Volume 10 Number 3
Renewing Moral Energy
01 June 1997
'The Politics of Hope' by Jonathan Sacks: Jonathan Cape, 1997, £15.99
'There is no such thing as society', declared Margaret Thatcher in 1987. 'There are individual men and women, and there are families.' She might have added, 'and there is the state'. This view, claims Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, is held by the majority of politicians, both left and right, in Britain and the USA-and lies at the root of the problem addressed in his latest book.
We have moved, he explains, from the liberal view, held by the 'classical' political philosophers and economists of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the libertarian view of the second half of the 20th century. This positions the rights-oriented, autonomous individual on the one hand and the procedural state on the other-with morality relegated to a 'purely individual concern'.
'This is a tenable view', comments Dr Sacks, 'and there is only one thing to be said against it. It has been tried and it has failed. It has given rise to a social order-or more precisely to a social disorder-more bleak than any within living memory.'
The central part of this erudite, demanding but rewarding book maps out the routes by which this transformation from liberalism to libertarianism came about. What has been lost in the process, says Dr Sacks, is the sense of community, for it is in community that we learn morality. 'The task of restoring morality and community is one and the same and derives from the same need: to rescue the self from solitude, so that in finding the "we" we can learn to say "I".'
Dr Sacks defines society as 'the community of communities'-the families, neighbourhood groups, voluntary associations, congregations that provide webs of relationships and through which standards of morality are handed down.
The neglect of these intermediate structures by Western politicians became all too apparent in the 1980s and 1990s with the shift away from state intervention to an emphasis on individual initiative. By then, claims Dr Sacks, 'the moral infrastructure which had sustained society in the earlier age of liberalism no longer existed. What happens to "care in the community" when there is no community?'
Dr Sacks compares the libertarian view of the citizen 'as voter, consumer of services and bearer of rights' with the liberal view of the citizen as 'a bearer of duties, sharing responsibility for the civic order'. He calls for a 'politics of responsibility' which 'recognizes the interconnections between private and public life, virtue and freedom, character and society, community and prosperity'.
Jonathan Sacks is no Jeremiah. His purpose is to inject hope. 'Reconciling morality and politics... is the genesis of hope, because morality restores to politics the idea that there are things I can change.'
Can the shift be made? Dr Sacks believes it can, pointing to the astonishing transformation in British and American life between 1850 and the 1890s. Here, however, he is on more shaky ground. For the remarkable consensus on moral values which underpinned Victorian society and resulted in enormous charitable efforts towards alleviating the lot of the poor, improving education and reducing alcoholism and crime was also (in Britain) accompanied by a rigid class structure and aggressive imperialism. Moreover, too many people were allowed to fall through the net of charitable concern. This led to more interventionist government in America, Britain and Scandinavia.
Yet Dr Sacks is not asking us to look back but to look forward, 'reclaiming the ground of hope'. He spells out the process in his concluding paragraph. 'Civil society rests on moral relationships. They are brought about not by governments, but by us... We can change the world if we can change ourselves. Indeed that is the only way the world is changed... That is why morality is prior to politics and why it remains the only sure base of freedom and dignity. Renewing society's resources of moral energy is the programme, urgent but achievable, of a new politics of hope.'
A timely and important book.