by Montserrat Guibernau

What holds society together? The answer could be supplied in one word, Belonging, also the title of a new academic text exploring the subject by Montserrat Guibernau, a Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University.

In this wide-ranging book, Guibernau describes belonging as the means by which we identify with others and escape the prison of the self. It is driven by the need to draw on support from and identify with something greater than oneself: revealed again and again through multiple historical examples as a deep human urge.

This is true even in Britain today, at perhaps the zenith of individualism. People continue to identify with groups (family and friends, religions, nations, political parties, pressure groups) and make sacrifices on their behalf. But the rise of a freer, more individualistic society has led to many people feeling lonely, acting selfishly and lacking meaning in their lives.

Belonging is not as straightforward as motherhood and apple pie. It both enables and constrains: joining a group requires loyalty to its principles and accepting its dogmas, in exchange for security and warmth. It also requires defining your group, and therefore privileging some over others.

This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the book, which suggests that an individual, universalist perspective is worse than one where individual concerns are transcended by the solidarity that comes from belonging, and describes cosmopolitan identity as the concern of a selected elite.

It also speaks favourably of what it calls ‘the return of tradition’. But Guibernau does not seek to roll back the frontiers of the liberating social movements of the 1960s. Instead, belonging and freedom are made compatible through the concept of ‘loyalty by choice’: belonging as a result of a personal choice, free of coercion.

What does loyalty mean? Well in terms of the nation, the debate is best characterised as the difference between McCarthyism and Orwell in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’. The author plumps unsurprisingly for the latter, whereby the loyal citizen is responsible and has the interests of the nation at heart, but is free to dissent.

For a predominantly descriptive work, there are some prescriptions between the lines. Guibernau argues that people will always seek security, or dependence, when confronted with an unruly world.  So our freer, but more atomised society is fertile territory for both the authoritarian right and addictions of many kinds (drugs, sex, work).

It also underlines the importance of symbols, rituals and other strategies for fostering and renewing bonds of belonging, providing an intriguing list of the strategies (both nefarious and benevolent) used by nations to inculcate loyalty. The role of culture, education and schemes like the National Citizen Service cannot be underestimated in their power to infuse what Guibernau calls ‘democratic loyalty’.

Political thinkers across the spectrum are increasingly taking interest in this question of what holds society together – what could be called the postliberal question, explored by David Goodhart elsewhere in this issue. For those interested in the sociology, this would be a useful addition to the bookshelf.


Ralph Scott is Head of Editorial at Demos and Editor of Demos Quarterly. He is on Twitter @ralphascott.

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If Mayors Ruled the World

by Benjamin Barber

Review of Benjamin R. Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World and Bruce Katz’s and Jennifer Bradley’s The Metropolitan Revolution

Benjamin R. Barber wants mayors to run before they can walk in Britain. His argument in If Mayors Ruled the World does what it says on the tin. Yet mayors are largely absent from urban Britain, to say nothing of how our green and pleasant countryside would fit into Barber’s brave new global governance structure.

It’s not just our lack of mayors that makes Barber’s argument otherworldly to British ears: it’s also the lamentable performance of our cities. Meanwhile, Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution leads a growing army of thinkers convinced that inner-city America will be the stage of the next American dream.

Mayors were thought the key to improving British cities. When Greg Clark was the minister responsible, he was fond of noting that in Germany all eight of the biggest cities outside Berlin outperform the country in terms of GDP per capita. The same goes for all but two of the Italian core cities. In France, three of the eight outperform the national average and none fall significantly below it. But for England, seven of the eight core cities underperform—Ofsted’s chief executive can condemn Birmingham’s economy and public services as a national disgrace.

Bristol is the only exception. Coincidentally or otherwise, it was only Bristol that voted as Clark hoped in the mayoral referendums of May 2012 – the core city suffering least from the economic problems that mayors are supposed to solve is the only one that voted for a mayor.

