Thinking the twenty-first century: Ideas for the new political economy (Book Review)


Book Review from

Sue L. T. McGregor PhD, education, global education magazine, unesco, unhcr,Sue L. T. McGregor PhD Professor Emerita (MSVU)

McGregor Consulting Group 


I was drawn to the title of this book – thinking the 21st century and smiled when I read that he was inspired by Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder’s (2013) book titled Thinking the Twentieth Century. Per the title of the book, he claimed we need a new political economy. Political economy refers to the dynamics of how political forces affect the choice of economic policies within nations and globally. The term new political economy (NPE) refers to a recent sub-school within the field of political economy. NPE favours the principle that life might be made better, a theme that runs throughout McIntosh’s book. NPE also views economic ideologies as the focus of inquiry, seeking to interrogate doctrines to disclose their sociological and political premises. This ideological interrogation strives to explain the influence of social meanings on economic choices by making explicit the normative assumptions behind economic and political choices in the 21st century. Indeed, just as the title intimates – the thinking behind the 21st century is thinking that can generate plausible ideas for a new political economy.

In efforts to shed light on what this new political economy might look like, McIntosh explained that the “book makes five simple points [referring to] five system changes that are now taking place in the evolution of humanity” (p.5). He put forward the idea that thinking about these system changes should lead us to a new political economy for the 21st century. In summary, the five changes include (a) globality, by which he meant one shared space ripe with connectivity between humanity and the Earth (he called this Earth Awareness). Globality also includes globalism (the spread of ideas on a global basis), which runs parallel to globalization. (b) Evolution was his second point, namely the evolution of knowledge in such a way that we equally value both science (and its attendant culprits, my word not his)) and awe and wonder.  He called for “a balance between what is obvious from learning and what is sacred through belief, ritual and religion” (p. 19). (c) McIntosh then proposed that empathy and cohesion will naturally arise from the two previous dimensions of globality/interconnectivity and the evolution of knowledge. In particular, he referred to the feminization of governance (to rebalance the current masculinity), and peaceful coexistence. 

(d) He said the fourth system change concerns the way we organize ourselves as humans, urging us to make sure our organizational principles align with what we know about the planet (he admitted he fully accepts the climate change science). If we do not re-organize with this knowledge, “we will fail to make the necessary transition.” (p. 20). (e) Finally, he believed all of this can happen with “quiet leadership,” by which he meant adaptive learning and leading. He claimed “human survival depends on our ability to learn, on our learning adaptability and our ability to adapt through learning” (p. 21). There is a short summary of these five points at pages 19-21, followed with a chapter for each one. He clarified that none of the five system changes are privileged; instead, they are deeply intertwined and they are subsets of each other.

He acknowledged that these ideas are not new; indeed, I was very familiar with all of them from my own teaching and scholarship. However, he asserted that “to have [these five issues] considered, and written about, together is less common” (p. 34). Actually, I take some exception to this claim. Other renowned authors have drawn together powerful analyses of these issues, with key examples being David Korten (The Great Turning), David Selby (Education and Climate Change), Basarab Nicolescu (From Modernity to Cosmodernity), Duane Elgin (Deep Big History essay), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline), and Margaret Wheatley (Leadership and the New Science, to name a few. That being said, anyone who is not familiar with this collection of ideas will benefit from the book and educators who want students to draw on a concise overview should recommend the book in their courses (undergraduate and graduate). As an aside, I agreed with all of his arguments except for the idea that we are living in the most peaceful time in history (p. 20 and Chapter 3). For me, this was the least convincing argument in the book. I know peace is historically relative, but today’s world is not peaceful.

The 250-page book contains a Preface, Introduction, a bibliography at the end of the book and an Index. The book is written in first person (which usually annoys me, but not this time). It is an easy and comfortable read. He draws on his life experiences and stories, on his decades-long reading of influential scholars and visionaries, on era-specific music, movies, and books, and on his university, media, civil society, and United Nations consulting background to write a rousing, engaging and compelling narrative about what humanity faces in the 21st century. He says “one individual is merely a part of a greater whole, part human, party Earthly, part cosmic” (p.19), a sentiment that consistently underpins his message. Indeed, the subtitle for this book is Ideas for the New Political Economy. He aptly suggested alternate subtitles at p.9, including What does it mean to be a human in this century? What does it mean for the relationship between people and the planet? Now that we know what we know, what shall we do?

McIntosh characterized the five large ideas in this book as “the largest and most important, and to some the most exciting, issues of our current century” (p. 29). He said they are playing out across humanity in the context of two powerful paradoxes. First, we may know less, but think we actually know more. Second, we should not be afraid of complexity, even as we sometimes long for simplicity. He succeeds in respecting these two paradoxes in an authoritative  and convincing manner. This book is animated and engaging. The ideas are persuasive and compelling. Reading it is an enjoyable and enlightening experience.

The basic premise of the book is seductive: in order to evolve and survive as a species, while protecting the Earth, we have to reorganize and lead ourselves based on principles that respect caring, nurturing, compassion, connectivity, peaceful coexistence, harmonization, adaptability, and rebalance (science with wisdom, awe and wonder). He makes a case that Thinking the Twentieth First Century thorough this multi-dimensional lens will lead to a new political economy. Our surviving and thriving depend on it.

Thinking the Twenty­-First Century ideas for the new political economy, malcolm mcintosh



Malcolm McIntosh. (2015). Thinking the twenty-first century: Ideas for the new political economy. Sheffield, England: Greenleaf Publishing. (Paperback, Hardback, PDF eBook and ePub Book) ISBN 13 978 1 78353 173 8 (paperback)

About the Author

Malcolm McIntosh Dr Malcolm McIntosh , FRSA, is former Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise, Griffith University, Australia, and is now Professor and Head of Department of Business and Management at Bath Spa University. He is the producer, author and co-author of more than 20 books and numerous articles, and is a frequent commentator on social issues and business responsibility and has been a Special Adviser to the UN Global Compact .



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