Fighting back against Facebook, the search for the common good and life on John Gray’s desert island

Because they are fashionable and we like their products, these multinational companies have been grotesquely indulged.

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On Monday evening in the Chapter House of St Paul’s Cathedral I took part in a seminar on democracy and the common good. Among those present were Michael Sandel, Roland Rudd, the MPs Jesse Norman, George Freeman, Jon Cruddas and Rachel Reeves, as well as assorted religious leaders. We were discussing a pamphlet by Adrian Pabst that had been commissioned by the St Paul’s Institute.

Pabst, in association with the institute and others, is seeking nothing less than to remoralise politics. A New Statesman contributor, he is interested in questions of virtue and justice, and in how we might achieve personal fulfilment while meeting our obligations to one another and wider society. Pabst says the idea of justice has become debased: “Justice is either about maximising utility or about promoting freedom (or both at once), but in each case questions about a worthwhile human existence or flourishing societies are bracketed from the court of public discussion.”

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Michael Sandel’s Harvard lectures broadcast on YouTube have made him famous. (Check out the talks on justice if you have never seen them.) The last time I spoke to him was when I interviewed him a few weeks before the European referendum in 2016. I was working with Gordon Brown on a special guest-edited issue of the New Statesman on the European Question. Yet most of Brown’s commissions – grandees from Chatham House and so on – exemplified what I thought was wrong with the Remain campaign: an elite telling the people why voting against Brexit was in their best interest, notwithstanding their stagnant wages, feelings of powerlessness and desire to give David Cameron a bloody nose.

Sandel had a different perspective. “My hunch,” he told me then, “is that voters will decide less on economics than on culture and questions of identity and belonging.” He was correct. He also predicted that we would vote for Brexit and that Trump would win – because people “are rightly frustrated” with the empty terms of public discourse. “Politics for the most part fails to address the big questions that matter most and that citizens care about: what makes for a just society, questions about the common good, questions about the role of markets, and about what it means to be a citizen.”

These questions remain as urgent as they ever have, and the next British political leader who can address them convincingly – or at least attempt to do so honestly – will win a landslide.

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When I worked on the Observer Carole Cadwalladr was on the travel desk. She also wrote spirited features and profiles. In more recent times, she has been investigating the operations of the data mining and analytics firm Cambridge Analytica and its connections to Robert Mercer, an American hedge fund billionaire and libertarian, who is a prominent Trump supporter. Last weekend, Cadwalladr interviewed a whistleblower who revealed that Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained and mined the data of 50 million Facebook users.

When I spoke to Carole before Christmas, she was convinced that Mercer was part of a malign network of “alt-right white nationalists” (who included Nigel Farage) and wealthy libertarians who were intent not only on destabilising the West but “engendering hate and destroying liberal democracy”. She has been abused online by anonymous trolls and traduced as paranoid and a conspiracy theorist. But she has stuck at it, displaying great resolution and fortitude.

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On Monday 19 March, Facebook was grappling with the consequences of the whistleblower’s revelations – as well as a Channel 4 undercover investigation into Cambridge Analytica – when 7 per cent (nearly $40bn) was wiped off its share price. I am not on Facebook or any social network apart from Twitter, which I joined comically late. I consider the veneration of Big Tech to be a kind of modern cult or religion. Because they are fashionable and we like their products, the multinational tech companies, with their clichéd obsession with “innovation” and “disruption” and utopian dreams, have been grotesquely indulged. It’s time to go after them. We should start by ensuring they pay their fair share in tax.

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For those of you who have not heard it, I recommend John Gray’s appearance on Desert Island Discs. Before the programme the comedian David Baddiel tweeted: “Betting that John Gray on Desert Island Discs will be wall-to-wall Brahms.” He lost that bet. In the event, John’s musical choices were a surprise and a delight. He dislikes self-revelation and told me recently when we had lunch that he would never write a memoir, and so it was fascinating to hear him speak a little about his working-class boyhood in the north-east of England before he went up to Oxford (his father was a joiner and carpenter who worked in the docks and his mother was a “housewife”).

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Because he does not believe in progress nor has a teleological view of history – what can be gained can just as easily be lost – John has been caricatured as a pessimist. He’s nothing of the kind. But he isn’t an optimist either: rather he is, as he told Kirsty Young, the smooth-voiced presenter of Desert Island Discs, “hopeful”. She was baffled by the distinction between optimism and hopefulness. So John explained: “Optimism is an attitude of mind according to which there is some process of the growth of knowledge, the advance of technology, the advance of science.” At best, “human knowledge is ethically ambiguous”, and so politics is the “search for partial remedies to recurring human evils”. How then, he was asked, should one lead a good life? The answer was persuasive: follow your best impulses.

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 appears in the 22 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special