An Emergent Cosmopolis

Losing Society
Jonathan Sacks

Civilization has been aptly called a 'thin crust over a volcano.' The anointed are constantly picking at that crust.

— Thomas Sowell

Multiculturalism is only one aspect of the wider problem to which this book is addressed: social breakdown in liberal democracies. Is there such a thing as society any more? Should there be? And if there should, how can we rebuild the structures of our life together in pursuit of the common good?


The argument I will be making is emphatically not for a return to the way things were in the 1950s. It is the opposite. Western liberal democratic societies are diverse: that is a fact and also a value. This was, after all, Aristotle’s argument against Plato who conceived of the Republic as a tightly-bonded unit guarded against change. Diversity is essential to political life, argued Aristotle. It is also, today, inevitable. The desire to go back to the past—reactionary politics—is always misconceived and often deeply dangerous.


The case outlined in these pages is resolutely future-oriented. We are a diverse society. But we are also a fragmenting one. We are no longer sure what British or Dutch identity is. Politicians, commentators and moralists urge minorities to integrate. But into what? To integrate, there must be something to integrate into. To become socialized, there must be such a thing as society, a proposition some politicians have famously denied. Nations are constituted by, among other things, a shared moral code. But liberalism in its modern guises, and still more in its postmodern ones, denies that there is such a thing as a shared moral code. It argues, instead, that we should be maximally free to do our own thing, live our own lifestyle, refuse to conform. What then becomes of the idea of belonging?


We tend to think that the problems of multiculturalism have to do with minorities. In fact they have to do with everyone. Sir Keith Ajegbo, in his 2007 report on the teaching of citizenship in British schools, discovered that white pupils in areas of high ethnic mix ‘can feel beleaguered and marginalised, finding their own identities under threat as much as minority ethnic children might not have their recognized’. One white pupil in her teens, after hearing in a lesson that other members of her class came from the Congo, Portugal, Trinidad and Poland, said that she ‘came from nowhere’. When the concept of national identity dissolves, we can all feel unhoused, deracinated, strangers in a strange land. 


My argument will be that we need to engage in something rarely consciously undertaken in Britain before because it was taken for granted, namely society-building. We need to reinvigorate the concept of the common good. Society is where we come together to achieve collectively what none of us can do alone. It is our common property. We inhabit it, make it, breathe it. It is the realm in which all of us is more important than any of us. It is our shared project, and it exists to the extent that we work for it and contribute to it.


At times of no change, or slow change, society-building happens subliminally. We become, in a significant word, ‘socialized’. We learn the unspoken rules. When I first went to university I discovered that you must never look as if you studied. ‘I didn’t do any work’, people would say coming  back from vacation. ‘Did you?’ The correct answer, I discovered, was ‘No’. Clearly all the students worked hard. There was intense competition for a place, all the more so far a high grade in the final exams. The convention was, thought, that you had to act as if the acquisition of knowledge happened mysteriously without any conscious effort on your part. If you worked, you were ‘grey’. This was a carry-over from the age of amateurism, the curious British class-code that held that work was something other people did for you. Already be the late 1960s it was a complete anachronism, but it survived. There was a British way of doing things, and you—or as they said in those days, ‘one’—conformed. Belonging meant internalizing the rules. Where there are no rules any more, when traditions die and codes of conduct disappear, when respect for institutions is minimal and national pride has become national self-laceration, there we deceive ourselves of we think we have the prerequisites for social cohesion. It is not that this minority or that does not play by the rules. It is that there are no rules to play by any more. Such a situation is unsustainable.


Jonathan Sacks,
The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society
(New York: Continuum US, 2007), pp. 4-6. Sacks’ italics.

Handbook: Implicated: Losing Society