5 March 2018

Open societies need to rediscover heroic ideals

By Ed West

Everything is Awesome. The catchphrase to the Lego Movie might as well be the title for Steven Pinker’s engrossing new book, Enlightenment Now, a Whiggish argument for why things just get better and better and better.

While there is much critical disagreement about Pinker’s definition of “Enlightenment”, his running thread that life has vastly improved for humanity is impossible to dispute, nor that this is largely down to capitalism and liberalism. In the past 200 years, and especially in the past 30, humanity has experienced a miracle, with extreme poverty falling from 90 per cent of the world’s population to 10 per cent today. In the same period maternal mortality has declined from 1.2 per cent (ie, one in 80 births) to 0.04, while infant mortality, the greatest of evils, has fallen a hundred-fold. Meanwhile most major illnesses have been eradicated, with smallpox killed off for the cost of five Hollywood blockbusters. Many of these advances were made not in the time of Edward Jenner or even Call the Midwife but in the last three decades, during which time 100 million children have been saved from infectious diseases. Pinker cites the fact that life expectancy in Kenya increased by a decade between 2003 and 2013 so that for the average Kenyan, death has not actually come statistically any closer while they have aged 10 years.

By any material – and most moral – standard our species, both in the developed and developing world, has become vastly better off. So why does Pinker need to even write this book? Why are we so pessimistic and worried about the future? The author cites the natural human tendency to spot dangers and the media’s focus on bad news, as well as intellectual fashion to see humanity as a problem, yet perhaps there is something else.

Although wealth does correlate with happiness, (imperfect) measures of happiness and wellbeing have shown a decline in the United States in the past decades; suicide has increased in most first world nations and anxiety levels in particular have risen, as has loneliness. These trends go hand in hand with declining trust in the political system and growing polarisation. This angst is nothing entirely new, and since Émile Durkheim it has been observed that freedom and the churn of modern economies leads to anomie, but nowhere has exemplified Durkheim’s theory better than the United States today. It is a fantastically wealthy country beset by divisions, extremism, violence, opiate addiction and, most disturbing, rising mortality among whites, mostly through suicide and drugs (the only other country of recent years to go through this reversal was the Soviet Union in the 1970s). As Niall Ferguson recently pointed out in the Sunday Times: “If cosmopolitanism works, American should not be an outlier. It should illustrate not contradict Pinker’s thesis. America today feels like where Pinker’s cosmopolitanism has overshot, triggering an increasingly nasty backlash.”

Liberal, free-market systems work, yet their major weakness is an inability to give people the innate human need for stability, order, tradition and group membership – while the systems that offer these things tend to be terrible. So is it possible for enlightened democracies to provide a form of ersatz traditionalism, a free society with a reactionary veneer, and so stem the tide of anomie?

A good example of where ersatz tradition does work is constitutional monarchy, an idea on paper that seems absurd; I remember my daughter’s surprise when I explained that there was an actual ‘Princess Catherine’ in this land, not in ‘princess land’, where she had assumed such things exist along with dragons and magical godmothers. Yet monarchy works, even if not suitable for every country, being associated with higher trust, lower corruption and better government, essentially by LARPing at medieval traditionalism.

A similar thing could be said about the Church of England. Britain is one of the most Godless countries on earth and yet Anglican and Catholic schools are still very popular because people like the ethos, and parents are prepared to take their kids to church every Sunday to get in. Many find it a rewarding experience, after initial reluctance, but then there is a fair amount of evidence that regular churchgoing increases health and happiness.

Ersatz religion has many of the benefits of the real thing, and the same can be said for ersatz village life. Ever since the Industrial Revolution there has been a romantic longing to return to the countryside, which in the 19th century was largely the idea of High Tories who glossed over the horror of rural life. Yet for the all advantages of city living – sweatshops are generally far better paid than backbreaking agricultural work – there is evidence that urban living has a bad effect on our mental health, with city dwellers 40 per cent more likely to suffer from psychiatric problems.(  (Although the mentally ill are also more likely to move to cities.)

Yet the reality of rural living for 99.99 per cent of people throughout history has been squalor and extreme poverty. Most French farmhouses occupied by middle-class British families buying into a rustic dream have probably witnessed untold horror down the years – hunger, disease, violence, you name it –  but even today rural areas struggle to keep up with cities, especially in the US and France.

There is little chance we can escape living not just in cities but in mega-cities in the future, but perhaps we can fake rural life. There is a growing body of literature showing that well-being and health is linked to living in neighbourhoods that mimic aspects of village life, with medium density housing, access to green space and traditional architecture. The best compliment anyone can say about a London neighbourhood is that “it feels like a village”, by which they don’t mean they’re hot spots of isolation, unemployment and incest.

Perhaps the biggest liberal failure is with regards to tribalism, and the associated heroic ideal. Liberalism comes out of the bourgeois tradition and celebrates bourgeoise values rather than romantic-heroic ones, which is what you want in the people running your country, and yet we fail to understand the heroic narrative at our peril – a good example of which came with the government’s attempt to find out whether young Muslims were in danger of radicalisation.

Nelson or Wellington would have failed many of these questions, which really asked whether young boys were attracted to the heroic ideal – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing when society can healthily channel it. Compare John F Kennedy’s rousing speech “We choose to go to the Moon” with what centre-Left and centre-Right offer today: only the cult of victimhood and dry economic management respectively. Space exploration was a great example of how an open society could channel the heroic narrative into something spectacular, non-violent and indeed unifying to humanity, yet what heroic dreams do we offer young men today?

Pinker condemns the group identities that drive men to “embrace clasped death and victory” for the glory of the collective “rather than the well-being of the people who make it up”. He even singles out Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech as a “less gruesome” example of the nationalism he dislikes. Yet JFK was appealing to people’s thirst for belonging and duty to the tribe, something that cannot simply be eradicated like smallpox.

We are creatures of evolution and by nature group-minded. We’re nine-tenths chimp and one-tenth bee, in Jonathan Haidt’s phrase, and political systems that ignore that reality will only become bogged down in identity politics, the latest manifestation of which is Donald Trump. This is especially dangerous because cosmopolitanism – a positive to progressives – clashes with solidarity and trust, a necessary condition for liberal democracy. It’s not a coincidence that liberalism emerged in the most homogenous societies in Eurasia, the Netherlands, Britain and Scandinavia, rather than the great multicultural macédoines ruled from Constantinople, St Petersburg or even Paris.

If modern open societies are to further improve our lot they will need to place less emphasis on our diversity and more on what unites us, even if it fictive kinship – just as it will need to find ways to provide pretend village life, artificial heroism and ersatz religion. Liberal democracy can’t make people feel that their life has meaning or purpose or belonging – but maybe it can fake it.

Ed West is the author of 'England in the Age of Chivalry (and Awful Diseases)'.