Looking Down from Mount Olympus

With Olympics fervor at its height, it’s tough to resist Homer’s description:

“Olympus was not shaken by winds nor ever wet with rain, nor did snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless, and over it hovered a radiant whiteness.” Homer, Odyssey.

Today, the equivalent of the 12 Gods on Olympus are, maybe, the G-20, or G-2, or the UN or any of the international organisations that are set-up on our behalf.

Or, maybe it’s closer to home – the national heads who make up the EU or the lesser number that make up the EZ; the 100 Senators in the US Congress.

Or, maybe they are the 1% who own 40% of the earth’s assets (financially-speaking).

Or, how about Forbes Global 2000 – the top 2000 of the world’s companies that, between them, account for $149 trillion in assets and employ 83 million people. This compared to McKinsey’s estimate of $212 trillion value of the world’s capital stock in 2011 – a huge percentage.

Icy Slopes

The Greek Gods took their place after a war with the Titans – who ruled before them. Mythology into reality – our new Gods rule in much the same way after a 20th Century where totalitarian regimes fought each other, amongst each and against  democratic nations in bloody conflict. Millions died in China, the Soviet Union, Europe, Vietnam, Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere as different theories of government battled for supremacy.

Francis Fukuyama declared it “The End of History” as liberal democracy supposedly triumphed. We know now that he was wrong (as he has himself declared). For, the winner (for now) was not democracy but a form of capitalism that promotes a new set of god-like creatures and a new Olympus where the wind does not blow and the air is clear. This new capitalism – the complete dominance of quantity no matter what type of government is in power – was relatively bloodless in its conquests, but no less callous in its purpose. Indeed, its callousness is worse than before as it is merely the “invisible hand” that drives the marketplace that has led to the victory of the new Gods.

Now, sitting upon the summit, surrounded by the icy slopes that let few into their circle, they can look down upon the rest in their eco-defended enclave.

How the War Was Won

 

The titanic struggle was won on the back of the primacy of goods – developing the ability for ordinary people to secure their basic material needs and then onwards to “choice” and leisure and luxury. This has been wonderfully accompanied by the ability of business to promote their products so that demand could be developed without the consumer realizing it. This ability to influence demand (so brilliantly described in Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society”) has led to a victory of quantity over quality in the West and will do so elsewhere.

The victory was made easier by Governments’ willingness to adhere to the 19th Century economic theories that made “growth” and GDP the concepts upon which all governing was placed – but, placed them in simulations which cannot reflect reality. Mathematicians and econometricians have extended the fallacy – we live for numbers. The evidence for this can be seen so well in Russia and China. For most of the 20th Century, both held out as anti-capitalist bastions as the world moved to strengthen democracy. Neither has succumbed to democracy – Russia is a gangster-elite State, China is a legalist, centralized State. But, both yielded wholeheartedly to the market.

Who Won the War?

Many argue that the democratic West won the war (as Fukuyama attempted to suggest) but this is wrong. The western form of liberal democracy with its desire to provide representative government, elections and low corruption levels (comparatively) as well as supposed access to education and upward social mobility is losing out. It is arguable that even in those countries that still pursue these ends, there is now a vastly worsening separation between rich and poor and a hardening of social structures – with far less mobility.

In China and Russia, elites have won the war and their instruments of war have been capitalist – as their citizens climb up Maslow’s hierarchy of need from the very bottom, quantity of goods is supreme no matter how they are derived. As Jonathan Fenby describes in “Tiger Head, Snake Tails” this is, in China, despite rampant corruption, ecological degradation and vast differences in wealth between elites as well as complete indifference to the vast population when their houses are demolished to make way for new buildings or motorways (for example).

Who Lost the War?

Millions of lives were lost in the 20th Century as nations defended themselves against the onslaught of totalitarianism. But, a new totalitarianism has taken root right beneath our noses.

It is the totalitarianism of the elites that control the markets – markets fed by a constant diet of GDP statistics and growth targets.

The losers are (in Orwellian-speak) supposedly the winners – the mass of the population that has grown “wealthier” throughout the latter half of the 20th Century.

So, it seems to be a benign revolution but the problems are becoming clearer by the day.

