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New Year dreams of a better world

  • 12 January 2018


The beginning of the year is traditionally a time to look beyond the messiness of the past year, to imagine a larger and more generous life, and to make good resolutions. It is also a time for reflecting on the character of public life and to ask whether we find there any large vision of a better world. And, indeed, to ask whether we should look for one.

Certainly, the business of political life is generally limited to managerial goals, such as cutting the deficit, lowering taxes, cutting welfare and educational budgets, and strengthening the security apparatus. Its rhetoric is small, often mean, appealing to fear and anxiety and promising maintenance of past entitlements rather than a sketch of a better world. The language is abstract, managerial and the metaphors stale and domestic.

If we compare political life of a century ago with that of today, we shall recognise the same narrowness, self-interest and meanness in its everyday conduct. But political issues were set, often fraudulently to be sure, in a larger rhetoric of national vision for which rich images and words came naturally. The contrast between then and now provokes question why this appeal to a larger vision has been lost, and indeed whether it matters.

The loss is partly due to the erosion of the culture which supported high vision and its rhetoric. These drew on the Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition whose words and images were handed on through widespread church allegiance and rudimentary religious education. Belief in an after-life was conventional, and the biblical imagery and rhetoric of hope in a transformed world readily available.

Such images of the future as the proud being put down from their thrones and the poor raised, the city of God descending like a bride adorned for her husband, a green and fertile land, the desert flowering and the lion lying down with the lamb were familiar and flowed easily into the political imagination.

In a culturally diverse society where religious faith has less purchase, and the biblical images of the future are not part of the popular imagination, that tradition is no longer shared. Hope is now generally imagined in technological and material terms or in personal and interpersonal relationships. The language and imagery of politics are correspondingly managerial, technological and domestic.

The loss of a larger shared hope and of the rhetoric to inspire it is a mixed blessing. In the last century secularised