How To Reform Capitalism

How to reform capitalismThe School of Life essay How To Reform Capitalism, (available at The School of Life shop), is worth a read for anyone engaged in the commercial world but who wonders about its values. Most of us then.

Here’s the blurb:

It is normal to feel frustrated and sad about aspects of modern capitalism. At the same time, realistic hope of change can seem either utopian or demented. In fact, the way that capitalism works is inherently open to alteration and improvement. This is because the problems of capitalism are, in their essence, not about money, law, or politics, but about human psychology – the field of expertise of The School of Life.

As this bold essay argues, the path to a better sort of capitalism starts with a clear-eyed understanding of our emotional functioning and the workings of our psyches. What follows is nothing less than a blueprint, revolutionary yet utterly practical, for a wiser and better kind of capitalism.

The main argument of the book is a simple but powerful one. It is that capitalism as practised so far has been good at getting the things it set out to do – but it set out with too little ambition. It’s not so much the tackiness and emptiness of brand communications that are the bane of modern life – though they are a bit – it’s that we haven’t yet created big markets in products that actually meet the emotional needs of modern life.

I love this critique of the emptiness of much of business culture, in a chapter wonderfully entitled The Depression of the Business Community:

Throughout history, when business has been harshly judged, criticism has focussed on the idea of greed; business is bad because it is an activity driven by greed.

However, this badly misses the point. If one were to accuse business of any single flaw, it should not be greed but pessimism … Hard-headed managers have rarely been outright corrupt or unnaturally avaricious: but they have very often suffered from a curious kind of melancholy, a distinctive sadness about the world and its inhabitants.

Vice-chair of Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce, 1983

They set out six depressive beliefs that pervade business culture:

  • customers will never care about workers
  • customers have low appetites that can’t be improved
  • the only way to sell is through deception
  • you can only make big money from the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid
  • you can’t afford to care about the psychology of your staff
  • the only legitimate role for surplus wealth is philanthropic donation (not, for example reinvestment in the people involved in the business).

Read the book for more explanation, it is I think entertaining and thought-provoking. A book coming from a Marxist point of view? Well, no.

I verge towards the left these days, but I’ve never been attracted to Marxism. While I admire the passion for fairness that runs through it, and I agree that every human being is ultimately of equal value – and some cats too – it’s always struck me as based on misconceptions about what makes people tick. So, for me, a communist utopia wouldn’t actually make people more fulfilled or happy. People want to do their own thing; they have their own ideas, ambitions and needs; they have their own dreams for life. In a Marxist system, innovative ideas get their head if the Party agrees with them, but otherwise get stuck somewhere in a Kafkaesque maze of petty officials with their own agendas. I heard a probably apocryphal story of a Russian official visiting London in the Soviet era and marvelling at the lack of queues for milk. “Who’s the minister in charge of milk distribution?” he is reputed to have asked.

The idealism of the far left also seems to me to suffer from a belief in the perfectability of humankind. It is a dangerous thing to believe in, no less so after reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus (Harari Q&A in The Guardian ) – in which he posits that a growing ability to make ‘software improvements’ to ourselves may lead ultimately to a transhumanist future, in which our minds no longer reside in our bodies. To see what that could be like, and to get rather freaked out, watch Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror, the episode called San Junipero (The Atlantic on Black Mirror’s San Junipero).

But it’s not as if capitalism is exactly pulling up trees at the moment either. Which is why I was interested to read How To Reform Capitalism. It’s not a book about economics, but a book about what a better society might look like. It takes as read, as I do, that commercial and consumer life is realistically always going to be part of what we’re dealing with. It proposes a shift in the way we think about it.

maslow wifi

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs these days

We have used it as a system for satisfying our physical needs, through feeding and clothing ourselves and providing (sometimes) a roof over our heads. We then wonder why capitalism does not satisfy us spiritually, why we are unhappy; why its leading brands sell things that don’t really matter to us that much and don’t make life better. And here, rather than despairing and decrying capitalism as inevitably a force to destroy happiness, The School of Life sees the potential for its future improvement. Why not imagine a capitalism in the future in which more enlightened consumers buy products that meet needs towards the top of Maslow’s pyramid – that fulfil them spiritually (Maslow used Jung’s term “self-actualisation” for this)? As the final sentence on the book says:

We don’t have to stop selling. We need to learn to engage commercially with our highest needs.

