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20 December 2012

The left must abandon the idea of change from above

The rusted levers of the central state simply cannot cope with the complexity of the new world.

By Neal Lawson

If there is one feature, above all, which manifests itself in our public and economic lives it is this: the shift from ‘them to us’.  It is the shift from a way of being for both organisations and individuals that is centralised and hierarchical to a world that is decentralised and horizontal. The implications are profound.

What we are witnessing is the breaking up of old tectonic plates born of the centralising forces of the early and mid decades of the last century. The on-going crisis at the BBC, the archetype of this organisational form, this week labelled “incapable and chaotic” over the Savile affair, is witness to the cumbersome and ineffectual nature of this type of antiquated structure. 

But all our big old institutions are in crisis; the media more generally, banking, the police and the political establishment are all finding themselves unable to cope, react or adjust to new pressures and demands. Under pressure, they react the only way they can – through different shades of managerial and technocratic responses that simply make matters worse by showing how out of touch and tune they are. Old systems that are closed, rigid, hard and hierarchical are finding it increasingly tough dealing with new systems that are open, malleable, soft and horizontal.

This process cannot be clear-cut. Paradigm shifts are always a slow and messy burn. And what is happening is more than the pendulum swing between right and left. There is no natural political winner from the ‘them to us’ switch. The new devolved and decentralised forms can be a privatised and individualised as much as they can be ‘publicised’ and socialised.  Much of this new ‘us’ world is built around technology, the morality of which is strictly neutral. It can end up with Amazon or Avaaz.

The switch gives progressives an opening but only if we can tear ourselves away from the essentially Leninist/Fordist model that says “socialism is what a Labour government does”. This outsourcing of socialism to an elite is typical of the old world. The rusted levers of the central state simply cannot cope with the complexity of the dispersed systems of the new world. People want to do things for themselves and where they don’t, things will go wrong. You cannot outsource socialism or the socialisation of your children to the market or the state – you have to co-produce it by getting involved and investing part of yourself in it. It’s the only way things really work.

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The idea of the democratisation of our common life, more than anything else, must be the motif that runs through the radical politics of the future. In economic development the emphasis should be on local democratic ownership and the same vision should be applied to comprehensive schooling and health. Other essentially public assets like railways and trains should be taken back into public ownership but not to resurrect the monoliths of the past – but to create new regional and local enterprises that are accountable to the people and institutions they serve.

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“The old is dying and the new cannot be born,” said Antonio Gramsci, the celebrated Italian Marxist. But the contours of the new can be seen all around us; from peer-to peer design, production and servicing. From on-line banks like Zopa where people lend to each other and cut out the old banks, to Wikipedia, our first port of call on any research project, from political campaigning vehicles like 38 Degrees in which over one million decide the issue and then make the campaign happen, to on the ground change through organisations like Locality.

Zygmunt Bauman, the still prolific octogenarian sociologist, describes this world as “liquid modern”. The old edifices still exist but the security they offered has long gone.  It is a world in which we are both blessed and cursed with freedom without security, which, as we are finding, is a frustratingly hollow form of being free.  The thin ice on which we skate in our daily lives, the effort to keep up and the fear and anxiety of what lies around the corner, the insecurity that overshadows the liberation of the mobile and iPad, can only be traversed by skating faster.

The challenge to the exhaustion and pointlessness of so much of modern life is to find ways of being secure while still being free – not from the top down, not by relying on someone else to make us secure. No one can. Only we can. The fight and struggle of the future will be about how we knit together a social and economic fabric that enables us to be creative and innovative the best way we can – with others. It is a future that will be negotiated, with alliances formed and reformed around different issues and the thread that runs through it all won’t be a single party but a belief in the capacity of people collectively to shape their world.