Private hopes and public goods: Writers set out their visions of a 'big society'

Their focus is on three areas where controversy reigns: migration, media and religion. Boyd Tonkin calls on politicians to take heed

The three Tafader sisters of Tower Hamlets wear headscarves: "the norm in East London" among many women with a family background in Sylhet, but a "subject of ridicule" on their visits back to Bangladesh. They all have degrees, hold down professional public-sector jobs, practise their religion and consider themselves "feminists". In the little close of private housing where the family grew up after a move out of council accommodation, the local children shared "a set of aspirations: to be accepted in the centre British society, to own a house, and never to work in a curry restaurant. Almost all of them, especially the girls, have managed this."

Doug Saunders, the London-based European bureau chief of Toronto's Globe & Mail newspaper, tells the sisters' story alongside dozens of others from 18 exploding conurbations on five continents in Arrival City (Heinemann, £18.99). His book not only ranks as one of the year's most engaging and important works of non-fiction. It gives a vital resource to everyone who wants to learn about the pursuit of the public good in an era of challenged or enfeebled nation-states. With sharply written case-studies from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the banlieues of Paris and the so-called "slums" of Mumbai, Saunders shows that the "arrival city" of informal communities, where migrants from rural hinterlands to urban centres gather, presents not simply one of the world's most pressing problems. It also offers us the most promising solutions.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when an influx of country folk swelled London and Paris just as steerage-class immigrants peopled burgeoning Chicago and New York, the spontaneous newcomers' metropolis has proved "a great engine for progress and growth". For all its volatile insecurities, its perennial curses of crime, poverty and ill-health, it has acted as a seething laboratory of togetherness and tolerance.

These "gateways to advancement" have set in motion an often chaotic catapult towards "upward mobility". They still do. In all the conurbations of the West (and, soon enough, those of the East as well), most of us descend from "arrival citizens". Whether or not our forebears crossed a policed frontier, rural-to-urban migration has shaped us. In doing so, it left precious evidence of what makes, or mars, a close-packed hybrid community.

All politicians in Britain sign up to their own version of the Tories' "Big Society" catchphrase, as this party conference season will amply show. Yet in the literary marketplace of ideas, the stall where new models of the shared good life ought to be on offer looks deserted much of the time. Just before the May election, the communitarian conservative Phillip Blond staffed it with his Red Tory project. Since then, personality-driven politics has returned on a raft of self-serving, gossip-fuelled memoirs.

Time to think again. Three new books envisage different pictures of a social life in common. They build not on safe ground but on the most contentious terrains in contemporary thought: migration, media and religion. Along with Saunders's Arrival City, conference delegates should pack Dan Hind's The Return of the Public (Verso, £14.99) and Mary Warnock's Dishonest to God (Continuum, £16.99). This very mixed bag of books all seek to define the common good, and to ask how plural societies can strengthen it via their practices and institutions.

For his part, Saunders extends the debate about globalisation and immigration to embrace the lessons of urban history. In his close attention to the voices of actual incomers – many of them Muslims in Europe, in all their diversity; even more not - he also supplies a hugely welcome antidote to the toxic nonsense about "Eurabia".

By the end of the 19th century, when public provision in health, housing and education belatedly began to catch up with the mushrooming growth of the Victorian metropolis, Manchester and London offered a better chance of cross-class mobility (to men) than they did a century later. Today, the equivalent "cities of dreadful night" where arrivals from the countryside congregate – whether in the gecekondu neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Istanbul, or sprawling informal settlements such as 800,000-strong Dharavi in Mumbai – can be motors of development and solidarity rather than mere blots on the landscape.

For all London's many frets and frustrations as an "arrival city", Saunders concludes that it has of late done rather better as a site of social integration than centres such as Paris and Berlin. Why? Access to secure property ownership (and the loans that sustain it) matters. So does full citizenship, rather than the gastarbeiter apartheid of Germany. From Shadwell to Sao Paolo, the ease of setting up small businesses can mean a fast track through the arrival city.

And state support does make the ladder of opportunity hold firm, via legal protections and economic options. Saunders never downgrades the role of public resources – from urban design to cheap loans and (a big plus, this) bus services – in preventing "failed rural-urban transitions". These lie behind violent unrest from the fall of the Shah in Iran – and now, the peril of his successors – to the burning estates of outer Paris in 2005.

Keenly aware of injustice and inequality, Arrival City does not on the whole deplore the past three decades of urban evolution as a neo-liberal nightmare of elite accumulation and mass immiseration. Turn to Dan Hind's The Return of the Public, however, and you enter a far gloomier social landscape. Drawing on the republican tradition of 17th-century England and its aftermath (mostly in America), Hind seeks to restore an idea of the "public" as a self-organising network of interests and convictions . His ideal public stands far apart from the manipulated "public opinion" of PR, consumer polling and electoral politics.

From 18th-century coffee houses to the cosy cabals of the post-Second World War transatlantic elite, Hind views the manufacture of the "public interest" in "Anglo-America" almost as a plot against the real concerns a wider citizenry. By the time of the Thatcher and Reagan free-market triumphs of 1979-1980, he sees a top-level counter-revolution against the modest social-democratic gains of the postwar setlement in full swing.

Its result, in a book marked by a sombre and scathing rhetoric that recalls the Frankfurt School critique of thinkers such as Adorno and Marcuse, comes across as a vile neo-liberal dystopia of greed and loneliness, addiction and alienation. This gaudy mass of social "wreckage", a "shambles" of seedy profit-driven distractions from booze to gambling, put me in mind of the neon-lit hell of "Pottersville" in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.

