Brexit and the rest: it all adds up

6 July 2016

I have written frequently in these TWOGs on the need for rebalancing society, but I feel that recent events have made the message more compelling. I will keep conveying it until that message gets through, or I can no longer write. So if you agree with it, please circulate this so that I can move on!

Question: What might explain the following? Brexit. Trump. Sanders. Democracies in retreat. Thugs in presidential palaces. Backlash against globalization. Add to these: climate change and corruption in America (worse than Brazil). Answer: Imbalance in society.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and that set off our relentless march to imbalance. The wall fell on us, thanks to our misunderstanding of what brought it down

It was claimed in 1989 that capitalism had triumphed. This was dangerously wrong. Balance had triumphed. While the communist states of Eastern Europe were severely out of balance, with so much power concentrated in their public sectors, the successful nations of the West balanced their power more effectively across their public, private, and plural (civil society) sectors. But a failure to understand this has been throwing the world out of balance ever since, with power increasingly concentrated in the private sectors, in favor of the forces of economics and individualism. Since 1989, capitalism has indeed been triumphing, globally and domestically.

Now consider these happenings in light of this imbalance.

Brexit. Was there dissatisfaction with the European Union? Of course. Was there xenophobia? No doubt. But these evident explanations do not justify the knee-jerk reactions of an establishment press to the pro-Brexit vote: “stupidity”, “lies”, “cynical politicians”, “dumb down”, “hucksters”—to quote from two recent columns in the New York Times, by Roger Cohen and Thomas Freidman. It’s too easy to dismiss the lashing out of disadvantaged and disoriented people instead of probing into the source of their angst, especially when that questions the globalization dogma that these two writers have promoted blindly for years.

Beneath this vote lies the social imbalance When people have lost their way, while their established leadership offers no viable alternative, they find somewhere to go. And this can cause them to act no less stupidly than their leaders. The prevailing paradigm, the American dream, has become a nightmare for too many people around the world. (Especially in America, where social mobility—the odds of getting ahead when born into a poor family—has dropped startlingly.) One inconvenient truth behind the Brexit vote is the anger felt about globalization, in this country directed at the powerful elites of the London financial establishment.

Trump and Sanders. Take your pick—rednecks or liberals, manifesting their frustration as anger or angst. Again we find the same social imbalance, here directed more explicitly at the brazen power of Wall Street.

Democracies in retreat.  Not long ago, democracies were in ascension, all over the world. No longer. Thanks again to the imbalance, they are in retreat, left and right, with the unimpeded rise of elected thugs in presidential palaces (Russia, Venezuela, Turkey, etc.), or through the bribing of elected politicians by private interests. In Brazil this corruption is criminal, and at least is being prosecuted. In the United States this corruption is legal, and so it continues to fester.

Global Warming. Is there excess use of carbon energy? Of course there is. But behind this is the imbalance inherent in the domination of economic interests over social need: the obsessive drive for quantity over quality—for more and more GDP and Shareholder Value instead of better and better lives. We and our planet are being consumed by consumption.

Exaggerated individualism and rampant globalization. These are two sides of the same coin. Instead of balancing individual needs with collective and communal needs, we allow one to dominate the other two. And who are the prime beneficiaries of this? The wealthiest individuals, many of whom are the greediest—and the ones behind a globalization movement that allows an unelected economic autocracy to undermine national sovereignties and social communities. No wonder so many disrupted people vote Brexit, Trump, Sanders, Le Pen, et al. Who else acknowledges their concerns?

And how about terrorist attacks?  Angry at the established forces and unimpeded by a balanced alternative to the prevailing paradigm, some people lash out in horrific ways, with indiscriminate killing. They express no concern for the consequences of their actions. (Does the 1% express concern for the consequences of their particular actions—less horrendous but more widespread?) After the latest carnage in U.S., we have the spectacle of the National Rifle Association giving elected representatives permission to legislate against assault weapons.

Need I go on? Need we go on? There is another way. It’s called balance, across the sectors: respected governments and responsible businesses with robust communities. Constrained greed. Concern for the disadvantaged. The Western democracies were closer to all this in the four decades following World War II. (Recall the welfare programs of the Johnson administration in the U.S. and the higher levels of taxation in many of the developed countries.) The world needs to restore its balance, and reject the oxymoronic “democratic capitalism.” (Notice which is the noun and which the adjective.)

Once we understand what has been going on, we can appreciate that the conventional solutions will not work. The problem will not be fixed in or by the private sector. Capitalism certainly needs fixing, but this will require rebalancing across all the sectors—which means putting capitalism in its place, namely in the provision of goods and service. Period. Nor can we expect public sector governments to take the lead, because most have become too coopted by private interests domestically and overwhelmed by corporate forces globally.

This leaves the plural sector, comprising those associations that are neither private nor public, most of them community-based: our clubs and groups, NGOs, not-for profits, cooperatives, social initiatives and social movements. This sector is massive, yet it has been lost in the great debates over public versus private, namely the linear politics of left versus right.

Please understand that the plural sector is not them; it is you and I, in our everyday lives. Some of us may work in the private sector and most of us may vote in the public sector but all of us live in the plural sector. We need to recognize that it is here, on the ground, that the restoration of balance will have to begin.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. Please see Rebalancing Society…radical renewal beyond left, right, and center for a full rendition of this message. For earlier comments on this theme, please see the TWOGs under Rebalancing Society (This TWOG was delayed pending the appearance of a related version on the Huffington PostFollow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.