The price of separation from the Good Society

We live in a world of niches, divided by competition and calculation. John Tusa plays the game of imagining a better way
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For the individual, dreaming up the stuff of a good society is like the best kind of parlour game, a fantasy where "if I ruled the world" is the subject in hand. Personal whim rules; personal likes and dislikes crowd in. For instance: a good society would be one where all personal counselling was banned on the grounds that it does more harm than good, because it is based on bastard and half-digested Freudianism and because it peddles the fantasy that well-meaning chat, deep concern and a readiness to share can solve emotional problems and smooth away the effects of tragedy and shock.

Or this: a good society would be one where eating while walking in the street - not to mention throwing away the container - would be banned on the grounds that it is fattening, polluting, and disgusting to look at. Casual eating is no better than casual sex. It damages social cohesion by reducing those occasions when people and families sit down, look at one another face-to-face and enjoy a conversation.

Fun as it is, working out some guidelines for a good society involves more than personal whim. It should offer general principles for society to which the majority can subscribe because more people will benefit than suffer from the results. So that is principle number one: no bans based on impulse or mere whim or prejudice.

Some time ago, I discovered that a group of friends and acquaintances gathered annually to debate and discuss the Good Society. Believing that they had to start somewhere, one of their number - Professor Alan Milne of Durham University - drew up a set of definitions for them. Conceived in 1990, they already have a sadly dated look. They called for a society without gender or racial discrimination - yet recorded racial attacks in Britain now run at the rate of tens of thousands each year. They believed that a good society could not be indifferent to the plight of the poor, the unfortunate and the helpless in its midst. With an underclass of some 10 per cent of the population, with the fruits of Care in the Community wandering in a bemused way around the nation's streets, with absolutely no proof that growing wealth at the top will trickle down to the poor below, six years on our society gives a passable imitation of indifference to the poor and helpless. At the start of the decade, this group of idealists could assert: "If all are to enjoy modest prosperity, some will have to forego part of the greater prosperity they could otherwise have achieved." Today, the suggestion that the tax rate might be raised in any category is derided even by Labour as punitive on a Crippsian scale. The pips will squeak but they are not the squeaks of the well-to-do. Can this be a Good Society?

If a Good Society is to exist, then legislation and a government's actions should be judged on its skill in balancing rights, duties and privileges. The language of rights alone has long become meaningless and led only to distortions in the debate. From human rights to women's rights, to children's rights to animal rights, the catalogue of public rights that are asserted for each category has lengthened and sophisticated. Detached from any sense of the cost involved in providing these rights, still less the consequences for others of providing them, the unbalanced emphasis on rights has produced occasional gains but then run into resistance, practical and theoretical. Every right is a claim; how is that claim to be met?

Increasingly, the emphasis on rights has been elbowed aside by a counter- offensive from the more old-fashioned concept of duties or responsibilities. From errant fathers pursued by the Child Support Agency to indifferent parents who must enter into a contract with a school to which their children go, responsibilities will be codified, formalised and legalised. But will this new single-minded emphasis on responsibilities rather than rights in its turn achieve what it is hoped to achieve? Each batters the other into the ground. A good society would judge measures according to the extent that they conferred rights but answered the calls of duty at the same time. Elevating one over the others leads to bad laws, bad social practices and distorts the workings of society.

The Good Society cannot be constructed on the basis of a single criterion, a kind of social "one club" economics for which Chancellors of the Exchequer have been excoriated. Here too the choices before us are polarised as lying between the market and the community. At present, the model of the market is held up as the unchangeable and the moral foundation on which a good society should be based. Markets allow freedom, swap information, generate innovation, stimulate economic activity, allow competition, motivate enterprise and are the best form of social activity devised by man.

The language of the market has now taken over most other human transactions. Any organisation worth its salt is supposed to exist by an internal market. This means that each and any transaction must be costed and should only occur if a price is put upon it. Advocates of the system would prefer the transaction to be costed in theory and not used rather than take place on an imperfect cost basis. But human transactions in a good society are precisely those that are not costed: those concerned give because they believe that the spirit of such uncalculated giving is essential to making a good society work.

