How does change happen and how can we make it?


The Vertical and the Horizontal

Mainstream politics is bankrupt. Privatisation, weakened unions, deregulated labour markets, insane financial speculation, endless tax-breaks for the rich: we can all see where this has led. But how to respond? With disciplined organisation, a return to effective party politics, and a restoration of ‘traditional’ community values? Or with a rejection of a discredited political system, new forms of networked organisation and a break from all forms of hierarchy and institution? Supporters of the latter position often describe themselves as advocating ‘horizontal’ organisation over the ‘vertical’ methods of their more conventional opponents. Which way is the right one?

The answer is ‘both’. Effective progressive politics always has at least two dimensions: a vertical and a horizontal. Effective change always needs to have an institutional dimension, consolidating gains, building effective institutions. But to be real change at all, it must also possess an experimental dimension, working to break down concentrations of power wherever they arise, looking for new ways to maximise real freedom for all.  Our enemies have always understood the multidimensional nature of power, and use every outlet and organisational strategy at their disposal to achieve their aims. We must do the same, building a movement which can encompass both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of power and change.

We saw one version of the ongoing debate between ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ politics played out in the public media over the past few weeks in the public spat between two TV comedians. Russell Brand’s charismatic evocation of the possibility of radical change provoked elation and contempt in equal measure. Robert Webb, Labour Party member and Orwell enthusiast, insisted that any alternative to the received forms of liberal democracy necessarily leads to the Gulag. Webb was right that calls for total revolution and apparent appeals to charismatic authority should send a shudder down the spine of anyone who remembers the twentieth Century. But his position ignored Brand’s basic argument. Brand didn’t suggest that democracy as such – the rule of the people by the people – is a bad thing. Rather he claimed that the present form of liberal democracy does not actually offer the majority of citizens any kind of say in how their societies are run. In this he was demonstrably correct.  

Neither of these positions is adequate on its own, but both offer insights which we can’t do without. If Keir Hardie or Nye Bevan or the Pankhursts had remained as attached to existing institutional forms as Webb seems to be, or as indifferent to them as Brand claims to be, then we would never have had the Labour Party, women’s suffrage or the NHS. If we can’t get beyond their dichotomy today, then democracy has no future and the planet will continue to burn.

Change and Stasis in the Twenty-First Century

But these observations alone are not enough to answer the most pressing question facing us today: how does change happen? This is a question which necessarily draws our attention to some paradoxes of the times that we have all lived through.  Has everything changed? Or has nothing changed?

On the one hand, everyday life, work and culture are in many ways unrecognisable in a country like the UK from what they were even 20 years ago, never mind 30 or 40. In 1993, the World Wide Web was three years old. Mobile phones were still an expensive luxury. Public disquiet was being expressed about the declining performance of boys in relation to girls in the early years of secondary school, but few imagined that we could be entering a world in which that process would continue into late adolescence and young adulthood (the traditional point at which girls’ attainment levels and ambitions were expected to collapse). The idea of a Conservative prime minister legislating for gay marriage would have seemed preposterous. The Labour Party was even still opposed to the privatisation of public services. Today there are more women than men entering the senior professions; and we all know the rest of the story.

The decline of the New Right in the 1990s, in both the US and the UK, initiated a new phase of neoliberal governance, characterised by a turn away from the social conservatism of Thatcher and Reagan and an embrace of that cosmopolitan liberalism which Blair and Clinton embodied.  This attitude still characterises the general mood of contemporary  mainstream culture, as the public reaction to the 2012 Olympics showed, despite noises from the Right about immigration. At the same time the general process of privatisation, labour market deregulation and growing inequality has continued unchecked, to the point where today it seems hard for many people to imagine any alternative.  At the present time in the UK, the government is even desperately trying to stimulate consumer demand 90s-style, with yet another crudely-engineered asset bubble.

At the level of popular culture, the ‘New Lad’ backlash against popular feminism in the mid-1990s turned out not to be a flash in the pan, as many assumed it would be, but rather set the tone for a long period of retrenchment and reinforcement of gender stereotypes in public culture, updated for the age of hyper-consumerism and competitive individualism  (rape joke t-shirts for the boys, Sex In the City box sets for the girls). This era may finally be coming to an end, challenged by a new wave of feminist consciousness, but it’s too early to declare it over yet. One of our most important cultural critics, Simon Reynolds, spent the 1990s celebrating the extraordinary wave of intense innovation which characterised the electronic dance music coming from cities like London and Bristol. Today he bemoans the fact that nothing of real interest has happened to music culture since then.  Richard Osborne, like most of my undergraduate students, seems to agree with him.

