Forward to the Past! Charlie Leadbeater and Phillip Blond lead the way

From the Young Foundation to the Carlton Club, two English political intellectuals search for a way out of the country's crash
William Davies
1 April 2010

In 1944, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation was published, reviewing the wreckage of the nineteenth century liberal economic fantasy. The rise and fall of the liberal utopia had occurred over many decades, and occurred at a number of different speeds.

Whole-hearted, utopian laissez-faire was only really sustained between the 1820s and the 1870s, Polanyi argues, before becoming cluttered with various social and legal interventions. These interventions – including trade unions, anti-trust law, socialist movements – were entirely necessary as means to protect ‘market society’ from the ‘market economy’, but also gradually revealed the lie at the heart of liberalism, namely that the economy is a separate, mechanistic world devoid of politics.

However it wasn’t until the Wall Street Crash that the liberal fantasy could be considered truly finished. The rise and fall of Victorian liberalism was thus something that lasted over a century.

By contrast, the neo-liberal experiment that ended in 2008 was a whirlwind affair. Many of the same individuals have been present at various stages, and a number of high profile admissions of ideological sin (from Alan Greenspan and Richard Posner amongst others) have resulted. And at the launch of his new pamphlet on Monday, Digging for the Future: An English Radical Manifesto, the British innovation guru Charles Leadbeater was invited to join the confession.   

Leadbeater’s report returns to the example of Gerrard Winstanley, who launched the Diggers movement in 1649, in the hope of finding lessons for Britain’s current political and economic predicament. Leadbeater pinpoints a number of principles embodied by the Diggers, to which he believes we should now return.

Firstly, society should be judged according to how it treats the worst off. As Leadbeater argued at the launch event, Britain currently suffers from an excess of abandonment – elderly, poor and lonely people are a blight upon British society, condemning its current political and economic model.

But there is a more political and radical dimension to the Diggers that Leadbeater wants us to learn from. Winstanley demanded decentralisation of power, stripping elites of their control of financial and intellectual privilege. In particular, land was to be held in common and harnessed for the common good.

Digging for the Future sees a similar spirit in many of the most ambitious and energetic forms of social entrepreneurship today. Projects such as Transition Towns and Wikipedia are not simply charities or services doing things ‘for’ people, Leadbeater argues, but sources of freedom and community that do things ‘with’ people and ‘by’ people.

But what of the confession? It didn’t quite come, but not for want of trying on the part of fellow panellist, Madeleine Bunting (see also her Guardian comment). Highlighting passages in the report regarding society “eating itself from within” and “the hole that we all teeter on the brink of”, Bunting wondered what had happened to the exuberant, technophile Leadbeater of Living On Thin Air (a paean to post-industrial capitalism) or Up The Down Escalator (a call for more optimism in society).

Had he renounced his Blairite uber-modernism? Had he experienced some “dark night of the soul”, she asked, and arisen from it with a new passion for social justice? Was this some mid-life crisis, she didn’t quite ask, with the Diggers as the policy wonk’s proxi for buying a Porsche?!

Leadbeater wouldn’t quite have it. He also reminded her that he is an atheist, while admitting that many of the social entrepreneurs that he most admires are not. Perhaps Greenspan’s words to the Senate in October 2008 – “I may have been partially wrong” – were what he was searching for.

What is compelling about texts such as Digging for the Future, and this Bunting-Leadbeater exchange, is the opportunity to watch the Polanyian re-discovery of society in hyper-speed. Victorian economic liberals did not survive to renounce, confess and re-new; their project went into gradual decline over fifty years. The collapse of neo-liberalism was far more sudden, and there are fewer ideas or established movements to replace it.

Today, in the absence of alternative theories or political movements, we fall back on something more humble: alternative examples and anecdotes. Witness the sudden political notoriety of employee-owned John Lewis or peer-to-peer lending exchange Zopa.

Leadbeater has always been a master story-teller and anecdote gatherer. It was this skill that led Peter Mandelson to invite him to write the infamously exuberant 1998 government White Paper, Our Competitive Future: Building the Knowledge Driven Economy. 

What is interesting twelve years on – much more so than his newly moralised language – are the changing sources of his stories. Where once it was the laboratories of MIT and coffee bars of Silicon Valley, now it is the mosques of East London and schools of Thanet, not to mention the hillsides of 17th century England.

The policy zeitgeist is pointing that way. Former Labour minister James Purnell is leaving Westminster having tasted life as a community organiser. Monday night’s event was hosted by The Young Foundation, in its East London residence that is as old as Winstanley himself, and chaired by Director and former Blair advisor Geoff Mulgan. Mulgan has also returned to studying grassroots community dynamics, both very old and very new, in search of the recipes for the future.

Later on in the same day as the creatively Labour Young Foundation was holding its seminar, a more flamboyant party was held in the flagship of high Toryism, London’s Mayfair Carlton Club. The building an arriviste Georgian pile compared to the Young Foundation's HQ, it celebrated the launch of Phillip Blond’s eagerly-awaited Red Tory. Of course the Conservatives will want to claim any ‘little platoons’ as theirs and not Labour’s, as David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ rhetoric indicates. Just to be safe, Blond returns to the even more distant past in search of alternative models and examples, demanding the restoration of medieval, pluralist approaches to property formation.

What pervades all of this work is a yearning for radicalism. In the absence of a Keynes or a Marx, and jaded by the Blairite equation of ‘radical’ and ‘new’, attention drifts to history on the one hand and everyday life on the other. As political epoch-shifts go, it’s scarcely the 1930s. But it may offer a hint of how we put neo-liberalism behind us, just as The Great Transformation sought to with liberalism.

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