Why life is good

A dangerous gap exists between our personal experience, which is mainly happy, and our view of a soc

Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.

It is pessimism of a particular and pernicious kind. People are not generally negative about their own lives. In fact, we systematically exaggerate the control we have as individuals. As Malcolm Gladwell, among others, has shown, we tend to give our conscious minds credit for many reactions that are in fact instinctive. Other studies - of what we say has made us happy and what has actually increased our levels of contentment - show that we have a huge capacity to rationalise our life choices. When we are forced to make a choice between limited options, we are as likely to end up claiming the choice as our own as we would if it were unconstrained. And the more we like a future possibility in our lives, the more inclined we are to believe it will happen. The human mind is hard-wired to be personally Panglossian.

In contrast, we are unduly negative about the wider world. As a government adviser, I would bemoan what we in Whitehall called the perception gap. Time and again, opinion polls expose a dramatic disparity between what people say about their personal experiences and about the state of things in general. Take attitudes towards public services. In a recent poll, 81 per cent of respondents said that they were happy with their last visit to hospital. Yet when the same people were asked whether they thought the National Health Service was providing a good service nationally, only 47 per cent felt able to declare it was so, and most think the NHS is going to get worse.

This perception gap is not restricted to public services, as a recent BBC poll on families confirms. Some 93 per cent of respondents des cribed themselves as optimistic about their own family life, up 4 per cent from the previous time the survey was conducted, 40 years ago. Yet more people - 70 per cent, across race, class and gender - believe families are becoming less successful overall. While we apparently thrive in our own families of many shapes and forms, as social commentators we prefer to look back, misty-eyed, to the gendered certainties of our grandparents' generation.

What is true for families is true for neighbourhoods: we think ours is improving while community life is declining elsewhere. We tend to like the people we know from different ethnic backgrounds but are less sure about such people in general. We think our own prospects look OK but society is going to the dogs.

The media seem to be the most obvious cause of this phenomenon. Bad news makes more compelling headlines than good. Tabloids and locals feed off crime stories, middlebrow papers are dismayed at the chaos of the modern world and the alleged venality and ignorance of those in power, and left-leaning broadsheets enjoy telling us that global instability is endemic and envir onmental apocalypse inevitable. Mean while, the content of television programmes - from dramas to news bulletins - contributes to what the communication theorist George Gerbner called "mean world syndrome": people who regularly watch TV systematically overstate the level of criminality in society.

Yet it is too easy to blame the media; the job of commissioning editors is to give us what we want. We make our own contribution to social pessimism. In the burgeoning industry of reputation management, it is generally argued that people are much more likely to tell others about bad experiences of services than good ones (5:1 is the usual ratio). Academic research suggests that people tend to exaggerate in the direction of the general mood. Viewing our own lives positively but wider society negatively, we will tend to pass on and exaggerate evidence that supports these prejudices.

Evolutionary determinists may seek an explanation of our predilection for bad news in neurological hard-wiring; perhaps, for the survival of hunter-gatherers, warning is more important than celebrating. But it is in two of the mega-trends of modernity that more likely reasons for our social pessimism are to be found.

First, there has been the inexorable rise in individualism since the Enlightenment. As Richard Sennett brilliantly argued in The Fall of Public Man, aspects of modernity such as the power of consumer capitalism and the ubiquity of the idioms of psychotherapy have accelerated the process by which we see our authentic selves as revealed in the private and personal spheres, rather than the public and social.

Unstoppable force

Hand in hand with the rise of individualism, we have seen the decline of industrial and pre-industrial collectivist institutions, including the organised church, trade unions, political parties and municipal elites. Robert Putnam's work on social capital suggests this decline in collectivism reaches down into our social lives, with people choosing to spend less time with acquaintances and more with intimates. Putnam's more recent work controversially argues that trust levels are lower and loose social networking less common in more diverse communities.

This points to the second of modernity's mega- trends. Increasingly, we feel that we are the victims of processes set in train by human activity but no longer under anyone's control. Globalisation is the gravity of modern society: an unstoppable force that will knock us over if we try to defy it. The origins of the current credit squeeze in the US sub-prime mortgage market show a financial system that is beyond not only its managers' control, but even their capacity to chart.

Illegal immigration, terrorism and pandemics are seen as the inevitable flip side of cheap travel and consumer goods. Philosophers and policy-makers argue about how best to regulate emerging science and technology in genetics, nano technology and artificial intelligence. But can anything long delay the advance of knowledge - especially if it has commercial applications?

