Rebuilding Society from the ground up

The recent riots were shocking, but they were not a surprise.  They were waiting to happen.  This is not for one simple reason but for several complex ones.  But it is not the reasons that should be central here, except in what they tell us about what is now needed.

Just about everyone who commented on the riots got the answers right.  They all had a piece of the truth, and some of the discussions were blessedly lacking in the usual polarisations.   Of course we ended up with the retributive justice, but if you are used to a Spiral Dynamics perspective you know that Red excess requires containment from a strong Red-Blue.   The first response must be to prevent further damage.  Medically you need to sedate the patient and stop the bleeding before other remedies are possible.

Seemingly, these things have happened before.  We recall Toxteth and Brixton;  no doubt there are some people who think that the problem will now go away for another 25 years.   But this time was different.  These rampages were not politically driven, they were across racial divides and something besides anger was being expressed.   These were Orange events – strategised, organised and acquisitive.  They were not merely Red excess requiring Blue order.  If it is co-ordinated by Blackberry, it’s not exactly a riot.

There is something fascinating and even ironic about the echoing of Iran and Egypt in this technological orchestration – that the same means that have been used against corrupt regimes are also being deployed to serve these gang events.  Some participants viewed this as fun, and maybe it was the only way to make life outside the bedroom as exciting as Grand Theft Auto.  But perhaps the biggest shock came from the participation by people who were not poor and who were not mere youths.  What we saw was an expression of “grab what you can, when you can”.  It was cynical and opportunist, and in that sense fully echoed the behaviour of bankers and expenses-fiddlers.  Feral youth looked at the feral elite and said – “we’ll have a piece of that”. 

In one sense it is good that we have a Prime Minister who uses the label “Broken Society”.  You could see it as progress coming from a party whose earlier leaderette barely allowed that there is such a thing as Society.  To his credit, Cameron has previously showed his awareness that there are underlying problems and since he was ridiculed for doing so with the “hug a hoodie” tag, we may understand that there is now some hesitancy to go outside the territory defined by his “bring back hanging” colleagues and Daily Mail readers.   But the label is misleading and inadequate. 

What we are dealing with is a society in transition.  When you bang your shins on the coffee table the pain is a reminder that you were not sufficiently conscious.  When you do so in the dark it is a reminder to turn the light on next time.  The truth is that we have known that the societal issues, like the table, were there all along.  In addition, familiarity with SD told us that this transition was coming.  Clare W. Graves told us that it would be “the most difficult, but at the same time the most exciting transition that the human race has faced to date… the start of a new movement in the symphony in human history.”

I think that we tend to underestimate the degree of change that this calls for.  We know that the second tier of existence which is attempting to birth, demands that we integrate and balance all the preceding stages.   Among the reasons for the looting we can find breakdown of second-stage bonding in the family and “tribe”.  We witness inadequate parenting, failure to manage the third-stage emergence of a healthy will and to place fourth-stage boundaries and inculcate orderly understanding of the collective rules.  We can see the systemic changes which have contributed to these failures – the geographical separation of the extended family, the families that live separate lives watching separate screens and rarely eating together.  Then there is the loss of sports facilities and the risk-averse or anti-competition mentalities that have progressively deprived youth of healthy and structured sport-based challenges through which to grow.

We know the fifth-stage drivers too, the need for two-incomes to fuel the acquisition lifestyle and the growth of the “grab-it” culture.   We can see that our “fairness” systems – the socialised medicine, education and care  structures have tended to create dependency, fostered an attitude of entitlement without effort and supported the idea that caring is not our own task as individuals, but the responsibility of public service professionals.  The sixth stage is in our systems, but not fully in our Values.   Collectively we care about the NHS, but we care most when it fails to deliver what we think we should have.  Only a minority truly take responsibility for their own health.  The list of contributing factors is very long and we could see our task as merely to rebalance the stack, bringing it back to health through an extended series of adjustments.  For sure, we will need to do that and if we do not, the platform for our next stage will be too unstable.  As Graves pointed out, it is not certain that we will succeed in the transition and these many aspects will need to change.

This tends to be the picture we see in varying degrees of detail, and often only with fragmentary grasp of the full systemic view.  I feel that we haven’t seen the depth of what needs to happen or grasped the full extent of the cultural change.  All of the adjustments that we must make need to be designed and orchestrated from the seventh level, and built with a second-tier perspective. 

The parallel that I want to draw is from product development and I would like to use the example of Interface carpets.  When Ray Anderson set his company the challenge of creating a truly sustainable business, he found that this could not be accomplished by “bolting on” environmental thinking.  It demanded a complete redesign.  Materials have to be different, production processes change and the whole idea of “selling” carpets disappears.  Interface only lease carpets so that when they are at end of life, they are returned for their materials to be re-used.

I suggest that the equivalent for our societal health is the need to rebuild society from the ground up.   The riots tell us that the underlying tensions and imbalances are unsustainable.  These will get worse if financial pressures increase, which the loss of market confidence in August 2011 suggests is now unavoidable.  We know that the Values mix that UK 2011 operates from is not sustainable and doesn’t enable us to address our life conditions, which for clarity include climate change, overburdened public services, ecological pressures, energy costs, food miles, unemployment, an ageing population, struggling businesses, an endemic debt-based economy and the continuing undercurrent of social exclusion, racism, immigration issues and addiction-fuelled crime.  Not to mention looting.

To quote Graves again (and remember that he wrote this in 1974) “We appear to be headed for a higher-order reversal of those values and beliefs we have held most dear and in our institutional ways of living.”   We need to get to grips with what that reversal of values will look like.  More than anything, we will need them to become part of how we all think.  We don’t need everyone in the UK to hold second-tier Values but we will need for those Values to articulate the nature of our society.  It must be possible for people in first-tier life conditions and mindsets to find their place of comfort within the mix.

This is not an overnight job.  It is one which requires inspiration and leadership.  It is one that requires a vision that helps the collective to find “freedom from inner compulsiveness and rigidifying anxiety”.   It involves a fundamental re-orientation of our thinking that Graves also described, among which:-

  • Quality, not quantity, will become the measure of worth
  • Reduction of use will be valued, growth will be devalued
  • Freedom to operate in one’s own self-interest will be replaced by the responsibility to operate in the interest of others
  • The boss will be the expediter of subordinates’ desires rather than the director of their activities
  • The measure of educational success will not be quantity of learning but whether the education leads to movement up the existential staircase
  • Activities that promote interdependent existence will be valued more than those that promote the sanctity of the individual

The equivalent of Interface Carpets’ shift into sustainability will incorporate such values into our social functioning.  Ground-up redesign recognises that we have reached the point where social health can likewise no longer be accomplished through add-on fixes; it must be designed in to the system, and ill-health designed out.  The nation spends huge amounts of its wealth and human effort in fixing problems;  our social and health systems have burgeoned with cures.  When we genuinely understand the needs and complex balances of modern society, we have the opportunity to shift money and effort to prevention rather than cure.  This is not a utopian proposition and we do not imply perfection, but it is a practical path to more effective social function.

The trend towards some of Graves’ new directions has already become apparent.  The need for others is manifest.  The shift towards partnership economics, sustainability by design, social responsibility, individual accountability, servant leadership, mutual care above individual acquisition, quality of life above possessions is already taking place.  These are the areas which our social rebuilding must incorporate.  These are the elements that must find their ways into individual thinking and into the systems and structures that we live within.  The requirement is comprehensive, complete and systemic.  We have made the world in our own image.  It is time for a new image and for a new world.


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