💭The Macro Illusion of Owen Jones

The top-down view of Left intellectuals isn't the way to effectively change the world.

💭The Macro Illusion of Owen Jones

Owen Jones was upset by a post I wrote a little while ago so I thought it would be good to try to make clear that I was not just mouthing off. There are real and massive problems with how Left intellectuals, though often brilliantly intelligent and committed, end up having no effect or even a detrimental effect on the struggle for a just and sane society. 

Owen's reply to my previous post

I remember a few years back Owen declaring in full rhetorical flow something like “We need to go and mobilise Cornwall”. This is what I call the macro illusion, meaning that focusing on the large scale - the top-down view - is a way to effectively change the world. Of course, saying that big things need to happen is all good. But the question is not what needs to change but HOW to change it. To answer that you have to burrow down into the details, into the micro design. 

Let’s look at an example. Owen might say “We need to go door-knocking” but the question is not doorknocking itself by how it is done. I went out door knocking just about every week for twenty years. I trained dozens of canvassers and usually after 30 minutes of mentoring, they would double the number of people they would sign up. The key causal element in door knocking is what happens in the first 10 seconds of speaking with someone - this is why micro design is critically important. 

I did years of research at King's College, London, on the psychology of mobilisation and spent most of that time with campaigns. In an award-winning case study, I showed that if you micro-design a political meeting around 10 specific elements (people sitting around tables, eating biscuits(!), having discussions in small groups) then you get in the region of 80% of people feeling empowered. If you have a traditional Left political meeting (several speakers and a short Q and A) only 20% of people feel empowered. This has a massive effect on whether people show up to another meeting. And this, not ideas or passion or rhetoric, is the key determining factor in whether you create a social movement - i.e. positive feedback loops: meeting to action to meeting to action. 

This is why I and the teams I work with create big campaigns one after another in this country and around the Western world. It's not a matter of chance. 

But the “how to do things” is almost completely ignored by political commentators, journalists, and intellectuals such as Owen. It's like they cannot see the world as it is. The reason for this is they are part of a rationalist tradition that works out what to do based on big abstractions like “politics”, “justice” and “power” - rooted in the musings of the great armchair philosophers of the Eighteenth Century (rich white men and all that). This tradition is not interested in systematic observation and comparing results. It creates a map of the world and then imposes a grid onto actual reality. I think this is a key reason why the Left is so unsuccessful. It's the forced separation of theory from practice - the retreat from praxis. 

Another thing I have found from my research is that people do not change due to information and argument - particularly if they are entrenched in a worldview which gives them power and prestige. To get attention and thus change you have to disrupt - like sit in the street - and get emotional, including swearing. Of course, this approach does not always work but the point is simply writing nice polite posts almost never works! 

I wish it wasn't the case but it is. Owen’s notion that conflict undermines building connections between “natural allies” is simply incorrect. If the conflict is rooted in legitimate criticism and is intended to create a genuine dialogue then this is the optimal approach. I hope at some point Owen will have a chat with me as I bear no ill will towards him as a person - it's just that what he does, I believe, is ineffectual and we are facing the end of the world. We’re in an emotional situation.

One last thing. Owen was born into the labour movement. He went to Oxford. He benefited from a thick network in which to show off his undoubted talents. I was an unknown farmer for 20 years. When I arrived in London to start my research I knew no one. And yet 7 years later according to the New Statesman, I am a more influential person on the Left than he is. Because influence is about attending to the details.

I am presently working with others to create a bunch of micro designs to transform the outcome of the upcoming national elections. Maybe they won’t work but never say never. 

I've got two focuses:

  • Revolution - Building social formations to create revolution and guide moments of social disruption.
  • A Balanced Society - Building a new civilisation based on a new balance of deliberative democracy, compassion, and limited consumption.

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