The Rise of Charmocracy
by Dan Gregory
Michael Young argued that society was changing in the 20th century, no longer favouring those born lucky but instead, rewarding IQ and effort. Yet in the 21st century, that seems like a bad joke. Circumstances of birth have remained pivotal to our life chances.
Now however, we are entering a new era. Now, we look back with nostalgia at the idea that IQ + effort, albeit multiplied by fortune, would be valued so highly. Now, the winners are simply those who can sell a dream. Now, those who dangle the most alluring offer are the winners. Once, it was what you had. Michael Young suggested it was what you did. Now, it’s what you say. In society, in the workplace, in politics, in markets, in public services - those who promise the earth shall inherit it.
The new equation for this new century = idea x network. Whether the dream becomes real is immaterial. Delivery is irrelevant. In other words, tedx > fedex. This is the Charmocracy.
Of course, people have always been seduced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the idea of a better life, of better politics, of better technology. Creative licence, exaggeration and the possibility that the promise may never arrive have always been with us. Ad-men of the 1950s sold us dreams we maybe couldn’t afford. Music videos of the 1980s sold us lifestyles we maybe couldn’t live. But something has changed. Something is different, something is dangerous. Now, the promise has outgrown the product.
We can see this in four areas of our lives: in markets, in civil society, in democracy and in our personal lives:
In markets – we have seen the gentrification of the advertising and marketing industries, whereby selling dreams is no longer seen as some sort of dirty trick and is now an entirely respectable profession. Sir Martin Sorrell is the FTSE’s highest paid Chief Executive. Seduction has become legit. Will Davies points out how capitalism relies on imagination and the imaginary; the “marrying of fictional futures and empirical facts is what makes capitalism possible”. Financial markets have become “a game of impossible objects." Tech VCs are pouring cash into start-ups based largely I think on persuading latter rounds of investors that value may one day be crystallised.
In civil society – we have seen the incessant rise of innovation as a “god term” – we are now obsessed with the new and the shiny. Lee Vinsel describes how innovation is the “dominant ideology of our era, embraced in America by Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the Washington DC political elite”. New is now better than good, or at least more important.
In democracy – spin, retail politics and fake news have conquered the political arena over the past two decades. While lying is nothing new in politics, the generation of spin became a formalised profession in the 1990s and then retail politics emerged a little later – “Vote Labour and win a toaster” – under Ed Miliband. Now, with the advent of President Trump and Brexit, something has entirely snapped. Fake news is everywhere, alternative truths abound and nothing is real, only the next headline counts. Post-truth was word of the year.
In our personal lives – Microsoft research suggests that our attention spans are now shorter than the average goldfish. This has consequences for accountability, of politicians, of corporations and of all of us. The mechanisms which hold us to account are weak or failing - the press are under the control of just a few individuals, and only 1 in 6 Britons trusts the BBC alongside the steepest drop in trust for government, business, media and NGOs in two decades. We now live in the “Attention Economy” where attention is the new scarce commodity.
We are all complicit here. Reframing reality and recasting our condition is seductive. We want the latest edition, the latest gadget, the latest upgrade, the latest hit, however similar it may be to the last. We are bewitched by 24 hour news. We love how the cliff-hanger promises so much for the next series. We talk about game-changers, silver bullets and moonshots. We tell ourselves stories that reassure. We want to be charmed by the promise of something new.
Yet somewhere, deep down, we know that things may not get better. They may even get worse. Could series 8 really be better than series 7? Is the new iphone really a game changer?
Michael Young argued that the rise of the Meritocracy would lead to populism, nationalism, people turning against elites and protests led by women. Similarly, this charmocratic society will lead to counterforces. Eventually, a crisis of trust will spring from the slow realisation that our gratification is always delayed, always deferred, always postponed. We remain unfulfilled and unsatisfied. As our mouths water at the next prospect, one day we’ll realise we’re starving.
This reaction will lead to recognition of the value of getting by. The value of appreciating what we have, of modesty, of making do. Some of us will come to a sort of acceptance that, sometimes, we just need to learn to cope with things being a bit shit. Protest will be led by those who actually do productive, useful work; those who underpromise and overdeliver. One day, perhaps, the meek shall indeed inherit the earth.
We can see this happening already in the four areas above:
In markets - people are becoming immune to marketing. Marketing emails only see click-through rates of 1.5%. For most banner ads, no more than one person in two thousand will click. Research shows millennials don’t really respond to conventional adverts.
In civil society – the faddishness of innovation has been found out. As Lee Vinsel points out, people now snigger at conferences when keynote speakers bang on about how they “impactfully lean agiled their creatively confident disruptive innovation pivots." Maintenance is back.
In democracy – we are now starting to crave authenticity and substance. Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn’s common appeal, whatever their differences, lies in how they seem to be somehow more genuine, not one of those professional politicians.
In our personal lives – we are starting to realise the dangers of shortening attentions. There is a backlash to screen time in schools, in homes, at dinner tables and in bed. Time is limited. There’s even an app for that.
So the charmocracy may already be cracking.
But the magic is wearing off most of all because of real, tangible threats to our lives. Bluff and bluster can only last so long in the face of existential crisis.
We are now beginning to realise that we may no longer look forward to a better life in future, as we’ve previously understood it. It may no longer be possible for those things we have used as our measures of progress to keep improving. While in the short term, the world has actually been getting much better than many fear, the horizon may now be fast approaching. Sure, we’ve made progress with extreme poverty and malaria but now the planet is burning. GDP probably can’t rise forever, at least not exponentially. We may soon have to cope with long-term secular stagnation; a steady state economy. Perhaps even that is a good case scenario because - with the planet in flames - it may be much worse.
So we will need to redefine progress. It won’t be about material goods, consumption, and physical output. It probably won’t be about how much stuff we can trade in the market, not least because we might learn to share. Intangibles and immeasurables are on the rise. Just conserving our habitat would represent progress. We will need to cultivate our practical realities, reintegrating with the stuff around us now, fostering healthy and durable attachments between us, our stuff and our stories.
This won’t all be good and it won’t all be bad. Of course, we must never give up on the idea of progress. But we will need to redefine it and make it more real. We can’t keep chasing a mirage or progress will be endlessly deferred.
Acknowledgements & thanks to Oliver Holtaway and Jake Eliot for their input.
Dan Gregory has been working to support social enterprises for the last ten years, developing policy at the highest level and delivering in practice at the grassroots. Over the past few years he has been working under the banner of Common Capital, developing policy and research for Social Enterprise UK, the Social Economy Alliance, NCVO, Oxfam, the Big Local Trust and the British Council, among others. He previously worked for the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.