Last Sunday, Madeleine Bunting wrote a piece for the Guardian that is simultaneously the most vicious and most thought-provoking essay I’ve read these many years. Tim Worstall, as usual, tipped me off, taking issue as he did with Bunting’s aside that neoliberalism and fascism have been destructive in contradistinction to communism and socialism, and while he is right to point up the hilarity of that assertion, it is but small beans in comparison to the rest of what she says.
The certainties that have dominated the last quarter of a century – that the market knew best, achieved efficiency and produced wealth – have collapsed. Few would disagree with him, but the clarity of that conclusion is matched by the confusion about what comes next.
There is, within this statement, an apparent confusion about what, exactly, a market is. There shouldn’t be, because Bunting could reference a cosy view of life in the pre-modern era, where a market was a place where exchange occurred (village square, local goods stalls, bescarfed women with basketsful of eggs, etc.), but she doesn’t do this. And she is wrong not to, because that is what a market is even today: a space where information about exchange takes place. A market is a tool, an amorality: a perfectly-operating market is efficient, because it permits potential exchangers to learn the value of what they wish to exchange, and it does produce wealth, because that free information allows the parties to an exchange to maximise their mutual benefit. A perfectly-operating market, however, does not know best, because a market is a tool, not a party to exchange itself.
What has collapsed, and Bunting could have pointed this out easily, is the informative value of the imperfect market in which exchange has recently been taking place. This is, by and large, a corporate, capitalist market heavily interfered with by the state in the form of regulation, taxation, and subsidy (amongst other things). Such a market does not convey correct information – its worth as a means of conveying value is approaches nil, because true costs (in particular) are obscured by strictures outwith the market itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing – even the most strident advocates of free markets often admit the need for certain external strictures, especially in pricing externalities, QED – but more often than not, interference in the functioning of the market is performed imperfectly in the pursuit of goals many of us disapprove (public money being used to bail out corporate institutions being one, whether it’s the automobile companies or the banks or the shareholders of both; asymmetrical information in the operation of the banking system; etc.). It is the failure of this type of market that has given the lie to whatever ‘certainties’ we might have cherished for the last quarter of a century; but this is no more an intrinsic flaw in markets per se than the existence of greed is an intrinsic flaw of money (which is simply another tool in the process of exchange).
Bunting is right to ask, ‘What comes next?’, even though this question is a non-sequitur in the case of market fundamentalism, since what she goes on to explore has very little to do with the collapse of the politico-corporate market. But never mind that; what does come next?
In his last Reith lecture, on Tuesday, Sandel will call for a remoralisation of politics – that we must correct a generation of abdication to the market of all measures of value. Most political questions are at their core moral or spiritual, Sandel declares, they are about our vision of the common good; bring religion and other value systems back into the public sphere for a civic renewal.
So, in the absence of certainties about ‘the market,’ we need a new certainty, a new way of measuring value, though Bunting never addresses the obvious question: ‘Measuring the value of what, exactly?’ It becomes clear throughout the rest of her piece that ‘value’ is being used as a positive abstraction, standing in for some nebulous idea of satisfaction + happiness + equality + prosperity. ‘The market’ has failed to deliver that mixture; what, in its place, can do so?
But never mind that, either, because she’s not going to explore it. Instead, we return to the tired memes of ‘the common good’ and ‘civic renewal.’ There is an a priori assumption here that questions of politics, whether it be government or simple collective action, must have an answer that is geared toward achieving a common good. This assumption may not be such a mistaken one; I’m sure many people share the view that collective action exists exclusively to achieve collective good. What constitutes ‘the common good,’ however, is highly debatable, and is probably at the root of all political differences. If there were a set of easily-identifiable and self-evident commonweals, we would not need so much variety of political choice. (Whether or not we really have, at least in the UK of today, such a huge variety of choice is another question I’ll leave others to explore.)
The same objection applies to the belief that political questions are moral or spiritual. No one has yet, despite centuries of philosophers’ attempts, managed to identify a universal morality or spirituality, any more than we’ve identified a universal ‘common good.’ Morality – the distinction between right acts and wrong acts – is not absolute, even if we think it ought to be – even if some of us think there are absolutes – because there will always be intelligent minds who disagree, and whose reasoning contains no obvious flaw that can be corrected.
