Engaging Power [1]: Conflict

To think that gangs are an aberration, or impermanent structure, is a mistake: they are stable social structures, governed by the same bonding mechanisms as the local church, or regional police force. They are structures of power, partly formalised, partly social, partly visible, largely hidden, but deeply interconnected, often organised, and intractably opposed. As part of a wider body of work, exploring ‘types of power’, and understanding the radically complex social structures of Organisations, i’m writing about ‘engaging power’.

Engaging Power: Conflict

In a series of four posts, i want to consider entrenched gang violence as a case study of engaged (and engaging) power. To look beyond a simple narrative, of dysfunction, criminality, and failure, to consider why gangs persist: if they were purely destructive, nihilistic, or straight evil, surely they would have fragmented through their own inability to function. And yet they do not: they persist, and in cities like London today, spread, carrying gang violence with them. What causes these social structures to form and persist? Are they simply a mirror image of the social structures of knitting circles, and gardening clubs, or is there something innately different? And perhaps more importantly, where we do see criminality, violence, social destruction, and deprivation, what can we do about it?

We will start by considering the nature of conflict, entrenched opposition, dynamics of membership, and the cost and consequence of such, as well as understanding how gangs relate to identity and opportunity, and may as much reflect a problem as they do cause it.

In subsequence pieces we will look at the stability of these social structures, the cost of exclusion, the moral judgement of wider society, and the hollow principles that perpetuate conflict [2]. We will consider how the binary positions taken by formal systems can embed conflict, and how space for ambiguity can allow us to visualise alternatives, as well as the role of doubt in driving individual choice [3]. Finally, we will look at how we open up to the potential for change, learn to tolerate ambiguity, and move from conflict, to transience [4].

These four pieces are part of a reflection, so whilst i have laid out low structure, i’m going to allow it to drift if needed.

When i read a news report about a young person stabbed on the streets of the capital, i cannot conceive of what would drive someone to do it. Nothing in my experience of growing up, of being part of society, has primed or prepared me to carry out such an act myself. And that is largely the point. These are not the acts of my society: they are acts in an equally real, and entirely invisible, parallel society. These are often acts carried out by individuals whose experience of education, the law, and civil society are entirely different from my own. I am separated by class (in a supposedly classless society), wealth (in a society where we suppose to value life, not just wealth), and structural inequality (where money can bypass queues, prolong life, and almost entirely gate you off from segments of the community you live alongside.

We exist in a society with an unequal distribution of violence, and, to large extent that’s why we permit it to perpetuate.

We do not face an equal opportunity for conflict: whilst any of us may be the victim of crime, there is no doubt that where you grow up, and how you grow up, will impact your chances. We are each subject to different forces of conflict and, crucially, different formative forces of how normal conflict is. For me, it’s unusual, for others, not so much.

Unequal distribution of conflict, especially when layered upon structural inequality (often on ethnic lines, or the colour of your skin), lead to an uneasy situation where it may play into the hands of political power to entrench the conflict. I say this with some care, but everyone likes an enemy, and if that enemy is visible, partitioned, and (most importantly) does not really present an existential threat, so much the better.

Much of our overt economy, and society, is a convenient fiction, layered on top of the grey economy, true modes of social organisation and power, held in reputation, consequence, generosity, kindness, empathy, trust, and fear. For as many formal structures we have (governments, police, schools, supermarkets), we have social ones (families, friendship groups, clubs, gangs).

Much of the true value in society, certainly much of our experience of it, is held in these secondary structures. We may live within the formal walls of our houses, within the concrete boundaries of our towns, but we experience life in the relationships that we hold, the values we demonstrate, and the lived experience of the touch of others.

Part of my own evolving understanding of ‘types of power’, driven by our evolving political landscape, is that many communities are held together almost entirely in opposition: they are not united through conformity in views, but rather in opposition to someone, or something, else. In other words, we may be united in our condemnation of gang related violence, without any underlying understanding, appreciation, or experience, of what it actually is, why it’s caused, or how to actually resolve it. We are united in our opposition, because to be in opposition is both socially validating, and low risk.

