On a recent visit to Edinburgh I came across Verrocchio’s The Virgin Adoring the Christ Child. It first struck me as a rather beautiful but conventional nativity scene. Then I noticed that the mother and child are located in a classical ruin rather than the accustomed stable. It transpires that this ruin represents the Roman Temple of Peace, which, according to myth, collapsed at Christ’s birth. It’s an early depiction of what we would call ‘creative destruction’: the demolition of the old order in order for the new to thrive.
The concept of creative destruction is familiar to us nowadays. It’s an acknowledged truth of business that progress demands disruption; and the idea seems entirely appropriate to our times of transformational change.
I want to suggest a more qualified evaluation of its merits.
When, as a teenager, I first encountered creative destruction, I was thrilled. In 1982 Paul Weller disbanded The Jam at the height of their critical and commercial success. We couldn’t believe it. They were the definition of youth, anger, romance and cool. It seemed an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice.
On a windswept Brighton peer a trench-coated Weller explained to a Nationwide reporter:
‘I think we’ve done all we can as the three of us and I think it’s a good time to finish it. I don’t want to drag it on and go on for the next twenty years doing it. And become nothing, mean nothing, end up like all the rest of the groups. I want this to count for something.’
Paul Weller, 11 December 1982
Weller made total sense. He had to destroy The Jam in order to pursue his new soul-inflected instincts; and, perhaps more importantly, in order to preserve that band’s iconic status.
At university I learned that the term ‘creative destruction’ derives from Marx and was popularised in the 1940s by the economist Joseph Schumpeter. It referred to systemic revolutions whereby old structures are endlessly replaced by the new. For example, the rise of the railway came hand-in-hand with the demise of canals.
In the course of my advertising career it was obvious that construction required deconstruction. We had to rip up rulebooks, rewrite processes, restructure departments, in order to create room for new ideas, platforms and perspectives.
However, while I was always excited about creativity, the charms of destruction eluded me. Why, I wondered, do we have to destroy in order to create? Isn’t destruction the very antithesis of creativity? Isn’t the whole concept somewhat macho?
I put my reservations down to my own emotional squeamishness, an unwillingness to take tough decisions. But there seemed a similar psychological shortcoming in others who attacked those same tough decisions with alacrity.
It was certainly easier to subscribe to creative destruction when its impacts were gradual and manageable; when its effects were conceptual and procedural.
However, increasingly, with the accelerating power of technology, as opportunities to create have become manifold and magnificent, so the destructive impacts of change have also grown more widespread, deep rooted and precipitous. Witness bookshops, music, taxis…
I’ve come to believe that my emotional squeamishness may have been a valuable constraint. The concept of creative destruction should not be a licence to take an indiscriminate wrecking ball to industries, communities and careers.
We need to think more seriously about the jobs that technology destroys, the livelihoods disrupted; the transferral of wealth and power from the many to the few; the compromised rights and unpaid taxes.
We need to take a broader, calibrated view of creative destruction; a proper weighing of its impacts. We need to ask whether the net value created exceeds the net value destroyed.
We also need to be more mindful of how decisions are made and how transitions are managed. Should the chief beneficiaries of change determine its value? Should consumers be both judge and jury? Isn’t the role of Government to manage the market rather than stand by and watch?
Fundamentally, we need to beware of ourselves. In Verrocchio’s painting the infant Christ sucks his finger as if he has drawn blood. It’s a premonition of his own demise.
First published in The Guardian Media & Tech Network Friday 16th October 2015