To make a claim for a 21st century enlightenment is to support those who seek to redeem the promise of a rational society in which all human beings can flourish. It is to acknowledge that this remains the incomplete but legitimate project of modernity and that the concept of human progress is not irrevocably buried under the rubble of the wars and genocides of the 20th century. But it is a claim now inevitably uttered in the register of humility as much as hope, mindful of the limits of reason, conscious of fallibility and contingency, and respectful of difference and diversity in ways that would not have occurred to 18th century Enlightenment rationalists. If the idea of progress has been rescued from the dustbin of history, and if the academic fashion for deconstructing reason has now largely exhausted itself, then the goals of a progressive politics in this new century will not be the totalising dreams of an unreconstructed rationalism or its heirs.
In thinking about what this means for contemporary British politics, it is worth considering suggestive similarities between early 21st century Britain and its 18th century antecedent. For a start, both societies display a preoccupation with the question of national identity. The Georgians were concerned with developing a new account of Britishness that could command the allegiance of multinational subjects, based around the poles of the Protestant faith, hostility to the French state and the pragmatic assertion of individual liberty. Our 21st century society is concerned with finding out whether British national identity can be redefined to survive the diversity of mass immigration, greater integration into the European Union and an unstable post-devolution settlement among its constituent nations. This endows both societies with powerful undercurrents of uncertainty and resentment.
Likewise, both societies have highly developed, irreverent public spheres that are hostile to authority, if not radically opposed to it: the coffee house Enlightenment institutions and popular press of Georgian bourgeois society, mirrored in the blogs, e-zines and twitters of the contemporary internet age. Their political systems feature the court intrigues and factionalism of political elites typical of both pre- and post-industrial societies, which lack the moorings of class-based mass political movements. Each is imbued with a generally liberal, sometimes hedonistic spirit, one the product of a pre-industrial urban fluidity in family forms and sexual habits, the other the result of emancipatory social changes. These features of the two societies both energise political discourse and pose a challenge the pursuit of rational consensus.
Although separated by radical economic transformation over the course of more than two centuries, both eras also demonstrate the cosmopolitanism typical of relatively open, trading nations inserted into global economic relations. Each seeks to use the extraordinary potential of science to understand and change the human condition: the Georgians in the manner of an expansive, thirsty Enlightenment; 21st century Britons through a more sombre confrontation with the reality of climate change and other consequences of the industrialisation that separates the two societies. Each is marked in profound ways by intellectual openness and a culture of curiosity.
Enlightenment and its limits
In this brief sketch are displayed many of the ingredients that give energy and momentum to the 21st century enlightenment project and which, at the same time, mark its limits: socially engaged but uncertain citizens, all seeking to forge commonality of purpose and identity out of the crooked timber of humanity and its passions, buffeted by rapid economic change and the unsettling advance of knowledge, and surrounded by organised systems of distrust in formal politics. Yet absent from the 18th century side of the ledger are two of the major forces that shape our contemporary world. First, a state and public administration apparatus that makes up anything between 30% and 60% of the activity of western societies. Second, mass global capitalism itself, its reach now more extensive and complete in the lives of humanity than could ever have been conceived in Georgian Britain. It is in the interaction of states and markets, and the way in which each shapes or colonises family and community life, that the biggest challenges for a contemporary rational politics reside.
Take the state first. Conservative historians celebrate the pragmatic, sceptical and socially conscious English and Scottish Enlightenments, distinguishing their gradualist route to modernity from a didactic, revolutionary and proto-totalitarian French Enlightenment: Burke versus Paine revisited. The political goal of this reading of history, however, is not simply to rehearse familiar debates but also to recover a pre-statist British tradition of civic commitment and social virtue to counterbalance the claims of distributive justice embodied in the modern welfare state and public services. Historians argue that, as these services developed in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, they crowded out civic virtues and the vitality of the charitable sector to which they gave rise. As David Cameron would put it: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.”
