Wednesday, May 02, 2007


As New Labour contemplates a degree of electoral meltdown on Thursday 3 May, the word from the camp is that its new idea is "progressive self-interest" - trying to make social justice more amenable by showing how everyone can benefit from a fairer society and will lose from a more divided one. That was, of course, the logic of the Brandt Report on world development in the 1980s - but the gravitational pull of market liberalisation, individualisation, game theory, organisational change and consumerism has been in the opposite direction, and democratic politics struggles to move to a different drum. The role of civil society initiatives and movements is vital in keeping alternative visions alive, and those who have lived within the constraints of Westminster politics know this too.

Turning to the bigger picture Clare Short (formerly Labour development secretary, now independent, MP) declared today: “You can’t take the evil of slavery out of the world and abolish it without making the world more just. You will never prevent people living in bonded labour or from getting caught up in sex trafficking while they are so desperate that they have no other choice but to sell themselves. As long as we in the West crave ever more excess, we conspire in their desperation, exploiting it and make ourselves sick in the process. We are well off, yet our society has never been more miserable. We suffer today from the disease of excess, from obesity, drug and alcohol abuse and resulting family breakdown. We must change the way we live, change the way the world is governed and create a new world order, both for ourselves and globally.”

She will, of course, be accused of miserablism for her initial judgment and damned for idealism with her last flourish. But the essence of Short's complaint (which is not invalidated by criticism of her own past performance, either) is based on stark realism, albeit of the kind we are ill-inclined to recognise. I'd put it this way. A society over-mesmerised by acquiring things has become more and more a collection of strangers who clash legally, struggle politically, by-pass socially, divide economically, narrowcast culturally, turn inwards spiritually and plunder environmentally.

You don't have to be a sandal-wearing Cassandra or a denier of the numerous benefits of modernity to see this downside, and to recognise that the most basic question we have to handle is what constitutes our common humanity over and above the technologies that mediate it. Given the magnitude of the forces that maintain us in our current materially-bound dilemma, steps in a different direction are going to seem small. But they are vital. And they will only be sustained by faith - not dogmatism or refusal of evidence, but reasoned trust in a greater future rooted in something that cannot simply be reduced to a function of what now-is and now-rules. This is what "undergoing God" (as James Alison delightfully puts it) is all about, and those who do not see that as a possibility have a responsibility for elucidating the grounds of hope, as much as those who do have a responsibility for elucidating the grounds of belief.

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