Thursday, May 27, 2010

Something to Believe In

Whilst I can still do so for free, here's a piece from the Times earlier this week. Maurice Saatchi calls for the new government to give us a Big Idea to believe in.

One by one, our most basic beliefs have turned into myths.

We used to believe in caring socialism, until it reminded us of the Russian station masters who sent out empty trains in the middle of the night to meet their state targets. We used to believe in capitalism, until we were introduced to the “free market” called banking, where five companies control 80 per cent of all transactions and two of them went bust. We used to believe in proud nationalism, until we recognised that the combination of globalisation, devolution, and immigration make it seem an uncomfortable anachronism. In Britain today, the great Hollywood law that “nobody knows anything” should be “nobody believes anything”.

You could add God to the list of faiths/big ideas no longer held or believed in by a significant number. This is postmodernism in all its glory. Or perhaps, postmodernism Part 2. In Part 1, there were still enough people who held to 'metanarratives', big explanations/stories of the events of history, big philosophies which explained everything, whether it was God, capital, The People, or Progress.

In Postmodernism Part 2, the Big Stories have gone. They're held as articles of faith by a diminishing remnant, but are no longer mainstream. Saatchi notes Camerons well-documented pragmatism, and lack of a single, overriding philosophy:

Our new leader has the intellect, the charisma and the courage for history to judge him “a great prime minister”. To deserve the title, he will have to ignore the Conservative press officer who replied to a query about his party’s philosophy: “If you want philosophy, read Descartes”, and the Conservative candidate who agreed: “We don’t want philosophy and fluff”.

Now it might be that the age of ideology was just that, an age which has been and gone. But there has always been a big story somewhere, whether it was the medieval Catholic worldview, the Enlightenment, the British Empire etc. Nowadays 'believe' is an advertising slogan for Guiness, or football, I forget which. It's something very short term, a brief exertion of will and wishful thinking, packaged as entertainment.

Saatchis prescription is to reread Marx, the Declaration of Independence, and the Sermon on the Mount: To read them afresh is to understand the power of belief. They are all cries against the injustice of the established order. Like our Prime Minister, these authors all wanted “power to the people!” Their aim was revolution. Their effect was revelation. Um, yeeeeeeesssss, as Jeremy Paxman might say. Not the most accurate summary of the Sermon on the Mount I've ever read, but it's still an intriguing choice. The USA still has a couple of Big Ideas on the go, one is its own self-belief as a global agent of righteousness, the other (connected) one is in God. Apart from blind faith in Fabio Capello, you'd be hard pushed to find any left in England.

So what happens post-postmodernism? Is part 3 that the world is recolonised by those who do believe in a Big Story (China, Islam)? Can we manage, as a society and as individuals, without a big picture of how the world fits together? If there is nothing to be sceptical of, would we have to create something? And how does belief in Jesus as the agent of God's kingdom, a big story which covers all of creation and all of history, work in this context?

And politically, how long can a party survive if it doesn't have a philosophy? If everything is pragmatism, then all politics comes down to personality - do I trust the pragmatic instincts of Polician C over Policitian L or Politician LD. If there's no philosophy guiding those instincts, then ultimately there's no other way of judging which is better or worse.

1 comment:

  1. I would like to offer a counter-point to this article, i.e. that we already "believe" in too much.

    It seems to me that whenever we abandon reality and humanity for flights of fantasy of the kinds described here we run into trouble. What I think Saatchi should have said is that we need goals, this is not the same as "belief" although the two things tend to be confused when the goals are difficult to quantify.

    I would prefer to see the government work to reduce suffering, increase fairness and just make things work effectively; I would prefer these things far more than creating some abstract "big" idea that makes me feel better but isn't actually real (or attainable).