The Age of Radical

January 19, 2009

The age of radical is upon us.  While this disruptive turning point will be clear only in retrospect, there can be little doubt that a period of dramatic change is about to begin.  The pace of globalization and the acceleration of technological innovation has rendered more and more of society’s social, economic, educational and political norms both irrelevant and inappropriate.

The disconnect between what all of our organizations are doing and and what they are challenged to do grows daily.  Adaptation to the change that has already occurred is slow and fitful. The result is wasted talent and opportunity, leaving far too many distressed, cynical and adrift.  As the gale force of change rises, the adaptation lag threatens to imperil any measure of progress.

The danger was a continuing slow erosion of social function – the very kind of insidious disease to which society’s response has always been thoroughly inadequate.  We would have then wandered in the wilderness for decades.  Fortunately, we are faced with so spectacular a failure that the logjam of deferred problems can no longer be held back.  We may now be able to break free of old ideas, solutions, and organizational forms, as conventional thought and unexamined assumptions visibly fail. 

From the perspective of history,  the present crisis is almost ideal. The failure is systemic, affecting the young and the old, the large and the small, the traditional and the new, the democratic and the authoritarian in all the major countries on earth.  The financial losses are of unprecedented scale and falling real output drives down the standard of living . The pain is felt by tens of millions.

The disadvantage is both real and psychological. The latter of course strikes to the heart of culture and the ultimate source of social norms.  We look at our world and now know for sure that nothing is too big to fail. Names the lasted a century collapse in mere weeks. Markets abruptly stop clearing transactions. Governments cast budgets aside and commit billions they do not have. Private enterprises beg for state support and get state invention. Nationalizations occur without debate. Central banks use new tools they have never studied. 

Experimentation and flexibility are forced upon all of us. Collective assumptions and conventional answers are swept aside. The straitjacket of past responses disintegrates. New perspectives are unleashed, as the force of inertia and vested interests weaken.

Finally, we may actually start to address the myriad of problems that have long faced us, from the environment to the transformation of work. To suggest that after a few years when “the dust settles”, we will go back to the old norms is implausible. The genie of change is out and about, unlikely to be re-bottled any time soon.

As a consequence, the President of the United States faces a stark choice.  Either he is a new man of a new age, prepared to offer radical solutions to America’s challenges – the only kind of answers that are feasible after so long a period of neglect. Or he is a new man with conventional views, happy to have won and anxious to avoid controversy?  But social security, income disparity, health care cost and accessibility, employment, innovation and the deficit cannot be solved with evolutionary alterations.

Does the President understand this?  Does he ask for patience to implement far-reaching change, or to let a few “adjustments” run their course?  Does he surround himself with experience to carefully implement refined ideas from the past, or as cover for a coming transformation?  Does he try to co-opt the Republicans to reveal the bankruptcy of their policies, or to craft a watered-down mush of compromise?  His words give no guidance, offering no hint of imaginative scope.

Yet he has won the presidency with unconventional means, using the internet  to raise vast amounts of money and an army of volunteers . He aggressively deploys the dramatic arts to speak in both words and symbols.  His message is of engagement and hope – exactly what would be needed if true change were on the agenda.  Clearly, he intends government by theatre, even if on occasion the theatre of the absurd. 

Are the rallies of tens of thousands intended only to make Americans feel confident in their future?  Or is it perhaps also a warning to those who might oppose him that he could bury them with email and public protest?  We shall see.

The age of radical is upon us.