Make serious suggestions to tackle the grievances of left-behind Britain, and you soon run into backlash from commentators who would glorify its rageby Martin Sandbu / July 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
One of the most consequential policy questions of our age is whether it is possible to address economic and social polarisation in the western world without engaging in a culture war on liberal cosmopolitanism. In my recent book, The Economics of Belonging, I argue that it is possible, and outline a policy programme of “centrist radicalism” for how. I hope I am right: the alternative is that the deep divisions of western politics can only be overcome through a culture war where one side must win and the other lose decisively.
That alternative view reflects what in the political philosophy debates of the 1980s and 1990s was called communitarianism, which stood in opposition to political liberalism. While philosophy itself has moved on, the controversy animates today’s political and policy debates more than ever. It has been most successfully popularised by David Goodhart’s pithy distinction between the cosmopolitan liberal “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres” who are supposedly uniquely rooted in a geographically-bounded communities.
That distinction was always facile. It ignores that we belong to many communities, not all geographically defined, and essentialises what is or should be a matter of agency, namely how we manage our communities over time and vis-à-vis others. Above all, it rules out by definitional fiat the possibility that one can at the same time identify as a citizen of the world and care for specific, even place-bound, communities. In so doing, it helps the labels serve their main purpose, which is to define and divide opposing cultural camps, separated by an unbridgeable gap.
In the political realm, the British standard-bearers of this communitarian perspective have included Nick Timothy, whose ideological reorientation of the Tory party under Theresa May (remember the opposition of the “just about managing” against “citizens of nowhere”) has outlasted him, and, it seems, Oxford professor Paul Collier, who has reviewed my book for Prospect.
Collier certainly embraces the somewhere/anywhere dichotomy, as he finds it useful to pigeonhole me as “a fully paid-up Anywhere.” He does not mention whether a lifetime career at elite universities and multilateral policy institutions qualifies him for the same epithet, nor explain the necessary route to redemption from it. What is clear is that he rejects my premise that cosmopolitanism is compatible with building—or…