Positing the positive

Charles Leadbeater, author of Up the Down Escalator, talked to Helene Guldberg about the politics of pessimism.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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‘Chronic pessimism is powerful, appealing and often plausible – but it’s also wrong, misplaced and self-destructive.’

Charles Leadbeater, author of Living on Thin Air (1999) and reportedly Tony Blair’s favourite corporate thinker, has just published his latest book, Up the Down Escalator. In it he challenges the ‘new global pessimists’, taking on everyone from right-wing philosopher Roger Scruton and the Daily Mail to Guardian columnist George Monbiot and the anti-globalisation movement.

According to Leadbeater, there is a dearth of optimism across the political spectrum – and his book is an attempt to inject some ‘hope’ into political debate. ‘The English have always had a problem with optimism’, he told me. ‘It smacks too much of Americanism.’ Of course the world is not ‘a happy and rosy place’, but ‘solutions can and are being found to seemingly intractable problems’.

Leadbeater hopes his book will tap into some aspiration among those looking for solutions to society’s problems – among ‘those who realise that, although the risks of new technology may be real they are also overstated, and that while globalisation may in some ways be a destructive force, it also has fantastic benefits’. For Leadbeater, ‘If I simply get a debate going about the scale and the extent of pessimism, that will be enough’.

Up the Down Escalator pinpoints a very real problem today, summed up in the book’s opening sentence: ‘Pessimism is in power.’ Leadbeater writes: ‘[R]eactionary pessimists, usually from the right, bemoan technology and globalisation because they threaten to wreck tradition, dissolve ancient institutions and rob us of old identities. Radical pessimists, usually from the left, believe globalisation and technology are creating a diminished, corporate and anti-democratic culture.’

And together, says Leadbeater, ‘these radical and reactionary elements are forming an extraordinary, unspoken alliance, which is arguably the strongest force in politics in most developed countries. The meat and drink of this alliance is alarmism, anxiety and fear’.

Leadbeater points out that such dystopian views are not restricted to politics. ‘Much of the work of young British artists such as Damien Hirst concerns decay, death and decline’, he says. Popular culture also expresses a fear of the future – as with the recent BBC docudrama Fields of Gold, co-written by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, which Leadbeater says painted ‘an alarmist picture of the risks posed by genetically modified food’.

In response to all this, Leadbeater wants to show that ‘there are grounds for optimism’. He talks of the vast improvements in life expectancy and quality of life over the past 50 years, and argues that there will likely be further dramatic improvements in the future. Life expectancy in the UK has more than doubled over the past century, and improvements in parts of the developing world are even more striking: in China, life expectancy in 1930 was 24 years – now it is close to 70.

According to Leadbeater, ‘this trend will continue with the greater availability of the basic ingredients of longer life: affordable food, antibiotics, vaccines, clean water, electricity, basic education’. He points out that ‘in 1820, about 900million people, about 85 percent of the world’s population, lived on $1 a day [by today’s prices], the figure usually taken to represent absolute poverty. Now, the proportion of the world living at that level is only 20 percent’.

But what about Observer columnist Will Hutton’s point – that ‘the march of progress is not inevitable’? Hutton points out, rightly, that progress will have to ‘be fought for – with weapons more powerful and fundamental than optimism alone’. This is where Leadbeater’s celebration of optimism falls down. While he is keen to challenge the prevailing pessimism, his pragmatism means he is often unable to come up with political solutions.

In so far as Leadbeater does have solutions, they tend to be shaped by a narrow political outlook and a brazen and defiant faith in the power of technology and science. Indeed, Leadbeater makes a point of attacking ‘big ideas’. He may be a former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a one-time writer for Marxism Today, but now he argues that ‘given the disastrous record of utopian political projects in the twentieth century – communism, fascism, nationalism – it should be a cause for celebration that utopianism is in decline’.

But while Leadbeater doesn’t see big political ideas as having any solutions to our problems, he does seem to recognise that today’s pessimism is a result of the closing of the political mind. ‘The main thing is the gap between the possibility of personal contentment combined with a collective sense of despair in a world that is seen as so complicated and beyond our control’, he told me.

This sense of not being in control reflects the lack of purchase that mainstream politics has on our lives, says Leadbeater. ‘It seems that mainstream politics is increasingly unable to address even basic questions about economic insecurity or reform of the welfare state or education…. And when those institutions are so enfeebled, then this gap develops between a private search for contentment and a collective sense of everything being out of control.’

According to Leadbeater, it is not politics that will get us out of this impasse, but technology. ‘Technology will open up ways to transform our world far more than politics’, he writes in Up the Down Escalator. ‘[F]or good and ill, [it] will deliver abundance to all, in communications and computing, which could transform how we organise our lives economically and socially, in politics and government.’