It is not only that we as ordinary citizens feel beset by forces beyond our control. We are ever less likely to believe in the power or authority of our elected representatives (although we much prefer our own MP to MPs in general). At a time when they have more to prove to us than ever before, our leaders are diminished by the politics of a populist consumerism. In this time of uncertainty, is it surprising that the more politically successful national leaders - think Chávez or Putin - are those who offer strong leadership in defiance of democratic constraints?

This is the anatomy of social impotence. By definition, progressives argue for the possibilities of progress; but is anyone inclined to believe us? A hundred years ago, Joseph Rowntree established his charitable works after analysing the social evils of his age. When, last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation asked today's public for its definition of the "new social evils", the list had changed very little. Greed, poverty, crime, family and community breakdown all featured on both lists. But at a seminar to discuss the findings, advisers from the foundation and elsewhere agreed on one big shift between the late-Victorian era and today: while Rowntree had seen his evils as the unfinished business of society's onward march, today we see social patho logies as the inevitable consequences of an idea of progress that itself feels imposed upon us.

Brainier than before

And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.

As for the powerlessness of leaders, the Bali deal last month may leave much to be resolved, but isn't this at last a sign that nations can unite in the best interests of the planet? And should we really lose faith that human determination and ingenuity ultimately will win through? Despite the power of international finance, this is a world where it is possible to be economically successful in societies as deliberately different as those of Sweden or the United States.

We rightly worry about rogue states and terrorists with dirty bombs; but let us also remember that since Nagasaki we have managed to carry on for 60 years without anyone unleashing the power of nuclear warfare. Not only have there been three generations of peace in Europe, but when in the past has a project as grand as EU enlargement been accomplished, let alone accomplished in a decade?

Progressives want the world to be a better place. We bemoan its current inequities and oppression - yet if we fail to celebrate the progress that human beings have made, and if we sound as though the future is a fearful place, we belie our own philosophy. Instead, we need to address a deficit in social optimism that threatens the credibility of our core narrative.

There are many aspects to this; we should, for example, be making the case for a more balanced and ethical media. But my starting point is the need to forge a new collectivism. It is in working with others on a shared project of social advance that we can be reconnected to the sense of collective agency so missing from modern political discourse. It is the attitude of the spectator that induces pessimism, the experience of the participant that brings hope. The problem is not that change brings fear and disorientation (there's nothing new in this), it is that we lack the spaces and places where people can renew hope and develop solutions.

The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience. Compare that to the last Labour Party, trade union or council meeting you went to.

Roll up your sleeves

The failure to provide routes to collective fulfilment means we assume that our journey is best pursued alone. In the 1970s and 1980s, new left movements at home and abroad placed emphasis on forms of political organisation and debate that were innovative, exciting and (dare I say it without mockery) consciousness-raising.

Today, there are signs of a yearning for new ways of working together. There is the growing interest in social and co-operative enterprise and the emergence of new forms of online collaboration. Gordon Brown's citizens' juries are a tentative step in the right direction, albeit without much fun or risk-taking, but generally, progressives seem more interested in bemoaning the state of the world than in rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on building the institutions of a new collectivism.

Despite the huge impersonal forces of the modern world, people are prepared not only to believe in a better future, but to work together to build it. Tackling climate change offers a fascinating opportunity to interweave stories of action at the individual, community, national and international levels. This potential will be fulfilled only when we provide spaces for collective decision-making and action that speak to the same vision of collaboration, creativity and human fulfilment that progressives claim to be our destiny.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, and former chief adviser on political strategy to Tony Blair

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

Photo: Miles Cole
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Labour's populism for the middle classes

Jeremy Corbyn has consolidated a bourgeois capture of the party begun by Tony Blair.

With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn a mutant strain of populism has become an integral part of British politics. Commentary on the general election and its dramatic upshot has focused on Theresa May’s disastrous campaign and the hubris of her now departed senior advisers. But what finally defeated the Conservatives was that, along with practically everyone else, they underestimated the power of Corbyn’s message. As the advance of the far right has stalled in Europe and with Donald Trump adrift in Washington, the peaking of populism has been announced almost daily, especially by the Financial Times. The rise of a far-left version in Britain went largely unappreciated.

Corbyn’s campaign had more than a little in common with Trump’s experiment in engineering popular emotions and perceptions. The ecstatic mass rallies, the indifference to fact shown in the Labour leader’s repeated denials of his meetings with terrorists and of the reflexive anti-Semitism that pervades much of the movement he has created, the belief of his supporters that the media are conspiring against him and the poisonous Twitter abuse of his critics are clear parallels. But this is not a protest from despairing communities left to moulder in abandoned zones of economic desolation. It is populism for the middle classes, serving the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled.