The way to make sense of these apparent paradoxes is simply to ask ourselves who has actually benefitted most from the social, cultural, economic, technological and political changes and continuities of the past 20, or even 40 years. Just reflect on the following question for a moment. Of all the competing interests and demands which clashed during the social upheaval at the end of the 1960s, or even during the culture wars of the 1980s, which of them won? Who, 45 or 30 years later, could be said to have actually got the world they wanted? It certainly wasn’t the defenders of the post-war status quo, from the Left or the Right. In the Western economies outside Germany it has been not only the industrial unions, but also the manufacturers with whom they negotiated, once the presiding force of Western capitalism, who have lost enormous amounts of power and prestige.

Were the real winners then the partisans of the counterculture? Certainly the opponents of the ‘permissive society’ have comprehensively lost every battle they have fought in countries like the UK, and have lost significant ground everywhere except in enclaves of revanchist religious conservatism, even on the symbolic issue of drug prohibition. But the individualised world of postmodern consumer culture, in which sexuality is a prime commodity, looks nothing like the libidinal democracy dreamed of by the utopians of the 60s; or rather, it looks like a wholly distorted version of it, issuing not from Berkeley or Woodstock but from Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue.

And this should give us a clue as to how to answer the question. If there is one group who has clearly succeeded in actualising their vision of the ideal world, turning it into a concrete reality in which we must all now live, then it is an elite consisting of finance capitalists, technology entrepreneurs and the senior sections of the media and marketing industries. This is what changed significantly at the end of the 60s, when the uneasy post-war alliance between industrial capital, organised labour and broadly social-democratic governments broke down, unable to accommodate the accelerating demands of women, young people, non-white people and various minorities for autonomy and authority: a different configuration of interests was able to take their place as the leading force in society, never able to control its course entirely, but always capable of directing the general direction of travel. The late 70s and 80s saw individuals such as Rupert Murdoch, Charles Saatchi, Richard Branson, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs emerging as the key exemplary figures representing a set of interests which has remained extraordinarily consistent throughout this period.

The most typical institutional forms which these interests take are not in fact the innovative firms fronted by these men. Rather, they are the investment banks, hedge funds and other financial institutions whose job it is to manage the flows of capital, investment and speculation which have made possible the global reach of those companies. The persistence and long-term success of these interests in creating exactly the world they wanted is what produces the strange sense that nothing has changed for a very long time. Technologies, cultural forms and social institutions come and go, but the interests they serve have remained exactly the same. This is why it should come as no surprise that the social makeup of the government, its preponderance of privately-educated millionaires embarrassing even the Eton-educated Prime Minister, feels like a throwback to the 1930s, never mind the 1990s. The new elite didn’t take long to ensconce themselves in the traditional strongholds of the old establishment.

What this elite wants to happen is for people to buy as much stuff as possible, preferably on credit, and preferably with the people who made the stuff having been paid as little as possible for making it.   That’s the magic formula for maximising shareholder value and the overall value of investments. What that elite doesn’t need, except under exceptional political circumstances, is old-fashioned ideas about communal identity, traditional culture, sexual morality or social justice – or new ideas about economic democracy, environmental protection or non-consumerist lifestyle – getting in the way of those goals being achieved as efficiently as possible. As such it will tend to promote a culture which is libertarian and experimental, provided that demands for liberty and cultural experiment never take social forms which might disrupt the endless expansion of debt, consumption and profit. Where such threats are posed – by religious conservatives or political radicals – its response tends to be swift and brutal: the violent suppression of protest in the UK is only one recent example. The result is a set of social changes which further entrench this hegemonic set of interests by gradually altering the cultural terrain to their advantage.

The question for us today is: what are the mechanisms and techniques by which these changes are brought about? The answer is that they are a mixture of radically ‘horizontal’ and classically ‘vertical’ practices. On the one hand new ideas, new technologies and new organisational systems are spread through ‘viral’ processes of lateral communication, inventive replication and user-empowerment. Nobody was forced to move his or her life onto Facebook. On the other hand, Facebook is hardly a workers’ co-operative. The concentration of capital and authority in the hands of a tiny elite remains an endemic feature of capitalism, just as it always has been. It’s through the clever and ruthlessly self-interested deployment of both ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ techniques that the elite which governs our lives maintains its hegemony. The question for us is: what can we do to achieve such successes in pursuit of our own goals?

How do we get what we want?

