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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Where is the shared Understanding and Vision?

There must be tens of thousands of books (in the English language) about the global financial crisis and the deeper malaise it revealed but most writers focus on diagnosis and are reluctant to put their name to detailed prescriptions. With the exception, perhaps, of the banking crisis where the many and divergent diagnoses (Howard Davies counted 39) did generally lead to detailed prescriptions – few of which, however, have been implemented.
One further lack, for me, is any serious effort to create a typology which might help create a shared agenda for change. Rather, various kinds of expert give us their particular view - matching their prejudices or those of their putative readers. For example -

·         In the UK, Will Hutton has been giving us a powerful systemic critique of the coherence of neo-liberal thinking and policies since The State We’re In (1995) although his latest - Them and Us  (2010) – was weaker on alternatives and fails to mention a lot of relevant work.
·         Since When Corporations Rule the World (1995) David Korten has, in the US, been critiquing the operation of companies and setting out alternatives – using both books and a website. One of his latest books is Agenda for a new economy - much of which can be accessed at Google Scholar.
·         And Paul Kingsnorth’s One No – many Yeses; a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement gives a marvellous sense of the energy a lot of people are spending fighting global capitalism in a variety of very different ways.

The Guide for the Perplexed which I drafted a couple of years ago did offer (from para 9 onwards) a rather crude initial typology modelled on that of the approach of the capacity development literature which is interested in how to make organisations more “effective” and recognises three levels of work - the individual (micro); the organisation (meso); and the wider system (macro).
Decisions about organisational improvement are taken by those with power in organisations who are reluctant to identify those at the top as the cause of poor performance – so it’s generally the foot-soldiers at the micro level who are to blame and “skill development” and “better training” which is identified as the solution.
But more systemic change for organisations (the meso level) as part of the cut and thrust of competition did become the norm in anglo-saxon countries in the last 50 years, bolstered by the theories of management gurus.

As someone who has spent the last 20 years in contracts to improve the performance of state organisations (local and national) in ex-communist countries, I slowly realised that the key lever for change (at least in such countries) was at the macro level and governed not only by the legal framework establishing the various institutions but by to the informal processes in (and interactions between) political, commercial and legal systems. I’ve written quite a bit about this eg here

The challenge of the global crisis is to mobilise civic power with a coherent agenda which forces appropriate changes in the (national and global) legal frameworks. Political, financial and leaders will, of course, resist such changes. The question is how to put the various pieces together.
What is the sequencing? A unifying agenda? Mobilisation?

What I want to do in this post is to use the framework of the Draft Guide for the Perplexed paper to –
- remind us of the sort of texts which have been urging change over the past 15-20 years
- see if and how such writers have changed their diagnosis, prescriptions and tactics in the light of the crisis of the past five years.

1. Meso Change – the commercial world
·         Paul Hawken published in 2000 an important book Natural Capitalism  which showed the economic benefits which could flow from a variety of ecological products. Ernst von Weizsaecker has long been an eloquent spokesman for this approach see the 2009 Factor Five report for the Club of Rome.
·         Peter Barnes published in 2006 a thoughtful critique and alternative vision - Capitalism 3.0  - based on his entrepreneurial experience. All 200 pages can be downloaded from this internet link.
·         William Davies published a useful booklet Reinventing the Firm (Demos 2009) which suggests some adjustments to corporate legislation on similar lines to Hutton.

2. Meso-change; community enterprise
·         Perhaps the most coherent and readable text, however, comes from an Irish economist Richard Douthwaite whose 2003 book Short Circuit – strengthening local economies for security in an unstable world  is a marvellous combination of analysis and case-studies of successful community initiatives. The opening pages give a particularly powerful visio.
·         Bill McKibben’s writings are also inspirational- eg Deep Economy: Economics as if the World Mattered

3. The system changers
The indefatigable writers on the left are stronger on description than prescription –
-  David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital does try to sketch out a few alternatives.
- Olin Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias which instances the amazing Mondragon cooperatives but is otherwise an incestuous academic scribble.

But the people at the Centre for the advancement of the steady state economy have a well-thought through position – see their report Enough is enough  (CASSE 2010).

I'll keep the "micro" school of thinking (best represented by Robert Quinn) for another post. 
The pity is that there is not enough cross-referencing by the various authors to allow us to extract the commonalities and identify the gaps. Each writer, it seems, has to forge a distinctive slant. Douthwaite is one exception.
One of David Korten’s most recent books suggests that - Leadership for transformation must come, as it always does, from outside the institutions of power. This requires building a powerful social movement based on a shared understanding of the roots of the problem and a shared vision of the path to its resolution.
This definition contains three of the crucial ingredients for the social change on the scale we need –
·                     External pressure
·                     Shared understanding of causes of problem
·                     Shared vision

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