Realising the Good Society: a pulse check

Ruth Lister

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Following the lively panel and open space session at our recent conference Leaving the 20th Century, we’d like to start a conversation with our members and supporters about how we see a Good Society. This blog by Ruth Lister kicks it off; we’ll be gathering views through a survey shortly. In the meantime, please let us know your thoughts below the blog.

We need Compass’ work on a Good Society more than ever as the country stands at a crossroads. Indeed, whatever the Brexit outcome and whatever one’s position on it, there is wide agreement that the whole process has raised fundamental questions about the kind of society we want to be. 

A debate around a Good Society helps us focus on social ends rather than economic means. It could provide an inspiring vision for change, which combines the social and collective with what is needed for each individual to flourish in their own way. We cannot decree how another person’s good life should look but we can work to enable each person to achieve that good life for themselves (provided it is not directly at the expense of others’ good lives).

The building blocks for a Good Society embrace not just the material but also the ethical, emotional and cultural (in the broad sense of the term). The material building blocks provide the foundations. Each individual must have enough money and access to decent public services to ensure material security as part of a fairer and more equal distribution of society’s resources and of paid work and other activities which give life meaning. 

As time is itself a resource, which is distributed unevenly – in particular between women and men – building a Good Society involves a gendered politics of time in which paid work and unpaid care work are distributed more evenly. And Philip Larkin’s ‘toad work’, squatting on our lives, will no longer squash out other meaningful activities – allowing enough time to: care, spend with friends and family, be an active citizen, be healthy, have fun and just be. The growing interest in a shorter working week is therefore encouraging.

Together, sufficient money and time enable us to live our lives with ease, which for me is the starting point of a good life. But good lives need more than just money and time. There is a strong ethical and emotional element in how we live good lives involving an ethics of care, kindness and love. 

This was exemplified so well by Jacinda Ardern’s inclusive and dignified response to the Christchurch atrocity in which she said that ‘the answer lies in our humanity’ and evoked the power that lies in ‘our daily acts of kindness’. ‘You are us’ was such a powerful statement of that common humanity in which she identified the whole nation with the Muslim community. And though she did not frame it in such terms, it spoke too to a culture of human rights in which every human being is treated with genuine dignity and respect. This represents the essence of a human rights culture even if the words have become something of a cliché in management speak. 

The cultural too plays an important role in a Good Society and life. We should all be able to enjoy beauty in whatever form resonates with us including the beauty of the natural environment, which has been shown to be good for mental health. But access to culture and beauty in their various forms is often limited for people with few material resources living in run-down areas. One of the key messages of the human rights anti-poverty organisation, ATD Fourth World, is that people in poverty have a right to beauty, culture and fun, as well as enough money. How can we live a good life without a bit of joy in it?

A good life is not static. A Good Society would enable people to live good lives through from childhood to old age and we need to address the specifics of what is required at each stage of the life course for people to flourish. But the Good Society must also be outward looking and fulfil its responsibilities to the wider world (through for instance its immigration and refugee policies) and to the environment and planet (as the creative campaigns of the international schools strikes and Extinction Rebellion have demanded so powerfully). 

Of course, all will not be sweetness and light in a Good Society or on the path towards it. We can’t ignore conflicts of interest or the forces of resistance. But as far as possible we need to embrace the key tenets of a Good Society in how we pursue it and, in the words of Compass’ original Gandhian motto: be the change we wish to see in the world. Indeed, Jacinda Ardern’s call to New Zealand to ‘be the nation we believe ourselves to be’ was a call to us all to live as far as we can the Good Society in which we believe.

Ruth Lister is a Labour peer, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, Loughborough University and a member of the Compass board of directors. This blog is based on her contribution to the Good Society panel at the recent event Leaving the 20th Century.

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