Which leads us partly to the reason why we are entrenched in this type of urban conflict: the oppositional power, which leads us to sanction ever stronger policing, and the vilification of gang members (see press images of young black men, or tattooed, shirtless, hard staring latinos) objectifies them, validates our bias, and makes us ever more certain that they are beyond redemption and, crucially, are something to be feared. Even if we have no lived experience of them. In this state, the opportunity for empathy, trust, or indeed true change, is limited. But more than that, the very social structures that unite us in opposition hold us tightly in conformity ourselves: it becomes socially risky to express a dissenting view.

Oppositional systems are weirdly more stable than coalition or consensus ones in some ways.

It suits us to be opposed to gangs, because being opposed to gangs in itself confers membership of the ‘good’ part of society, notwithstanding that we are all (gangs, police, victims, and perpetrators, onlookers and all) part of one society. Albeit a fragmented one.

Social Leadership 100 - types of power

People join gangs not specifically because they are ‘bad’, but because the balance of cost mitigates that they do so. Much the same as the decision to join a gym, a church, or a book club. The decision may be ideological (belief, or dogma), aspirational (desire, greed), desperate (hope, salvation), fearful (consequence, cost), conformist (you joined first), accidental (geography, coincidence), or incidental (cost today vs larger reward tomorrow).

And once you are ‘in’, it’s harder to be ‘out’.

There are many forces that hold social systems in place: some are aggregating, magnetic, positive, others divisive, oppositional, identity based. Both are equally valid, and any conversation about conflict must recognise that both are equally strong.

Tomorrow, i’ll consider the roots of conflict, the stability of gang structures, the cost of membership, and the role of moral judgement.

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Extraditing Values: Convenient Principles

The UK government has confirmed that it will extradite two terrorist suspects to the US, without demanding a guarantee that they won’t face the death penalty. This is unusual: as a point of principle, the UK does not support the death penalty, and typically will not extradite when that is a prospect. I’m interested in this from the perspective of principles, and values: to what extent are we defined by aspiration, or in the application? If opposition is simply a matter of convenience, put aside whenever the cost is too high, or the convenience too thin, does it really count as a matter of principle at all?


As with all my work, i am not writing specifically about the rights or wrongs of the principle itself: you will each have a view on whether the principle is sound or not, and my own, more liberal, tendencies will doubtless be clear, but rather i’m reflecting on the underlying structure: to what point are our values a matter of stated intent, and promised words, and to what extent are they lived values, and authentic action?

One answer may be clear: it’s our actions that count, and that much is clear when we survey groups to ask what really matters to them: people count action more strongly than promise. The authenticity of the Social Leader is held in their authentic storytelling much more strongly than it is held in their formal position, or their words themselves. In that context, judgement on the UK government would be clear: principles have been abandoned, because it’s not possible to pragmatically put a principle aside, and expect that it is still a principle when you choose to pick it up again. Most likely, it has morphed into a hollow promise.

But what about in a different context: when we consider the ways that opinion is formed, within our tribal structures, and often with elements of group consensus, we see that principle is strongly correlated to membership: break with principle and there is an implicit cost of exclusion. Possibly we could even describe this as ‘subscription principle’, whereby you cannot be a member of a particular community unless you subscribe to a principle.

This would be valuable in terms of unity, because we would have reassurance that with membership comes conformity, and possibly trust. But it would be bad in another dimension: the principle may be lethargic, static, stuck. We may find it hard to change our view.

It’s in this tension, between our varied principles, held partly in membership of respective communities, that we may find a dilemma: is it possible for us to change?

Some principles become outdated as social norms change: the current opposition within the UK to the death penalty is not something foregone and certain. It emerged through decades of debate, and the eventual abolition of our own legal structure for execution. We changed from a principle where we supported it, to a principle where we do not. Our values evolved, and there is no denying that it represents a functional shift in ethics, values, and morality.

Things which we believe to be bedrocks, may prove more fluid than we imagine.

So here is the rub: at least parts of our principles, our underlying morality, are held in our community membership. Part is individual reflection, but on a foundation of cultural influence. And none of it is solid, nothing guaranteed.

Through debate, time, or inattention, our positions shift: sometimes consciously, sometimes without us noticing. This is how regimes become evil. Not necessarily by design and intention, but through neglect and the gradual slippage of values, all often within a consenting community.

