Getting engaged

Back to the issue of political philosophy and how it’s applied in daily life, with no apologies for doing so.

If negative freedom is about the absence of obstacles, positive freedom is about empowerment, taking control of one’s life, as Isaiah Berlin powerfully argued.  One step further is Amartya Sen’s capability theory, which I looked at in an earlier blog, the freedom  ‘to achieve what we are capable of’. Behavioural economics takes us further again, looking at the conditions which influence social behaviour and specifically our capacity for social involvement and altruism. That’s my starting-point here.

What intrigues me is how we can move on from the abstract, how we can create the practical conditions which allow us to express our innate altruism (which I do believe is there) toward society as well as individuals, and how can we link that altruism to politics and day-to-day political life.

For starters I’d dismiss out of hand the approach of the classical economists, the American right, Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and anyone else who believes we can leave it to a self-regulating  market to decide.

That approach is still there in the day-to-day tendency to see society in post-Thatcherite terms, as a battlefield, as a place for the survival of the fittest, where we have to earn any rights we have. Yet checking through the output of current think-tanks and theorists you find little mention of it. You have to go out on a limb with the old right, keep up with Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph columnists, to find that. Elsewhere, left and right, there’s active support for social welfare and institutions –  but radically different ideas on how that should be expressed.

In practical terms what we have to overcome first and foremost is disengagement, leaving it to others, being too readily disillusioned, too ready to criticise. We also need to review the nature of our engagement. Pressure groups and local action are all very well, but what are the processes through which they hope to achieve their ends? There’s a wider political process we all need to be a part of, and yet we’re all too willing to disparage it.

Behavioural economists argue that by better understanding the economic implications of human behaviour we can create conditions where we still express our free will and yet conduct ourselves for the common good. I’m with them to the extent that the key is to identify and encourage those conditions in which we feel comfortable, where we feel engaged, and out of which come a willingness to participate and to share.

(Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, which focuses on how we can hone our powers of instinct and intuition, would appear to have some fascinating insights in this area.)

But where do we start? We can’t just pluck a feeling for the common good out of the air. It’s too easy to support causes or argue for improved conditions but to show indifference to the welfare of others closer to home, in our daily lives. The reverse is also true: close family and friendship ties and indifference to the wider world. Political theory is all very well, but it’s worthless if it doesn’t have a practical application. So the key question is: how can we extend the altruism most of us show in our family and personal relationships more widely?

On the left we’ve seen many policy initiatives from the government, to reduce the gap between rich and poor, to cut youth crime and youth unemployment, which haven’t worked because they haven’t engaged the beneficiaries. They have, for example, been unable to influence kids on inner-city estates. Hard though they’ve tried the initiatives have been seen as impositions from outside, not home-grown from within.

For at least some on the right, including the current Tory leadership, some initial wariness has been replaced by an understanding that the successful functioning of core institutions which the right of centre traditionally value, including family, church and community, is at the core of social engagement. The key to wider social engagement is working through these or similar institutions. With the expected change of government we will no longer have a plethora of diktats from above, we will have a new mood encouraging participation at the grass-roots level, with beneficent influences working upwards through society.

It’s worth exploring this further, as it makes a good test case for ideas of engagement. The question is: will it be any more successful than Labour’s more top-down approach? No government is British history will ever have appealed to the grass-roots in this way, nor relied so much upon them.  Nor do the Tory rank-and-file remotely understand what will be expected of them in a post-bureaucratic state. They’re happy that it has the appearance of big government in retreat. In reality there’s a much more centrist sense of engagement to the new Cameron politics. No social goals will be left to the market. Cameron has plans for all of them, and radical plans, and they involve the engagement, the enthusiastic engagement, of ordinary people at a day-to-day level.

So, while I have a lot of admiration for the direction in which Cameron wants to take us, I have grave doubts about its practicality.  On the one hand, government will want to, will have to, set the parameters for local debate and local action, otherwise we will have a lot of sound and fury dissipating itself in the sand. (Maybe that’s what we’ll get from the Tories, but it’s not what they’re owning up to at the moment.)  On the other hand, we need not only a change of heart among wide sections of the population, but also processes by which all the resurgent local activity we’re anticipating can be focused into socially and politically useful channels.

A tall order.

We have also to take into account that motivation is as we all know fickle and transient, energy often short-lived, optimism likewise, so what hope have we of maintaining engagement over the long periods of time we’re talking about here? And is there the remotest chance that we won’t have a backlash of top-down involvement to try and put right the wild fluctuations or performance and outcome in a society without the bureaucratic control that David Cameron wants to dispense with?

He is simply expecting too much too soon, relying on a change of attitude which can’t be conjured so easily. Removing pressure from above, from targets and bureaucracy, will not automatically empower, will not of itself release a flood of hard work and charitable endeavour.

For my part I believe passionately in the importance of a more altruistic, saner, more measured approach to all areas of our lives. Our sense of self is so strong that it overwhelms our more charitable instincts. All the great religious/ethical traditions argue that we find ourselves by putting our neighbours first, and that’s something we have largely lost sight of in the modern world. But changes of attitude will come slowly, require a long-term approach, building up local activity and local institutions, and then connecting with the wider world. That would be a healthy body politic.

Politicians can’t force it. Despite Christian socialism and other attempts to find an ethical basis for politics, it’s an area where they must tread warily. They can create the conditions for altruistic behaviour, but they cannot preach it.

I have to have serious doubts over whether Cameron’s is a practical philosophy, but treated less ambitiously it is of course a wonderfully positive approach. Engagement at a local level is what a successfully functioning society is all about. But it’s also about legislation that enables, about governments with a broad understanding that can guide society, and about the democratic involvement with the electoral process that ensures that people are fully engaged.

We’re talking about balance, we’re talking about practical politics, based on ordinary behaviour of ordinary people, not expecting too much, avoiding grand theories and inflated expectations, but creating a sense of day-to-day involvement with family, community and the wider world that lies at the heart of any successful society. Push the mood for change to hard, base it on overly abstract hopes, and you have failure and disillusionment with that process.

The next step is to look at one or two practical applications of the Cameron philosophy, and see how they might work. I have to admit that so far I’m discouraged by what I’ve heard and read. But it’s early days, and judge for yourselves…

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