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UK Riots: Might the Left be right?

    Professor Jeremy Jennings examines the arguments made by Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph post-riots.

    Readers of the newspaper columns of Charles Moore will be aware that he has recently advanced the challenging thesis that the Left might actually be right. It turns out, Moore wrote last month in The Daily Telegraph, that a system purporting to advance the interests of the many has been perverted in order to enrich the greedy and corrupt few. The role of the rest of us, as the “adventure playground” of the global banking system proves, “is simply to pay”. As a consequence, Moore concludes, people have lost their faith in the free-market, democratic order and no longer feel that government is on their side. When he wrote these words I cannot believe that Moore remotely imagined that within a month London would be subject to widespread arson, looting and mob rule.

    The conventional response to the argument against unfettered, global market processes, as Moore is aware, is that markets are self-correcting, that they generate a spontaneous order and that, in the long run, we all benefit from what Adam Smith described as the human propensity to “truck, barter and exchange”. More straightforwardly, the case is proven by simply comparing the economic performances of free-market and state-socialist systems.

    But the controversy is not merely about economics. It also has a moral dimension. The charge is that the workings of a modern market economy actually destroy the non-market values upon which a properly-functioning society depends. The looter loots, on this view, because he or she is driven only by self-interest and has no sense of the reciprocity or common values that work to bind a society together. The question then becomes: how can we generate these vital non-market values?

    Again, for the purist this is something of a non-problem. A market-led commercial society will itself generate the virtues of probity, justice and liberty required to ensure that society operates in a tolerable and peaceful fashion. The trouble here is that the frugal individuals so admired by Adam Smith as the benefactors of the world look today to be in short supply. Another solution, therefore, is to use the power of the state to try to encourage or even to enforce a common set of moral norms and social practices. The original Big Society agenda, with its proposals for a National Citizens’ Service and an annual Big Society Day, appeared something of this kind. Apart from looking like a top-down government-imposed agenda, the difficulty in this case is that in a large and complex society characterised by religious, ethnic and cultural diversity it is virtually impossible to define anything beyond a very narrow conception of the common good. Worse still, we run the risk of basing policy upon a vision of an imaginary lost golden age.

    Where, then, might we turn? Charles Moore suggests that David Cameron is right to believe that social bonds are best created by voluntary groups rather than by the central state but, he adds, “the concept lacks the underpinning of self-interest”. There has, in other words, to be something in this for us. So, he argues, the priorities of government must reflect the aspirations of the multitude rather than of the elite. Agreed. But perhaps we should unpack the concept of self-interest? As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the nineteenth century, the dangers inherent to the individualism associated with modern society are not overcome through the pursuit of self-interest but through that of “self-interest rightly understood”. By itself, Tocqueville understood, this does not make men virtuous but it teaches them how to combine their own well-being with that of their fellow citizens. There are many ways in which this might be achieved, but at a minimum, according to Tocqueville, we need a self-governed society with a rich associational life. In contemporary language, we need to generate more social capital.

    Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that such a programme would provide quick and easy solutions to our present difficulties. The first priority must be the re-establishment of the rule of law and of public order. But, as Charles Moore observed, our next step must be to realise just how much ground we have lost and that time is short. If not, we might have a lot more to worry about than the debt crisis.


    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests are primarily in the field of the history of political thought with special reference to France.

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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