COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 4 Mar 2009
The Convention on Modern Liberty started the national conversation that Labour promised but never delivered.
For at least the past thirty years, our state’s claim to legitimacy can be thought of as the marriage of Hobbes and Bentham. The first duty of the state is to deliver security through its monopoly of force and its second duty is to promote the good of all, however defined, and with whatever model of society the state might be using as a working assumption at any time. The basic deal has been: ”protect us, deliver our desires and we’ll play by your rules.”
Liberty, in this deal, was all encapsulated in the desires that would be fulfilled—as Cory Doctorow tweeted on Saturday: ”A generation has been habituated to seeking and finding liberty in consumption.” ”Protect us” has become a joke, as the state has waged wars it does not feel it can publicly justify and joined the ranks of the world’s torturers and destroyers of civil rights.
The rules we are meant to follow have become legion, from laws to administrative orders to ”code-law”, the rules that are made by the industrial processing of information in the database state. And now, with the world economy collapsing, even the residual claim to deliver our simplest desires is in tatters.
Rousseau ends his "Social Contract" with a characteristic mix of brilliance and brutality. It is obvious, for him, that society needs a civic religion: "The Sovereign must define a civic faith .. sentiments of sociability without which good citizenship is not possible." Anyone not wishing to sign up to these values should be banished, not on the grounds that they are bad, but just on the grounds that they are incompatible with the Sovereign will.
Finally, anyone signing up but then behaving in an anti-social way can legitimately be put to death, argues Rousseau. By imposing banishment or death on anyone transgressing the basic values of sociality, Rousseau’s democracies (he was himself banished in his youth from Geneva) certainly ensure their own legitimacy in the eyes of their (remaining) citizens.
The need for civic religion — for a ritualised creation of emotional attachments to a social way of life — seemed obvious to many nineteenth century progressives. Saint Simon and Comte founded their own; Hegel simply borrowed Christianity as his; John Stuart Mill recognised its importance; Walt Whitman thought that the political democracy of America needed to be mirrored in the American soul by an "inner democracy". Civic religion ensures affective, aesthetic, emotional attachment to a way of living–a sort of attachment which became suspect in itself to many ascetic modernists–but which, to judge from the Convention on Modern Liberty, is due for a political comeback.
For thirty years now, civic religion has been dominated by security and economy–a sort of fortresses and circuses approach: the supremacy of the economic, the choice of the supermarket, the private, home-owning self, the CCTV, war-on-terror delivered safety against terror, immigration, and other "others". Entertainment and news regularly feed the fears that need this security as a solution.
For Mike Edwards, at the Love and Liberty session of the Convention on Modern Liberty, the solution to insecurity is love, not fortresses. Was this the Hippy throwback session? When Lisa Appignesi asked the love panellists why the language of love was now appropriated by organised religion, the link between civic religion and the churches was made clear. The panellists stood their ground: love can work through civil society, mass movements, personal experimentation and culture.
The whole event was a collective ritual. In a moving speech to the full convention, Philip Pullmanaccused the modern British state of creating "institutional paranoia and furtive hatred". "A nation whose laws engender fear and suspicion cannot sustain delight". He delivered a homily on of the virtues of a nation, especially modesty: "Modesty would give a [nation] a proper sense of position in this world and remove the self-importance of politicians who think they are fighting an extensional war to defend western civilisation, when they are actually throwing their weight about in the bike shed like playground bullies."
The Convention provided a glimpse of the civic spirit that might infuse a politics that was neither obsessed with the market nor with a supposed war on terror. Given where we are–with "shock and awe" democracy exports discredited and the masters of the (old) financial universe in disgrace– this now has a chance to be the politics that sets the tone.
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