Between Waterworld and Judge Dredd

Post-apocalyptic visions of society remind us of the importance and the fragility of our own sense of order

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Hot weather often fuels hot tempers. But this summer's sweltering heat has been surprisingly peaceful. Despite plenty of low-intensity aggression, Britain's cities haven't exploded. At times, such as last weekend's VJ Day commemorations, there has been an almost Mediterranean mellowness in the air, a sense that Britain might at last be at ease with having large numbers of people talking, walking and drinking on the streets late into the night.

Will it last? Sadly, the odds are that when rain and clouds return, the mellow mood will disappear. Britain has lost a good deal of its confidence in being an ordered, peaceful society. One reason is that we've become frightened of open spaces, of going out at night, of allowing children to play in the street. When casual murders of schoolgirls camping in gardens dominate thenews, it's not surprising that there's a return to the medieval mentality of forests and waste-grounds being places of danger, filled with ogres and dark forces.

But there's also a less tangible side to this feeling of social disorder - the sense that it is no longer clear how people should behave, or what is appropriate for a boss, a neighbour or a lover, or a stranger in the park. Indeed, every time the public hears of a new government sleaze scandal, a company director lining their own pockets, even an adulterous prince or princess, the sense of order takes a knock. And on a broader canvas, each bomb in Oklahoma or St Michel, each gas attack in Tokyo, each new atrocity in Bosnia enhances the perception of a world out of kilter.

Popular culture has been quick to capitalise on these fears. British screens have been filled this summer either with the post-apocalyptic vision of Waterworld, where the decay of order leaves violence as the only currency, or with the comic-book heroism of Judge Dredd and Batman, hi-tech saviours come to rescue the little people from chronic crime.

Unfortunately, in the real world, social order isn't an easy thing to manage. Few of us want to live amid stifling conformity, and few of us would feel comfortable having Judge Dredd patrolling the high street. There is a fine line between being able to rely on your neighbours to keep an eye on your house while you're away and neighbours who peer through their net curtains. That may be why all of the currently popular metaphors of "social cohesion", "cement" or "bonds" are uncomfortable; they beg the question of who we are to be glued to, and on what terms.

But it would be wrong, for all that, to underestimate the popular desire for politicians and governments to restore a sense of order, a frame for behaviour. One recent Mori survey found it to be the British public's top concern. This desire is not only about catching criminals (although desultory clear-up rates play their part in undermining people's faith in the system) or making the streets safe. It is also about higher standards of behaviour in business or government itself, and about being confident that those in chargeknow what they're doing.

Of course, the question of what makes a society ordered, and what makes people obey rules, has exercised philosophers and sociologists for a very long time. The mystery is not that societies cohere, but rather that they don't fall apart. For a long tradition of conservative thinking, going back to Thomas Hobbes, the answer is that strong authority is needed to override people's malign or childlike nature. According to this view, recently restated by Michael Portillo, all we need is a strong leader and a return to respect for the old symbols of order - the church, monarchy and parliament - and somehow city streets will again be safe. The benign liberal view, by contrast, is that because human nature is naturally good, order should be able to develop spontaneously, with the help of a few good laws and sufficient prosperity.

But the problem is really deeper than either view acknowledges. The conservatives are right to say that there has to be a legitimate authority, someone or something that can assert what is or is not acceptable. But where they go wrong is in assuming that old authorities can simply be asserted, rather than earning respect, and in ignoring how damaging it is to have illegitimate laws, such as the prohibitions on soft drugs flouted every weekend by millions of teenagers.

The problem for liberalism is more subtle. Liberalism has always emphasised the rights and freedoms that protect people from governments and oppressive social orders. This was wholly understandable in the context of the centuries- long struggle to wrestle power from old ruling classes. But it can foster a dangerously childlike mentality towards authority and order. We like to deny our dependence on a degree of order and we often resent bitterly the means of enforcing it - such as drinking and speeding limits on the roads.

This ambivalence is one reason why attempts to reinforce order are so controversial. We saw this in Birmingham recently, when young Asians reclaimed the streets from prostitutes in Balsall Heath. Parallel divisions come to the fore when councils act to stop loud parties, when parents are required (as in Silverton, Oregon) to appear in court for their children, or when neighbourhoods employ their own police forces.

For politicians, too, the whole issue of order is harder than it seems. It is easy to promise harsher punishments, bigger prisons. But if that doesn't deliver (and it usually doesn't), and if the behaviour of those in power is at the same time corroding people's sense of trust, society can end up more fragmented and unsafe. The real problem is as much about clear and enforceable rules for governments, business, or even personal relationships, as it is about cameras in shopping centres.

Should we worry? After all, Britain is far from breaking up. It's still possible to walk most streets most of the time. But history tells us it would be wrong to be complacent. The past and the present are littered with enough miserable examples to show how easily, through the accumulation of small causes, societies can turn in against themselves. Much of contemporary West Africa (or inner-city America), tribal peoples such as the Mundugumor in New Guinea and the Ik in Uganda, even the 16th-century England portrayed by Lawrence Stone - all are societies that, having lost a benign order, became soulless, mutually hating and bleak. We are a long way from that. But they're good reminders why social order is far too important to be left to authoritarian conservatives, why it's no longer something to be imposed from on high, but rather something we all depend on as the precondition for life.

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