Rise and Fall

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does society. As every political trend or moral code becomes outdated and is abandoned, another fills its place. The recession was a turning point where many of society’s preoccupations changed. In the second of a two-part article we examine what’s new.

Sociologist Ulrich Beck asserts that we are faced with “manufactured uncertainty” because of the growth of human knowledge. In other words, the more we learn, the more uncertain we become of our achievements. In the past we could rely on social institutions to provide us with some certainty. As these institutions–organised religion, the welfare state, trade unionism, the left/right divide, state capitalism–become increasingly dated or discredited, humanity has had to find a new moral framework.

So much of what we took for granted is in decline, but we are not heading towards anarchy. General government expenditure as a percentage of GDP has continued to increase since the 1950s. (Social Trends, 1996.) The programme of privatisation means the state has been receding in its more direct economic involvement since the 1980s, but at the same time it is increasingly reaching into areas of our lives previously left alone.

Throughout this century the state has played a role in trying to impose a moral code for society to compensate for the decline in institutionalised religion., but while religion offers supernatural explanations involving unknown powers, state-led morality is weaker because it comes directly from those with similar failings to our own trying to work with a system which can’t fulfil our needs. We don’t need to cast our minds too far back to remember the hypocrisy of the Conservatives espousing “family values” amid continual sex scandals. A stronger example of the state attempting to impose moral authority is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994), which tightened up existing legislation concerning large public gatherings, police powers and the rights of travellers and police powers. More recently we have been introduced to zero tolerance zones, jobseeker contracts, increasing numbers of CCTV cameras and the possibility of identity cards. Since the late 1980s, concentration on individual behaviour and identity has overshadowed many wider issues of government and society.

When Tony Blair said that drug abuse was as important in Britain now as poverty had been in the past he encapsulated the way of thinking which now predominates. Today’s assumption is that society itself is uncontrollable, and poverty, homelessness, crime and pollution are permanent, so all we can do is tackle the effects of these problems rather than their causes. In the past, governments have tried to give the impression that they are approaching problems at their source, even though history has proved them impotent. The emphasis today is not on how the individual can affect society, but how society affects the individual.

Increases in disposable income and the expansion of the mass media have meant that individuality is now more likely to be expressed through lifestyle choices than in any wide-ranging ideas, whether trade unionism, Christianity or politics. Any desire for social change has to be expressed through a collective mechanism, otherwise it is ignored or unfocused.

As a result the individualism of the 1980s has turned into the powerlessness of the 1990s. The supposed hallmark of the “Caring Nineties”, that greed is no longer good, is only a convenient moral by-product of the recession. When material wealth is viewed as a reward for effort, then the attitude that wealth is destructive is more likely to lead to increased deprivation than a society where wealth is organised equally. Socialism is about wanting access to more and better, not accepting less and worse. In the early years of this decade the justification for reducing consumption was the threat of environmental destruction. But this particular ideology was a victim of the austere social and economic conditions which had created it.

The overriding feeling that society cannot be changed fundamentally has led to a proliferation of single-issue political parties, including the anti-abortion Pro-Life Alliance, the Referendum Party and, most successfully, Martin “anti-sleaze” Bell. Previously, such groups would have tried to influence one or more of the main parties. Now their opinion seems to be that the political system is so worthless it is best used to advertise a moral standpoint. They may be exercising a democratic right to attract support, but they show a dangerous lack of interest in wider political theories, of whatever kind.

The main political parties are leading this trend of simplification. The establishment of a Cabinet Consultative Committee (with Liberal Democrat participation) reflects Tony Blair’s desire to “usher in a new era of politics” in which the government co-operates with other parties which share its views. In theory, the dynamic of politics is in the competition between differing parties to attract support. In Labour’s new era the movement appears to be towards making the government as dominant as possible in parliament, leaving less room for parties representing opposing views. The first subject this particular unelected committee will discuss is electoral reform.

The possibility of a Lib-Lab pact against the dwindling Conservatives is evidence of a centrist consensus in parliament, rather than a one-party state. No major party now offers a distinct vision of the future, but instead aims to do its best within unambitious limits. The election campaign was based around promoting the “best” people, rather than the “best” political ideology. Since then, we have seen a number of measures concentrating on the image and behaviour of politicians. The ministerial code of conduct published on 31 July highlighted the government’s mistrust of its own members. And the day before, the Blairs rubbed shoulders with their most image-friendly supporters, including Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Wallace and Gromit’s animator Nick Park and Angus Deayton of Have I Got News For You.

In a way, this reflects an honesty not seen before in mainstream politics. The grip of the economic system is too tight to allow politicians much leeway, and the increasingly widespread perception of parliament as an unworkable technical process is a realisation of this. It is impossible for them to reform the governmental system to work for the benefit of the majority, so they find themselves trying to reform its image.

All the institutions in decline are based on appreciation of some sort of collective activity, while those rising to prominence encourage individualism. Activities or social structures which involve widespread interaction are being perceived as irresponsible or a threat. The Internet is a rare example of something which is both isolating and interactive and, undoubtedly, it is an excellent tool for streamlining global communication, but it has quickly gained a reputation as being an outlet for pornography reserved for computer geeks. While any scientific advance is open to question there is now less optimism about technology compared to the 1950s or late 1970s, despite the advances being made. The scientific developments grabbing the most headlines are those often perceived as amoral or unethical, such as sheep cloning or fertility treatments.

Even as western society moves away from recession, we still live in pessimistic times. The pre-millennial mood is that we have come too far for our own good. We find safety in nostalgia and risks in anything new. The fantastic achievements humanity has made in the realms of communications technology, space exploration, medical science and even in drama, music and the visual arts aren’t celebrated enough. Humanity’s view of itself has been tainted by a harsh economic and political system unable to keep up with our potential.

Mike Foster

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