In Greece, home to Mount Olympus, the country is in its fifth year of recession. In Spain, 24.6% of people are now officially unemployed. In most countries, the gap between the wealthy and the rest is growing steadily.  Economic strains are now working their way around the system as growth (measured traditionally in 19th  Century models) stalls outside of newly developing nations (yet, who believes the measures coming from China?). Today’s youth in the developed west are unlikely to be “wealthier” than their parents in pure GDP terms.

But, we should not be focused on pure numbers. Economic growth is also threatening the ecology of the planet at an alarming rate. Whether or not fossil fuels are near their end, the effects on the planet are growing and recent changes to our weather patterns merely the first signs. Our damning footprint is ever more etched on the planet and real risks are emerging that the life styles we live now may not be available for long. As Rumanian economist Georgescu-Roegen surmised over fifty years ago, maybe we can’t change and will simply go out in a puff of smoke.

Maybe, though, society will not, for ever, tolerate the new totalitarians, the new Olympians.

The Gods were not immortal

 

Of course, nothing lasts forever. The Greek Gods did not survive (except in mythology) and neither will the current ones.

The problem is that we are engrained with the belief that quantity is the key to good life (which it may be up to a point) and have lost a connection with what society is about. Mass production has led to greater wealth but, as Galbraith saw 60 years ago, society cannot be all about quantity.

Maslow, developing his Hierarchy of Need as a marketing tool, expected that we would go beyond quantity to some form of self-actualization. We have definitely not managed that yet but we have some signs that societal self-actualization is possible.

A major problem in the way of this is that different countries are at different stages of economic development. China has a massive population still well down the material scale and there will be no let-up in the leadership’s drive for “growth” to stem the dismay of their people on all other issues. In Africa, the longing for material wealth is as strong and who can blame them bearing in mind the economic and social torment they have suffered?

So, initiatives like Zero Impact Growth being developed by John Elkington and his Volans company are worth considering.

This is an approach to growth with zero impact on the planet and ultimately to give back more than is taken out. Where others seek to quantify (and there are dangers in the approach of quantifying everything), the Elkington approach is to develop a maturity matrix as follows:

Maturity Level Definition from ‘The Zeronauts’ Analogy: Characteristics of a company on that level
No strategy and goals No definition The company barely understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions and hardly reports on sustainability. Furthermore, no strategy has been defined and no targets have been set.
Eureka Opportunity is revealed via the growing dysfunction of the existing order. The company understands the relevance of restructuring its actions towards sustainable solutions. No considerable actions have been taken yet and almost no strategies and targets have been set. The company does already understand the relevance of the topic though, has started reporting and communicates plans to ameliorate its sustainability performance in the future.
Experiment Innovators and entre­preneurs begin to experiment, a period of trial and error. Although the company has started its first inno­vation efforts and internal programs in certain sustainability areas and has developed initial policies and strategies, no concrete milestones and an overarching future vision have been defined yet.
Enterprise Investors and managers build new business models creating new forms of value. The company has developed a short- to mid-term strategy ( ≤ 2020) for specific areas and has set measureable targets. Nevertheless, almost no long-term milestones have been defined. Furthermore, they do not communicate an over­arching future vision.
Ecosystem Critical mass and part­nerships create new markets and institu­tional arrangements. Measureable, ambitious (zero) targets based on a mid- to long-term vision (≥2020) are set. Nevertheless, a conjoint approach and some collaborative aspects are still missing since the holistic zero impact growth vision has not been (fully) adapted.
Economy The economic system flips to a more sustainable state, supported by cultural change. The company has fully adapted the zero impact growth vision. Measureable zero targets that have been adapted jointly are set out for each field of action. A clearly defined strategy is in place on how to achieve these targets, with defined short- and long-term milestones. The underlying benchmarks are clearly defined.

Maybe there is some fight left and the reality behind the model is clear – we can’t fight the invisible hand but maybe there is a chance for society to develop some self-actualisation behind the corporate drive towards zero impact growth where the planet survives along with humanity.

That doesn’t impact on the gap between the wealthy and the rest as the focus is on economics and sustainability. Inequality is as important a problem as ecology. Numbers should be seen for what they are – where money is one aspect of our lives not the only one. Demos, a UK think-tank has just published: Beyond GDP – New Measures for a New Economy.