Within the narrower confines of an organisation, to turn relationships - especially creative ones - into market transactions, to put a price on them, misses the point. It reduces co-operation between individuals; creates administrative and bureaucratic barriers; sets a price on ideas; destroys a sense of corporate community, and fragments a sense of corporate belonging. It dehumanises because it materialises the human traffic of feelings, of curiosity, the satisfactions of mutual working together. In the BBC World Service, we were encouraged to set a price on each use of the Library and Information Service on the grounds that it cost a lot of money and some members of staff used it too much. "Using it too much" meant that some used it more than the average. The possibility that this reflected their diligence, their professionalism, and their concern to maintain standards was brushed aside. Since the whole credibility of the World Service rested on its accuracy, what was the value of saving a few pounds on a central service if you then risked losing the only priceless asset the organisation possessed - its reputation?

The market does even more damage to the very idea of the whole individual. From "Stylish Singles", to "Pebble-dash Subtopians", "Rootless Renters", or "Bijou Homemakers" we have all become mere categories of the marketing tool known as "geo-demographic segmentation". Despite their somewhat facetious titles, these terms represent a real effort to subdivide citizens into very minute selling units for the convenience of the market. Abandon any thought of being an individual defined by personality and belief, with aspirations to breadth of understanding, openness to experience, willingness to experiment, a capacity to accept surprise and innovation. You no longer inhabit a society in common with other individuals.

We live in a world of niches, where each one is separated from, wholly indifferent to and even hostile to the values, wishes and interests of those in other niches. A good society believes in integration and togetherness; the market thrives by fragmentation, by differentiation, through exclusivity rather than inclusivity. You are no longer a citizen; you are a marketing target group. The market is not interested in who you are, what you believe, how you live; one question alone matters - what can you be persuaded to buy?

A good society must offer a concept of citizenship that relates to others, sees citizens in the round, and adds what they have in common to what they are entitled to have for themselves. The market works in the opposite direction, leading to a Balkanisation of identity, the elevation of the consumer, the purchaser, the customer over the broader, more humane categories of citizen, individual, member of the public, member of the family, part of the audience.

Taken by themselves, the language of rights for groups, or the language of the market by itself, induce fragmentation and particularism. As a result, unless particular rights are met, society is accused of injustice because of its perceived failures to meet those rights. But rights for a few can never answer the problem of rights for the majority. A good society cannot be based on a rainbow coalition of minority rights; the more it does so, the less will be its chance of being a society based on an inclusive sense of rights and duties open to all. A good society would resist and reverse that trend.

It would also examine that transforming instrument, the computer. None of us would or could be without it, but that makes more urgent the need to examine it as an instrument of social and human interchange. It sits balefully on the desk demanding constant attention. It offers the hope of instant entertainment, a surprise message, an unexpected e-mail, a surprising piece of news. It is your friend. It does not answer back. But it exacts a price.

A friend of mine conducted a passionate love affair over the Internet with a fellow academic briefly met at an international conference. He and his cybersex inamorata exchanged two or three lengthy letters a day through the Internet. Not to reply immediately would have seemed like callous indifference and the occasion for reproaches and tears. The trouble was that the affair ended within a month because they had exchanged in that time the number of emotional transactions that they would have normally had over the course of a year. And they never had sex either!

We must distinguish between the pleasures and activities that isolate and those that link, between those that bind together and those that disintegrate. The Mexican philosopher Ivan Ilyich was right to emphasise the importance of "conviviality" as a crucial social value. Unless some social activity, some urban project, some new institution contributed to an increase in human interaction, in personal exchange, in what he defined as conviviality, then it was useless. How far will our politicians and their policies contribute to "conviviality"?

Where is friendship today? Not in the marketplace. Not in cyberspace. But then fraternity has always been the weak link in the holy Republican triumvirate. A good society does not confuse ecstasy with enlightenment; it does not confuse self-gratification with freedom; it does not confuse atomisation with individuality; quality with value; exploitation with enterprise; reward with greed; cornucopia with choice; abundance with riches; elitism with exclusiveness; organisation with effectiveness; structures with relationships; noise with meaning. Judge a party's actions by these criteria. Will the politicians?

The writer, a former broadcaster, is managing director of the Barbican Centre, London