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Jesse Norman and Janan Ganesh: Needed - a connected society

Compassionateconservatism_2We argued yesterday that the right has lacked a positive vision of society to defend in the face of an increasingly invasive state.  Where can we find such a vision?

We can start with a distinction of the English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, between two kinds of society: civil society and enterprise society.  A civil society is an association of citizens, individuals who are formally equal in their rights before the law.  As citizens, they have something in common with each other.  But this is not a common goal, or purpose, or plan.  Rather, it is just that they recognise that they are all bound, one no more and no less than any other, by a system of laws, and that these laws are passed by a single civil sovereign. 

An enterprise society is very different.  It is one in which the whole of society itself is organised as a communal enterprise or undertaking in its own right.  In this case, individuals are not viewed as citizens, endowed with certain basic rights and protections.  Rather, they are seen as contributors to a common project, who come together to achieve a recognised goal or goals.  These goals might be economic, such as greater national prosperity or industrial productivity.  But they need not be.  They might be cultural, ethnic or religious goals, such as cultural unity, ethnic purity or religious orthodoxy.  An enterprise society thus has nothing as such to do with business or “enterprise” in that sense.  On the contrary, its overarching purpose may be entirely different.

So much for the theory.  Why does this distinction matter?  The first thing is to note that the 20th Century was that of the enterprise society.  State provision of goods and services in the name of common social goals grew rapidly in every major industrialised country around the world.  Of course, those in authority have never been indifferent to people’s economic or social well-being, on pain of unrest, loss of office or revolution.  But for the state itself to be used as economic engine, safety net or service provider has been a modern, and specifically a 20th Century, innovation. 

Moreover, the growth of the enterprise society always tends to limit our freedom before the law.  Recall that the enterprise view is one that judges people, not as citizens, but by their contribution to some overarching corporate goal.  In such a society, the interests of citizens are always subordinate to the overall project, which is invariably determined by the sovereign power, by the state itself.  The best citizen is, thus, not a citizen at all, but a star worker, like the famous Russian miner Stakhanov; or a star entrepreneur, or parent, or saver, or taxpayer. 

Fascism is the worst case of the enterprise society in action; the case in which all private interests are subordinated to the designated goals of the society itself.  We can see this in Mussolini’s infamous slogan “Tutto nello Stato, niente al di fuori dello Stato, nulla contra lo Stato” (“everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State”).  Or take a perhaps still more notorious example, Hitler’s “ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” (“one people, one regime, one leader”).  This was not merely a call for Germans to associate themselves with a national project incarnated in the leader’s own person.  It was also a tacit invitation to ignore intermediate institutions or protective laws in so doing.

So far so good.  But there is something missing in Oakeshott.  He has given us a merely minimal specification.  A civil society is based on procedure, a framework of laws between sovereign and citizen, but it is nothing more.  An enterprise society is project-based, society conceived as an organised purposeful whole, but it is nothing more.  Everything else must be filled in.  Each must be given an ecosystem:  each must be populated with living, loving and dying human beings who come together in groups or institutions of every imaginable kind.

We need to recognise a new category, a new kind of society, one based on affection rather than procedure or purpose.  We can call this missing category that of “connected society”.  And with it in mind, we can restore a focus on human lives and what allows them to flourish; a place between the individual and the state for all those intermediate “sideways” institutions—the family, the football supporters’ association, the marketplace—which link us together and give fulfilment to our lives; and a recognition that what motivates human beings need not merely be a matter of the stick and the carrot, complying with rules or achieving some collective goal, but of culture, identity and belonging.

Tomorrow we look at “compassionate conservatism”, and why it has nothing to do with President George W. Bush.


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