Hind writes our post-1979 history as impassioned melodrama. Coming from the left, he echoes all the "broken Britain" jeremiads of the Red Tory tendency. Indeed (as with the Frankfurt School), his discontent with the cruelty and vulgarity of consumer capitalism seems to ascend from mere politics into a metaphysical dimension: "We do not know the world; we do not know each other; we do not know ourselves".

What, and who, is to blame? From high politics to big business and (above all) the corporate media that bear the brunt of this critique, one could almost invoke Shaw's notion of the professions – in this case, the professions of power – as a conspiracy against the laity. However, as a follower of Noam Chomsky, Hind would insist that his portrayal of a mesh of interlocking elites does not amount to a conspiracy theory. To call it that would be to trivialise his argument. Fair enough; and he allows that "we are not necessarily caught in a state of false consciousness".

Besides, much of what Hind has to say about the limits of understanding enforced by the major media and their circulation of "prevailing fantasies" – he distrusts the BBC as much as any red-top tabloid – is pointed, eloquent and forceful. So he denounces scandal-mongering "exposés" of public figures or celebrities as "a system of explicit patronage and implicit blackmail". Or he points out that political scrutiny that may be "combative and abrasive" at the individual level, but coincide with "a quite placid acceptance of the governing consensus". Many times, he hits the bull's-eye.

Turbo-charged in his scorn by the manifest inability of many dominant media – both private and "public service"– to challenge the phoney evidence for war against Iraq in 2003, or to warn against the financial meltdowns of 2008, Hind flays both the shortcomings of elite messengers and the forces of capital behind them. "Their failure to challenge state mendacity is as predictable as the mendacity itself." In the case of the run-up to Iraq, dissent could however be heard – notably in this newspaper. But a Chomskyan contempt for the institutional corruption of the "mainstream media" tends to act as a pretty blunt debating instrument, whatever its corrective virtues.

What is to be done? Hind finally outlines a future mechanism for the "public commissioning" of investigative journalism, funded by what looks like an £80-million top-slice of the BBC licence fee. He advocates not amateur, internet-based "citizen journalism" as we enjoy (or suffer) it today, but the democratic commissioning of projects from a corps of paid professionals.

After the near-theological splendour of his opprobrium, it all sounds rather technical – although the prospect of 3,000 extra investigators working on "matters of interest and concern to the general population" ought to excite any profession as close to the abyss as serious journalism in Britain today. Those who find his proposals fanciful or utopian – which, in a harsh light, they undoubtedly are – should still sit up and pay heed. Intellectually, far more than just financially, the major media have fumbled too often at pivotal moments in the recent past to hide behind a fraying status quo.

Hind assumes a near-magical shift from today's atomised loners to the ultra-involved citizens of tomorrow via a transformative process that remains opaque. But, as a grassroots researcher such as Saunders illustrates, the "public" today is no downtrodden herd but a complex tapestry of identities, communities, beliefs. Foremost among those affiliations, for many in every land, religion endures. As philosopher and policy-maker, Mary Warnock has for decades patrolled the legal and social boundaries between organised faith and public life. In Dishonest to God (its title an unexplained allusion to Bishop John Robinson's scandalous 1963 study in radical theology), this sentinel of a secular state again takes up her post.

Warnock wishes to keep religion and the "people of faith" in their large but limited place: within public life, even at the centre of culture, but with no special command over the process of law. For her, "Religion is optional. Morality and the law are not." As she has done before, she argues for the precedence of a morality rooted in common humanity, "imagination" and "sympathy" over any single body of doctrine as the foundation of the rule of law.

The book's first half reprises what you might call Dame Mary's greatest hits: the legislative battles from the 1960s onwards to separate in law a secular ethics from the demands first only of Christian, then of general Abrahamic faith. From abortion-law reform through the decriminalisation of male homosexuality to the tussles over IVF, embryo research and now "assisted dying", she argues that public and parliamentary debates have persistently confounded religion and ethics. Now, with organised religion on the Westminster march again, "it is necessary to reinstate secular morality" as the only basis of both fresh and amended statute law.

Crucially, Warnock does not wish to disparage faith or expunge it from communal life. She goes on to pay homage to the sacred architecture and music that inspired her childhood, celebrates the Anglican liturgy, and notes the deep kinship between religious and artistic awe. She finds in traditional ritual the "most fitting" shared expression for collective feelings. And she quotes with respect the "radical orthodoxy" of Christian social thinkers such as John Milbank, who – in words that resemble those of both Phillip Blond and Dan Hind – maintains that "the welfare of this world has been wrecked by the ideology of neoliberalism".

Warnock would presumably have no objection to a papal visit, even though she brands Vatican teaching on Aids and contraception as "disgraceful". Still, she argues that "it is not religion itself that is to blame", but its encroachment on law when "it has the authority to enforce what its morality dictates. This is what does the damage, and has always done so". Yet she aims to fix as the cornerstone of social life, and of the legislation that guides our interaction, a set of moral beliefs in common human values just as lofty as anything preached from the pulpits of the world.

You might say that, in standing firm against "the forces of theocracy", she ends up sounding more universalist than the Pope. In effect, her secular ideal of the public realm far exceeds the benign mediator between old citizens and new that Saunders seeks, or Hind's vision of people coming together in pursuit of the truth that will set them free. All three of them should give a minister, or a Miliband, plenty of piquant food for thought.

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