The decision to ignore principles in one area, at one time, as a matter of broader convenience may be, well, convenient. But it comes at a cost. If our values are a matter of convenience, we lost something. We pull up the anchor, and will drift with the current. Wherever it takes us.

When it comes to positions of principle, we have two choices: to stand up, or to stand back. Many times we take a third: convenient abrogation. In the moment, we neither clearly step up, nor definitively step back: we simply spectate, and through our lack of action, condone the thing.

Part of Social Leadership is ‘curation’, to choose your space, to make your stand. Not simply in line with those things with which we agree, but for the betterment of the community itself. If we really wish to be an authentic leader, within our communities, we must ensure that whatever position we take is principled: be it in support of, or in opposition to, a change. We must avoid the third choice: avoid being swept by the current.

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What Will We See?

I’m making good progress with ‘The Change Handbook: building the Socially Dynamic Organisation’, as i work through version 24 of the full manuscript. As i’m heavily into book writing this week, no new content for the blog, but instead i wanted to share the screenshot above, looking at ‘what we will see’ in the Dynamic Organisation.

What Will We See

I’ve written three sections to the same structure: one on ‘Resistant’ organisations, one on ‘Constrained’, and one on the Dynamic one, each ending with a section on what you would ‘see’, ‘hear’, and ‘feel’. It’s a simple structure, but one that makes it easy for people to answer the questions ‘what type of organisation do i sit in today’.

I’m having a mixed relationship with the book right now: on the one hand, frustration and annoyance that i’ve prevaricated so long in finishing it, but on the other hand, pleased that i now feel able and capable of cutting long sections out of it! I feel the end is coming into sight.

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Social Leadership: Citizenship

Yesterday i reflected on democracy, our structures of representation, and the ways in which they are adapting, which led me today to consider ‘citizenship’, a reflection on responsibility, as well as rights. I’ve tentatively contextualised this within Social Leadership, to reflect a recent thought i had on ‘Citizen of Apple, State of Lego’, where i considered how ‘citizenship’ may be a notion moving beyond nation.


Let me also point out that this writing is part of my own reflective process, so not necessarily a considered position, but rather part of my shared reflections to figure out what it means to me!

A definition of citizenship? Perhaps, ‘a balance of what we put in, and what we take out’? I’m familiar with the ‘traditional’ definition, which relates back to being a denizen of a city. A definition rooted in geography and identify. But in the context of the Social Age, geography has globalised, and identify is fluid. So perhaps we need a new notion of what it means to be a citizen?

The notion of ‘what we put in, and what we take out’ simply reflects my current thinking on Social Leadership as being about balance, within an ecosystem. Perhaps, in similar vein, citizenship is about balance, within whatever ‘society’ we are inhabiting?

Certainly i like the notion of putting something in: for me, personally, citizenship is as much about responsibility, as it is about rights. Of course, in a civil society, the rights are granted to everyone, even those people who choose to simply take, and never to give. But to be a good citizen, you probably need to give. Indeed, you probably need to give, even to those people who simply take.

I recognise that i’m getting into areas of moral judgement, but perhaps, in the context of the Social Age, all judgement is, to some extent, socially moderated.

I am quite interested in models of micro engagement, and aggregated surplus, as ways of solving civic challenges. For example, gamifying homelessness, so that people can earn civic currency by giving up their surplus space, resource, or time, to help solve civic issues. Or can perhaps earn a different civic currency by engaging in civil disagreement. If you look at issues like Brexit, it’s clear that dissent will only get us so far: at some point, we have to engage in peace.

I woke this morning to hear a definition of war on the radio (in my sleepy state, i did not catch who said it), which considered war must always be entered into on the basis that peace will be negotiated. Ultimately, we all have to give something.

At an individual level, we have to consider our actions, to other members of our society, even those with whom we violently disagree (either through violence itself, or a violence in our stories).

As those societies become increasingly fragmented, concurrent, and diversified, so too do the nuances of our membership, and the flavours of our citizenship.

When i was at school, we were not taught citizenship: whether it is a damning indictment of society that my nephew and niece now are, or whether it represents a progressive attitude, i am unsure.

I think it was left to me, to learn, and to figure out, for myself, how to be a citizen. I received no guidebook, and took no exam. But perhaps it’s a good thing to provide rails.