This is both a strategic and a programmatic question. Strategically it implies that we should be prepared to use the full range of resources and tactics at our disposal, from viral marketing to street protest to seeking parliamentary influence. Programmatically it implies the need for policies which have the potential effect of both breaking down existing concentrations of power and re-constituting effective sources of legitimate authority on new, more democratic bases. In fact I think that the most radical policy programmes and analyses offered by Compass in recent years are of precisely this type. Neal Lawson’s calls for the democratisation of public services – a radical alternative both to marketisation and to the patrician bureaucracies of the past  – posits exactly such a possibility, as does the idea of ‘co-production’ as an organising paradigm for public-service delivery, which proposes that both users and providers of services should be regarded as the ‘co-producers’ of desirable outcomes, rather than sovereignty being accorded to just one partner in that relationship.

A crucial element of such radically democratic policies is this: they recognise that the transformatory processes which have disaggregated existing communities of interest are real and irreversible, and in response they propose to constitute new communities on a primarily horizontal basis, through egalitarian and co-operative relationships. For example, as society becomes more diverse, service users express increasingly complex and specific needs and expectations, rather than fitting into predictable categories; and this is not going to change. The solution to this is not to marketise public services or to impose more traditional models of authority on them, but to enable all participants in them to share in decision-making processes in a genuinely democratic way, enriching and energising the institution and its constituents in the process. That is what co-production means.

Such an approach also opens up political possibilities on a number of crucial fronts. Firstly, it makes possible a mainstream politicisation of the digital revolution and its consequences. Since the 1980s, outside of the hacker fringe, the anarchist-influenced protest milieu, and a few isolated web-publishing projects (e.g. open Democracy ), the British Left’s attitude to these changes has been almost entirely reactive, assuming that the defeat of the industrial unions and the inevitable victory of neoliberalism were the only things that we could ever have expected from the computerisation of society. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, for the most part even the pioneering authors of the ‘New Times’ analysis of social and cultural change at the end of the 1980s seems to have found it hard to imagine the democratic possibilities that the world of the web would contain (with a couple of visionary exceptions).

But in a world where the global dominance of Microsoft Windows has been decisively displaced by the success of the free, open-source, collectively-maintained operating system Linux, it is patently obvious that capitalism as we have known it is not the only possibly beneficiary of this technological revolution. With encouragement from sympathetic governments, attuned to the potency of networks and the forms of horizontal creativity which they can engender, the enormous creative energy which gets expended every day on Facebook could arguably be enabled to develop a whole new paradigm for the management and democratisation of our polity and public sphere; or could at least be used finally to liberate the news media from corporate control. The complete lack of interest shown in such possibilities by the Labour leadership for decades is terrifying. But this is what a politics which was truly aware of the complex relationships between the horizontal and the vertical would require: a willingness to ask what real democracy might look like in the era of social media, and an acknowledgment that our democratic systems, inherited from the days when broadcast radio was new, are rusting and decrepit, in desperate need of an upgrade.

At the same time, any such approach must surely require an acute sensitivity to the politics of ecology, and to the urgency of the present environmental crisis. The relationships between the vertical, the horizontal, large-scale and the small-scale are crucial here. Only an environmentalism which has real popularity can withstand the ideological assault on it which consumer capitalism must make in order to survive. Such popularity can’t be imposed from above; it can only emerge from a grassroots transformation of attitudes, expectations and desires. But the very thing that most inhibits any such transformation is the widespread sense that climate change is a problem that we can’t solve even if we want to. This is because the very ‘vertical’ institutions of government and representative democracy have themselves become so ineffective and seem so illegitimate that it is impossible to imagine them becoming effective vehicles for action on the requisite scale.  This is a good example of a situation in which the lack of effective institutions capable of wielding decisive power can actually inhibit mobility and change at even the most grassroots and ‘horizontal’ level. This is why the demand for radical democratic progress must be a crucial dimension of any ecological programme. The people who want to do the polluting already know how to make web 2.0 and the global financial markets work for them. Without political institutions capable of doing the same for us, any environmental objectives will remain just statements of good intent.

But conversely, the change in attitudes – the shift in the ‘structure of feeling’, as Raymond Williams would have called it – which a popular environmentalism would require could not be engendered solely by even a democratic and maximally ‘horizontal’ reconstitution of political institutions. Only a necessarily unstable process of experimentation at the level of everyday life, household organisation and the pursuit of pleasure could really make any such thing possible. One of the most contentious but also the most widely resonant of Russell Brand’s remarks – following his public altercations with Jeremy Paxman and Robert Webb – has been his evocation of a quasi-mystical dimension to his desire for self- transformation and social change, and his self-depreciating remarks about his interest in meditation and ‘alternative’ culture. Such attitudes have been anathema to almost all of the political Left for a very long time: at least since the punk reaction to the commercial co-optation of the counterculture and Jim Callaghan’s rejection of the permissive society and the progressive education movement in the 1970s. But to continue reproducing this prejudice is to cut radicals and progressive off from an important part of our own cultural heritage.

