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The week before last, David Cameron was reproached for appearing to have thrown in the economic towel during an interview with the Daily Telegraph. In fairness, he only said that he couldn’t “see any time soon” when the country would be back on its feet. Yet this was enough for him to be painted as a downbeat defeatist, even by the Telegraph itself. I very much doubt that Cameron is a pessimist in any sense of the word. Witness, for instance, his talk to business leaders on the opening day of the Olympic ceremony where he declared he was “absolutely determined that Britain will be one of the success stories of the next few decades.”

However, what was just a slip of the tongue from Cameron may have actually summed up one of the defining features of our current era: a new found fatalism. An enduring economic crisis combined with a series of scandals engulfing our most prominent institutions – Parliament, the press, the banking industry and the police – appears to have sown within the public consciousness not only distrust but also confusion. Indeed, over the course of just a few years it has become increasingly difficult to determine what’s going on, who’s in charge and how, if at all, they can get us out of the various economic, social and environmental predicaments we currently find ourselves in. Confusion, it seems, has become our default setting.

When people are confronted on a daily basis by stories of yet another corruption scandal, of the ice caps melting much faster than previously thought, and of an enduring ‘Euro sovereign-debt crisis’ which will cost an incomprehensible £X amount of billions to solve, you cannot blame them for feeling overwhelmed. Indeed, it occasionally feels as though we are being hit by a double whammy: while the challenges are getting deeper and more complex, the means by which we are able to deal with those problems using our existing institutions seem less and less laudable. As apparent pawns in a worldwide system of multinational corporates, this can only serve to make us feel somewhat helpless in the face of unprecedented change.

In a recent LRB review of Ferdinand Mount’s new book on the rise of oligarchs, David Runciman suggests that this confusion is being orchestrated by certain groups in order that they can keep a grip on power:

…knowledge is not always power. Sometimes, confusion is power as well. The finance executives don’t really know what they are doing, as we have discovered in the last few years. But they have created a world that no one else understands either, which gives them all the freedom they need.

He also notes that our institutions and leaders are reluctant to take action or speak out in case they are revealed as not knowing what they’re doing:

…globalisation is a cover story for indecision and fear. It does not drive the concentration of power and wealth according to rational measures of market forces but it sows enough confusion and uncertainty to make decisive action look like too much trouble. Politicians who suspect that they don’t know what they are doing are reluctant to do anything that might confirm it.

All in all, it could be argued that this has turned many of us into fatalists, either resigned to defeat – global warming is a fact of life and the economic dominance of the east is inevitable – or merely hoping for the best. To return to the topic of ‘cultural theory’ which I’ve written about in previous blogs, it may be that we are witnessing a shift in public consciousness from low to high ‘Grid orientation’. For those who are new to this domain, Mary Douglas, the first proponent of cultural theory, argued that there are several ways of organising and perceiving social life: egalitarianism, individualism, hierarchicalism and fatalism. These ‘cultural understandings’ are all defined to some extent by two discreet criteria: Grid and Group. Grid refers to the importance of rules, roles and structures, and Group to the significance of the collective. The academic Keith Grint uses the example of a football team to describe a culture oriented around a Group, and that of government bureaucracy to describe a culture oriented around a Grid.

Diagram taken from Keith Grint's article 'Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: the Role of Leadership'

It is possible to conceive of confusion as a key driver of more Grid-like cultures. That is, as a cause of greater fatalism and hierarchicalism. When life becomes too chaotic, there are perhaps two likely responses: either you react by trying to prop up the system through embracing new rules and roles (see a blog on this here), or you react by fearing the confusing system of ‘hidden’ power relationships and resigning yourself to hope for the best.

Clearly the inertia brought about by a more fatalist culture is not to be welcomed. It arrives at precisely the moment which demands greater action from people to do more to improve their lives and those around them. Worse still, it may lead to a self-perpetuating downward spiral. The inability to address today’s challenges means confusion continues to grow, which in turn arguably sets off a shift towards even greater fatalism.

So what to do about it? Here I agree with David Runciman’s analysis: “If the problem if confusion and fear, then the solution would seem to be greater clarity about who has the power and what it can be used for.” This suggests that the popular idea of handing down ever greater amounts of ‘control’ to people and local areas is, for all its theoretical benefits and admirable motives, deeply flawed. That the vast majority of people rejected AV and mayoral elections at a time of great confusion and institutional upheaval is no coincidence. The priority for the government should be to get a grip on the reins of power, consolidate our main institutions and reassure people that they able to deal with the problems of the day (while being candid about the difficulties of doing so).

Gerald Ford once said that "that moral progress comes not in comfortable and complacent times, but out of trial and confusion.” Let’s hope he’s right.


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