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Saving the world (part 2)

April 19, 2012 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

In my post yesterday, I made the case for a new public sphere in which the efforts of state, civil society and individuals are more effectively combined so as to narrow the currently growing gap between social aspirations (for both entitlements and values) and the trajectory on which we are now set. I promised today (thanks to those who kindly retweeted my promise) to identify the spaces in which change is required to develop this new public sphere.

* Political leadership: we tend to associate credibility in politicians with their ability to persuade us that they can solve social problems (in my terms, that they can single-handedly close the social aspiration gap). This needs to be reversed. The attribute we should most value in politicians is an ability to help us see that only we, the people, can close the gap and their role is simply to try to provide the most enabling context. This means a style of leadership which is more modest, more discursive, much more willing to recognise and live with uncertainty. It is a style of leadership which feels to be saying more about us and our capabilities than about the politician and his (or hers).

* System reform: big ideas people and practical innovators too often ignore systems. But having the right systems with the right incentives in place is vital to developing a more participative public sphere, and having the wrong systems can be disastrous. Being an enthusiast for the perspective of critical theory, (see for example Michael Thompson and Christopher Hood) I advocate systems which mobilise the power of hierarchy (expertise, strategy, wise regulation and accountability), of egalitarianism (shared mission and values, social solidarity, subsidiarity) and of individualism (competition, invention, ambition) whilst recognising the inevitable prevalence of fatalism (apathy, scepticism).

* Innovation: from time to time there are innovations which are so simple and powerful they have the capacity to be scaled up across whole systems. This social care initiative from Hertfordshire may be a recent example. But most innovations which seem to work do so because of specific people and places, and so are not easily replicated. The innovation challenge is less about how to scale up individual initiatives and more about how to understand and create the conditions for innovation to emerge (a combination of attitudes, skills, institutions and resources). Every city, county and service needs these ‘innovation clusters’.

* Enterprise and investment: as almost everyone involved in social finance seems to agree,  the problem they face is not a lack of will or ideas, but the difficulty with turning proposals into viable social or commercial businesses. For example, payment by results contracts – which were supposed to drive innovation and efficiency – are often subsidised by providers (whether this is an appropriate use of charitable income is an interesting question). Whether social financiers and entrepreneurs can help innovators turn their ideas into sustainable businesses is an open but key question right now.

* Civic renewal:  some of the change we need has to come up from communities of place, experience and interest. Progressives (those who believe the human race can and should seek to attain a higher level of development) and those who claim to speak for the disadvantaged must make a shift away from the politics of complaint and towards to the politics of mutual self-help. As Tessy Britton and others have argued, once people and organisations have mustered on the unifying, one dimensional basis of articulating grievance (which seems often to be the raison d’etre of community organising) it becomes very difficult to turn this energy towards the messy, difficult process of developing and acting on solutions.

* Re-conceptualising: here is Ivan Illich on education:

‘ Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education – and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries’.

This quote – which feels so contemporary – was written forty-one years ago. Part of re-inventing the public sphere must be about re-conceptualising core public service institutions (school, hospitals, prisons etc) which have in essence remained unchanged for a hundred and fifty years.

The point of describing the different dimensions of change (and or course, there could be other equally valid typographies) is not to provide a template for a single manifesto or strategy; the list is too broad and there are too many imponderables. But reformers should be aware of, and supportive towards, progressive movement in each domain. Innovators should care about politics, community mobilisers should understand the travails of entrepreneurs, policy wonks should get out more often. Progressively minded people should beware the cultural divide between thinking big about new paradigms and thinking in detail about practical inventions. To paraphrase Roberto Unger and Cornell West, ‘to be realists we must first be revolutionaries’.



  • Julian Dobson

    Thanks for this – I think this is pretty much spot on, especially the bit about the kind of political leadership we need. My only quibble is that alongside encouragement for mutual self-help there needs to be a continuing critique of power and how it is used.

    We don’t live in a world where the scales are evenly balanced, and there’s a danger that we end up with a narrative that says people who are disadvantaged are suffering the result of their own lack of self-help rather than from the ways power is concentrated in business, in education, in politics and even in voluntary organisations. Some thoughts here, based on discussions with Tessy last year:

    So I think the challenge is how to build self-help in ways that fundamentally change institutions rather than simply taking the financial and political pressures off them.

  • Zio Bastone

    Nice to see Ivan Illich popping up. Though he’s akin to Italian autonomia or to Argentinian horizontalidad, not to the endlessly recycled Big Ideas of neoliberal managerialism. No doubt I shall live to see one of Gove’s advisers quoting Paolo Freire once this latest lot leaves office.

    Yes polticians should be enablers. But that’s not the same as enabling Christians to meet lions. (I agree with Julian Dobson.) And we have passed this way before. Falconer, for example, remembers Blair’s (‘I was never really in politics’) bizarre justification of ‘depoliticisation’ as ‘bringing power closer to the people’, acording to Peter Mair (Depoliticised Democracy, NLR 2006) when, of course, the sky was dense with flying pigs.

    Perhaps I should quote Paolo Freire: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.’ And isn’t that where critical thinking, at least in its Frankfurt School version, ought to come in? Or the committed ‘co-research’ which characterised Italian operaismo (though it started with Danilo Dolci)?

    Or one could return instead to Illich. For example his thoughts about ‘the war on subsistence’, which find parallels in the sort of diagnosis made by Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa in The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community or in the latter’s feminist reading of ecology. That sort of thing (with its clear sense of how exploitation starts with hegemony) is a true re-envisaging and well beyond recuperation, however well intentioned.

    ‘God has defended his poor ones. You want them silenced and God has made you blind.’ (child quoted by Don Lorenzo Milani, founder of the first Italan ‘people’s school’ and later of the school at Barbiana in his quite extraordinary Letter to a Teacher)

  • matthew taylor

    Thanks Juliana dn Zio. I agree that my comments do not address the question of how to deal with power and entrenched inequality. I have some thoughts on this and hope to write a post on the topic soon. Thanks for commenting