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The Roots of Our Fragmentation
Dis-ease is the malady of our times.
Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first person, at least that I’ve seen, use the term “dis-ease”; the deftly placed hyphenation diagnosing the malady of our fragmented and alienated times. We have dis-ease within ourselves, our sense of meaning and purpose, and dis-ease with the conglomerate of people around us, the mass that once resembled civil society. And in our dis-ease, we are grasping. Grasping at the God-shaped hole we thought would be filled with material wealth, with the accumulation of Things, with the lie of tech “connectivity”, with the embrace of an “identity”, with a hollowed out concept of “community”.
While grasping at the God-shaped hole, we are also gasping. Gasping because we are drowning. Stuck in steerage on a sinking liner, the SS Neoliberal, hull crushed open by the iceberg of economic reality, the captains of industry drunk at the helm still convinced of their omnipotence, and no lifeboats on board because the designers said it was unsinkable, immutable: a self-evident truth.
But the only truth that is self-evident is our dis-ease. There is an irony here. The decades of the Cold War produced dystopian fictions about the war turning ‘hot’ and laying waste to our societies. Yet it was the end of the Cold War that catalysed the unrestrained release of the forces that laid waste to society, reducing us to a disaggregated polity stripped of dignity, of belonging, meaninglessly wandering around the wasteland of late-stage capitalism.
The timing was sublime. The mid-1980’s seemed to support the self-evident truth. Wall Street exploded, as did the City in London, unemployment and inflation plummeted, and socio-culturally the concept of “the West” was replaced with America itself: the shining city on the hill. And when the wall came down, literally and metaphorically, to signify the end of the Cold War status quo, our leaders were so entranced by the tune of the Pied Piper in Stars and Stripes, they followed blindly as the Piper tried to lead “the free world” while disintegrating before our eyes.
When we seek the roots of our fragmentation, there are three broad themes that interrelate: the economy as it relates to democracy and society; the individual as they relate to society and democracy; and the philosophical underpinnings of the ideal of an open society. Each of these strands could be an essay in their own right, but some specific points are important. The first theme - the economy as it relates to democracy and society - is bound to history, because economics lies at the core of the various 20th Century ideologies that sought to balance markets and prosperity with society. With the sole exception of the social democratic model, all failed in varying degrees of calamitous fashion. Communism, socialism, fascism, and Right-wing neoliberalism, all varied in their respective attempts to alter society and markets. By 1990, communism and fascism were each buried in the dust of their own destruction.
1990 was a catalyst for surviving models. China reinvented itself with a form a market-based socialism, not dissimilar from the State-based privatisation model which had been highly successful (economically) for fascism. But the West largely (with certain exceptions) assumed that Right-wing neoliberalism was the only model left standing. Even traditionally Left-of-centre political parties adopted the economic creed. The neoliberal model sought to replace society with markets acting as a self-correcting, omnipotent guiding social force: the social order itself. It has been a colossal failure. Its post-2008 authoritarian version of coerced austerity on the poor and socialist policies for the rich has been even more corrosive. In terms of catastrophic failures of economic theory, it is arguably second only to 20th Century communism.
This attempt to supplant society with the “invisible hand” of markets is central to the corrosive effects of this model on democracy and society, because it ignored reality: that markets inevitably serve a social function. By implication, markets that produce gross inequalities, as history always shows us, are unacceptably damaging to the fabric of society. The catastrophe of neoliberal economics has demonstrated that an imbalance of roles, i.e., State-centric in the case of socialism or market-centric in the case of Right-wing neoliberalism, produces unsatisfactory outcomes. Essential public services - health, education, transport, housing, legal aid and access, community centres - have been trashed, either by the private sector under the lie of “efficiency”, or by slashed funding under the equally pernicious lie of “small State”.
And so the social fabric has been gutted at the altar of economic theory. There is another irony here. The “free” market fundamentalists who continue to shout at the ghost of communism have proved they are cut from the same cloth, worshipping their abstract theories while society crumbles around them. Both are universalist theories, and both are defined by historical determinism that views their respective social and economic orders as the inevitable end of history. More relevant to our social fragmentation, both theories failed to preserve the dignity of the individual in economic relations. Communism at least tried to create a community culture, with the emphasis on workers, recreational, and sporting clubs. Yet despite our ubiquitous use of the term “community”, neoliberal globalisation has devastated the very concept. Towns have been stripped of industry, employment, and opportunity; public services disemboweled. Trust in institutions is in the gutter. And the gross inequalities of our economic settlement has found expression as erosion of trust in democracy and its institutions.
