Wednesday, January 26, 2005
The way we live
I strongly urge you to take the time to read the series of articles by Jenni Russell published in the Guardian G2 section over the past three days. They are described as a "highly personal investigation into modern relationships" and they make sobering reading.
Monday's article What are friends for? acknowledges that, for most of us, friendships have replaced family and explores an insecure world of mutual misunderstandings.
The Love Business (Tuesday) looks at how money has become the key to marriage and long-term partnerships.
Work It Out (Wednesday) examines the problems people face in their workplaces understanding office politics.
Most of you will recognise your own lives in these articles. They go a long way towards explaining the defining characteristic of our age, a deep sense of insecurity. Despite a growth of freedom and affluence, people are generally less happy because they lack close human bonds and feel they are neither needed nor valued. The articles also show that traditional social protocols have been replaced with a web of hidden rules of engagement, which leave most people struggling to make sense of what is going on.
Liberals need to understand what is happening if they are to engage with people's basic concerns. The question of social atomisation is fundamental not only to many public policy issues but also to most people's increasingly fragile sense of self-worth. Sooner or later, probably in the next economic recession, there is likely to be a backlash as people seek to restore some sense of permanence and security in their lives.
It is customary among conservatives to blame 'the sixties' and small 'l' liberal values for these problems. The more widely this analysis is accepted, the easier it is for populist politicians to exploit popular insecurity as a means of creating a more authoritarian society.
There's another way of looking at the sixties. The hippies, far from undermining the fabric of society, can now be seen as the last throw of old communitarian values.
The real culprit is the radical free market policies of the 1980s, which, amongst other things, replaced our social relationships with commercialised exchanges. By embracing these policies, Conservatives ceased to be conservative in the sense of defending traditional social values (read this quote from John Gray on Jonathan Calder's Serendib blog and also Jonathan's own analysis).
The political argument will boil down to whether we blame the forces that got rid of our corner shops and mis-sold us pensions, or whether to make a scapegoat of the forces that brought us Jerry Springer - The Opera.
The central task for Liberals now is to define how we can reconcile two innate human needs; the need for control over one's life (expressed through the quest for personal freedom) and the need for security and belonging. The last British Liberals to try were the authors of The Theory & Practice of Community Politics in 1980. While there remains much to admire in this work, the problem with their analysis is a faith in the geographical community, which is no longer a viable solution in such a mobile society.
If we fail to address this issue, conservative and ultra-religious forces will succeed in defining liberalism as the problem rather than the solution, and we will leave the field clear to authoritarians with quick fixes for people's basic insecurities.