In post-Thatcher Britain, we are nostalgic for social cohesion and a sense of belonging. But Michael Ignatieff argues that we cannot reconcile freedom with belonging. New Labour's stakeholding and constitutional reforms are welcome, but they cannot turn back the tide of social fragmentation and atomisation—these are inescapable components of modernityby Michael Ignatieff / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Certain social anxieties are an inseparable part of the experience of being modern. One of these concerns the possibility of belonging. Is it possible to feel a sense of belonging to societies which change as rapidly as modern ones do, which are as explicitly divided—by race, class, gender and region—as modern ones are, and which are as driven by the power of money as capitalist modernity has been? The way the question is put suggests the answer. Modernity and belonging just do not go together: the incompatibility is not simply a matter of the brutal temporariness of the modern social order. It is also a question of how the modern individual is put together, whether the modern self wants to belong in the ways that were available in the face-to-face intimacies of tribal and village life. Modernity’s core value is freedom, especially the freedom to fashion one’s identity and one’s life as one will. Since our very sense of dignity and self-worth are tied into this idea of personal freedom, we tend to rank feelings of belonging—to community, nation, family—much lower than our ancestors in pre-industrial, pre-modern societies.
Yet when we rank our values in this way, we continue to hanker after the certainties and securities which our choices have the effect of foreclosing. We may not believe that belonging is possible, but that hardly stops us wanting it. Belonging is not just a feeling of membership in a community—be it neighbourhood or nation—it is also a particular sense of understanding and being understood: understanding the wider world of social relations in which we live and feeling that those around us understand not just what we say, but what we mean.
Once this idea of understanding is acknowledged, we can begin to see why belonging is so impermanent and so ironic a feeling in modern society. Modern social orders are radically complex places: the division of labour in which we earn our living and the market-place in which we buy and sell our goods are huge global organisms which are poorly understood, even by experts. The technologies we manipulate every day also escape the understanding of most of us, although we use them happily enough. Our picture of society is given to us largely by the media and we suspect, quite rightly, that neither they nor we have any very firm idea of what is actually going on. This does not mean that understanding modernity is impossible, merely that it is difficult, and that our social knowledge is made up of myths and historical fantasies encrusted around a small stock of private experiences whose testimony we trust simply because it is ours.
The twin longings to understand the modern world and to master the forces which seem to have us in their grip are the impulses which drive modern politics. In this sense, all modern politics is about belonging, about creating the understandings and the institutional frameworks which enable us to believe that we do actually belong to communities called “society” or “nation” which in turn give us a collective means of exercising control over our private destinies. If the legitimacy of politics is in question at the end of the 1990s, it is because we do not seem able to devise policies to prevent the apparently unstoppable erosion of community, cohesion and the sense of belonging.
Our nostalgia for order and community is so deep that we have trouble facing the issue we began with: whether belonging is possible at all in modern societies such as our own. The question is not whether we can make our societies more just or efficient; whether we can govern them in the interests of the majority. Pessimism about the possibilities of political action is not justified. The 20th century offers several examples, the New Deal being the most benign, where societies which had almost despaired of political action managed to restore public faith in the possibility of politics itself. So the question is not: can we make our societies fairer? It is whether the pursuit of justice, fairness and efficiency can also deliver belonging, cohesion and community. On this question I believe, we should be sceptical.
britain was the first state to attempt to reconcile a liberal social order with modern capitalism. Now it is struggling to find a politics capable of holding together the social order itself in the hurricane unleashed by the computer-driven economic revolution. The British debate is important because it has not been parochial. Its impact has been felt around the world, wherever the crisis of belonging is addressed.
