for a while I’ve thought there’s a fundamental misalignment between two of the key strands of Cameron’s brand of Conservatism. On the one hand, they talk of a civic renewal – not exactly rolling back the frontiers of the state, but rather a notion that communities can do more for themselves, and better, than bureacratic, uncaring public services. On the other, they espouse a view that Britain is broken. Here, the analysis is that societal norms are evaporating, and that this leaves our young people in particular lost in a sea of individualism without a sense of a clear moral or social compass to guide their behaviour. The two just don’t sit comfortably with me, seeming to present two very different views of British life today.
A brilliant and insightful book I’ve been reading recently has made me think again about this stuff. The Comfort of Things by anthropologist Daniel Miller explores the meaning of the relationships people have with material things – their houses, computers, ornaments, clothes – and argues that through exploring this, we can understand more about how individuals relate to the world around them. Part of his analysis is that it is true that there are fewer social norms to guide behaviour these days; but that this does not automatically lead to the conclusion that all that can remain in the absence of society is a set of fragmented individuals.
Far from it, he argues. His book shows us that it is a constant, lifelong project for people to seek to create meaningful relationships with others, and with things, in order to make sense of the world. People’s definition of a ‘full’, rather than an ’empty’, life seems to be determined by the degree of success they have in creating such relationships. As well as being a set of stories about the resourceful way in which people make meaning, his book also suggests that anthropologists, accustomed in the past to studying ‘cultures’ and ‘societies’, may find they need to shift their ethnographic eye to households, networks of relationships, and those very intimate interactions between each of us and the world around us. In other words, it’s not that society’s broken, but that in order to see it, we need to shift our focus to individuals – not as atomised beings but as fundamentally social and engaged with things beyond themselves.
Anyway all of this is probably to read far too much into Miller’s work (you can read his own take on the book here); this aside, I can’t recommend it enough as a read that leaves you feeling touched and moved, and hopeful about human nature.