That we cannot separate society from markets holds important implications for the relations between individuals, economic models, and society. This is the second defining theme; that of the individual as they relate to society and democracy. Failed models like fascism and communism subsumed the individual into the State, thus eradicating the distinction between society and State, in different ways. Conversely, Right-wing neoliberalism championed a culture of hyper-individualism characterised by negative freedoms (i.e., “freedom from...”) emphasised over positive freedoms (i.e., “freedom to...”). In the neoliberal ontology, “freedom” became a synonym for the pursuit of self-interest, and anything that impeded this pursuit, including society itself, was viewed as an obstacle that the State should dismantle (i.e., “deregulation”).
This most destructive application of this principle of negative freedoms was with corporations, who were freed of any moral obligations to society, or constraints against the pursuit of their self-interest in an unimpeded market. This eradicated the distinction between society and the market, with the market replacing society. But recall the fatal flaw in this theory, which was ignoring the reality that markets serve a social function. By removing the relational aspect of society, the neoliberal ontology degraded the humanity of the concept of individual freedom by divorcing fairness and justice from market behaviour, creating the predatory and corrosive model of late-stage capitalism.
This deliberate conflation of economic freedom for corporations with civil freedoms for individuals allowed for the architects of this model to cry “freedom!” while offshoring industries, dismantling social safety nets, and forcing the shallowest pockets in society to shoulder the burden of debts from the financial gambling at the core of the model. At the individual level, the devastation is so thorough that the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have coined a term for the surge of suicide concomitant to the explosion of drug overdosing, alcoholism, and endemic distress in the working class: “deaths of despair”. Deaths of despair. Deaths of fucking despair. In the wealthiest nations in history.
In 1990 we were promised the rising tide would raise all boats, as an immutable economic truth. In reality what transpired was an economic model that produced deaths of despair. When Thatcher proclaimed that “there is no society”, this wasn’t a statement of fact at the time. It was a prophecy; that the Reagan-Thatcherite revolution would ensure that there is no society left, when it was done with us. And so it has come to pass. Stop blaming those who have been brutalised by this system for voting for Trump, or the Tories, or Giorgia Meloni, or any Right-wing populist party. Their anger is justified. And you, Dear Liberal, have offered only scorn and condescension, rather than hope.
There is no society. There are opioid-riddled rust-belt towns and British high streets littered with boarded-up M&S’s, a gaping educational divide, and a small cartel with all the property and wealth. And yet the architects of the model continue to frame their ideology in terms of “the West”, and position the Right as “defenders of the West”. But as Paul Kingsnorth has written, what exactly is it they are defending? “The West” that its defenders refer to is now little more than Walmarts and parking lots, bypass motorways and McDonalds’. And this wasteland leads us to our final defining theme: the liberal ideal of an open society, and the guiding philosophies for such a social order.
These guiding philosophies are the most important of these three themes, the very basis for the conceptual social order we came to term “the West”. Our fragmentation and alienation was an inevitable consequences of being severed from these philosophical roots by an socio-economic model that championed hyper-individualism while dismantling society. If our leaders had truly been adhering to the guiding principles of what we called “the West”, that would not - could not - have come to pass.
The true ontological origin of the Western concept of the individual, as Oxford’s Larry Siedentop has exquisitely portrayed, we owe to the theology and canon law of the early Christian church, which emphasised the moral equality of all souls. For such a concept of moral equality to operate, it required the premise of individual agency, which constituted a radical departure from the hierarchical organisation of pagan societies (although this concept of moral equality was ultimately overtaken by new societal forces, namely the emergence of the feudal system).
Nevertheless, the conceptual basis individual agency, expanded in the 12-14th Centuries by theologians such as John Scotus and William of Ockham, characterised individual freedom as having necessary and sufficient components: freedom was necessarily the freedom to act, but that action was not sufficient if it was not also just. Individual agency was thus the freedom to act with conscience in a way that acknowledged moral equality of all. This was the true meaning of “personal responsibility”; that to accept such a responsibility was to give effect to a social contract which acquiesced to reciprocity and constraints. Isaiah Berlin would come to describe as the difference between “freedom from...” and “freedom to...”. The latter is characterised as positive freedoms, i.e., the freedom to accept the responsibility of reciprocal obligations to others, which is a “relational responsibility” based on the reality of social engagement between actors in society, both individual and institutional.
