Gross Indecency

It is not right for David Marquand to claim that British society has capitalism has humiliated Britain

Counterpoints Social Affairs
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.