Bruce Nixon, The 21st Century Revolution: A call to greatness, Acorn Independent Press, 291 pp, 1 911079 03 3, pbk, £9.99
In one sense there is nothing new about this book about everything. It outlines the challenges facing us: climate change, poverty, inequality, austerity, low wages, unemployment, flawed semi-democratic institutions, and so on; it notices signs of hope in pressure groups and individual and group initiatives; and it suggests solutions. The distinctive aspect of the book is its statement that it will employ ‘systems thinking’: ‘the process of understanding how systems influence one another within a whole … rather than reacting to specific parts … we need to look at the whole system and identify the fundamental issues before creating solutions’ (p. 19). So, for instance, the difficulties facing the NHS need for their solution health education, lifestyle and diet change, a sugar tax, and more people walking and cycling.
The sections of the book that outline the challenges that we face are, to say the least, depressing. This is not a criticism. The challenges that we and our planet face really are massive, and Nixon leaves us in no doubt of either the extent of the difficulties or the difficulty of doing anything about them. But what of the solutions? Take, for instance, the solutions that he proposes to problems with our semi-democratic institutions: ‘We need political leaders with stature … We need political leaders who think strategically and selflessly about our long-term future …’ (p. 51); and at the same time ‘online voting could be utilised by the electorate to tell their MP which way to vote on an issue … Every MP should do this’ (p. 34). And in his paragraph on a Citizen’s Income, Nixon proposes paying for it by ‘eliminating or reducing government borrowing (and hence avoiding the costs of interest on government debt)’ (p.214). In neither case does he appear to see the contradiction.
Everywhere we find either incompatible ideas, as with these, or we find clear ideas with which it is impossible to argue – ‘academia freed from corporate interference, and tax havens closed’ (p. 60) – with no recognition of the difficulty of achieving such laudable aims. We are told what needs to happen, but not how it will happen. If change is to occur, then we need to know which institutions will need to do what, and which policy steps will achieve the required change – and we need to recognise that the first step must be in the interests of institutions as they are today, otherwise it won’t happen, and neither will any of the others. Politics is the art of the possible, and there is rather too little detailed proof of possibility.
The book is engagingly chaotic, rushing from issue to issue via long quotations from newspapers and websites and throwaway sentences with no content: ‘Another invaluable approach is Consensus Design (www.christopherday.eu/)’ (p. 51). Perhaps it is, but we cannot judge because we are not told what it is. There is plenty of discussion of where systems thinking is not happening (for instance, in relation to the debate about a new runway at Heathrow – a debate that has taken no account of additional flights’ impact on carbon emissions): but there is nothing like enough positive systems thinking. More often, we are treated to a scatter of briefly described problems accompanied by bold fixes that are unlikely to be politically feasible. However, the ‘problem/solution’ pairing does work where a relatively small group of people can take matters into their own hands and create change (as when economics students establish their own more plural curricula, or the 2010 Living Wage campaign persuaded a thousand companies to pay a Living Wage); or when it is in the interests of corporations to create the necessary change – and here the examples relate to renewable energy solutions for climate change.
At the end of the book there is a list of organisations (mainly pressure groups and think tanks) and a short appendix about systems thinking, but unfortunately no bibliography or index. As for systems thinking: perhaps there ought to have been some recognition in chapter 5, which is all about neoliberalism, that the neoliberal ideology is in fact systems thinking par excellence, and that it was driven into the hearts of our institutions by the kind of strategizing that Nixon would like to see accompanying his own prescriptions.
But having said all of that, there really is something quite beguiling about this book. The chaos of seemingly intractable problems and apparently infeasible solutions is shot through with a utopian optimism that is catching. We want the solutions to succeed, even if we can’t see how many of them could. A quotation that could stand for the book as a whole is Nelson Mandela’s: ‘It always seems impossible until it is done.’ (p. 139). Maybe we will be able to look back in three or four decades, if we’re still alive then, and see that some of the changes that we thought impossible have come about.