I do agree that, in the context of our unending, and accelerating, social upheaval, a process which is just beginning, it’s probably a good thing to consider the nature of citizenship, and the location of it. If i am a citizen of Twitter, i had better hope that the other citizens are considering not simply what they take, but what they give.

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The Death of Democracy

Fake news, foreign intervention, echo chambers, big data and analytics, you’d be forgiven for assuming that we are witnessing the death of democracy, the final gasp of liberal societies first, and best, hope, assailed unaccountably by social tech and evil empires.

Restraint: Democracy

Assailed it may be, but not necessarily by evil: much of todays narrative carries overtones of evolving power, and fearful entities of control.

For sure, some people are using technology, either directly, or to drive social influence, from outside the nation state: hacking voting machines is a clearly hostile intent. Planting deliberately false news, and using hacked accounts to do so, is clearly hostile. But it is a mistake to mistake the messenger for the message.

Elections have always been about imbued hope, as opposed to concrete fact: we make our decisions on promises, and sketchy evidence, not cast iron guarantees, and money back commitments. Indeed, we vote for the person, not the party. We invest trust. And that trust is invested upon ephemeral, insubstantial, desire, belief, and hope.

It’s not that we are uniquely now, today, in a world where we are influenced by opinion, but it may be that today we are in a world where we are exposed to more of it.

But this is our world.

When assailed, we can complain about the assault, or we can consider what the assault tells us about democracy itself.

Social technology connects us, in fact, that word ‘connection’ is one of the two core aspects of change that i see in the Social Age: we are connected, with great levels of redundancy, outside, beyond the control of, any formal entity or organisation, and that connectivity is democratised, giving a voice, and a space, to any who care to claim it. Be that state actors, or passionate citizens.

The modes of connection are democratised, so with it, democracy itself changes.

Take opinion: i am an independent thinker, i form my opinions based upon evidence, and facts. Except that i don’t. In reality, i form my opinions based on preconception, existing paradigms, ways of knowing, belief, hope, trust, optimism, dominant social norms, fear of consequence, selfishness, a small element of generosity and kindness, and a large dose of blind ignorance.

Opinion is subject to the views of others: either others with whom i agree, or others with whom i passionately disagree. Whichever stance i take, their opinion counts. And in an ecosystem where i am visible to, and within sight of, ever more opinion, i have ever more to take into consideration.

Sure: technology may limit what i see, or skew the views i hear, but my social status, rank, worldview, and community, already do that. Technology may exacerbate an existing issue. But also provide opportunity: my view, if well framed, if carefully considered, may itself find traction. The mechanisms of social control can also be mechanisms of social enlightenment. There is nothing inherently and intractably doom laden about the Social Age, but there is a deeply embedded urgency of change.

Take music: i have a favourite band, music that i enjoy, recommendations that i will freely give. But to imagine i formed these views through my individual brilliance, through the quality of my ear, and my cultural discernment is flattering, but wholly untrue. The radio selects what to play me, Apple music filters further, my HomePod ensures the random selection is anything but, and i choose to play things that i believe my friends (with similarly excellent taste in music) will enjoy. We are both liberated with, and trapped by, these chains. Last night, on my ‘new music mix’, came up tune after tune that i loved. New music, shared to me based upon analysis of what i already like: the music in my echo chamber is sweet indeed.

Perhaps i should have a playlist served up of ‘Tunes you will detest’, music of provocation and dissent. Perhaps news articles of hate and vitriol. Perhaps i would be a better person by engaging in that particular dissent (indeed, one of the techniques of Social Leadership is to engage willingly in stories of dissent).

Democracy is, undoubtedly, in it’s current format, under assault, but part of the pain that we feel lies in the inability of democracy to evolve. Because every dream accretes structures of power, and those structures of power create spaces to nest, spaces where mortal beings find power and pride, and hang onto it for grim life.

It may not be democracy that is dying, but rather the structures of establishment power that sit behind them that are ill.

And within all the debate, there is one thing that we should keep front and centre of our thoughts. Who is democracy for?

