I'm on my way to Brighton where, as the proud holder of an honorary doctorate from Brighton University, I will sit on the stage at the graduation ceremony. In a reflective mood, I thought it might be useful to summarise my current world view in seven short propositions:
The economic crisis is over, the economic challenge deepens.
As was inevitable, the economy has started to grow again (although its inevitability hasn't stopped Labour looking wrong footed). However, this growth, which is partly cyclical and partly driven by the same behaviours which got us into the 2008 mess, cannot disguise deeper challenges. Stagnant or falling living standards, massive under-employment, geographical unbalancing, weak exports and a growing public finance gap between needs and resources are all huge and pressing questions to which we have, at present, no convincing answers.
We, the people, have to change.
Wise policy is always to be preferred, but policy alone will not solve the problems that most matter. We continue to face a 'social aspiration gap' between the collective future to which we aspire and the destination to which current forms of behaviour and thought are marching us. In short, we need a citizenry which is in the broadest senses more politically engaged, economically resourceful and socially responsible.
To change habits of mind and behaviour we should look to institutions....
But institutions - as sustained and structured sets of relationships established within some kind of organisational or legal boundary (from the family to the firm, from Citizens UK to the United Nations) - have tended to be underemphasised by a centre right which focuses on individuals and markets and a centre left which focuses on the state and society at large.
Institutions as loci of clumsiness
There are three primary forms of social power that can be mobilised to solve problems and enhance human welfare - individualism, hierarchical authority and solidarity. Expressing all three forms is an eternal challenge because whilst the best (clumsy) solutions tap into all three they have also to manage the inherent tensions between these ways of thinking about and pursuing change. Indeed, in part the three perspectives on/forms of power derive their dynamism from their critique of each other. Successful institutions can be seen as offering a structural solution (albeit contingent) to the challenge of combining the power sources.
The need for institutional renewal and invention
However, institutions are subject both to endogenous inertia and exogenous destabilisation. An example of the former lies in the distinction made by Max Weber between substantive (value based) goals and procedural (rule-based) goals. As the great sociologist argued, there is a tendency in bureaucracies for the procedural to crowd out the substantive (something which both reduces solidaristic commitment and hierarchical legitimacy). An example of the latter is the way that changes in technology (from big mainframes to hand held social interfaces) have shifted technology from being a source of hierarchical power to being a constant challenge to it. Therefore, as we seek ways to bring the power sources together to increase capacity and solve problems (in other words, to pursue social progress) we must be continually in the game of reforming and inventing institutions.
A new politics of institutional creation
At its best, institution building and adaptation is a democratic, experimental, multi-disciplinary process. Conventional politics is doubly dysfunctional. It is itself in thrall to a set of crumbling institutions (political parties, the Whitehall system, the national media). Partly as a result, but also partly due to the profound failings of statist social democracy and free market individualism, modern politicians are either oblivious to the need for, or incompetent to the task of, institutional renewal and invention.
Those who broadly subscribe to this world view should approach or redefine all social problems as, to some degree, institutional problems, should develop the skills of institution building, should form new alliances with others in the same business, and should seek to exemplify this spirit in the institutions we ourselves lead or participate in. Thus Ghandi's suggestion that we seek to be the change we want to see in the world can move from a commendable but apparently pious injunction into a method of political action and social creation.
Have a nice weekend folks ...