Our way through - part two: Life in the system - RSA

Our way through - part two: Life in the system

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  • Democracy and governance
  • Economy

So much recent political discourse is framed around two worldviews: the creed of big and the creed of small.

In the big cluster are things such as ‘the economy’, the nation, the planet and technology. These are big impersonal forces that seem overwhelming. The creed of small is more focused on place, community, relationships, and family – what is close to us.

This conflict between big systems and the smaller reality of our day-to-day lives creates tension within all predominant political perspectives: conservative, labour, social democratic, nationalist, green, liberal and even populist. Indeed, it could be argued that big systems versus the lifeworld is the central political tension.

If this is the case, then the central political task is to consider what an interface of big systems and small relations can look like as we seek to transition to a future that replenishes both nature and humanity. How can big systems become more infused with lifeworld values of home, community and democracy rather than vice-versa? Can we create space for conviviality, community, civic co-operation, better and meaningful work? And how can big systems better support and sustain the lifeworld?

Max Weber saw political legitimacy as derived from charisma, tradition, or rationality. The weakness of a politics grounded in our immediate relationships is that it can get stuck in the rut of tradition. Meanwhile, the politics of big technocratic systems – rational administration – can become divorced from humanity and herein lies an iron cage. Solutionism, the notion that there are solely scientific, technological or policy fixes to macro human challenges, weakens our collective capacity to find ways through or forces a backlash. We have to be on the journey of transition willingly, not just tethered to it. A politics of charisma as we have seen in many countries in recent years often preys upon that backlash. And then chaos – political, geo-political, cultural – soon follows. The United States of Trump and its apotheosis in violence in and around the Capitol building in January 2021 is an acidic taster.

Of course, Weber was writing as mass democracy was in its infancy. Popular will is also a source of legitimacy in itself, whether or not attached to charisma, tradition, or legalism. And the sense of misalignment between our lives and the big systems that surround us is profound and that is why the politics of big and small are in such conflict with one another.

A new synthesis, one that enables us to navigate climate emergency, global and local inequalities, racial exclusion, public health and the digital age in our midst is desperately required. To bring together Gods large and small requires us first to understand where these misalignments have emerged. It requires us to peer into the big systems of money, power and, increasingly, technology.


In retrospect, the twenty years or so from the collapse of communism to the financial crash were a time of maximum hubris, when capitalism seemed to have solved its internal contradictions. Yet deep inequalities of wealth, income and security were corroding the hull as the party was in full swing up on deck. These deep structural inequalities brought with them a freezing of social mobility, financial instability as unsustainable debt took hold, and widespread economic insecurity experienced by many. Destitution remained a feature even within the wealthiest nations.

Capitalism has relied on four critical features:

  • A set of credit and financial institutions that encourage risk matched with legal protection and intellectual property for those who take those risks.
  • A growth mindset of relentless acquisition: a spirit of accumulation.
  • A state to support and safeguard sufficient inclusivity including through enlightened social reform in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
  • Scientific knowledge to underpin technological development.

These all came together powerfully for two decades after the collapse of the Berlin wall in East and West. The model was grow and sometimes redistribute and if not redistribute then invest in public services. This model of state sustained capitalism – the essence of the neo-liberal age – was a developing consensus across Europe, the US, much of South-East Asia, South America, and increasingly in China too.

The problem is that an expansionary economy faces limits. We are already beyond these limits in many ways not least in the midst of an extinction event. Traditionally, within the economic system, we have drawn most attention from the economics profession, which has devoted itself to managing scarcity arising from frontiers of technology, production, organisations, regulatory environment, management, trade and stable credit. But the most critical limits were outside the economy itself: in society and in nature.

This expansionary logic of capitalism faced external frontiers – limits to growth – including impact on human quality of life and the environment within which we exist. From the 1970s onwards, people such as Donella Meadows et al pointed to the ecological limits to growth; more recently post-growth theory and practice has also pointed to wider social limits. Those internal limits now force us to re-consider how the economy functions – and that will certainly mean de-prioritising expansion at all costs.

