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Don’t mention the family

Right-wingers have blamed the riots on “moral collapse” and absent fathers. Here, we invite 11 leadi

In his great book After Virtue, published in 1981, Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that the most striking feature of "contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements . . . There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture." Moral statements amounted to little more than statements of personal preference.

Thirty years later, little has changed, as the aftermath of the English riots and responses to them show. Appalled and embarrassed by the marauding gangs and looters, David Cameron speaks of the "sickness" in our society, showing himself to be a classical conservative pessimist, a believer in original sin and in the futility of all utopian schemes to remake society. He says nothing about the socio-economic forces that shape behaviour, or the corrosive effects of entrenched inequality (for the true conservative, there are always natural inequalities). Nothing about how three decades of neoliberalism have coarsened our society, debased our discourse and corrupted our public morality. Nothing about how the venality of those at the top of society affects those at the bottom.

As for the left in general, there has long been a reluctance to address what it means to live a good and fulfilled life in an age when religion, for most of us in the secular west, can no longer offer guidance and when family life has become dysfunctional for many. The solution to all problems, it is said, is more state intervention and greater redistributive taxation.

In the late 1990s the French writer Michel Houellebecq, a former communist, began to re-evaluate his political positions, as the more thoughtful Labour politicians have done since losing power. In The Elementary Particles (published in Britain in 2000 as Atomised), which is part novel, part memoir, part polemical tract, Houellebecq denounced the excesses of the generation of 1968, les soixante-huitards. Recalling his own disturbed childhood and the irresponsibility of his mother, who abandoned her son when he was a baby (he was brought up by his grandparents), Houellebecq challenged the French liberal left to think more seriously about family breakdown. Above all he seemed to be saying that the social and sexual revolution of the Sixties had brought not freedom, but a kind of strange imprisonment. Society was too fragmented. We were too atomised.

Houellebecq was at the beginning of a journey that would end with his embrace of extreme reaction. However, more than a decade later, the force of his original denunciation of the decade of sexual liberation - which, for him, destroyed the conventional family, "the last unit separating the individual from the market" - is undiminished.

Long before the rise of Red Tories and Blue Labourites, Houellebecq articulated how globalisation had disenfranchised the urban poor and how lifestyle libertarianism had broken society. It is an insight understood by Phillip Blond, who, in 2009, in his essay "Rise of the Red Tories", wrote: "The current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be." One need not endorse Blond's religiously inspired social conservatism to acknowledge that many of the ties that used to bind us together - ties of familial, communal and civic obligation - have frayed.

“The generation that has grown up since the Second World War, the generation of our parents, was the most optimistic in history," Hou­ellebecq said. "They believed in progress, the consumer society, sexual happiness, and they were naive and wrong to believe in such things. This generation is different because it knows that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness, that pleasure is the opposite of happiness. That, to me, is an unassailable moral position."

Pleasure without happiness, freedom without responsibility: we are living through a profound cultural crisis. Does the left in Britain have anything original to say about family breakdown and our moral confusion? Can agreement be reached about what has gone wrong and what should be done about it? Overleaf, leading thinkers attempt to answer these questions and others as they, like the rest of us, move uncertainly through the burnt-out and blackened landscape of our cities, looking for a way forward.

We've asked a cross-section of thinkers on the left for their opinions:

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson: Poverty is the real issue here, not fathers.

Marc Stears: Blaming everything on inequality is a cop-out.

Ruth Lister: Two-parent households aren't always best.

Owen Jones: Unrest is being used to push a reactionary agenda.

Diane Abbott: Single mothers need support, not lectures.

Frank Field: A stable family is key in a child's early years.

Will Straw: Encouraging marriage by tax breaks is pointless.

David Lammy: We mustn't fear cries of the "nanny state".

Melissa Benn: It was mainly young men on the rampage. Why?

Neal Lawson: Capitalist greed is the cause of social breakdown.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?