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
Published in November 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.