Limiting our breach of the limits doesn’t mean ‘de-growth’ as such. Indeed, one could argue with some force that a de-growth agenda limits our ability to gather resources to, for example, de-carbonise the energy system. Whilst advocates of de-growth don’t argue that lower income countries shouldn’t grow, it is difficult to see such countries acquiring support in their development in a de-growth environment – not least because the risk of the wealthier world withdrawing from wider international obligations has to be real given internal competition for resources. With a shrinking or limited tax base, are Governments going to prioritise domestic health systems or international health Sustainable Development Goals? The answer seems obvious. The politics of de-growth, in the context of a mass consumption society, seem unimaginably tough.

Instead, in-line with a post-growth agenda, the money system requires re-engineering as a life economy. In other words, how can we re-orient our credit, finance, innovation, production and labour markets to support and sustain life: life on earth and human life within that. More on this will be outlined in part three of this essay series.

Without a life economy, three ecological crises – pollution, waste and extinction – will only worsen. These will interplay and we will reach points of no return where our existing lives are increasingly threatened. And three social crises: mass economic insecurity, (mental) ill-health, and loss of sense of place and identity will deepen. These crises have been driving a politics of protest and distraction as people feel disconnected from power over their lives and a sense of diminished status and feelings of respect.

The ecological crisis is a social crisis and both are political crises and each generate negative feedback loops. Each element interplays with the other to take us closer and beyond the limits of a sustainable lifeworld and in the coming decades we are likely to go way beyond. A life economics where our overarching aim is the sustenance and quality of all life is the mindset and goal.


The relationship between money and power systems has been dynamic and mutually reinforcing over time. The modern era has been defined by capitalism underpinned by the state. That is why modern capitalism is not so much an economic system, but a system of power. The economy has been defined by power structures at least as much as vice versa.

If our mission is to seek ‘a way through’ then there are two obvious dead ends: technocracy as dominant system and charismatic populism.

Technocracy puts the interests of the future over the present and its best modern case is Singapore. However, Singapore is an unusual case, an exception, in that it has been able to generate high trust in its institutions whilst containing democracy. This may be due to starting from a low economic base in the 1950s, geographical position, scale, common values, visionary leadership or an exceptionally modern skilled public administration. Nonetheless the risks it faces are no less significant. It is an exception that faces extraordinary climate risk as a modern city on the equator fuelled by air conditioning. In most cases, however, technocracy risks populist backlash as people feel a sense of alienation and disempowerment. And that is why the transition to a regenerative future requires more than technology and technocracy alone.

For countries with a deeper set of democratic values, the dilution of democratic authority over technocratic decision-making could be too much. More frequently, in deeply technocratic societies there is a fusion with authoritarianism such as we see in China or Vietnam or Pinochet’s Chile or the Soviet Union. Technocracy needs to attach itself to another source of legitimacy. Oddly, we are seeing the rise of what Chris Bickerton has termed ‘techno-populism’ where a charismatic politics of grievance or insecurity such as seen in recent years in Italy, France, and the UK needs a technocratic state to enable some level of competent Government.

There is an argument that you could see an authoritarian technocracy locked in on a moon-shot mission to reverse the acceleration of capitalism beyond social and ecological limits. It would rely on nudges, data analytics, solutionism, super-forecasting, ground-breaking energy technologies, smart regulation and cities, and AI behaviour management including through identity and behaviour checks (Covid passports recently introduced across Europe being an example). Essentially, it would be a technologically and cognitively managed society.

The risk is that this model of top-down technical transition will struggle to retain legitimacy without repression – and modern intrusive technologies create the space for such repression to be readily available and hidden. China’s climate transition is likely to be an increasingly repressive one as the state struggles to achieve its climate goals or the goals themselves may simply be discarded. Technocracy as the dominant model will either fail to deal with the pace and scale of the challenge or require escalating force and manipulation to succeed: surrendering democracy and freedom in the process. The iron cage of techno-bureaucracy is a very big price to pay. Technocracy contains within itself deep risks.

