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We could be heroes: the world according to The Road to Character

David Brooks’s moral handbook, out in paperback, offers a vision of the good life. But in focusing on individuals he misses the bigger picture.

“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes,” says the hero of Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo. ­Increasingly, this sounds a jarring note: we are more conscious than we were a couple of decades ago that we have alarmingly few resources for thinking about what a good human life looks like in terms other than material prosperity. There are more and more books, research projects and worried op-ed pieces about the need to recover the language of virtue or honour – just as there are more discussions about the nature of human happiness. In sharp contrast to most earlier societies (and to most non-Western societies today), we in the north Atlantic world apparently don’t know how to boil an egg, as far as defining the good life is concerned. Brecht’s dictum could be read a little differently: our sense of a lack of “heroes” points up just what an unhappy or unfortunate ­society we are.

One way of responding is to do what the New York Times’s in-house conservative David Brooks does in this brisk and readable book, received with enthusiasm on both sides of the Atlantic when it was first published in 2015. Now out in paperback, The Road to Character feels particularly pertinent to some immediate issues right now: the level of public cynicism about ­politicians and “experts”, witnessed in the catastrophic EU referendum, or the bland managerialism that is replacing discussion about the core values of our educational system. He identifies the fundamental problem as the erosion of “character”, understood as the capacity to draw on inner reserves of strength to deal with conflict, failure and frustration.

Brooks sets up a contrast between what he calls “Adam I” and “Adam II” – the self that is preoccupied with the stock exchange of reputation, approval and material success, and the self that is focused on “moral joys”, putting moral growth and stability above prestige, laying down a firm foundation of self-scrutiny as the only basis for self-respect. The book offers a series of ­appropriately old-fashioned stories about heroes – “Great Lives” ranging from St Augustine to Dr Johnson, from the civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to the soldier and strategist George Marshall (of Marshall Plan fame) and the Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day. Each chapter takes one or two central figures and outlines their story, examining what conditions and habits enabled them to survive the struggles they faced in living out their calling, and picking out a central characteristic (“Self-Mastery”, “Ordered Love”) that they exemplify.

A final chapter elaborates on the development of what Brooks calls the “Big Me” culture that has grown up, not just (as is often supposed) in the baby-boomer generation, but ever since the Second World War. The origin of the problem, he argues, is in the great exhalation and the release of tension that the end of war brought about, with its expectations of ease and lack of challenge, so successfully exploited through an explosion in availability of consumer goods.

Fifteen principles or guidelines are listed to help us recover the perspectives we have lost. We need humility, for example; we also need the sense that we are moulded and strengthened by struggle and so should not avoid it. We need help from outside – the prosaic human outside of communities and institutions and the larger outside of “grace”, the unexpected arrival of strength from unknown sources. We need to know (that is to say, we need to acknowledge) what we don’t know. We need to learn the grain of human nature so that what we do has a chance of surviving for the long term. We need to think of ourselves as made for “holiness” not happiness, for a settled and comprehensive integrity.

Brooks is not unaware of the irony of writing a book that offers this sort of tabulated advice while railing against the ­self-help culture that tells us all how wonderful we really are. But the irony is still mordant: it is as if, in order to recover the unselfconscious moral or spiritual nourishment of an older culture, we have to deploy just the type of fussy self-probing that sets us most clearly apart from that environment.

The trouble with the principles he so painstakingly lists is that neither any one of them nor the ensemble will work if we are thinking about them. The lives he narrates are what they are because someone has been unselfconsciously possessed by a vision of life that compels and draws the focus away from the self. People become “holy” (a word to which I shall come back) as a by-product of attending to something drastically other than themselves. It is no use looking for a philosophy of life that will make you holy; that would be to instrumentalise the vision rather than surrender to it. The humility, the “moral realism”, the sense of limitation, the willingness to be surprised by grace or joy – these are various ways of describing the decentring of the self that ­results from being overtaken by a consciousness of what is demanded of you, either by a vision of the world or by a wholly trusted institution.

And there lies the problem for contemporary culture. We have learned to be wary of comprehensive visions and grand narratives, and we have developed an unprecedentedly corrosive scepticism about institutions. David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham, observed about forty years ago that we were entering a “dark night of our institutions” – a period in which the integrity and meaningfulness of organised corporate work within a carefully conserved tradition of behaviour was no longer taken for granted. That institutions become self-serving and defensive is beyond question; but the situation was undoubtedly made more intense by the cultural climate of the 1980s and afterwards, in which a narrow definition of “value for money”, cynicism about public service and a deep and resentful assumption that all professional bodies would automatically be closed shops combined to subject many old institutions to externally imposed norms and expectations.