When Margaret Thatcher famously remarked, in the mid-1980s, that there was “no such thing as society,” she sent a surge of delighted self-recognition through one section of the country and a shiver of anxiety through the other. Her supporters felt she was taking aim at socialists’ chief ideological totem—”society” used as a moral abstraction to justify state interference. To her enemies, she was finally laying bare the inevitable results of her regime: the creation of a moral and social jungle. Since even some of her Conservative supporters squirmed at the bleak individualism of her vision, she was quick to evoke the emotions of national pride. There might be no such thing as society, but there was a nation, and such feelings of collective belonging as could be reconciled with free market competition could be safely directed to the nation’s chief institutions—parliament and the monarchy, and the traditions of political stability and civility conjured up by those magic words. The more anomic her vision of “society,” the more important it became for her to emphasise the stabilising virtues of national belonging.
No politician since the war proved more effective in mobilising political support from the two nations, rich and poor, north and south, included and excluded. Her appeal across the class divide succeeded precisely because she understood that inequality in the 1970s had drained one-nation Toryism of its remaining credibility. Sociological cynicism was central to her success. She told the British people what they believed to be true, that class divisions were and are incorrigible. Collectivist social engineering was bound to fail. The only way for the crabs to crawl out of the barrel was to pile on top of each other; those with the sharpest claws and fiercest attack would crawl over the rim. Her appeal to individualism was plausible, paradoxically, because it seemed to understand the depths of class envy and antagonism so much better than those who preached harmony and consensus.
Likewise, in her appeal to British nationalism, she exploited native British chauvinism but was not a captive to it. She was, in her belligerent way, a more committed European than most of her electorate, as her robustly interventionist stance on Bosnia shows. The core of her objection to Europe was that the harmonisation of European social protection and employment law would endanger British identity and competitiveness. A low-wage economy is, of necessity, an unequal one. She accepted with pride the sneer of other nations that Britain’s class divisions make it what it is. It is just such divisions—experienced from childhood in her father’s grocery—which engendered those driving passions of resentment, shame, envy and ambition that are alchemised by individuals into compensatory competition.
Her defence of inequality was combined with a spirited attack on the social archaism of the “one nation” appeal. She mobilised all those who felt either humiliated by its paternalism or angry at its hypocrisy. Compared to the emollient tones of Harold Macmillan, her embrace of the hard realities of social division sounded honest and bracing. She stood for a modern class system ordered by wealth and achievement rather than birth and inheritance. But the meritocratic accent did not conceal her underlying sociological relish towards the prospect of permanent—if always re-forming—class division.
Margaret Thatcher’s sociological vision is, alas, not history. She remains the delphic oracle of modern conservatism, not only in Britain but around the world. The meanings she attached to “society” and “nation” continue to shape British society long after her political demise. Reaganism was an interlude compared to this, in part because the British parliamentary system delivers to a prime minister bent on ideological and economic reconstruction a degree of power which the American constitution explicitly forbids to the president. The sheer scale of her impact, incidentally, ought to have put paid to a cherished British self-image of a nation safe from continental-style political enthusiasm, a country secure in its traditions and its continuities. This insular fable was not even true before Thatcher came to power. The scientific and industrial revolutions began here; as did the competitive market individualism which appalled European conservatives throughout the 19th century. The cliché of Britain as an island of political and social stability in a world of change was always false, but as long as the empire survived, it offered a convenient illusion. Since 1945, the illusion has been maintained, by left and right alike, but the imagery has soured: stability has come to seem like stasis, continuity like paralysis. In reality, Britain’s post-1945 history was not exceptional. Like France, it had to shed an empire and modernise an outdated industrial and social structure. Like the rest of Europe, it had to adapt its role in the light of the rise of US power. Since 1945, it has managed to accomplish all these tasks without the success that conservatives usually claim, but also without the failures insisted upon by the left.