Since the loss of those referendums, problems have persisted. Subsequent moves towards combined authorities in the north-east and west Yorkshire, the devolution of some powers and budgets under the City Deals programme and the beefing up of LEPs following the Heseltine growth review are all commendable. But they also seem inadequate to the task of making our cities the source of economic strength that they are in other countries.

If we were serious about this task, would the Davies Commission be telling Birmingham that it will have no additional aviation capacity until after 2030, while insisting that increased capacity must be created in the south-east? In the absence of a Birmingham mayor, must we depend upon the business secretary, Vince Cable, to insert this point into the national argument? As Cable is shot down by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is not the unequal political weight of Birmingham and London exposed?

Birmingham has no Boris Johnson. Nor does it have the second largest financial centre in the world. In Marxist terms, Johnson is the superstructure to the economic base of the city of London. Both the base and superstructure militate against a rebalanced economy. These are the hard realities against which Barber’s sweeping theorising crashes in the British context. He writes that ‘Johnson makes a joke of everything’. Against these realities that bloke isn’t funny anymore.

Barber’s theory jars less in other jurisdictions. Watching, for example, the Democratic and Republican conventions last year, I was struck by how many mayors were given prominent speaking slots. These politicians are popular because they are making change happen, whereas perpetual DC gridlock frustrates change. As the US strives for an economy less about Wall Street and more about Main Street, it makes sense for greater responsibilities and resources to be vested in these mayors, not DC.

This power shift from DC to city halls is the stuff of Katz’s proposed ‘metropolitan revolution’. While calling for a revolution, he is less ambitious than Barber. Katz wants to reboot American politics from the bottom-up. America is not enough for Barber. Only the world will do. He sees a global parliament of mayors as the solution to the challenge of democracy in the modern world: ‘How to join participation, which is local, with power, which is central’.

Katz’s American revolution may be the precondition of the world that Barber anticipates. Barber would think this too pessimistic. He claims: ‘By expanding and diversifying the networks through which they are already cooperating, cities are proving they can do things together that states cannot.’ For mayors to rule the world, therefore, they need to have the courage of their convictions, as opposed to being empowered by states via the revolutions of Katz and similar.

This seems overoptimistic next to Britain’s underpowered cities. It’s Baltimore and Barcelona that should worry Birmingham, as well as London. Yet the most pressing need is for a British Katz and a cadre of allies capable of charting a course for Birmingham and other British cities to recover their standing relative to London.


Jonathan Todd is a Demos Associate. He is on Twitter @Jonathan_Todd

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The End of the Chinese Dream

by Gerard Lemos

As China charges headlong into the modern world it is hard to know what its people think about their new lives. This is a problem for their leaders. Without the democratic feedback mechanisms that we take for granted in the west—free elections, relatively free media and rule of law/separation of powers—how do they know how to steer the ship of state to deliver enough of what people want to justify the party’s continuing monopoly on political power?

Actually, they are getting better at listening, as I discovered on my first trip to China at the end of last year. I spent (thanks to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue) a week with a group of journalists in the old capital city of Nanjing, now a would-be mega city of 8m. It looks, at least in the centre, much like a western city, a city—like other rich parts of China—that has exchanged the bicycle for the Lexus in a generation, without bothering with a Trabant stage.

One of the Chinese academics who accompanied us on our trips around the city’s schools, hospitals, banks, factories and universities (Nanjing wants to be the Boston of China) admitted to me that he had been a democracy activist at the time of the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989. But to my surprise he did not go on to denounce his former self; instead he said that Tiananmen had been a great success. It had stopped short of plunging the country into a new civil war but had made the party more open and responsive, partly to avoid a repetition of the crisis. 

I put this view at a press conference to Yang Weize, the suave Communist party boss for Nanjing, who declined to respond directly (Tiananmen is still a taboo subject in public) but recycled the formulas about western style democracy not being suited to China: ‘Just look at Taiwan!’.