Brooks specifically writes about the importance of institutions for his version of the good life, but does not provide much analysis of why this kind of support is so much weaker than it was. An obsessively close focus on performance and profit or economy in the short term will not generate the sense of mutual expectation and long-term fidelity that can inspire selflessness. And, as has been remarked frequently since the 2008 financial crisis, institutions that are encouraged to be ruthless or cavalier in their relations with employees should not be surprised if there is a deficit in corporate morale and corporate morality, let alone ordinary professional loyalty.

But this is not quite all. The institutions Brooks cites as producing “character” are very diverse, from the Catholic Church to the armed forces, and even the more nebulous “institution” of old-style journalism. The diversity poses its own question. Not all such institutions are manifestly working with inner integrity or justice. It is possible for basically unhealthy institutions to produce “character” simply by providing clear structure and discipline; but do we then say that the SS is a school for character? Not easy to answer: an institution of this sort might produce a kind of selflessness, a sense of meaning detached from the individual’s agenda. But we should also – surely – want to say that it was serving a deformed and corrupt idea of human identity, and thus a deformed and corrupt idea of the self. To abandon the self to an institutional identity of this kind is not to be delivered from the ambivalence of self-will but to identify with a poisonous self-will of another kind: the corporate egotism of racial violence and mass terror directed against the Other.

Which suggests that we need to fill out the notion of character a bit more fully. The language of character usually has a great deal to do with what we could call the “formal” requirements of good behaviour – habits of self-questioning, devotion to something more than one’s gratification, the sense of limit and mortality, and so on. But we need to add substantive elements: habits of mind and heart that tend to the well-being of others without reserve, an openness to feel or at least register the weight of another’s (any other’s) pain, an acceptance of solidarity.

Several of Brooks’s figures certainly exemplify this – as in the cases of Frances Perkins (an architect of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal), Dorothy Day (who founded a Catholic anarchist network ministering to the homeless and destitute) and Bayard Rustin (whose leading role in the civil rights struggle prompted controversy) – but the distinctiveness of their work is slightly obscured by placing them next to others such as George Marshall, or even George Eliot. The ambitious word “holiness” feels awkward applied to Marshall and Eliot, whatever we might say about their wholly admirable lives. There is a passion to let something else “come through” that characterises Day and Perkins; a level of radicality in serving a vision that goes beyond plain integrity and courage. It is not a matter of confessional religiousness (Rustin’s religious identity was a complex affair), but it is definitely to do with a belief that things (and people) are the way they are, that their sheer existence makes uncompromising moral demands on us, and that no transient system of worldly power can redefine these demands.

A good institution builds some of the habits we need to resist that institution when it is tempted to complacent or self-serving behaviour. It doesn’t just create institutional virtues or disciplines, but does something to embody the kind of ­“humility” Brooks commends: the sceptical but also generous realism that keeps our individual and collective self-satisfaction under scrutiny.

What do we have to learn from a book like this? One obvious lesson relates to what we think about institutions. There are some sorts of political radicalism that are slow or reluctant to think through what healthy, middle-level institutions look and feel like, and so have yielded the field to an easy cynicism about public service and corporate loyalty. It would not hurt the left to give more attention to the Good Institution. What makes a well-functioning business, a company that people are proud to belong to, a school or hospital or professional body that provides a solid orientation towards the wider well-being of the community? Even in an age of fragmenting work patterns, these questions are not empty; indeed, they become all the more urgent when fluidity and insecurity in the job market allow some employers and organisations to get away with unjust practices. Some critics of Brooks have accused him of “smugness” because he fails to spell out the negative impact on “character” of sheer economic instability and social inequality. This is not wholly fair; yet all he says needs supplementing with some harder thinking in these areas.

Moreover, as has already been said, it is essential to keep the focus on character not so much as a style of living that accepts limits and deferrals, as on the kind of vision that makes sense of limits and deferrals, that would make struggle and frustration worthwhile. This entails a hard look at a public educational philosophy that has become largely functionalist and reductive, and has lost sight of any idea that a good education is properly aimed at kindling the imagination with a sense of what might be worth suffering and struggling for. I read Brooks’s book at the same time as wrestling with the Dalek-inflected prose of the latest UK white paper on higher education (incomprehensibly subtitled Success as a Knowledge Economy), looking in vain for any mention of intelligence, enjoyment or inspiration as connected in any way with quality of teaching. It should not be surprising that there is a deficit in all the areas Brooks notes if the ethos of institutions of education at every level is dominated by the language of “performance” and marketable outcomes, rather than evoking the possibility of generating joy in a vision of the world.

Simone Weil famously said that most of our human ills needed cure by the imagination rather than the will. Brooks seems to see this; but the register of his discussion slips back irresistibly to an individual and private framing of the problem. “Character” without solidarity, and so without compassion and a principled universal perspective on human dignity, can be yet another stalking horse for self-regard and self-protection. If we need heroes – and I think Brooks is right that we do, and that most of his ­chosen subjects should be among them – they should have more to them than this. 

The Road to Character by David Brooks is published by Penguin (320pp, £9.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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