Bunting does seem to recognise this problem, at least on some level, because she focuses the rest of her argument on civic renewal; and it is easy to see why, since ‘few indeed’ disagree that civic engagement has ossified:
The problem is a near sense of desperation as to how this is to come about, as current prescriptions offered by all political parties are emptied of meaning and credibility. Meanwhile, politics is in danger of becoming a subject purely for a small technocratic coterie dominated by highly complex financial regulation and arcane detail of parliamentary reform. It’s a politics of credit derivatives and standing committees, which is a foreign language to 90% of the electorate.
The sense of the end of an era is even more pressing in the UK than in Sandel’s America because it has coincided with the final discrediting of a form of professionalised, careerist politics. But to general bewilderment, even twin crises of this magnitude are not prompting political engagement; the paradox is that they may generate anger but are not generating action. The possibility of change – of radically reforming the institutions that have so betrayed trust – is slipping between our fingers. Bankers resume banking their bonuses, politicians revert to party rivalries to elect a Speaker unlikely to command the crossbench support necessary for reform. And we are left pondering what it is that brings about change – crises are not enough, outrage is not enough.
This is a fairly good summation of the problems facing the demos. Crises have occurred; comfortable systems have been discredited; there is outrage but no action. I commend the author.
She does not, then, do what I would do, which is to ask, ‘Why is there no action, when there is obviously such a need for it, and a fertile ground in which it can take root?’
The reason she ignores this is because, in asking why no action is taking place, we encounter a new, and much more troubling, set of problems.
There is a perception that systems for acting do not work. We live in a democracy, and the legitmate mechanism for action in a democratic society is the vote, by which the demos choose their proxies in government on the basis of specific platforms; the proxies are expected to carry out these platforms or be replaced by new proxies. The demos is the master of its government; between elections, it can direct policy through petition, protest, and (though this is itself a problem) lobbying.
In this particular democracy, most of those avenues for acting have been closed. The demos has been ignored: government has taken action without its approval, from bailing out banks to nationalising rail lines to giving Fred Goodwin a pension (if you like) to setting up unelected quangos to regulate government behaviour (IPSA) to creating a surveillance state to cracking down on protestors… and the list goes on. Much of what the government (and remember, it is supposed to respond to the demands of the demos) has done in the past let’s say quarter of a century (since that is where Bunting starts) has shifted power away from the demos, and this is one of the factors that has so depressed civic engagement. The legitimate avenues for action are closed: action in the face of these developments would be akin to beating one’s skull against a brick wall.
A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for change to occur, one might argue, is the belief that change can happen. There appears to be, instead, a desultory fatalism here which Bunting does not address, summed up in part by the uniquely democratic aphorism, ‘No matter who you vote for, the government always wins.’ As long as the entrenched institutions, whether government or corporate capitalism or what you will, continue to barricade the legitimate mechanisms by which change can occur, they grow ever more monolithic and unchallengeable. In such circumstances, righteous outrage at crises and failures will turn inward, because short of fomenting a destabilising revolution, ways of reducing the unaccountable power of such institutions are not truly present.
There are many who would claim that it is the complacency of the demos itself that has allowed this situation to come about: for even unaccountable monoliths are not entirely maleficent, and there will always be those who benefit more than they would do in the absence of such institutions. Unanswerable corporate capitalism has permitted many people to enrich themselves tremendously, often at the expense of others; a powerful and paternalist government has protected many people from the consequences of their own failures, often at the expense of others. There are also people who have enriched themselves without exploitation, and people who have been protected by the state from the consequences of others’ failures. It is the complacency of those who have benefited that has put a cork in mechanisms for change; appeals to self-interest have worked, and I would guess many people who have no experience of any of what I have just said still gamble that, one day, they might do. They don’t want to reduce the monoliths because they judge the possible future benefits of them to be greater than the actual present costs.
But the safety, comfort, and benefit that monolithic institutions provide comes at the price of being unable to alter them easily or indeed limit their acquisition of further power, even when they turn against you.
Having omitted the why of civic disengagement, Bunting still tries to present a solution, and this is where we discover (a) that her omission was deliberate, and (b) the true viciousness of her argument.
