Sunday, November 11, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 9: Status versus Friendship and the Common Good

I was hoping that now we are out of the "principles" section that chapters would contain less grumbling about the state of the world, and more putting it to rights. Lynne Featherstone lets me down somewhat.

The key question of the chapter is this:
How can we create structures and environments the value our human good qualities more and place less importance on wealth and status?
Unfortunately it doesn't appear until the tenth page. First we have 9 pages of analysis, some good, some not so good, largely in the vein of Brack, Taylor, Titley and Boyle.

These are the by-now familiar sentiments:
So, whilst it is undoubtedly more comfortable to be rich and miserable, we are all, in reality, miserable.
Wow. Speak for yourself.
...but the periods of relief provided by quick fix solutions or the momentary glow from retail therapy are getting shorter and shorter.
Is this supposed to show some self-awareness? It doesn't ring true. This is mere received wisdom about other people being too stupid to make the right decisions.

I don't suggest that there is no problem here, or even that politics should be indifferent to happiness, but if it were really this bad, if everybody were miserable, we probably ought to promote global warming or nuclear armageddon asap.
And what role, if any, does government have in all of this? This is tricky territory to tread; one false slip of the sentence and you open yourself up to pastiche for wanting a Ministry of Fun, or force-fed humour courses with every meal.
Right. So we are not looking to make fun for people, perhaps just leave them freer to pursue happiness instead of bargains. It may be difficult to see how to do this, but it is a prize worth pursuing.

Anyway Featherstone continues in a similar vein for some time, making some good points, but seemingly harking back to some past golden age that probably never actually existed.
So why, then, are the joys of life apparently in such short supply? Status has got out of kilter with friendship, and the common good has been crushed under a stampede of selfishness.
I am left wondering which historical period was less status-ridden, or served better the common good, than the present.
Status and friendship have their roots in fundamentally different ways of resolving the problem of competition for scarce resources.
No, that would be property and usufruct. Status and friendship are not about resources, but, rather are different kinds of social capital. They have a great deal to do with happiness, but, as Featherstone observes, getting your share of retail therapy (resources) is not what brings happiness.

I guess the idea is that if we were more equal, we could all be friends instead of being superiors and inferiors, and therefore we would be happier. I think this is a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, what suggestions do we have for making progress?
Government can hardly order people to talk to, or like, their neighbours, but at the micro scale, what about councils doing more to help and encourage the organisation of street parties so that people get to know each other?
Well cancel armageddon. Street parties will make us happy. A fine idea, although I suspect that they would become rapidly less appealing with each slight hint of state involvement. And I can't help but think this is something that the middle classes will do more, increasing the social capital gap between them and the poor. A benefit yes, but not one that tackles inequality.

There are two or three more good ideas of this sort of ilk. Do they begin to match the rhetoric of doom and gloom, of the lost Eden? No, but this was overblown in the first place. This mismatch between the scale of the problem and the power of the potential solutions demonstrates that the pursuit of happiness is principally something for individuals and communities and not for governments or politics.

1 comment:

Peter Welch said...

"How can we create structures and environments the value our human good qualities more and place less importance on wealth and status?"

Isn't it obvious that we cannot do this because such "structures" will only work by giving our "human good qualities" "status"?

I listened to Lynne speak on this in Brighton (at the launch). I like Lynne and listened with the wish to applaud - and I certainly wouldn't dismiss all she said out-of-hand. But her basic idea seemed to be a vision of value measured in social relationships that was quite close to philosphical conservatism. I found it disappointing.

I haven't read the chapter (or indeed the book) so perhaps I have got it wrong.