For social democrats and egalitarian liberals, this reading is not only bad history and false in the political dichotomy between strong state and healthy civil society, it is also fundamentally inadequate in responding to the challenges of contemporary politics. For the state is now key to securing justice and the basic conditions for achieving equality between citizens. Indeed, in an ageing society with increasing demands for spending on health and social care, the structural role of the state in organising and funding public services is likely to increase, not diminish. Moreover, without massive public intervention, the recent and ongoing crisis in financial markets would have become an economic and social catastrophe. Although a return of widespread public or social ownership in the economy is highly unlikely, a much stronger regulatory role for governments – at both national and coordinated supra-national levels – is now inevitable for the foreseeable future.
Why then is Leviathan so apparently unloved? In part, it is because expectations exceed the capacity of the modern state to deliver, so politicians and public officials are always running up a down escalator. Hostility to public action from powerful vested interests also plays its traditional role, particularly in the media terrain. Perhaps more important, however, is the Habermasian insight that the administrative rationality of the state, oriented towards strategic goals, can conflict with, overtake and undermine the social resources of meaning and interaction in communities, just as the invasive logic of the market can.
The recent general election demonstrated this in at least two ways. First, there was a broadly liberal rejection of bureaucratic overreach from citizens hostile to intrusive surveillance and regulation, and by public servants defending their professional autonomy. This nourished the manifestos of both the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives and equipped them with common political ground. Second, there was a strong current of working-class antipathy to procedural unfairness in the allocation of state benefits and rules of entitlement, which combined powerfully with concerns about immigration. In each instance, the practices of state governance were deemed to have transgressed powerful social norms and principles, whether unspoken or explicit. This challenge to how the state functions now forms one of the most important axes on which British politics turns.
What of the market? The rightward drift of the new coalition partners on key aspects of economic policy – notably the appropriate fiscal stance to take in the current year and whether to prioritise deficit reduction over demand stimulus for a still-weak recovery – will provide the main political cleavage of the coming months. In more subterranean mode, public resistance to the commercialisation of previously sheltered spaces in family and community life, particularly childhood, manifests itself in new policy positions on inappropriate commodification, including the sexualisation of children, across the political spectrum. The big question for the progressive project, however, is the shape of the economy to come. Does 2008 genuinely mark the end of a neoliberal political economy, and if so, what will replace it? What are the prospects for a more egalitarian and secure market economy, properly regulated and bounded in its sphere, in Britain? This question should preoccupy the best minds in our public life.
Beyond state and market, there are a series of issues that the project for a 21st century enlightenment must address. First, there is the question of what should form the goal of a rational society. Enlightenment thinkers took it as axiomatic that the pursuit of human happiness should be the proper lodestar of a rational society. It is a conviction that imbues the political and philosophical writings of the 18th and early 19th centuries, but it fell out of favour in liberal thought in the 20th century and has yet to regain its hegemony, despite the efforts of a loose school of contemporary economists and political theorists. This should not be surprising, since advanced capitalist societies are diverse and plural. They offer little prospect of consensus on human progress and strong attachments to traditions of thought that prioritise either distributive justice or liberal commitments over autonomous, self-authored lives, rather than aggregate objectives such as the maximisation of happiness. This does not prohibit the possibility of shared ideals, as long as we recognise that there will always be an element of uncertainty. Nor does a liberal neutrality towards competing versions of the good life prohibit strong commitments to civic patriotism and everything that flows from it, whether in citizenship education, community engagement or the extension of democratic radicalism. What is important, however, is that we endorse the priority of the right over the good and recognise the irreducible fact of pluralism in contemporary societies.
The politics of happiness
That said, there is much in the literature on happiness that can illuminate and inform a new enlightened politics: a profound focus on alleviating misery and depression, affording greater priority to care and compassion for others, and privileging quality of life in families and community beyond their material forms. These issues provide a wide canvas for a rich and broad political programme.
There is also the question of rational decision making itself. The insights of behavioural economists and evolutionary biologists are the latest in a long line of intellectual projects to deconstruct the rational subject that underpins much liberal theory. In particular, the recent success of behavioural economics – best typified by the popularity of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge – owes much to its apparent practical utility for policymakers. Rich in real-world examples as much as theoretical experiments and laboratory results, and drawing evidence from fields as diverse as public health and pensions policy, behavioural economics has commanded the attention of policymakers around the world grappling with complex and intractable social problems.
