Conservative anarchism, self-organisation and the future of government

Simon Parker
18 min readJun 22, 2020


It feels like a moment for redefinitions. Looking across the global scene right now, we are seeing previously buried possibilities bubbling up into the mainstream, from the fight for racial justice to the end of policing, and from the potentialities of a larger state to huge questions about the future of work. It is not original of me to point out that Covid-19 is acting as an accelerator of trends that were already apparent, and in this essay I want to trace how this dynamic is playing out in the realm of public management.

We don’t usually pay much attention to this odd subdiscipline of political science, but I think the way we manage the state is fundamentally important. To study public management is to understand how governments develop and what they take their underlying purposes to be. The shift towards privatisation in the 1980s was the result of a decades-long discussion about who public servants actually are, and the best ways to manage them. Underlying the cut-and-thrust of politics — and to some extent defining political possibility, because governments can only deliver things their administrators can actually do — are long waves of ideas about how to run government. One of those wave, the new public management, has been in retreat for 15 years and is now finally going out.

My argument is going to be simple: that we are ready to redefine the deep purposes of government, and that our goal should increasingly be to create a state which supports social self-organisation. But more on that later.

It seems to me that the ructions we see around us today this can be traced back to a deeper intellectual breakdown: we have reached the end of the neoliberal era. In some ways this is not a remarkable statement. Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are all signs of the end of neoliberalism. Covid-19 is only accelerating this trend. The voices of the neoliberal right have literally nothing to offer the world we are entering. While conservative forces seemed to win the battle to define the 2008 financial crisis, it has slowly undermined some of their core beliefs — in the ability of the market to self-regulate, in the desire to minimise the role of the state (realised more in fiery rhetoric than in practice).

The Taxpayers’ Alliance is the most obvious example of this bankruptcy. Faced with a threadbare public sector responding heroically to the challenges of Covid-19, this increasingly bizarre organisation took to complaining about council tax increases and shouted about how late in the year tax freedom day has become. What does tax freedom day even mean in a world where thousands of us are having our wages paid by a state furlough scheme?

Many people on the left assume that once neoliberalism quits the field it will usher in the triumph of socialism. Tell that to Victor Orban. We are entering a highly contested age in which clashing ideologies will seek to define a new playing field. But there is some unalloyed good news for those who work in public service: as neoliberalism goes down, it will take the zombie corpse of the new public management with it.

NPM is a philosophy which basically says that you shouldn’t trust public servants. Left to their own devices, they will pad their pay cheques andincrease the size of their offices, all the while justifying it with outdated notions of the common good. It underpinned the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in a load of quangos, the NHS internal market and the farce of compulsory competitive tendering in local government.

In New Zealand, the National governments of the 1980s mainlined a particularly pure version of NPM and created a system so complicated that at one point there was a government department for every 100,000 people. Ministers would occupy a small policy department which set goals for a larger delivery department, including detailed annual budgets which could not be changed once set. The idea was to create strong upward accountability to politicians. The reality was that it became nigh-on impossible to address the very many problems that cut-across the very many departments, and NZ has been rowing back since the 1990s.

NPM has its roots further back, in the work of James Buchanan, an economist whose commitment to small government was grounded in 1950s Virginia and its resistance to school desegregation. Buchanan was the sort of fellow who proposed privatising the school system through vouchers just to stop black children having equal rights. He helped Augusto Pinochet set up Chile’s appalling system of government and generally believed that narrowly defined property rights were of greater importance than democracy, which he saw as creating opportunities for organised groups to make unreasonable demands on the rich. It is amazing that his public choice ideology has not come under greater scrutiny until recently.

He and his fellow libertarians created the bleak picture of public servants as nothing more than homo economicus. Nurses and teachers were just out for what they could get, only they were preachier about it than most. Buchanan hoped to undermine the very potential for collective action, whereas his successors tend to take the view that what is needed is strong accountability to politicians, who are in turn accountable to the electorate. This a recipe for the sort of market-based, target-driven centralism we saw in the Blair and Brown years, where the sanctity of national election gave secretaries of state the right to take gather all power unto themselves.

