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Redesigning Democracy, Part 1

On the morning of Friday 8th of May 2015, the United Kingdom woke up, sleepily rolled over, collectively switched on its phone, and sat up in bed, blinking in disbelief.

The Labour party, having expected to mount a close challenge to David Cameron’s Conservatives in the election of the previous day, had instead been decimated at the ballot box. The result was a shock to everyone on all sides, not least because both campaigns had been equally lacklustre and uninspiring.

But history will remember that election not for who won it, but rather for how it was won. Worried that the rising support for the fringe UK Independence party would split his vote, Cameron had decided to take the wind out of their sails by giving their supporters what they wanted: a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. And it worked. Briefly.

It was — as we now know––a brutally pyrrhic victory. Cameron was a tactician, not a leader. And what he had failed to understand was that the referendum he was offering would not be a referendum on the European Union at all, but a referendum on the state of democracy itself.

That general election turned out to be only the first tremor in a succession of political earthquakes to stun the Western democracies. Jeremy Corbyn’s selection as Labour leader, Brexit , Trump, and the rise of nationalist and right wing movements in Italy, France, Sweden, Germany the Netherlands and Brazil. Across all the ‘developed’ economies, faith in democratic institutions is collapsing, and liberalism is reeling in stunned, disorderly retreat. Increasingly, the traditional battles political lines of ‘left vs right’ make no sense. Politics seems to have realigned, turning through ninety degrees from left vs right to something more like globalist vs nationalist. This has driven a rift through the middle of many established, incumbent political parties. Almost every mainstream, ‘centrist’ party finds itself in a similar position: divided, and lacking a coherent narrative, a worldview or a story that makes sense to voters. In fact, they give every appearance of having simply run out of ideas. Instead, they find themselves appeasing and mimicking the populist fringes that threaten them in transparently cheap, demeaning, dog-whistle bids for personal advancement. It is an unedifying spectacle, watching our elected representatives scrabble and strategise to get their hands onto the steering wheel, even as the bus hurtles on into the abyss.

The big question is, why is this happening?

We tend to see politics as a culture war — a game of argument and persuasion over a media cycle or an electoral term. So in our bewildered outrage, liberals and progressives have turned to explanations and responses that fit this assumption. First we blamed the echo-chambers of social media and their clickbait business model. Then we blamed the blatant lies told by the populist campaigns (think of Vote Leave’s bus promising £350m for NHS, ‘fake news’ or Trump’s ‘alternative facts’), naively hoping that once these lies, contradictions and hypocrisies had been exposed, the electorate would change their minds about what they wanted. Next, the spotlight of blame moved on to foreign interference, and to the dark money that is funding these populist campaigns: be they foreign interests, or vulture capitalists and hedge funds, profiting from instability, and seeking to weaken the UK and isolate it from Europe’s regulatory sphere, in order to asset strip it. At the same time, Remain campaigners have sought to point out that Brexit is a red herring: that everything Brexit voters want to do can already be done within the EU anyway; in fact that Brexit is almost certainly going to make them worse, not better.

None of these explanations or arguments have worked. They have simply driven everyone further into their respective trenches, turning our public discourse into an increasingly polarised, tribal, mistrustful, toxic, indignant, yelling match. Many of these aren’t really political arguments at all, they are the political equivalent of crying foul to the referee in a game of football. It works in a court of law, but not in the political arena. No one ever changed allegiance to an opposing football team because their own team got too many red cards. The only real effect it has is to increase both sides’ sense of self-righteousness, and to reveal the weakness of the referees.

All this is not to say that these things are not true, or that they were not factors. On the contrary, it seems increasingly clear that they are, and were, and more and more evidence will surely emerge to prove this. But these narratives do not, on their own, explain or diminish the underlying surge in genuine support for nationalism across most of the developed economies, people’s desire to ‘take back control’ and their willingness to vote for such obviously unpleasant figures. Clearly, there is something much more seismic driving this widespread international lurch towards nationalism and secessionism, and while liberals and progressives are preoccupied with the politics of outrage — or worse, the self-indulgence of mocking their opponents — they are neglecting the root causes of the crisis facing democracy today.

To really understand what’s happening, we need to step back from the front line of the culture wars for a moment and try to take-in the long view: to understand the tectonic shifts underpinning these changes, so we can get ahead of events rather than just reacting to them.

So what is going on?

