Big Picture Reviews

Europe in need of a mission… (I)

“I’m helping put a man on the moon!”

says a Janitor according to legend to President Kennedy after being asked what he does at NASA.
Cover Mission Economy

Mariana Mazzucato (2021)
Mission Economy
A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism

Mariana Mazzucato describes a utopian world in her book: Capitalism has been tamed for the common good and the state acts as a competent institution that coordinates the economy, community interests, public institutions, civil society and regulates them through funding and spending policies. At the same time, she shows in numerous examples how exactly such control has already been used and is in use – on a smaller scale, but still.

But back to the beginning: With the subtitle ‘A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism’ the book already reveals the central figure of the argument. With the Moonshot, the mission ‘to bring a man to the moon and safely back again by the end of the decade’, US President John F. Kennedy formulated an ambitious plan that required a national show of strength and was successful as history books show us. This moonshot as an organizational masterpiece should now serve as the basis for the great future challenges – from dealing with the climate catastrophe, curing cancer, and the challenges operationalized in the UN Millennium Goals.

Operationalization is also the big keyword here, a moonshot, a mission is not a linear plan that has to be worked through, but rather a clearly defined, measurable goal, which, however, requires the solution of many small challenges through innovative individual steps. These small challenges have also a problematic property. They are only realized, made visible in their wide-ranging complexity while working on their role as puzzle-part of the mission.
In addition, only as a potential puzzle piece, which is also in competition with other solutions. However, these have one thing in common: the problems to be solved are so new that there is hardly any previous experience or prior knowledge as to which path to take.

As you can see from this brief description, the idea of the mission is a concept to tackle the organizational problem of cross-societal cooperation, but it has to face an opponent in addition to the habits of the individual and the – in many cases desirable – inertia of established structures, the lived capitalism. It is therefore also a pamphlet against market thinking, for which the state – in the opinion of many – should only create framework conditions and only intervene in justified individual cases, in the event of market failure.

Shaping markets competently

“Along with new policy instruments, missions need a new approach to governance. New kinds of governance include financing operations differently so that public finance is seen as an investor of first resort, not just a lender of the last resort.”

Mazzucato 2021: 126

Based on the basic idea that the state – as with the Apollo mission – should not create the legal framework for profit-oriented competition between companies but should itself create markets that promote community-oriented missions, Mazzucato analyzes the individual challenges that arise if such a re-design is to be considered. If you will, the book is a mission briefing for the social change of a society that should be mission-oriented.

To do this, her book is divided into four sections:

In part one she discusses why we need missions to solve global challenges and why the apollo mission is a good blueprint for that, but she also explains what went wrong since the sixties regarding state administration and governance. Namely, the dismantling of state competence to be able to assess problems and solutions without resorting to external advice. To show this, she presents five myths about the role of the state in capitalism and uses examples to show that these assumptions about the state, but also innovative companies in the market, are incorrect.

Part two is about the Apollo mission, showing its historical success, to solve the techno-scientific problem of bringing a man to the moon and safely back and how much new organizational thinking on all levels was needed for that, but she also admits that wouldn’t be enough to solve our current challenges. Nowadays, these aren’t only techno-scientific problems to be solved, but problems that emerge from our way of living and can only be solved by changing that through involving all societal stakeholders till the individual citizen.

The next part is about how to structure such more comprehensive missions: Re-building state competence for a different form of governance, re-defying the role of companies (and capitalism), and how to involve citizens individually but also as a part of the civil society. She brings many examples of such mission-oriented governance, often based on her involvement in such activities. Examples range from the UN SDGs, mission orientation within the European Union, to the governance of highstreets as places of interaction between all social classes.

As in many of such books the final part of the book is about defining seven key principles of such a new political economy, showing how a large such a vision of social change has to be thought.

Another Utopia?

You could say this book is another brilliant utopia of how society should be, but it is not at all suitable to be implemented, as it turns against the core of being human and that we will not abandon our practices, even if they do us harm.

At the same time, however, the task of every utopia – beginning with Utopia by Thomas More more than 500 years ago – is to show us which “better” societies are imaginable. The book seems almost too down-to-earth to me for the latter, it is not enthusiastic. But perhaps it needs such a grounded focus today to see it as just an organizational problem and show how feasible it is to face current challenges.

Overall, the book shows the importance of missions as a potential method of collaboration within complex weird larger-than-live demands and so it is on the shortlist to encounter the challenge to build a shared space for a European Public that should be open to any kind of actors, foster European integration while being feasible economic space for any kind of digital communication, media, and interaction.

To be continued…

Copyrights • Creative Commons
© Cover by HarperCollins Publishers
(CC) BY-NC-SA 2.0 Moonshot Photo by Havoc315

The concept of “mission-orientation” seems to be a feasible part of the way to the realization of a Digital European Public Sphere, a specific European kind of Internet and digital infrastructure. With this basic review of the book and concept, I want to start a series of articles that explore the idea further and ideally operationalize it as a concept of intervention when encountering stakeholders and actors of a European Public Information & Communication Space (EPICS).