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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The dark shadow

The Brexit proposal springs from panic and would certainly be terrible news for Britain’s economy – but it carries a threat even greater than that.

It cannot be said that the European ­Union is doing particularly well at this time. Its economic performance has been mostly terrible, with high unemployment and low economic expansion, and the political union itself is showing many signs of fragility. It is not hard to understand the temptation of many in Britain to call it a day and “go home”. And yet it would be a huge mistake for Britain to leave the EU. The losses would be great, and the gains quite puny. And the “home” to go back to no longer exists in the way it did when Britannia ruled the waves.

We live in a thoroughly interdependent world, nowhere more so than in Europe. The contemporary prosperity of Europe – and elsewhere, too – draws on extensive use of economic interconnections. While the unacceptable poverty and inequality that persist in much of the world, including Britain, certainly call for better-thought-out public engagement, the problems can be addressed better without getting isolated from the largest economy next door. The remarkable joint statement aired recently, by a surprisingly large number of British economists, of many different schools, that Brexit would be an enormous economic folly, reflects an appreciation of this glaring reality. Apart from trade and economic exchange with Europe itself, Britain is currently included in a large number of global agreements as a part of the European Union. Britain can do a lot – for itself and for Europe – to correct some of the big mistakes of European economic policies.

The Brexit-wallahs, if I may call the enthusiasts that (without, I hasten to add, any disrespect), sometimes respond to concerns of the kind I have been expressing with the reply that Britain can surely retain the economic interconnections with Europe, and through Europe, even without being in the European Union. “Isn’t that what Norway largely did?” Norway has certainly done well, and deserves credit for it. But the analogy does not really work, not just because Britain is a huge economy in a way Norway is not, but much more importantly because quitting is not at all the same thing as not joining. Britain’s extensive economic ties with Europe, and a great many EU trade agreements that go beyond Europe in the multilateral global economy, are well established now and disentanglement would be a very costly process – a challenge that Norway did not have to face.

But perhaps most importantly, it must be recognised that quitting is a big message to send to Europe and to the world: a message that Britain wants to move away from Europe. As four decades of economic studies have shown, signals can be dramatically important for economic relations. Conclusions will certainly be drawn on how dependable and friendly Britain can be taken to be. A jilted partner has more reason for angst than an unapproached suitor.

***

While the economic arguments against Brexit are strong, the political concerns are even stronger. The unification of Europe is an old dream. It is not quite as old as is sometimes suggested: the dream is not of classical antiquity. Alexander and other ancient Greeks were less interested in chatting with Angles, Saxons, Goths and Vikings than they were in conversing with the ancient Persians, Bactrians and Indians. Julius Caesar and Mark Antony identified more readily with the ancient Egyptians – already strongly linked with Greece and Rome – than with other Europeans located to the north of Rome and the west. But Europe went through successive waves of cultural and political integration, greatly helped by the powerful spread of Christianity, and by 1462 King George of Podebrady in Bohemia was talking about pan-European unity.

Many other invocations followed, and by the 18th century even George Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette: “One day, on the model of the United States of America, a United States of Europe will come into being.”

It was, however, the sequence of the two world wars in the 20th century, with their vast shedding of European blood, that firmly established the urgency of political unity in Europe. As W H Auden wrote in early 1939, on the eve of the Second World War:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate . . .

His worst expectations found chilling confirmation in the years that followed.

The fear of a repeat of what Europeans had seen in these wars continued to haunt people. It is important in this context to ­appreciate that the movement for European unification began as a crusade for political unity, rather than for an economic union – not to mention a financial unification, or a common currency. None of the follies that make the economics of the European Union so problematic arose from that vision. The remedies that are needed (on which I have written elsewhere: see “What happened to Europe?”, the New Republic, 2 August 2012) would need policy changes and institutional reforms, but not any rejection of the idea behind a united Europe.

The birth of the European ­federalist movement was motivated strongly by the desire for political unity, free from self-destructive wars, as can be seen in the arguments presented in the Ventotene Declaration of 1941 and the Milan Declaration of 1943. There was, of course, no hostility to economic integration (and its merits were understood), but the priority was not on banking and currency, nor even on trade and exchange, but on peace and goodwill and a gradually evolving political and social integration. That political unification has fallen way behind the ill-thought-out financial moves is a sad fact. The EU’s policy priorities need to be scrutinised and reworked – a process to which Britain can contribute, and from which it can benefit along with other Europeans.

***

No wars, of course, will result from Brexit, yet that does not mean that the sense of rejection and distancing will have no adverse impact on the way Europeans see each other. That the dislike of having other Europeans settling in Britain is a major reason given in favour of Brexit – playing up the fear of “our” jobs, “our” economic opportunities being taken by “them” – makes this human distancing even more poignant. It is hard not to miss the recognition that this fear, exaggerated by dubious use of numbers, has been fanned politically by the enthusiasts for Brexit. And that adds to the intensification of relational adversity. Being “sequestered in hate” is a bit of a nightmare in its own right, even without the open violence which followed that terrible nightmare, shortly after Auden wrote his poem.

The EU did not create the idea of ­Europe, just as the idea of India was not a ­product of the nationalist movement (even though an otherwise brilliant European, Winston Churchill, failed to see any more unity in India than could be found around the Equator). The message of Brexit would have huge implications, given where the world is at this time. The Polish philosopher Leszek Koakowski has rightly asked, “If we would like the EU to be more than just a place for money temples of banks and the stock exchange, but also a place where material welfare is surrounded by art and is used to help the poor, if we want freedom of speech, which can be so easily misused to propagate lies and evil, as well as be used for inspiring works – then what is to be done?” When, at the end of the Second World War and after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Britain established its National Health Service and laid the foundations of a welfare state, it was inspired not merely by ideas originating in this country, but by thoughts that had sprung up across Europe, including the ideas of Kant and Marx and even Bismarck, in the country just defeated. There was no conflict between innovative British ideas and broader European thinking, nor between British and European identities (there is no reason for us to be incarcerated in one identity – one affiliation – per head).

The proposal of Brexit is born out of panic, and it is as important to see that the reasoning behind the panic is hasty and weak as it is to recognise that wisdom is rarely born of fright. In his Nexus Lecture, called “The Idea of Europe”, given a dozen years ago, George Steiner wondered about the prospects for Europe playing a leadership role in the pursuit of humanism in the world. He argued: “If it can purge itself of its own dark heritage, by confronting that heritage unflinchingly, the Europe of Montaigne and Erasmus, of Voltaire and Immanuel Kant may, once again, give guidance.” Brexit would certainly be a bad economic move, but the threat that it carries is very much larger than that.

Amartya Sen is Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard and won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics.

This article first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe