Sunday, October 07, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 5: Me, Myself and I

Simon Titley combines a profound insight into the nature of the changes in society and self-perceptions in the last few decades with what seems to me a degree of back-pedalling with regard to the virtue of the changes and of individual autonomy over group conformity.

The first theme here is that our escape from the conformist social forces of the past has brought with it an atomisation of society, leading to alienation and unhappiness. While I agree that happiness largely does depend on good quality relations with other people, I remain somewhat skeptical that the conformist past was really that great in this regard.

The second theme is that material overconsumption is a symptom of a spiritual malaise that has been brought about by this breakdown of social structures. I am largely unconvinced of this too. What evidence is there of a spiritual malaise, other than that few people go to church any more? Aren't all these problems as old as the hills?

So when Titley writes...
"However the process of individual liberation has proved something of a double-edged sword because, although it has enabled most people in Western societies to lead easier and more pleasant lives, it has also led people to forsake social cohesion for material individualism, and to abandon deferred pleasure for instant gratification."
I have a some problems.

First, the equivocation over individual liberation is appalling. Sure, we are freer to make certain mistakes than we were. When we were not free, similar mistakes and more were made on our behalf, and were much worse for it. While individual alienation is a problem, collective alienation, one subculture or racial group from another, reinforced by the strong social ties of a group identity, was and is responsible for far more harm.

Second, it is not clear when Titley refers to "social cohesion", whether he is indeed referring to strong social ties, civic society, and so forth, or to the willingness of people to pay taxes to support others' pensions, health care and unemployment insurance. I should think a high tax society could be atomised as easily as a low tax one; and spiritual societies can be as reluctant to spend tax money on social insurance as less spiritual ones. This abstract language risks lumping together quite separate phenomena.

Third, I suggest there is a strange error going on here with all this bewailing of materialism. I don't think people object to higher taxes thinking the extra money would bring them true happiness. It won't, and for the same reasons, a bigger state and more redistribution will not bring anybody true happiness either. Anybody who says "you shouldn't care about money, so give me your money" is obviously not heeding their own advice.

To be fair to Titley it is not clear that he is advocating what I criticise, but to be brutal, it is not clear that he isn't. Except where he builds on these particular sandy foundations, there is much that is good in this chapter: the roles of the media and politics and the dangers of statist solutions.

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I would like pick up one further very significant observation. In discussing whether power has shifted from governments to corporations, Titley points out, correctly in my view, that the perspective from inside the corporations is one of powerlessness. Consumers are fickle, and reputations can be destroyed in an afternoon. I would argue that there are profounder reasons still for corporate powerlessness: if there is clearly only a single most profitable course of action, there is no choice but to follow it. So there is little true freedom of action even at the top.
"The traditional analysis is that consumerism has shifted power from governments to corporations. A more plausible explanation for what is going on may be that power has evaporated altogether."
Well. Stop the presses, and burn all the books of political theory. There is no power any more. Of course there is some exaggeration here, but there is also a grain of truth. My question: Is this a good thing? Is this anarchy, in a good sense? If nobody has power, then nobody has power over us. Could this grain of truth grow into a more secure guarantee of freedom than has ever existed before?

And why no comment from Titley on whether this evaporation of power is positive sign or not?

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One thing I am looking for in Reinventing the State is whether it makes a successful rejoinder to the Orange Book, which argued that there is no conflict between social liberalism and economic liberalism. Almost as an afterthought Titley joins the battle:
"What should mark out social liberals from economic liberals is their support for social solidarity."
Surely support for social solidarity marks out social liberals from many who aren't social liberals. Economic liberals can be found in both camps. This may seem a pedantic objection, but if the best rejoinder is this thinly-veiled abuse of economic liberals, I don't hold out much hope.

I agree with Titley on the importance of social 'glue', and the more material aspects of social cohesion. However, he advocates this almost with the context of a moral panic about rampant unhappy materialist individualism. Urrggghhh.

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