Regular readers of this blog will know that the RSA has a new worldview called the Power to Create. In short, this is about helping more people in more places to turn their ideas into reality, and thereby become the authors of their own lives. The animation below gives you the gist of what it’s all about.
I broadly subscribe to the vision, except for one assertion: that people are clambering for greater power, and that this is partly down to a decline of deference for the elite. If anything, I think large parts of society are in danger of becoming more docile and revering. As Nick Cohen put it not long ago, ‘the British have no fight in them anymore’.
True, the approval ratings of politicians have plummeted over the last few decades, and it’s hard to see how they could get any worse. Likewise, we know that the religious clergy have lost much of their influence, with ever dwindling numbers turning up to church each week (though the story may be different for non-Christians). Scotland Yard and Fleet Street have also lost huge amounts of respect, in large part due to never-ending scandals. Even big business is seeing its authority undermined. Surveying by Ipsos Mori has found that only 34 per cent of people believe business leaders can be trusted.
Yet my sense is that the diminishing deference we have for these powerbases is simply being replaced with a different kind. Take our servility to celebrity culture. It is easy to dismiss this as light-hearted, but it is stunning how many people appear to be guided by the thoughts and actions of someone they have never met (our craving for celebrity biographies is a case in point). Or look at our resurgent admiration for royalty. Support for the monarchy is at its highest ever level – something that Richard Seymour argues is part of a new-found fetishism with all things Britannia.
Of course, some of this relates to the economic downturn. In times of hardship we will cling to what we know and comfort ourselves in conservatism. But much of our deference is also innate. A multitude of studies from the field of behavioural psychology reveal that we are hardwired to follow the lead of others. Muzafer Sherif’s experiments from the 1930s show that confident individuals can easily sway a group’s attitudes without them realising. Remarkably, these peer effects often stay with the group long after they have separated, and can be passed through generations. Some studies have even shown that we are more likely to defer to the views of other people when they are in uniform.
In a blog I wrote some time ago, I suggested that the UK is experiencing a move to what might be called a ‘grid-like’ culture. The term is derived from cultural theory, which suggests that our behaviours are influenced by the extent to which there is a ‘grid’ or ‘group’ system at play in our social surroundings. The former is founded on rules and hierarchy, whereas the latter emphasises community and egalitarianism. My argument is that our stubborn and arguably growing deference to others indicates the emergence of a new kind of hierarchicalism, fuelled in part by the fatalism that has been borne from the economic crash.
What does this mean for the Power to Create? The central lesson is that we should not assume people are yearning to make their mark on the world, if only the state and big business would get out of the way. Indeed, there is a great deal of groundwork to be done in actually convincing people that being the authors of their own lives is preferable to looking up to others.
This sounds like such a simple proposition, but too often we forget it.