Blair, Brown and to a lesser extent David Cameron believed that people should be able to choose between public services. But the point was not to get people the services they wanted, as much as to create mechanisms that made services like hospitals and schools fear losing their funding, and so improve their offer. In theory this ought to have shut bad hospitals and expanded the good ones, but in practice this hardly ever happened. As so often, the logic of the market butted up against democratic choices.

Making the case against central government targets is easy: most of the goals set under the Blair and Brown administrations were never hit, and no one really seemed to care. In the process, their regime of targets and terror created vast resentment amongst many public servants, who found themselves treated as instruments of the Downing Street panopticon. Ministers got themselves into a ridiculous spiral in which they promised to solve every problem under the sun, then discovered they didn’t have the power to do so. Their response was to take more power for themselves, but the problem still didn’t get solved. Power hungry, elite control begat more of the same as England slowly became the most centralised state in the developed world.

We increasingly know that the theory which underpinned all of this made faulty assumptions about human nature. Are public servants self-interested? Yes, of course they are. But they are much more besides. The very concept of homo economicus has come under siege over the past decade as practitioners of the dismal science increasingly recognise that humans are not just rational utility maximisers, but contradictory and confusing beings who are at least as likely to cooperate for the greater good as to compete for their own benefit. Even public choice advocates have substantially revised Buchanan’s original theory, arguing that what bureaucrats really like is working in small, elite groups close to power.

But we might also be ready to take a sunnier view of human nature in the round. Rutger Bregman’s new book, Humankind, takes issue with a bunch of myths which have heavily influenced how we view human nature. William Goldings’ Lord of the Flies? When it actually happened to a bunch of boys in the 1960s, they got remarkably well. The Stanford Prison experiment? Faked results. The inmate who was shown around the world screaming for release was actually just trying to get out of the experiement early to revise for his exams.

When we take a more positive view of ourselves, new things become possible. We can start to imagine a world where self-interested workers no longer need managers to measure and monitor their time. Organisations like the Dutch care company Buurtzorg show that self-managing teams can in fact be highly effective. We can imagine a world in which we stop being so suspicious of the poor, and simply give them a universal basic income. Sceptics will tell you that UBI leads to mass opting out of work, but all the evidence we possess says that this is not true. A few groups — young mothers, single parents, students — do work less, but most of us would think that a good thing. We can imagine a world in which we stop being so suspicious of the homeless, and simply give them homes to live in, in line with the best new evidence.

What has really undermined Buchanan and his many heirs is a new set of management practices that have been integrated into the public sector over the past decade. Taken together, they begin to create a world where the public sector has to share power with the communities it serves, creating an environment where mutual learning and development become more important than meeting targets set somewhere else.

The first of these management practices is agile, a project management discipline first conceived in software development. Traditional project management asks us to break a a piece of work into into constituent components, arrange them in the best order to get the work done and then come up with the finished goods at the end. Agile says that we should develop a basic working model of the product and then test it in the real world and develop it in response to user feedback.

The second is design thinking, which essentially says that the best way to solve a problem is to start by understanding the people at the heart of it. Rather than elite policy makers sitting back and deciding what value to deliver, you start with the people you are serving, work out the value they need to receive and then work backwards into the bureaucracy.

A lot of people have gotten stuck at this point. They combine agile and design thinking and discover powerful ways to create human-centred services, but then cannot understand why the world isn’t changing. The answer is simple: public service isn’t really about services, but about highly complex problems. The Government Digital Service can give me endless brilliant ways to pay my bills or apply for a passport, but the housing crisis cannot be solved by any one individual service.

The limitation of agile/design is simple: it provides us with rich and surprising insights into customers, and it can deliver good solutions quickly, but it sees the world in terms of services and products, and so struggles to engage with wider system conditions. Despite the intentions of its many excellent practitioners, this discipline tends to try and optimise the way the housing service works, rather than asking why they aren’t any houses in the first place.

This is where systems thinking comes in. It insists that we stop seeing the components of the world and instead focus on how they work together. A systems approach helps to illuminate why so many public policy interventions go wrong.

