Economically, nothing much happened for 130 millennia of human history. Then 250 years ago all hell broke loose. So wrote the economist Eric Beinhocker and he was not wrong.
There were brief explosions of inventiveness, such as during the Roman Empire, but these would come to an end with the fall of the political system that sustained them. Average incomes improved at glacial rates: in the first century AD, most people could expect an income of around $1.20 a day; by the 18th, it had risen to $1.70.
This all changed in the late 1700s. Britain became the birthplace of an extraordinary revolution that would come to transform the world. Modern capitalism was being built on the back of an enormous flowering of commercial innovation: new machines, new products, new production systems, new business structures and new markets came to life. Read more
In the last century, the idea took hold that the state should expand to provide the public services and social security that the free market was unable to deliver on its own. The corollary was the need to fund this expansion through higher levels of taxation. But this conception of tax-funded services provided directly by the state is proving deeply problematic in an era increasingly defined by creativity and self-determination.
The problem emerges because the current model of the state was developed in the first half of the twentieth century when technocratic elitism was in its prime. The faith placed in the power of a small, educated set of technical specialists to deliver beneficial outcomes for any and all areas of life was enormous. Read more
In 1988, 348 assorted celebrities, intellectuals and political activists wrote to The New Statesman to announce the launch of a new charter for constitutional reform. The public response was strong and within a year or so a formal pressure group was formed. Charter 88, as it was called, was soon having a major influence, playing a particularly big role in shaping the manifesto commitments of the Labour Party which was to be elected with a thumping majority in 1997. This was a heady period when it seemed that a young, forward-looking government might finally bring about a major reshaping of the constitutional settlement in the UK. The reality was somewhat less inspiring. Read more
Technology makes politicians and parties redundant but they won’t go without a big push into the dustbin
A quick post to highlight a good piece today by Daniel Finkelstein. Behind The Times paywall unfortunately but his core argument is that the rationale for politicians and parties is losing its resonance. The opinion aggregation that is their main raison d’etre no longer makes much sense in a world where new technologies are far better at fulfilling this task. He also predicts the decline of political parties for, as he says, “if it is possible to contact voters without a party machine, the power of the machine will decline”.
This all chimes closely with identical themes I have explored on this blog. In fact, Finkelstein goes even further than me arguing that many of the governing and decision-making functions assigned to our leaders will soon be done better by artificial intelligence. Read more
I’ve just come across this story from Steven Levy’s great book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. It pretty much tells you all need to know about the role of technology in our current explosion of creativity; what we at the RSA call the ‘power to create‘.
In the Summer of 1973 a small group of geeks called Community Memory had revolution on their minds. They were seized by the notion that the huge power of computers should be available to everybody not just the government and vast corporations like IBM. So they did something that had never been done before: they let ‘ordinary’ people use a computer. They placed a makeshift terminal outside a particularly hip record store in Berkeley, California. As they said in a handout, the “Model 33″ was an attempt to create “a communication system which allows people to make contact with each other on the basis of mutually expressed interests without having to cede judgement to third parties.” Read more
I’m planning to write a book over the next few months. It will be called Small is Powerful: why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing).
It’s being published by the brilliantly imaginative crowd-funding publisher Unbound, so if you like the themes and want to back the book, keep an eye out for the pitch when it is uploaded in the next few weeks.
The key argument in the book is that for much of the last century there was a ‘big consensus’. Big concentrations of political, economic, social and cultural power were celebrated and encouraged. Since the 1970s, however, that consensus has been increasingly undermined both in theory and practice. This is good; it’s a shift which holds out the promise of a fairer, stabler, freer and more creative world. The book will argue, however, that the shift to a small politics, economics and culture is not happening nearly quickly or evenly enough and that, in fact, there are some powerful forces trying to turn back the years. In short, it’s time for the ‘smallists’ to stand up and be counted.
That’s the elevator pitch. I’ll be posting more detailed accounts of different parts of the argument as I write the book. In the meantime, here are my rough thoughts on the historical background to the book’s claims which will form the core of the first chapter. Read more
The UKIP story can end one of three ways. None of them, despite Nigel Farage’s claims to be at the head of a “people’s army”, will resolve the problem of political alienation.
UKIP could crash and burn at the next election registering maybe just 2% of the vote, never to recover the popularity of the last week. The main parties will breathe a big sigh of relief and Farage will be consigned to the dustbin of history as Karl Marx almost certainly would have said. Politics will continue as usual with the persistent simmering of discontent from the population undiminished. Read more
The media may have concentrated on Theresa May’s speech but the more profound news from yesterday’s Police Federation conference is the fact that all thirty-six of the RSA Independent Review’s recommendations were accepted as a total package of reform by an overwhelming vote of the delegates.
This is a huge step for the Federation. For once the phrase “root and branch reform” is completely appropriate. The Fed has agreed to totally new arrangements for it senior officers, its executive committee, its local structures, its finances and its core purpose. It has even agreed to cut membership fees.
For the first time in many years that means it is possible to say the following without any hint of irony: the Police Federation could act as a model to other organisations particularly trade unions.
Three aspects of the Federation reforms should, in my view, be considered by other unions. Read more
It is not widely known that John Maynard Keynes and E.F.Schumacher – author of Small is Beautiful and originator of Buddhist Economics – were colleagues. The two worked together on Keynes’s plans for a reshaped international economic order to follow the Second World War and it was reported by one reputable source that Keynes even saw Schumacher as his natural successor.
However, by the time Schumacher came to publish Small is Beautiful in 1973 he was deeply critical of Keynes’s perspective. The point of difference was over the purpose of work and employment. Read more
Yet more discussion of Piketty – this time on Newsnight. As some have half-jokingly suggested (£) we are experiencing a Piketty bubble which will burst very soon. This would be a shame because what Piketty’s analysis does is place the focus of public debate back on the issue of ownership. And there are few issues more fundamental. Read more