Why I’m Starting The Future Transformation Project
We’re living through a time of great crisis. Maybe every period of history feels like a time of great crisis, in one way or another, but at any rate this certainly seems like one. The world faces issues that threaten massive societal harm if not human extinction, and they are growing in scope and number. These issues are well known, including the growing environmental catastrophe driven by global population growth from 7 to 11 billion people by the end of 2100; the democratic crisis in the West (particularly the US); the authoritarian crisis in the East; the rapid emergence of dangerous new technologies (AI, bioweapons, robotics, autonomous weapons); and the ever present risk of nuclear war.
In the face of all this, we seem rudderless. It’s not just that we have problems; it’s that we don’t seem to have a plan to do anything about it. Mainstream political discourse scarcely touches on the big topics, and is more likely to revolve around personality politics and hot button issues of the day. Almost without exception, I find among people a general attitude of despair at the direction the world seems to be heading in, and a feeling that there is nothing any of us can do about it.
So I decided to try to understand why this is the case.
Ideas Rule The World
The greatest events – are not our noisiest, but our stillest hours. Not around the inventors of new noise, but around the inventors of new values, doth the world revolve; INAUDIBLY it revolveth.Friedrich Nietzsche
It seems to me that there have been periods in history during which, compared with today, political discourse was more commonly concerned with far reaching, visionary ideas that could have a dramatically positive impact on society. Today, by contrast, we have a general acceptance of the status quo, crude demagoguery, or a regurgitation of old socialist ideas.
Marxism is one example. From the late 19th Century to the late 20th Century, Marxism was a popular political worldview that gave people around the world an ambitious, wide ranging answer to the question of how to move human society forward. Though I disagree with some of its conclusions, Marxist thought at least tried to think through what type of change would be needed to take us towards the ideal society. It pulled no punches in its critique of the often immiserated nature of human life under capitalism, and tried to address at a deep level what changes would be required to move beyond. It was not afraid to think in radical terms – wildly radical to us today – “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” And it wasn’t afraid of what Silicon Valley might today would a ‘moonshot’ – the idea that the fundamentals could change, things could be wildly better and we should aim at it. “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
Similarly, neoliberal thought is commonplace today but when it began to emerge in the mid 20th Century was a radical departure from convention. Its tenets of a “small state”, privatization, “free markets”, deregulation and low taxes emerged in a world where central planning, large state owned enterprises, high taxes and government control over the economy were normal. Margaret Thatcher, a neoliberal icon, after becoming UK prime minister cut the top rate of personal income tax from 83% to 40% between 1979 and 1988. The Beatles’ song Taxman was written in response to the 95% taxes they paid in the 1960s – “Should 5% feel too small be thankful I don’t take it all”. It is easy to forget now (the top rate of UK income tax is currently 45%) how radical the neoliberal agenda initially was.
And like Marxism, neoliberalism gave its proponents a psychologically compelling, overarching answer to the question of how to organize society, and how this would take humanity forward to something better. The power of private enterprise, unleashed through a radically pruned back central government, would generate new wealth and invention, which would trickle down to the rest of society to everybody’s benefit. Individual citizens, with reduced government interference, would be more free and prosperous then ever.
But today, when the shortcomings of both these ideologies have been laid bare and few really believe in them anymore, where is the framework that will supercede them?
Ideas Precede Progress
“If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.”Yogi Berra
The importance of ideas in shaping the course of history hardly needs to be stated. In the case of our examples above, the emergence of neoliberal ideas in the mid 20th Century from thinkers like Hayek, Friedman and the Chicago School, led to their adoption in the 1980s by Reagan, Thatcher and others, with dramatic social, political and economic consequences that we live with today. Marx’s thinking from the 1840s onwards culminated in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the incorporation of Marx’s ideas into Communist USSR, China, and much of the developing world up to the 1960s. In fact it is hard to think of any historical moment of great change that wasn’t also accompanied by the burgeoning of new and radical ideas. Enlightenment thought inspired the American War of Independence and French Revolution. The printing press drove the Reformation. And so on.
