07 Jul

Inventing the Individual – Book review

Individualism - People

Individualism and the near global preoccupation with the self and the interests of the self is increasingly becoming the norm everywhere.

This norm is an abnormality. It is destroying the foundations of what makes life meaningful, and long lasting human relations and fulfilment possible. From time immemorial humanity has been characterized by the idea of community and commonality. This ancient norm is perhaps wired into our human genes, and correctly defines a key aspect of what truly makes us human. The rise of the solitary individual, and ‘the lonely crowd’, is a paradox that has been the focus of many studies. The English poet John Donne immortalized the powerful message that:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main …
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Larry Siedentop’s book, Inventing the Individual – the Origins of Western Liberalism, demonstrates that Individualism has not always been an essential part of the Anglo-American/European ethos or of non-Western, non-European societies either. It is a new invention which arose at a certain point in the history of these societies. This development was however, progressive, eventually preferring an “association of individuals rather than an association of families” (p129).

Central to Siedentop’s argument is the pivotal role played by the medieval Church. He pays special attention to the rise of monasticism and the teachings of the Church fathers and intellectuals, such as Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Dons Scotus, William of Occam and Augustine, among others. He discusses, for example, the role played by Augustine who in his Confessions (an extended prayer) focuses on “the inwardness of the individual … a sphere of dialogue, of conversation with God” (p104). By Augustine privileging prayer and grace, thus “Inventing the Individual – in the sense of acknowledging the equality of humans in the face of their maker…” (p105), Siedentop argues, he laid the foundation for “ … the demolition of ancient rationalism. The patriarchal family, the aristocratic society underlying the polis, the cosmos as a hierarchy of ends and purposes: all these became suspect and vulnerable without its support” (p104).

The European renaissance and reformation created the context for a further development and understanding of these ideas. Christian belief in the special place of prayer and grace, in the equality of souls and in moral equality before God are then seen to be the mother of Western Liberalism, together with its radical notions of human liberty, equality and fraternity.

The new secularism, and the future of these ideas cut off and without reference to their original Christian cradle and context, poses a present and real danger. The runaway contemporary naked individualism, the glaring inequalities and lack of respect one for the other, the diminishing freedoms everywhere – these are perhaps a sign of this danger. So, too, is the unconscionable greed, excessive love of money and power, at the expense of loving and empowering human relations. Siedentop very powerfully reminds us of this. To his fellow Westerners he concludes “If we in the West do not understand the moral depth of our own tradition, how can we hope to shape the conversation of mankind?” (p363).

Review of Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual – The Origins of Western Liberalism (Penguin, 2015).
Dr Aloo Mojola Visiting Professor in Translation Studies, Philosophy and Biblical Studies at St Paul’s  University, Limuru, Kenya.

RTN is neutral politically, and is not a religious organisation. On this website we publish articles and opinion pieces that align with our values (link to values statement on the website) but the author’s views are his own.

14 Apr

‘Big government’ anti-relational? Not when it comes to income inequality!

Goldfish income inequality for RTN website

Over the last decade, research on well-being has increased exponentially. While the main focus of economists is on the relationship between well-being and GDP per capita, they are becoming increasingly aware of the role of income inequality. This is an important topic for relational thinking as well, since income inequality is closely related to social cohesion and trust within a society. While relational research often focuses on interpersonal relationships directly, the structure and organization of societies and their economies can be a major source of stress. The impact of poverty is widely understood, yet income inequality can put relationships under a similar kind of pressure. Much is still unknown about how inequality affects well-being and what can be done about it. This blog aims to give a first glance at ongoing research on the matter, from a relational perspective.

