I’m delighted to say that I have the lead article in the latest issue of the Journal of Futures Studies, which published at the weekend.
It’s called “The City, the Country and the New Politics of Place.” It connects the rise of populist politics with the development of a smaller group of high value or core urban/metropolitan labour markets as a result of the rise of the tech-led services and knowledge economy foreshadowed by Alvin Toffler and Daniel Bell. I plan to write more on this, but for the moment here’s the abstract.
Much of the current discussion of the present populist moment in politics has explored issues of social values and economic inequality. In their different ways, these are relevant, but I argue here that they are symptoms of a wider set of changes in society. The prevailing political divisions identified in the Brexit referendum in the UK, the US 2016 Presidential election, and the Austrian 2016 presidential election, suggest a sharper divide between core cities and the rest than previously, which is creating a new politics of place. The roots of this lie in the economic transformations that have occurred as a result of the so-called ‘third wave’ of industrialisation, and the transition to economies based on services and knowledge.
However, these are transformations that are incomplete. The changing nature of work, reward, and consumption that the third wave has engendered is opening up new arguments about the purpose of work. Some of these arguments would have been regarded as utopian a generation ago, but are now entering mainstream discourse. The article also proposes a schematic to understand the political changes this is creating, following the work of Ian Christie, and identifies some implications for the short-term.
The article started life as a contribution to a Symposium on post-Trump politics, but got too long for that section. The Symposium is included in the same issue of the JFS, and includes articles from some distinguished futurists. The contents list is here.
“The Country, the City and the New Politics of Place” can be downloaded from here.
Image from Death to Stock Photo.
The triggering of Article 50 marks the end of the political stand-off that has been the dominant feature of British politics since the Brexit referendum last June: a stand-off between our elected representatives on the one hand and “the will of the people,” as expressed in the referendum vote, on the other. Between the end of June and the end of March, any party with something to lose has had to go along with a show of respecting the referendum result, whatever they thought of it. Scotland too, although this has a different tint there. (The obvious exception is Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats, but in 2016-17 they have nothing left to lose.)
So politics can start up again now, with differences on the terms of Brexit, and we saw this as early as last Sunday, when Labour’s Keir Starmer popped up on the Andrew Marr show to make a robust defence of “soft Brexit”, and on Wednesday when by all accounts Andrew Neil gave May the toughest interview of her Prime Ministerial career.
It’s also the last point at which May has any control of her Premiership, and there must be a question about how many of her senior civil servants have pointed this out to her and her ministers over the last few months.
The New Yorker reporter Mark Singer probably qualifies for the adjective “veteran” by now, having joined the magazine in 1974. He wrote a fine book, Funny Money, on the collapse of Penn State Oil in the 1980s. One effect of this long-service is that he’s written several profiles of Donald Trump along the way, which he’s drawn on for Trump & Me, a short book/long read based on the time he’s spent with The Donald. Here’s some notes and extracts:
[T]here is no “new” Trump, just as there was never a “new” Nixon. Rather, all along, there have been several Trumps: the hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit; the knowledgeable builder whose associates awe at his attention to detail; the narcissist whose self-absorption doesn’t account for his dead-on ability to exploit other people’s weaknesses; the perpetual seventeen-year-old who lives in a zero-sum world of winners and “total losers,” loyal friends and “complete scumbags”; the insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as “human garbage”; the chairman and largest stockholder of a billion-dollar public corporation who seems unable to resist heralding overly optimistic earnings projections, which then fail to materialize, thereby eroding the value of his investment.
Or, in one line,
both slippery and naive, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.
The theorist Mark Fisher, whose death was announced at the weekend, was one of our most original thinkers about how we experienced late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism. He also wrote honestly about his depression, and sometimes one felt that the two were related: that seeing so clearly the confines that late capitalism imposed on its subjects was too much weight for one person to stand. (Guy Debord suffered in a similar way.)
People have been queuing up today to pay tribute to Fisher and his work, and rightly so: Capitalist Realism is one of the essential texts of the last 10 years: so good, in fact, that I realised recently that I’d bought two copies. His style was also singular in its skill in combining the cultural and the political, a reminder that actually the two can never be separated out, as he demonstrated in his more recent book Ghosts of my Life, which I wrote about here.
In an obituary, the music writer Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s, described his writing like this:
The exciting thing about Mark’s writing – CCRU era, K-punk era, in magazines like FACT and The Wire, the books – was the feeling that he was on a journey: the ideas were going somewhere, a gigantic edifice of thought was in the process of construction. That Mark was thinking big, building a system, always aiming for the largest scale. And finally that this work, rigorous and deeply informed as it was, was not academic, in the sense of being done purely for its own sake: its urgency came from his faith that words really could change things. Reading Mark’s writing made everything feel more meaningful, supercharged with significance. It was a rush. An addiction.
