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

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Why Isis seeks a battle with Western nations - and why it can't be ignored

Islamic State believes it must eventually confront and then defeat the West. To get there, it seeks to polarise Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike.

It was precisely the type of attack that had long been feared: a co-ordinated and brutal act of urban warfare that brought Paris to a standstill for more than three hours on an otherwise typical Friday night. Six of the nine attackers had spent time fighting for Islamic State in Syria. Indeed, it was the third act of international terrorism perpetrated by IS in a fortnight, a campaign that started with the bombing of a Russian Metrojet flight over Sinai in Egypt, followed by a double suicide bombing in Beirut that killed 41 people – the deadliest attack in the Lebanese capital since the civil war there ended in 1990.

There are several significant operational observations to be made about what transpired in Paris. The attackers wore suicide belts in which the active ingredient was TATP, a highly unstable explosive based on acetone and hydrogen peroxide. TATP was also used in July 2005 when the London transport network was attacked. Known as the “mother of Satan” because of its volatility, it is usually manufactured at home and it is prone to accidental detonation – or, indeed, sometimes fails to detonate at all.

When two weeks after the July 2005 attacks four bombers attempted to replicate the carnage, their bombs failed to explode precisely because they had not been manufactured properly. The same was true for Richard Reid, the “Shoe Bomber”, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Underwear Bomber”, who smuggled TATP explosives on to American aircraft in 2001 and 2009, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Paris attacks is that every device proved to be viable – a reality born of the permissive environment in Syria and Iraq. A new generation of terrorists is now able to learn and rehearse the skills required to build devices that detonate successfully. The skills come with experience, and the newly ungoverned spaces of the Levant provide an ideal training ground.

Yet, for all the viability of the TATP devices used in Paris, the greatest loss of life came from assault rifles. This demonstrates how relatively unsophisticated tactics can still achieve mass casualties for terrorists determined to kill as many people as possible. The threat is particularly acute in mainland Europe, where automatic weapons move easily across the Continent, typically originating from criminal gangs in eastern Europe. Smuggling them into Britain is harder because the Channel limits the number of potential entry points.

The added protection resulting from Britain being an island is often overlooked. Just as guns are able to move more freely across the Continent, so, too, can people. This was brought into sharp relief when Imran Khawaja, a British man from west London who joined Islamic State in January 2014, attempted to re-enter the UK.

Khawaja had been particularly cunning. He hoped to slip back into Britain by evading the authorities after faking his own death in Syria, a plan his compatriots facilitated by eulogising and glorifying him. He then made his way across Europe by land, passing through several European countries before being arrested on arrival at Dover. None of this is to suggest that Britain does not face a very serious threat from Islamic State terrorism (it does), but the risks here are diminished compared to the threat facing countries in mainland Europe.


Trying to understand the strategic rationale behind Islamic State’s attacks outside Syria and Iraq is daunting. A degree of conjecture is required, although information gleaned from its communiqués, statements, and behaviour can go some way towards
informing a judgement.

It may seem obvious to observe that IS sees itself primarily as a state, yet this is worth restating, because other jihadist groups have made claims to statehood while continuing to act as terrorists or insurgents, tacitly recognising the nonsense of their own position. Not so Islamic State. It truly believes it has achieved the Sunni ideal of a caliphate and it acts accordingly.

This was the thinking that led the group to break from al-Qaeda, rebuffing Ayman al-Zawahiri’s position as the group’s emir. From Islamic State’s perspective, countries are not subservient to individuals. The significance of this self-belief became apparent last summer when the US began dropping aid parcels to stranded Yazidis who were otherwise starving and dying from exposure in the Sinjar Mountains of Iraq. The US also committed itself to protecting Erbil in northern Iraq by bombing IS fighters who were moving on the city, not least because US diplomats were based there and President Obama could not afford a repeat of the 2012 Benghazi debacle in Libya.

Islamic State responded by beheading its first Western hostage, the American journalist James Foley. Although the video of this was billed as a “Message to America”, it was directed specifically at Obama rather than the American people. In a speech evidently written for him, Foley told viewers that the US government was to blame for his execution because of its “complacency and criminality”.

When Mohammed Emwazi – “Jihadi John” – appeared in Isis videos as executioner-in-chief, he went some way towards explaining those accusations. “You are no longer fighting an insurgency. We are an Islamic army and a state,” he said. “Any attempt, by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living safely under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.” To that extent, Islamic State has pursued a campaign of retribution over the past 12 months against those it regards as belligerent enemies: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and its regional arch-rival Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based and Iranian-backed Shia militia.

There is an unspoken corollary to this approach, too: that Islamic State wants to make the cost of acting against it so unbearably high that its opponents are intimidated into acquiescence. For all its nihilistic sadism, IS is a rational actor. The group controls a large landmass, enjoys autonomy and makes claims to a revived caliphate. That is a project it wants to continue expanding and consolidating by being left alone to overrun the Middle East, a process that involves massacring minorities, including the Shias, Christians, Yazidis and Kurds.
If the West intervenes in this it must be prepared to face the prospect of mass-casualty terrorism at home.

Some will invariably argue that this is precisely what we should do. Leave them to it: Islamic State may be distasteful, but the cost of acting against it is too high. Besides, we cannot police the world, and what concern is it of ours if Arab societies implode in this way?

This view overlooks a broader (and inevitable) strategic imperative that can never be divorced from Islamic State. The group’s millenarianism and commitment to eschatological beliefs are such that it wants to be left alone – for now.

IS ultimately believes it must confront and then defeat the West in a comprehensive battle between haqq and batil: truth and falsehood. That became clear enough when Abdul-Rahman Kassig (originally Peter Kassig) became the fifth Western hostage to be executed by IS in November last year. The video of his killing was different from those that preceded it and started with the execution of 21 soldiers from the Syrian Arab Army who were fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.