When discussing income inequality, we should first ask ourselves what do we mean, and why is it worth to be studied? A classic approach is to look at absolute income differences within a country. Yet, as humans are social beings whose well-being depends on interaction and comparison with others, it is relative income inequality that social scientists should be most concerned about. A commonly used measure is the Gini-coefficient, a complex mathematical function that unfortunately tends to overestimate inequality between incomes in the middle of the distribution. Due to the nonlinear nature of income inequality, a better alternative is to look at the % of national income that is earned by the richest 10% of the population of a country. For European countries this number ranges from about 24% in Denmark, up to more than 40% in the UK. This means that on average one third of all income in a country goes to 10% of the population, leaving two thirds to the remaining 90% . This may not sound very alarming. Yet a similar pattern can be seen within the 90% group. In the end, high inequality means that a relatively large group is left with relatively little income. Several researchers have argued that the current level of inequality causes polarization of societies, as different income groups tend to become isolated from one another through consumption patterns, education, and even residential areas. When inequality is furthermore perceived as a sign of unfairness, it can pose a serious threat to social cohesion and mutual trust, even further deteriorating relationships.

Closer investigation of the matter shows that while perceptions of inequality are important, countries with higher levels of income inequality have lower average life satisfaction irrespective of cultural differences. This is especially true for countries with relatively high standards of living, and the relationship is causal. The question is then what causes income inequality, and can it be influenced without major distortions to the functioning of the economy. Ideally, productivity should determine one’s income. Productivity can however not be directly observed, while differences between supply and demand of labor may lead to unequal bargaining positions. Thus, market structure and government institutions have a major impact on the distribution of income. More formally, these are called the degree of economic freedom of a country. As an indicator, economic freedom is usually divided into five sub-indices, being size of government (consisting of government expenditures and fiscal policy), the quality of the legal system, sound money, free trade, and the degree of regulation of capital, labor, and credit markets. Of these sub-indices, tax policies and low regulation have a strong and very significant impact on income inequality. As suggested by Piketty (2014), a country’s tax structure has an important signal function regarding what kind of earning system and income distribution are acceptable to a society. In addition, government regulation of an economy strengthens the bargaining position of the weak and poor and offers them protection against abuse of power. In addition to its potential direct positive impact, this leads to more equal outcomes, strengthening both work and family relationships.

What does this mean for relational thinking? While a lot of things can be left to the responsibility of local communities, sound macroeconomic structures are essential to contain income inequality, strengthening these communities and supporting healthy relationships. Thus, how paradoxical it may sound, ‘big government’ is not always such a bad idea!

Bjorn Lous is a second-year PhD-student at Tilburg University, studying the relationship between economic freedom, income inequality and life satisfaction.

12 Nov

Fraternal Politics

Corbyn

by Danny Kruger –

There is a spectre haunting Europe, and indeed the US: the spectre of antiism. Anti-austerity, anti-capitalism, anti-elites, anti-politics itself, antiism is engaging young and old, people from all backgrounds, in a surge of protest against the way things are.

But what is interesting – and quite depressing – is how this new spirit in our politics is alighting on such old ideas.

Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US, and here our own Jeremy Corbyn, are all generating huge excitement for ideas that were current in the 1960s and 70s. The nationalization of key industries and public services, the redistribution of wealth, high levels of universal benefit entitlements: antiism may find its expression in negativity and protest, but it is really a positive claim that central government can bring about equality.

The belief in greater state power for the sake of equality is one half of our binary politics. For 40 years the contrary idea – the idea of the free market and personal, rather than social, responsibility – has ruled unchallenged. We are seeing a counteraction among a significant subset of people, but, in my view, it is the wrong counteraction.

There is a better alternative – or really a correlative – to free markets than antiism or egalitarianism. I call it fraternity – the neglected brother of the French revolutionary trio liberty, equality and fraternity.

If liberty is the philosophy of the market, and equality the philosophy of the state, fraternity is the philosophy of society – the space between the market and the state, the space of families and communities and associations.

Fraternity hasn’t had much of a look-in over the years since 1789. The fight of our era has been between liberty and equality – between free markets on the one hand and a redistributive, egalitarian state on the other.

Insofar as either side thought about society, they each accused the other of damaging it, and claimed their philosophy protected and enhanced it. Liberals – or Conservatives in Western politics – said the state crowded out independent associations, undermined the family and damaged the roots of civil life. They said more personal freedom would make these things safer and stronger. For their part, egalitarians said the free market harmed society by reducing human relationships to the cash nexus, and the state protected it by creating a space free from the market.

There is something binary in our brains that can only accommodate two rival ideas. But there is a third idea – a principle of politics that goes beyond the right’s fixation with the free market and the left’s fixation with the state.

The idea of fraternity – where the primary focus of our attention is the quality of relationships – is the great untapped political idea of our time. It opens up a huge new field of action, or a way of doing policy, particularly welfare policy.

Let me outline what a ‘relational’ or ‘fraternal’ political platform might look like.

First, it is local. There is no justification for vast national or regional public systems except the justification of scale itself – that it is easier and cheaper to organise that way. This is the true voice of the system, considering its convenience ahead of the quality of experience of the people it serves.

So healthcare, education, welfare – all the pillars of the welfare state need to be handed to local institutions. Taxation needs to be localised to create a meaningful relationship between the people paying for a service, the people organising it and the people receiving it.

Second, a fraternal policy would empower the community beyond the public sector. What I know from working with prisoners, ex-offenders and youth at risk is the central importance of relationships in any kind of social work. The how and the who matters more than the what: the precise content of the rehab programme or training course or even health treatment often counts for less than the manner of its delivery and the connection between the person giving and the person receiving it.

Government often struggles to facilitate the human connections that make services work, and make society strong. Its pursuit of efficiency, its concern for the equal allocation of limited resources, and its reliance on a purely fiscal measure of effectiveness (the cost of an input rather than the value of an outcome) mean the relational element is usually sacrificed. Contracts for home visiting services for the elderly, restricting visits to the 10 minutes it takes to perform the tasks required, stands as a type for publicly-managed services in general.

In terms of delivery, a ‘fraternal’ politics would engage the full panoply of private and social sector players who are available – and would emerge – for social action: the charities and churches and social enterprises who operate with a mix of sacrifice and self-interest, and – especially when co-ordinated through the mechanisms of ‘collective action’ – bring coherence and humanity to the often dysfunctional systems of support surrounding vulnerable people.

This goes for the economy too. Business is part of the social sector.  We need businesses which do what the state cannot: harness people’s ambition for growth and progress, and make use of the energy of enterprise. But the business we need is not in the form of great faceless plc’s whose only obligation is to make profit for faceless investors on the other side of the world. We need government to support local charities and social businesses which operate with a social and environmental purpose as well as a profitable one.

Third, a fraternal politics would focus on prevention not cure. We have a state set up to fix problems. Instead, we need to stop problems developing in the first place, or getting worse once started. This means investing more earlier, and spending less later – and deliberately investing in projects and systems that support relationships within families and neighbourhoods. The Government’s new Family Test – considering the impact of policy in family life – is a useful step, but it is negative and reactive. We also need positive steps to promote family and neighbourhood connections, using everything from tax to planning to public service design.

Fourth – perhaps most controversially and more importantly – a fraternal politics would be explicitly moral in its discourse.

The challenge here is immense, because any moral language is fraught with judgment. And our politics is perverted by a misunderstanding of judgment – specifically, the difference between judgment as moral discernment, and the ugly habit of judging others.

As we all know in our personal lives, relationships allow judgment without judging. We can say to our loved one ‘you’re wrong’, or even ‘you’re doing wrong’ without making a sweeping generalisation about their character. We can show judgment, without judging. This is possible in love – perhaps it is one of the definitions of love – but it seems an impossible task in politics.

Any judgment of conduct, any disagreement with another’s argument or worldview, is received as a moral affront, and often intended as such – people who do or think differently are bad people.

And so we get this terrible political discourse –the echoing shouts of castigation as the left judge ‘bankers’ and the right judge ‘benefit claimants’; and all the value of their arguments is lost in the judgment they are making of the other side.

Instead we need a loving – if tough – conversation in which the behaviour of bankers and benefit claimants can be analysed, but the value of the human beings in question is not in doubt.

That seems impossible with our current politics. And that is a big shame, because we do need judgment in our national life. We do need politicians to be able to say things like ‘it’s best when parents stay together’ – without that being an attack on parents who do not do so. It should be possible to assert a general idea  – the value of traditional family life for instance – without it coming across as a totalitarian assertion of the only way to live, and the moral annihilation of everyone who lives or thinks differently.

Society does that, of course – we do that, in our private spheres: we exhort our friends to save their marriages while completely sympathising when they cannot.

We need a politics which reflects that decent moral attitude. Politics which is values-led, which has the permission of the public to talk in moral terms without moralising, without judging people but lovingly arguing for the right and the good.

If we put relationships first, we discover a whole new vision of good government, and a whole new mission for our country.

I want to end with this thought which, I confess, intoxicates me, but it has yet to break into the mainstream. It is about what I think the mission of Britain might be in the world in this century. Our country famously lost its role in the world, its sense of purpose, when it lost its empire. I think the purpose of Britain in the 21st century is to model the politics of relationships – to become the best place in the world to live, and give witness to the good life that other countries might admire and even emulate.

One reason I am intoxicated by this idea is how absurd it is. Britain seems a long way from the best place to live. We have some of the unhappiest children, the most unstable families, the grimmest environments in the world. We have all the problems of the modern world, from inequality and generational poverty to extremism – leading to terrorism – and a popular culture which is often crass and directly destructive of human wellbeing.

But we, in Britain, also have an idea – deep down, almost out of sight – of how to live, of how to achieve a settlement between the demands of the community and the privacy of the individual, about the limits of the state and the right to be different, about the role of culture in unifying us, about how communities – geographical or ethnic or religious – form and hold together, without becoming cut off or hostile to the rest of society.

In our habit of forming institutions – like Oxbridge colleges, founded by individuals but created for community, run as independent fiefdoms but within the larger kingdom of the university – we have a model for civic life which is both productive and peaceful.

This is the inheritance of the Christian tradition which dominated our politics for so long, and which gave us the two great ideas which still inform the British worldview: that we are free, independent and responsible, and that we all have equal, total worth no matter our talents or our condition. Freedom and equality – those two principles proclaimed by the godless tribunes of right and left – are Christian in their origin and it is the Christian heritage which is their best defence.

And between and beyond liberty and equality, visible as it were through the arch they form, gleams that greater principle, fraternity. People living together in peace, in solidarity, in communities of difference and identity.

So this is the challenge for us. It does not need to be framed as a Christian mission – in fact it should not, in my view. It is a natural human mission and one that, by our habits and history, the British are well suited for.

Can our politics admit this – can the people in power turn their minds to building the sort of state described earlier: local, communitarian, preventative, values-led?

I think that Jeremy Corbyn could be the best thing to happen to Britain for a long time. Not because I agree with him, but because I do not – and I think a lot of other people do not agree with him either. I do not mean those people who would never vote Labour or who distrust everything about the Labour party.

I mean people who are – or were – attracted to Corbyn precisely because he seems to represent a new style of politics – authentic and brave, with a concern for people and communities and a strong and cogent critique of the way that capitalism works.

They will find, I hope and believe, that Corbyn’s actual policies do not reflect that attractive style of politics. Certainly, he is a mould breaker politically – he has caused an earthquake – but his politics are about keeping everything the same, or rather returning them to how they were before Mrs Thatcher came along. He is a statist – an ardent advocate of equality and a believer in the monopoly model of government centralism. He has nothing to say to the community beyond the public sector, and no sense of the informal social capital that is latent in society itself.

There is another idea, and either the Conservatives will claim it or the disappointed legions of Labour activists will do so, and find a new vehicle to carry it. It is the idea of fraternity, of relational politics.

It is a prize waiting to be picked up but it will take a new form of political activity, some new expression of the spirit which is propelling the old left to prominence across Europe and America. Reheated radicalism is not it. A new politics of fraternity might be.

Danny Kruger was chief speechwriter to David Cameron MP as Leader of the Opposition. From 2008-2015 he led Only Connect, a charity working with prisoners and young people at risk of offending. He is now chief executive of the West London Zone, a collective impact project bringing together charities, businesses and government to support children and young people aged 0-25. This article is based on a talk he held at the 2015 Relational Thinking International Conference in September.

Photo: Jeremy Corbyn speaking in 2010. By Chris Beckett from Flickr.

Relational Thinking is a movement that is not affiliated to any political party. On this website we publish articles and opinion pieces that  align with our values. If you like to respond, why not leave a comment here?