Those who flirt with discarding democracy on the road to transition (such as David Wallace-Wells and James Lovelock have done) are playing a very dangerous game indeed. Even if we get to the other side of transition which is less likely without rich democracy, we will have surrendered core democratic values. That price is too high.

Whilst technocracy could be expected to work towards carbon and social transition, charismatic traditionalism, the assertion of the moral purity of a ‘people’ through time over corrupt politicians and administrators, will find every means possible of slowing and reversing change. Already, we are seeing this play out, not through climate denialism necessarily, but through climate delayism. For example, Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation declares itself to be “open-minded on the contested science of global warming…deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.” Sounds reasonable, right? This perspective is groundwork for a charismatic and populist politics citing costs and impositions on people, holding onto the force of inertia through our traditional lifestyles of late twentieth century capitalism. Make no mistake, this framing will be an increasingly powerful political force.

Populism of this kind is ultimately a thin form of democracy that contra technocracy places the present over the future. The strategy is to present a folk ‘common sense’ that uses probabilistic scientific knowledge to delay action and emphasises costs of change over the risks of failing to and the well-being of future generations. Even soft versions of this will impair our chances of minimising or mitigating climate emergency. If this viewpoint is dominant in fast-growing parts of the world, as seems highly likely, the task of transition increases by orders of magnitude.

In essence, the technocratic and charismatic-traditional responses each contain important truths. The mechanisms of the state will need to be transformed, including how the state creates, in the terminology of Mariana Mazzucato, ‘missions’. Technocracy is a necessary set of deft tools, but ultimately too weak or dangerous as the dominant source of legitimacy. Charismatic tradition highlights and taps into the social crises that exist alongside the ecological crises: insecurity, ill-health, and threatened identity and belonging. It seeks to transform them into mechanisms of resistance and what Pankaj Mishra has identified as ressentiment, a loss of sense of worth and status (something also explored extensively by Francis Fukuyama).

There is a way through: to deepen rather than thin out democracy further. For this, a new and emerging ‘common sense’ around our inter-connection with each other and nature needs further encouragement, a different ‘structure of feeling’ in the words of Raymond Williams. The data on the effectiveness of deep democratic process where a wider group of people than representatives of executive policy-makers alone are brought into decision-making is very promising. People learn through doing, open themselves up to greater pools of knowledge and skills, and become more capable of considering a longer time horizon. This is precisely what the RSA discovered in its Citizens’ Economic Council – though these outcomes have been seen in many other settings besides including in Climate Assemblies. The impositions of the money system make participation and contribution in these ways more difficult as insecurity narrows our cognitive bandwidth and our available time. But again, that is why we must consider democracy, ecology and society together and not as separate domains.

And when we do, we will create life places where people feel a greater sense of connection to their locality and local eco-systems. We will re-create a sense of home, belonging, and connection with others and future generations. In this sense, democracy can be, rather than a means of justifying technocratic or populist elites, a life institution in and of itself.


“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” Henry David Thoreau

It may seem odd to describe technology as a ‘system’. Some might prefer to describe it as tool, a means of taking raw materials and transforming them into something useful. Others might argue that in fact technology is simply a subtle means of oppression, a mechanism through which money and power systems accumulate wealth and status in the few. There is quite a lot of space between benign and malignant accounts of technology.

The benign (and beneficial) account of technology was the predominant view until very recently indeed. Last year, before Congress, Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook described technology as a ‘tool’. Whether he truly believes that or not, and it is difficult to believe that he could, this linguistic deflector of ‘tool’, an inanimate object there for our empowerment, doesn’t hold water. As documented by Kate Crawford, Shoshana Zuboff, and many others, it is more likely we are the tools of technology rather than the reverse. And technology is an emerging system in its own right; one that has penetrated deep into the lifeworld.

In what sense is technology a ‘system’? Systems have a number of features. They are pervasive, i.e. they are everywhere. There is no detachment from systems in the way that we can, for example, walk away from organisations such as an employer or institutions such as a church, and this is as true of technology as it is of power and money systems.