But can we really find a way out of ‘collective despair’ without reinvigorating politics? I put it to Leadbeater that only big ideas and big solutions can fundamentally challenge the pessimism gripping society.

‘I agree with that’, he says, tentatively. ‘But you need to find what those sources of hope might be. And I would argue very strongly that utopianism – taken in a certain kind of way – is a very dangerous force. One of the reasons the twenty-first century will be better than the twentieth is that utopian ideals, distorted by authoritarian leaders for nationalistic or fascist or communist aims, are much weaker. That is a good thing.’

But Leadbeater admits that, ‘if you dismiss utopianism altogether, then you can lose all sense of hope and get lost in a sea of unfathomable change. What I am trying to grasp is: how do you have a sense of progress, hope and achievement without utopianism?’.

At the launch of his book at Bloomberg’s in London on 10 July 2002, Leadbeater said that rather than needing utopian visions we need ‘visions of utopia’. However he plays with his words, Leadbeater is ultimately a political pragmatist. This becomes clear when I ask him about New Labour. ‘There are things that I get frustrated with’, he says. ‘But fundamentally I still support it and still think it is worth supporting, because it depends on the context you judge it in. And if you judge it in the context of the rise of the right in Europe and elsewhere – those forces riding on the back of nationalism and populism and fear of degeneration – then basically what this government is trying to do is create a basis for a stronger public and civic capacity within a market society.’

For Leadbeater, it is precisely the small things done by New Labour, rather than its big ideas (what big ideas?), which makes the party worth supporting. ‘When you go and see new libraries in Sunderland – which I saw last week – you see that there are things happening to public services and civic life which are very important. And they wouldn’t happen if we did not have a Labour government.’

In a climate of deep social pessimism, which Leadbeater argues is ‘paralysing’ society, celebrating the building of a library seems a bit narrow, capturing the low expectations that many have today.

Leadbeater is good at pointing out the pessimism that infects every discussion today – from GM food to the environment, from politics to globalisation. But it is hard to see how we can ‘inject some hope’ into political debate and beyond without challenging the fundamentals of this pessimism, and offering a forward-looking view instead. You cannot challenge the fearful view of GM food, for example, by looking at the GM issue on its own, separate from how people view other scientific and technological developments. But positing big ideas based on what’s best for humanity might just start to challenge the all-pervasive, underlying pessimism that surrounds every issue.

In Up the Down Escalator Leadbeater also expresses concern about current attacks on individualism. ‘The ideal of individual autonomy is deeply rooted in Western culture’, writes Leadbeater. ‘Central to our ideas of justice, democracy, freedom, equality and empathy is the idea that individuals are due respect as sovereign and autonomous agents who are capable of making up their own minds….’

So where does he stand on the creeping interventionism of New Labour – which consistently undermines the ‘idea that individuals are due respect as sovereign and autonomous agents’?

‘I think there is this strange concoction of Old Labour belief in the powers of the central state, alongside a strong moralism and combined with performance-driven politics’, says Leadbeater. ‘So, yes, the tendency to intervene is strong.’

So why should we support Labour? Leadbeater’s defence boils down to a rather feeble ‘lesser evil’ argument. ‘We have been through a century of Tory domination. So the fact that in 10 years Blair has managed to turn the Tories into pretty much a marginal party is a huge achievement. If you were running a company and had just taken out the most dominant player in British retailing, say, in 10 years, and turned around a really fading brand, it would be a huge achievement.’

‘And that is what Blair has done’, says Leadbeater. ‘The price of that is a political strategy where – say on asylum – they speak a language that is difficult to take. That is one of the trade-offs.’ This sounds more like an argument against the Tories than for New Labour. And surely politics is about more than destroying your opponent?

But on the question of the individual and society, Leadbeater comes back to the alleged power of technology – arguing that technology could potentially restore a strong sense of individualism. ‘The internet allows us to challenge the rights of powerful institutions to make choices on our behalf: increasingly we can do things for ourselves, from booking a holiday, to researching a drug, to questioning a politician. The internet may be the technology that realises the dream of the sovereign, self-sufficient individual.’

I would argue that, in the absence of a collective sense of society moving forward, it seems unlikely that a strong individualism will be reborn. Leadbeater rightly criticises a society with ‘a collective sense of despair, in a world that is seen as beyond our control’ – and surely it is that broader social outlook which shapes our attitude to new technologies?

Unless some positive big ideas emerge, pessimism will remain in power.

Buy Charles Leadbeater‘s Up the Down Escalator: Why the Global Pessimists are Wrong (Viking, 2002) from Amazon (UK)

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Topics Politics


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