Battening on to some documentary-maker’s assertion that ‘what is paralysing the collective will’ is ‘the dominance of individualism,’ she says:
“What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It’s enchanting, it’s liberating, but ultimately it’s disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,” explains Curtis.
His analysis is that power uses stories which shape our understanding of the world and of who we are, and how we make sense and order experience. Powerful, grand narratives legitimise power, win our allegiance and frame our private understandings of how to measure value and create meaning. They also structure time – they fit the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future. This is what all the grand narratives of communism, socialism, even neoliberalism and fascism offered; as did the grand narratives of religion. Now, all have foundered and fragmented into a mosaic of millions of personal stories. It is a Tower of Babel in which we have lost the capacity to generate the common narratives – of idealism, morality and hope such as Sandel talks about – that might bring about civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose.
The solution to disengagement, apparently, is a collective grand narrative. In her own words, then, let’s explore what a grand narrative might have to offer.
(1) Grand narratives legitimise power.
Rather than reducing the power of monolithic institutions, they entrench it. This is precisely the opposite of what the demos appear to desire, which is a return of power to the civic level, not a legitimisation of the transfer of power away from it.
(2) Grand narratives win allegiance.
They put a high gloss on failed, unaccountable systems in order to provide the illusion that those systems are both palatable and good. The allegiance here is an adherence to someone else’s vision, an abdication of self-determination in favour of a purpose imposed from the outside that may suit neither the individual nor the collective will.
(3) Grand narratives frame our understanding of value and meaning.
In other words, they change what we desire, rather than fulfill it. This is not changing the systems to suit the demos; this is changing the demos to suit the systems.
(4) Grand narratives structure time, fitting the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future.
They provide a comforting but impossibly teleological illusion of human development. As Bunting points out, this is what religions and modern political systems do. Historians (and I know whereof I speak) are fond of imposing teleological interpretations on the past: Marxist historiographers are particularly prone. Overlaying a narrative on the past implies that there is, or has been, an end toward which all human action has tended. Religions, similarly, overlay a narrative on the future, assuming a state of perfection or enlightenment toward which religious principles are the most perfect route. Although many religions place a great premium on the perfection of the individual soul, reaching the end state requires a collective effort, just as modern political systems do. But do we really want our political systems to share common characteristics with religion? In many major religions, those individuals who do not work in service to the collective goal, or do not achieve perfection individually, suffer punitive judgment; should our politics operate in this same way? Or should they instead operate according to mutual benefit, common agreement, and compromise? The religious edifice is built upon the idea of revealed truth, and access to that truth is controlled by the spiritual elite. Do we want our political edifice to be built upon revealed, unchallengeable truths, access to which is controlled by the political elite?
Throughout history, the mechanism whereby religion has maintained social control and its grand narrative is the restriction of information. Do we really want to emulate this in the political sphere? Ignorance may indeed be bliss, but to impose ignorance on the demos for any purpose whatever, no matter how noble it may appear to be, must be one of the summits of evil.
Bunting’s desire for a grand narrative is not about ‘civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose'; it is about retaining the monoliths whilst finding a way to ensure that the demos happily accepts, and even supports, their power. This is the insidious reason for why she does not address the root of disengagement and inaction: she does not want action, she wants acquiescence.
Curtis argues that we are still enchanted by the possibilities of our personal narratives although they leave us isolated, disconnected, and at their worst, they are simply solipsistic performances desperate for an audience. But we are in a bizarre hiatus because the economic systems that sustained and amplified this model of individualism have collapsed. It was cheap credit and a housing boom that made possible the private pursuit of experience, self-expression and self-gratification as the content of a good life. As this disintegrates and youth unemployment soars, this good life will be a cruel myth.
There are plenty of people around trying to redefine the good life – happiness economists and environmentalists, among others – and Sandel’s authority adds useful weight to their beleaguered struggle against the instrumentalist values of the market that have crept into every aspect of our lives. But Sandel’s call for remoralisation seems only to expose how bare the cupboard is – what would it look like? What reserves of moral imagination could it draw on for a shared vision, given that the old shared moral narratives such as religious belief and political ideology have so little traction?