The Mexican border with the United States is a good example. In the past, the border was fairly porous, and Mexicans would cross in order to do seasonal work before taking their wages home to family. Under General Leonard Chapman, the US began to enforce border controls more closely. A traditional public policy approach tells us that effective controls should reduce illegal immigration, but in fact it did the opposite. The US government had shifted the incentives in the system — now you couldn’t just cross the border for a few months and return home — if you wanted to work in the US, you had to get there and stay there in the face of the law. Tighter enforcement made the problem worse, as a systems thinker would instinctively have foreseen.

Perhaps the best-known systems thinker of the present is Donella Meadows, author of the famous Limits to Growth report, which showed that the economy could not continue to grow forever without hitting a wall of environmental limitations. While there is something slightly mystical about her insistence on the unpredictability and mystery of the way complex systems interact, she is also great at producing clever and simple lists of actions and place to intervene.

For me as a local government officer, one of the most interesting systems is the way my council spends its money. We are required to produce a balanced budget each year, and the amount we have to spend has been falling for a decade. In the early days, meeting this challenge was pretty simple: you identified stuff you could stop doing, ways in which you could spend less, or ways in which you could invest in better infrastructure to reduce running costs. But as the decade wore on, we started looking at riskier ideas. Could we reduce demand for social care placements? Could we do new things to make money? How speculative did an idea have to be before we gave it a try?

The way the budget is set up demands certainty. You either deliver your saving or you find an alternative. This means people are going to be pretty nervous about offering up risky ideas. But it also means that when a risky idea doesn’t pay off, you end up in a position where a budgetholder cannot deliver, cannot find a substitute, but has nowhere to go. This robs the budgetholder of agency and stops the problem being shared across the wider organisation. The demand for certainty gets you less of it.

Most famously, Donella has a list of 12 leverage points that might help people to intervene in a system. At the bottom of the list are the areas where policymakers tend to focus — the way resources and information move through a system. Towards the top of the list are things that most policymakers struggle to consider: the purpose of a system, how it thinks and, right at the top, the transformation of how we think as individuals, and our ability to embrace multiple ways of seeing a problem.

For obvious reasons, both politicians and policymakers tend to focus their efforts on the lower end of the list. It is much easier to tweak regulations and offer small amounts of money than to change the rules of a political game. The housing debate is a very good example.

If we were serious about building the 250,000 new homes a year required to meet demand, we could do it. The state would borrow to invest, councils would free up land to build the property and we would offer a significant proportion of it at subsidised rates. Rents would cover much of the cost. The country did this in the 50s, 60s and 70s and there is no obvious reason we could not do it again. But instead of building, policymakers constantly try to find ways to tweak the rules to help a few more people buy, or to try and squeeze a few more units from private developers, who operate in a bizarre quasi-market where the state effectively sets profits.

Why do they do this? Because the purpose of housing policy is not to build houses. It is to walk a fine political line between NIMBYs, home owners and developers. New housing can only be built if it does not occupy green land, does not offend existing local residents, does not reduce the value of existing homes and does not include too many affordable units, thereby reducing profits for the developer. Donella might argue that the purpose of the housing system is to appease vested interests.

Purpose is one of the most powerful places to intervene in any system. If you can successfully redefine the purpose, you can dramatically shift behaviours. I think we are going through a change in the purpose of public service. The three ways of thinking I described above — agile, design thinking and systems thinking — amount of a seismic shift in the way we understand public service accountability. The human learning systems approach suggests that the purpose of public service should be for its actors to learn together about what works.

Other important ideas are coming our way in the next decade. Self-management is likely to become more mainstream in the public sector, thoroughly disrupting the way it is led. I suspect ideas around psychological development will become more important as well: as the state begins to take co-production more seriously, we will need to see public servants and their communities developing higher levels of psychological complexity. More on that later.

A public servant thinking in this way cannot just be upwardly accountable to politicians: they must also be outwardly and downwardly accountable to their partners and citizens. The new world demands that public servants stop being grey suits with power point presentations, and instead become vibrantly, actively engaged with the people and communities they serve. It prizes relationships and networks above hierarchies and data (while recognising that all of those matter).

What, then, might the purpose of the new public service become?