Labour’s success in taking Kensington in west London will be remembered as a defining event. That Corbyn could seize a safe Tory seat in one of the richest constitu­encies in the country is testimony to an extraordinary shift. It is also the culmination of a transformation in Labour that has been under way for many years. Corbyn has solidified a bourgeois capture of the party begun by Tony Blair. Public-school Stalinists and Debrett’s-pedigreed Trotskyites have long been familiar figures in the upper reaches of the left, just as they are today. What is new is Corbyn’s marriage of radical leftist ideology with a systematic appeal to middle-class interests. Nowhere is this better expressed than in Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish student tuition fees (which would cost the country as much as £12bn) and reintroduce maintenance grants, while declining to unfreeze welfare benefits on the grounds that reversing Tory cuts would be (as Emily Thornberry put it in May) “unaffordable”. Rather than addressing the desperate lack of opportunities for working-class children, who may never make it to university, Labour has successfully courted the middle-class youth vote.

Labour’s embourgeoisement is an important reason for Corbyn’s success. For Blairites, this can only be bitterly ironical. Peter Mandelson’s stupefaction at the election result showed him struggling to grasp how the modernisation of Labour he masterminded could have such paradoxical consequences. Extending Labour’s reach beyond its working-class base was one of the keys to Blair’s electoral successes.

The goal was to return Labour to power by aligning the party with neoliberal economic policies and the large numbers of those who for a time were benefiting from them. The project was continued by Gordon Brown, and until the financial crisis it worked fairly well. At that point a shiver of doubt went through the body politic. Movements such as Occupy became more prominent. Inequality was back on the political agenda. Another Great Depression had been avoided, but the effect of near-zero interest rates was an inflation of asset prices that left the rich even richer. At the same time, many people found their incomes stagnant or falling in real terms, but their discontent failed to find effective political expression. Because of his inability to communicate to a mass audience and failure to target the beneficiaries of his policies, Ed Miliband’s move to the left came to nothing.

Corbyn’s opportunity to mobilise the anti-capitalist mood came by accident, as an unintended consequence of Miliband’s decision (supported by Blairites) to include the party’s mass membership as voters in leadership contests. The upshot was an organised takeover of the party by hard-left forces, the paralysed impotence of its parliamentary wing and Corbyn’s unchallengeable dominance today. Labour has been modernised, but not in the way Mandelson intended. Whether by serendipity or by design, Corbyn has brought together some of the most vital forces on the contemporary scene: the anti-capitalist radicalism of young people who are innocent of history, a bourgeois cult of personal authenticity and naked self-interest expressed as self-admiring virtue. Nothing could be more exotically modern than Corbyn’s hybrid populism.

Media obsession with the performance of the two main party leaders has obscured this larger picture. It is true that Corbyn acquired a charismatic fluency in the course of the campaign, whereas Theresa May appeared inflexible and lacking in empathy. The result was close enough for this dif­ference to matter – especially as so much had been made of May’s leadership qualities. But the strategic positioning of the two parties has more enduring significance. May and her advisers aimed to create a working-class conservatism by harvesting former Ukip voters and exploiting the alienation of Labour’s old base from a metropolitan, liberal consensus. By offering more stringent control of immigration, and shelter from globalisation through an active industrial strategy, she believed that Labour’s old fortresses could be stormed. If there was such a thing as a May project, this was it.

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Reconciling the anarchic productivity of the market with social cohesion is the political dilemma of the age, and there is no reason to think that it is, even in principle, properly soluble. May’s manifesto had the merit of at least acknowledging the problem. But the electoral arithmetic on which her strategy depended was over-simple. The Labour vote was stickier than expected, and in some constituencies the party may have benefited from Ukip’s collapse. Much criticised for his equivocations on Brexit, Corbyn turned out to have read the public mood astutely. Support for Remain had shrunk substantially, but few voters were chiefly exercised by Brexit. When he refused to put it at the heart of his campaign, Corbyn outsmarted May’s advisers and strategists. In turn, he helped bring about a move back towards something like a two-party system.

That Ukip lost its reason for existing once Brexit got under way was the theme of countless op-eds before the election. But the same logic applied, in lesser degree, to Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats. Even before the election, it was apparent that a large new grouping of “Re-Leavers” had appeared, while support for reversing Brexit had slumped. Zac Goldsmith retaking Richmond Park and Kate Hoey increasing her majority despite a determined effort to oust her in Vauxhall showed Brexiteers prevailing in what had been strongly Remain constituencies. In contrast, the Lib Dems were damaged by Farron’s decision to shape their campaign around the demand for a second referendum. Though the party made a modest gain in seats (even as its vote share fell), Farron held on by a much-reduced majority and Nick Clegg lost the constituency he had held for 12 years. Because of their fixation on Brexit the Lib Dems remain where they have been for so many years, a bit player in national politics.