It appears to promise more nuanced, less intrusive and less expensive solutions to these problems than either the Big Government interventions of the 20th century or the crude instrumentalism of much of the New Public Management that has held sway in public administration since the mid-1980s.
It comes with a cost of its own, however. By radically problematising the rationality of individual citizens, it opens the way to technocratic illiberalism: if individuals are not capable of rational judgement in their best interests, then the state can step in on their behalf, second-guessing their higher-order interests.
Behavioural economists therefore turn to soft paternalism, constructing policy paradigms that preserve choice or liberty but encourage people to make the decisions that are most conducive to effective policy outcomes. In the UK, for instance, employees will be auto-enrolled into personal pension accounts, since pension-saving rates have been shown to rise dramatically if an individual has to opt out from a scheme rather than to opt in. Since the individual is still at liberty to opt out, his or her freedom is preserved and the choice is not coerced.
For most policymakers, such examples of libertarian paternalism will be uncontroversial and will give rise to fewer liberal qualms than, say, compulsory parenting orders or mandatory dietary plans for the obese. Nevertheless, we need to ask how far soft paternalism should go and how we should determine the policy objectives required to structure the default assumptions. Liberal policymaking has to find a route back to democratic theory and the terms under which policy decision making is rendered legitimate.
How effective is policymaking based on new behavioural economics? If the rational market actor of the Chicago School model failed utterly to predict the global financial crisis, its new model counterpart in behavioural theory did no better and, as Labour politicians liked to point out at the height of the market maelstrom in 2008, you can’t nudge your way out of a global meltdown. Leaving aside the schadenfreude, the important truth here is that behavioural insights are hard to translate from the micro to the macro. Consequently, economists and social scientists have had to return to structural explanations to explain the global economic crisis, its causes and its effects. Behavioural economists must either find a way of translating their insights into models that can explain macro phenomena or accept that they have to find their place at a specific level of the social ontology.
Reason versus faith
The role of faith is also an issue. The origin of Enlightenment thinking is the challenge of reason to the authority of faith, and this schism between rational thought and religious belief remains a powerful one in most contemporary democracies, despite decades of secularisation. In the US, the debate on religion continues to structure important political divides and new forms of militant observance are growing, not receding. In Europe, the arrival of new Muslim communities from Africa and the Middle East, as well as the radicalisation of sections of the younger populations of longer-established communities, has produced sharp new political cleavages and led to the aggressive reassertion of the secularism of the public realm in countries founded upon the constitutional separation of church and state.
British multiculturalists have tended to take the opposing view, stressing the importance of equality of recognition to those of faith and arguing for equality to be extended to new faiths in the state, whether in the establishment of schools or representation in the House of Lords. Christians have also demanded greater sensitivity in public law to their religious beliefs in relation to both specific legislative provisions and the openness of democratic decision making to the arguments offered by religious believers.
In practice, pragmatism as much as principle has determined whether equality of recognition has been extended to the demands of a wider plurality of faiths, as exemplified in the creation of new faith schools. Similarly, liberals of impeccable Enlightenment credentials now argue that democratic decision making should permit a greater ‘post-secular’ openness to the motivations of religious believers, if not to the specificity of their beliefs, to avoid placing an unfair burden of translation on them between private conviction and public reason. This is territory that must be carefully guarded: to extend the democratic logic of identity recognition to equality for faiths within the state is not to complete the enlightenment project but to abandon it.
Each of these issues places a premium on the constitutive pluralism of a rational politics, taken in the broadest sense of a project for human progress. At its deepest level, enlightenment demands that everyone be a participant. To meet this condition without placing an undue burden of civic virtue on citizens requires an extensive but differentiated programme of political and democratic reform. This means strengthening pluralism in formal politics within and outside of political parties, opening up new channels of informal political participation while simultaneously deepening liberal constitutionalism, and rescuing public reasoning from the dead hand of pre-packaged mass media consumption. These are the democratic tasks that must be at the heart of a 21st century enlightenment.
Nick Pearce was head of the Downing Street Policy Unit between 2008 and 2010