People search for metaphors and ideas everywhere. Recently, I have found a lot of inspiration in social movements. Phenomena such as Occupy are frequently scruffy and messy, and occasionaly dangerous, but they also act as spaces in which new ideas can be condensed, accelerated and tested. The impact of a moment like Occupy is often only felt years later as participants begin to enter the institutions, or build their own.

The big idea that emerged from 2011 was, I think, about self-organisation: the anarchist-inspired idea that decisions could be made quickly, fairly and by consensus without the need for leaders. It was only ever partially realised in practice — Occupy had leaders — but it led to a pipeline of fascinating experiments. One of the most interesting is Enspiral, the New Zealand collective that formed in the aftermath of Occupy Wellington. It took me a while to understand this strange organisation, which is basically a community that helps its members make the world better.

Enspiral contains individuals and businesses who pool some of their money to provide shared infrastructure and support each other’s projects. Richard Bartlett, one of its members, is now attempting to take the same pattern and apply it to the task of creating small congregations of people who practice what he calls ‘micro-solidarity’. If this all sounds slightly religious, well it is. Bartlett himself is somewhat inspired by the fundamentalist Christian community he grew up in. I see echoes of his work in The Sunday Assembly, the UK-based movement to create a sort of secular church where sermons are replaced by philosophical talks and hymns by karaoke versions of Don’t Stop Believing.

These attempts to create community and meaning were brilliantly picked up by Extinction Rebellion, a movement which seemed to create a vibrant protest subculture out of nowhere. XR was derided by the media for being a bunch of middle class hippies searching for meaning. But what’s wrong with that? The search for meaning is one of the leitmotifs of our age. It infused the movement for Brexit as well, creating an odd alliance between economic hyper-liberals who feared a European superstate and ordinary people who felt terribly lost in the world of hyper-liberalism and so tried to reconnect with an imagined past.

There is something conservative about these attempts to forge new communities, even if their goals are often radical in intent. And one of the best political responses has come from Audrey Tang, who describes themself as a conservative anarchist. Tang emerged from the Sunflower Movement, a youth uprising that took over the Taiwanese parliament and proceeded to re-write a controversial trade deal with China. Tang has since entered government as digital minister, and played a key role in crowdsourcing legislation on topics such as ride sharing services, letting ordinary citizens draft and vote on parliamentary bills.

For Tang, conservative anarchism means finding open but respectful ways to make decisions with citizens. You dismantle structures of domination and create participation, but without tearing down the things ordinary people respect. This partly reflects Taiwan’s need to show respect to its indigenous population.

The idea that anarchism can be conservative really shouldn’t seem so odd. If you believe that communities can self-organise themselves to make decisions, own and manage services and assets, then you need strong forms of social solidarity to underpin that. By contrast, neoliberalism believed that atomised individuals acting in the market would create the best outcomes across practically every realm of socio-economic activity, and branded that extraordinarily disruptive, utopian idea as somehow conservative. There is a sense in which someone like Edmund Burke has more in common with Kropotkin than Thatcher.

The academic David Runciman has written a lot about the idea of the end of democracy. We tend to assume that this would be a disaster: democracy is rule by the people, and most of the alternatives involve some form of authoritarianism.

But if you look at actually existing democracy in any depth, I think you have to question whether it always results in rule by the people. The US system of government is hopelessly compromised by big money and gerrymandering — indeed it isn’t really a democracy at all, but a republic. The UK system is a little like the human brain: a stone age system trying to navigate a modern world. It condenses all political argument into a binary choice between two parties, neither of which currently appears capable of mastering the new divides in society.

Tang presents a more hopeful future where the end of democracy *as we know it* might usher in a system that is more deeply democratic. Rule by the people could mean greater participation and more attempts to build consensus, rather than simply impose the will of the majority. Consensus does not mean we all agree, by the way. It means we reach the outcome that as many of us as possible can live with. I occasionally fantasise about what we might have achieved if we had sought this outcome on Brexit. At the very least, I think we would have developed a much more positive vision for Britain outside of the EU.