The aspiration of the counterculture in its most positive manifestations was for a way of life answering to the needs for community, self-actualisation and freedom from the relentless demands of the commercial economy.  In this it shared some concerns with conservative communitarianism. The difference was that it also gestured towards the possibility of meeting those needs in a way which was feminist as well as collectivist, liberatory as well as democratic, pleasurable as well as spiritual.  

The historic allergy of the organised and moderate Left to the legacy of the counterculture, and above all to its spirit of utopian social experiment, must surely be overcome by any politics which aims to work with the grain of recent social, cultural and technological change rather than against it.  So many of these changes are expressions of the demands for autonomy, for the right to experiment in our relationships and with our bodies which emerged in the 1960s. It’s quite wrong to assume that those desires and demands are somehow confined to a metropolitan class of affluent professionals. They are not – rather they are the very stuff of everyday life and popular culture for millions of working people, for whom the attractions of religion waned generations ago, but who still seek more out of life than work and shopping can give them, and who have no more desire to go back to the world of 1962 than anyone else does, except insofar as that world was still one in which the future looked brighter than the past.

Any politics which can hope to unite the ‘horizontals’ of the Occupy movement with the ‘verticals’ of traditional Left and centre-Left must therefore try to imagine itself on an expansive but inclusive cultural terrain. On such a terrain those who aspire to a radical reinvention of the family, the household and the self, as well as those who merely want to spend a bit more time with their kids and a bit less at work or online shopping, should all feel more-or-less at home. Above all, the shared mood on such a terrain must be forward-looking and optimistic. The Left has never succeeded at anything by clinging to the past.

What could enable such disparate, but mutually sympathetic, range of desires to be organised towards a common purpose?  A single reasonable demand. What would that demand be? For a recognition of democratic principles as those which should inform our public life. We do not wish to see our lives governed by the logic of the market or by the hierarchies inherent in ‘traditional’ communities.

It sounds simple. It sounds obvious. But for the past 30 years the neoliberal elite has ensured that it is the principle not of democracy, but of commerce and profit-seeking which has governed ever-expanding areas of our social world. Today, across the globe, some of the loudest opposition to that project is to be heard from those who seem to wish to go back to the old days of patriarchal authority, when women and young people knew their place. The elite that governs us already knows that this is a fantasy, and that the terrain we now fight on is not that of the 1930s or even of the 1990s. That’s why they’ve been able to out manoeuvre us so successfully, so often, on both the horizontal and the vertical planes. But we don’t have to keep letting them have everything they want: especially not now.  As the neoliberal consensus fragments before our eye, and the sense that real change might be possible once again starts to circulate for the first time in a generation, we may have a historic opportunity. Let’s show the world what democracy can do.

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism (Pluto 2013). He can be found, followed, and read at

6 thoughts on “How does change happen and how can we make it?

  1. Love this- thanks. Guess my question(s) is how can we get rid of egos and silhos? we need to work together- but can Uncut, Occupy etc really be ‘at one’ with Labour, the Greens etc? And can we ever truly ‘win’ if we are fighting within a neolib framework?

  2. I think the underlying message of this essay, that the left needs to be with the grain of horizontalism and modern culture is spot on. Too much of the centre-left are wishing for a revival of the post-war settlement which is impossible even if it were to be desirable.

  3. Much to like in this, but can I say that I cant help feeling that the mental models at play centre on younger people and our/their ‘future’ , much as did the counter culture itself.That counter culture also fetishised being young and expressed a personal and politically danaging horror of ageing. All those ‘tired old men in suits’ clichés we bandied around .Those of us now coming towards that third age have inherited that legacy which we find now leaves us in a world where peolle of non working age are simply in the waiting room for eternity.I do hope that the politics of ageing , how to live in world where the ‘old’ may be more numerous than ‘the young’ and therefore the need to widen the focus away from one’s working life experience will be part of this dialogue.From what I have seen, Lynne Segal’s book and Penelope Lively’s most recent work provide much food for thought.P.S. By the way I am still very much of working age myself!

  4. Jeremy Gilbert takes almost 3,600 words to say little. That may be normal for Compass, I know, but it is still tedious to read.

    It is difficult to take seriously the pronouncements of someone who reckons that “the global dominance of Microsoft Windows has been decisively displaced by the success of the free, open-source, collectively-maintained operating system Linux”. Where is that true outside of a minor university campus?

  5. You seem to be saying that the answer to all our problems is more democracy. But what if majority opinion is being shaped by the very forces we are opposed to? Won’t that simply mean a more democratic way of going to hell?

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