The Art of Life

Jonathan Rutherford

Despite historically unparalleled degrees of social stability and affluence, we are living through a period of acute personal insecurity and change. Capitalism is transforming its own economic and geographical conditions which produced the old, work centred class categories. Globalisation, the emergence of new knowledge based, post-industrial sectors, and the expansion of the service economy have radically altered the time and rhythm of work. The end of empire, post war new Commonwealth immigration, and the radical changes to family life and sexual values are transforming the social character of English ethnicity. Individuals are being freed from the constraints of the old order, but the new opportunities have brought new risks which mirror the injustices of the old class society. Greater degrees of personal self-expression coincide with new forms of standardisation in which the rhetoric of the market - the supremacy of personal choice, the inviolability of individual ambition - disguises the disparate life chances of people. The dissolving of working class ties has led to unprecedented degrees of inequality, intensifying the experience of poverty and creating new forms of social exclusion. We are, in the words of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, entering a period of capitalism without class, in which collective relationships to the means of production have been radically disrupted by de-industrialisation and unregulated forms of ‘wild’ capitalism. The old working class cultures have fragmented and are unable to mobilise individuals against the new forms of risk they face, nor can they generate a contemporary language of self affirmation and cultural empowerment. There will be no revival of social democracy as we have known it, because the alliance of class interests which brought it into effect has disappeared.

Our increasing personal isolation in society has encouraged a greater emphasis on individuality and self-reliance. Dissatisfaction is expressed in our concern for the particular and everyday rather than in grand ideological themes. The things that matter to people are increasingly outside or ignored by, the instrumental, managerialist language of the sphere of governance.

There is an argument that the contemporary search for authenticity in personal life is a defeat for civic virtue and democracy; that we are hovering on the fringes of a consumerist, privatised dystopia. It is true that the modern turn to the self coincides with public apathy toward local and national elections and a general disinterest in politics. But as Adam Smith reminds us in Wealth of Nations, the realm of the public in modernity was originally secured by the market and the utility of money : ‘everyman in some measure becomes a merchant’. Benevolence toward others was subordinated to the function of exchange value. If this instrumental and utilitarian culture of capitalism was somewhat dissipated by the social solidarities created by the Second World War and the welfare state, it returned with a vengeance in the 1980s and continues unabated. Neo liberal capitalism has undermined representative democracy and forms of public authority through individualisation and its promotion of a global, standardised commodity culture, but ironically it has extended it into cultural, personal and family life. It is here, not in the public realm of governance, that there is a revaluation of what an ethics of living might be, a search for a new vocabulary of virtue. The individual practice of identity making, of negotiating relationships and the social forces of capital, racism and sexism, is not simply an aesthetic of lifestyle, but the necessary emotional work of everyday life. Concern with private life and the cultivation of the self is central to the revolution in cultural life of the late twentieth century. Contemporary preoccupations with intimacy, friendship, the meaning of life, death, love, family, belonging, sexuality, the body and emotions are what Raymond Williams has described as ‘structures of feeling’. They are a part of emergent cultural values and identities across Western Europe.

The preoccupation with the self, emotions and identity has been a central feature of the history of modernity and closely affiliated to the constitutional struggle for civic democracy. The late Eighteenth century and the beginnings of Romanticism gave form to the social and cultural contours of modernity: the cultural differences of femininity and masculinity; the emergence of empires and the racialising of European cultures; the conflict between reason and feelings, commerce and sensibility; the divide between the public and private spheres of social life; the creation of the modern self and its other as a defining category of social life. In its darker aspect, the immanence of Romanticism was subsumed into the absolutism of an authentic truth of the self which provided the chief ideologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - nationalism, racism, fascism and Marxism - with their respective aesthetic and philosophical justifications. At the heart of these ideologies was the longing to implement the utopian desire for human completeness, a pursuit of perfection which required the total rationalisation of human conduct. Marx in the 1844 Manuscripts , drawing on German Romanticism, attempted to address what it means to be human, to describe the ways in which the commodity relations created by capitalism alienated the worker from himself. Behind his description of alienation lay Hegel’s belief in an underlying unity of human essence and world, the notion of the inevitable unfolding of history toward human perfection. Marxism and its dialectic of historical materialism was the legacy of the Enlightenment’s unreasonable belief in reason. In the hands of Lenin, it differed little from the punishing theology of Calvinism. One demanded the surrender of life to god, the other of life to the state and history.

The collapse of Communism in 1989 was the latest rout of the Enlightenment project of human perfection through the application of reason and science. In contrast, traditions of English/British socialism - the Socialist League of William Morris, Edward Carpenter’s brand of romantic socialism, the New Left and the social movements of the 1960s - have been sceptical of modernity’s rationalising ethos and derived their languages from native Romanticism. They fostered a creative engagement with the world, antipathetic to the bureaucratic didacticism of the Fabians, the industrial ethos of Labour, and the scientism of theoretical Marxism. Their emphasis on emotions and inner experience, and the search for an authentic self, democratised personal life and redefined the boundaries of political discourse. But these traditions too have not been saved from history. They were also a product of the culture of puritanism. Their notions of human solidarity were invented by the religious traditions of the non-Conformists, and they harboured a moralism and a politics of judgmentalism which became evident in their suspicion of popular culture, and their prescriptive attitudes toward lifestyle and personal opinion. At one time it was religious authority and bourgeois propriety which rewarded the masses for being dutiful, emotionally restrained, self denying, or deferential. People have rejected the imposition of this class authority, and like their religious forebears, these Left politics have also now been dispersed by secular individualism.