A civilised society is something very different from just a society. Democracy should be for all, not the privileged few. Recent political movements, throughout western democracies, have shocked the establishment, an establishment that often forgot that it was not representative of all. Our political systems, which nest inside the notion of democracy, have been shown to be selfish, and self perpetuating, and have been rocked by new tendencies of bipartisanship, and opposition.

Political power is increasingly held in dissent, not in consensus. It’s held for a minority, not the many.

And yet, in a democracy, our government should be for the many, indeed, for all. Government is a willing subservience, but still an accountable one.

As modes of social connection proliferate, as modes of idea formation and transmission shift, as the nature of validity becomes increasingly a distributed idea within a system, as synchronous modes of engagement become the norm, so we must evolve the machines of democracy, the mechanisms of listening and engagement, and the models of accountability and power.

Perhaps it is to these issues that we should focus some of our righteous ire: assailed from outside we may be, but lethargic and sick within, we most certainly are.

Democracy, should it die, may die of neglect, not outward assault.

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The Social Punks Podcast: Update

I wrote the other week about a series of six podcasts that i’m working on: they each explore a broad aspect of the Social Age, but with a punk perspective. In other words, they look at broadly what is happening, and consider it in terms of established, versus challenger, power, or emergent, vs dominant, narratives. Today, i’ve been recording Episode 3: ‘The Death of Democracy’, and i’ve included my recording notes below.

The Social Punks Podcast notes

These are built to fail: i’m ok however they turn out, because they are a prototype of a new voice, and one of the things we do as Social Leaders is to continue to evolve our Storytelling skills.

There are two reasons for this: firstly, with the voice i already have, i know how to explore a subject, but my knowledge may also limit me and, secondly, with the voice i already have, i speak to a known audience, but a new voice may engage with a new one.

Or perhaps it will fail: it’s hard to move beyond your known voice, leaving you exposed. That’s half the fun of it: a claimed space to learn.

Production is taking a little longer than expected, but i hope to have the first episodes released in July.

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The Table

I have a new table, to sit at when i write. It’s a beautiful thing, engineered from English oak, a wide expanse of pale wood, not even oiled. I spend most of my time travelling, writing in cafes, airports, on trains, in snatched moments of time, on borrowed surfaces, but there is something deeply satisfying about having this surface waiting for me at home. There is no inbox, no clutter, no pens and pencils, no power supply, just the bare, textured, surface of The Table.

The Table

Oak is not my favourite wood, but it’s right up near the top. The skill required to work it is beyond me: green oak, the name given to the timber fresh from the tree, clutches at saws, clogs the teeth, and once cut, moves. Oak moves much more than you may imagine, stretching and yawning with the humidity of the seasons, tortured by central heating, caressed by the sun.

The Table is iron bound: in what i suspect is a futile attempt to prevent it shrinking and splitting, there are three bands of metal screwed into the underside of the planking. Three shackles that will try to hold the wood steady as the young timber strains to find it’s natural shape.

Wood knows where it wants to be, and binding it will have little effect: it does not move fast, but the warping and twist of timber is inexorable. You can fight nature, battle the natural balance, but only one winner ultimately will emerge.

Whilst my father has been ill, i have spent more time at home over the last two months, hence procurement of The Table. My stable space. Each day, as i sit down to write, i run my hands over the surface, feeling the warmth, where the dawning sun has passed over, feeling the softness of myriad imperfections.

The Table is not perfect, but who is.

Large expanses are clear, setting a context of idealised beauty, but then a knot berates the perfection, ugly, asymmetrical, memory of storms and growth.

It is the imperfection that creates beauty. The imperfection holds the tension.

Whilst i seek a certain calm, as i sit at The Table, The Table itself is embodied tension. The propensity to movement belies the underlying, internal force. Wood is a substance of tension, internally conflicted, frozen in time, as anyone who has split logs for the fire will know. The explosive energy as the axe hits is the tension, unbound, the energy liberated. The memory of a hundred years of storms, a lifetime of movement, frozen, and liberated with a single blow.

The touch of my hands, the heat of my laptop, the dampness from my coffee, the glare of the sun, add to the imperfection. As it strains and moves, the surface will also stain and mark.

The wood will grow with me, and i with it.

We will find our harmony: a million words will leave their mark, and a hundred years of growth will mark my words.

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