Week two of the lockdown, 6am. The dawn streets of north London are empty. The blossom is still on the blackthorn and cherry trees. There is a woodpecker somewhere, its burr sounding intermittently in the silence. Three paramedics wearing masks are entering a nearby house. Across the city, a task force is collecting the dead. The Covid-19 virus has brought us to an abrupt halt. For this brief period, we have an opportunity to take stock and to understand something about how we have all been living over recent decades.
The pandemic has exposed the legacy of the old liberal order. The so-called just-in-time economy and the state being stripped back to minimal capacity have reduced our national resources and weakened our resilience. Beyond the immediate problems, such as the lack of personal protective equipment for health and key workers, and of ventilators and the staff to operate them, there are larger systemic failures.
We have failed to invest in training and skills, taking people’s work for granted and often squandering their contribution with poor management. Successive governments have allowed our strategic national assets – such as water and energy utilities, rail franchises, ports, airports, food and drink businesses, and chemical, engineering and electrical companies – to be sold off to overseas buyers. Britain is an open platform for global capitalism and its free, frictionless movement of everything. Almost ten million households have no savings, and a further three million have under £1,500 to fall back on in times of need. All this was compounded by George Osborne’s austerity regime and the cutting of public services in the years after the 2008 financial crash. We have barely avoided a social calamity, though many will now pay the economic consequences of a lockdown that has affected the different classes in deeply unequal ways.
As in the economy, so in public morality. Driven by the pursuit of unlimited production and consumption, the liberal ideal of freedom has become detached from the moral traditions that constrained mere licence. Our politics atrophied under a utilitarianism that denied the intrinsic worth of anything. Metaphysical questions about the meaning of life have become the preserve of sects and commercial brands.
For over 70 years our technologically advanced society in the West has mostly been protected from the depredations of war, absolute poverty and population displacement. Under these benign conditions, the liberal order has evolved an ideal of a world unfettered by the constraints of authority, tradition, biology and borders. Consumer culture promises that dreams will always be realised and a life never incomplete. Death has been banished to the far horizon of living. But the coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that, on the contrary, death is all around us. We are mortal and human existence is precarious. The dominant creed of liberalism has little to offer us in this moment of crisis. It has no transcendent certainties to navigate life by, no political economy for ensuring a fair share, and no moral resources for helping us live together.
Into the abyss
The Protestant revolution of the 16th century initiated an idea of human community in which each individual was alone with his or her God, who was recast as a transcendent and unknowable deity. In place of the sacrament, there was the word; in place of the priest, individual conscience. Self-examination succeeded oral confession. Personal salvation was the will of God and only required faith and surrender to divine omnipotence. It was, writes the historian Geoffrey Elton, an “appeal which can only be called liberating and exhilarating”. It gave rise to a self-conscious inner life. The meaning of life was no longer fixed, but became a task of individual self-examination and interpretation of God’s word.
With the advent of the Enlightenment, the goal of humanity became the technological mastery of nature and, in the words of Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the “command of all creatures”. The human mind of rational thought is separated from the body. The meaning of life comes to reside in the working of human reason. In this modern secular and bureaucratic world, the universe and nature are desacralised. Human beings exist alone, not part of nature but in tandem with it. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) confronted European civilisation with the truth about a godless world. In a short essay, “On the vanity of existence”, he wrote that we begin in “the madness of carnal desire”, and end in “the torment of the last illness and finally the throes of death”. Does it not look as if existence were an error? he asks.
In recent times, nobody has chronicled European nihilism better than the French novelist Michel Houllebecq. An admirer of Schopenhauer, he looks unflinchingly into the abyss of bourgeois middle-aged male experience formed in the liberation cultures of the late 1960s. For Houllebecq, custom and tradition have been destroyed by economic and sexual liberalism. Institutions and cultures have been dismantled, and countries dissolved. Civilisations, he writes in his most recent novel, Serotonin (2019), die of weariness and of self-disgust.
