Adapted from the conclusion of End State: 9 Ways Society is Broken & How we Fix it, by James Plunkett. Copyright 2021. Used with permission of the publisher, The Orion Publishing Group Ltd. All rights reserved.
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End state, new beginnings
In 1900, international exhibitors gathered in Paris to showcase an array of industrial technologies at the world’s fair, the Paris Exposition. Among dancers and musicians, animals and artworks, was the world’s biggest Ferris wheel, a moving stairway, a talking film, and a vast refracting telescope projecting an image of the Moon. Fifty million people attended the festival at a time when the population of France was thirty-eight million. Those visitors – some travelling huge distances to attend – were there not just to celebrate progress, but to catch a glimpse of the future. In excited groups they strolled between the legs of a soaring iron tower – the tallest in the world – custom-built for the same festival eleven years earlier by the engineer Gustave Eiffel.
As industrialisation transformed the world in the nineteenth century, the carnival-like displays at a series of world fairs came to capture the technological leaps being made. But a lesser-known part of the Paris Exposition tells the other half of the story of progress. To the east of the Eiffel Tower, via a walk through Les Invalides to the Musée Social, there was a social economy pavilion, housing a fringe festival for social reform. Here, visitors explored model workers’ cottages and browsed cabinets packed with pamphlets, monographs and charts. France showcased its burgeoning movement of cooperatives and mutual savings societies. The UK exhibited Charles Booth’s poverty maps of London. Germany won the day, however, with an obelisk dedicated to its landmark social insurance scheme to pool risks among industrial workers.
Capitalism is morphing once again into a new creature: this time a pixelated, digital dragon that is awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. To help humanity ride this dragon, today’s reformers are assembling a whole new set of policy tools and techniques.
What was on show in the social economy pavilion was not industrial technologies but innovations to govern the implications of those technologies: efforts, in the words of historian Daniel Rodgers, ‘to temper, socialise, and mutualise the pains of the capitalist transformation’. Reformers were assembling institutional equipment, no less ingenious than the industrial machines themselves, to harness a new form of capitalism for social ends. To steer the beast in a humane direction.
In my book End State: 9 Ways Society is Broken & How we Fix it, I explore how, today, a new generation of intellectuals, campaigners and practitioners are engaged in a similar task to those social reformers exhibiting their wares in Paris over 120 years ago. Capitalism is morphing once again into a new creature: this time a pixelated, digital dragon that is awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. To help humanity ride this dragon, today’s reformers are assembling a whole new set of policy tools and techniques; enough to fill a social economy pavilion of our own. It’s a task just as critical as it was last time around. If we fail, we’ll see ever more social division and instability. If we succeed, we’ll enjoy a future that, to our jaded eyes today, would look utopian. [...]
The shape of the thing
There are a few themes that recur across the nine chapters of End State. I see them as the contours of a twenty-first century form of government – one that is still emerging from the fog.
One example is the warmth that comes through in today’s new policy thinking. The reformers I’ve met over the last decade seem less technocratic than their twentieth-century predecessors. They are sensitive – much more than someone like William Beveridge, chief architect of Britain’s mid-century welfare state – to the harm that can be done when the state tries to optimise social outcomes using intricate systems. They don’t want to scrap the systems we built in the twentieth century, or cut them back; they want to invest in them and upgrade them. But as they work out how to do this, they tend to draw on warmer theories of social justice, such as the idea of relational equality, a school of thought that doesn’t just emphasise the material distribution of resources in the economy, but that also stresses values like dignity, stigma and respect. The new generation of reformers also reach beyond economics – a discipline that, in the last seventy years, has come to dominate our public policy discourse – to draw on other disciplines, particularly behavioural psychology and design.
The new state that is emerging from the work of early 2020s reformers operates on the logic of the internet, and the consequences of this are profound.
The new reformers tend to advocate a state that is humbler than twentieth-century government. Whether it’s in relation to welfare or healthcare, they can often be found calling out the state we built in the twentieth century for being a know-it-all, engaging in consultation only as a form of stakeholder management, and for doing things to people, rather than with them. There’s an epistemological humility to today’s freshest policy thinking that was missing from even the most progressive thinkers of the late 1800s and early-to-mid 1900s. Today’s new policy reformers believe it’s literally impossible to run good services, or to design good public policies, without constant input from users. They also err towards trusting people, not watching over them like a Gradgrind employer or a suspicious official but establishing institutions and passing laws that empower people to live their own conception of a good life.
The new state that is emerging from the work of early 2020s reformers operates on the logic of the internet, and the consequences of this are profound. Running an internet-era state doesn’t mean just that the government has a good website or that it lets you pay your taxes online; it means that the state’s methods, mindsets and deepest ways of working are configured to make the most of internet-era technologies. The new state that is emerging today doesn’t pull big levers, fix rigid plans, issue directives through a hierarchy, or prize discretion as if it’s an admirable professional quality. It sets common standards, invests in networks and peer groups, builds shared components, and works in the open by default. It pursues social outcomes that are measured transparently with live data and it delivers those outcomes by handing over power to autonomous institutions and teams.
