We need incisive decision, not the Spanish Inquisition

spaninquisptThe more observant among you may have noticed that I’ve been banging on quite a bit over the last week about the loss of plot in relation to the relative importance of People and Systems. The main reason I think this to be a central cultural issue – apart from the obvious one that such plot-loss is a sign of madness – concerns the sheer expense in the long run of systemic-preference thinking. While I do think that by far the most deranged expression of this mindset was The Jobless Recovery, I return yet again to my desire for better governance.

The sums wasted by systemic obsession over the last sixty years are truly mind-blowing.

The day that architecture became the triumph of aesthetic ego and building method over social fitness for service was the day local government expenditure started on its long spiral upwards and out into the stratosphere. I bet you didn’t know this, but when the late 40s/early 50s housing opinion-leaders in architecture began looking at vertical environments, not a single citizen was polled or consulted in any way. Like most people too smart for their own good, the ‘designers’ of that era skipped Page One and decided to build up, not out. Thus they threw away the fundamental glue of neighbourly communities: the ability to walk three yards to next door on one level, or seven doors down to the Corner Shop.

Almost no thought was given to materials durability, maintenance costs of lifts, cleaning windows twenty storeys up, individual alienation, and so forth. Every Council had its little railway set-style model in reception: beautifully balanced and art directed, and utterly unfit for purpose. Today, over 70% of all of it has been demolished because either (a) it’s unfit for habitation through decay or (b) nobody wants to live there because of the isolation and violence. All up, it is impossible to audit the cost of this, because it is as much social and criminal as financial. But it was caused by putting a system of building before the occupier’s need.

After 1964, the middle-class intellectuals who eventually ruined the Labour Party embarked on a reconfiguration of the British education system based 100% on polemic rigidity, and 0% on its outstanding record of social mobility and academic success. In doing so, they also ‘streamlined’ the schools building programme into larger and more impersonal units unrelated to communities – and totally unmindful of either the family costs of transporting kids there, or indeed the time starvation of the emerging working mother. One of these was my mum, who met herself coming back day in day out trying to juggle a buyer’s job at JD Williams with tea on’t’table at 6pm, two sets of bus fares, and a husband who expected a newly ironed white shirt every morning.

Here in France today, every last commune or market town catchment still has its école primaire and secondaire, and from 8.30 every morning in every village Mums are still walking their kids to infant school. Our sprawling system combines impersonal teaching of the most banal nature with a misguided application of ‘equality’ that is completely antithetical to maximising every student’s full potential. After 1985 – enthusiastically expanded by the Blairites – targets for University entrance percentages became the b-all and end-all. Why? Because Thatcherites and ‘New’ Labour wanted electoral point-scoring ammunition. The result we see today is an under thirty year old demographic steeped in media studies….and a chronic shortage of skilled plumbing, plastering, woodworking, electrical and software repair experts. How mad is that? 3.5 million unemployed, and a massively unsatisified demand.

The cost to the Treasury of all that systemic constipation in terms of lost competitiveness, unemployment benefit, economic imbalance and social alienation doesn’t bear thinking about.

The tax system is designed to make collection easy for the HMRC, rather than taking account of the bitterness felt by most people about an arbitrary levy on money they’ve earned. It is designed to maximise the cash available for madcap schemes like HS2 – not to tackle societal obscenities like corporate tax accountants and largely unpunished malfeasance. The internet is rapidly morphing into a system for watching us and selling to us – as opposed to being a community/educational tool of unparalleled potential. The after-sales service model of software manufacturers is a sick joke based entirely on margins – with zero regard paid to the amount of business and private time it wastes.

Standing out like an elephantiasist bollock on an over-endowed Rhodesian Ridgeback is the legal system. It exists to maximise the hours of bitterness involved in a divorce to inflate fees – but not to cater sensitively for the needs of traumatised kids and parents. To double the anxiety of buying a property and moving home, rather than calm down one of the six most stressful events in a life. To create more and more laws and encourage  unreasonably litigious mindsets – as opposed to the sense of “sh*t happens” and personal responsibility our society so chronically lacks. Extreme as it sounds, if one abolished the Whitehall machine and the legal profession (with the exception of criminal justice and Business Law) tomorrow, I seriously doubt whether we would see anything but a massive gain in efficiency – and equally massive socio-economic savings.