To his many critics, Houllebecq is an irredeemable misogynist and misanthrope. But his real target is the hypocrisy of the white liberal bourgeois male, knocked from his pedestal at the top of the old patriarchal order and desperate to retrieve his former status. Houllebecq’s male protagonists are haunted by the past, by the relationships they have destroyed and by the life they have never properly lived. “Deprived of reasons to live and reasons to die”, they seek escape in internet porn and the unrelenting pursuit of joyless sex, if they can get it.
Like Houllebecq, the Canadian thinker Jordan Peterson was propelled into public life by his willingness to look into the abyss. “In the West,” he writes in his bestseller 12 Rules for Life (2018), “we are increasingly falling prey to the desperation of meaninglessness”. Like Houllebecq, he sees what is monstrous in the modern consumer society and also what is monstrous within himself. But unlike Houllebecq, he refuses to succumb to “mortal despair” or to moral degradation. His message to his young, mostly male audience is simple: take responsibility for yourself. Everyone must shoulder the burden of being. Face the hardship and choose to do good in the world.
Both men have broken the bounds of what the cultural elite deem acceptable opinion. Both are dismissed as representatives of a white, chauvinist rearguard against the advance of women and minorities. In truth, they represent the nemesis of the liberal bourgeois class disorientated by nihilism and loss of status and economic opportunity. In recent times, on the liberal left, perhaps only the late cultural critic Mark Fisher was attuned to this sense of loss and disorientation in his writing. Fisher wrote that society was haunted by “all the lost futures the 20th century had taught us to anticipate”.
For the millennial generation who responded to Fisher’s message, the disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of the social imagination and the loss of the capacity to conceive of a different, better world. But Fisher discovered to his cost that the left he was a part of could not make a home for itself in the world. Its puritan moralism created a culture of intolerance. In his 2013 essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, Fisher describes his disillusionment with a liberal left that propagates guilt and is driven by the desire to excommunicate those who err from the true word or from liberal orthodoxies. People, he writes, fear being “outed, exposed and condemned”.
Fathers and sons
Week five of lockdown, and daily life has become interior and bounded by home.
I have been recalling a visit I made to my father some years after my mother had died. While he prepared lunch, I walked around his garden. The lawn he took such good care of was no longer close-cropped. The borders had a neglected quality to them. For a moment, I stood looking at the long reach of fields, the wood dipping down the slope to the row of terraced cottages and beyond, the church spire on the horizon, rising up into a light blue cloudless sky. I turned and went back inside. It proved to be the last time I would see my father alive.
We had watched an old cine film of our family holidays. In one scene I was ten years old and walking up the beach, through a crowd of people, making my way back to the house we rented each summer. I was unaware that my father had been filming me from a vantage point on the sea wall, and over 30 years later I had felt curiously unsettled as I watched myself being watched by him. At that moment, even though I did not experience it, he had been looking at me and thinking about me. As he watched me, my future was being given shape.
Nothing in the leftist politics I later espoused, and which had come between us, offered any sense or meaning to this past life: it would be dismissed as nostalgia. But the past determines the future and makes us who we are. None of it is chosen nor is it subject to free will. Attempts to eradicate our history through public censorship, or to repudiate it in revolutionary ideology or millenarian thinking, always end badly. The idea that we can wipe the slate clean and begin again in personal or social transformation is an illusion. Life is ordinary but also a mystery. We are born and we die in the midst of it. There are no transcendent answers to the problems we face. Politics is the challenge to make of it what we can.
Progressive politics in England begins, I would argue, with Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founder of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill called him “the father of English innovation” and the great critical thinker of his age. Bentham’s influence continues to infuse the culture of the British governing class. But in Bentham we discover the limitations of progressive politics. “In many of the most natural and strongest feelings of human nature he had no sympathy,” wrote Mill. He lacked the imagination to understand a mind different from his own.
Mill listed Bentham’s shortcomings. His knowledge of human nature was wholly empirical; it was the empiricism of “one who has had little experience”. What counted were facts and utility.
