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September 13, 2005

Belonging - or why Walmart does not rock

Posted by Michael Bentley

Belonging is a fundamental, ineradicable human requirement. Without it, one cannot be a fulfilled person. Consuming - however good the iPod, however cheap the deck-chair - is never sufficient to make us fulfilled. This is an essential truth that both libertarianism and the new corporatism deny. It is why Walmart does not rock, argues Michael Bentley, Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews.

Sometimes it seems that we act as spectators of a society rather than members of it, as passive recipients of social pressures more than contributors to their direction and force. Perhaps it was always so. Nostalgia feeds on fantasy and the recalling of a Trollopian England, say, through his texts and images undoubtedly summons a value-system that barely existed in early Victorian England and a series of social and political relations which, were we ever to find them resuscitated, would feel as oppressively hegemonic as nowadays they feel in retrospect warm and humane.

All the same, our own arrangements bestow a form of freedom from social control that does not always inspire loyalty or courtesy or generosity and the removal of reference points leaves in their vacant space a certain unease as liberty dons its hoodie and roams the streets seeking self-expression. In a discussion of the desirability of social cohesion I was recently met with the Hayekian retort, "Walmart rocks!" What presumably is meant by this mantra is that liberty has an economic structure and that a libertarian ideology makes life better by making available the richness of choice, quality and economy that an aircraft-hangar full of deck-chairs and iPods presents to the imagination. An end to subsidized farmers, away with corner shops that affect bonhomie while charging you a daft price for a bag of sugar. Placed beside the Scrutonian imperative that we should abandon Walmart rather than the local store, the benefits of impersonal commerce look too compelling and too cheap to relinquish in a cloud of historicity. But prices of a different kind remain, namely in versions of social cost.

A persistent strain in quasi-libertarian thought has had the effect of unpicking threads in the social fabric by questioning less the existence of the fabric than its desirability. The vision is one of individuals enjoying a high disposable income in a low-tax environment, losing some of that income in taking responsibility for one immediate family but for no one else's and benefiting from the multiple outlets of a market economy designed to satisfy every need from loo-rolls to health care.

Complementary assaults come from the other end of politics with a recommendation to embrace the new corporatism the place of white nylon shirts, shiny suits from M&S and lashings of styling gel with its own convoluted dialect of "advertising promotion", "personal targets" and barbarous transitive verbs which allow one to "grow the business", "cascade" messages to others in the system or (a personal favourite) to "Christmas tree" one's data.

These confrontational dispositions of libertarianism and corporatism have more mutual attraction than first-sight suggests. They both carry a view of individuality that is socially-corrosive. The first proclaims liberty in isolation from the very context that give liberty and individuality their meaning. The second subsumes individuality in a sterile universe of norms and appropriateness. Neither helps an individual feel any fulfilment in the world because both deny the need to belong as a fundamental, ineradicable human requirement.

Belongings are plural: personal, familial, territorial, comemorial. Every kind of voluntary association brings its form of membership, formal in a golf or tennis club or a working man's association, less so in "membership" of a social organism that has no constitution such as the British state. Not belonging to such networks of loyalty hurts through the sense of exclusion that it betokens.
Recall not only weddings in which full membership is withheld through the cruelties of a seating plan but those excruciating dances of many years ago when wall-flower status was awarded by a distant, malevolent universe.

It is not that the rewards of inclusion ever amounted to much; rather the pain arises through the fact, or perceived fact, of non-inclusion itself. Weddings, dances and funerals have the advantage of finitude: one knows where one stands in a small-scale pattern of ins and outs. Societies and states strike us differently. It is often not clear whether you are a member or not and no simple test, unless it be cricket la Tebbitt, clarifies the issue. Passports and national insurance numbers provide little guarantee of membership, only of tolerated presence which is different. The cross-currents of a technological, multi-ethnic and mass society leave the idea of belonging in a rip-tide. "Be sure to take your personal belongings with you", is the only advice. Presumably one swims for it.

