Debattenbeitrag

Rechter Zeitgeist

A Challenge to Democracy and How to Overcome it


How do our hierarchical, solidaristic, and individualistic impulses align to shape how we perceive and live democracy? The intertwining of these three cultural frameworks determine societal structures and have been applied in different constellations throughout history; the era of enlightenment, the post-war period, and the era of neoliberalism, as examples. Moving forward as a society, we need not only a rethinking of those frameworks, but also a bold, reimagined social settlement.


The following speech was held by Matthew Taylor at the Progressive Governance Symposium 2019 in Berlin. You can watch the whole speech here.


I am going to start with some history, some psychology, and some anthropology—just to raise the intellectual tone a little—if that’s okay. I am sure you can stick with me.

John Hurst, in his Short History of Europe, argues that the European Project is really created out of three traditions: the Graeco-Roman tradition, which at its heart assumes the world to be logical and ordered. Secondly, the Christian tradition, which assumes the world to be evil, and that we can only be saved by our faith and our affiliation to the church. Thirdly, the tradition of Germanic warrior tribes which is based on the notion that fighting is fun and that conquest is great.

So, order, values, and competition—this is what John Hurst sees as the origins of the emergence Europe and that frames the medieval period. Let’s shift to a completely different thing, but if you pay attention, you will spot the theme.

Charles Leadbeater, who is a futurist, management consultant, and a writer who works closely with the RSA, did a piece of work a few years ago. He looked at some of the most creative and innovative organisations in the world. He looked at Pixar, the animating company, FC Barcelona, the football club, an Indian social enterprise, a Cambridge molecular biology lab that was winning global prizes at the time. He asked what these organisations had in common.

What he found he phrased as “creative communities with a cause.” They combined a particular type of cause-based strategic leadership, a sense of commitment and collaboration to achieving something in the world, but also creativity, giving people autonomy and space to take risks, to be innovative.

Psychology. The underpinning of the positive psychology movement lies in a theory called self-determination theory. Self-determination theory says that there are three fundamental human motivations. Those are: Firstly, mastery (the desire to be as good as you can be, at the thing that you have chosen to be), connectedness, and autonomy.

Finally, anthropology. Mary Douglas, the British anthropologist, and a group of her followers developed a way of thinking about cultures—a typology of cultures. This was a typology based upon ways of thinking, but also about ways humans do things best together. She and her followers said that in the end there are three ways, three frames that people have.

First is the hierarchical frame, which says what matters to get things done is authority, expertise, and strategy. Second is the solidaristic frame, which says what matters is that we share values, that we are members of the same tribe, that what we have in common drives us. Third is the individualistic perspective, which says that what matters is maximising the scope for people to do what they want to do. This theory also identifies a fourth perspective: the fatalistic, but I won’t go into that.

So, hopefully you can spot a theme. I would argue that organisations, places, societies are at their most effective when the hierarchical, the solidaristic, and the individualistic impulses which run in us as people and then are replicated at every level of society, are expressed and aligned. That’s when the magic starts to happen.

So if you look at the history of humanity, broadly speaking, pre-history is a solidaristic period. That is the fundamental way human beings are organised—small, egalitarian groups. If you move into the period of civilisation, we move into hierarchical domination, where societies are fundamentally structured around hierarchies stretching from gods down to slaves. And then, with the enlightenment, we move into an age of individualism. Arguably, the triumph of the West is the fact that individualism joins with hierarchy and solidarity and creates an incredible dynamic. Now, we shouldn’t miss out that in this triumph of the West is the history of colonialism, oppression, and exploitation. But nevertheless, here is also an aligning of human potential which creates that incredible dynamism.

When we talk about individualism at the level of society, we are talking primarily about markets as the primary institution. The state is the primary institution of hierarchy and civil society is the primary institution of solidarity.

Individualism, as we know, creates problems. Its capacity to expand and take over society creates problems. Particularly, it generates monopolistic practices. It generates inequality—systemically. And to that, in a modern era, we add a kind of hyper-individualism of consumerism, and now the impact of social media as well.

So, we have a society which is dominated by individualism and that individualism is dynamic and creative, but it generates all sorts of pathologies and challenges as well. You could argue that the role of hierarchy at the level of government—the role of the state –is to balance the individualistic and solidaristic forces of society and hold them in creative tension.

This indeed would be in many peoples’ accounts of the success of the post-war decades. Relatively self-confident governments with a clear understanding of their role to hold the system together to avoid what had happened in the pre-war period. To maintain social partnership, committed to ensuring that the economy benefited everybody. But as we know, that post-war model then broke down.

We then moved into the period of neoliberalism. And of course, everything I say is a generalisation because every country is different and we in Britain, and the Americans as well, are more neoliberal. The rest of continental Europe never entered into the neoliberal paradigm with the same enthusiasm. But nevertheless, neoliberalism is the dominant ideology. Now what does neoliberalism represent in relation to the theory that I described?

Neoliberalism is fundamentally a system that argues individualism and the methods of individualism are what drives the world around us, and that the role of the hierarchy—the role of the state—is fundamentally to facilitate individualism, to expand markets, to maximise the scope of individualism, its dynamism, its innovation, its creativity—to do its magic work. And, if the state supports the dynamics of individualism, then what individualism gives back through economic growth is some money to the state, which the state can use to ameliorate some of the effects of rampant individualism. That is the neoliberal model.

The progressive governance initiative fundamentally starts with that assumption. This is what Clinton, Blair, and Schroeder are talking about in the beginning. This is the story: we will facilitate individualism and this will generate growth and we can use that growth to do some good things. Now, the interesting thing to note is that solidarity is largely absent from that story. As long as people are getting better off, it does not matter if there is growing inequality. And, there is a kind of blindness to the fact that many places are being left behind. As the OECD admitted a couple of years ago, when their head of economic development came to speak at the RSA and said: “We never looked below the aggregate figures.”

So, a blindness to how places are being left behind. The same places which, for example, voted for BREXIT, which have voted for Trump. But as well as a blindness to a kind of left account of social justice and social inclusion, there is also a blindness to a right account of solidarity which has to do with nation and tribe, belonging and cohesion, and tradition. Under neoliberalism, solidarity is pushed to the margins. Indeed it is implicitly seen as something that’s holding back social progress.

What we see now in politics is the expression of a solidarity deficit. That solidarity deficit takes different forms. The left argues that this is a solidarity deficit which has to do with social injustice and the oppression of minority groups and the capture of politics by elites, whereas the right says the solidarity deficit stems from the fact that we have ignored the nation, we’ve ignored our tribe, we’ve ignored our faith, the bonds that we have together. This politics of the solidarity deficit is visceral.

When you have a hierarchical debate, it is a technocratic, about what’s the best thing to do. If you have an individualistic debate, it’s a debate about my interest versus your interest. But if you have a solidaristic debate, it is my tribe vs your tribe, it is my values versus your values. It is a visceral debate, drenched in morality and identity, which is why politics feel so intractable right now.

Let me draw some conclusions. If you agree that progress involves combining and aligning authority, values, individualism, and that’s what makes organisations, people, places thrive what to you do in the face of those forces being unbalanced? The natural thing to do is: well let’s just turn that missing thing up, like a graphic equaliser, and everything will balance again. So left and right populism have an implicit belief that we simply need to dial up their form of solidarity to get back on track. But that does not work. It does not work because the system is dynamic. Let me give you two examples why it doesn’t work.

For the last thirty years, governments around the world have practised something you call new public management. New Public management is the attempt to drive individualism to public services. Government is good at hierarchy. It’s reasonably good at solidarity. It’s not great at innovation and risk taking. So what do we get? We get billions of dollars, huge amounts of change around it imposing markets on public services, stronger incentives on public services, contracting out of services. But the evidence is now clear. New Public Management has been a failure and a pretty catastrophic one. 

There is another example: corporate social responsibility. It is the attempt of corporates because businesses are good at hierarchy and good at individualism to assert that they also have strong and benign shared values. The rise of corporate social responsibility has been accompanied on the one hand by a whole variety of examples of growth corporate malfeasance ranging from the banks to VW Diesel emissions to probably Boeing will turn out to be the biggest corporate scandal of all time, I suspect. And it has been also accompanied by an ever-lowering public trust in big business. So, these two examples have been an abject failure.

You cannot tinker with the system. The system as a whole needs to be reformed. You cannot simply say: “Well, what we need to do as Progressives is to talk a bit more about nationhood, and then things will be fine.” “Have a tougher policy on immigration then things will be fine.” “Redistribute a bit more than things will be fine.” This is not how it will work.

We have to reimagine a new social settlement. We have to be as bold and as brave and as creative and as determined as were the architects of the post war settlement. And so my final minute: what might be the foundation of that new settlement. Because a new settlement needs to reconstitute what is meant by solidarity, and we need a story about nationhood and about belonging, and about cohesion. But we also need missions that will mobilise people. Tackling climate change is such a mission. Making sure that technology works for social good is such mission. And, we need not just to talk about redistribution. We need to talk about dignity, empathy, respect, we need an account and a discussion on what solidarity means that is socially intelligent rather than merely around the metrics of inequality.

Secondly, we need a new idea of individualism. And yes, this is around entitlements, around ideas like universal basic income or other notions of ensuring that people have the basics that they need in order to thrive as individuals. But it is also about rediscovering the romantic tradition and what Roberto Unger talks about: ‘The larger life for all’. It is having an account of individual flourishing, an agency and fulfilment an inspiring account of what we believe humanity is capable of. We as progressives need the individualists who mean it because we understand what individual fulfilment is really about, and it isn’t just possessive individualism.

And, then finally, we have to review hierarchy, and this is where I end.

We have two debates at the moment. And, they are really interesting debates, but they are just not joining up. One is around democratic innovation. We are seeing in cities like Madrid, Gdansk, Frankfurt, countries like Canada, lots of experimentation with more deliberative forms of democracy. We need to devolve power as well. So, we need democratic innovation, we need to make our democracy work. Thus, the notion of representation, which is the heart of our democratic system, is broken in many ways. We still need representative democracy. But it is not sufficient in itself and it will not regain its legitimacy.

And, then secondly there’s a debate around governmental experimentation. Different forms of governing, different forms of policy, more experimental, more agile, more engaging the public as partners, blurring the boundaries between the state and civil society. Unfortunately, these debates do not really touch each other, they’re different kinds of communities and they need to come together to reinvent our democratic institutions and public sphere.

We have to reimagine a social settlement. This has to be what we do to renew progressivism, and in that process the place I think we need to start is renewing hierarchical legitimacy. That is where it seems to me the momentum is because unless we renew the legitimacy of leadership and authority, then it’s very difficult to imagine anything else being done.

Thank you!