On and on it goes. Merchant banking works to fuel mergers and throw jobs offshore. Bourses work to enrich shareholders and freeze out small entrepreneurs. Retail banks work to grab any money they can by any means, not support SMEs and the local community. Newspapers work to promote the agendas of the unelected, not to propagate truth or investigate liars. The BBC produces news and programmes designed almost entirely not to offend. Theatres look for bums on seats, rather than fresh work to stimulate the citizenry. And above all, the economic system is devoted 24/7 to defending….the system.

It is an economic system masquerading as Capitalism, but based on ideas so daft, only the greedy intelligentsia could ever possibly want to support them. In truth, it is corporatist monopolism. It embraces concepts proven to be not just anti-social, but utterly false: trickle-down wealth, a company’s only duty is to the shareholders, there is no such thing as an obscene profit, what patients want is choice, and all the rest of the drivel. Such ex cathedra assertions are, in their own way, just as palpably fantastic as the organs of the State will wither away, there will be a consensus for Socialism, dialectical materialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat – in other words, the deranged soundbite apparatus of Soviet Communism.

If we are going to build a better future for our grandchildren – and yes, I’m afraid it’s got so bad now, that’s the next generation that stands even a chance of benefiting from chucking the money-grubbers out of the temple – then we must start to put social human needs first, systems a very poor second, lagging behind in third place new ideology….and so far last that everyone else took a shower and drove home by the time they crossed the finishing line, rigid, tired, worn, threadbare old ideologies.

I’m a great one for structure: everything must have a structure, but it must serve the citizen majority, and it must have as its goal – old as the Benthamite ideal is – the greatest contentment of the greatest number.

Thomas Aquinas thought contentment was only possible through the marriage of religion with logic. Jeremy Bentham thought contentment came from material security. Nye Bevan thought it came primarily from abolishing anxiety about medical bills. Thatcher thought it came from property ownership. And dear Dave, bless ‘im, thinks it comes from getting a leg up. They were all wrong. It is time to start learning from their mistakes, and from here on observing what people want. I italicise ‘observing’ because this an absolutely central methodological principle to grasp.

I spent 35 years directly and indirectly involved in consumer and social research. One learns early on in face-to-face research that the skill in interpretation involves developing the ability to discern when people are lying to you. One does this in two ways: first, by observing body language in, for example, a focus group; and second, by referring to quantitative behavioural data to see if there is a mismatch….as indeed there very often is.

The mistake politicians made when they discovered the minefield called Focus Groups was allowing their ignorance to inform their arrogance. In market research, only idiots directly ask people what they want. Rather, practitioners who are any good watch and record sensory reactions, slot evidence of emotional beliefs into behaviour patterns, and painstakingly build a genuine picture of what consumer need and contentment are really built on.

The recent British study looking at emotional response to life-stimuli proved what most people with common sense have always known: that families, pets, friends, hobbies, nice food, weather and gardens are infinitely more important to most of us than money, office promotion, ‘a career’, and financial services. The latter are a means to the end. The former, together, tend to define contentment.

My suggestion is very simple. Lets stop:

1. Looking backwards

2. Defending the disproven

3. Sucking on the comfort blanket of systemic tribalism.

Let us instead:

* Put empirically measured and socialised human needs first

* Put structures most likely to maximise satisfaction before old ideologies

* Cage and then reject the 6% Happy Élite Solution (be it Left or Right)

* Expect new ideology to adapt and develop to serve people best in the light of socio-scientific change and discovery…and embrace that change.

People, animals, insects, climates and plants that inhabit our biosphere are alive. Ideologies, systems, States, Unions, uninformed opinions, religions, economic models,  and financial products are variously abstract or dead. Ultimately, this is for me the obvious bottom line. We can either head into the future as free-thinking, open-minded humans nurturing the voyager gene; or we can retreat behind process and systems to become the robotic slaves of Mammon.

The irony here is that we face the same choice now as those promoting the Renaissance seven centuries ago. Except perhaps that this time – to adopt the Monty Pythonic syntax – Everyone should suspect the Friedmanite Inquisition.

Earlier at The Slog: Hoping for the end of the LABoraTORY