A short speech by Mohammed Emwazi – again, directed at Obama – noted that the execution was taking place in Dabiq, a town in north-western Syria. The significance of this is not to be underestimated. Dabiq is noted as being the venue of a final showdown between the armies of Islam and those of “Rome”, a reference to the superpower of the day.

“To Obama, the dog of Rome, today we’re slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar and tomorrow we’ll be slaughtering your soldiers,” Emwazi said. “We will break this final and last crusade . . . and here we are burying the first of your crusader army [Kassig] in Dabiq.”

Kassig was branded a “crusader” because he had served in the US armed forces.

That final encounter is not necessarily reliant on Western intervention. Emwazi explained that Islamic State would also use Dabiq as a springboard to “slaughter your people on your streets”. Thus, for Islamic State, a confrontation with the West is inevitable. It would rather be left to consolidate its position for now, but there is no eventuality in which we could expect to escape its sabre-rattling indefinitely.

The religious significance attached to sites such as Dabiq plays a huge role in motivating the fighters of IS. While the world looks on with horrified bewilderment at its rampages, the power of its eschatological reasoning provides some insight.

Writing shortly after Russia entered the conflict, a relatively well-known Dutch fighter called Yilmaz (also known as Chechclear) invoked the importance of end-times prophecies. “Read the many hadith [sayings of the Prophet Muhammad] regarding Bilad al Sham [Greater Syria/the Levant] and the battles that are going to be fought on these grounds,” he said. “Is it not slowly unfolding before our eyes?”

Herein lies the power of Islamic State’s reasoning – its fighters, and the movement as a whole, draw huge succour from the religious importance of the sites around which they are fighting. It serves to convince them of the righteousness of their cause and the nobility of their endeavours.

Faced with a campaign of Western aerial bombardment (albeit one that is limited and unambitious), Islamic State has decided to bait its enemies into fighting it on the ground. To that end, towards the end of the Kassig execution video, Emwazi advises Obama that Islamic State is “eagerly waiting for the rest of your armies [sic] to arrive”.


One final point should be noted about the possible strategic aims of the Paris attacks of 13 November. Islamic State has been dispirited by the mass migration of Syrian refugees into Europe. Instead, it has appealed to them to migrate eastwards, towards the caliphate, rather than into disbelieving Western nations.

In an attempt to dissuade refugees from heading to Europe, IS released a series of videos featuring Western foreign fighters – including some from France – who told viewers how much they despised their home countries. Their message was one of persecution, of Muslims under siege, and of a hostile, unwelcoming Western world.

By way of contrast, they attempted to display the benefits of living in the so-called caliphate, with stilted images of the good life that would make even North Korean officials blush: schoolchildren in class, doctors in hospitals, market stalls filled with fresh produce.

Smuggling fighters into France who had posed as refugees is likely to have been a deliberate and calculating move, designed to exploit fears among some about the potential security risk posed by accepting Syrian refugees. Islamic State likens refugees seeking a future in Europe to the fracturing of Islam into various encampments following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632AD. Most of these sects arose from divisions over who should succeed the Prophet in leadership of the Muslim community, but some went into open apostasy.

Viewing events in this way, Islamic State argues that any Muslim not backing its project is guilty of heresy. For refugees to be running from it in such large numbers is particularly humiliating: the group even ran an advert that juxtaposed an image of a camouflaged military jacket alongside that of a life vest. A caption read, “How would you rather meet Allah?”

An article published this year in Islamic State’s English-language magazine Dabiq made this very point. It noted that: “Now, with the presence of the Islamic State, the opportunity to perform hijrah [migration] from darul-kufr [the land of disbelief] to darul-Islam [the land of Islam] and wage jihad against the Crusaders . . . is available to every Muslim as well as the chance to live under the shade of the Shariah alone.”

Islamic State recognises that it cannot kill all of the refugees, but by exploiting European fears about their arrival and presence, they can at least make their lives more difficult and force them into rethinking their choice. All of this falls into a strategy where IS wants to eradicate what it calls the “grayzone” of coexistence. Its aim is to divide the world along binary lines – Muslim and non-Muslim; Islam and non-Islam; black and white – with absolutely no room for any shades of grey.

“The Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatise and adopt the kufri [infidel] religion propagated by Bush, Obama, Blair, Cameron, Sarkozy and Hollande in the name of Islam so as to live amongst the kuffar [disbelievers] without hardship, or they [migrate] to the Islamic State,” says an editorial in Dabiq magazine. “The option to stand on the sidelines as a mere observer is being lost.”


Atrocities such as the Paris attacks are designed to put a strain on the “grayzone”, thereby polarising Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike. Indeed, this is precisely what Islamic State said it hoped to achieve after the Malian-French radical Amedy Coulibaly declared, in a video released two days after his death, that he had participated in the Charlie Hebdo attacks on IS’s behalf. “The time had come for another event – magnified by the presence of the Caliphate on the global stage – to further bring division to the world and destroy the grayzone everywhere,” Dabiq said.

Beyond the tendency of all totalitarian movements to move towards absolutism in their quest for dominance, Islamic State also believes that by polarising and dividing the world it will hasten the return of the messiah. Once again, eschatology reveals itself as an important motivating principle.

This is both a blessing and a curse for Islamic State. Certainly, it is what underwrites its remarkable self-assurance and certainty and at the same time fuels its barbarism. Yet it may also prove to be its unravelling. IS has now attacked Russian and French civilians within a fortnight, killing hundreds. The wider world is finally realising that Islamic State is a threat it cannot afford to ignore.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror