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In search of the good life

During the past year the pressure group Compass has undertaken a thoroughgoing attempt to rethink a democratic left politics of freedom, equality and solidarity. The first of three publications, The Good Society, was published in September 2006. Jonathan Rutherford, the chair of Compass's Good Society Working Group, argues that at its heart must be a new set of values and a new idea of the individual

November 1, 2006
9 min read

I was using a Barclays cash machine, my card was ejected and as I waited for the money a line flashed up on the screen: ‘Open the door to your dreams.’ My money rolled out and the line was gone, replaced by the image of an open door.

It reminded me of a Lloyds Bank leaflet that read: ‘How can we help you live your life?’ Capitalism offers us more than material goods. It promises us the good life – dreams, hope, love, a secure future.

It has provided majorities in industrialised countries with historically unprecedented affluence and individual choice. In the past 30 years, gross domestic product has almost doubled in the UK. In the past 50 years national income has tripled. But material prosperity has not brought with it increased satisfaction with life.

We are a society that has become more unequal and divided. The richest 1 per cent of people own 25 per cent of the wealth; the bottom 50 per cent own only 6 per cent. An average FTSE chief executive is paid 113 times more than an average worker. Levels of personal debt are unprecedented. Alongside the economic insecurity a new set of social problems has emerged – widespread mental ill health, systemic loneliness, growing numbers of psychologically damaged children, eating disorders, obesity, alcoholism, drug addiction.

We are living in a social recession. Its symptoms and its pain are often concealed inside our homes, where we experience them as our own shameful and personal failings. Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and meaninglessness have become our modern dreads. After three decades of liberal market capitalism, we are a society that is beset by loss of belonging and loss of political purchase on the world.

A society of ‘individualised’ human beings has taken shape, driven by commodification and the spread of markets. The boundaries of the old social categories – state, class, community, family – have been broken apart, creating a new order of precariousness and insecurity.

Democratic institutions unable to reform to take account of the new individualism have atrophied. Political parties, without their old class constituencies and bereft of any meaningful social function, have been hollowed out. The nation state is being transformed into a new kind of market state: an enabler of market provision and an enforcer of market values. Politicians, frantically searching for political actors who might carry some agency in this fragmentary world, have fallen upon the language of local community. But the idea of local community as a geographically bounded entity defined by shared interest exists only in their imagination.

In this paradigmatic transformation of society, neoliberalism has promised individual freedom. Personal choice chimes with the aspiration to make a life of one’s own and to be freed from the paternalistic state and condescensions of class.

But neoliberal individualism lacks an ethical stance of obligation toward others.

The public good is dismissed as meaningless.

To maximise individual freedom the market or its proxies must be extended into all areas of life. What matters is what can be counted – price, cost, money, targets. Using markets to distribute liberty has reduced individuals to economic units calculating their self-interest, and generated historically unprecedented levels of inequality. Our affluence is becoming an emotionally and culturally impoverished kind of freedom blighted by injustice, precariousness and drift.

New Labour, unable and unwilling to build a new kind of counter movement to the historical forces of liberal market capitalism, made its accommodation with the neoliberal times. Its championing of market-led reform has modified and extended the structural changes initiated by the Conservative governments from 1979 onwards. It did implement a subordinate social democratic agenda on the quiet, which has succeeded in reducing levels of child and old age poverty. Despite this it showed little interest in trying to build hegemony around an alternative democratic vision of the good society. Post Blair the Labour Party, with its collapsing membership and its absence of intellectual resources, is heading for a crisis.

But what is the alternative? There will be no revival of social democracy as we have known it. The alliance of class interests that brought it into effect has disappeared.To create a radical and feasible democratic left will mean remaking political agency.

History will not deliver it, nor will a simple appeal to economic interest. Coalitions of interest have to be built around a shared set of cultural values and ethics that speak for the times.And here we can find trends that offer the left hope.

Liberal market capitalism has transformed the social category of the individual. Personal identity has become the defining paradigm of how we live in western cultures: we are called upon to live in our own way and to be true to ourselves. A new relationship between the individual, the local and the global is emerging, and it is here, not in the public realm of governance, that there is a search for an ethics of living, though clearly it has implications for the kind of public sphere and public institutions that we need. The individual practice of identity making, of negotiating relationships and defending oneself against the social forces of capital, racism, sexism and much else, is not simply an aesthetic of lifestyle, but the necessary emotional work of everyday life.

This politics of self-reflection is a form of social individualism. It is not abandoning the traditional struggles for social justice and equality, but transforming them and extending them into new areas that at present often fail to register on the mainstream political radar.

A new economics is putting human well-being and the environment at the centre of economic thinking. Growing disquiet about individual acquisitiveness and our overworked, time-poor culture is encouraging large-scale personal downsizing. The standardisation of culture imposed by consumerism has provoked innovative forms of cultural action, art and DIY design. Changes in food consumption reflect widespread concern about the quality of food, the monopoly of supermarkets and the industrialised brutality suffered by animals.

The instrumental hierarchical approach to medicine that dominates the NHS is being brought into question, encouraging new forms of care of the mind and body.

The changing patterns of family life, the expectation of egalitarian personal and social relationships, changing attitudes towards the rights of children, and the liberalising of sexual mores and gender identities, are all signals of longer term changes in people’s personal and domestic lives. The widely held commitment to a multicultural society and a global outlook prefigures a trend toward transnational identities and politics. The widespread opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the growing consciousness of global poverty, the inequities of trade, global warming and green issues generally are creating a new critical public culture.

New kinds of democratised and networked communities of interest, sustained by the internet, are changing the nature of the public realm. The moral concerns and democratic practices of these small-scale politics provide the practical and philosophical resources for a new kind of pluralist politics of freedom and equality.

Each alone is insufficient to transform and improve the material conditions of our society. There is a need for a collective politics that can bring them together, so as to create a common voice and agency.

The left has to create a language of our interdependence. Individuals are social and emotional beings, who are fundamentally oriented towards and dependent upon other people throughout our lives.

Freedom grows out of our interdependency, not in opposition to it.

Our needs and our aspirations are formed socially, and we can only live together harmoniously if these can find a high level of fulfilment.

The ethical value of self-fulfilment and the desire for an authentic life have entered deep into our consciousness, but the conditions for their realisation do not yet exist. A society of individuals is only possible if its guiding principle is social justice, the ethical core of which is equality.

To make a life for ourselves in which we can thrive requires that we have the resources – money, time, relationships, political recognition.

A movement of the democratic left must be a movement of culture and values. And it must find a model of a democratised state responsive to these values: an efficient distributor of resources and a facilitator of social justice.

The challenge the left faces is to give political expression and organisational form to a just society of individuals. It must be a society that establishes a new kind of relationship to the natural world, by including in political representation nonhuman actors: animals, ecosystems, plant life. It must be an open society, not only in its democracy and defence of individual liberty, but in its recognition of the transnational identities and cultures that form a part of it. Such ideas require new kinds of political organisation.

What is the future of the Labour Party? Under our present electoral system the left has little choice of electoral platform. The Labour Party cannot be wished away. Post Blair it is faced with two choices. It can raise its drawbridges, rigidly police its internal debates and call for another big push from its diminishing membership. Or it can look to the longer term and embark on a learning process, managing the ambiguities and uncertainties this will create. It would need to open outward to other groups and organisations – not to co-opt them, but to begin creating a more plural kind of politics and a coalition defined by a new set of cultural values.

It is unclear which choice will be made, but the depth and extent of Labour’s crisis is dawning on people, and meanwhile Compass has gone ahead and crossed over the old boundaries, appealing to party members and non members alike, creating networks of scholars, campaigners and policy makers.

Will Compass sustain these wider links, prefiguring a prototype political organisation, a hybrid that is both of Labour and of a wider left political movement? If it does, then The Good Society will strengthen the growing debate about a new kind of politics. If not, then David Cameron and his cohort of PR friends are ready and willing with their own version of the good life instead.Jonathan Rutherford is editor of Soundings journal and professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University The full text of The Good Society is available at www.compassonline.org.uk/publications/good_society

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