at the top and the fear of dropping down make it impossible for all but the most socially responsible elite member not to use any means possible (including exploitation and gaming) to try to stay there and get their kids to join them.
The point is this: the individualistic ideal of meritocracy (remembering that social democrat Michael Young used the word disparagingly when he first defined it) only works alongside the solidaristic principle of social justice and, furthermore, that when solidarity fails to set limits to individualism the consequence is an incompetent and self-serving hierarchy.
Many American commentators have wondered aloud whether it would ever be possible to forge an alliance between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, given that both share a profound hostility to the elite they believe are misruling their country. Given the degree to which both movements are driven by anger, the attribution of blame and a tendency to see conspiracies, I’m not sure this is either likely or to be desired. It is the system that is failing, something reflected in rising social pessimism, but the partisan nature of political campaigns means they only focus on one aspect of that failure. This is why when we listen to their message we often have the odd feeling of simultaneously agreeing with the critique while rejecting the overall analysis.
The problem is not a lack of leadership, nor a lack of social justice and responsibility, nor an inadequacy of personal responsibility and enterprise, but all these together acting on each other to create a deteriorating stasis. The answer is a counterintuitive combination of big thinking (whole system reform with implications for all of us) and moderation. The problem is functional (power to) rather than oppressive (power over).
Perhaps the system will correct itself (history provides plenty of grounds for both optimism and pessimism), but if we are waiting for a movement or a leader capable of articulating, let alone winning, an argument as profound but nuanced then looking at politics here, in Europe or – most depressingly – America, there are few reasons to be hopeful.
Where do ideas come from? As I tour around the country – yesterday it was Leicester – talking to Fellows this question keeps nagging away at me. (Before those of you who are only reading in the hope I will say something indiscreet about my time working for Mr Tony click on another site, I should say there are some interesting insights to gained from what we are doing here at the RSA.)
The idea of enabling the Fellowship to move from being an inward-looking social club into being an outward-looking network for civic innovation (that beeping sound is your Windows cliché checker) is gaining ground. The forces of conservatism (small ‘c’), as the aforementioned former leader once called them, are in retreat. The question now is not ‘why should we?’ but ‘how do we?’ – which, it turns out, is a much harder question.
It involves creating the right spaces for ideas to emerge (on-line and off-line). It means developing a culture in which bad ideas die elegantly and good ideas thrive. It forces us at HQ to be clear about the kind of backing we can give to emerging ideas.
But where do ideas come from?
Three answers, three implications for how we work. Ideas come from giving creative people in interesting combinations time to work together. The Leicestershire Fellows group I met yesterday told me they wanted ‘to do something about older people’. But, as we talked, it became clear that for some people this was about meeting needs, while for others it meant addressing negative perceptions of ageing. From this disagreement started to emerge the idea that we should meet older people’s needs by drawing on their strengths – a great conversation, but probably only a tenth of the way to developing a good idea. Through creating more enjoyable informal spaces for Fellows to meet and talk, and replicating this on line, we can allow ideas to emerge, evolve and mature.
Ideas come from the urgency and focus provided by a problem. Drawing on its incredible networks, its brand and its national resources, the RSA Fellowship should be able to respond quickly and generously when a need arises that we can meet. We can develop local solutions derived from an international network of experience and expertise. I have a fantasy about a Fellow saying ‘this problem we’ve got in Stoke-on-Trent, well I’ve been sent a really good idea by a Fellow who tackled something similar in New Jersey (or Melbourne, or Paris or New Delhi)’.
Ideas occur to us in the shower. When Fellows have that Eureka moment they should be able to stand shivering and dripping by their computer throwing the idea out to the wider Fellowship. While I’m being watery, the RSA should be a pond into which we can skim our half formed idea pebbles. Most will sink without trace (I have an interesting thought every day and a useful one every month) but some will set off ripples.
Thank you to the Fellows in Manchester and Leicester who got me thinking this way. The transformation of the Fellowship won’t be easy. But whereas before it felt like digging ourselves out of a hole, now it feels like we are trying to climb a mountain – just as hard but much, much more fun.
