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Here’s a long, good interview from the UK’s Prospect magazine with Jon Cruddas, a Labour Party community activist, who talks about how conventional politics are failing to account for actual changes in British society. Much of this is highly specific to Britain, but could be easily understood in an American context. The “mattress” thing is a reference to a point made early in the interview, in which Cruddas recalls going to visit a woman who lives in public housing, and asking her what’s going on; she points to a mattress a neighbor dumped in his front garden, and said: that. The mattress is a symbol of people not giving a damn about their behavior, and how it affects the community. Here’s an excerpt from the Q&A:
DE: I’ve been reading some of your articles. You quote Gramsci, Alasdair Macintyre, Charles Taylor and these are all people with a religious background of a sort, Charles Taylor, Alasdair Macintyre especially. I’m assuming that’s not coincidental, you yourself come from a Catholic background.
JC: No it’s not coincidental. I also like to quote Raymond Williams.
DE: Connect that mattress, connect it to Charles Taylor… is there any link?
JC: Charles Taylor wrote a review of a book by a guy from Chicago that was called Radical Hope. It was a fantastic book, it was about the Crow Indian and how when they were confined to the reservation they literally lost any meaning in their life and he went on this exploration of how you manufacture hope … and Taylor took this thing and exported it to West Virginia mining towns or the South Wales mining towns…
DG: This isn’t just about the losers, this isn’t about just about “left behind” areas like this–it’s about our entire society. We no longer have those big structures of meaning whether its religion or the nation state, but they’re gone forever aren’t they?JC: Well are they?
DG: We’re back into nation building then …
JC: That’s absolutely right, you have to reintroduce a floor in terms of values, and a respect for the things people feel are important. How could the bloke that dropped that mattress have done that? Taylor would say that the Crow Indian case is an extreme example of what happens through patterns of deindustrialisation, radical cultural change, patterns of migration and he argues for a thinner multiculturalism–reinstilling common forms of behaviour.
DE: It’s an argument for gradualism, isn’t it?
DG: And don’t we have to acknowledge that there’s an element of tragedy here, that so many of the good things have come out of bad things, and vice versa. Look at British social attitude surveys–we are much more tolerant and much more liberal, we’ve embraced multiple forms of family and sexuality and race and gender difference but that’s partly a function of the fact that we’ve become more abstract to each other and real community–with its binding but also excluding norms–has broken down in many places. [Emphasis mine — RD]
JC: That’s why the Philip Blond thing is a really interesting thing. The marrying up of liberalism and social conservatism. Is there an equivalent for the left? Is there an anti-statist, values-based politics that offers Labour an opportunity for reconciliation within itself and with its core supporters? Rebuilding the covenant in terms of housing, work, and actually your vote mattering as well. But I wouldn’t fetishise specific policy remedies. It’s more of us getting into the right space where we can acknowledge the pros and cons of 13 years of a Labour administration and also reintroducing a more empathetic language. I think what we’ve really lost is a warmth, a compassion in our language–its partly managerialism but it’s also the consequence of a conscious political strategy and our encampment in a specific part of the electorate.
DG: This is King Canute stuff. You talk about values and community–but all the parties bang on about that. But so many of the modern social trends–including our geographical mobility or the greater freedom people have to leave marriages and relationships–work against stable communities, this is where the tragedy comes in. The modern, less constrained individual likes the idea of community but then acts in such a way as to undermine it.
JC: The world is a complex place, politics 101. All I’m saying is that the interesting things that I’ve seen over the last year are around that garden rather than something in Whitehall.
DE: Do you think that political engagement is a virtue in its self? Is it morally superior to go to a political meeting than go to a football match…
JC: Don’t know, never really thought about it. But yes I think there is such a thing as a virtuous life. I heard an interesting speech recently by the Archbishop Rowan Williams. And you take Nichols, the new Archbishop of Westminster, what interests me is to compare and contrast the speeches they make with the speeches of Blair and Brown. They’re poles apart and it’s not left-right, it’s about forms of living, it’s about forms of neighbourliness, it’s about your role and duties, what is a virtuous life? And that is what really interests me–can you appropriate some of that back into politics.
Read the whole thing. I’m particularly interested in the insight that what these religious leaders are saying about society and its problems are more down to earth and accurate than what political leaders have been saying. I’m going to order that book mentioned here, “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation,” by Jonathan Lear. I think its insights may prove helpful to the rest of us. Here’s a link to Charles Taylor’s review of the book from the NYRB; it’s only partly available to non-subscribers. Below the jump, a portion of what you can see:
Radical Hope is first of all an analysis of what is involved when a culture dies. This has been the fate of many aboriginal peoples in the last couple of centuries. Jonathan Lear takes as the main subject of his study the Crow tribe of the western US, who were more or less pressured to give up their hunting way of life and enter a reservation near the end of the nineteenth century.
The issue is not genocide. Many of the Crow people survive; but their culture is gone. Lear takes as his basic text a statement by the tribe’s great chief, Plenty Coups, describing the transition many years after in the late 1920s, near the end of his life: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”
Lear concentrates on those last four words. What can they mean?