It imagines a future Times Square no longer advertising Coke or Nike but:

dedicated to the promotion of cures for loneliness, aids to forgiveness and those psychological ingredients that will help us be wise and kind.

This is what cathedrals once did. Is it so absurd to imagine a future age in which human activity focusses on meaning and purpose again? The bigger things of life – real meaning and purpose – are still exciting to think about; they move us when they fleetingly come to our attention. It’s just that our experience of them these days tends to be scatterfire. Churches brought focus on the deeper point of life (while unfortunately providing some misleading guidance on that). In the secular age, we connect with these deeper feelings  through a hundred splinters: a charity donation, a moving experience watching a film, a look in your child’s eye. The individual moments are satisfying but the whole is deeply unsatisfying, because we lack the help we need to join them up into coherence. It goes against received wisdom to suggest that a future commercial world might be a place that helps put this jigsaw of purpose together for people, rather than offering them pointless objects to buy in a moral wasteland. But actually, why not?

This is not, importantly, an anti-commercial book. For example, it praises advertising for identifying what really motivates people and for talking to our core needs and desires. It’s just that the products offered by that advertising – perfumes, clothes, cars – are unfit for purpose. What is needed, argues the School of Life, is not better advertising but better products:

The challenge now is to narrow the gap between the fantasies being offered and what we spend our lives making and our money buying.

It’s not about minimising capitalism but extending it to our “unattended needs”.

financial crash

I can’t treat myself to a new sofa now, so I’ll have to come at solving this “feeling deeply ill at ease with life” thing from a different angle …

I suspect they are onto something. Because I do see a generational shift in what people expect from life, a greater insistence on living lives that are worthwhile and have meaning. There is an impatience with the soulless. It’s not just because getting by has got harder for most of us since the Great Recession – material comfort has been ruled out as a solution. I think it started long before that, actually in my generation that entered the workforce in the 90s. We were appalled by – but felt powerless against – long hours working culture and drear in the workplace. Slowly, people more bold and inventive than me redesigned old workplaces, created new exciting ones, shifted attitudes and expectations. But it’s been more gentle evolution than paradigm shift so far.

My generation are now in our late 40s. While I “stepped sideways” into the freelance life – a whole other story – my peers are now business decision-makers. They are, I think, a generation that is open to change but won’t do it on their own (we Generation X people are just too cynical). What might bring the tectonic shift in business culture is the younger generation Y and Z people coming through, asking for it and needing it (Harvard Business Review on Generation X, Y & Z). These are generations for whom finding meaning and a deeper satisfaction in life are important. Might Generation X become unlikely FW de Klerks, wising up to the iniquities we inherited then administered, and enabling others to take a fairer and kinder capitalism forward?

Generation X, my generation, is not heroic – it does think the old world is rubbish, it is just too shaped and beholden to it to overturn it completely. Carrying on with our heart not in it is easier. But generational generalisations are always a bit broad brush, aren’t they – and the truth is, there is an optimistic, thoughtful wing of Generation X, which the School of Life’s mission and values exemplify. Here maybe is how my generation offers something for the Ys and Zs. But we have left them the heavy lifting.


Posted in 21st Century Britain, Society | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

More patience, less blasting

I enjoyed this animated RSA Short film, illustrating Simon Sinek’s point about how, in business, the big fix is rarely as effective as creating a culture where a lot of small, everyday positive things are allowed to happen.

Posted in 21st Century Britain | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The 5 hour rule: keep learning the Benjamin Franklin way

I thought you said an investment in knowledge pays the best interest, Ben? Rip-off merchant more  like.

I thought you said an investment in knowledge pays the best interest, Ben? Beneath you, mate.

I enjoyed this article from Michael Simmons in Inc. Like seemingly all Americans who write about anything, he has a Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) fixation – but why not, it probably beats my fixation with Paul Scholes (1974- ), articulate and thoughtful though the Bury-born former midfield ace is.

Franklin was of course famously productive, unlike me. Marvellously the tenth son of a soap maker, he invented the lightning rod and bifocal glasses and managed to juggle, according to Wikipedia, being an “author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.” Though I bet he never took his kids to karate, did the washing up, or sat in rush hour traffic. I can’t claim any of those job titles – and have no insight into soap making either – but I have one thing in common with him. Like me, he was a Fellow of the RSA, where they now, down on John Adam Street off the Strand, have a Benjamin Franklin Room. I’m not so much Enlightenment as three-lighters-for-a-pound, but perhaps I can learn something from this dude.