According to the OECD, arguably the world’s leading think tank, not only have most people in the UK become better off over the last eight years but poverty has dropped and inequality declined. These findings will force a change of script from the Government’s many critics and even from ministers who have pleaded mea culpa in the face of earlier evidence of widening inequality.
The OECD findings further highlight the paradox I am addressing in my concluding essay for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation project on ‘new social evils’. It was already difficult to explain why it is, when we are living longer, healthier lives, enjoying greater opportunities and freedoms and demonstrating more tolerance and even, arguably, compassion towards our fellow citizens, we are also so prone to say society is going to the dogs. Combining an internet survey of 3,500 people and commissioned essays from leading thinkers across the political spectrum, the JRF project shows this social pessimism to be as prevalent amongst the public as it is among public intellectuals. Left leaning thinkers tended to explain our unease in a time of plenty by highlighting social polarisation. If the OECD report is correct this argument may need to be re-examined.
Forgive my unformed thoughts (after all, that’s what blogs are for) but I am beginning to develop a new theory to explain social misery amidst social progress. This came to me when I pondered the impact of the coming recession on the public mood. The obvious assumption would be that our pessimism would be exacerbated by a downturn – a bit like a reworking of the old office witticism “they said ‘smile, things could be worse’ so I smiled and they were”.
But the assumption may well be wrong. Not only is there no simple correlation between objective conditions and subjective mood, it can be at times of greatest threat and danger that communities feel most united in solidarity and hope. Throughout the nineteen seventies and eighties the people of conflict-torn Northern Ireland regularly reported among the highest levels of life satisfaction in the UK.
It does not have to be the case that economic adversity adds to social pessimism. What may be the determining factors? Try fairness and leadership. It is important that the pain of the recession is seen to be felt appropriately. This probably means three things: that those who are most held responsible suffer the most (thus the ‘no bonuses’ strings attached to Government bank bail outs), that as much as possible is done to stop a drama turning into a crisis (thus the emphasis on stopping repossessions and small business failures) and that the most vulnerable in society are protected (thus the Government’s defence of public spending in a downturn).
So far the Government seems to be getting this message broadly right. Indeed, Phil Woolas’s controversial comments about immigration at the weekend can be seen as another sign of ministers’ determination to counter claims of unfairness. From the public’s perspective it is one thing for economic migrants to cash in on a strong UK economy, it is another for those migrants to be competing for scarce jobs and resources in a downturn.
On leadership I still feel that none of the Party leaders have managed to frame what is happening in a way that is realistic, compelling and heartening. We need the kind of message that Churchill was brilliant at delivering: we are in a very bad place but if we stick together and do the right thing we will pull through. Currently the message we are hearing veers between ‘don’t panic it may all still be OK’ and ‘the world is collapsing but Gordon Brown is its saviour’. As for the increasingly disappointing David Cameron, just when he might have been expected to show how he is a new kind of leader he has retreated into an oppositionalist comfort zone.
But the bigger point I am trying to get my head round is the link between social unease, affluence and consumption. Here is my tentative argument. As individuals most of us want to feel useful, that our life has a purpose and that we are giving something back. We like to have fun and say we want to win the lottery but, in fact, the most consistent sources of satisfaction are the feeling we are doing a good job and that we looking after our loved ones. If this is true for individuals why shouldn’t it be true for society? In other words if things feel too easy we become uneasy. If we don’t know how to deal with that sense of unease we channel it into aggression – towards Government, towards outsiders and towards society as a whole. The perception of a social deficit becomes self fulfilling.
To this account one of the most vital roles – indeed possibly the most vital role – of politics is to shape, engender and sustain a sense of social purpose. For a variety of powerful reasons both major parties have largely abandoned this objective. A tough recession may provide an opportunity for politicians to reclaim their role of the articulators and mobilisers of social meaning. So far the signs are not encouraging.
We had a fine AGM last night and a great speech from Gerry Acher, who applied his long standing engagement in corporate responsibility to today’s remarkable circumstances.
As Gerry pointed out to a packed Great Room, both Bradford and Bingley and HBOS had recently been given top marks by Business in the Community for the ethical standards. Yet all the time they were making irresponsible loans and taking almost criminal gambles with our money.
Whether or not the Darling plan works – and the big question is whether the solvency of the country will being sacrificed in vain for the solvency of the banks – autumn is ushering in a new age of austerity. Who knows when it will end?