Well, of course, there isn’t one single, simple answer. But among the many millions of tweets and column inches that have been dedicated to this question in recent years, few in my view have given a better insight than one single tweet, sent all the way back on that morning of the 8th May 2015.

It was posted by the BBC Editor for Welsh Affairs, Vaughn Roderick, and it showed two maps side by side. The first was a map of Britain’s former coal fields (most of which have been closed since the 1980s). The second image was a map of the remaining Labour party seats: the core of its support.

The two maps are almost identical.

With just one tweet, Roderick managed to articulate something that is both completely obvious, and yet usually forgotten amid the noise of everyday political-journalism-as-sports-reporting: that our political parties, our political tools, our political institutions, our political language — even our political ideas — were literally designed in and for a different industrial era. A different world from the one in which we now live. Or, as the broadcaster and historian James Burke put it :

“We live with institutions that were created in the past, using the technology of the past, to solve the problems of the past according to the values of the past.”– James Burke

Our world has changed, but our political institutions and ideas have not. The industrial economy has changed, but society — and especially government––is still running outdated software.

One glimmer of this insight that has leaked into political discourse is the fuzzy concept of ‘left behind’ towns; usually referring to the former industrial heartlands of the kind Roderick showed on his map (almost all of which later voted to Leave in the referendum), where the political shift towards nationalism is most pronounced. But really, those areas are just the most visible part of the iceberg; the most available caricatures for a systemic industrial transformation that runs much deeper and much wider across society.

When we look back at the political history of the 20th century, we tend to see everything through the prism Left vs Right. The workers vs the owners. State ownership vs Private ownership. But as a designer, I find it more interesting to look at everything that both these political tribes had in common and took for granted.

They both assumed the dominance of centralised, monetised, linear modes of mass industrial production. Industrial systems that were powered by fossil fuels. Industrial systems that were (mostly) national in scale and ownership. Industrial systems that were run as paper-based democracies with clear, hierarchical management structures. Industrial systems where knowledge and trust were managed through the proxies of chartered professions (lawyer, doctor, architect etc). Most importantly, industrial systems that relied heavily on large volumes of human labour.

This last feature is perhaps most important because it literally – physically – shaped the world we live in, and therefore us. Centralised industrial systems needed workers, so the workers had to be centralised. That meant building mass housing, and along with it, hospitals, schools, transportation infrastructure, leisure facilities. In place of the emergent, on-demand urbanism of mercantile development that had largely shaped cities hitherto, a whole new science of centralised, top-down urban planning and development emerged. Row upon row of identical houses, in identical streets (or later, cul-de-sacs).

This need for a large labour force also meant that an education system had to be created to feed this industrial machine: schools and universities that were themselves factories and assembly lines for mass producing employment-ready workers, sitting in rows, learning joined-up, standardised handwriting, learning standardised skills, sitting standardised exams (essentially quality control for human resources) to win standardised ‘qualifications’ to win standardised ‘jobs’. Human components of a huge industrial machine, doing repetitive work, controlled by a vast, paper computer.

When you put like that, you have to wonder why anyone tolerated it.

So, why did we?

The simplistic, rationalist answer is that those systems provided sufficiently powerful incentives to keep most of us at our workstations: the promised ‘carrot’ of wealth and status at one end, the ‘stick’ of poverty and humiliation at the other, and an abundant menu of distractions and incentives in between.

The actual answer is more nuanced. Implied within those systems was a tacit social contract. None of us ever signed it, but all of us understood it. In essence, the deal was this: everyone got a decent shot at health and education, no matter who you were. If you studied hard, you’d get a good job (for life). If you got a good job, you’d earn a good living. If you earned a good living, you’d be able to afford a home (usually on just one salary), a pint at the weekend, a summer holiday and a car, and still have enough to put away some savings for a rainy day and your retirement, secure in the knowledge that your community would thrive and your children would enjoy even greater opportunities than you did. Work hard, pay your taxes, play by the rules. Society had a stake in us, and we had a stake in society.

But the scope of this contract went much deeper than merely the economics of self-interest; it was also a profound social and emotional contract. These systems didn’t just make us wealthier, they also made us… us. They gave purpose to our work, shaped our community, our friends, our partners, our sense of identity. They promised justice and fairness. They drove huge advances in scientific and technological innovation. They built public libraries, they defeated fascism in the second world war, they created the NHS, they gave everyone access to free education, they took man to the moon, they eradicated smallpox, they almost doubled our life expectancy, they kept Europe at peace for over half a century. They gave us a sense of purpose, identity, belonging, importance, a sense of order, a sense of self-esteem, a sense that we were part of something bigger than ourselves, and that we were striving towards a better, greater, more just, more decent, more free society. It gave us a sense that our work meant something. Yes, we may have just been cogs in a machine, but it was a machine we could feel proud to be a part of, and one that would always see us — and our children — right. In short, the contract was progress.

