Friday, November 03, 2006

Defending the good life

Normblog raised the following dilemma in relation to a piece by Melanie Phillips:

"Can there be a robust defence of liberal and secular values? Or are these, as Phillips thinks, too infected by the good life for their adherents to be willing to put up a fight for them?"

Let's not get taken in by this conservative pessimism. Melanie Phillips' views are not as strange as they first appear, they have a long pedigree, but this does not make them convincing. All she is doing is digging up the old cyclical view of history, obsessed with the fall of the Roman Empire, that sees history as a process whereby the rise and fall of civilisations are intrinsically tied, to use the terminology of the late American historian Christopher Lasch, to "republican virtues". These are what Melanie Phillips sees as being embedded in her newly re-Christianised Europe. Prominent amongst these virtues is the idea of self-sacrifice. In this view, the cause of decline is "decadence" as communal ideals collapse into a form of selfish individualism. Softened by luxury, the old world would be unable to resist the challenge posed by the "virtuous", self sacrificing challengers and would be crushed by their vigour. The problem with Melanie Phillips' view, as with many other theories of history, is that it is hard to reconcile with reality.

Lasch, in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, argues that Adam Smith was consciously writing against the cyclical tradition with his assertion that a modern civilisation could be developed through the self-interest of individuals in the free market, that it was selfish individualism rather than virtue that was the key to a sustainable civilisation. For a follower of Smith, a defence of liberal and secular values is inherent in the development of commerce, in much the same way that the Manchester School saw free trade as an instrument of global peace. We do not willingly abandon prosperity.

The reality is that successful totalitarian and illiberal challenges are actually not the result of the psychological softening through comfort, but of the failure of the good life. It is in crisis that we suffer a loss of faith. If we are living the good life and being challenged by violent, self-sacrificing, hardened outsiders offering us the bad life instead, what will we do? Will we say, "I can't be bothered, let's have the bad life, it is so much easier"? That isn't what happened in 1939.

At heart there is an assumption that a range of belief systems, from Fascism to Religion, are somehow positive and vigorous, whilst secular liberalism is negative, an absence of belief. Commitment to secular liberalism can be as fierce as that to totalitarianism and, when challenged, all the resources of successful, prosperous societies can be mobilised to defend it.

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