Keep calm. Prepare for change.

October 18, 2012 by
Filed under: The RSA 

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.



  • Zio Bastone

    ‘The market generates inequality, risk, and other externalities which are unacceptable to populations as a whole.’ [MT]

    Not according to its proponents. In fact ‘the market’ starts off as a hypothesis, reasonable enough in its way, about a mechanism: supply & demand are reconciled in conditions of  perfect information, competition and efficiency (plus homogenous goods, zero transaction costs and zero benefits of scale) in such a way that risk is spread and inequalities flatten into equilibrium. In that case, say the neoliberals, you need only resolve a few small practical imperfections and lay off interfering whereupon things will sort themselves out. And all very nicely, thank you. To the benefit of all. Thanks to Smith’s invisible hand: a common purpose, that of mutual benefit, immanent in the providential workings of ‘the market’.

    Because the value proposition (!) of the neoliberals that free markets are to the economic sphere what democracy is to the political sphere (unencumbered choice from below versus control politically and/or economically from above) has by and large been accepted, three things have tended to happen. 

    Firstly the complex and hybrid meaning originally contained in ‘political economy’ and suchlike phrases has been lost. (Gordon Brown may have been less a helmsman than a bobbing cork in all of this but his granting independence to the Bank of England was symbolic.) And with that loss our sense of democratic purpose (What do we want overall and how do we hope to achieve it?) both as electors and as elected has been weakened.

    Secondly a hypothesis about prices has come, increasingly, to be mistaken for an evidenced fact about values. So goodbye other theories of value, whether Marxist, neo Ricardian (eg Sraffa) or even those of Veblen et al on cultural value and consumption. We are losing, in so many ways, the ability to converse meaningfully about what may be good or worthwhile and doesn’t involve a price.

    Thirdly, and most conspicuously, governments listen to markets as though the messages of those markets were transparent, declarative, coherent, value driven and ‘democratic’ whereas in practice they are illocutionary (think of the ratings agencies or the bond vigilantes, for example), driven by price and arising not through either the sorts of deliberative democracy envisaged by Habermas or Rawls or even the agonistic pluralusm of Chantal Mouffe and the Essex School but through a Camorristic play of largely ignorant and oppressive forces that operate hegemonically, transnationally and opaquely.

    In this grim context, which I don’t think is unrealstic, it is indeed rather difficult to see how ‘get[ting] back on track to a world where capitalism generates sufficient surplus to be taxed to meet growing needs and rising expectations’ can really carry much meaning. As you rightly suggest. But where to go from here?

    Lefort writes of a ‘democratic invention’ (I believe the phrase comes from de Tocqueville) in which uncertainty is key: a series of pretenders to an empty democratic space. So the problem may be that progressively we have ceded a goodly part of that space to the certainty of ‘markets’, to technology and to the effects of ‘globalization’ as though to natural kinds. And as a result we have been retreating ever further into the condition predicted by Günther Anders in which ‘technology has become the subject of history, in which we are only co-historical’, becoming less critical and creative in the process.

    So perhaps reclaiming that space (or commons) and thus ourselves as actors in history is or ought to be the goal. (I think it should, and of course that’s a very big challenge.) However, such a reclamation certainly won’t be through the chimera of the so called knowledge economy, which I’d call cognitive capitalism. Indeed a presentation to a recent conference of the Higher Education Policy Institute blew several market based arguments out of the water at one sitting, finding (even though ‘human creativity and initiative’ and academic knowledge aren’t, of course, the same) that the human capital theory of how a skills economy ought to work (that as more skilled workers appear so employers will recruit more in order to raise productivity) proves to be flawed in practice; that the median graduate premium isn’t actually rising after all; that many graduates experience a sort of Dutch auction, and that in Britain the demand for graduates in the private sector (perhaps counter intuitively) turns out to be in deficit and declining relative to that in the publc sector.

    Just thinking aloud really about one specific element of your thesis. Sorry to be so long winded.

  • Tom Brookes FRSA


    I submit that the tipping points you mention, which the nation and world are approaching can, if tackled cooperatively with sustainability & egalitarianism as guiding principles, become opportunities for most all of humanity spanning beyond the next century.

    I’m researching and writing my dissertation on progress; inspired at least in part by some RSA material. I’m looking at how, and if, the future is going to be better than the past given current trends and developments. It’s early days, but the wealth of optimistic research in a myriad array of fields – from materials engineering to crop enhancement genetics – gives cause to hope that as the dust from the rush to marketise the digital era settles mass produced innovations can connect and enhance the lives of billions.

    Hydrogen fuel cells, alternative power systems, medicine made to cure not profit (see bad pharma), developing world infrastructure construction and developed world infrastructure reconstruction are a few examples of desireable long term goals needing a range of high-skilled jobs. Education, then, needs work – hopefully Ken Robinson’s YouTube video making the rounds in teacher’s lounges will start a quiet, leather elbow-patch revolution in teaching and learning.