The true Western conception thus saw the individual as societal-based, not market-based as in the neoliberal ontology. In this respect, it is society that ultimately provides for the expression of individual freedoms. Given the relational responsibility between individuals and institutions, once institutions became unresponsiveness to the needs of citizens, or ideologically captured, this social contract was broken.
This reflects the reality that individuals are of a society, not independent of society per the neoliberal ontology, and responsibility in an individual sense cannot be divorced from society using negative freedoms (i.e., “freedom from...”). In this context, “personal responsibility” in the neoliberal sense is an oxymoron for a functioning society, because no individual exists in true isolation from others in society. Thus, the concept of responsibility cannot be reduced to the individual alone. Properly conceived, personal responsibility is a freedom to be responsible to society, not a freedom from responsibility to society, and once a socio-economic model triumphed freedom from responsibility, particularly for corporations, a decimated social order was an inevitable endpoint.
However, this fundamental shift to a social order predicated upon negative freedoms, and severing the relational nature of responsibility between individuals and institutions, has had implications beyond economic disaster. It held implications for the very ideals of an open society, one characterised as a project of civic, political, and intellectual freedoms. It held implications for how, in an increasingly secular society, we would replace the communitarian aspects of religion and relational responsibility that religious organisation provides.
The intellectual aspect of the project has only functioned based on openness. Ideas must be expressed openly, and always open to scrutiny, in a way that means the best ideas come through because they are both testable and have been tested. On this principle of freedom of expression, science and academic freedom were built. Anyone has the entitlement to express an idea or theory; and anyone equally has the right to rubbish that theory if it fails to stand up to open scrutiny. In our contemporary societies, characterised by “My Truth, Your Truth” epistemic relativism, the principle of open scrutiny becomes crucial. Yet a characteristic of our fragmented dis-ease is how many factions seek to control the ideas of others while shielding their own from scrutiny. To control thoughts, police words. Control who can speak at a university, control what books can be read in secondary schools. These are the symptoms of a deeply dis-eased society that has no sure sense of itself.
The civic aspect of the project has only functioned based on the relational nature of responsibility. In an open tolerant society, the principle of reciprocity means that we work to ensure that expression of individual freedoms does not come at the expense of others. Competing rights are a reality of an open society. To seek to positively legislate for rights of one group requires a very clear, cogent, persuasive rationale for why that is necessary and full consideration of how it may impinge on the expression of individual freedoms and exercise of rights of others. Individual freedom entails the assumption of responsibility to accept constraints on the exercise of freedoms if they may unduly impact on the freedoms of others, and the responsibility to accept reciprocal obligations predicated upon an assumption of moral equality. A healthy democracy cannot function if society is atomised into a market of oppression with groups trading stock in grievances.
And finally, we have the God-shaped hole aspect of the project. Secularisation was not, as some may tell it, a project of the State seeking separation from the Church. It was derived from the recognition in canon law that if individuals’ had moral agency, this entailed consequences for the relationship between the individual and institutions of power in the Church and the State. The Church would be the domain of faith; the State would operate as the guarantor of individual rights, enshrined by the State and protected by the judiciary.
We retain the State and judicial element. But religion - a metaphorical church - is no longer the domain of faith, and no one has figured out how to fill the void. Conservatives that are no longer overtly religious have placed invested faith in flag and nation; liberals have adopted the secular religion of “Social Justice”, with its faith-based premises about the nature of reality. Politics has become an expression of faith, yet irrespective of political faiths, everyone fills the void with immaterial alternate realities. And nothing is held sacred.
We have landed somewhere similar to where citizens in the German Democratic Republic found themselves in 1990 when one day the country and socio-economic order they had grown up with ceased to exist. The buildings remained the same; only the prevailing ideas and theories had changed. Similarly, we are not surrounded by buildings in rubble, yet we are wandering a wasteland at the curtain call of another failed economic model that uprooted society itself, and severed the very concept of “the West” from its roots in positive freedoms and reciprocal responsibilities. So here we are. Fragmented, alienated, aggrieved, dis-eased. Dying of despair.
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