But this is an essay about public service and I promised to discuss the purpose of government systems. My proposition is that we should reframe that purpose: government should aim to maximise self-organisation. The Taiwanese government’s response to Covid-19 is one example of this. Using their experience of SARs, government ministers spotted the virus early and started quaratining arrivals from China. They produced a *lot* of facemasks and encouraged everyone to wear them. Ministers appeared on daily news briefings to encourage people to shift their behaviour and anyone could ask questions online. When one mother reported that her son wouldn’t wear his facemask because it was pink, all the participants in the next briefing appeared wearing pink masks.

I think you can see similar DNA in the community hubs I have been part of introducing in Redbridge. These are five new buildings in different localities designed to replace much of the council’s ageing estate of 50 properties. But more importantly, they are places that are being deeply co-designed with the local communities they will serve, with new service models that will be designed to help local people achieve their own goals. Effectively, we are trying to build platforms where communities can find one another and organise with public support. We’re discussing how we can create forms of governance which put residents in charge, and self-managing, integrated local delivery teams.

Creating higher levels of self-organisation is not merely a practical, but a psychological challenge. The psychologist Robert Kegan is one of many writers who argues that human beings do not step their mental development at 18 or 21, but keep on growing in mental complexity throughout the lifecourse. The big shift Kegan sees happening around us is a shift from socialised mindsets to self-authoring ones. In other words, very large numbers of people across the globe have and are moving beyond a way of thinking where they define themselves by their communities, and beginning to define their own lives.

(Like Donella, Kegan has a final stage of development which is basically ‘enlightenment’, but I was reassured to discover that no one ever gets their until after 40. Finally, a perk of being middle aged.)

When I say that Brexit, Trump and Extinction Rebellion are all responses to the same thing, but from different levels of consciousness, this is what I mean. Brexit is a response to a sense of loss and alienation by people who primarily see from the socialised mind. They want to restore a sense of community and economic norm they think has been lost. XR responds to much the same trends, but from a self-authoring mindset that wants to feel whole by creating balance with the natural world. I don’t think one of these views is more valid than the other — Kegan’s insistence of hierarchies of psychological developments doesn’t feel very useful to me — but I do think this lens points to the ways in which the state needs to develop next.

Increasing self-organisation means increasing the drive for self-authorship. For ideas such as community power to work, we need communities themselves to be able to stand up, define and shape their own futures. This is going to be very challenging for the state, which has a comfort zone of defining a decision, announcing it and then defending it. Ordinary people who don’t like the decision launch campaigns to stop it and sometimes win, but more often end up having to accept it. This is the way politics has worked for centuries, and it will take time to undo it, but can we imagine a new system in which the state enables citizens instead of trying to govern them?

All this is by way of saying that the shift to a self-authoring, self-organising society will be hugely challenging for traditional state paternalism. It means scrapping the parent-teenager relationships many public services have built with the people and shifting into an adult-adult mode of working.

We can see examples of this way of working emerging globally. Denmark’s Alternative is probably the best of them. This is a political party based on a set of core principles: courage, generosity, transparency, humility, humour and empathy. These underpinned a crowdsourced debate about the party’s political platform — a manifesto developed by many. Like many new experiments with less-structured forms of organisation — Occupy and Five Star among them — the Alternative has proven vulnerable to poor individual behaviour among its members. We do not have this right yet.

One of the most useful debates I have had on this topic is with members of Enspiral, who often argue that you should not and cannot strive for structurelessness in organisations and society. The attempt to dismantle hierarchy often leads to new, secretive hierarchies emerging behind the scenes. The state *is* a hierarchy and there are some good reasons for that. Let’s not try to deny its essential nature. What we can do is accept that we are stuck with hierarchies and try to make them healthier, and less dominating. I think that’s the job for the next generation of public service reform, for system-leading politicians and the activist public servants they need to work alongside them.

I was going to write a book, but decided to splurge the ideas down as a short essay instead and see what my more interested followers think. The thinking here is an attempt to sum up the learning from my work at Redbridge council over the last four years as I prepare to depart for new opportunities.



Simon Parker

Central government irregular. Ideas for everyone. Tend to start on twitter, write up raw drafts here, sometimes get published in respectable places.