A crisis of civility.

Author:Lent, Adam
Position:Features - Essay

[T]he trouble with the neo-liberals is that they simply think in terms of the individual economic agent without any understanding of the institutions, values and ties which are not just good in themselves but are anyway essential for any real free market to survive. This quote summarises not the views of a Marxist thinker attuned to the contradictions of 'late capitalism', but David Willetts--leading Tory moderniser, and now a member of the shadow cabinet. Willetts, writing in 1992, was driven by the realisation that while New Right reforms had effectively delivered the economic 'freedoms' the Conservative Party had sought, it was failing miserably to create a society informed by the traditional values so beloved of Thatcher. This was not due, Willetts argued, to some contingent policy mistakes; it resulted from the success of the economic side of the project itself. Thatcherism had unleashed a wave of market forces and strident individualism that was sweeping away the 'values and ties' which kept communities functioning and economic exchange possible. As a result, social fragmentation and disorder were deepening and, ultimately, the free market itself would be placed in peril.

Willetts found little real purchase in a party due to be convulsed by internecine warfare. As a result, the Conservative-supporting academic, John Gray (soon to switch allegiance to Labour), argued with prescience that this contradiction would sweep the Tories out of power for a generation.

Instead, it was New Labour that took forward a more socially responsible version of the Thatcherite project. Still fundamentally committed to the Conservative economic principles that were beginning to generate economic growth in the UK by the mid-1990s after the earlier recession, Blair and his coterie responded to the problems identified by Willetts by introducing Tax Credits, the Minimum Wage and New Deal programmes for the communities and individuals most ravaged by the market forces of the 1980s. And from 1999, Gordon Brown began to commit significant funds to public services, the weakness of which had damaged individual and community life across the UK. This decision proved one of Labour's most powerful electoral assets.

The problem that has emerged in the New Labour decade, however, is that these laudable policies have proved inadequate to the task of slaying the 'Willetts contradiction'. The market forces unleashed by Thatcher in the 1980s have grown ever stronger and, until the 'credit crunch' appeared to have an unstoppable global momentum. As a result, the problems identified by Willetts and Gray of weakening 'values and ties' have only deepened.

And so Labour faces a very similar double problem to that which faced the Conservatives in the early 1990s: the combination of a society increasingly unsure of its collective moorings, and a market facing one of its periodic downswings in the wake of the collapse of a financial bubble. One need not spell out the potential electoral consequences. Indeed, the Conservatives are exploiting this with a dual attack on the government's failure to mend our 'broken society' and prevent economic slowdown.

A crisis of civility

The first part of the double problem merits some further investigation. The weakened values and ties identified by Willetts might better be described now as a crisis of civility--indeed one might say that these weakened values and ties have over the last twenty years hardened into such a crisis.

'Civility' is usually defined as an acceptable level of politeness--a useful conception in itself given the analysis below--but it may be worth considering widening its meaning in the present social climate, especially as there seems to be no established word for the current malaise. Put in rather abstract terms, civility might be described as an individual's capacity or willingness to orient themselves towards the social. Part of this orientation relates to an appreciation of and commitment to the public good which, it has been argued elsewhere, is particularly weak and probably weakening in Anglo-Saxon economies.

However, as is explained below, civility needs to be defined somewhat more widely than this. The current crisis is not simply about an abstract relationship to the public good but, more concretely, about how we relate to and treat others as individuals and as groups of individuals rather than purely as a whole community of which we may be a member. Most fundamentally, civility is based on an individual's willingness to moderate or accept some constraint on their own desires in order to protect the well-being of others, both when those others are the individuals we may encounter in our daily interactions or when they exist as groups, large or small. It is a failure of this willingness to moderate individual desires that constitutes the crisis of civility.

A broken society?

This failure exists, for example, in the common paucity of the quality of human interaction in public spaces. Where daily life, particularly in large cities, can be punctuated at any time by the unconstrained desire of another to listen to music out loud, by the snarls of a motorist submitting to self-indulgent rage, and by the mass indulgence in drunkenness that blights town centres making them no-go areas for other residents on Friday and Saturday nights.

In many areas across the UK, the crisis of civility takes the form of the well-documented rise of 'anti-social behaviour' and more serious crime where the unconstrained desire to display machismo, to 'rule the street', to taunt the weak or different, or to noisily enjoy alcohol and drugs is destroying the lives of communities and the families that live in them.

Civility also plays a declining role in public interaction in the media where the tolerance for, or even the positive revelling in, cruelty towards others has undoubtedly grown. The boundaries of what can be said about public figures or celebrities in the media have receded. Indeed, it is now increasingly acceptable to make groundless but vicious claims about ordinary members of the public who may be thrust into the spotlight for no other reason than that they have been the victim of a crime.

This tone has extended into the normally more restrained broadcast media where, for example, it is now a requirement of talent shows that competitors--usually the most vulnerable--are subject to hostile and humiliating criticism. This may satisfy the egotism of those handing out the criticism but, more fundamentally, it displays a willingness to ignore the usual constraints on the treatment of the vulnerable in order to make money and achieve status by selling papers or driving up ratings. It may indeed also say something about the pervasive decline of civility, that these programmes are hugely popular and that their tone has raised very little popular outrage or serious comment.

We should be cautious here. None of this is to say that modern British life is characterised by a total loss of civility as some excitable tabloid columnists might have us believe. Life may well be 'nasty, brutish and short' for some in the most deprived communities but for most people life is still eminently liveable. And community spirit and selflessness still lives on as can be seen by the continuing high levels of charitable activity and the support that many are willing to offer to causes such as animal welfare and the environment.

But neither should the problem be underplayed as it is by some who see the raising of such concerns as either the pining for a long-dead spirit of class solidarity, or a stifling world of cycling vicars and warm beer depending on your political perspective. The truth is that a large group of otherwise 'civil' individuals can, on occasion, now feel justified by a pervasive ethos and culture of unconstrained...

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