Posts Tagged ‘value’


it’s all in a word…

August 4, 2008

The current trend seems to be to try and distill one’s thinking to a single word. Three in particular spring to mind that are doing the rounds in the policy world…

Nudge – Richard Thaler says that policy should go with the grain of how people behave anyway, shock horror

Blink – Malcolm Gladwell argues that instinct (ok, ok, ‘rapid cognition’) counts and we should take it seriously

With – not yet a book but guaranteed to be so within 18 months… Charlie Leadbeater says that it’s time to think about ‘with and by’ not ‘to and for’ when it comes to public service design. A thesis he begins in We-Think but most recently talked about at the social innovation conference in San Sebastian (more on that in another post)

I’ve never quite managed to boil my own thinking down to a single word, but I’ve got a few that I’m pretty fond of. In no particular order:

Authenticity: I think most people have a pretty good bullshit detector and there’s rarely any point in pulling the wool over people’s eyes

Autonomy: my money’s on the fact we’re going to be hearing quite a lot about ‘control’ in coming months but I prefer autonomy. At Demos we used to talk about ‘people being architects of their own lives’. I like that too but it fails on the word count in this particular post.

Connectedness: not exactly a word but a really important principle. Most ‘bad’ outcomes – mental health, physical wellbeing, behaviour – can be correlated to loneliness and isolation. People need to feel seen and heard. I read a report last year that found that low income mothers have much smaller social networks than middle class mothers. This makes a mockery of how we deal with, for example, young offenders, or people with mental health problems, where we actively remove them from society. Just imagine if connectedness was a performance indicator for public services…

Usefulness: Marx talked about productivity, Sennett (in The Culture of the New Capitalism) about usefulness. I love both of these, but usefulness wins out because it encompasses non-paid work too. Feeling useless is surely one of the worst and most debilitating emotions someone can experience.

Pride: I really like this one. People who are proud feel good about themselves, and how they are living their lives. When we were working with the families in Kent, many of them felt ashamed of even letting our ethnographers into their homes. At a more macro level, imagine if Brown’s doomed attempts to define Britishness centred on pride? Not in a grim empire-building way, but more in a sense that Brits should feel proud of their country, proud of what it stands for. When I saw him speak, the only thing Richard Thaler said that I liked was about the contrast between the UK’s ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ signs and the US’s ‘Keep America Beautiful’ signs.

Liminal: ah, my favourite space. And such a beautiful word. In-between, murky worlds where interesting things happen and new perspectives emerge from the collision of different views and experiences. A good anthropological word too. In fact so good, it’s got a website all to itself.

Value: I have a feeling that much of my thinking rests on a desire to redefine what we value in society: unpaid work, love, emotions – too often treated as value-free in a world where markets and rationality rule. If I were making a visual thesarus I would connect value to meaning, experience and relationships.

I’m pretty sure there’s a counter-point blog to this post, on words that should be banned… can we start with ’empowerment’ please?


marx: the return

August 3, 2008

For a while now, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that Marxist analysis is due a revival. There’s something in the air that means suddenly his work is worthy of rehabilitation: whether it’s the credit crunch exposing the casino capitalism indulged in by banks around the world, or the growing awareness that a decade of Labour government has done little to shift the stubborn gap between richest and poorest, I think it’s time that Marx’s focus on power and forms of value return to centre stage.

So I’ve been reading up in anticipation… Marshall Berman’s All that is solid melts into air, and his Adventures in Marxism are both things I probably should have read already, but haven’t. I also picked up Francis Wheen’s delightfully readable tale of how Das Kapital was written (headline: it took a really really long time).

What have I taken from all this? Aside from a much better understanding of Marx’s economic arguments (more on that in a moment) I am really struck by the argument Berman makes about how modern life is somehow ‘flatter’ in its imagination and perspectives: we don’t like the poetry of dialectic, we are less able to hold opposing forces in our heads simultaneously. Wheen compares Marx to the great literary giants of the 19th century in his prose. What does it mean to live in a society where things are so much more one-dimensional, where we refuse to think big in the way Marx did? What do we lose? What do we become blind to?

Of course, Marx’s diagnosis on the state of capitalism is also, in my view, of increasing relevance. His argument that capitalism has within itself its seeds of destruction seems to me to be playing out around us as I type. The question is: what will we do about it? Is it just too fundamental to how the world goes round to dismantle now? How do we respond to the signs that unless we change how we live, we are likely to kill ourselves and the planet?

For Marx, part of the answer lay in critical thought itself. It was through analysis, debate, interrogation that capitalism would be brought down. He had enormous faith in our ability as humans to save ourselves, quoting Gramsci who described the quest for a balance of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’.

Critics of Marx, most notably Hannah Arendt (someone else I must read up on), feel that he over-values productivity and individual development. For Arendt, the risk of Marx’s analysis is that there is no ‘commons’, no ties by which people are bound together. Many links here for me to all my stuff around the value of unpaid work, the importance of the household…