Farmer Giles


I have been tentatively asked by a publisher if I might try to write a book based on something distilled from my annual lectures and blog themes. This means I have to cross my own mile wide Rubicon. It is one thing using rhetoric to engage people and another to write eight hundred words of lightly anchored prose. Turning this into a book where the concepts have to be elaborated upon, substantiated by reference to research and placed in the context of other related ideas is so very different.

Then there the issue of self-discipline, writing every day, prioritising a long term project over all the short term possibilities for gratification, resisting the mood swings which make me want to tell everyone when I think I have a good idea and to give up the whole bloody thing when a concept seems to fall apart in my hands. Karen Blixen’s beautiful injunction to authors is ‘write every day, without hope, without despair’. Yes, but how?

I'm paid to run the RSA, not write books, and as it doesn’t come easy to me, I need to muster extra motivation. Being able to say my book got published is important but given the personal barriers, it’s not enough. I need to believe that the book will make one or both of two types of difference; benignly influencing public discourse (even if only at the margins and for a while) or getting some people interested in some stuff they might not have engaged with otherwise.

The intellectual problem with which I am wrestling goes to both types of impact. The argument that there are three fundamental drivers of social action, and that understanding them and the way they interact is critical to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of organisations and strategies, must both hold water with people who think about this kind of stuff but also resonate with a thoughtful general reader.

Imagine piles of plates. The plates in each pile are of different sizes, some fit neatly together, others less so and some plates cross over into two piles. But, still, if you stand back it is clear that there are three different piles; if you were describing them or thinking about how you might build them up and break them down it would be the ‘threeness’ of the arrangement that would be the most useful starting point, especially if you wanted somehow to explore building a platform across them all. This is what I am trying to prove to myself.

The potential book itself is not simply, or mainly, a description of the conceptual piles (which is by the way a painful condition from which I frequently suffer). It is about how the best solutions are built across all three, about how and why in most circumstances this isn’t possible because the piles are different sizes or they are leaning away from each other, and about what we need to do right now in Britain to grow and shape those piles so that there is the basis for a platform across them. But unless the piles themselves make sense none of the rest of it works.

Sorry to labour the metaphor but if you were to build a pile of plates you would presumably start with the widest and toughest ones as the base. My hunch is that most robust starting point is three voices in our head: ‘I’ll do what I’m told’. ‘I’ll do what I want to do’ and ‘I’ll do what the group needs me to do’.

The next layer might be to trace the evolutionary foundation of these voices in leadership and followership, survival and reciprocity and communality (particularly group parenting).  From there we might a layer relating to a behavioural disposition; obedience, ambition, and responsibility. Moving to the social level, the next layer might comprise the social expression of each pillar of ideas; respectively, hierarchy, market, and community. Then there are the forms of rationality which can be added in turn; bureaucratic, individualist and solidaristic.

In my last post I overlaid the core values of the enlightenment, which can be seen as powerful ways of both legitimating and shaping core human drives; the belief in progress aligning with hierarchy, autonomy with individualism and universalism with group identity. Even more tentatively, how about the Freudian personality triptych; ego as the conventional responses we learn as children through the authority of adults, id as the primal drive of self-gratification and super-ego as the call of social responsibility?


Do what I’m told

Do what I want

Do what the group needs

Evolutionary basis

Leadership and followership

Survival and reciprocity

Communality (‘alloparenting’)

Behavioural disposition




Social structure




Form of rationality




Alignment with enlightenment values




Components of personality





But as the piles rise, so they start to wobble. The principle of universalism, for example, is on the one hand, pursued in the modern world primarily thought the expansion of individual rights and, on the other, implies a common bond of humanity in contrast to ‘solidarity’ which usually expressed in terms of bounded group membership.

The higher I build the piles of conceptual plates the more comprehensive the theory and the more it links big social trends to individual predispositions which any reader can recognise, but also the more prone to collapse is the whole schema.

Should I keep it simple, should I be ambitious or should I give up the whole endeavour?


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