Keep calm. Prepare for change.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for sympathy, but it is getting to the stage that the only time I get to write a blog is when I am on a train somewhere. Having said which writing a post can be a good way of clarifying my thoughts….
This afternoon I am on my way to a fascinating conference being hosted by Lily Barton and the fantastic North West RSA panel, Manchester Metropolitan University, BITC North West and Corridor Manchester. The title is ‘keep calm, prepare for change’ and the focus is on routes – especially local routes – to a dynamic and sustainable economy.
I plan to argue that we may be on the verge of a new paradigm for social development. Many social analysts and historians argue that the post war era in the west should be seen as an attempt – which for two decades was very successful – to find a way of reconciling the free market with democracy. The market generates inequality, risk, and other externalities which are unacceptable to populations as a whole. The way to head off anti-capitalist revolt (this is a time in which many people thought the Soviet system would win out economically and militarily) was for the state to guarantee expanding social rights, rising living standards and close to full employment.
Now, recurrent crises of capitalist accumulation (of which the credit crunch was the most dramatic), combined with the impact on the rich world of globalisation, plus – although the nature of the impact is less certain – climate change and the need to mitigate it, have all eaten away at the foundations of that contract. As I said in my annual lecture, part of the reason for low and falling levels of trust in various forms of hierarchical authority is that our leaders have simply not been able to deliver what we had come to expect (although younger people’s expectations are already shifting).
What is it that can fill the growing gap between our aspirations for a free, fair and prosperous society, and the path on which we are set (‘the social aspiration gap’)? We can either stare at the gap and get angry or frightened or we can assume that something must fill it and try to make that happen as soon and as fully as possible.
Recently it feels like just about every day I come across examples of the two movements which seem to me to have the greatest potential to bridge the gap. The first is the attempt though community action, civic innovation and public service reform to release the hidden wealth which lies in people’s capacity and desire to help themselves, and each other, to create a better life in a better society. By the way, if that seems unlikely try this little fact, in 1994 a survey of local authorities found that three quarters of the relevant council officers thought the idea that householders could be persuaded to recycle their rubbish was impractical and unrealistic. Now, less than 20 years later, household recycling rates have reached 50% and are rising. Through a combination of new social norms and service innovations, a whole public service has gone from being delivered to being co-produced.
The second is the move towards social business manifested both in the form of enterprises established with social goals in mind, and the attempt by existing enterprises to renew their licence to operate. In both cases it is not only that entrepreneurs and business leaders are responding to the social deficit, but that in a knowledge economy where human creativity and initiative are at a premium, the only reliable way to engage the people organisations need is through a strong and authentic sense of purpose (greater transparency and sophistication make inauthenticity impractical as well as deplorable). This latter is the message of a great book ‘how-why how we do anything means everything’ by Dov Seidman who popped into the RSA for a chat yesterday.
Together – and I do mean ‘together’ as there is huge scope for the forces to be mutually supportive and reinforcing – these ideas and innovations can provide the basis for a social renaissance. Standing in their way is the continued hope within the national and global political establishment that we can get back on track to a world where capitalism generates sufficient surplus to be taxed to meet growing needs and rising expectations.
Assuming this hope is unfounded, the more serious threat is that the release of hidden wealth and the alignment of successful business with human progress does not achieve scale in time to avert political, social or environmental catastrophe (this must be how it looks right now from Athens or Madrid). Talking to everyone from progressive local authorities, to enlightened business people and their advisors, to community activists, it feels to me like we may be approaching some tipping points.
Ironically, given that this new world is one in which Government has to move away from control (the ruin of the left) and negligence (the ruin of the right) the crucial variable may be political leadership. We need an acceleration so that what is now the cutting edge becomes the norm. Great leaders can perform exactly this shift, not creating a new movement but spotting it, naming it, nurturing it and making it unstoppable.
I don’t know whether there will be any politicians at the event in Manchester but if there are, I hope it starts to dawn on them that events like this – organised almost entirely by volunteers – are a symbol of the movement that can turn social pessimism, economic stagnation and austerity in the public sphere into a new progressive age.