By chance, just before we arrived in Nanjing, Yang had sacked the city mayor, Ji Jianye, for corruption. As corruption is widely agreed to be endemic, any moves against it tend to be seen less as progress towards the rule of law, as argued at the press conference by Yang, than as expressions of political factionalism (the rule of men). There was certainly not much due process in evidence in the Ji case. Yang described him as ‘a malignant tumour’ before any sort of trial had provided evidence of guilt.

While that represents old style politics, I also found plenty of evidence for the new spirit of controlled openness—given a huge technological shove by the internet and social media—and of the constantly shifting battle lines between the openness and the control.

A book that deftly captures this fluidity (and one I wish I had read before my trip) is Gerard Lemos’s The End of the Chinese Dream. Lemos, a British academic, weaves the story of modern China around a sometimes thrilling tale of his own exploits in carrying out opinion surveys of ordinary people in the giant conurbation of Chongqing and then smuggling the results out of China.

Chongqing is China’s fourth most important city with a population of 30m and lying close to the infamous Three Gorges Dam, about 900 miles to the west of Shanghai. It was briefly world famous for having Bo Xilai, the now disgraced leftist and anti-corruption champion, as its party boss.

After a chance conversation with a senior official in the Chongqing government about the inability of officials to resolve local disputes, Lemos proposes to him that in three districts of the city they should erect traditional Chinese wish trees: trees upon which people attach written wishes which according to tradition are blown up to heaven.

The offer is accepted and after various ups and downs with the authorities a fascinating insight into the hopes and fears of about 1500 ordinary Chinese people is acquired. Like people everywhere they turn out to want a combination of prosperity and security and believe they are not getting it. Although many of them acknowledge that life is improving, the dominant impression is one of trauma and loss created by a bewildering pace of change.

The wish tree messages tell of farmers who have lost their land and now feel worthless and factory workers who have lost their jobs and no longer get free health care. Everyone resents the one child policy (which apart from creating a rapidly ageing society means that one man in five will not have a female partner by the mid-2020s). They also resent the costs of education and the high pressure exam system that will decide whether your child has a good life or not.

Lemos’s story is insightful and entertaining but it also has a glass half-empty bias. Until very recently no one in China even dared to have a dream so intent were they on mere survival, yet now the dream is already declared to be over. The big reductions in Chinese poverty are mentioned only in passing, as is the fact that 60 per cent of the population expect their children to do better than them (a higher figure than contemporary Britain).

The shift to a more competitive and individualistic society creates greater wealth and opportunity, but also greater anxiety and a sharper distinction between winners and losers. This is mainly the story of the losers.

Moreover, the Lemos assumption of a voiceless people feels dated. When an estimated 500m are on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, do you really need wish trees? Of course the battle between openness and control still rages and newspapers and bloggers operate most of the time in a grey zone.

An example of that grey zone was  being played out while I was in Nanjing. A regional paper in Hunan made a front page appeal for the release from custody of one of its reporters, after his arrest following his corruption allegations about a local company. He was not released but rather proceeded to confess on national television to fabricating the articles.

The young Chinese journalists in my group were more or less evenly (and openly) divided between those who assumed the original stories were true and that this was a forced confession, and those who accepted the confession narrative. That division surely represents progress.

China is an economic giant but socially and politically an insecure adolescent. One measure of insecurity is the fact that, according to one Chinese journalist, there are around 2m officials working full time on monitoring and controlling the internet and social media. The authorities know they cannot stop it but they can prevent it becoming the source of destabilising anti-system movements.

It is a game of cat and mouse and the mice often win. The sentencing of Bo Xilai took place while I was in China and any tweets that mentioned his name were blocked. But the political tweeters interested in the story just changed his name to the Chinese word for tomato and carried on.

David Goodhart is Director of Demos and Editor-in-Chief of Demos Quarterly.

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