Resting on Faded Laurels

First published by The Guardian on 2rdh August 2006


What strikes you most watching Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll, currently enjoying a sell out run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, is not so much how things have changed since 1989 – though they undoubtedly have – but how much the way we talk about the future prospects for humankind has changed since the collapse of communism.

Before 1989, the mere existence of a different social order was enough to ensure a lively debate. But once the full extent of communism’s failings were revealed, we pretty much stopped thinking about the possibility of improving on our own social and economic arrangements, which, although infinitely preferable, still left a great deal to be desired.

This is just as Francis Fukuyama predicted in his now famous essay, in which he argued that communism’s demise signalled “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

For Fukuyama, the two key principles of liberal democracy were liberty and equality. But once the capitalism v communism argument had been resolved, rather than celebrate the victory of the western model as a triumph for our commitment to both liberty and equality, another argument broke out: over which of these two principles was the most important, as if they were necessarily mutually exclusive.

Karl Marx’s principal mistake was to believe that we may, through the application of quasi-scientific principles, succeed in circumventing the slow pace of collective moral advance. Because of his misplaced ambition, millions of people were forcibly engaged in a ghastly experiment in escaping the natural course of social evolution in favour of an ideologically inspired short cut to utopia.

Marx was wrong. But the effect of the failure of the experiment he designed has been to ensure that nothing further is said about the possibility of building a better world.

Rock’n’Roll celebrates the victory of liberal democracy but berates us for our subsequent complacency in respect of building a more equal society. Stoppard’s hero, Jan, a sceptical dissident, reflecting on Marx’s ultimate vision for a communist society, says: “Perhaps we aren’t good enough for this beautiful idea.” He is right, of course, but he is right only in so far as his statement goes. We are not good enough to build a perfect world, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of improving on what we currently have.

The history of the last 500 years is one of continuous and substantial moral advance: the abolition of slavery, the advent of democracy, a growing and prosperous middle class, the granting of independence to former colonies, universal access to healthcare and education, and considerable progress in reducing discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexuality and disability. All of these are stark reminders that the natural course of social evolution, when viewed through the long lens of history, is in the direction of greater social inclusion and economic justice. Yet today we seem to accept that this process has gone about as far as it can.

Towards the end of the play, Stoppard homes in on the loss of idealism and moral ambition that has infected political culture in the west. As long as there was a threat from communism, western governments were under an obligation not only to ensure a free society, but also to encourage the belief that our way of doing things tends to bring steady improvement in the life experience of most people, most of the time. Once that threat was extinguished, the motivation for promoting a free and fair society fell away.

Over the last 20 years or so, we have become steadily more occupied with individual freedom and with creating the economic conditions in which some people can amass considerable personal wealth, and less concerned about economic inclusion at the bottom of society.

This emphasis on protecting and promoting individual freedom has made us oblivious to the continuing changes to global economic arrangements. These changes, which involve ever-greater parts of the social landscape being opened up to commercial activity, invariably mitigate in favour of the interests of the most wealthy. They have an impact not only on the balance of economic wellbeing, but also on our perceptions about what is possible in the future.

As a result we have become less ambitious in respect of progressive social change than at any time since 1945. And this lack of ambition is self-perpetuating. We no longer believe in the possibility, or even the desirability, of a more just and inclusive society, and we steadily become more cynical about those, like Stoppard, who dare to question our complacency. Or will the comments after this post prove me wrong?

Ultimately, Rock ‘n’ Roll is a play about freedom, and about the unremitting restrictions on personal liberties that characterise all totalitarian regimes. For Jan, the essence of freedom is encapsulated in the attitude of the legendary Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe. The Plastics are not dissidents: they care nothing for politics; their only demand is that they be allowed to wear their hair long and make music in public wherever and whenever they like. Their lyrics are not subversive, and they make no attempt to encourage political activism in their fans; they just want to do their own thing.

For Jan, only when society permits such freedom-for-the-sake-of-freedom will all be well. When the Rolling Stones play Prague in August 1990, his dream is finally realised. No thinking person can leave the theatre without a sense of how important that kind of freedom is.

But freedom is not enough: the ability to enjoy the value in individual freedom is inevitably circumscribed by economic circumstances. If you’re poor, if your life is a daily struggle to put food on the table or to keep a roof over your family, then the Rolling Stones coming to town is not going to make much difference to your quality of life, nor to how you feel about your position in world compared with that of those who can afford a ticket.

Surely the challenge for this century – apart from not repeating the mistakes of the last – is to find ways to maximise both individual freedom and social justice. Everyone should have the right to attend a rock concert, but they should also be able to afford the admission price. Everyone should be able to avail themselves of the minimum economic opportunities necessary to enjoy the freedoms we hold so dear.

We should be thankful that the Soviet experiment is now nearly two decades behind us, but we should also remember that there is more to building a good society than creating suitable conditions for individual freedom, particularly if enjoyment of that freedom is the privilege of only a modest majority in the richer countries, and a tiny minority in the poorest. We have been revelling in the victory of liberal democracy over Soviet communism for long enough now. It is time to re-engage with the world of ideas and explore new ways of putting our own house in order – especially if we intend to offer western culture and values as examples to the rest of the world.