So Franklin’s trick, says Simmons, was to devote an hour a day, every day of the working week, specifically to learning. He got up early to do it. Now, I already get up early to get my son’s breakfast, as he has a long trip to school (due to education cuts, ironically), so fat chance of reading and writing, unless we get into sleep deprivation territory. But I think I can squeeze in an hour a day on learning.

So how should I be doing it? Simmons says:

1. Plan out the learning. We shouldn’t just have goals for what we want to accomplish. We should also have goals for what we want to learn.

2. Deliberately practise. We can apply the proven principles of deliberate practice so we keep improving e.g. practising specific skills we want to improve. [Simmons should practise his spelling, he spelled it ‘practice’ when using as a verb. Schoolboy error]

3. Ruminate. This helps us get more perspective on our lessons learned and assimilate new ideas. It can also help us develop slow hunches in order to have creative breakthroughs.

4. Set aside time just for learning. This includes activities like reading, having conversations, participating in a mastermind, taking classes, observing others, etc.

5. Solve problems as they arise. Having slack creates the space to address small problems before they turn into big problems.

6. Do small experiments with big potential payoffs. Whether or not an experiment works, it’s an opportunity to learn and test your ideas.

Yes, this is slightly vague and waffly stuff. But the bigger point is, you get more done by working smarter, not necessarily burning the lightbulb at both ends [that was Thomas Edison, you numpty -Ed]. You only see those shortcuts and those big insights when you give yourself space to do so.

I must say freelance / independent qual life has its drawbacks, but has been (for me anyway) better at giving physical and mental space to think than agency life was. The catch is, you miss the interaction with others that you also need. So, a freelance / independent, going on training courses pretty regularly is a must. Freeing up the time and budget for that is easier said than done, but always worth it. In the meantime, I have some lighters to shift …

Posted in Innovation, Qual Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Johnny behavioural science mnemonics: EAST and MINDSPACE



It’s too late to improve Keanu Reaves’ acting, but there’s still hope for using behavioural economics to improve other outcomes. Here are a couple of ‘what to remember about behavioural economics’ mnemonics I thought I’d share, from my recent reading of David Halpern’s Inside the Nudge Unit.

According to Halpern, the man behind the British government’s Behavioural Insights Team, E.A.S.T. is “a mental heuristic of mental heuristics” – a shortcut to remember how to cater for the mental shortcuts people commonly live their lives by. Organisations wanting to introduce cues or prompts to influence people’s behaviour, whether in government or in business, can be more effective if they remember:

  • Easy – make the behaviour easy for people to do
  • Attractive – make the behaviour attractive, something people would want to do
  • Social – tie the behaviour sought of an individual into something others are also doing
  • Timely  – prompt people towards the behaviour at the most opportune time.

Sounds simple but that’s an awful lot of research and testing boiled down nicely.

The other one I wanted to share is M.I.N.D.S.P.A.C.E. It’s been around since 2010 and seem to remember even using it myself in one project a few years back (where the team I was part of played around with some behavioural interventions, with the help of an academic behavioural economist). This one, says Halpern, was “to help busy policymakers think about what might influence people’s behaviour in a given context.” The framework is a series of very broad insights / truths established by social psychology. They may seem like statements of the obvious, but it is useful to have them as a checklist to make sure you have covered the main bases when thinking through the possible effects of any piece of public communication or public activity:

  • Messenger – we are very influenced by who is communicating the information
  • Incentives – we respond to incentives using mental shortcuts, like ‘loss aversion’
  • Norms – we are strongly influenced by what we think others are doing
  • Defaults – we tend to revert to established behaviour options
  • Salience – our attention is drawn to what is new and seems relevant to us
  • Priming – we are influenced by sub-conscious cues
  • Affect – our emotional associations can powerfully affect our actions
  • Commitments – we try to be consistent with our public promises and we seek to reciprocate what others do for us
  • Ego – we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.

M.I.N.D.S.P.A.C.E. is more fully explained in the Institute of Government report here: Mindspace Report. Hope that’s useful.

