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The 2010s pulled us apart. Can the 2020s bring us together again?

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We can’t go on like this.

We’ve now seen what a decade of division and polarisation can achieve. And the answer is little.

At the end of the start of 2020, we are no further in tackling our biggest challenges than we were in 2010. From the need to de-carbonise our world rapidly, to yawning inequalities of security and opportunity, we may even be going backwards.

Given the urgency and complexity of these problems, another decade of polarisation would be calamitous. We need to be honest about the different values that divide us and work to create a common understanding of our problems – an understanding that recognises that everyone will have to make sacrifices and helps us find solutions.  

The experiment in social media democracy has been disastrous

How did we get here?

Surprising as it may seem now, we entered the 2010s in a state of hope. In the US a very different type of US President, Barack Obama, offered the possibility of change. In the UK, the Olympic spirit was kindling. 

The financial crash and the failure of the post-war reconstruction of Iraq seemed to have washed away the complacencies and conceits of a generation of political leaders who had governed in the previous two decades.

And technology, particularly the accelerating growth of social media platforms, was democratising access to public voice. This was seen as positive thing. But in the end, technology was what enabled and encouraged that hope to turn into division.

The 2010s were the first experiment in mass, pervasive, always-on, real-time contact democracy. The results have been disastrous.

We failed in the 2010s because we blamed each other instead of solving problems

If there is a lesson to be taken from the last decade it’s that it’s not our economic position that defines us politically, it’s our values.

The 2010s brought differing and potentially oppositional value-sets together. Previously contained in individual communities or only visible to people who read or watched certain media, the experiment in ‘mass contact democracy’ meant they were suddenly all in the same News Feed and the same debate. The noise was overwhelming.

Culture wars, Brexit, Trump, the climate crisis, Occupy, the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gilets jaunes, strivers v skivers, anywheres v somewheres, the rise of far-right populism…and much more besides.

Sometimes dark political forces, even orchestrated by hostile powers, created resentment and stoked the flames of mutual resentment. Sometimes, we did it to ourselves. The upshot of all this conflict, orchestrated or spontaneous, was that the problem became about each another rather than the problem.

Our common problems that we really faced together – like the climate emergency or democratic decay – were complicated. Blaming each other was easy. The result was that we failed.

While some progress on the climate was made (on decoupling growth and resource utilisation, renewable energy, and international agreements to limit global warming), we continue to increasingly pollute the biosphere. As smoke engulfs the southern hemisphere, we can see that the current course is a desperate one.

We didn’t tackle inequality. Inequality of wealth, assets and opportunity remain, depending on how rich or poor you were born, your identity, or where you grew up.

We enter the 2020s already divided and if we’re not smart more division will follow. Greater concentration of economic and cultural power combined with greater concentration of knowledge and skills is a profound risk. Unequal access to life-saving and life-improving biotechnologies or high-status and quality education only serve as further risks to social dislocation.

How our values divide us: blues vs oranges vs greens and muscular liberals vs progressive liberals

As I explored in a recent essay in the RSA Journal, the reconciliation of our ‘lifeworlds’ (family, community, friendships) with the big systems (power, money, technology) and the biosphere (environment, genetics, food) is the challenge of our times.

We have failed to adequately respond in the 2010s. A main reason is that we're divided. But division isn’t effective. We have a win-lose form of democracy with value-sets in competition rather than dialogue.

How can we explore a common future where the big systems work with, not against, our lifeworlds? We need leadership to bring different value sets together. Leadership that integrates where possible and divides only where necessary.

Three value-sets are particularly prevalent in modern society. Let’s call them Blue, Orange, and Green*:

  • Blues tend to value order, authority, rules, and moral codes.
  • Oranges are globalists valuing evidence, abstract truth, universal ethics, and expertise.
  • Greens are egalitarians, they value diversity and inclusivity, multiculturalists to their core.

Can we bring them together?

There has been much talk of a decline in liberalism (usually represented by the Oranges). I believe that we’re not in a post-liberal environment but a divided-liberal environment:

  • Muscular liberals, who believe in strong common values with an authoritative nation state mindful of national identity, order, and security found common cause with the authority respectful Blues. (In the UK, this is a large part of the Boris Johnson electoral coalition.)
  • Progressive liberals, the other side of liberalism, have sided with the Greens. (In UK terms, this was the Remain and Corbyn coalitions.)

So rather than becoming post-liberal, society has become bi-liberal. But neither Blue-Orange or Green-Orange seem equipped to build the coalitions we’ll need to really solve our problems. Something broader and more integrating is required.

Building a common understanding of the challenges we face

Where can we start? There are few easy answers. Values divides pull us away from a prime focus on deep challenges themselves.

But I think we can start by trying to create a greater common understanding of the collective problems we face. This understanding has to go beyond the acknowledgement of the problem (‘climate change is real and man-made’) to understanding the urgency of problems and the adaptation and even some sacrifice that may be necessary to resolve them.   

Such common understanding can only come through authentic common dialogue:

  • What will we collectively have to do to face our urgent challenges?
  • What does that require of all of us, what do we all hold in common, and which of differences can we not let go?
  • Where can we act and where should we agree to disagree and accept that?
  • How can we institutionalise more thoughtful citizen-centric deliberative forms of democracy, to help bring in voices across our plural values?

And finally, building on common dialogue, we can begin to move to new and evolved common institutions. They might include things like data trusts to ensure that our pooled data can be used for common good.

Mass investment funds will be needed to help accelerate the carbon transition but how can we help people adapt in their lives, their communities, their skills and work to engender a deeper collective effort for change? Can we combine a carbon and a social transition?

And what might that mean for how we transition through work? Job Security Councils and new access to lifelong learning will have to be part of our collective institutional tool-kit.

What the values divide means for social democrats

Struggling social democrats in Europe, including Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US, might be best advised to see their predicament in the context of the split in liberal values.

How do they reach back to their ‘heartlands’, their base, when it isn’t their economic analysis that has split them from the ‘traditional working class’ but a value split between progressivism and authority values?

Pursuing more community activism isn’t convincing as a response by itself, important though that may be. Social democrats and progressives have lost support not because they are not localist or relational enough, but because they aren’t seen as authoritative enough.

Let’s be honest about what divides us and discover what unites us

Ultimately though, solutions themselves are not sufficient and won’t be sustainable unless there is widespread embrace of what we have in common.

There will be compromises ahead if we are to encourage, through integrating leadership, a fruitful interaction between values rather than the win-lose of the 2010s. Greens, Oranges and Blues will have to accept they none can have it all their own way - even in temporary alliance.

If it’s values that divide us, let’s be up-front about that and seek to discover what can unite us. There is a fierce urgency and it is of now.


* Those who are familiar with the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck, Ken Wilber and others will recognise these value-sets or ‘stages’. There are other ways and names to group values, for example the ‘settlers’, ‘prospectors’, and ‘pioneers’ of the Cultural Dynamics model. Hope not Hate has been analysing values as part of its Fear and Hope series for almost a decade now. What all these approaches have in common is that what divides us is more to do with our values than our economic position.

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  • Anthony - I agree with some of what you say, and particularly this 

    ---

    Such common understanding can only come through authentic common dialogue:

    * What will we collectively have to do to face our urgent challenges?

    * What does that require of all of us, what do we all hold in common, and which of differences can we not let go?

    * Where can we act and where should we agree to disagree and accept that?

    * How can we institutionalise more thoughtful citizen-centric deliberative forms of democracy, to help bring in voices across our plural values?

    ---

    Why not start this authentic dialogue, and action, with the 30,000 RSA Fellows? I've been a Fellow, on and off, since 2007 when Matthew Taylor inspired us with a call to action on these lines. Since then the RSA has failed repeatedly - as Paul points out - to create the means by which Fellowship can engage digitally in that dialogue. History here https://openrsa.org/

    With other Fellows I've volunteered time over those years to create systems to bridge this gap, without much staff support ... but Fellows just don't have the capacity to do it themselves. It needs commitment from RSA to help create the face-to-face and digital Commons to address the issues you raise. The immense resource of the Fellowship is the place to start ... but the RSA remains in broadcast mode.

    I've recently learned that no solution is in prospect for some two years, and I see no signs that the general issue of engaging and enabling Fellowship digitally, in return for just a small part of the £5 million subscribed to RSA, is in prospect. The focus appears remain on using subscription funding to support staff-led programmes.

    I've reluctantly resigned from Fellowship because I see a continuing gap between the broadcast policy-level thinking of RSA in this field, and the practical application of those ideas within Fellowship. 

