Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Broken Society

London’s South Bank is currently a postmodern pastiche of a British seaside resort, circa 1950s, as part of its ‘Festival of Britain’ extravaganza. An artificial beach has been created complete with beach huts, there are fake grassy banks, a holiday spirit prevails among the crowds, and on the façade of the Southbank Centre there are neon lights saying ‘Power to the People’. I don’t think this week is quite what they had in mind, but what an eloquent testimony to the vacuity of postmodernism. Read this blog if you want a flavour of what it’s about.

That slogan – ‘power to the people’ – is a retro joke. We’re not meant to take it any more seriously than the beach huts and the fake grassy banks. We’re not meant to take anything seriously any more. The only real thing in the poster above is the MasterCard logo. In this virtual world we’ve created, even the bullion bars which used to be the measure of the global economy have been reduced to digits on a computer-screen manipulated by geeks who seem unable to tell the difference between a computer game and the real world. (Sorry, what an anachronistic phrase – the real world – what’s that?) And presiding over this chaos are the markets, which like the gods of ancient Greece prove to be capricious, moody, demanding and narcissistic, with an insatiable appetite for human sacrifice. 

There are three great myths of modern liberalism being exploded around us: laissez faire economics will ensure justice, the end of religion will ensure freedom, and the pursuit of science and reason will ensure progress. Wrong on all counts. Laissez faire economics has not brought justice but global economic meltdown and trauma and suffering for millions of people, probably for generations to come. The end of religion has not brought freedom but new forms of bondage. Substitute the word ‘God’ every time you hear ‘the markets’ and you’ll understand a fair bit about why Marx condemned capitalism as well as religion. And the pursuit of science and reason has nothing to do with progress because human beings are neither progressive nor consistently rational, and how much we know has very little to do with how we behave. Every human life is a complex, mysterious, interwoven and unpredictable phenomenon which bears the marks of its history, culture and experiences in ways that simply do not conform to the myth of progress.

We are by nature relational, interdependent and impressionable, and we learn by mimicry and example. Put us in a jungle to fend for ourselves under a creed of ‘each to his own’ and watch us prey on one another and everything else, when that jungle is governed by some hydra-headed ideological monster produced by the economics of Ayn Rand and the anthropology of Friedrich Nietzsche. Individualism is what we get when human individuals are cut off from one another by the combative dynamics of free market economics and unbridled competitiveness, fuelled by a liberal dogma that regards any attempt to hold one another accountable for our ethics and behaviour as an invasion of the right to privacy.

The relationship between the individual and the wider social context has been ruptured by a neo-liberal ideology which is now reaching its nadir. If there is no such thing as society, then there is no reason why one shouldn’t steal, cheat, loot, lie and bully one’s way to the top of the pile. Our shared cultural ethos becomes not ‘what should I do?’ but ‘how much can I get away with?’ Think of the MPs’ expenses scandal. Think of Tony Blair accumulating vast personal wealth on the back of his political career, despite his catastrophic legacy. Think of Enron, the Lehman Brothers, the banking crisis. Think of Rupert and James Murdoch brazening it out in front of their parliamentary interrogators. And then think of rioting adolescents rampaging through Britain’s streets and spot the difference if you can. I’ll tell you the difference: it’s the difference between power and despair, inclusion and exclusion, complacency and rage. Look at the faces, and you’ll see it’s also the difference between black and white, poverty and wealth. But let's be clear: those youths on the streets have learned by example, and they are expressing the values by which our society now operates at every level of the economic spectrum.

Broken society? Yes. Can we mend it? Maybe. Let those in the public domain set the example by which others might be expected to learn. Let the bankers give up their bonuses and start to pay for the mess they’ve created. Let Tony Blair give back some of his obscene wealth to the society he helped to destroy and say sorry to the British people for the slaughter he unleashed in our name. Get rid of those smug Etonians and career politicians in the House of Commons and give us real democracy, when those who stand for election are for and with the people and not over and above us.

But still, that’s not enough. Let each and every one of us start to see that there is such a thing as society, and there is no ‘me’ without ‘us’. Without society, individualism is anarchy. There is no private life in which my actions don’t have some social impact, and therefore there are no rights without responsibilities. Holding our leaders to account is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of this process of mending. If we agree to do it without them, we collude in masking their abdication of responsibility, but if we expect them to do it without us, we abdicate our own responsibility. The Big Society is a vacuous ideology which covers over fascist economics with the rhetoric of care. But if they stop squandering public finances on futile wars and buccaneering banks and put the resources where they should be – good schools and hospitals, socially responsible policing, funding for culture and the arts and for social and community projects – then we can begin to rebuild a real society, not in the name of progress but in the name of our lost humanity.

Click here to see what's happening in this video of a wounded boy being robbed. I think this is a very good analogy of what corporate power is doing to the most vulnerable people in our world. The corruption goes all the way from the very top to the very bottom of the social order.

As a P.S. to the above blog, I've found two sources which add an interesting commentary to what I've said above:

Camila Batmanghelidjh: 'Caring Costs - but so do riots'

And see this video interview with somebody on the street.