Systems have an internal logic that replicates over time. The current logic of technology is that it begets even more technology – centripetally attracting capital, labour, and us as consumers. A second logic is that it is biased, favouring some of others as algorithmic bias, technological aptitude, and winner takes all platform markets ruthlessly discriminate. The third logic is that modern technology is a series of interlocking applications, constantly reconfigured for new purposes, rapidly magnifying and accelerating the technology system itself.

The third feature of the human systems of interest here is that they have been designed by humans over time – albeit without end goals in mind necessarily – and this design conditions their behaviour. None of the systems of money, power or technology have been designed with an end in mind. In fact, many competing interests, values and objectives have gone into evolving these systems over time. But because they have emerged through human design there is the possibility that they can be re-designed as human systems. This distinguishes such systems from, say, nature which, whilst clearly a wider eco-system, is not one that has been designed (that debate was resolved long ago).

Whilst ‘technology’ is one system that is universal, it is comprised of many individual technologies. The major social media platforms are more like the latest phase of the entertainment, consumer, and advertising economy. Green tech is our slow response to pierced ecological limits. Bio tech is concerned with re-engineering the human body to resist infection and degeneration. AI, deep learning, and machine learning underpin the core logic of all these technologies and more besides assisted by computer power and the coming quantum computer age. Robots turn this core hardware and learning software into physical strength, force and dexterity at velocity.

These are radical technologies as Adam Greenfield describes them. They are universal but also pervasive, powerful and biased. They are everywhere: they are within us, between us, and around us. They are woven through the systems of power and money and without keen oversight create conditions for universal surveillance, manipulation and exclusion. These technologies serve life, safeguard it, and enhance it but also risk dividing us, disempowering us and distracting us.

Where technology is cast as a neutral and empowering tool, it is sold as our ‘get out of jail free’ card when it comes to planetary limits – a broad line taken from techno-optimists such as Andrew McAfee. Such accounts tend to observe the relative ‘de-coupling’ of carbon emissions from productivity and growth. This is real and important. However, it is not sufficient in scale and pace or without risk of backlash. Much more will have to be done, to shift state, society, and capitalism beyond ecological harm and absolute levels of resource extraction, pollution, and waste matter over time not just relativities.

How we integrate technological shifts over the coming decades will have deep consequences for our ability to safeguard home, nourish and protect community and nurture democracy. Carlota Perez and Thorsten Veblen before her have documented how technology is a force of history. We are not powerless: we can shape that direction through human institutions. Technology is a human system after all.

Technology, like the money and power systems with which it intersects, is a system driving humanity to reach beyond sustainable limits: we have evolved a system of technology over the past two decades that we don’t yet know how to contain where necessary and harness where we can’t. Azeem Azar calls this the ‘exponential gap’ and James Plunkett sees it as ‘riding a beast’.

Our challenge is to see technology for what it is: a system that must be limited, harnessed, and democratised – not just placing digital devices in more hands but by wrapping democratic hands around tech and the firms who own it. And if we fail to understand that, then for all the tremendous good it offers us, the harm will be greater. Unless we learn how to ride the railroad it will ride us.

All in all, these systems of power, money and technology have been in a mutually reinforcing and directing dance with one another over many decades. And they have led us to an impasse where they are weighing down on the lifeworld and suffocating it. A money system has broken the limits, a power system excludes and trivialises us, and a technology system distracts and manipulates us. And as we enter the next phase of pandemic, with promises of ‘build back better’ long forgotten, the energy of community that was unleashed dissipated, and a with a COP26 agreement that was underwhelming, bigger thinking is needed. How can life economics, life places, and life sustaining technology be expanded and de-personalised systems either changed or contained? That is where Part Three of these essays will travel: to explore what it means to have a safer home, a stronger community, and a deeper democracy.

This is Part Two of a Three Part series.

Part One examines the shortcomings of the Enlightenment that have led us to the global issues we currently face.

Part Three describes three pathways to transition through restoration a sense of home, community and democracy.

Download the full essay series - Our Way Through (PDF, 1.6 MB)

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  • When will Part Three be posted on to this site?

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