The good society - it's time to talk - RSA

The good society - it's time to talk


  • Global
  • Philosophy
  • Social mobility
  • Spirituality

I'm in Helsinki to meet with our growing band of Finnish Fellows and to speak tomorrow at a conference they have organised. Rather to my consternation not only am I sharing a platform with some rather senior Finnish figures but the title for my talk seems to be simply 'good society'. Apart from 'the meaning of life' it is harder to imagine a tougher brief for a twenty minute speech. Nevertheless I will have a go and what follows will be a key part of my argument.

Despite globalisation, travel and migration, important differences between countries persist. Cultural traditions, social norms, patterns of inequality, educational attainment and the quality of the public sphere are all examples of differences between countries which are as likely to grow as diminish. Most permanent incomers to new countries keenly adopt the norms and expectations of their new home, often including antipathy to the next round of incomers.

It is therefore relevant and important in every nation to talk about the kind of society its people want to create and sustain. Yet this conversation rarely takes place. Sure, we talk about all kinds of aspects of society and how we might change them but the deeper question of nations as a whole, what makes them work and what we want them to be, rarely gets beyond vague lofty aspirations.

Although countries remain importantly different, most of the developed world is experiencing a combination of declining trust in democratic institutions alongside a rise in political populism. Is this perhaps because the populists, while generally lacking credibility and coherence, speak to this yearning for a national project which binds and inspires people?

There are two interconnected processes which have hollowed out public discourse over societal progress; one ideological and one intellectual.

The first concerns the triumph of left social liberalism and right economic liberalism (the subject of a fascinating extended essay by David Goodhart, Director of Demos).

While left social liberals are clear about specific things that they want to change - discrimination, poor social mobility, for example - they are more uncomfortable with good society talk: Partly this is down to an ambivalence (based on a commendable internationalism) about the whole idea of nations as cultural unifiers; partly because the idea of one person's or group's idea of a good society being better than another clashes with a relativist world view; partly because they don't really have a script  - and certainly not a normative script - that enables them to talk about things which are clearly part of most people's idea of a good society - social norms , family and community bonds, traditions, duties etc.

For true economic liberals, talk of a good society is positively dangerous, providing cover for all kinds of meddling by Government, erroneously implying that it is possible to plan for social progress and ignoring the fact that the route to collective success can be more or less entirely be paved with individual market based choices.

Tied up in the triumph of liberalism is an important intellectual barrier to an exploration of the characteristics of the good society. In the sixties and seventies a schism took place between sociology and economics in which the former largely abandoned the Durkheimian tradition of functionalism (the study of how society works) in favour of a Marxian focus on oppressive power (the study of how society doesn't work for various subjugated groups). Meanwhile the triumph of the neo-classical school drove economics away from thinking about how to overcome the inherent instabilities and inequities of national economies into the ever more arcane study of the assumed perfect functioning of the free market. Meanwhile, psychology went more micro and political science became more technocratic. Arguably, only anthropology managed to maintain a focus on the functions and disfunctions of societies and cultures as a whole.

So what is to be done? First, mainstream politicians need to find coherent and inspiring ways of talking about the good society and the good citizens and institutions which will be needed to grow it. Here I strongly agree with Roberto Unger that progressives must move beyond a privileging of greater economic equality as the only thing that matters. Instead the starting point must be a commitment to a society in which people can live the fullest lives of which they are capable (of course, this begs a thousand questions, but they are the right questions to be asking).  Sure, it is hard to see how we could make progress without tackling inequality, but when it comes not only to the good society but what most people really care about, it is a means, not an end.

Second, I favour a neo-functionalist way of analysing society. I have outlined my favoured version of this - cultural theory - in many blogs and lectures.  To this view stable societies tend towards a complex functional balance of hierarchical, solidaristic and individualistic forces. However, the optimum balance is rarely achieved and, even when it is, is always at risk of destabilisation. This is because these three sources of power (of authority, of the group and of the individual) are inherently in tension, but also because contextual factors differentially strengthen and weaken the three forces.

The most obvious example of this latter process can be seen in the decline of hierarchical authority in the developed world (here is Moises Naim talking about his book 'The End of Power'). This decline is the consequence of various trends such as population mobility, affluence, higher levels of education and the shift of technology from being primarily a resource for authority (only big organisations could afford main frames) to becoming one which is a tool for new forms of individualism.

Which brings us full circle. Unless you are an anarchist, your good society is likely to be overseen by responsible and respected sources of authority. In the twenty-first century that kind of authority has to be very different to old closed elites. It has to nurture solidaristic feeling by articulating a powerful and binding mission of the good society while seeking to maximise the degree to which individuals and groups can themselves adapt and build toward that mission.

Thus one of the ways in which putative social leaders might start on the road towards a good society is to have the courage to start talking imaginatively and concretely about what that good society might comprise.


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