Perhaps the impetus towards "modernization" a cry much heard at Westminster these days - compounds the difficulty. Not all versions of the Modernisierung project have had that effect but hey have tended in the past to have worse ones. Herder's search for a Volk in the identities of the German lands at the end of the eighteenth century led swiftly enough to the Vaterland and the Volksgemeinschaft in which everybody became uncomfortably clear about who belonged and who didn't. We shall be spared that sort of belonging even if we come to wear an identity-tag around our necks on a chain. Far more insidious is the atomization of a society through a technology that has re-defined the sphere of the social.

"Belonging" now becomes an attribute of the Web and citizens are encouraged to discover their society on e-bay or chat-lines. Personal encounter diminishes and becomes a thing only of supermarket check-outs, itself an oddly hermetic experience: each shopper protected from the next by unwritten but well-understood codes determined by the plastic environment within which the transaction takes place. Doubtless each person in the shuffling queue has an "identity" because we have taught ourselves that identity is "down to", as they say, the individual and his or her choices. But belonging does not work like that. It turns on commitment an individual one and a social one. Take either component away and a person retreats to the role of spectator again. Belonging wrenches an individual away from the looking-glass for on this reckoning it is not enough to spend one's life in a perpetual preening of self-obsession and it compels, as part of the idea itself, a concern with those other individuals, agencies and institutions with whom a relationship of belonging may be sought.

Whether our current withdrawals of and from membership are a recent phenomenon beggars simple answers and probably single ones. What is clear is that the society of non-belonging Walmart society has made itself a category of aspiration for many people over the last generation. It remains for some - for all that 9/11 changed - the location of primary loyalty. This seems at best a pity and at worst a threat to values once held to be urgent. I, for one, do not wish to enlist as a non-member of a non-society and I retain the prejudice that here are good reasons for lamenting the rocking of Walmart.

Michael Bentley is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and the author of Lord Salisbury's World: Conservative Environments in Late Victorian Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2001).


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Ah yes, I remember years ago David Donnision wrote almost exactly this way (from a leftist perspective, of course) in a little article called "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" in which he argued that the left was neglecting fraternity at its peril. He was sadly ignored - it was the intellectual equivalent of an H. M. Bateman cartoon.

So why has the spiritual, emotional and creative desert that is homo economicus become hegemonic? Part of the answer is surely in Professor Bentley's concession that:

"It is not that the rewards of inclusion ever amounted to much; rather the pain arises through the fact, or perceived fact, of non-inclusion itself."

The political philosopher who can crack that one will certainly leave the rest of us indebted. I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at September 13, 2005 08:00 PM
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Maturity and intelligence encourage postponing today's pleasures for tomorrow's greater benefit. Inexpensive goods and cheap credit have killed that (at least for now), and our desires to stuff our metaphorical gullets have killed community too, because that also required an investment. Same for families. How many middle-aged spinsters do we know, terminally past their sell-by dates, lonely and regretful, who played like grasshoppers while the ants long ago made compromises with their self-centredness and settled for the husbands available?

the crux is this alone: in a system that promotes naught but individual appetite and consumption, there comes atomism until eventually it's every man for himself, in terms of law, crime, professionalism and ever on. we took the cup from the Enlightenment, and even though it was poison we drank it and, gasping on our deathbeds, we guzzle it still.

Posted by: s masty at September 14, 2005 10:20 AM
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Interesting that the iPod is alluded to here. Having acquired one last winter as a post-exam treat, initial wonder has yielded, as is the way of all technological flesh, to first complacency and then a certain insight into the downside to all this. You miss not only birdsong and the lapping of the canal water but also the ridiculous conversations on the bus and the snarl of traffic. Plus you realise the dehumanising effect of dealing with a shop assistant, say, and not bothering to remove the damn headphones. The iPod is wonderful in its way, perfect for long, tedious journeys and the like. But it does run the risk of turning us all into little kingdoms, plugged into our favourite music and indifferent to the music of the world around us.

But there is a simple solution, as with the more pernicious effects of TV. Just turn the thing off the odd time.

Posted by: Seamus Sweeney at September 14, 2005 11:13 PM
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