  1. "There have been some odd choices -- last night on BBC TV, for example, I saw that a small shop selling items for children's parties had been ransacked in one part of London -- but by and large the focus has been on breaking into major electrical retailers like Currys and Dixons, mobile phone chains like Carphone Warehouse, supermarkets including Tesco, jewellers, and top-of-the- range "casual" and sports clothing stores."
    New Statesman.

    Your revealing video of a wounded boy being robbed by his peers suggests there is not much class solidarity here.

    Mindless individual opportunism in this case?
    Just plain sin?


  2. Good analysis Tina.
    I used the same video in my post primarliy because it seemed to show in all its horror the propensity for mental contagion that a mob enters into.
    Yes, there are a multitude of factors responsible. The response of the churches will be interesting to see in the aftermath too !!

    The rest of my post is here. I would welcome comments

  3. @JohnOne of the devastating effects of rampant individualism is that it destroys class solidarity as well as every other form of human co-dependence - and that is just what this brutal economic system needs: fragmented and conflicted societies with no sense of a shared vision or a common purpose.

    Mindless individual opportunism = sin, but in times like these we need to find a language we can share, so maybe we need to avoid terms which are religiously loaded and likely to skew the debate?

  4. @Philomena EwingThanks so much Philomena. See my response on your post.

  5. We must be careful not to overlook the part played by the media. Copycat research shows social contagion plays a vital role in promoting ethical behaviour or otherwise.
    Whilst democratic societies should not block breaking news, the relentless quest for ratings and visual impact means copycat behaviour is almost inevitable unless some form of restricted reporting is imposed.

    The current disorder, with its images of easy looting, appealed to acquisitive youth in copycat criminality.
    I think we should be wary of seeing this as a new degeneracy, blaming family breakdown, politics or the loss of a vision for humanity.
    Modern technological advances, mobiles, 24-hour news should be held partly responsible.
    I believe thinking people of faith should hold the media to account for much of this trouble. Humanity is much the same as it ever was.

  6. The correlation between violent media [including News images] and aggressive behavior "is stronger than that of calcium intake and bone mass, lead ingestion and lower IQ, condom non-use and sexually acquired HIV, and environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer, all associations that clinicians accept as fact, and on which preventive medicine is based without question."

    How about some "preventative action" from the media in the form of "restricted reporting" as suggested?

    'Neurobiological Research and the Impact of Media on Children', 108th Cong., 1st sess., 10 March, 2003. Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space of the Senate Comm. on Commerce.

    Tina Beattie. Not to "skew the debate" with reference to sin but, as a frequent broadcaster (albeit not on the one unwittingly spreading the "contagion" with visual imagery) what part can you and listeners or viewers play in influencing social policy when ratings and commerce rule?

  7. Two related points.
    Firstly, thank you to Kathleen for her comments on my question following a previous post here. The enquirer was well pleased with my answers on Chesterton and I basked in his admiration of my knowledge!
    This morning Chesterton's "sound bites" were mentioned on "Thought for the Day" in relation to the riots - something about "What is wrong with humanity-I am".
    I note "sound bite" has been a term used in connection with Tina recently in relation to her work on radio, the suggestion being that the media encourage her to broadcast in this way.
    Broadcasting is a skill, a gift. Few authors or academics are blessed with this. Sound bites are fine though I can't immediately think of any she has used. The New Testament is full of them.

    Whilst I do not agree with everything she writes, (I'm not fond of Freud, probably having worked in a psychiatric hospital for years), this particular post is quite brilliant and it is not surprising that it has been acknowledged even by her critics.
    Thank you Tina.

  8. @JohnGood question John, and one which requires further thought. My first reaction is that we should be modest in what we think we can achieve - an inflated sense of our own influence usually masks a proclivity to violent domination. In my experience of the media so far (most of it Radio 4), I've been given great freedom and I've rarely if ever been edited in a way which makes me feel misrepresented. So any infelicities or insensitivities in the way I come across (and I know there are many!) are my own responsibility, not that of the broadcasters. Live broadcasting is particularly challenging, and it's easy to get carried away by the flow of one's own eloquence.

    Having said that, and given what I've just said about freedom, I do try to speak responsibly, as a Catholic but also as a member of our wider society, to navigate a precarious path between an informed understanding of my own tradition, and an appreciation of the ways in which that tradition and the ways in which it's represented can create significant problems for those of us inside as well as those outside the Church. We gain nothing by way of credibility if we hide behind pious denials, but gratuitous criticism and cringing Catholicism don't help much either. There is a middle way - not always easy to find and to follow.

    I think the comments about the power of the media to fuel violence through copycat behaviour is insightful and important. Maybe the deluge of news has helped far more than Twitter and Blackberries to spread the fury? However, I also think that the BBC is as good as it gets in terms of responsible broadcasting, which isn't to say it's beyond reproach - it's most certainly not - but to say that things would be so much worse without it.

    But all of us who have any kind of public voice - however insignificant - have to ask ourselves why we do what we do, and how we can become part of the solution and not part of the problem.


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.