In 2009 the academic Alan Finlayson wrote an article called ‘The broken society versus the social recession’. His purpose was to show how different was the former idea of David Cameron’s and the latter propagated by the left campaign group Compass (in fact, the term 'social recession' has long been more widely used to describe a set of social pathologies ranging from criminality to teen pregnancy).
Finlayson’s piece rests on a cast iron assumption that there is a set of social problems which are getting worse, the important question therefore is ‘why?’. He quotes a 2007 Joseph Rowntree Foundation project in which the RSA and I were involved called ‘social evils’ which explored the way society was deteriorating even while the economy was thriving. Finlayson concludes that with the economic collapse the debate over what lies behind social deterioration will intensify.
The posssibility the article didn’t consider, and is rarely discussed, is that in certain important respects the social recession might be coming to an end. In this post I don’t have time to gather all the references but, take my word for it, there is reasonable evidence for significant improvements in all the following areas:
Violent crime rates
Binge drinking and drug consumption among young people
Levels of volunteering and feelings of neighbourliness
Children’s overall wellbeing
Why aren’t we discussing this more? The idea that society is improving because we are choosing to behave more wisely and responsibly is uncomfortable for parts of both the left and the right. For the former it shouldn’t be happening in an unequal society still dominated by individualistic values. For the conservative right it shouldn’t be taking place in a society coarsened by moral relativism and weakened by diversity and multiculturalism.
It is possible to counter the improving data by saying it is short term, inconclusive or outweighed by things going in the wrong direction. But if we were to accept that society is getting less broken, what explanations might be on offer?
There was recently a spate of articles based on epidemiological research speculating that falling levels of lead in the atmosphere are the best explanation for plummeting crime rates. A factor endogenous to social trends may indeed be implicated. But I am more drawn to a more structural explanation.
In policy, economic and social analysis the single ability of greatest value is to be able to distinguish a cycle from a trend. It is hard analytically and challenging psychologically. Not only are human beings inherently short-termist in their outlook but we are drawn to things that are more visible. Cycles are like the second hand on a clock - we can see them moving which gives us a sense of time passing, while trends are like the hour hand.
Here is a bold thesis. Since the dawn of the enlightenment in the late mediaeval period - what Kant described as man entering into adulthood - human progress has accelerated guided by the core principles of that revolution – universalism (justice), autonomy (freedom) and humanism (progress itself). These principles underlie the long trend of human advance which makes citizens in the developed world richer, healthier, more intelligent, more tolerant and more peaceful than ever before. But within that trend the misapplication of those same principles has also led to terrible cycles, most obviously the cycle of colonial exploitation which culminated in the nightmare of the First World War and the cycle of totalitarian ideology which led to the horror of Nazi Germany, Maoist China and Stalinist Soviet Union. At the heart of these terrible events was a hubristic perversion of the idea of progress.
The recent cycle, which began in the sixties and may now be startng to end, also involved a misapplication of an enlightenment principle – this time freedom – and was much milder in comparison. But the idea that society can flourish relying on no more than individuals pursuing a policy of possessive individualism is at last starting to lose favour. Is this what lies behind the evidence of a receding social recession?
If, in the end, society learns and improves should we focus less on cycles of deterioration and more on long trends of progress? If so, it shifts the debate in a subtle but, to my mind, crucial way.
Instead of asking what we have to do to make progress possible we should instead ask what the barriers are to allowing the further natural development of the human spirit into a higher, healthier, more fulfilled and rounded form. The answers might be similar but the framing of the question has the scope to increase significantly our sense of possibility and agency.
The obvious charges against this thesis are that it is determinist and complacent. But I don’t think society improves automatically. It happens through struggle and debate. And the other key domains of our lives – economics and politics – sometimes accelerate social progress and sometimes delay or reverse it. Right now I feel more confident about society than about economics and very worried about politics - for reasons I will explore in a future post if this one doesn’t get ripped to shreds.