Individualism, contrary to what Bunting seems to present here, is neither fragmentary nor dependent on consumerism. She is right in presenting it as a struggle for ‘experience, self-expression, and self-gratification,’ but this must be as defined by the individual him- or herself, often without regard for the much-vaunted ‘common good.’ And indeed, no attempt at ‘the good life’ succeeds completely, but the ability to make the attempt, and define ‘the good life’ for oneself, must exist; that, for most people, it does not is but another aspect of that fatalism that has muted the outrage.
And shared visions, shared moral narratives, are bad, not least because nobody has yet found one that can be shared by everybody. A shared vision is an illusion held in common that works only for those willing to be directed (or deceived) by it, and there are many. Understanding this is what led to Nietzsche’s philosophy of perspectivism. He was writing in the context of the grand narrative of Christianity, but the essence of perspectivism is that there is no universal truth, no universal reality: instead, there is only the personal perception of reality, and individually unique epistemologies as numerous as the number of individuals themselves. Many people have criticised this view as relativist, and indeed it is, but Nietzsche also allowed for ‘formal’ truths, which are developed organically through the intergration of many individual perspectives. Perspectivism is perhaps the closest we have come toward the repudiation of the grand narrative as a concept; grand narratives are possible, but only in the presence of wilful or imposed ignorance and the denial of the discrete, individual consciousness.
Bunting goes so far as to identify a possible grand narrative, which she does not like:
A new grand narrative will emerge, Curtis believes, admitting he is an optimist. But perhaps there is another aspect to our predicament. That the new grand narrative has already emerged and it is one of environmental catastrophe. Perhaps this reinforces the sense of political paralysis. That the only grand narrative on offer is so terrifying – of a world rapidly running out of the natural resources required to sustain extravagant lifestyles and burgeoning population – that it disables rather than empowers us to achieve political change. Terrified, we retreat into private stories of transformation – cosmetic surgery, makeovers of home and person – because we see no collective story of transformation we can believe in.
Fatalism rears its head again in the idea of a coming catastrophe that paralyses the will to change. I argue that this is merely an effect, not a cause, of civic disempowerment; it is again the belief that the changes we try to achieve are but minute struggles against the overarching immovability of monolithic institutions.
Every other modern narrative – communism, socialism, even those that were destructive, such as neoliberalism and fascism – laid claim to a version of the kingdom of God, a better world that would nurture a better human being. They were all narratives of redemption and salvation. All that we have now is apocalypse, and it is paralysing. How then can we build hope?
The kingdom of God, a better world and a better human being – what place have these ideas in political discourse? They are entwined with the desire for a grand narrative. This teleological view of human progress is the most paralysing of all views. Even if the goal is unknown, or not yet understood, it imparts a sense of finality and destiny that petrifies the individual and the collective mentality. We are moving toward x, perhaps diverging down erroneous paths, but the desire to reach x exists, and we must all surrender to it. If there is a goal, and we do not share it, what hope can there be for the dissenters? ‘Better human being’ returns us to the world of the moral absolute, a non-reality, and ‘narratives of redemption and salvation’ are especially frightening. Redemption is for those who have transgressed; salvation is in the gift of a higher power. Will we set up human arbiters of sin and human judges of righteousness in our new narrative? I repeat, what place have these ideas in political discourse?
It is a funny thing that ‘apocalypse’ does not mean what Bunting thinks it means. She infers from it chaos, destruction, collapse; but at its root, it is αποκαλυψις, an uncovering, an unhiding, a revelation. And perhaps what she hates about apocalypse is that is has uncovered mutable truths; it has removed certainties and replaced them with the understanding that certainty itself paralyses. The absence of a grand narrative is a state of being to be celebrated; it is both energising and liberating, bringing as it does the knowledge that we are not bound to a shared reality, a vision imposed on us by others. We as individuals can create our own meaning and give our own existence its purpose – and that purpose is whatever we choose, based upon whatever values we wish to hold. We can fight for self-determination even in a society that ritually denigrates the individual, ascribing its success only to the existence of the collective, and demanding gratitude and service in return. The paralysis is proof that that society is dying.This apocalypse is good, and recognition of our own paralysis is a vital step toward freeing ourselves from the tyranny of those who would make us pawns in their ‘narrative’ of social transgression and secular salvation.