Today there are no more utopias, and no more dreams of brotherhood. The sign we live under is one which is ambivalent in its own meaning. In such a culture we are left to our own devices - adrift for the moment, but also free to take ethical decisions. There is no Left anymore in the sense of an identifiable moral and political authority, only the remnants of a number of antagonistic traditions. There is no future in attempting to repair and impose one of the old ideologies, to homogenise difference, or try and stem the leaking away of identity. But equally there is little to be gained by pretending they never existed. A future politics will be fashioned in the present on the basis of the past. What then are we to do? It is a question which haunts the texts of the European Left. It is the spectre which besets this moment of modernity, because unlike the puritans, or for that matter Lenin, we no longer believe in the Celestial City where the streets are paved with gold. As Marx accurately predicted, the logic of capitalism encourages the breaking up of human ties and a more intensive commodifying of everyday life. The palliative of the market is to promote the personal realisation of the few over social and moral concern for all, but there is no human respite guaranteed in the allure of profit, or the individual pursuit of wealth. Adam Smith informed his readers over two hundred years ago that commodity relations will never lead to personal fulfilment or happiness. And Marx, sixty eight years later, perversely insisted that the ‘goal of the economic system is the unhappiness of society’ .

In the Romantic era love became the great melodrama which would beat back the dull, patriarchal world of duty and emotional impoverishment. It was the beacon of liberation which would launch the lives of its young protagonists into the future of their dreams. The secular religion of love was invented, and it has now become ordinary and is the stuff of everybody’s dreams. It still holds the promise of transforming our lives, of connecting us in deep and enduring ways to other human beings. Love is an emancipation which enables us to be present in our own lives. But this romantic tradition, set against the revolutionary upheavals of capitalism carries its own dead weight of cultural inertia and tradition, its deep and abiding fears of cultural and racial difference. Love cannot be the basis for a politics. We need an ethics of virtue. To learn to be with oneself in the presence of other people is how the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas describes ethical practice. We are not wholly alone in the world, nor are we part of a totality to which all others belong. Our encounter with others and the realisation that we must negotiate sharing the world with them is the moment ethical life begins.

It is this encounter with otherness in the contemporary democratisation of culture, family and personal life which will provide a future vocabulary of political radicalism. It will not be another singular ideology of anti-capitalism, but one which holds the potential for being a counterculture of modernity, which acts as a check on the inhuman and is able to address the proliferation and dispersal of contemporary social and political antagonisms. The development of such a politics cannot begin with defining strategies, agencies or ideologies. In a post-scarcity society in which economic determinants play a less significant role in determining the fate of a majority of its citizens, the more functionalist forms of politics and sociology which predominate are no longer able to explain individual motivations and behaviour, nor do they have the language for representing people’s aspirations for a better life. A beginning can be made by returning to the old question appropriated by religion. What does it mean to be alive? And with the memory of the ethnic barbarism of European fascism, Nazism and communism revisiting us in the Balkans it leads to a further, political question. What is the relationship of human life to the state and the exercise of power? Such an ethical politics requires a cultural and intellectual life which follows the spirit of Levinas’ Jewish humanism, reading against the grain, interpreting rather than prescribing and legislating, placing questions at the heart of the search for identity and meaning.

It is the paradox of an ethical politics centred on the individual that it can only develop through new forms of social solidarity. Today it is necessary to live without guarantees but nevertheless with an ethical framework that acknowledges co-dependency, and that care of the self and the pursuit of self-interest is intrinsically bound to care of others and concern for society. ‘If you wish to be loved : love’ wrote the Stoic philosopher Seneca to his ‘pupil’ Lucilius. In an age of secular individualism in which, for many in the West, the dread of loneliness and fear of failure have replaced the apprehension of hunger and disease, there is a need to cultivate new representations of human commonality and the pleasures of being alive. To invent a language of virtue - notions of goodness which are pragmatic and contingent and not a pious observance of the Law. In the past these were expressed in religious symbols and spaces of the sacred. They were timeless, changeless representations of a pre-modern, homogeneous culture and an undifferentiated world view which in their contributed to ethnic and religious barbarism. The search for a new settlement between the individual and society requires the invention of plural, non-absolutist and deinstitutionalised forms. Objects, languages and spaces in which our inner being finds an emotional identification with the world beyond, and the others who occupy it.

We can never know the truth of ourselves, we will never achieve immanence or attain transcendence. We can only ever get hold of the world indirectly though representation in language. We also are made in language. It makes us, as well as the world. The sacred is simply a metaphor for the excess of world over word. The Left died when it failed imaginatively, creatively, aesthetically and politically to help us in this act of knowing and reparation. Life is a work and it is the emotional and intellectual business of politics to invent new languages which redescribe the world and help us live in it better and with pleasure. If we live today with personal insecurity and a paucity of public languages of our commonwealth, it is within human natures to reach for something more which is beyond us, to grasp for words which will correspond to what is missing. Out of this ethical activity can emerge a renewed collective impulse for economic justice, personal emancipation and political democracy

Jonathan Rutherford teaches Cultural Studies at the University of Middlesex and is the author of Without You I’m Nothing (Macmillan, 1999)


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