The third instalment of ‘my new progressivism’ (I haven’t yet been consumed by my own verbosity and pomposity, but we are only half way through the week).
On Monday I argued for progressives to aim for a step change in human capacity and well-being, applying new insights into both the limitations of individualism and into the way our identities and actions arise from social context. Yesterday I suggested that we needed to take the study of society more seriously, with a richer evidence base, and an understanding of communities as organisms not machines. Today, some points about politics.
The progressive approach to politics tends to be associated with the reform of institutions and systems. There is nothing wrong with this. From creating a modern, representative second chamber, to a more proportionate electoral system in UK national and English local elections I support democratic reform. But what puts the ‘new’ into my new progressive approach to politics is an equally strong, if not stronger, interest in the content and form of political discourse. This has two dimensions.
First, politics at all levels should be much more about the ends; what kind of society do we want to live in and what are the preconditions for that society, rather than simply being about means; who can best manage public services or deliver the highest level of national wealth (defined exclusively in relation to the formal economy).
Second, politics should much less be an ‘us and them’ debate between decision makers and the mass of disengaged and sceptical citizens. Instead it should be an ‘us and us’ debate, in which citizens engage with each others’ views and in which we understand and accept that social progress requires us all to show some consistency, responsibility and altruism.
Demands for reform of existing institutions have been made for many years, which doesn’t mean they are any less cogent, but we also need innovation. Vast resources have been spent on improving consultation between decision makers and members of the public, but because this is fundamentally about improving ’us and them’ communication it can only go so far. We need to be much more inventive in developing new opportunities and incentives for citizen to citizen dialogue, problem solving and collective action. Devolving power to the most local level helps to blur the boundary between vertical and horizontal discourse, but it will take time, creativity and long term commitment to create the kind of vibrant egalitarian democratic spaces we need. The internet promises much (as thinkers including Clay Shirky to Stephen Coleman have argued at the RSA in 2008) but has so far delivered little.
A focus on the content and form of discourse also leads to a greater concern about the information driven at citizens. I am not arguing for censorship but for an attentiveness to the impact of the messages of popular culture, advertising and the news media. We don’t swallow wholesale the idea that badness and madness is as common as in Albert Square, we have developed some resistance to the advertisers’ insistence that shopping makes us better happier people, and we recognise that our own experience often contradicts the grinding blame mongering and social pessimism of the news media, but taken together these influences make the already hard job or developing a powerful civic democracy even harder. It often strikes me as strange that those sectors of the economy which have such powerful cultural externalities are so unenthusiastic about entering the kind of hard edged and open debate about ethical responsibility that is common (albeit often only at a superficial level) in much less socially influential big businesses.
I am grateful for all the comments I have been getting this week. By co-incidence I got an e-mail today from my old friend Anne McElvoy of the Evening Standard teasing me for the use of words like ‘hegemonic’ and ‘heuristic’. But I can have my revenge by suggesting that readers listen to today’s Media Show on Radio 4, which was discussing the kind of ethical questions I hint at above. Anne’s job is to try to defend the indefensible. And she really does try her best, including claiming in all seriousness that when the Sun asked its readers if they agreed with the paper’s campaign to remove the Director of Social Services at Haringey this was a serious attempt at reader consultation!
Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Foresight Lead)
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