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Gross Indecency
July/August 2014

Avishai Margalit: The 'decent society' is an ideal with which to compare reality (credit: עדנה אולמן-מרגלית)

David Marquand is not happy with the present state of British society. His most recent book, Mammon's Kingdom (Allen Lane, £20), argues that a pathological obsession with money has led British society to trade its honour for hedonism, its sense of history for an ignorant presentism, and its public-spirited democracy for hedonistic populism which barely shrouds de facto oligarchy. The book is intended as a "wake-up call to a society sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism". Marquand has led a varied career as an MP, eurocrat, historian, journalist and Oxford don. Mammon is more journalistic polemic than scholarly treatise, but the author does not shy away from drawing on academic philosophy where he thinks it will help his case.

One of Marquand's guiding lights is the idea of the decent society, developed by Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit. The decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate its members by treating them as less than fully human. The paradigm cases of humiliating institutions are the familiar discriminatory travesties: American slavery; the Nazi Nuremberg laws; and apartheid. Because these institutions were so humiliating, the societies that featured them must be considered indecent. 

There are two philosophically viable ways of using the concept of the decent society, and Marquand attempts both of them. Margalit, the author of the concept, sees it primarily as an ideal, "a utopia through which to criticise reality". The decent society exceeds what any actual society has achieved and thus serves as a standard of criticism for current conditions. When Marquand uses the concept in this sense, he is on firm ground. He is right to worry about the humiliating effects of poverty and unemployment on our society, and his commitment to bringing these to his public's attention is admirable.

The second use of the concept is to provide an all-things-considered judgment on a given society. Here, the standard for comparison is other existing and historical societies rather than an abstract ethical ideal, and Margalit makes these kinds of judgments cautiously.  Some societies — apartheid South Africa, Tsarist Russia — are clearly humiliating and therefore indecent. Usually, societies are decent in some respects but indecent in others and therefore may be characterised as "almost decent" or "relatively decent".

Marquand's attempt to provide an all-things-considered judgment of Britain shows a stunning lack of perspective. In the coda to Mammon, he claims that the past 30 years of capitalism have made Britain "blatantly indecent". It is one thing to argue that recent economic difficulties have been a source of humiliation for the worse-off in society. It is quite another to place the humiliations offered by the British economy as of the same order as those meted out by racist, sexist and otherwise indecent regimes past and present. Even if we confine our frame of reference to the humiliation caused by the economic crisis in Western European countries, Britain still comes off fairly well. At least, that's what waves of economic migrants fleeing the economic chaos of the continent seem to indicate. Marquand's big heart is in the right place. Yet he misuses a philosophical idiom that is more appropriately applied to National Socialism than to British austerity. This weakens the force of his best arguments, and does no service to the ideal of reasoned public debate that he hopes can yet save Britain. 
July 1st, 2014
11:07 AM
“The decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate its members by treating them as less than fully human. The paradigm cases of humiliating institutions are the familiar discriminatory travesties: American slavery; the Nazi Nuremberg laws; and apartheid.” Institutions are not moral agents. Therefore, institutions cannot “humiliate” anyone. Certainly not “by treating them as less than fully human”. (Is it even possible to treat anyone as partially human?) The only legally liable moral agents are individuals. You and I. That way, an organisation can escape liability, by claiming that one or more employees may be liable to prosecution, not the whole “family”. We already have adequate laws to prosecute individuals. The banks, on the other hand, and all the ancillary financial institutions of The City, are effectively and seen to be quite above and out of reach of the law. That is obviously and intensely humiliating. But not due to an individual sense of being “treated” as “less than human”. Far from it. It is, after all, many hands, countless human, productively docile hands, rendered municipally as well as munificently wholly dependent and therefore suitably acquiescent, quasi-politically represented human hands, more than enough able and willing hands that make do. And make light work of that grandest of National Treasures, the Gross Domestic Product. Besides, what does that mean, to be “treated as less than human”? No, wait. What does it even mean “to be human”? Does that include your and my instinctive propensity for “petty criminality”? Dishonesty? “Sexual immorality”? Does “being human” include prejudice and hate? Class conscious “discrimination”? Inequality of opportunity at the casino? And the openly acknowledged, blatant exploitation of the involuntary yet desperately necessary prostitution of all sorts of “human services on demand”? Including the self-fulfilling, large-scale fast-food, retail and miscellaneous unskilled wage slavery? What about the endemic corruption in “high places”? And the universal shrugging of shoulders in harmony. Whistle blowers offered to take a walk? Ecclesiastical “improprieties”? Roughshod parenting? Kids graduating from high school, unable to read or write? All undeniably human and therefore obviously self-evident “pursuits of happiness”, no? But does “being human” also include, incidentally, the electronically mediated indifference to the literally inescapable, Internet-documented state of affairs “off-shore”, always conveniently “over there”? Where millions of “non-white” children are routinely born without any prospects whatsoever? No access to clean drinking water, proper sanitation, adequate nutrition and shelter? Not to mention the sorts of “opportunities” which “our valued constituents” routinely take for granted? Everybody knows how many women in the world, mothers with infants, simply have no access to a bathroom. Do you even understand what that means? On this one and the same little planet, millions of people have no electricity and we want to worry about carbon dioxide? Who think nothing of flying to the south in winter? Dreaming of travelling to Mars and beyond to make the Universe safe for democracy? We’ve seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Grapes of Wrath. And The Girl in the Café. “The Robin Hood Tax”, Bill Nighy’s insane Bright Idea to require Big Business and Big Finance to contribute less than 0.001% of their income, not capital, which is all it would take to take care of abject destitution worldwide, will not work. Cannot work, because you and I are not prepared, not able in fact, to adjust your set, wardrobe and makeup. Because we’re part of the bloody scenery. All the likes of Thomas Piketty and his ilk will do because they can is conclusively demonstrate, most eloquently, to the entire peanut gallery, that “The System is Fucked”. “Occupy Wall Street” sat still, so it went nowhere. And was then swept up and hosed down. “The Arab Spring” came and went. So now it’s summer again. And the living is easy. It’s in the nature of revolutions to have this funny way of going around by coming around. Until we’re all right back where we started. Damn your “utopia through which to criticise reality”. A “decent society” is not one that looks after its own. Damn your “reality”. Don’t you see this kind of journalism is nothing but a sop to “the silent majority”? Who? Those who “watch the news”, of course. Every night, after dinner. In a plush recliner. With a glass of something. Those who “like to keep informed”. Those who “work very hard” and eat too much. Three times a day. And hold a gym membership. To “watch my weight”. (Just you wait and see.) And park the car as close to the supermarket entrance as possible. “That’s my spot!” To save time. And worry about “climate change”. Around the water cooler. And “the population explosion”. And “public decency”. And traffic congestion and urban renewal and plastic bags and juvenile delinquents and aged care and gender. Over a cup of coffee. Who am I talking about? Has your computer got a camera? Take a selfie.

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