Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Is it possible to make society cool again?

In Tracey Thorn's hugely enjoyable and enlightening autobiography, Bed Sit Disco Queen, she suggests that people formed in the 1970s tend to be collectivist about things because that was the spirit of the decade. I think she probably overstates the case but is undoubtedly right.

For me, becoming a Christian in that decade of a kind shaped by a labour councillor curate and fervent evangelicals, moulded by northern working class evangelicals at university in Manchester and still clinging to the ideals of the counter culture embodied in Chicago's first five albums, CSNY and a host of others, collectivism was a no-brainer. 

Like Thorn I stuck to my guns in the individualist eighties, supporting the miners, opposing privatisation in all its forms, believing that we do some things better as a community and that financial capitalism might just lead us all to hell in a handcart (five years on from the collapse I see no reason to change my view on that one). In short, I believe that there is such a thing as society!

I was reminded of this yesterday when I attended an excellent seminar on the future shape of housing policy organised by the Strategic Society Centre. Four speakers - Ruth Davison from the National Housing Federation, Josh Miller, the senior economist at RICS, Toby Lloyd of Shelter and Matt Griffith of Priced Out - each reflected on the current state of the housing market and suggested ways it might be made to work in the interests of everyone and not just the wealthy few. It was a hugely stimulating two hours.
In the course of conversation afterwards, Ruth drew my attention to the fact research suggests that the younger generations (Y and those rising behind them) tend to be more individualistic and so tend to be less sympathetic to those who need a social safety net. Since these are overwhelmingly the age group that the housing market, left entirely to 'market forces' is failing, this is somewhat ironic. 

I guess part of the reason for this is that the press for thirty years has lauded individualism and trashed people who can't support themselves for whatever reason. The latest manifestation of this is the rhetoric of skivers and strivers that George Osborne used but seems to have dropped; and the more neutral sounding 'hard working families' that all political parties seem to want to speak for. This suggests that anyone in need of support of any kind is feckless.

I wonder how we go about rekindling a sense of collective responsibility among the young? Perhaps we could find ways of showing that being 'society' means that we really are all in this together and that those who need assistance - to pay their bills, find work, get training, find a home - are the shared responsibility of everyone, you and me. Further, perhaps we could rekindle the idea that we each prosper when everyone prospers. 

I think that's the idea behind Jeremiah's instruction to the exiles to seek the welfare of the city where they have been sent because if the city prospers, so will they; but if it doesn't, then neither will they. It's the vision Jesus holds before us, the idea of a kingdom where everyone is welcome, everyone has a role, and everyone shares bounty.

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