Geoff Mulgan is one of the UK’s most original thinkers about the future of society. He set up the thinktank Demos, advised the early Blair government, and now runs NESTA (an ‘innovation foundation). According to Wikipedia he even trained as a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka. I recently came across his essay on a progressive response to Brexit, Trump etc – it’s brilliant, and although aimed at northern publics, has plenty of resonance for global debates. But at over 20 pages, it risks being condemned to the outer darkness of TL;DR – the depressing acronym for ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’. So here’s some excerpts to whet your appetites:
‘Hegel implied that we should see history, and progress, not as a straight line but rather as a zigzag, shaped by the ways in which people bump into barriers, or face disappointments, and then readjust their course. This framework fits well with where we stand today. The ‘thesis’ that has dominated mainstream politics for the last generation – and continues to be articulated shrilly by many proponents – is the claim that the combination of globalisation, technological progress and liberalisation empowers the great majority.
The antithesis, which, in part, fuelled the votes for Brexit and Trump, as well as the rise of populist parties and populist authoritarian leaders in Europe and beyond, is the argument that this technocratic combination merely empowers a minority and disempowers the majority of citizens.
A more progressive synthesis needs to avoid both nostalgia and the fetishisation of globalisation and technological advance as ends in themselves, rather than as means. And it needs to take seriously the complaints of the bypassed and excluded, the hundreds of millions who feel left behind in a slow lane while the rest of the world hurtles off into a future that’s not for them.’
The paper goes into plenty of detail unpacking the thesis and antithesis, but I’ll stick to the proposed synthesis.
‘At the heart of that needs to be a new approach to power. If the main source of the strident antithesis is a sense of disempowerment then this is where an alternative has to start – not only to shifting power to the people, but also ensuring that people feel that power as well.
We need, in short, to apply a power test to each area of public policy: do policies adequately share power? Are they designed in ways that will help people to feel power over their own lives?’
He then sets out some of the answers in a dozen areas of policy. I’ve included headers and the odd particularly striking para:
Education that grows makers and shapers
Adult skills taken seriously: Few doubt that millions of jobs will either disappear or change as a result of automation, from manufacturing to services and the professions. As that reality dawns, attention will turn to adult education and retraining, to help the millions at risk of losing their jobs adapt to growing industries.
People powered health: Similar considerations apply in health. We need the best possible healthcare, provided by experts using the best available technologies. But we also need patients and the public to take more power and responsibility for their own health.
Welfare to address risk and precarity: The crucial question is whether welfare addresses the most important current needs, and whether it uses the most effective current tools. In many countries, welfare fails both tests. It doesn’t adequately address burgeoning needs for eldercare, or security in precarious labour markets. And it makes little use of digital tools that could make it feasible for governments to offer a much wider range of financial supports, including loans repaid over the lifetime.
Open and inclusive innovation
The fourth industrial revolution reoriented to needs that matter: On the present trajectory, the 4IR promises great benefits. But it also risks leading to a widening divide between vanguards and the rest, accelerating job destruction ahead of job creation; and introducing potentially big threats to personal privacy and cybersecurity.
[Getting to a better place] requires fresh thinking about regulation, about supply chains, taxation and law. It takes us to new ideas like Sweden’s recently introduced tax breaks for maintenance of goods – an attempt to shift the economy away from waste, while also creating jobs; and to some of the technological possibilities around blockchain.
Democracy upgraded: The most problematic part of the current situation is the stagnation of democracy: the view that all politicians are corrupt and self-interested. This fuels the passive anger of electorates, who then revert to faith in populist leaders as the solution to disempowerment.
The alternative is to reshape democracy so that it does provide more genuine power to citizens. That’s not easy, and there have been many false starts and false promises of push-button instant democracy.
The best of these schemes make government more like a collaborative, reflective process of deliberation rather than a permanent referendum. They have the virtue of not only involving the public but also educating them along the way, so, for example, the trade-offs of any decision can be made clear. Reforms to upgrade democracy must be part of the new synthesis too, as a counter to the trends towards a democracy built around spin, deceit and bluster.
Data and the internet: The search for very different models of the internet is bound to become more prominent over the next few years, and will involve power. How can citizens control more of the data that matters to them? How can these great new infrastructures be more accountable?
Migration and democracy: There’s clearly a tension between democracy and open borders. The new synthesis will have to include more overt democratic control over the terms of migration: who comes and on what terms, whether as worker, student, tourist or patient. The only kinds of democracy we know are based in places and so it’s not surprising that control over place is so important to feelings of empowerment.
Government experimentation and adaptation
New platforms and infrastructures for the public
Fleshing out programmes of this kind won’t be easy. But this is the serious work that must start. It requires us to think dialectically, achieving a balance between conflicting ideas, rather than taking them to their logical conclusions, the consistent mistake of the more extreme partisans of globalisation.’
Good eh? So why not click through to the full essay.