Wilde was right – a philistine is a man who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing; we inhabit a philistine society. We talk a lot about ‘human rights’, but as even the briefest acquaintanceship with Western foreign policy towards China and Saudi Arabia will reveal, we do not put them ahead of making money. We are happy to lecture Russia, but then America is not heavily dependent on Russia for very much. This points to the wider societal question of how we find a language for dealing with things which are valuable for what they are, not for what they are worth? An example would be the idea of the inalienable dignity of every one of God’s children. This is only partly captured in our language of ‘human rights’, and as the examples just offered suggest, is far more contingent than we might care to suppose. Involved in this is the question which the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron formulated in terms of the ‘Big Society’. Mocked by the media for its vagueness it was, in fact, nothing more than what Edmund Burke called the ‘small batallions – that is those bodies intermediate between the State and the individual. We in the West have tended to reduce the role of such groups, not least in the area of welfare provision, and, as the State has come to realise there are limits on what it can do, gaps, dangerous gaps, have been left, and having destroyed most of the ‘small batallions’ we have simply left some of the poorest and most vulnerable in our society at the mercy of circumstances which are not in their favour. It is one thing to drive down on welfare claimants who defraud the system, it is quite another to invent a system which routinely tells chronically sick people that they are fit to work, whilst running a parallel system which allows fabulously wealth international companies to pay ‘all the tax that is required’, when that tax is less then some individuals pay. That creates a distrust in the system which is corrosive of the bonds of society.
The Government in the UK makes noises about devolving power to the big provincial cities, but even if it did more and actually began to deliver on the promises, it is far from clear that it would do much to alleviate the sense of helplessness and deracination in the populace which has helped to fuel the anger we saw in the ‘Brexit’ campaign, and which we see in the Trump’s support. It is very easy for the metropolitan elite to dismiss these things, but we have already seen their effects in the UK, and even if Trump loses (and lose he will) those who backed him are unlikely to have the anger assuaged by anything President Clinton II might or might not do; quite the opposite.
But we do not have a real concept of the common good, we have lost, or at the most optimistic reading, are losing, a sense of shared values. We lack a sense of what it is human beings are for, why we exist, and what we should be doing with our lives. The notion, popular during the Reagan/Thatcher years, that wealth creation and ‘trickle down’ to the rest of us, would produce some sort of answer, even if only unlimited growth and the consumerist utopia it promised, seemed, for a while, before the crash of 2008, to contain a sort of answer which, whilst unpalatable and even chilling to those of us who thought human beings should be aiming higher than the wallet/pocket-book, nonetheless kept a lot of people happy, has crumbled into the dust of stagnant, and even regressive income distribution. The failure of this ‘dream’ has produce a great deal of anger but no solutions.
To Christians none of this is surprising, but what might be is the failure of Christian thinkers to put forward an alternative – one based on a conception of the human condition which sees us not as consumers but as brothers and sisters and as children of the living God. We cannot, of course, expect secular thinkers to do this, but we might expect Christian ones to be less backward in coming forward. It is not, after all, as though the secularist alternatives seem either varied, new, or particularly brave.