It is an attempt to seek a rationale for economics beyond numbers. Briefly it posits that:

  • GDP does not distinguish between spending on bad things and spending on good things.  By this measurement, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico “positively” contributed to the economy just like the many good and services that people actually want or need.
  • GDP doesn’t account for the distribution of growth. Our total national income has doubled over thirty years, and so has the share of national income going to the wealthiest households, but average households have seen little or no income gains. GDP doesn’t care if growth is captured by a few or widely shared.
  • GDP doesn’t account for depletion of natural capital and ecosystem services.  If all the fish in the sea are caught and sold next year, global GDP would see a big boost while the fishing industry itself would completely collapse.
  • GDP doesn’t reflect things that have no market price but are good for our society, like volunteer work, parenting in the home, and public investments in education and research.

Two studies that show on this morning after that wonderful Danny Boyle-inspired Olympics night – where values were keenly shown as more than just money – that the slopes of Mount Olympus are slippery but not completely impassable: a Danny Boyle-inspired dose of self-actualisation.

Education and Examinations – back to Plato

In the UK, a leaked document from the Department for Education proposes that we go back to the 1950’s and separate kids at 15 or 16 into two sections of society: those who can and those who can’t. I guess this may be better than the separation at 11 that took place then (the UK’s “11 plus” exams) but not much. Hearkening back to a “bygone age” of seeming perfection is often the norm for conservatives – there to preserve rather than illuminate – but, the mistake is that we have lost the meaning of education.

Education as a Feeder system for the Economy

To educate is to develop the faculties and powers (of a person) by teaching, instruction, or schooling.

Going back to definitions may be important. If the crucial objectives of education are to develop “faculties” and “powers” – which parents are doing from the time a baby is born – why has the education system decided not to do this? Why is it that the education system devised in the mid-20th Century has, through national curricula, worked to establish something different?

In all the discussions and discourse on education that reaches most of us through TV and newspapers, the focus of education is not about maximising the powers and faculties, but about developing certain skills in order to make pupils employable. How this has come about is debatable but is likely to be as a result of economics and the view of governments that it has to feed the economic system.

Now, this is not completely unreasonable and it is not as though citizens want everyone to be a Plato, a Socrates or even an A C Grayling. Economics applied to most citizens means that we want to develop ourselves sufficiently to have a decent job. University degrees in subjects that are not job-focused are decried because they dare to deviate from the GDP-focus that dominates all our lives.

We are continuously subjected to the competition between the newly developing nations and their own devotion to exams and economic prosperity as the new mantra. “Communist” China is now held up as the beacon – we are, in effect, at war with the soldiers now the pupils in our schools and universities who are in competition with their counterparts in China. It is not just league tables to compare your local schools; we are now homogenized into comparisons on a world basis against the maths and science students of China and Singapore and Thailand.

Across the world, education has made Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World a closer reality.  We now have schools / academies split into alpha, beta and epsilon (through the division of private sector, and maintained sector split by geography / location). We have exacerbated the problem (if we agree it is one) by the almost complete drive to make our children the feeder for gross domestic product (GDP) growth. This is leading (in the UK) to Michael Gove’s attempt to split our kids into two sectors – those who can and those who can’t – by type of exam taken at 15 or 16. But, citizens are not being given the exam question that he is attempting to answer in this way.

What is the question?????

Gove wants a division of society into those who can pass exams at 16 and those who cannot. Why? Because there is a view that young people need to be divided at some age into those who can be management and leaders within the private and public sector and those who will be providers of services to them and the organisations that they manage and lead.

The 19th and 20th Century devised organisations, which have led to societies, which are now run by government and private sector priorities. Government is supposed to be (in a democracy) at the will of the people but is now a mix of career civil servants and career politicians (especially the case in Europe but true in most developed societies).

The private sector (which has been the source of so much wealth creation and so much that is good) has through competition developed an amazing monopoly over our lives. Economics never envisaged a duopoly of forces that would dominate in this way. The accommodation of the private sector by government and vice versa is how our societies are now run and education is seen more and more as the provider into these monolithic power centres.

So, the question we should be asking of our education system is whether we wish to have our kids taught in order to supply the system in this way and in addition to suffer the effects of the Brave New World of demarcation into alpha, beta and epsilon schools AND even more between top tier pupils and service providers  OR whether we wish real education to take place? Huxley’s dystopian vision (or Plato’s world view that we should divide children at an early age to educate those who will rule early and divide the rest) was based on a top-down philosophy that is outdated and pretty totalitarian. In any emergent society (and human occupy the same emergent plateau as any other living creature), we should ensure that the best opportunities are provided wherever possible and at any age. This is possible in a developed society and where our gross domestic product should be directed.