After its own debt and asset crash Japan suffered its ‘lost decade’ of stagnant growth. For fifteen years most of us have assumed that this year we would be better off than last year. We exhibited the consumer confidence, not to say hubris that comes with this assumption. All this will surely change.
What will we do with the psychic energy that has been poured into getting richer, piling up our housing assets, spending more and planning to spend even more again.
What does it feel like to be in a world where just to stay the same as last year feels like a result?
Can any of us, apart from the old and the poor, remember when shopping was simply about buying essentials and, once in a while after much thought, replacing goods that had worn out? Whither retail therapy?
Before the roof fell in there was a spate of books critical of the culture of consumer capitalism, the waste, the inequality the triviality. John Naish’s Enough: Breaking free from the world of more is just one example.
There were many others in the pipeline. Marketing guru Jules Peck, and Robert Philips, recently sent out the e-draft of their book Citizen Renaissance, a clarion call for a sustainable well-being economy.
Will the economic collapse of hyper consumerism combine with the growing critique of its culture and consequences (and with the climate emergency) to create a fundamental shift in human values? Or as the cake shrinks we will become even more hungry and willing to kill for our slice?
A friend told me about a recent conversation with a southern American. ‘In my part of the world’, he said ‘when things go bad the men-folk either get religion or they get drunk go home and beat their wives’.
What is it to be? Will we learn the lessons and emerge from this wiser and better or will we look for someone to blame before turning on each other.
There are big issues here to debate and new ways of thinking to develop. It is both an opportunity and a responsibility for the RSA to lead this discussion.
This evening we are holding the RSA AGM 2008. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look where the RSA has got to and reflect on what we have learnt.
Last year I said almost in passing that the fundamentals of the Society remain strong. Now, looking at the economic climate ahead, this seems like a much more important point to make. Our investments have suffered from the stock market downturn but we have no need to call on them at present. Fellowship numbers continue to rise, albeit more slowly and, despite the hit many people are taking on their personal finances, the drop-out rate is steady. Taking out some one-offs, like the Academy donation, last year’s budget was in surplus and this year is looking strong too. Even the hospitality business is holding up. Few other venues could say the same.
One area of unquestionable progress has been the RSA as a platform for ideas. Our lectures programme goes from strength to strength. To take one example, we have been key supporters of the Birmingham Book Festival with our successful events including attracting Any Questions to the city last Friday. The Journal is widely praised and I have lost count of the people asking about how we revamped our web site.
Other areas have been more challenging. In my frequent conversations with Fellows and visits to regions I find an ever greater support for the idea that the Fellowship should aim to be a powerful network for social progress. But we are still learning how to turn this aspiration into action. Glitches like the delaying of the on-line networks platform have added to our sense of impatience. The next twelve months have to be when the RSA Fellowship, with the full backing of HQ, starts to deliver on the ground.
Change has been slow too in programme. We are still able to boast that in the Opening Minds curriculum (now being taken on in out Academy) we have one of the most influential think tank projects of recent years but this success has not been replicated in other projects. Initially, I had thought it was just a matter of closing down failing projects and developing better ones. But the deeper problem was a lack of confidence and gaps in core competencies. The team is now stronger, its vision clearer and new skills are being developed and applied. Our education campaign is going to make a big splash, our design team is setting itself new ambitions and our arts and ecology programme is truly innovative. Over the next few months programme will be generating important outputs and there are some exciting projects in the pipeline.
There are few parts of the RSA that aren’t engaged in fundamental change. And this creates its own difficulties. When senior people are immersed in trying to transform their own part of the organisation there isn’t much energy left over for working together on the big picture. If the RSA has suffered from change overload this is something for which I hold up my hand. The good news is that there is still a lot to be learnt in your late forties!
The RSA has done great things in the past but too often it has punched below its weight. Now, once again, we are seen as an organisation that is going places. The key task for me – and for the Society’s Trustees – to bring all this change and ambition together behind a compelling account of the RSA’s core purpose. My best take on this is that the RSA is here to develop citizens for the future. Being clear what this means and how we can align the whole organisation with this mission is the next stage on our journey.