More than anything else, it is the spectacular setback suffered by the Scottish National Party that has produced the shift back to two-party politics. Nicola Sturgeon fought the election by trying to link Scottish independence with resistance to Brexit. Ignoring cautionary voices in her party, she displayed a hubris starker than any Theresa May showed. Roughly a third of SNP supporters voted Leave in the referendum, and many others have been disillusioned by the SNP’s record on domestic issues. By making a second independence referendum the central issue in the SNP’s campaign, Sturgeon has shortened her political career and posed a question about the need for the continued existence of her party. With her credibility damaged, Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson casualties of the election, and the push to independence indefinitely postponed, a new generation will have to redefine what the SNP means today.

The compelling leadership of Ruth Davidson was a decisive factor in the revival of Scottish Conservatism. Not only has she revived the party north of the border and buried any prospect of Indyref2 for the foreseeable future, she has, by adding 12 Conservative seats in the Commons, saved the Conservatives in Westminster from outright defeat and delivered the UK from any risk of Scottish secession. The new Scottish MPs could be as important in shaping the government’s approach to the EU as the ten Democratic Unionists to whom May has turned in cobbling together a minority government. Davidson favours what she calls an “open Brexit”, which might mean a version of a Norwegian-style model in which Britain joins the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area, ensuring access to the single market. The Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, pointed in a similar direction when she spoke of the need to keep the border with the south open and avoid a hard Brexit.

There have been suggestions that May could end up negotiating with Brussels to secure some such deal: the opposite of the stance on which she fought the election. But given her weakened position the advantage would lie with EU negotiators, who might be tempted to make punitive demands. At that point negotiations could break down, as May cannot risk losing the support of the Brexiteers who are keeping her in power.

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Of course, there may be a challenge to her leadership. Inevitably, Boris Johnson is being touted as someone with the human touch that May is seen to lack. But Johnson has dismissed all such talk as “tripe” – at least for the time being. A leadership contest in the current circumstances would be savage and rancorous, leaving the Conservatives dangerously weakened in another general election that would soon follow. Are they ready to risk another gamble in the near future with even higher stakes than before? They lost their majority for the same reason Labour moderates lost control of their party: they failed to take Corbyn seriously. To make the same mistake again would look like carelessness.

There must be many who still cannot imagine Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister. After all, Labour failed to win the election. May lost her wager, but in numbers of votes she matched Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 landslide (the electorate is now larger, of course). Corbyn edged closer to power, but many Labour MPs continue to think him unfit to be leader of his party, let alone the country. Yet it would be foolish to conclude that Corbyn will not enter Downing Street.

So far, his march towards power has been greeted with remarkable complacency. Believing it will enable a less disruptive Brexit, the markets have welcomed the humiliation he has inflicted on the May government. The smirking Cameroons have not been able to conceal their vengeful satisfaction. The property tycoons of Chelsea must be congratulating themselves on having seen off a threat to their children’s inheritances. And Remainers will be thrilled as the prospect of an all-out Brexit seems to have faded from view.

These could be brief and costly pleasures. Markets will start to panic if another election is called, and if Corbyn wins they will go into a tailspin. Capital flight will surely leave his government unable to finance its cornucopian schemes, which include expensive commitments to renationalise rail, mail and water companies. Though students will be cheering at the prospect of their burden of debt being lifted from them, the largesse they have been promised is ­unlikely to materialise. Labour would face the same pressure on public services that led the Conservatives to revise their policies on care homes, but in much-worsened fiscal conditions.

It is unclear that Labour, once in government, would opt for a soft Brexit. Corbyn has repeated the mantra about preserving access to the single market and putting jobs first. But the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has said that Labour accepts Britain must honour the EU referendum and may have to leave the single market. There is a hard-left tradition that dreams of a socialist Britain outside the EU, and while Labour may have won by attracting youthful Remainers, the millions of Labour supporters that voted Leave have not gone away.

A Corbyn government would be more divided on Brexit than that of Theresa May. The upshot could be that no deal is reached – a scenario not unlike that favoured by hard Brexiteers, but without any of the preparatory work that could make it viable. As house prices in London crumbled, the nabobs of Chelsea would find their cleverness had backfired. Hopeful Remainers and spiteful Cameroons would have the smile rudely wiped off their face.

At present, Corbyn is walking on water. Like Chauncey Gardiner at the end of Hal Ashby’s magical film Being There, who after leaving his walled garden enchanted the world with his unexpected wisdom and Zen-like calm, the Labour leader seems to defy the laws of gravity. Yet politics is not magic, and the mutant strain of populism he embodies cannot conjure away painful realities. If he finds himself facing the ordeals of power, Corbyn will quickly fall to Earth, along with much else in Britain.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

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

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