    The financial system seems beset by demands that its energies be turned to public good at least in balance to private gain by an ever more informed public. Regardless of how it seems vital that the empowered networks Matthew mentions have access to the resources (financial and otherwise) needed to spread the benefits of their innovation rapidly. The ‘state’ can still guarantee improving standards – if those who want to improve the world at least have the money, authority and skills to try. With well articulated vision, even ideas which turn out calamitous failures can inspire us to new heights.

    Or maybe all this optimistic reading is turning me into a utopian dreamer… though I suppose if you can’t so much as imagine a thing it is deuced difficult to make it happen. Perhaps I’ll reason differently once I move on to researching the trends which stand to make the future worse, but I hope that on balance my work comes down on the sunny side. It’ll make for pretty bleak reading if not!

  • Robert Burns


    all this stuff is great!

    But, the elephant in the room that no one has mentioned is this:

    A precondition for economic revival is raising the the proportion of individual incomes available for goods and services.

    This can’t be done by raising pay rates or cutting taxes without either raising inflation and unemployment and/or reducing publicly funded services below critical levels.

    This is supposed to be one of the ten richest nations with average, annual individual incomes at about £25,000 – some earn a lot more, many earn a lot less.

    This leaves three questions to be answered:

    (1) What shared meaning are we going to attach to the words ‘economic revival’?

    (2) On what, and in what proportions, is individual spending power currently being used?

    (3) How do we (or can we) reproportion and/or redirect this spending power into economic revival?

    I suggest that any action or proposal that exists outside a context where these questions have been conclusively answered is meaningless.


  • Rebecca Hanson
  • Robert Burns


    Never liked Ewan McGregor.

    The New Statesman will make you feel right at home.…0.0…1ac.1.QhPWTlQ9WvU

  • Jonathanrowson

    The following two lines really helped crystalise something for me.

    “…The way to head off anti-capitalist revolt was for the state to guarantee expanding social rights, rising living standards and close to full employment.”

    “…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.”

    The heart of the climate change challenge is precisely that the necessary surplus that keeps the capitalist wheels turning has been built on a false basis, where natural capital has not been factored into the cost of creating that surplus. Now that it has to be, it will be really hard to create that surplus, which is why people will start questioning the model as a whole.

  • Zio Bastone

    @Jonathan Rowson

    ‘Natural capital’ seems to me spot on. Although things get tricky thereafter.

    At the moment we have on the one hand those who deny climate change (no need to intervene) in defence of neoliberal ideology and, on the other, a range of views. The ‘deep ecologists’ who tend to express a Spinozan, aspectual, non anthropocentric view of the environment but in quasi spiritual rather than materialist, political terms. The technocrats (decried by David Attenborough as ‘fascists’) who assume hegemony by the advanced, a colonialist position. Those post Marxist ecofeminists (my preferred line of thought) who generalise women’s experience of subalternised dispossession in order to conceptualise politically both colonialism and the hidden costs of exploiting the Earth’s resources. And finally those sentimental Greens who believe it can all be done by sending our ‘recycled’ waste to China, counting the food miles on our out-of-season beans and by wishing upon stars. These last are in the majority, I suspect.

  • Robert Burns

    Or, in other words, no one can decide how to define the problem and even if they did they have no idea how to solve it in a way that would allow them to keep having their cake and eat it.

  • Nick Costello

    Hello Matthew,

    This particular page is probably not the most appropriate place for me to make this post, but I’m not sure where else to put it. As the subject-matter is similar I will take the liberty.

    It’s the 30th of October 2012, and I have just watched an excerpt from a lecture you gave which appeared on an ABC television (Australia) program called “Big Ideas”. The lecture was titled “The Power to Act – A New Angle on our Toughest Problems”. Some of the things you said were very welcome, but I was a little disappointed that no mention was made (perhaps because it was only a snippet) of what is probably the greatest impediment to tackling problems like poverty and homelessness in western economies like Australia – the tension between social justice and economic expediency.

    The problems of unemployment, poverty and homelessness in Australia are serious and growing, yet objective analysis of them has been rendered impossible for many years through fear. As I see things, unemployment statistics in Australia have been manipulated to paint a rosy picture and maintain public confidence in the economy; and house-prices have been artificially inflated through an auction-process and a strategy of limiting the number of low-cost-homes on the market to maintain a high-median-price for real-estate. When individuals raise questions about these things underhanded politicians and radio shock-jocks attack their characters by playing the dole-bludger-card. All the while, people who have fallen victim to the forces of Global Industrial Change are swept into a heap, falsely-labeled and left to rot in ghettos. This is no accident: it’s a premeditated plan, and the secret of its success lies in the fact that none of those involved in its creation will ever admit to it. And how can they? What we’re talking about here goes beyond conspiracy – It’s a social phenomenon.

    I don’t know if you have ever mentioned this situation in any of your work, but I thought I should at least put it out there for your consideration and that of your readers.