Old ideas and new jokes... - RSA

Old ideas and new jokes...


  • Social brain

In my blog yesterday, I am mentioned that I had just finished reading Michael Thompson’s book, Organising and Disorganising. I wrote to Michael today to say how much we are looking forward to hosting him here in December and asking him to write a piece for the Journal. Cheekily, I not only suggested a topic but offered my own thesis – I hope he doesn’t take umbrage. As regular readers of my blog will know (we must have lunch soon, Mum) the analysis of Michael’s book is based upon what he calls cultural theory. In essence, he argues there are four fundamental ways of viewing and conducting social relations. They are:

· Hierarchical – in which change is seen to come from the top through authority, expertise and traditional rules.

· Individualistic – change is seen to flow from the pursuit by each person of their own self-interest.

· Egalitarian – in which change is seen to develop bottom-up through group membership, shared values and solidarity.

· Fatalistic – in which change is seen to be illusory or random.

In fact, in the book, Michael creates a fifth category but you will have to buy the book to discover what it is …. This theory has so many strengths, it is difficult to know where to start. In particular, I like the fact that Michael rejects the notion that human development has an end point in favour of the view that change always results through the ‘clumsy’ interaction of ways of thinking and behaving. Another insight is the understanding, when one or more of these views, is excluded the outcome is at best sub-optimal, at worst catastrophic. And it is this that I asked Michael to reflect upon, asking him to think about what cultural theory has to say about the banking crisis. My thesis, shallow though it might be, is that the crisis reflects what happens when those who dwell within and preach a monolithic culture are given too much power. All that mattered in the City was individualism; there was no egalitarian belief in a wider social or moral purpose for banking, nor was there any effective hierarchy as the rules didn’t work, those notionally in charge were on a merry-go-round they could not get off (even if they wanted to) and no-one even really understood how the system worked.

Finally – and crucially – there no fatalism, which cultural theorists see as playing an important role in social order and change. Every banker believed he had an unlimited capacity to generate wealth and increase his earnings. To have a major area of activity so dominated by a single framing of human relations is rare. To then give those in that area the power to determine the well-being of billions of citizens is – as we have now come to understand – a disastrous error.

To the accompaniment of the sound of stable doors being loudly bolted, we are now seeing national leaders trying to reassert the importance of hierarchy in the form of strengthened global governance. We have already seen a growth in alternative lifestyles and in people seeing climate change as a powerful rationale for new forms of egalitarianism. Economic recession also provides the right circumstances to induce a long wave of fatalism. So we are poised at a very interesting moment.

I have sent the email to Michael just today and will report back whether he takes up the offer and on what he thinks of my thesis.

Sorry if this blog is a bit repetitive but for me cultural theory is like hearing a good joke – you want to keep sharing it. And to make up for being so boring here is a joke I made up last week (yes, yes, I really did make it up myself)

Where did Emile Zola go to relax?

His j’accuzzi

It is I’m afraid a shocking insight into the RSA that when I told a member of the project team this joke she asked

‘Emile Zola, didn’t he used to play for Chelsea?’

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