Both the rhetoric of self-congratulation and self-flagellation have missed out how much Britain has changed since 1945. Britain has undergone three periods of revolutionary change. The Attlee government created the postwar society of entitlement, the 1960s created a new sexual, moral and aesthetic culture, and the Thatcher revolution sought to undo the first two and create a society of achievement. Two revolutions and a counter-revolution, then. In reality, they were three failed modernisations. The Attlee revolution began the retreat from empire and laid the basis for the welfare state but failed to address the emerging crisis in British economic performance; the 1960s revolution created the modern culture of self-expression and self-fulfilment but did nothing to reform an increasingly inefficient corporatist economy. The Thatcher revolution took up where these failed revolutions had left off: facing up to relative economic decline and facing down the so-called permissiveness of the preceding age. If there is anxiety about social cohesion in Britain, it is because, first of all, there has been so much change since 1945, and so much of it seemed to consume the society’s own image of itself as a stable, unchanging place.
In the 1990s we are in the midst of a reckoning on the record of this third and most convulsive of modernisations. The reckoning will probably be a damning one. The Labour party is betting, with some plausibility, that enough voters will recognise the truth in this picture of their society:
The sense of belonging to a successful national project has all but disappeared. Average living standards may have risen but have not generated a sense of well-being; if anything, there is more discontent because the gains have been spread so unevenly and are felt to be so evanescent. The country is increasingly divided against itself, with an arrogant officer class apparently indifferent to the other ranks it commands.
Millions of voters agree with this diagnosis written by Will Hutton, the editor of the Observer, in his best-selling survey of Britain’s ills The State We’re In.
the price of three failed modernisations has been high: increased inequality, decreased civility and a pervasive cynicism about the effectiveness of politics. The remedies proposed by New Labour are attractive: a “stakeholding society” which combines republican reform of the constitution to renew political citizenship, with reform of the economy and the welfare state to renew the sense of belonging to a national project. The aim, be it noted, is not simply improved economic performance, but increased social cohesion, neighbourliness, civic-mindedness and public activism. The attractive feature of proposals for a “stakeholding society” is that it purports to address the perceived amorality of a society purely devoted to self-interest. The concept of a social “stake” implies a desire to renew each individual’s contractual commitment to society: rights confer responsibilities and state entitlements imply an obligation to be civil, law-abiding and neighbourly.
Yet it is worth looking at the expectations which Labour and its best thinkers are setting themselves, for they are dauntingly difficult to satisfy: not merely higher living standards, but a “sense of well-being” and a sense of “belonging to a successful national project.” Belonging and a sense of well-being are more easily conjured as rhetorical abstractions than made real by legislation and collective action. The very words “society” and “nation” slide between irony and piety, losing content and focus as we use them. It is difficult enough, as 50 years of recent British politics should attest, to raise average living standards. Raising the average sense of well-being would be more difficult still. In fact, as environmentalists never cease to tell us, raising average living standards might actually reduce average sense of well-being. Every additional car may increase the living standard of the individual who purchases it but decrease the general well-being of those obliged to endure clogged roads and fouled air.
Rising living standards and well-being are ambiguously related at the best of times, and not simply for ecological reasons. In principle, well-being is a contestable good. Your idea of well-being may not be mine. In particular, it is not clear how a sense of well-being and a sense of belonging are connected. Or rather, we can make the direct connection only by privileging one kind of well-being over all others, namely the one which comes with a strong sense of civic and patriotic attachment. Needless to say, Will Hutton’s polemic makes just such an assumption: all right-thinking people will wish to participate actively in the affairs of their country. This is a flattering assumption, but it finesses a difficulty about liberty. If it is only order, cohesion and civility that you want, you would be happy in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore. A civic society should also be a free one. Individuals ought to be free in their patriotism. They should choose their level and degree of civic attachment. From which it follows that many will choose precious little attachment. Many indeed will choose to remain free riders, benefiting from services and entitlements to which they contribute little, if anything. A free society is bound to be a wasteful one, sustained by the activism of a minority rather than the active involvement of a majority.
Even the active minority will feel torn between conflicting loyalties. Citizenship, however valuable, is only one of our identities. We belong to families, work groups, networks of friends, private and public associations of all kinds. These different sites of belonging present us with constant conflicts of loyalty: how much time, effort, money can we afford to devote to each of these spheres. The privatisation of modern life is much lamented—families enclosed upon themselves, raising the drawbridge around their lives to the exclusion of their neighbours, connected to the wider society only through the distorting mirror of television and radio. But privacy is also a good thing, and if modern life is more private and less civic this, in part, reflects people’s real preferences.
