Introducing the New Power Project

Compass and Labour Together are launching a new project to explore how new and old forms of power can work together – a progressive operating system for the 21st century.

Covid-19 conjures back the role of the big state – telling us what we can and can’t do, paying for many of us to stay at home and, of course, to roll out the vaccine. And that is of course to be applauded. There is a critical role for the vertical, command-and-control state: what we might call old power. Yet the danger is not that an ironically Conservative-led rival of the big state doesn’t work, but that it conceals a more important and long-term shift to what has been called new power.

Back in what seems a lifetime ago, 2018, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans penned an important and well-received book called New Power. It told the story of the rise of the networked society and how power increasingly flows through it like a current – open and dispersed, not like the closed and guarded currency of old power.

So far so good. The broad thrust towards a more horizontal future is one we all detect in our daily lives. We are all always on, able to connect and interconnect, learn, speak and organise at the touch of a few buttons. But the networked revolution of the tech optimists has yet to unfold. The world instead has been messy. Power as currency has obviously been horded by the platform builders and both the surveillance state and market are a creeping threat. Furthermore, from ISIS to Leave.EU, the internet isn’t necessarily used for progressive ends.

Any yet, there is still something inherently progressive about more horizontal and interconnected structures and the culture, practices and outcomes they can engender. The Good Society, one for me that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic, was never going to be forced on us by the paternalistic state, nor the free market. Instead, it was only ever going to be produced for the people and by the people. The internet allows this to happen at speed and at scale. Yes, fascists can find and reinforce each other on social media, but the progressive gamble was always that, given the time, space and support, people would do the ‘right’ thing more often than the wrong. Flatness is the terrain on which democracy and equality can flourish. But it may not. Everything, as ever, is down to politics. The rest of the 21st century will test the progressive gamble to triumph or destruction.

Enter here a new project being launched this Tuesday night with Jeremy Heimans, co-author of New Power, and Steve Reed, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for communities and local government. The working title is still New Power, but instead of a celebration and reveal of what is now commonplace – the increasingly networked society we exist in every day – the New Power Project will seek to examine how new and old power sit and work together to create what we might call the new operating system for the 21st century.

Every era has a predominant way of deciding things and then doing them. The Fordist moment defined the early and middle decades of the last century, and was built around factory-like chains of command that didn’t just produce cars but ran armies, prisons and hospitals. This technocratic and top-down moment gave way eventually to markets and competition as the way of deciding and doing. The flaw with both wasn’t that they are inherently wrong, but that they were too biased to either the plan or PLC the as the only way to decide and do.

But the potential of the networked age is that it opens the door to a future that has to be negotiated collectively, not imposed centrally or chosen individually. As such is presents a politics and culture that can be described as both/and – or Andism. New power might be the predominant form of deciding and doing, but it will still take old power in the form of the resources and legitimacy of the state to accelerate and sustain it. And it’s not just the nature of power that needs Andism – to thrive our societies need to apply this both/and approach to the tensions between modernity and conservativism, social liberalism and social conservativism.

This year-long project will ask the tough questions. How can power be dispersed but accountability maintained, how can new power be equally distributed, what are the metrics of success in a new-power world, and will old power give at least some ground without a fight? The project will look at these issues in the context of communities, business, the state and global institutions to try and explain what this new operating system is.

The stakes here are high. Democratic societies are struggling to cope with the pressures and challenges across the globe. Authoritarian populism thrives in this failure as some embrace the easy certainty of having someone to believe in and someone to blame. But more are turning to networks of collaboration – to deliver food and medicine during lockdown, to care, to provide renewable energy and build new enterprises.

This emerging networked society needs an operating system that combines both old and new power in radical and appropriate ways. We stand at the cusp of an age of infinitely greater productivity and creativity that will be essential to meet the challenges of pandemics, the climate emergency and our seemingly polarising societies. We need a new way to navigate this rocky terrain and we need it fast.

The New Power Project of Compass and Labour Together will be launched at 6pm on Tuesday 16th March – to join the event sign up here.

Neal Lawson is Executive Director of Compass.

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