If it is true then that in our current moment of historical crisis, we are badly short of the big important ideas, then surely we should be concerned.
And it does seem that with the slowing of new political ideas, political progress itself has slowed. Contrast the 19th century. Prior to 1832, voting rights in the UK were limited to about 3% of the population. Large cities such as Manchester did not even have a representative member of parliament. By 1928 – less than 100 years later – with the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, all UK citizens over the age of 21 could vote. This story is mirrored across other western democracies and was a dramatic shift in power structures and in the mechanisms of state governance, and was the result of ideas of equality, rights and liberty seeded in the 1700s. It also required decades of struggle and sacrifice against vested interests to win such victories for the cause of progress.
But since we have not yet arrived at the ideal society, what are we struggling for today? It feels very unclear. And in the absence of clear goals of progress, it seems that politics is inclined to hit reverse. One only has to look at recent events in the US (Roe vs Wade, or the retrenchment of voting rights) and the UK (Brexit, or the repeal of certain civil liberties). Discourse becomes consumed by slogans that are ever more meaningless – “Brexit Means Brexit”, “Make America Great Again”, “Build Back Better”.
Visionary ideas are the precursor of progress. At a time of such existential threat, blithely treading water is not optional.
Our Ideas Instutitions Are Failing
So why are we now so short of big ideas? Where do our ideas come from? We are apt to think that they just emerge from the ether, but there are large social structures that generate ideas. These include:
- Think tanks
- Cranks / outsiders
Something seems to have happened to our ideas institutions, that has stopped the flow of big political ideas. I don’t fully understand it, and it is all the more surprising given the power we have today of ideas generating and disseminating networks like social media technologies. But nevertheless it seems to be true.
Think tanks play an important role in developing government policy and in some cases thinking through big political ideas. In practice though, out of the several thousand that exist globally, only a handful, like the Berggruen Institute and RethinkX are focused on visionary ideas. The vast majority are heavily influenced by the peroagatives of their funders, becoming merely a mouthpiece to legitimize funders’ opinions. Think tanks also typically operate within the narrow constraints of existing conventional wisdom, and focus their work on incremental policy details (e.g. should some tax be 10% or 12%) rather than important structural reform. They are not the source today of a new and inspiring political vision.
Universities in theory offer an environment to foster free thinking, and fund their students and faculty to develop important ideas on all the subjects of importance to humanity. In practice, faculty increasingly work under the yolk of “publish or perish“, and can achieve career progression only with publication in certain journals. But journal requirements constrain the scope for unconventional thought, or ideas that do not neatly fit into an existing discourse. Cultural factors and herd mentality probably also contribute to the result that a large proportion of academic output is timid, and stays well within the bounds conventional wisdom.
These factors I suppose play a role, but I still don’t find this a satisfactory explanation of why, given the thousands of academic institutions worldwide, we haven’t seen the emergence of more visionary political thought into the mainstream.
Government, although ultimately the implementer of policy, rarely leads on the origination of policy ideas. Rather it responds. Senior government figures spend the vast majority of their time managing the media and fire fighting on the issue of the day. Under our current political structures, government incentives are skewed towards short termism and the status quo. This further creates conditions in which the individuals that end up in senior government positions are individuals most adept at managing the press lobby, rather than those with vision or competence. Dominic Cummings explains it well.
In the past, some of the great political visionaries have come from the fringes. Weirdos who stuck doggedly to an idea for long enough until it caught on. Often after they were dead. Marx, Gramsci, Luxembourg, Lenin. You would think there would be more of them in the age of social media. But I don’t see many. And I can’t explain this either.
Corporations of course are doing pretty well in getting their message out there.
So What Is To Be Done?
The world needs a new lens through which to see politics, to break us out of the stalemate of repeating the old arguments of left versus right, socialism versus conservatism, which no longer persuade many of us and which do not adequately address the challenges we face today.
It seems that the conventional ideas institutions are incapable of delivering that.
So perhaps the key innovation needed is a new kind of ideas organization.