Not all privatisation, however, is freely chosen. To the degree that this privatisation has been forced on people, a politics of belonging can and should do something to reverse the trend. Good public services and safe streets strengthen family life while drawing families out of the “fortress home” into a shared public sphere. Here, the strengthening of family values and citizenship go hand in hand. But in other cases, citizenship and family life may not be as easily reconciled. The modern suburban family has a relentless appetite for housing, supermarkets and motorways. The attempt to strengthen suburban family life by providing these goods puts other civic goods—such as green site land—under strain.
The problem is not merely that citizenship and privacy are often in conflict. What nuclear families want from the public sphere and what those living outside nuclear families want are difficult to reconcile. This splintering of society, into groups whose interests are necessarily in conflict, is wrongly understood if it is seen only as fragmentation or disintegration. In most cases, it is powered by a desire to live a life expressive of one’s own needs and choices.
As these opportunities for significant life choice multiply, so does the conflict, in principle, between freedom and belonging. We all sense this conflict daily, between wanting to get involved and wanting to be left alone, between attending to our own needs and those of our families or the strangers with whom we share our society. These conflicts are the very essence of being the social animals we are. They can never be conjured away. Our anxieties about what we owe society and what society owes us are integral to the modern idea of belonging. It is a conflictual, rather than an easeful state, and the sense of well-being it imparts is ambiguous. If you are looking for well-being, you might get more reliable results if you choose a life of radical selfishness. While it may be a delusion to suppose that private affluence can be meaningfully appreciated in an environment of public squalor, it is also pious to suppose that private well-being necessarily requires any extensive degree of participation in public decision-making.
It is also a delusion to suppose that belonging in a modern democracy can ever imply sharing in a political consensus, “a sense of belonging to a successful national project.” In reality, the portion of the country which votes for Labour will roughly share its view of what percentage of the national income should be spent renewing the social infrastructure, and the percentage that did not vote Labour will bitterly resent the tax increases which will result. Broad social agreement is possible only if the policies generate sufficient economic growth to meet as many competing claims as possible. In these circumstances it would be more fruitful to think of a sense of belonging residing, not in the loose idea of social cohesion, but in a sense of inclusion in what is certain to be a sharply polarised debate about objectives and priorities.
Yet, the aspiration for social cohesion is the unstated aim of much of the republican agenda in New Labour. The proposals for a new Bill of Rights, abolition of the vote of the hereditary peerage, modernisation of the monarchy, are not just institutional house cleaning. They are intended to address the widely felt disaggregation of Britain’s elements of national identity. Creeping republicanism is intended to give us a modern British state that we can all admire. The intention of constitutional reformers is to displace the sullenly resentful and chauvinistic ethnic nationalism of the white British bulldog with a modern civic nationalism built around attachment to institutions which respect the rights of citizens and which conceive of the nation as a community of equals, not as a pyramid of subjects. Again, these are desirable objectives but, even if attained, they are unlikely to still the disquiet about British national identity. The republican agenda seeks to render one vision of our identity hegemonic, but the other—monarchical, deferential, traditional, rooted in a history of empire abroad and class division at home—still calls forth devoted loyalty. It is condescending to suppose it will slip away without a whimper, and politically naïve to suppose that constitutional reform itself will create a new national consensus. National identity everywhere, not just in Britain, is a site of conflicting meanings; only our nostalgia for a fictive past leads us to imagine an end to the conflict. What brings tears to the eyes of some generations will be a joke to later ones; a symbol which rouses one ethnic group to fury will give pride and comfort to another.
