Social duty needs social purpose… where is it now?

Remember the barn-raising scene in the film ‘Witness’? A whole community working flat out to throw together a barn for one family… It lifted the spirits to watch it. Why? A shared sense of obligation is driven by common sense of purpose. So we watched as people with a common bond expended themselves to construct a testimony to their solidarity – unpaid.

Without that sense of purpose people ask “what’s in it for me?”. We talk as if obligations should need incentives: ‘give young people free tickets to concerts in exchange for volunteering’ then they’ll do it. That is the cart before the horse. The purpose comes first.

This sense of obligation has been lost from much of UK life by the incremental erosion of a shared social project. Here are three big (general) reasons why:

* The post-war project reached completion in the 70s once a sense of freedom and prosperity had returned to the nation: we had an unprecedented common bond through the grim purpose of war time. Ever since it has been vaporising.

* The political project of common ownership in an industrial economy has ended. Now cheaper labour from abroad feeds an import economy that returns capital to our finance centres. Personal income is less connected to toil. Politics seems to have little to do with common purpose.

* A previous religious narrative has been lost, and with it the moral imperatives such as neighbourliness or a binding collective sense of creating a higher Kingdom than one’s territory of birth.

In its place is a simple belief that satisfaction emerges from being self-reliant and materially stable. After that you create your own happiness.

Maslow’s hierarchy appears to have been turned upside down, with the first purpose of life relating to self-actualisation: all other dimensions of thriving are taken for granted. An entitlement.

Thus the goals of education, relationships, prosperity, and religion (where it remains) all cohere in personal reward, not collective purpose. People’s obligations are primarily towards themselves and secondarily to the family, then to those with common interests and finally to wider society.

Until there is a need for society people will not sense a purpose in creating it.

Consumerism has a vested interest in undermining people’s need for society, preferring them to conceive a need for product and goods.

The enemy of the people is the myth of self-reliance. We don’t have it. We actually arecompletely reliant on others in a consumer economy, but they are invisible. They receive no broadcast time. We keep those on whom we rely… the dollar-a-day billions who supply Western lifestyles, invisible. Bizarrely that masks that we are in a society. A global society of masters and servants.

‘A people’ (the ‘demos’ in democracy) has a shared mind that connects how they organise with how they can thrive. Each person should be in control of their personal prosperity as far as is possible. This requires that they know their place in the social order they inhabit so that they can simultaneously prosper themselves and also create the conditions for shared prosperity. That used to be much more visible to us.

Now our most common purpose is to keep this secret. To deny the needs of these invisible providers. We do it every day. This is the bond of consumerism. No political leader will be elected if they betray the secret. This bubble cannot be allowed to burst. Nonetheless, it will slowly deflate.

Dare you, dare I, find our purpose in exposing the secret?

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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