Self and Society

Essays by various authors

Published by Haus Publishing, 2021, paperback, £7.99
Available at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road

Review by Tim Barton

Here we have a short volume from a new series, Haus Curiosities, ‘inspired by the topical pamphlets of the interwar years’. Self and Society, five pieces submitted for the Hubert Butler Essay Prize, addresses the question ‘are communal solidarity and individual freedom allies or antagonists?’

In Hastings, groups such as the People’s Assembly, and Make Votes Matter, are fighting a rear-guard action to promote both communal solidarity and individual freedom. The two positions can be allied, if those involved seek balance. But, increasingly in our ever more divided society a toxic variant on ‘individual freedom’ dominates. Culturally, this is to a significant degree an ideological virus imported from the USA. Hyper-individualism reigns, each person’s goal a direct threat to the possibility of any other persons’ truly achieving it.

ASPECTS OF TODAY’S ‘DARK TIMES’

The populism we have seen emerging is hugely divisive and destructive of the values that can sustain community solidarity in the long haul. This populism has been primarily on ‘the right’, though we are also increasingly infected by America’s very different political spectrum as witnessed by recent worrying alliances between, for example, some on the ‘green-left’ and followers of David Icke and his ilk. As the final essayist puts it, ‘as the social ties that used to bind society together have weakened, a new vision of community based on racial exclusivity and resentment has developed, promoted by far-right demagogues who flourish in a world of unchecked individualism’.

The global economic hegemony of an extreme strain of capitalist ideology is at war with grassroots community solidarity, except where it can hijack it to illiberal anti-diversity causes. Thus, it is also true that in some instances certain types of ‘solidarity’, those that are subjective, limited, and against cultural diversity, can exert a negative effect upon individual freedom. This, too, can come from ‘the left’. In my recent Bookbuster Review of Stuart Jefferies’ book on ‘how we became post-modern’ I picked out some of the issues. Hubert Butler ‘wrote about dark times, particularly the 1930s’, and the Essay Prize pieces in Self and Society address some other aspects of todays ‘dark times’. The winner, and four runners up, each have different perspectives. They will spark debate, and by no means will necessarily be agreeable.

THE ECONOMIC POSITION OF REFUGEES

The winning essay is an assault on ‘identity politics’ as a divisive and damaging cultural force, if more nuanced than that sounds, and thus is very much of topical interest. It will rub some of our readers up the wrong way, and please others.

The second addresses responses to the pandemic in the context of the necessity of collective action, and as that implies is critical of the position taken by people like Tory MP Desmond Swayne, who, epitomising the ‘politics of selfishness’, railed against a ‘monstrous imposition against me and a number of outraged and reluctant constituents’.

The third is concerned with the economic position of refugees, looking at the difference between the poverty of many refugee camps with a case study of a Turkish camp, and one in Burundi that thrived, as the local community worked to support it, despite the perceptions of some that integration would negatively impact native economic opportunity: once again, the essay is more nuanced than that brief description may make it sound! The fourth looks at personal responsibility.

WE DO NOT SEE SACRIFICES AS LIMITATIONS OF OUR FREEDOM

The last, and in my view best, essay is themed around ‘the legacy of the Polish union Solidarity’. The issues raised in this essay are readily translatable to solidarity organisations here too. The author Beninio McDonough Tranza, quotes Bertrand Russell’s problem of how ‘we combine that degree of individual initiative which is necessary for progress with the degree of social cohesion that is necessary for survival’. In his concluding paragraphs he states that ‘when we act in solidarity, we do not see sacrifices as limitations of our freedom but as expressions of our humanity’. In the Polish context, this was true because they were uniting against something worse. When tensions ease, that limitation of freedom can feel stifling to some. Balancing our freedom to act with the protection of the freedoms of others is a tricky business. Neither the Soviet East nor the Americanised West could achieve balance, as each sought opposite extremes, at least in theory.

Once upon a time, here in Britain, we consciously pursued a balance between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’. As our welfare safety net is shredded by individualist extremists, it becomes all too clear that any balance in our society is at best ‘under threat’. Another book in the series, Unwritten Rule discusses the British constitution, and possibilities of reform. Naturally, these are perennial topics that inter-relate neatly with questions around balancing community ties and individualist action. In the next review I will look further at how a new constitutional settlement could help mend our out-of-kilter society, and some of the dangers too. I recommend looking at other pamphlets in this excellent series, as well. Together they represent a meaningful contribution to the proper debate of our modern dilemmas.


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