Men and women, black and white, young and old, immigrant and long time resident are simply bound to disagree about what it means to be British. This plurality of values is not a misunderstanding or a mistake. It is inherent in the ways in which individuals take their values from the groups they belong to. It does not follow that a society of value pluralism is necessarily a violent society. All our anxieties about the cohesion of a multiracial, multi-ethnic society crystallise around the image of progressively deepening incomprehension and antagonism. Yet this underestimates the interest all groups have in playing by the minimal rules of the game—the rule of law and the practice of tolerance. Competing groups who disrespect each other’s values may tolerate each other and co-exist simply because the advantages of common adherence to the rules outweigh the benefits of social warfare. If—and it is a big if—the liberal state guarantees procedural fairness to all groups, there is no reason in principle why they cannot compete and disagree peacefully. Anxieties about the cohesion of multiracial societies are in fact not about cohesion, but about difference, about accepting otherness. If we can accept otherness, we can at least secure the minimum belonging afforded by a common life under the regime of procedural fairness.
The agenda of constitutional reforms will certainly improve the procedural fairness and accountability of the British state. These ends alone make them worthy of support. Whether they will enhance civic participation and foster civic activism are much more difficult questions to answer. Much is made of the attractions of feeling oneself to be a citizen rather than a subject. Institutional reform is perceived not simply as an end in itself but as a means towards ambitious spiritual objectives. Turning us all into citizens is supposed to re-forge the civic bond and deepen our attachment to each other, to society and nation. Those who most strongly support constitutional reform do so because they want the feeling of belonging to a modern, rather than an archaic, state, a state which explicitly respects their rights and acknowledges their entitlements. How far this desire for civic belonging spreads through the population is hard to determine, and how to satisfy this desire in day-to-day life is not obvious.
our anxieties about living in a social jungle are not addressed adequately by proposals for constitutional reform. The real test of reform is whether it can do something about the practical experience of visiting a police station, a benefit office or a public hospital. These are rarely experiences which leave any of us with a revivified sense of citizenship, and yet what else is citizenship than the belief that public authorities have an obligation to treat us with respect as citizens? Translating such moral objectives into practical politics is more than a matter of constitution-making. It means attacking the embedded culture of condescension which benefit claimants, particularly, experience in most of their encounters with the state.
Nor will equality be enough. Treating everyone as equal often ends up by treating each individual as a number. The ideology of equality, even when translated into good institutional practice, may result only in impersonality. If people are going to feel they have a stake in society, they want their individuality as persons to be recognised; they want their special needs met. There is thus a conflict between equality and belonging, and its resolution is not evident. It is an open question, as I wrote more than a decade ago in The Needs of Strangers, “whether any welfare system can reconcile this contradiction between treating individuals equally and treating each individual with respect.”
Nor will “a defence of the welfare state” in itself deliver us a practical politics of belonging. After the Thatcher revolution, nostalgia for the lost stabilities and decencies of the welfare state is understandable. In the presence of homeless people and bedless mental patients at the entrances of our underground stations, it is natural to wish oneself back to a time when the welfare state supposedly “coped” with these problems and, in coping, afforded those of us in employment the illusion that we lived in a decent society.
Yet the solidarities created by the welfare state have a degree of moral ambiguity over which our nostalgia for vanished decencies draws a convenient veil. While the provision of common services—swimming-baths, leisure centres, public transport—did create a public sphere which brought the classes together in shared moments of common life, the welfare state also kept rich and poor apart. The intention, of course, was to end the indignities that went hand in hand with charitable and philanthropic relations between rich and poor. But in ending these face-to-face relations the welfare state encouraged a moral division of labour in which the misfortunes of others were kept hidden from the fortunate by armies of social workers, benefit administrators and local government officers. So that now, when people cite the homeless adolescents on our streets as a sign of social dissolution, their disquiet has an element of ambiguity: are they merely wishing to have such disturbing scenes safely tucked out of sight? The welfare state may not have created the reality of social cohesion as much as its illusion, by sweeping the poor into an archipelago of state services.