    I appreciate that I may not be in full possession of the RSA forward strategy, and if I'm wrong I'll consider re-applying to Fellowship, and encourage others of my friends who have left to do the same. I really do want to contribute - but not just through a sub.

    Can you please tell us what the forward strategy is for Fellowship engagement, and within that what are the plans for a digitally enabled space for authentic common dialogue? In the light of your article, I don't think RSA can say it isn't important.


    • Thanks for posting David. Sadly, we have to experience that irony (I reference in my own post in this thread) of someone from The RSA declaring the death of interactive social media democracy when The RSA makes no investment in engaging with its own Fellows...and we're left posting here on this neglected graffiti board!

  • Some interesting points here in what I take as more of an 'opinion' piece than an 'analysis' piece but what happened in the 2010s in terms of digital democracy and social media really needs deeper thought and analysis.


    AP: The experiment in social media democracy has been disastrous.


    Was there ever a serious 'experiment in social media democracy'? If so, where? What was it? Was the 'experiment' properly and objectively analysed, or just subject to polarised media comment?


    AP: And technology, particularly the accelerating growth of social media platforms, was democratising access to public voice. This was seen as positive thing. But in the end, technology was what enabled and encouraged that hope to turn into division.


    It's complicated of course. The digital world with its potential for greater freedom of expression, equality of expression, democracy, transparency, accountability, etc became a political battleground. Not just between fighting factions, political parties, and single issue activists - not to mention bullies and abusive trolls - but between powerful corporate and media interests and powerful institutions and the broader citizenry who challenged their power. 


    Twitter for example gave every active citizen an opportunity to have a voice. Some used it well, some not. Its greatest achievement was giving real-time access to breaking news, information, data and analysis that traditionally was the preserve of the mainstream media and those with the resources to gather and process such intelligence offline. 


    But Twitter also became yet another hierarchy, based around numbers of followers, with powerful people and interests using it as a means of exerting their privileged voice. 


    Most of these powerful people and organisations chose just to broadcast and not interact, so they killed the digital democracy before it could really take hold, as well as devoting many of their posts to criticising 'social media', 'Twitter' and 'this hellsite' in a classic case of shooting the messenger and using 'look over there' distraction.


    Those who criticise interactive social media often don't really understand it and/or feel threatened by it. And it's just too easy to blame technology for the human failings in its application or manipulation.  


    AP: The 2010s were the first experiment in mass, pervasive, always-on, real-time contact democracy. The results have been disastrous.


    As I said above - an 'experiment'? Really? It seemed to be more of a 'rush in, my god this is chaos, let's get out' approach from many of the critics, certainly not an attempt to positively facilitate and fully realise the benefits


    Many of those who have embraced the digital age of democracy for good, and positively embraced its potential for connection and interaction - distributed power rather than hierarchical power - will conclude that the 2010s was a struggle but a positive step forward, certainly not disastrous. 


    Interactive social media certainly enabled us to expose some of the spin and lies from our institutions that had previously been under the radar. That's a triumph not a disaster!



    ---TIME TO SELF-REFLECT!---



    But we also have to acknowledge that The RSA has not been a positive embracer of the interactive digital age, and mainly uses social media for broadcasting. 


    It's a great irony that in several online groups and forums that RSA Fellows participate in - usually with little or no investment of resources from The RSA, it's mainly volunteer effort - one of the main recurring topics of conversation is The RSA not being able or willing to embrace interactive digital democracy, despite the obvious mutual benefits for The RSA and the Fellowship (and despite much preaching about deliberative democracy - a huge lack of congruity there!).


    The first question new Fellows almost always ask is HOW DO I CONNECT AND INTERACT WITH OTHER FELLOWS, and The RSA has never been able to rise to the challenge of facilitating this most fundamental need. Without doubt, it's the greatest failure of The RSA in the 2010s, and the top priority for addressing in the 2020s.


    Anyone from The RSA broadcasting via social media to criticise 'the experiment in social media democracy' is on very shaky ground!

  • So true - there are no "heartlands" to be reached back to, any more than there are Blockbuster stores to be re-opened.

    Labour are to progress what VHS is to home entertainment.

    People still want the entertainment, but not the format, which is why they approve the individual policy ideas, but loathe the party and its various constituent tape-chewing, please-rewind-before-returning, lousy-quality- picture parts.

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