For Bentham, human life has no intrinsic meaning, but is governed by pleasure and pain and “self-regarding interest”. For all his radicalism, Bentham’s understanding of human beings was vacuous and superficial, and his utilitarian philosophy has been no small contributor to contemporary nihilism.
The fundamentals of the left do not – or should not – belong to the radical disposition alone. We are at heart conservative in our dependency upon others and our need for human association. There is no meaningful life without order and security. No originality except on a basis of tradition. No enduring love and relationships without the continuity of a familiar social existence, and no identity without a shared common culture. The left needs to rediscover its own conservative traditions that put the social ethic into English modernity and opposed what the economic historian RH Tawney called the “melancholy mathematical” creed of Bentham.
An older, deeper tradition of English socialism can be found in the early 19th-century populist agitator and propagandist William Cobbett. His politics were grounded in his trust in “the talent, the justice, and the loyalty of the great mass of the people”. It can be found in Mary Wollstonecraft explaining, in a letter to her lover Gilbert Imlay, that what matters is the imagination. “Reason,” she writes, “obliges me to permit my feelings to be my criterion.”
William Cobbett gave voice to an older form of English socialism. Credit: Alamy
These figures share Edmund Burke’s belief that a common life is a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born”. And they owe much to the poet Samuel Coleridge, who visited Germany in 1798 and brought back with him German Romantic philosophy. It was Coleridge’s friend William Wordsworth, in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”, who gave poetic form to Coleridge’s philosophy of life.
A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.
It is to this philosophy of life that the great Victorian moralist John Ruskin appeals in condemning the inhumanity of the secular religion of his age – political economy. All of these tributaries find their way into the work of the poet, designer, artist and activist William Morris, a man whom Ruskin described as “beaten gold”, and whose answer to the meaning of life was simply, “give me love and work, these two only”. This radical and conservative tradition of English socialism is parochial in that it is secure in its parish and love of country; it reaches beyond itself to the wider world for knowledge and understanding.
We might follow in Coleridge’s footsteps to Germany and to a group of distinguished Jewish intellectuals, who had once been students of the disgraced philosopher Martin Heidegger, notably Hannah Arendt and Hans Jonas. Arendt defined the existential choice facing Western modernity. In 1958, at the beginning of the space age, she published her book The Human Condition. She begins by noting the sentiment carved on the funeral obelisk of the early Russian space pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: “Mankind will not remain bound to the earth forever.”
This cosmic destiny is apocryphal: “Should the emancipation and secularisation of the modern age, which began with a turning away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?”
Arendt identifies in humanity “a rebellion against human existence as it has been given”, and the desire to exchange this free gift for something of our own making. In the process, humanity has sought to detach itself from nature.
Jonas strove to repair that separation. The disruption between human beings and the totality of their world is at the bottom of nihilism. In his 1992 essay “The Burden and Blessing of Mortality” Jonas describes human life as being dependent upon conditions over which it has no control. We have been emancipated from nature but we are still in need of it. Our freedom is always based in this dependency, and always at risk of being destroyed.
Human existence is paradoxical, unstable, precarious and finite. And yet, faced with our mortality, we find that we care, not only whether we exist but how we exist. For Jonas, the meaning of life is simply that it says “yes” to itself and so constantly asserts itself against lapsing into nothingness.
A sense of an ending
Week eight of the lockdown, 8am. In the local park a family is playing together. Dogs are being walked. Two teenagers ignore the social distancing rules as they pass a middle-aged woman in the street. In the flats next door, J– is leaning out of his window, mug in hand, smoking and watching. Out of sight there are many struggling to survive.
The human instinct for solidarity and mutual support is undimmed. We are fundamentally social beings seeking both freedom and security.
Hans Jonas is surely right. There is nothing more to life than the living of it. Faced with our mortality, we have a yearning for the world, and this takes the form of a greater fraternity, which begins in the local and extends out into wider humanity. This yearning is surely shared by all human beings. Ruskin put it well when he gave the radical and conservative tradition of English socialism the meaning of its existence: “There is no wealth but life.”
Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and a co-founder of Blue Labour
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special