The impact of the welfare state on the discharge of private family obligation has also been ambiguous. When, for example, social workers take over the caring functions formerly discharged by family members, there is both a gain and a loss; dependent individuals may receive better care in public institutions and family members—women especially—will be freed to enter the labour market or to use their time in other ways. But it is also true that a sense of family obligation may suffer, as anyone can see from the numbers of unvisited elderly relatives in public care. More generally, community ties among strangers may be weakened when everyone comes to believe it is the “council’s job.” The paradoxical effect of a welfare state culture in which everyone assumes that the elderly, the ill and the incapable are visited by some social worker or other is that neighbours cease to think of it as their duty too to look after those who are lonely and isolated.
The middle classes have proved the most assiduous beneficiaries of the welfare state, in particular using state funded education to improve their life chances and those of their children. Hence the welfare state contained but did not reduce social inequality. Its existence afforded the middle class the agreeable sensation that they lived in a moral community. But whether poor claimants in benefit offices, dying indigents in state hospitals or the long term unemployed felt a similar sense of social solidarity is doubtful. Postwar social assistance was certainly less stigmatising than the dole and the poor-house, but it has never eradicated the sense of shame associated with state dependency. This is a surprising result, given the extent to which welfare was redefined, in the postwar settlement, as a right. Neither has the postwar settlement eradicated the resentment of the contributors. As long as the middle classes could count on stable employment for themselves and their children and a modestly rising standard of living, the social contract implied by the welfare state seemed well worth paying, especially as they benefited themselves from access to its services. The casualisation of middle class service employment, with the resultant loss of job security, has re-opened all the class resentment at the economic costs of social solidarity. Because the wealthier parts of the middle class diverted their rising real incomes into private education, pensions and health care—and now are stuck with the costs—they particularly resent paying taxes for a system they no longer use.
It would be self-evidently better if the welfare state were better funded: if the middle class did not have to engage in the alienating attempt to opt out; if public education could be improved so that all classes receive something like a decent start in life; if public transport, parks, swimming-baths and leisure centres could be funded so that a common, and commonly respected, public sphere could be maintained. All of this would make for a society which is more efficient, more fair and more just. Nothing in what has been argued should be taken to imply that these are not desirable or practicable goals. What is in question is the effect of such measures on feelings of social belonging and on measures of social cohesion. The impact on levels of crime, for example, is entirely unpredictable. Even harder to predict would be the impact on feelings about the civility of the culture.
Our anxieties about belonging are a function of expectations which we cannot hope to meet. We are nostalgic for a belonging we never had and risk a politics of endless frustration if we pursue a goal never previously achieved. We need to distinguish between justice and fairness, which are attainable in different degrees, and belonging, which does not necessarily follow from either.
Any discussion of our millennial anxieties about social cohesion and social belonging must begin and end with Margaret Thatcher, and not simply because her regime had such damaging effects on both. The real challenge, both of her views and of her policies, is that her acceptance of the necessity of social competition between classes might just be more sociologically realistic than those who make social cohesion the political priority. It is a measure of her impact on the political consciousness of her country that the only remaining “one nation Tories” left in Britain are Tony Blair’s New Labour. It is now the British left which seeks to restore decency, cohesion and a sense of belonging to British life. These are admirable goals, and they may be politically appealing, but there is no disguising their deeply conservative character. It is not that an appeal to justice and fairness has dropped out of the moral register: it is that these goals are held to be desirable to the degree that they promote social unity. This makes them subservient to a moral objective which may be unattainable.
There is no right answer, in principle, to the question of how to reconcile the conflict we feel, as individuals and as a society, between the claims of freedom and the claims of belonging. Each of us will answer this question differently, and any politics worth supporting ought to respect our right to frame our own lives by the answers we give. The belonging that modernity makes possible is bound to be local and transient: to this person, to that family, to this neighbourhood or that place for a particular period of our lives. To the degree that our society and our politics provide us with the larger frame in which these contingent and local belongings are secured, we can muster a larger loyalty to society and nation. The loyalty will never be wholehearted, the belonging never unmingled with alienation. But only those who dream of an undivided heart and a reconciled mind will wish it otherwise.