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Whither the social recession?

May 16, 2013 by
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, The RSA 


In 2009 the academic Alan Finlayson wrote an article called ‘The broken society versus the social recession’.  His purpose was to show how different was the former idea of David Cameron’s and the latter propagated by the left campaign group Compass (in fact, the term ‘social recession’ has long been more widely used to describe a set of social pathologies ranging from criminality to teen pregnancy).

Finlayson’s piece rests on a cast iron assumption that there is a set of social problems which are getting worse, the important question therefore is ‘why?’. He quotes a 2007 Joseph Rowntree Foundation project in which the RSA and I were involved called ‘social evils’ which explored the way society was deteriorating even while the economy was thriving. Finlayson concludes that with the economic collapse the debate over what lies behind social deterioration will intensify.

The posssibility the article didn’t consider, and is rarely discussed, is that in certain important respects the social recession might be coming to an end. In this post I don’t have time to gather all the references but, take my word for it, there is reasonable evidence for significant improvements in all the following areas:

Crime rates

Violent crime rates

Teenage pregnancy

Obesity

Binge drinking and drug consumption among young people

Levels of volunteering and feelings of neighbourliness

Children’s overall wellbeing

Why aren’t we discussing this more? The idea that society is improving because we are choosing to behave more wisely and responsibly is uncomfortable for parts of both the left and the right. For the former it shouldn’t be happening in an unequal society still dominated by individualistic values. For the conservative right it shouldn’t be taking place in a society coarsened by moral relativism and weakened by diversity and multiculturalism.

It is possible to counter the improving data by saying it is short term, inconclusive or outweighed by things going in the wrong direction. But if we were to accept that society is getting less broken, what explanations might be on offer?

There was recently a spate of articles based on epidemiological research speculating that falling levels of lead in the atmosphere are the best explanation for plummeting crime rates. A factor endogenous to social trends may indeed be implicated. But I am more drawn to a more structural explanation.

In  policy, economic and social analysis the single ability of greatest value is to be able to distinguish a cycle from a trend. It is hard analytically and challenging psychologically. Not only are human beings inherently short-termist in their outlook but we are drawn to things that are more visible. Cycles are like the second hand on a clock – we can see them moving which gives us a sense of time passing, while trends are like the hour hand.

Here is a bold thesis. Since the dawn of the enlightenment in the late mediaeval period – what Kant described as man entering into adulthood – human progress has accelerated guided by the core principles of that revolution – universalism (justice), autonomy (freedom) and humanism (progress itself). These principles underlie the long trend of human advance which makes citizens in the developed world richer, healthier, more intelligent, more tolerant and more peaceful than ever before. But within that trend the misapplication of those same principles has also led to terrible cycles, most obviously the cycle of colonial exploitation which culminated in the nightmare of the First World War and the cycle of totalitarian ideology which led to the horror of Nazi Germany, Maoist China and Stalinist Soviet Union. At the heart of these terrible events was a hubristic perversion of the idea of progress.

The recent cycle, which began in the sixties and may now be startng to end, also involved a misapplication of an enlightenment principle  – this time freedom – and was much milder in comparison. But the idea that society can flourish relying on no more than individuals pursuing a policy of possessive individualism is at last starting to lose favour. Is this what lies behind the evidence of a receding social recession?

If, in the end, society learns and improves should we focus less on cycles of deterioration and more on long trends of progress? If so, it shifts the debate in a subtle but, to my mind, crucial way.

Instead of asking what we have to do to make progress possible we should instead ask what the barriers are to allowing the further natural development of the human spirit into a higher, healthier, more fulfilled and rounded form. The answers might be similar but the framing of the question has the scope to increase significantly our sense of possibility and agency.

The obvious charges against this thesis are that it is determinist and complacent. But I don’t think society improves automatically. It happens through struggle and debate. And the other key domains of our lives – economics and politics – sometimes accelerate social progress and sometimes delay or reverse it. Right now I feel more confident about society than about economics and very worried about politics – for reasons I will explore in a future post if this one doesn’t get ripped to shreds.

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6 Comments on Whither the social recession?

  1. Nigel Rayment on Thu, 16th May 2013 3:19 pm
  2. Blimey. That got my blood pumping. I like the twist of perspective here, one which, a you say, Mathew, issue challenges to both left and right. I’m less comfortable with with your command that we “take my word for it.” You name your evidence and wait for the counter-evidence to fly through the wires!

    Aside from that, I’m struck by the eurocentricity of your argument and the privilege, which once again is given to the Enlightenment. I have just returned from the RSA, where I attended a talk by the marvellous Jay Griffiths. It’s a shame you missed it; she has plenty of light to shed on the Kant’s notion of adulthood.

  3. Nigel Rayment on Thu, 16th May 2013 3:21 pm
  4. Sorry; you can see from my many typos that I was in earnest about the blood pumping!

  5. Alan Finlayson on Sat, 18th May 2013 1:01 pm
  6. Matthew – I appreciate your interest in my article. If I might, I’d like to clarify something. My argument in that essay does not rest on a “cast iron assumption that there is a set of social problems which are getting worse”. Rather, it is based on the argument that political movements almost always work by proposing some problem or set of problems (a “crisis”) to which they then claim to be the solution. That is why I say at the start “Politics is about the defining of crises” and why I observe that “Most current political rhetoric, propaganda and positioning (as well as more general political comment and chatter) is an effort to win the battle over the naming of these crises”.

    At the start of the essay I outline the different ways in which a ‘crisis’ was named by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and say that – as was the case at the time I was writing – British politics is characterized by a conflict over naming and defining a crisis. Your Rowntree survey provided examples of the ways in which people might define crises as social in nature and I mention it alongside alternative claims about economic and political crises. I then go on to outline how the Tories at that time were defining a crisis in society and show how sections of the Left appeared to be doing something similar but actually were doing something importantly different.

    I stand by this sort of analysis.

    For instance, to understand UKIP I think you have to see that what it does is say to people ‘here are some things you feel worried or anxious about…well, actually these are all part of one big problem, so big that it is a crisis – it’s a crisis in how we are governed…by distant and detached figures in Westminster and Brussels…if we get rid of them everything can be OK again’.

    My analysis does not say whether or not the proposed crisis is real or significant. It only identifies the ways in which political movements are ideologically and rhetorically organized – because they can be quite successful when the crisis is non-existent or when they bundle up distinct problems and treat them as all symptoms of something larger or deeper. My ‘cast iron assumption’ (although, of course, it is rather stronger than an ‘assumption’ is that this is an established feature of contemporary politics. It might be a feature of all politics, or it might be a characteristic of ‘modernity’ or of ‘post-traditional’ societies – but that is something yet to be established.

    I do suggest, in the conclusion to that essay, a problem which I think genuinely significant and which needs to be addressed: an accumulation of wealth and power in one part of society, and a consequent erosion of some of the institutions and dispositions which you here ascribe to Kantian enlightenment. I then suggest that this is a ‘crisis’ – one which is an outcome of a particular sort of ideological fantasy which “legitimated the self-interested accumulation of vast wealth and power by a very few people, who then expected the very same public realm they refused to support to make good on their inadequacy”. This is a long-winded way of talking about what you refer to as ‘possessive individualism’.

    In short my argument is a little different to that which you summarise and it does in fact lead on to the question you indicate indirectly at the end of your post – is it possible for there to be a politics based on a proposition of hope and optimism rather than of crisis and decline?

  7. matthew taylor on Tue, 21st May 2013 9:04 am
  8. Two great comments. Thank you, especially Alan I am gratified not only that you commented but that you responded to my misinterpretation of your argument so graciously. Nigel, as you know my aim is not to defend Enlightenment values as they’re currently understood but to argue that we need to explore those values, both returning to some of what has been lost and also understanding the contemporary challenges to which those values need to be applied. Alan, I think your last question is absolutely vital. I return to some of these ideas in my latest post (21st May) but would very much enjoy continuing the dialogue. The great danger it seems to me is that social pessimism, driven by the imperatives of media manipulation, political competition but also simply weak leadership becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

  9. Nigel Rayment on Wed, 22nd May 2013 10:24 am
  10. Thanks, Matthew. I do acknowledge the thoughtful thinking which informs your new Enlightenment concept. I still hold that:

    1) It is easier to point to progress if – ignoring how wellbeing is understood in traditional societies – you take as your benchmarks conditions which have existed for large proportions of industrialised populations through earlier incarnations of post-enlightenment society.

    2) There are substantive crises arising from human behaviours, which should not be down played.

    3) Alan, “hope” is one thing; “optimism” another: David Orr has some interesting things to say about this distinction:

    http://www.treehugger.com/treehugger-radio/the-th-interview-david-orr-part-three-where-hope-and-optimism-split.html

    I am, though, sympathetic to the need for a more appreciative critique of our circumstances and particularly a dilution of the adversarial politics enacted at Westminster. All the same, I believe there remains a role for grass roots agitation. Neither the present nor the future are rosy for many, and there remains a legitimate role for those without formally mandated power, to highlight injustice and to focus on fighting and righting wrongs.

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