Watch almost any British war film made before 1970, and the emotional subtext is pretty much always the same. A diverse supporting cast of plucky, loyal, working class men and women unite under a common flag to fight authoritarianism, enduring extraordinary adversity and toil with good cheer, ultimately pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. They are led by a (mostly male, mostly straight, mostly white) officer class who carry their privilege as responsibility: demonstrating principled, heroic leadership, incorruptible integrity, decency, trustworthiness and heroism, all with witty, light-hearted, tea-sipping disregard for their own survival or self-interest. If they do disobey orders, it is only if ever on principle: to go above and beyond the call of duty, or out of impatience with bureaucracy. They are straight-talking, and don’t suffer fools. Their charisma, in turn, attracts beautiful, dutiful, demure, long-suffering, self-sacrificing women who adore them and support them in this patriotic purpose.

When populists use terms like ‘taking back control’, or ‘making America great again’, this is the ‘back’. This is the ‘again’. This is the era – the feeling — they are trying to invoke (as ironic as it may seem). It is for the same reason that they often style themselves as a friend to military veterans and emergency service workers: they are trying to invoke and co-opt that sense of a deeper social contract.

Woke progressives might (quite rightly) point out that the vision of society painted by those films is an idealised myth. Not just a myth, but one that is ––by our standards –– environmentally destructive, unequal, sexist, racist, homophobic, jingoistic and colonialist. But that’s not why it resonates with many people. It works in spite of these things, not because of them. It works because the social ethic they are trying to invoke was — and still is — emotionally compelling. It gave everyone a role and responsibility, a feeling of importance, pride and belonging, a sense of common purpose, a vision of decency, duty and the good life. It also spoke to a bond of trust between us and our leaders, a sense of fair play, and the idea that we are all part of a common story, one that is about more than just money and individual self-interest. It is a story about duty, where we are all part of something greater than ourselves.

In the early years of the 21st century, that tacit social contract has broken, in very basic, obvious ways. Free access to good education and healthcare is no longer guaranteed. There is no such thing as a ‘job for life’. The cost of living is rising, not falling. Even on two salaries, most young people will never be able to afford to buy a home. Personal savings are plummeting, while household debts are at an all time high. Life expectancy is stalling. Loneliness and depression are common. Many neighbourhoods and communities are visibly in decline. People no longer have trust in political leaders, nor do they believe that everyone is being made to play by the rules. Our newsfeeds are filled with almost daily revelations of corruption, injustice or tax avoidance. Most of us no longer believe that the society we are in is basically just or fair, let alone feeling like we are part of something greater than ourselves.

Some of these are promises that have been consciously broken by governments — made tangible by cruel austerity policies — but some are also functions of the fact that, in the 21st century post/industrial economy, many aspects of the original social contract simply no longer make sense. They belong to an industrial world that no longer exists.

And, amid the confusion and disaffection, nationalism is doing what it has always done: rushing in to fill the void. Contrary to the narrative put about even by their opponents, nationalists’ success is not really a function of their own cleverness, but of the failure of liberals and progressives to uphold their own stated values, to seriously understand and reform our obsolete systems, and to offer a replacement vision of progress and story of who we are that makes sense to everyone; one that gives everyone skin in the game.

The events of the last five years were only a warning shot. The lessons of history and science make it unambiguously clear where we are headed if we do nothing.

If we want to renew the promise of a decent, tolerant, just, caring, liberal, proud, successful democratic society, then this is the challenge we have to take on. It is not enough to just ‘call out’ nationalists or protest against them. We have to outperform them; to put them out of business; to reinvent our systems; to design a new social contract.


In Part 2 of this series of posts I’m going to talk about the systemic industrial shifts that are driving the crisis in our democratic institutions (basically a very brief history of where we are, and how we got here). In Part 3 (here), I’ll map out a framework for the politics of the fourth industrial revolution (making sense of where we’re going), and in Part 4 (here) I’ll really stick my neck out, and suggest some tangible ways we might redesign our systems to fix democracy and capitalism for a digitised, globalised (and destabilised) world.

Systems designer. Co-founder Open Systems Lab.

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