Charles Leadbeater: ‘We are all existentialists now’
Charles Leadbeater is the author of the best-selling Frugal Innovator and We-Think. He is Globally Renowned Innovation and Education Guru
Existential crisis is the new normal.
Everyone is growing increasingly anxious that everything is crumbling around them. Politics is being driven by these existential worries. Political leaders and movements will be defined by how they understand and articulate these existential challenges and the answers they provide. So will companies and companies need to understand how politics will change the environment they work in.
The economy is not working for most people whose incomes have been stagnant for at least a decade, their jobs increasingly insecure and their future uncertain. Many established companies fear they will soon be disrupted by digital start ups. The financial system – overly complex, concentrated and self-interested – was only recently saved from complete catastrophe by extraordinary measures of state support. Political systems are being drained of legitimacy as establishment parties find themselves prey to insurgent populist movements.
The EU is suffering its own existential crisis in the wake of the Brexit vote which also casts in doubt the future of the United Kingdom. All of this takes plea against a backdrop of mounting environmental crisis as the climate warms, competition mounts over critical resources and buffers we have relied run thin. The sense that everything is falling to bits is compounded by the threat of Islamic terrorism, symbolised by the homegrown devotees of Isis, with their complete disdain for modern, liberal values of equal rights, democracy and free speech.
The rise of machines capable of rapid learning means anyone doing routine work faces a deeply uncertain future even if they have valuable skills and knowledge. To travel in a London Black Cab, threatened by the rise from nowhere of Uber and soon by driverless cars, is to take a trip in an unfolding existential crisis. Black Cab drivers, once secure in their carefully acquired knowledge of London streets now find themselves fighting for survival. That may be true for more of us in future as we grapple with bewildering questions: what are we if not to work and how will we earn a living if there are no jobs to be done? These are the problems the left should exist to solve.
Political parties will be distinguished by how they address existential crises like these. Left and right no longer makes sense. There are now four types of parties and politics.
Angry parties will appeal to the very large constituencies, especially of white, middle aged, men, who feel betrayed and left behind by the decline of routine, industrial work in traditional masculine communities. Angry parties will trade in betrayal and outrage, anger and fury, with social media increasingly feeding real world violence.
These angry parties will come from the nationalistic, populist right: Donald Trump is a prime example but one of the most successful is the Danish People’s Part which has risen from nowhere to become the country’s main part. Angry parties also come from the left: from Occupy to the Idignados, Podemos to Five Star, fed by the disenchantment of a thwarted millennial generation. The let down and the left out are not going away. Nor is angry politics: if you face an existential crisis, do not go quietly; rage against the dying of the light.
Control parties go a step beyond rage, offering to control the unruly forces which so unsettle people. The Leave campaign was a pop-up Control Party: Take Back Control was its brilliant simply, emotionally charged slogan. Authoritarian populism is in the ascendant from Erdogan’s Turkey, to Putin in Russi and Xi in China.
In Europe it is the recipe of Vicktor Orban in Hungary and the Justice and Law party in Poland. Control Parties offer to put up walls, gates, barriers and borders to create the basis for order. They believe in the power of the state to reassert control of the nation: a place where those who belong, the natives, can dwell in peace. Control parties will be added by the growth of smart corporate information systems – Big Data – which will track and log every movement, communication and transaction.
Coping parties will help us keep-calm-and-carry-on to muddle through the crisis. Resilience and grit, endurance and determination are the character traits these parties promote in their citizens and young people as much as their leaders. All over the world the establishment is desperately circling the wagons to hold together the centre.
Angela Merkel is the model of Keep Calm and Carry On politician: flexible, pragmatic, comfortable with ambiguity and happy to work in a bit of a mess. Barack Obama, spent the last two years of his presidency trying to persuage Americans that the country is not going to the dogs but actually doing quite well.
Breakthrough will offer to use the multiple breakdowns we are suffering as the catalyst for a breakthrough to a better kind of society, with a more sustainable, equitable economy and a revived democracy. We do not yet see a lot of that kind of political imagination, although it is just possible that the iconoclastic Donald Trump may introduce some of it, so set he is against conventional political wisdom.
Nicola Sturgeon might be a breakthrough politician. Just Trudeau has a chance in Canada. Virginia Raggi the Five Star mayor of Rome and Anne Hidalgo in Paris could be breakthrough politicians for their cities.
So we will see a lot more anger and resistance, control and coping, but what we need from politics is going to be a real imagination, to use the breakdowns our society seems to be suffering to act as the basis for the breakthroughs we need to make. That may yet require more crisis but also a new generation of post-baby boomer leaders.
Charles Leadbeater works internationally as an independent adviser on innovation to governments, cities and organisations both public and private.
He is the author of several internationally renowned books, among them Living on Thin Air, published in 1998, which explored the rise of the knowledge driven economy and We-Think: mass innovation not mass production, published in 2008, which examined how the web was enabling creative collaboration across a wide range of fields.