Why have we lost control and how can we regain it?

May 2, 2014 by
Filed under: Enterprise 

democracyinamericaDuring my adolescence and my twenties, I often wondered what it would be like to live through a time of major change. You may think this is strange given my early adolescence saw the falling of the Berlin Wall and the end of Apartheid in South Africa. These were global changes but somehow felt far away. Then came ‘The End of History’ and it felt that way. Western democracies recovered from an early 1990s recession and then entered a period of seemingly benign growth and tranquillity.

There was an uneasy calm about the post-millennial world - shattered by 9/11. Then we were talking about the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ rather than ‘The End of History’. Strangely, despite apocalyptic predictions, two failed wars and a loss of life on a terrifying scale, 9/11 seems to mark a diversion rather than a fundamental change. There is actually something bigger that is going on. Then came the crash. At the time, we were worried about man-made climate change. Suddenly, we were worried about our entire economic structure. We no longer feel able to control our destiny. Complex systems – economic, cultural and environmental – surround us. Yet we have lost a sense of agency. There is a reason for that. We have.

To understand why, we have to understand how power is transforming in our societies. There isn’t a single cause of this. It is cognitive, technological, cultural, political, scientific, financial, environmental and even spiritual. Yet, we do not yet have a map to understand why we have lost a sense of agency- nor how to regain it.

At its core, these changes are therefore about power – where is resides, who has access to it, how it operates, how we can regain it, and how we can steer it in a better direction. The stability of my generation (Generation X since you ask) and the baby boomers has been replaced by pervasive change that the generation above the baby boomers will fear and the millennial generation are likely to embrace once they make sense of the chaos of their twenties. If they don’t, then the generation behind them will; they have to.

We can see the changes: pervasive information and social technology, environmental degradation, global geo-politics and financial muscle, the aggregation of global financial power in petro-states and global corporates, value shift, and demographic changes (an ageing West/some of Asia and a young South Asia, Africa and Middle East). On the other side we have resistant hierarchies such as nation-states that are weakening and the politics of anger and passion (the populism of the Far Right, aggressive nationalism, and left wing non-realism).

Matthew Taylor often quotes Mary Douglas’s three cultural powers theory: hierarchy, solidarity and individualism. Political power is about collective decision-making. So there is perhaps a slightly different trinity in this context, albeit one that has a synergy and relationship with the three cultural powers. They are as follows:

-          Systems-hierarchies (Hobbes, Weber, Hegel)

-          Passion-populism (Weber, Nietzsche)

-          Creative-civic (Tocqueville, Polanyi)

These are not mutually exclusive- power sits across these three areas. The question is how these fundamental political forces are currently moving from an inert state to a highly reactive one. Suddenly the context is no longer benign as we have seen. Yet, we have a battle between stuck systems/institutions (nation states, big corporate power), new civic/creative challengers (social/economic entrepreneurs, new types of collaborative companies, and new networks of interest), and a passion driven, populist resistance to old hierarchies or the political establishment as they like to call it. It’s as if an electrical charge has been zapped through our societies.

The problem is that we use these powers in historically/culturally path dependent ways so the tensions become more acute. The rationalism of the nation-state as a system-hierarchy is good when talking to other states (treaty writing as per Kyoto or the Treaty of Rome), or when universal rules are needed (eg tax collection) but bad at the particular (eg helping troubled families). Passion-populism is critical for mobilisation but can also be corrosive as it fails to offer any real solutions (see UKIP et al). Creative-civic power is good at adapting resources, institutions, and policies to particular needs or ambitions but it is bad at universal welfare and justice. It can also be just as failure prone as passion politics and hierarchy (it’s hard and complex to confront particular, local and personal challenges).

My colleague, Jonathan Rowson, rightly asked me where personal development fits within this model. The way in which we can continue to develop our cognitive, empathetic, creative, knowledge base, and emotional capacities through life is critical to us as individuals and for wider society. It is a necessary corollary of any re-constitution of power – just as a balance of cultural forces will be.

This is notably true of leaders who are driven very much by a combination of individualist impulse and hierarchy. That model of leadership is no longer sufficient. Nor is the wider resort to charisma (emotion) and concentrated power (hierarchy) that underpins such leadership. We need to get creative if we are to face enormous collective challenges in the midst of dizzying change. Charisma and concentrated power currently overwhelm more creative, nimble forces.

There was a hopeful lecture by Jeremy Rifkin earlier this week at the RSA in which he detailed the ways in which the ‘collaborative commons’ was challenging power structures in the energy market (distributed renewable power), mass transportation (self-drive vehicles and drones), manufacturing (3d printing and advanced robotics), and, through the spread of co-operative enterprise, everything from finance to retail. These changes are precisely the challenges to concentrated power and despairing populism that may help us through. But we need to develop ourselves, our leadership, education, and institutions to protect creative-civic power so it can really challenge emotion and hierarchy. Only through a re-balancing of civic, hierarchy and charismatic forces can we embed the power to create – so necessary for our ability to adapt as societies.

So ‘the end of history’ and the ‘clash of civilisations’ can be cast to one side. Instead, Democracy in America and The Great Transformation might be dusted down. Our best hope is more commons, less hierarchy, and less angry populism. A better balance of these forces will invest more power in ourselves as creative agents. As Generation X approaches the middle of its working life, it has a chance to make up for the complacency of its youth. And it has the chance to write a better book.


  • decitect

    As commented on twitter (a pithy 140 characters at that), those in GenX old enough to participate in the U.S. anti-apartheid/divestment movement did have agency. We won that battle – multiple Universities et al divested. It was populism directed at hierarchy. And, it’s revolutionary beauty is that it hit directly at ‘business-as-usual” by leveraging ‘business-as-usual’ and the ‘power of the pocket.

    But sat on our laurels.

    The “Greatest Generation” was concurrently fighting the Cold War (via hierarchy and populism), and they won that with the Fall of the Wall (but also relied on agency of people like Walesa, Pope JP2, and Gorbachev). Collectively,

    We GenXers turned a blind eye to other events percolating below the surface: latent racism (e.g. Rodney King), the rest of the African continent, esp. for women’s rights, Islamic militarism which found it’s roots with Cold War proponents, U.S. Evangelical militarism (OK City), etc. These were hierarchical problems. There was diversity of passion against these elements, nothing coalesced. Times were ‘good’ in the 1990′s with good music to boot. We missed the financial shift totally rotting at the core of those good times. We individualize, we did not collectivize. Millennials, I think, are getting this. Nice article, thanks!

    • anthonypainter

      Great comment- thank you. Yes, the possibility of agency arising from the campaign against Apartheid isn’t given the prominence it deserved in my piece. Consider this a revision. But as you say it all abated. There were two other moments that spring to mind: the Jubilee Debt Campaign/Millennium Development Goals and the election of Obama (though this latter was shared with the Millennials). Both petered out.

      But I’m now even more confident about this power framing seeing you use it in the examples you cite.

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