Halpern’s Inside The Nudge Unit is a fascinating read, by the way, full of practical examples of nudges in action – what worked and what didn’t and why. It’s a success story, really – how the Behavioural Insights Team won over decision-makers and influencers in government to making policy have more impact by taking account of how real people actually behave. It has been a quiet revolution. This has taken off massively over the past 5-6 years, but it is still in its infancy. Halpern can currently (October / November 2016) be heard on the BBC Radio iPlayer, for people in the UK, as part of Bronwen Maddox’s Radio 4 series The Pursuit of Power, talking about “the power of nudge”: The Power of Nudge.



Posted in 21st Century Britain, All Over The World, Brand communications, Media, Society, Techniques | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Petrels: Flailing Tomb

Thanks to Paul Margree for taking me to such an enjoyable evening of sound at Cafe Oto in Dalston last Thursday – Petrels, with Ensemble Economique as support. The kind of thing I would never find on my own 🙂 Here’s Paul’s Petrels album review from last year for Louder Than War.

We need no swords


“An inspired marriage of ecstatic drone, krautrock and synthpop.”

Read the review at Louder Than War.


View original post

Posted in 21st Century Britain | 1 Comment

Eating the cabin boy: clues to Brexit from the mists of the Noughties

The period around a decade ago, at any given time, is often lost in a Bermuda Triangle of cultural amnesia. We remember very recent events; and we enjoy revisiting events further back, the tracks through which have been trodden down by enough historians to count as ‘history’. But go back only one decade and we can be a bit uncomfortable. It’s not long enough ago for a revival of interest to be fashionable, or for historians to take ownership of it; but too long ago to actually remember events in much detail. It’s a foggy, disconcerting place; few venture there.


Not sure about this new career as a serious journalist. You didn’t have to read all these books back in the Good Mixer days …

Enter John Harris, ex of the NME now of The Grauniad, in a “long read” in September 2016 on the current struggles of the political left (John Harris: Does The Left Have a Future?). Harris went back a decade and re-visited political speeches that were much reported at the time, but have now fallen down the back of the sofa of memory. And in doing so he has caught a rear-view mirror glimpse into the seeds of Brexit germinating.

He went back to a then widely reported, now-forgotten Blair speech (come to think of it, do we remember any of them much?). It was the one he gave to the Labour conference in 2005, after his third and final General Election victory. Blair was warning of the ramping up of the harsh pressures of a globalising world economy and flagging up the challenge for Britain. Harris writes:

His next passage was positively evangelistic. “The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”
I watched that speech on a huge screen in the conference exhibition area. And I recall thinking: “Most people are not like that.” The words rattled around my head: “Swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” And I wondered that if these were the qualities now demanded of millions of Britons, what would happen if they failed the test?


Sink Or Swim:  peak Davidsonmania / a national nadir

We’ve all been saying for decades the world is getting more competitive. For a long time it sounded like a gentle and distant admonition and, to many of us, the UK seemed to be coping well enough. Yes, we were working ever harder, and time and money were getting increasingly squeezed, but was the UK not well up the league tables on GDP? Yet … our apparent successes overall were masking the fact that, looking inside, it was actually the economic success of a fairly small number of people. For the rest there was stagnation in living standards and quality of life – at best.

Books like Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level put the data together to prove what had been happening for decades. And it’s far from only theoretical or statistical, as I have experienced in recent years when interviewing people in-home around the UK on the detail of their household budgeting. It’s visible too in high streets and the shopping centres around the country. The big urban centres are thriving and exciting. But large parts of the country are in visible atrophy, struggling for a role in modern Britain beyond hosting low pay, low security, low satisfaction employment. There’s a carotid artery leading straight from that, it seems to me, via the 2007-8 Crash, into the heart of Brexit.

The 2007-8 Crash was a seminal moment, when we saw that the hallowed financial market emperors had no clothes. Worse, they didn’t seem to care. Not surprisingly, the clothed masses started questioning how much the financial experts deserved to be trusted – and not just them, other ‘elites’ too –  to look after the interests of all. The Crash, along with the inability of the Coalition government subsequently to produce a socially-spread recovery, plugs fairly directly into 23rd June, 2016.


From IFS, quoted in The Independent, March 2016. The pain of recovering from the Crash has been felt much more by the less well-off. More of the same is – or was – planned.