This is the second of two posts pulling together the strands of what I think I understand about Trump’s win in the US Presidential Election. (The first post is here). The first four things I think I know are:
- Neo-liberalism just died
- The long-run theories are best
- Crises are invisible before they erupt
- Class matters
Here’s another six thoughts.
I’ve read too much on the American election and on Trump’s win, and I wanted to pull it together to make sense of it. Having read too much, I’ve now written too much, so my plan is to split this into a couple of posts on the blog and then put the whole thing together as one longer post on Medium. Trump’s win is the kind of surprise that will keep happening in a world where people are expected to be both enthusiastic consumers and low-paid but grateful workers. You can only fill that gap by loading people with debt, but that’s a one-time card that’s already been played.
I read a couple of things recently that are connected, but perhaps not in a way intended by all of the authors. The first is by Sally Goerner, on the rise of American oligarchy. The second is a paper from McKinsey on capitalism’s short-termism problem.
The Sally Goerner post takes a long view–around 250 years–and positions America’s current political crisis as the latest in a series of 70-90 year cycles in which oligarchy flares up. It follows a familiar pattern, says Goerner, like so:
- Economic “Royalists” infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites.
- Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate.
- The crisis reaches a breaking point; seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change.
- If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse.
- Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new.
I suspect we could map similar cycles in other countries.
The systemic model that sits behind it is this:
“Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. … In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends.”
The British Library has a brief pop-up exhibition running at the moment marking the 40th anniversary of the explosion of punk in the UK in 1976, and wandering around it made me realise how much punk was an expression of the political and economic crisis of the 1970s.
I was listening to the radio in 1975, and there was some expert blabbing on about how if things go on as they are there’ll be 800,000 people unemployed by 1979, while another guy was saying if that happened there’d be chaos, there’s be actual — anarchy in the streets. *That* was the root of punk.
In fact, unemployment reached a million by July 1977, at the height of the punk moment.
Obviously, there was something cultural going on as well. The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren, had been running his King’s Road clothers shop with Vivienne Westwood for several years before the oil shock. Popular music was becoming both bloated and sclerotic. The Ramones’ first record also upped the speed of the music, as Tony James of the proto-punk band London SS recalls in in an interview in the exhibition. But it’s hard to believe that the music would have broken through, or perhaps broken out, without the crisis.
I co-wrote a post with my Futures Company colleague Joe Ballantyne after the Brexit vote that was published on The Futures Company’s Medium site. In the article we argue that the referendum revealed a deep “fear of the future” among many Britons, and that this could have significant implications for brands. Referencing it here for completeness’ sake: here’s an extract.
“The values split
We’ve written before about the deep values split across Europe and north America between an emerging generation of “post-materialists” and the existing “traditionals” and “moderns.” The “post-materialists” are close to becoming a majority, which is always when conflict becomes most intense. The social markers of “post-materialists” are that they are younger, better educated, and more urban, but the values differences are more important. “Post-materialists” are more likely to value diversity; “traditionals” and “moderns” hierarchy. There’s a revealing chart in polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft on the day of the vote.
The values gap on the Brexit vote
Four times as many Leavers think Multiculturalism is a force for bad as do Remainers; three times as many Leavers think social liberalism is a force for bad. More than twice as many Leavers think globalisation is a force for bad, and a slightly higher proportion of Leavers think the internet is a force for bad. The gap on cultural differences around multiculturalism, feminism and the environment is wide, and these values differences speak to profound differences in worldview. These are not unique to the US and the UK. We can see the same differences, with different forms of political and party expression, right across Europe and the United States.
“The disappointing future
And these speak to a deep disappointment in an idea of the future, and of progress, which propelled post-war politics from the mid-1940s to the 1990s. In the UK, the 1997 election was the last in which the winning party had campaigned on an optimistic platform. “Things”, went the song, “can only get better.”
Since then, and even before, globalisation promised prosperity for everyone, but instead, while having profound effects on living standards in Asia, at home it has concentrated wealth even more sharply in the hands of the few. The internet was to be a tool of liberation, but our experience of it is as likely to be of intrusion, a loss of privacy, and a loss of control. The result is that people seek to pull up the drawbridges.
“Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.”
The notion of “solastalgia,” is relevant here, a word used by environmentalists for “the loss of a sense of belonging to a particular place and a sense of desolation about its disappearance,” even though the place is still physically there. In their enthusiasm for change, brands pursue the leading edge, but they need to be more alert to what it feels like on desolation row.
For the list of values in the Ashcroft research represents a direct challenge to the idea of innovation. Think of it for a moment: for most brands innovation is about novelty, about progress, often about technology. It is clear that the values represented by leavers aren’t those that welcome continual change in the name of improvement.
*The whole article is here.*