Amid Upheaval in the West, He’s Sketching a Social Safety Net 2.0
Nicolas Colin, an “action intellectual” Frenchman living in London, just might have the cure for populism. But the details are fuzzy.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Frenchman Nicolas Colin might have a cure to populism.
When I interview Nicolas Colin, both his country of birth and his adopted country are on fire. France is experiencing a wave of violent protests by a movement of citizens dressed in yellow vests, the gilets jaunes, and at the same time, England is witnessing its latest political meltdown associated with Brexit.
Colin, a Frenchman living in London, might have an answer for the angry citizens of this world. According to him, society has become fundamentally unstable, requiring new institutions like financial services and labor unions to support our mobile lives.
Colin, 42, is what you could call an action-intellectual. He directs the Family, which supports and invests in European startups. But at the same time, he is steeped in politics, philosophy and economics, and he just published Hedge, a book with a vision of how to update our social safety net.
At a time when policymakers are grasping for anything to address political unrest, his thinking has appeal. Colin has presented his ideas to a range of (mostly French) politicians, and in March he is hosting a conference at the French National Assembly. Carlota Perez, a British-Venezuelan economist at the London School of Economics, calls the new book “brilliant and timely.”
Our safety net is built for what I call settlers … while today we have become hunters.
“I think the tide is turning,” continues Perez, whose ideas Colin uses repeatedly in the book. “The success of populism is making political leaders realize that they must start swimming, or they will sink. We are providing alternative life vests for them and for society.”
Central to their thinking is the idea of capitalism evolving in 50-year cycles. “There was an age of railways, an age of steel, an age of mass production. Now we live in what I call an entrepreneurial age where digital technology predominates,” Colin says.
The problem is our current institutions were crafted for a previous age. “Our safety net is built for what I call settlers, people who work at the same job, in the same place, all their lives,” Colin says. “While today we have become hunters. We move quickly between jobs, entrepreneurship is more important and we are constantly on the move.” According to Colin, this disconnect is at the root of much of today’s upheaval. The door is open for a country to define what a new social safety net looks like — as Europe and Japan in many ways copied America’s New Deal, he says.
But what does this mean in practice? Every social safety net is based on unions, financial institutions and government programs. So updating each of them is key.
Take, for example, home ownership, a critical historic model of wealth building that today’s “hunters” find harder to reach. “You get booms and busts because real estate loses its security,” Colin says. “But, alternatively, banks could, for example, [provide cheap credit to] cover the cost of changing houses when you need to move or cover the cost of retraining when switching jobs, instead of focusing so much on mortgages and owning houses.”
Some of his other suggestions include adapting the tax system to allow us to cope more easily with income swings and building new types of unions for freelancers and other new-school job types.
Colin’s politics can broadly be defined as center-left, but he defies such labels. He considers ideologies like socialism a reference to 20th-century politics, and you wouldn’t associate his business work with the left of the political spectrum.
Nevertheless, Colin’s book remains loose on the specifics and provides more of an intellectual framework than a set of policy suggestions. Partly this is a strength, and it sets him apart from other business thinkers. For example, he cites Karl Polanyi, the left-oriented Hungarian-American economist who fled Nazism and wrote about the history of capitalism, as an inspiration.
Yet, in a sense, Colin also fails to live up to a promise to formulate a social safety net 2.0 and retreats into broad narratives on topics like the New Deal, startups and the rise of China, however interesting those narratives might be.
Intellectualism shows up throughout Colin’s life. He is married to Laetitia Vitaud, a French-German writer who works on the future of HR. They got together after meeting online and starting to chat about U.S. politics. “I guess we’re a bit of an intellectual couple; we both wear glasses and we’re constantly reading books,” she laughs.
He graduated from Telecom Bretagne as an engineer who wanted to work in startups. After the dot-com bubble burst, he changed course and joined the Inspection Générale des Finances, an elite research unit of the French government (around the same time as current French President Emmanuel Macron, though they weren’t close). Then he left to become a tech entrepreneur — and his software company failed. “I’m probably a bad entrepreneur,” he says. “You need to be 100 percent focused, and I was just interested in all kinds of areas.”
The experience did bring him in contact with Oussama Ammar and Alice Zagury, with whom he founded the Family, which six years later has become one of Europe’s biggest support ecosystems, backing about 500 startups and boasting offices in London, Paris and Berlin.
These frequent career switches might also have something to do with his musical influences. Colin grew up on France’s Atlantic coast to musician parents. He plays jazz and even has a YouTube channel where he posts his jazz covers. His hero is Miles Davis, jazz trumpeter and king of improvisation. It’s a good metaphor for Colin’s frequently shifting career.
For Vitaud, these sharp changes don’t make Colin an improviser, though. “Nicolas wants to combine his intellectualism with making an impact,” she says. “He didn’t find that in civil service, nor as an entrepreneur, so he shaped his own job at the Family.”
At the core, he’s a contradictory figure. As a London investor, Colin epitomizes a global elite that is becoming increasingly despised. Yet he realizes things have to change, and his Twitter feed is full of praise for politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
When I last get in touch with Colin, he is traveling on business in Italy, a place that exemplifies the problems he’s trying to solve. A right-wing populist government took power there on the back of anti-immigration rhetoric, as a stagnant economy produces the third highest youth-unemployment in Europe. Yet in his newsletter dispatch, where Colin characteristically moves in a few paragraphs from Alexis de Tocqueville to medieval Venice, he remains hopeful, concluding that “with the right mental models, the proper tools and a changed attitude in the establishment itself, this taste for rebellion could very well turn into entrepreneurial successes in Italy.”
Leaders across the continent are rooting hard for such a rosy vision, even if the actual steps to get there are unclear.
Read more: One of Belgium’s most prominent intellectuals is just a teenager.