If education is really to develop the faculties and powers of an individual through teaching, we should continuously ask what these faculties and powers should be and then whether we are providing them (and, if not, how we should be).

Faculties and Powers in the 21st Century

We have reached the stage in our economic development (we probably did many years ago – as Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society” so well testified) when rapid and continuous economic growth as measured by current measurement systems is no longer rational. We are wasteful of resources and wasteful of our freedoms in the pursuit of more goods. The challenge to society is how it remodels itself in the light of diminishing economic utilities and diminishing returns for this wealth as well as the potential calamities that divisive wealth distributions (between the top 1% and the rest) are creating.

Jobs are central to economic well being and naturally feature in our minds as one of the most important priorities in our lives. They aren’t the only ones, though.

Equipping our children for the difficulties that the 21st Century society has on offer as well as for the opportunities that it provides is the most important requirement for education.

I have been involved with Education and the system for over 20 years as a pro-bono School / academy Governor and as a Chair of Governors for the last eight of those years. I have seen successive governments in the UK pass the buck on education as different theories are tried and children used for experiments. What Michael Gove is now stating is that all the changes made over the last fifty years have not allowed us to progress and that we should go back to where we were.

The trouble is that the assessment is mistaken. There is little in the proposal about exams and divisions at 16 that would provide any confidence that our children will be better educated as a result. The imperative is to equip them with the faculties and powers to make decisions, be real and pro-active members of society and to make real contributions. Some of that is about the ability to work. We are leading much longer lives, though, and young people will go through a variety of careers and need to use many of their skills (inherited and learnt) as a result. There is little chance of having one job for life any more – change is too fast and we need to change to keep up.

Where is this faculty being learned if we are determined to divide up our kids at such an early age and send them off into the world without the faculties and powers that will best equip them for that world?

Employers bemoan the low level of maths and English taught in many schools and this needs to be improved; we have too few scientists and that needs to be changed. However, employers look to the short term and to their current needs. Economics is very poor at forecasting (as the banking disasters of 2008 to now show so clearly). Therefore, friends in Government must not only listen to employers groups and change our education philosophy as a result to their advantage only.

Education must be centred on providing the faculties and powers to enable young people to make the most of themselves in society – not just to gain immediate employment when 18 (the age when young people will soon be obliged to stay at school in the UK).

Civil Society as the Bridge Between Private and Public Sector Monoliths

Most of us work in the private or public sector. I don’t these days – I have worked in the so-called Third Sector for the last five years – for NGO’s and charities. But, the Third Sector is not just about charities and NGO’s. As a School / Academy Governor, I play a civil society role in a public sector school / academy. I don’t see myself as being in the public sector.

We all live in society – some of that in work and much outside. A good education is the crucial foundation for anyone to enable them to take best advantage of what life has to offer. Getting a good first job is important but not everything. Each individual’s contribution to society (whether local, regional, national or international) is important and a good education which stretches an individual’s faculties and powers at an age when our brains are most able to grow, develop and take on new ideas is essential. This is the fundamental notion that the best societies don’t work on a top-down basis (the essence of totalitarianism – a Brave New World) but provide the opportunities to those who can best use those them – and at whatever age.

Education is core to our well-being. We should have learned much since Plato opened the first Academy in 387BC in Athens. The essence of education has to be that it is a central provision of society and that it has to be there for all to take full advantage. Arbitrary divisions at any age from the top-down perpetuate societal divisions and hinder society’s ability to grow – its emergent properties are stymied by the imposition of extra rigidities.

Further, the division of our schools by location would drive us backwards not forwards as many schools in economically poorer areas will continue to be second-tier (compared to the better maintained sector schools and remote, third tier compared to the private sector) and will never have a chance to recover that position. Plato’s division of society (or Huxley’s) will be set.

Those of us who can stand aside from public or private sector top-down views of society don’t need to accept this position. Our children should retain access to the best throughout their lives. A two-tier exam system on top of a three-tier education system is out of date and condemns too many, too early.