Since 2010 in particular, people have felt left on their own to sink or swim.

We were on the EU ship, but June 2016 has shown too many of us were worried it was going in the wrong direction. So we have activated the life boat – whose seaworthiness has only been cursorily checked – and launched off on our own. We’ve just been bobbing up and down, really, in the months since we splashed down into the icy waters. We have a captain, but she’s not keen to tell us what direction she’s taking us in, in case we mutiny if we don’t get there. Rescue craft, in the shape of big generous trade deals with the US, China or Japan, are on their way, she assures us. But in truth these rescue craft haven’t even been designed yet, let alone, built, let alone set sail in our direction. We’re going to have to survive on our own in the ocean swell for a long time. We are at the mercy of the weather, supplies are not limitless and I personally don’t even like fish that much.

As Neil The Hippy said in The Young Ones episode, Flood, when it appeared they might be the only survivors of a vast deluge:

Hey, wouldn’t it be terrible if we ended up having to eat each other? Like those sailors did in that film, um…”We Ended Up Having To Eat Each Other”.


Dudley v Stephens – the case known to law students as “the one where they ate the cabin boy”. Sadly for them, the case established that “necessity” is no defence

Let’s hope we can paddle like people possessed, and that Poseidon smiles on us. That big EU ship is still in sight, we could head for there – I hear they have a food mountain. But it has all but disappeared over the horizon. I expect by the time we’ve been cooped up for two years, we’ll greet any sight of land at all with delirious gratitude. We may have eaten each other by then. But who will eat whom?


Posted in 21st Century Britain, Society | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Riding the elephant towards empathy: an RSA Animate

In this RSA Animate short film, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA (whose blog is here: gives a really interesting overview of the currents of change in big thinkers’ ideas about society. The RSA itself is an organisation that follows, curates and influences these developments. He points forward to what we can expect in the coming years – what are the big differences in how we might be doing things as businesses and as a society? A great summary of where we’re at and a little advert for the RSA, of which I’ve been a fellow the last few years.

He talks about the importance of not just education but “empathic capacity”, the ability to think about and pursue the wider public interest in a self-aware way. In Taylor’s eyes, we were developing ourselves nicely enough in Britain on that score, until the last decade or so, but we seem to have hit the buffers somewhat. The global financial crisis, followed by austerity and growing discomfort around immigration have been antithetical to our empathic capacity. Since Taylor produced this in 2015 it’s only got worse, with first the rancorous self-destruction of the Labour Party and then the bitter division of the country though the Brexit vote. It feels like, for now, our empathic capacity is exhausted; we need some back, badly.

I also enjoyed the echoes of John Gray’s Straw Dogs in Taylor’s criticism of our tendency to pursue “progress” as if it’s the same as pursuing well-being. The logic-driven “progress” of science & tech, markets and bureaucracy can as easily work against overall public wellbeing as for it.

For example, former Chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan’s shrugging off of the crash as the product of unavoidable “human nature” was inadequate. We clearly need to move beyond mere acceptance of current processes into thinking about what kind of society we want then changing our processes to make that a more likely outcome.


This guy will not lead you to the sunny uplands. Commonwealth bronze though.

The same goal-blindness – perhaps a conservative-ideology-driven one, rooted in a love of the organic and an aversion to planning – applies also to those politicians jumping to respond to perceived concerns about immigration. This is one kind of social engineering that social conservatives will advocate, but apparently with no picture (attractive or otherwise) of what they are trying to engineer towards.  One suspects that the goal is left undescribed because to articulate it clearly would be to reveal both its ugliness and its impossibility. We need a whole lot more realism and honesty there.


I didn’t mean literally but hey, here’s one

As Taylor puts it, logic gets you from A-Z but you need ethical reasoning to work out where Z should actually be. We need a lot more focus on the Z and an honest debate about what it looks like. I suspect there is a rather large amount of consensus among politicians, when pinned down on this as individuals, on a rather large proportion of the elements of that Z. But we do need some idea of what kind of progress we want and how to recognise good progress when we see it. Otherwise we consign ourselves to being hamsters on the shiny, cool, dazzlingly impressive and cleverly built wheel of some other kind of progress – an illusory one.

Posted in 21st Century Britain, Society | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment