“Reason…is nothing but Reckoning.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651
“As social conditions become more equal, the number of persons increases who…owe nothing to any man, [and] expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835
“Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest – forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries. It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organise masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives. On the level of historical insight and political thought there prevails an ill-defined, general agreement that the essential structure of all civilisations is at the breaking point.”
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951
“Just as liberal thought has redefined human nature as fundamentally individual existence abstracted from social embeddedness, so too liberal practice has replaced the quest for reciprocal recognition and mutual flourishing with the pursuit of wealth, power and pleasure – leading to economic instability, social disorder and ecological devastation.”
John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, The Politics of Virtue, 2016
“Today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”
David Brooks, New York Times, 14 June 2018
How much evidence can we resist before we finally accept that liberal democracy, in its British and American forms, has reached the point of exhaustion? If the misery caused to millions by the 2008 crisis, compounded by our failure to hold those responsible to account, were not enough, then what are we still waiting for? However we voted in 2016, do we trust that the institutions of our democracy can still mediate the tensions across our societies? Do we still hold faith in our leaders across the public and private realms and in their commitment to a vision of the good life? Are they guided by a search for truth?
And what of the remedies on offer? Do we think that the profound shortcomings of modern capitalism can be corrected by a little more taxation here, a little more nationalisation there, a bump to the minimum wage, or perhaps greater investment in vocational training and the inclusion of workers on company boards? That is a social-democratic manifesto that has served much of continental Europe well; if Britain were also to adopt it, the country would merely step back into the mainstream. Does any of this have the measure of our fatigue?
This is not an economic problem. Our crisis reaches far beyond the failures of capitalism: from nurses using food banks to the 72 deaths in a tower block in central London; from depression and loneliness among young and old to the violence of conversation on and offline; from the degradation of our political institutions to the failure of our media to scrutinise these upheavals and establish a factual reality that is widely shared. We have lost the words to describe our predicament.