Archives for posts with tag: de Botton

{book review}: It is easy to regard as cheats authors who justify their observations and arguments by serially quoting those of other great thinkers in their work.

Certainly, Tobias Jones’ own observations fail to compare with the likes of, for example, Mill or Milton of whom he quotes more than once. Indeed, for his part Jones remains little more than a journalistic observer, although to be fair he doesn’t set himself up as anything more even if he does promise to fully embed himself within the communities he and his fledgling family temporarily immerse. Putting aside my doubt over Jones’ own calibre as an original thinker there is, nonetheless, still some net gain to be had from his choice of quotations and concepts. What does it matter that we didn’t obtain such learning directly? Isn’t that the purpose of non-fiction: to observe remarkable things – not necessarily new things – and communicate these to us clearly within the context of a coherent theme? So, I chose to forgive Jones these initial misgivings.

Unfortunately, considering Jones the writer I was more than occasionally bored by his text. Even more so by his rather formulaic structure. Each chapter of ‘Utopian Dreams’ considers a different community and then as one progresses, quickly we see chapter upon chapter taking a familiar pattern: i) introduce a community through its idiosyncrasies, ii) delve a little into its past, its attitudes and aims, and then iii) deconstruct it through concepts like freedom, the value of work, or the very nature of what a community is or can be. Then finally, iv) move on to the next community in vain hope of addressing this new-found lacking, and in doing so regard the former community with a slight yet condescending derision.

Nonetheless the notion itself is highly compelling and fortunately each chapter doesn’t linger and nor does Jones.  For our attention we get to see and learn a little about an Italian new-age retreat which even has its own recognised currency (Damanhur); a Quaker retirement Community (Hartrigg Oaks) and its proximity to the Rowntree Trust; a monastery in the Nomadelfia and a place for social rehabilitation in Pilsdon.

Regrettably – as a secularist and socialist – I found little hope in the communities on offer inasmuch most appeared based on faith of one kind or another. Even with my respect for Quakerism and each community’s liberal attitudes towards education and communalism per se, Jones presents the case that all were founded on some form of supernatural core (and that includes the New Age). This is a disappointing but unconvincing conclusion: I simply don’t believe it to be true that a successful community needs faith at its core. It may be a characteristic of those communities Jones visits, but I don’t believe communalism as a concept and way of living has this as an absolute requirement.

Jones himself alludes to secular leanings, but I think he’s got doubts and is himself searching for a belonging of one kind or another. While he explores the role of faith to his somewhat unconvincing degree, he can’t deny his choice of communities speaks volumes in itself. At one point he even misunderstands or misrepresents the concern of Richard Dawkins on the subject of devoutly religious communities (p.203), as opposed to communities per se and that is either just too sloppy or suspiciously convenient for me.

Mr. Jones is at his best when considering existential issues like freedom. It might seem a logical place to start being such a fundamental principle for breakaway communities looking to escape the clutches of the state and big business, and as such one might expect it to be the theme of Chapter One, but actually it only appears in chapter 4 (of 6).

Freedom is the paradox of communalism. It offers freedom from the established norms of post modern society – a breakaway of the strangle-hold of modernity and social decay writ large, but at the same time communalism requires that we deny ourselves some personal freedoms in order to live amongst and with one another (to varying degrees depending on the nature and structure of the community). Indeed, it is building communities that we set out to purposely challenge, to the benefit of mutual cooperation, unfettered freedom and its modern byword: choice.

Here is Jones on this individual freedom versus community paradox: “Logically, they are opposites. Community is a place…where you take chunks out of your individuality in return for a place where you fit in. You sacrifice personality but get belonging. But a true community, they said echoing Weber, would be an iron cage. The cost of company, said everyone from the Stoics onward, is a reduction of freedom.” But if that freedom is the freedom for others to feed a shallow form of attainment through this new world of fake choices, then our current affluence is a rather depressing one.

Indeed, Jones rightly observes that creating a struggle between the two forces may itself be a fallacy; “I still thought the two could be complimentary. The trouble is that nothing is currently allowed to complement freedom. Freedom has become akin to a flag, raced up the pole to test our loyalty to it. Freedom has become one of those words which is hoisted to end all debate.” citing the US military operation entitled ‘Enduring Freedom’ as a poignantly trite example. The point is further qualified by his quoting Chesterton: “Most modern freedom is at root fear…It’s not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.”

Jones admits his work is a journal-like foray into shared communities which takes accident and reactive pondering as its guide rather than any structured approach. I’m not entirely convinced this is of benefit to the work and would even have preferred a more academic text. Indeed, I suggested to the popular philosopher and author Alain de Botton that he instead take up the challenge, recommending ‘Utopian Dreams’ as a signpost: de Botton, I’m sure, would really get underneath the rock Jones alludes to – but only de Botton would eloquently examine the grubs and shoots that really lie beneath. Alain replied saying he’d ordered the book off Amazon, so we’ll see.  Alain’s already published on work (‘The Pleasure and Sorrows of Work’) and what’s now called affluenza (‘Status Anxiety’) so the idea of communalism could offer a solution to both those anxieties.

Certainly, it is my opinion that utopian views of the world are welcome in a time lacking ideology. And what is a utopia other than an idea or a set of visualised hopes shared and brought to life through living in a certain shape of society? A statement that ‘we can do better than this – and here’s how’. Jones’s most consistent and attractive offering for a Utopian dream is, aside from those theistic allusions, to live more simply and to do so alongside one another instead of in spite of each other.

Jones – rightly in my mind – is repulsed by our post-modern consumerist society; it’s his reason’ d’être for the entire project…

‘Our society now bears all the scars of decades of failure to teach those gentle virtues of gratitude and obligation. In an ideal community, the onus for you to take responsibility for other people is borne out of a thankfulness that someone, here, has taken responsibility for you. It’s symbiotic, joyous almost, because your relationship is based on love. In contemporary Western society, however, the instinctive mood is vindictiveness born out of years of being told one is a victim. Complaint becomes knee-jerk, litigation second nature. We can be spiteful to people because we’ll probably never see them again.’

And yet this is the very world to which he returns at the end of his ‘search for a good life’. How thoroughly depressing.

I have been re-reading Alain de Botton’s ‘STATUS ANXIETY’, which is a great book.

Here is Alain on Rousseau and what others now call ‘affluenza’…

Was it possible, asked Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’ (1754), that it might in fact be the savage and not – as everyone had grown used to thinking – the modern worker who was the better off of the pair?

Rousseau’s argument hung on a thesis about wealth: that wealth does not involve having many things. It involves having what we long for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we seek something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And every time we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, however little we may actually own.

There are two ways to make people richer, reasoned Rousseau: to give them more money or to restrain their desires. Modern societies have succeeded spectacularly at the first option but, by continuously inflaming appetites, they have at the same time helped to negate a share of their most impressive achievements. The most effective way to feel wealthy may not be to try to make more money. It may be to distance ourselves – practically and emotionally – from anyone whom we consider to be our equal but who has become richer than ourselves…

In so far as advanced societies provide us with historically elevated incomes, they appear to make us richer. But in truth, the net effect of these societies may be to impoverish us because, by fostering unlimited expectations, they keep open a permanent gap between what we want and what we can afford, who we are and who we might be.