Time for socialists to rethink the role of government

by Robin Thorpe

In December 2011 I wrote a piece for Uncut on the subject of how we address the meaning of socialism today and in the future. In this piece I discussed the notion of solidarity and how Leo Panitch describes this as meaning “transcending diversity” and not merely collating groups of ethnically or culturally similar people. I was reminded of this article and a few of the comments by several recent events.

The first of these was a training course in which the trainer presented Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This made me think of the following comment by Amber Star;

“Here’s the dichotomy… the more successful a Labour government is in legislating for minimum wages, equality in the workplace, health & safety, maternity/ paternity leave, paid vacations & other workers’ rights, the less need there is for working people to join a Union &/or organise themselves”.

The fundamental basis of Maslow’s theory is that each of us is motivated by needs. “Only when the lower order needs of physical and emotional well-being are satisfied are we concerned with the higher order needs of influence and personal development” (businessballs.com).

This notion has particular relevance in industry where employers can optimize the workers potential by ensuring that they have a secure standard of living, welfare etc and are therefore focused on doing their job. The other side of Maslow’s needs based model is that where systems of support that maintain lower order needs are removed, then an individual no longer has the motivation to achieve higher order needs.

This has particular resonance in the field of politics. Amber Star’s statement is superficially true but it misses the point that we need to maintain this safety net to enable us to succeed in life. Furthermore, successfully resolving these needs is not possible without collaboration.

Maslow’s needs based model has been a central tenet of management theory for the last 50 years. One of the weaknesses of Maslow’s hierarchical model; however, is that it can be too simplistic. Maslow Rewired redefines the needs hierarchy as an interactive cycle that is anchored by social connection.

This reimagining of the model does not negate the fact that basic needs must be met in order for people to seek higher goals. What Maslow Rewired does is place more emphasis on social interaction; “The system of human needs from bottom to top, shelter, safety, sex, leadership, community, competence and trust, are dependent on our ability to connect with others. Belonging to a community provides the sense of security and agency that makes our brains happy and helps keep us safe.” (Rutledge, P.)

Maslow Rewired for Social Media (Rutledge, P)

What ramifications does this have for the labour movement? Superficially it means better communication but much more substantially it means reappraising how the Labour party goes about its business. Whether we consider the established model of a hierarchy represented by a pyramid or an interactive cycle the fact remains that big government can only achieve certain objectives. That is not to say that government does not have a purpose; I am not an advocate of tea party politics.

But government can not merely reside in Whitehall/Westminster and direct from afar. For all organisations, public or private, to build sustainable success it is vital that they enable people to maximize their individual potential.  Maslow Rewired suggests that the optimum way of doing this is through social connection (what we may call co-operation). This academic theory has similarities with the business philosophy, Radical Management, developed by Steve Denning.

Steve Denning (formerly Programme Director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank and now a business consultant and author of “The Leaders Guide to Radical Management”) argues that in order to achieve innovation and efficiency a fundamental shift is required to change managers from controllers to enablers – “To reach the new level of performance, the organization has to empower those doing the work in self-organizing teams that are responsible for deciding how the work is to be done”. In an article for Forbes,

Denning summarizes five big surprises that he has observed when implementing Radical Management. One of these is that this is a hugely profitable way of doing business; another was that the practice can have wider application then its current usage in high-tech industries. He theorizes that by changing the way that governmental organisations operate from “shaking the vending machine to get more or better services out of it, and over to the idea of government building frameworks that enable people to build new services of their own” then it is possible to reform education and health service to genuinely put students and patients first.

This brings me to another event that made me think about my interpretation of socialism. This was a programme on Radio 4 about Roberto Unger. For those of you not familiar with him (which included me until a week or so ago) it is worth your time listening to a few of his lectures on YouTube. You may not agree with everything that he says, but like Chomsky, he has a knack of getting straight to his point and rationally defining his argument and evidence. I happen to agree with most of what he says; if only because he validates and expands on my own opinions – a happy coincidence which will always result in a favourable predisposition.

In an article in Counter-Punch Unger provides a damning indictment of contemporary politics “Progressives in the world and in the United States especially, do not contribute to the objective of social and inclusive economic growth. They do not work for a form of national development based on a sustained broadening of educational and economic opportunities. Instead they accept the present arrangements and seek to humanize them through compensatory redistribution, that is entitlement programs. Thus, the progressives become the humanizers of the supposedly inevitable. They don’t have a program. Their program is the program of their conservative adversaries with a humanizing face. The practical result is that the talents and the energies of the vast majority of ordinary men and women are squandered.”

Unger then draws a similar conclusion to the far more centrist Steve Denning “This is not simply a problem about how resources are allocated by the government. It is a problem about the way things are organized. Thus my focus falls on institutional reimagination and institutional reconstruction.”

Unger expands on this theme in an interview with the European “The opportunity for change has already been largely squandered. But the opportunity for insight, not yet, and insight today can mean transformation tomorrow”

Unger explains that the organisation of labor, just like the notion of markets, is not a natural phenomenon but is a human construct. Prior to the industrial revolution industry was decentralized; workers were organized in small teams and often worked in co-operation with other teams. Since the mid-19th century labor forces have become concentrated in factories that are owned and managed by large corporate entities. Contemporary bureaucracy and trade unions have evolved to cope with mass production from a largely unskilled workforce.

As technology changes again we seem to be entering a new period of decentralized labor often engaged in temporary or contractual work. Rather than fight against this tide of globalization Unger proposes that the balance of power both within democratic and corporate organisations is altered to allow citizens more autonomy and more personal responsibility. He states that “the primary responsibility of the union is to ensure the capability and endowments of its citizens so that they can raise a storm of experimentation and try things differently and try this and try that”. He does not propose that this means removing the social safety net; but does insist that it must change and adapt.

I find it fascinating that Rutledge, Denning and Unger have reached similar conclusions from widely differing viewpoints. This does not necessarily mean that they are right but it is worth thinking through the alternatives to the status quo. Rutledge places emphasis on social media in achieving greater connectivity; Denning believes in the power of small task-orientated, self-organizing teams to produce greater innovation and efficiency and

Unger argues for a transformation in the balance of power between the labor force, the employer and governmental organisations. All of them recognise the importance of communication, collaboration and control. Social cohesion (solidarity) is not just desirable; it is necessary to allow us to reach our potential. The role of government in this context is to be an enabler; to ensure that individuals and SMEs are equipped with the tools and knowledge to compete in a local, national and global market.

Robin Thorpe is a consulting engineer for a small practice on the south coast

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One Response to “Time for socialists to rethink the role of government”

  1. swatantra says:

    Its a good article and very thought provoking. Rutledge Denning and Unger have basically got it right.
    But I ould add one further point. I think its called The Law of Diminishing Returns.
    As people grow more prosperous with a greater disposable income, they lose their class base, and loyalties, and ‘forget’ where they came from and loosen their ties and loyalties with those that helped them on the way to achvieve a better life ie The Labour Party. We saw a lot of that going on in the 1980’s and 90’s underThatcher. The more successful Labour is it seems, the more our supporter base diminishes. Its a conundrum.

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