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You can’t have morality without politics There's something missing from the heart of the new book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Jonathan Sacks has restored the idea of the Common Good to our national conversation. Credit: John Downing / Getty

Jonathan Sacks has restored the idea of the Common Good to our national conversation. Credit: John Downing / Getty

March 16, 2020   5 mins

There are reasons to be grateful for the public life of Jonathan Sacks. His first love was moral philosophy and he returns to it in his new book, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, bringing to bear a lifetime of reading in science, psychology, sociology as well as ethics.

He would not have been out of place in Frankfurt or Berlin in the 1850s, where the great rabbis of German Jewry, of whom Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was the exemplar, reconciled modernity and Orthodoxy. They built new Jewish Communities in which tradition and citizenship, Kant and Moses were brought together, under the slogan Torah im Derech Eretz — Jewish teaching and respect for the way of the land. It is to the great credit of Rabbi Sacks and Anglo-Jewry that he held the office of Chief Rabbi for 22 years and resurrected that tradition in Britain, so that the voice of the dead could be heard once more.

In the book, Rabbi Sacks defines us as “meaning-seeking beings” for whom relationships are central, and he reveals an Aristotelian turn in seeing happiness as the “expression of the soul in accordance with virtue”. He laments the passing of a ‘Common Good’ in favour of twitter echo chambers, the hateful denunciation of those who disagree, and the apotheosis of self-definition rather than recognising that other people have something to say about whether you are a good person or not.

His statement that “love is the supreme redemption of solitude” is worth repeating. The chapter on self-help being no help at all is instructive, and his critique of multiculturalism and safe spaces is a reasoned refuge from a demented kind of liberalism.

His central thesis is that while there has been a parallel growth in the power and scope of both the state and the market, there has been a simultaneous disintegration of civil society, which is the source of relationships, ethics and happiness. We have never had more things or more rights; and we have never been so unhappy. This paradox is the driving force of the book. It is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

In lamenting the disintegration of a shared public culture, Sacks develops certain dualities, between selfishness and altruism, power and morality, contract and covenant — in which the first term has become dominant when the second term should prevail. He particularly identifies politics as “about power and the distribution of resources”, and morality with “civil society”. The problem is that the examples he gives of a covenant are profoundly political, citing the American Revolution and the Burkean Covenant between the generations.

But the American Revolution was constitutively political, and it embodied a certain form of ethics; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It enshrined the separation of the powers and the primacy of rights. In the case of Burke, it refers to Parliament, the Monarchy, the Church and the body politic as embodied in the sovereignty of the Ancient Constitution.

Brexit is a sublime example of this ambiguous duality. The Remain side accepted Sacks’s view of politics, and fought the battle on the terrain of policy and prosperity, emphasising the threats to our livelihood imminent in rejecting the sovereignty of the European Court of Justice, the Customs Union and the Single Market.

In contrast, the Leave side drew on the idea of the renewal of a covenant between the generations, of keeping an ancient promise, the restoration of Sovereignty through the reclamation of the inheritance of Parliament, the common law and our tradition of combining democracy and liberty.

“Take back control” is not best understood as a policy decision. Brexit was political but it was also moral in its assertion of the primacy of democracy as the ultimate decision-making process. That is what made it so alarming and threatening.

As a result, Sacks’s narrow view of an instrumental and utilitarian politics, a desacralised politics, gives the book a whiff of a lament for the era that has passed — of the Third Way, of Blair, Brown, Cameron and May, in which the nation state was a regional administrator of a global system of capitalism and individual rights. There is no recognition here of the power of democracy to resist the domination of capitalism, of the primacy of people over things. This was the crux of the issue in Brexit and is absent from the conception of the Common Good developed by Sacks.

Left to itself, capitalism pursues the highest rate of return on its investment at the greatest speed. Invariably this involves the attempt to turn human beings and nature into commodities organised in labour, land and food markets. In other words, in a language familiar to Rabbi Sacks, capitalism wishes to commodify creation itself. This is unsustainable to life, community, society and ethics, and is at the heart of the inequality he dislikes and the ill-defined ‘populism’ he fears, which is mentioned eight times in two pages in the chapter entitled “Democracy in Danger”.

The problem, as mentioned, is that in denying the ethical content of the resistance to globalisation, the move is reduced to “populism”. But the demonic energy of capitalism needs to be constrained, and democratic politics is the traditional way of doing so.

Perhaps there are two reasons why Sacks relegates politics and democracy in this way. The first is a lack of a mediating principle between selfishness and altruism, which would be that of mutuality and reciprocity, of self-interest broadly conceived as a political concept embodied in shared institutions. Civic peace, mutual security and a reciprocal welfare system are political as well as civic achievements.

At one point Sacks refers to “reciprocal altruism”, but this phrase indicates that what binds us in political community is mutually beneficial and not altruistic at all. Sacks argues that both Darwin and De Tocqueville conclude that both co-operation and competition are necessary for a good society, despite their different disciplines and objects of observation. But this is not developed politically.

The second problem with the book is its lack of recognition of the power of capitalism as an incentive system. Sacks uses the phrase “structure of grace” to describe the well-ordered relationship between market, state and civil society. It echoes that used by Pope John Paul II in describing capitalism as having a “structure of sin”, in incentivising vice in the form of greed, selfishness and unconstrained desires.

Catholic Social Thought, though, does not turn to the state as the exclusive refuge and remedy, but to decentralised institutions, worker representation on boards, regional banks that can only lend in the areas in which they work, and the upholding of vocation and status in the form of apprenticeships as a necessary condition of labour market entry. These are civic institutions but they are not voluntary: the state underwrites the strengthening of society and constraints on capital by embedding mediating institutions within the economy.

Catholic Social Thought recognises the need for ethical constraints within a competitive market which preserves a sense of relational accountability. It also stresses the need for limits on interest rates and for a living wage in response to inequality and the dehumanisation of people as mere commodities. But despite the lauding of civil society in this book, it does not present any institutions through which the market and the state could be constrained or held to account.

The final problem in a book subtitled “Restoring the Common Good in divided times” is that the Common Good, as a tradition of thought and practice, has always been political and participative in both its secular and religious forms. It is rooted in the governance of cities with a recognition of estranged interests and the necessity of their reconciliation within the polity.

In other words, the Common Good requires an active citizenry engaged in democracy which respects the dignity of difference and the mutual interests that bind them. It is an ancient tradition of immediate contemporary relevance. And while Jonathan Sacks deserves great credit in restoring it to our national conversation, he does not quite recognise the radical consequences of its restoration for the redistribution of power and the renewal of our democracy.

Maurice Glasman is the founder of Blue Labour and director of the Common Good Foundation. He is a Labour life peer.

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4 years ago

“But the demonic energy of capitalism needs to be constrained, and democratic politics is the traditional way of doing so.”

Demonic? Far from it! Capitalism is the greatest tool of true progress and prosperity ever devised. Like all tools it is a good servant but a bad master. Consider the alternatives to Capitalism and the havoc they have wrought in just the twentieth century, such as the murder of a hundred million or more people.

You CAN have morality without politics. What you cannot have is the reverse, politics without morality. And Pope John Paul II was wrong, a cranky old prelate preaching a structure of guilt and shame about money and sex, fearful that somebody somewhere might be enjoying themselves.

I look forward to reading Rabbi Sack’s book.