5 mins

The Reflexive Age

By Steve Cook

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This is, unsurprisingly, brilliant from Matthew Taylor. It addresses some of the widest and deepest thinking about social/systems development but I think it is also highly relevant for anyone contemplating their own leadership approaches, organisational change or personal contribution and value.

The Reflexive Age

Matthew Taylor’s RSA annual lecture, July 2020

Most of us would like to see important aspects of our societies change: reducing local, national and global inequality; heading off the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change; renewing democracy; and enhancing wellbeing. Opinion pollsters find widespread hope that the Covid-19 crisis will be the midwife to a new and better stage for societies like the UK. But what kind of society should we seek to build? In my 2020 annual lecture as Chief Executive of the RSA, I combine ideas I have shared in previous years and apply them to the current moment. We could be entering a new era of social development. I will try to define what that era might be.

Crisis and change

In broad terms, the history of Western liberal democracies over the last 80 years can be seen to comprise three periods, each connected to crisis. The post-war settlement was a response not just to the conflict and the need for reconstruction but to the conditions of economic depression that preceded hostilities. The oil shocks of the early 1970s and the collapse of the Breton Woods system marked the end of the post-war settlement and the emergence of a new system of financial globalisation, and with it the rise of neoliberal ideology. The global financial crisis of 2007/8 accelerated public disenchantment with the consequences of neoliberal globalisation, creating conditions that have proven to favour populism.

None of these periods started or finished precisely with crisis, and even in their heyday, each manifested in different countries in different ways depending on national traditions, resources and institutions. Even at the height of neoliberal orthodoxy, Sweden was still a very different country to the US. New eras are usually prefigured in the old. Silvio Berlusconi was the proto-populist modern leader, but he first became Italian Prime Minister in the mid-1990s. Equally, even if a defeat for Donald Trump this November signals a turning point, it is unlikely that populism is simply going to fade away.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the pandemic there is at least the opportunity — and certainly the need — for a new form of progressivism to build momentum. At the RSA we have argued that crisis is most likely to lead to long-term intentional change when three conditions apply:

• Where there is demand and capacity for change before the crisis;

• Where the crisis itself sees that demand growing but also the future prefigured in some of the ways we respond; and

• When, as the crisis recedes, political coalitions and practical policy programmes are ready to take advantage of a greater public openness to change.

To give two examples. First, rising concern about social inequality before the crisis has been reinforced by the differential impact of the pandemic and its economic consequences on different groups as well as a greater appreciation of the contribution of many low-paid, low-status ‘key workers’. Add in the power of the anti-racist movement in response to the brutal death of George Floyd in the US, and with the right coalitions and ideas there is an opportunity to make concrete progress on social justice. Second, and similarly, increasing awareness of climate change may have been accelerated by an appreciation during the crisis of the role of effective state action in building resilience. Emerging from the crisis there are now technological, financial and policy tools available to take the urgent action needed.

Out of the tragedy of the crisis and the disruption in its aftermath, there is potential for change. But it could be squandered. Only sometimes does crisis lead to periods of accelerated progress. A full understanding of these times rarely occurs contemporaneously; it is historians who apply labels like ‘the progressive era’ or ‘the post-war settlement’. Yet, ideas matter. There is merit in looking for an organising principle for a new era. That is the purpose of my speech.

To read the full RSA annual lecture from Matthew Taylor click here

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