Forgive me if this is an overstatement, but surely there has never been a time when our major political party leaders have been held in lower regard? There is the one who is apparently unable to manage his own Party, the one few people seem to think could manage the country and the one who simply has no friends.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a talented young MP who was telling me of his plans to leave politics. ‘I’m bored’ he said ‘I don’t believe in politics anymore and, truth be told,’ he said, as he cast his eyes around the atrium at Portcullis House ’nor do most of us’. A Conservative MP said to me that his Party’s obsession with Europe is partly based on genuine problems with the EU, partly on the divisive Thatcher legacy but also ‘because at last people have got something in politics to get passionate about’.
Is there anything that can be done? Regardless of party affiliation is there a message or strategy that could lift politics out of the doldrums and offer a credible policy platform. As a purely academic exercise I’ve had a go.
The rather obscure starting point is this table
In the columns I have merged two frames of analysis. The first is from cultural theory and its three ubiquitous ways of thinking about and seeing change: the individualistic, the hierarchical and the solidaristic (NB there is also another passive form – the fatalistic).
The second uses the three core ideas of the Enlightenment as identified by Tzvetan Todorov: universalism (which I translate as fairness), humanism (the belief in progress defined by greater human flourishing) and autonomy (freedom).
These two sets of concepts (which have been the focus respectively of two of my annual lectures), one about ideas the other about frames for seeing and acting, don’t map neatly onto each other. ‘Universalism’ asserts the equal rights of all people (although in the Enlightenment this actually meant well-off white men) whereas ‘solidarity’ is about the interests of those defined as in the group while ‘fairness’ stands somewhere between and also brings in notions of just desserts. Also, hierarchies can be ambivalent about progress (think of the Roman Catholic Church). It is also important not to assume that individualism and solidarism line up on a right left axis. Nationalism and even racism can be as much expressions of in-group solidarity as trade unionism and – as the Commons debate yesterday emphasises – social conservatives don’t think individual rights trump all other considerations.
Nevertheless, for the purposes of my argument, there is sufficient overlap based on clustering of ideas and feelings around three fundamental human instincts (individual survival, desire and ambition; kinship and social belonging; and leadership/followership).
In each box there is a number. The numbers represent a view of the relative power in contemporary society of each way of thinking in relation to, first, their account of the ends to which change should be aiming, second, the means which should be used to achieve that change, third, the cultural milieu in which change takes place.
The argument is that hierarchy is most powerful when it comes to the task of describing the ends of change. To put it simply, we need leaders to tell us where to march towards. Solidarity/fairness is less powerful when to comes to ends partly because it is often a rather nostalgic or defensive expression, and also because its definition of the good society (whether it’s socialist utopianism or nationalist nostalgia) tends to sound rather pie in the sky. The perspective of individualism leads to a suspicion of the whole idea of purposive ends – where we get will depend on our choices with the hidden hand of the market ensuring progress.
When it comes to means – the method of change - individualism has the strongest hand; a position which is even more pronounced in today’s complex world. If we could achieve change simply by people doing what they feel to be in their own interests things would be pretty simple, which is why markets can be so fast moving and innovative in comparison to bureaucracies (hierarchy) or collectives (solidarity).
Finally, in terms of cultural mores, while individualism offers only the shallowness of consumerism and hierarchies tend to be fractured both horizontally and vertically, it is the domain of solidarity that provides meaning and belonging for us social beings.
Therefore, in modern society, the most effective model of change will involve leaders defining ends which inspire, using means which achieve those ends through alignment with individual choices, with processes of change being humanised by a culture resonant with solidarity and mutual obligation. To use a mechanical metaphor, hierarchy sets the direction, individualism provides the engine and solidarity is the oil.
How does this translate into a political programme? First, we need a new type of leadership (I have described this here). Second, we need both to draw on individual aspiration as the most effective means to change while also helping people to aspire to what will genuinely provide fulfilment not simply what advertisers tell them they should want: freedom to produce, create and connect rather than freedom merely to consume and possess. Finally, we need to find ways of generating new forms of solidarity and mutual obligation in a diverse, fast changing world.
Politicians are often told by their advisors to try to ‘own the future’. This means rather than simply hypothesising a better world, describe the things already happening that prefigure that world and then show how you are the person to liberate the forces of progress and remove the barriers to change.
As I said in my last post commenting on the possible end of the social recession, there is enough material to start to describe what we might mean by a responsible modern society. Also, with the growth of interest and engagement in enterprise (traditional, social and micro) we can begin to see the outlines of a new venturesome economy.
Sadly, when it comes to new type of leadership, at least in the political sphere, I can only refer back to my opening sentence.
Al Mathers, former RSA Director of Research and Learning, explores the importance of introducing reciprocity into the work of social change organisations like the RSA.
Tamsin Hanke Sash Scott
Super-nature was one of 10 commissions to feature in the 2022 global exploration research project, Collective Futures. Learn about the work and its outputs in this field note.