A twenty-first century state, in short, will be bold, humble, simple, flat, trusting, open and warm. It will also be built on a less orthodox understanding of the way markets work, drawing on psychology and behavioural economics to get under the skin of how markets function in reality. It’s hard to say if the new state will be to the left or the right of the old one, or if it will intervene in markets more or less. What we can say is that it will be bolder and probably bigger – while also simpler – than the government we grew used to in the twentieth century. It will be more willing, for example, to assert ethical standards like a living wage, or to provide a basic income to underpin security and equality of opportunity, but it will resist the temptation to engage in prescriptive attempts to modify people’s behaviour. When the new state intervenes – which it will do with confidence – it won’t be because it’s anti-market, but because it understands the kind of power capitalism has: a daunting, dead-eyed power that isn’t immoral but that is amoral. A power to create extraordinary value – and to do terrible harm.
None of this is to say that the state we built in the twentieth century failed us. Over the last 150 years, the public policy settlement that was conceived by that travelling band of world’s fair reformers delivered unprecedented strides of social progress. What today’s new generation of reformers are saying is not that this settlement was a mistake, but that it’s time we moved on. We didn’t make society better last time around by tweaking a few policies here and there, and we also didn’t do it by discovering timeless policy solutions that would never need to be changed again. What we did was construct a form of government – commonly called social democracy – to respond to the particular social, economic and technological conditions of the time. Now that those conditions are changing, we have to reimagine the state all over again.
The work to be done
So how will we get from here to there? In short, by fighting for reform. Social progress – the kind of step-change progress that makes the world better – doesn’t come when we each turn inward. It comes when we turn outward and realise we can only build a better future together.
What form do those outward efforts take? There are more answers to this question than we sometimes think. Yes, social change is partly about voting and campaigning for political leaders who look to the future. But it’s also about the conversations we have with our families and friends, as people’s opinions form and change. It’s about the articles we share online, or the views we choose to promote. And, if we’re lucky, and we have a choice over the job we do, it’s also about how we decide to spend our working lives – do we try to profit from the status quo, or do we work for a charity, or an ethical company, or a part of the government that is trying to change things?
Behind all the uncertainty we feel about the twenty-first century, there’s a powerful fact: the digital economy – this strange beast that is still emerging in front of our eyes – has more potential than the economy that came before.
There aren’t really any shortcuts here; we have to do the work. But if there’s one force that can help the whole thing along, it’s believing that a better future is possible. When you look at history’s big strides forward, so many of them were propelled by a surge of belief. Belief is so vital to the mechanisms by which change happens: it keeps anger fresh so that it doesn’t wilt into fatalism; it inspires campaigners to argue for unpopular ideas even when it feels risky to do so or when they’re laughed out of the room; and it gets reformers out of bed in the morning as they head off for another hard day grafting at organisational change. […]
Behind all the uncertainty we feel about the twenty-first century, there’s a powerful fact: the digital economy – this strange beast that is still emerging in front of our eyes – has more potential than the economy that came before. Whatever you think of Uber, it’s hard to deny that it’s the best way to run a taxi service humanity has ever dreamed up. What’s problematic isn’t Uber. What’s problematic is Uber ungoverned – the way Uber sits outside of, and is incompatible with, the social frameworks we spent decades building; frameworks of employment law to protect workers against crappy treatment, licensing schemes to manage traffic in cities, taxes to fund public services, social insurance to pool risks. What we need is a well-governed Uber; the power of digital technology but shaped and directed so that it’s humane.
The OECD Going Digital project aims to help policy makers better understand the digital transformation and develop appropriate policies to help shape a positive digital future. Learn more!
The task of social reform, then, isn’t to slow down, resist, or submit reluctantly to the digital economy, glancing back longingly over our shoulder. The task is to ease, smooth and, if anything, accelerate this transition, because it’s our best hope of achieving what we want: a society that is richer, healthier, happier – and, yes, fairer, more equitable and greener. […] None of these things will happen automatically. This isn’t a techno-utopian fantasy in which we can sit back, relax and float happily downstream. When you find yourself on the back of a digital dragon, relaxing isn’t the best idea; there is work to be done – and it needs our full attention.
As we learn to ride, there will be good times, when we feel we’re starting to master the task of governing a digital economy, and there will be bad times when we slip and fear being thrown from the saddle. But in the long run, history suggests we can pull this off – and that, when we do, it will be worth it. There’s no doubt that being on the back of a dragon can feel terrifying. But riding a dragon. Imagine if we can do that.