We live by the stories we tell ourselves. The most important storyline is how to live a good life, since this determines what we believe in, how we act, and the institutions we build. The key text here is the famous 1977 essay by Berger and Neuhaus, which examines the importance of mediating structures such as family, church, workplace, trade union and community association in connecting individuals to society. In a healthy society, these connections are at the heart of the common public good.
In the period following the Second World War such mediating structures formed the bedrock for organising British society. This, combined with government policies that pursued full employment and a welfare state, led to social advance on a scale never seen before. This was planned during the wartime Conservative-led coalition government and implemented in full by the Labour government after 1945. The leitmotif was “security”. Politicians of all stripes were determined to avoid the return of the dark days of the 1930s depression.
In the 1970s, this story failed. The post-war consensus between parties buckled under the weight of “stagflation” – the coincidence of low economic growth, high unemployment and high inflation. This resulted in industrial disorder and social unrest, from which a strong leader emerged with a new story. Following her election victory in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was determined to raise the status of business, money-making and growth by creating an “enterprise culture”. The new philosophy was based on five principles: free markets, small state, low tax, individual liberty and big defence.
The watchword for this approach was ‘freedom’. The importance of security was downplayed, since this had produced a ‘dependency culture’. Moreover, Thatcher believed that expenditure on the welfare state was wasteful because it undermined economic growth. While many people criticized the social dimensions of this approach, the economic consequences were remarkable, and median household income has more than doubled in real terms in the 40 years since 1977.
To achieve such growth, society shifted from an economy based on production to one based on consumption. Zygmunt Bauman has described this as moving from ‘solid modernity’ to ‘liquid modernity’.(1) While in the past we saw ourselves as ‘pilgrims’ in search of deeper meaning in a stable world, we now see ourselves as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences. As a result, we now find it harder to construct a durable sense of ourselves as we tend to live a fast life in a kaleidoscope of relationships.
This has created a crisis of meaning. While mediating institutions have declined, shopping has filled the void. As Neal Lawson puts it in All consuming, “Shopping has been emotionally, culturally and socially grafted onto us.”(2) He also says that for many it is an addiction that fails to satisfy us: “Turbo-consumerism is the heroin of human happiness.” An extreme form of such consumerism can be found in ‘celebrity culture’ in which famous individuals transform their fame into product brands, which the public then consumes. In emulating celebrities, ordinary people use the ‘selfie’, posting their photos on social media to display the illusion that life is ‘all about me’. Such developments were foreseen 50 years ago by Guy Debord in his 1967 Society of the spectacle in which “authentic social life has been replaced with its representation.”(3) Debord argues that the history of social life can be understood as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing”. This condition is the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life”.
The price is a soul sickness at the heart of our society, which breeds deep insecurity and unhappiness for many, while violating the basis in nature on which our species depends. The Webb Memorial Trust reviewed the evidence on social attitudes, housing, work, finances, and health, and concluded that the UK is a deeply insecure society. Such insecurity permeates society and is not restricted to the one-fifth of the population who experience chronic poverty.
So, while pursuit of the word ‘freedom’ may have led to much progress, it has come at the expense of “security”. Looking back at history, it appears that security and freedom are antinomies. In their book, The Fourth Revolution Micklethwait and Wooldridge trace the history of government over the past 500 years and find that one or other of these two concepts has been central to the story of societies during different periods.(4) In the 17th century, security rose to the fore influenced by the work of Thomas Hobbes, but by the 19th century liberty got the upper hand through the influence of John Stuart Mill. In the mid 20th century, security became paramount though the influence of Beatrice Webb, only to be replaced by freedom from the 1970s onwards under the influence of Milton Friedman.
We see this dynamic in the organization of contemporary politics, in which the dominance of two political parties encourages bifurcation, one stressing freedom and the other security. And yet, this framing has failed us as a society – the pursuit of one at the expense of the other leads to distortions when what we need is balance. Our current trajectory, based on freedom, encourages untrammelled economic growth, even though Carbon Tracker warns that the destruction of our ecosystem is just around the corner. At the same, there is no obvious alternative because the framing of the current narrative on security takes us back to yesterday’s world of the welfare state for which there is little capacity, finance or public support.
So how do we make progress? The two camps are increasingly polarised, and communication between them seems to occur through shouting. Ponder for a moment the extraordinary fact that, despite all the problems that Greece faces, a Greek foundation – the Stavros Niarchos Foundation – has committed $150 million to Johns Hopkins University to lead a worldwide effort to restore open and inclusive discourse to rescue our democracies.
So how can we make progress? The first helpful step would be to admit our confusion. As Yanis Varoufakis puts it: “Nothing humanizes us like aporia – that state of intense puzzlement in which we find ourselves when our certainties fall to pieces… and when the aporia casts its net far and wide to ensnare the whole of humanity, we know we are at a very special moment in history.”(5)
Such a perspective takes us back to basics, forcing us to rethink our values and to decide what kind of society we want. We attempted to do this in Rethinking poverty: What makes a good society. We used many techniques – surveys, focus groups and participative research to find out what kind of society people want.
Our results show that people want security and freedom. Rather than being antinomies, people see them as complementary. People’s views are complicated and nuanced, and cannot easily be captured in opinion polls that yield binary answers. While our results are provisional, detailed analysis of the results suggests that there are five core principles in what people want from their society:
- We all have a decent basic standard of living
- So, we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives
- Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally
- Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect
- And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations
One underlying concept that links these five principles is the idea of ‘community’. This reflects the fact that, if there is one factor above all others that people value most, it is the quality of the relationships they have. This is the source of people’s sense of security and freedom.
The conclusions of Rethinking poverty: What makes a good society set out the implications of the findings for the methods of developing a society we want. The conclusions are that a completely different approach is needed, and we cannot rely on politics to do this for us. A good society is one that we create, it cannot be something done to us. As Terry Pratchett wrote in Witches Abroad, “You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage”. Nowhere is this truer than in relation to the ending of poverty, a process that now can and must involve the poor as their own agents of change
(1) Bauman, Z. (2013) Liquid modernity, New York: John Wiley and Sons.
(2) Lawson, N. (2009) All consuming, London: Penguin.
(3) Debord, G. (1994) The society of the spectacle, New York: Zone Books.
(4) Micklethwait, J. and Wooldridge, A. (2015) The fourth revolution: The global race to reinvent the state, London: Penguin.
(5) Varoufakis, Y. (2011) The global minotaur, University of Chicago Press Economics Books
Barry Knight is a social scientist and statistician, and Director of the Webb Memorial Trust. Having advised the Ford Foundation and the CS Mott Foundation, he now works with the Global Fund for Community Foundations, the Arab Reform Initiative and the European Foundation Centre. He is co-chair of the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace and is the author or editor of 14 books on poverty, civil society, community development and democracy.