Awakening The Common Good In Our Self-Serving Culture

The eminent historian Tony Judt, author of the seminal work Postwar, about the dynamics of Europe since World War II, has written an important new book, in my view, Ill Fares the LandThe New York Times has called it a “…bleak assessment of the selfishness and materialism that have taken root in Western societies (that) will stick to your feet and muddy your floors. But the Times adds that “Ill Fares the Land is also optimistic, raw and patriotic in its sense of what countries like the United States and Britain have meant — and can continue to mean — to their people and to the world.”

In his review, Dwight Garner explains that Judt is describing the “political and intellectual landscape in Britain and the United States since the 1980s, the Reagan-Thatcher era, and he worries about an increasing and ‘uncritical adulation of wealth for its own sake.’ What matters, he writes, ‘is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is,’ and he sees growing and destabilizing inequality almost everywhere.”

It’s heartening to see at least one “public intellectual” – a vanishing breed – lay out in a direct, forceful argument the accumulating toll of greed and self-centeredness that has dominated our recent political and social landscape.  Judt describes these themes as “elevated to a cult by Know Nothings, States’ Rightists, anti-tax campaigners and — most recently — the radio talk show demagogues of the Republican Right.”

Judt observes, for example, that the notion that taxes might “be a contribution to the provision of collective goods that individuals could never afford in isolation (roads, firemen, policemen, schools, lamp posts, post offices, not to mention soldiers, warships, and weapons) is rarely considered.”  Click here for the full Times review.

I think Judt’s theme about serving the “common good” is growing throughout our culture.  It’s increasingly visible, for example, in the recognition that humans are “wired” for empathy and for serving something larger than their just their own needs — many of which are socially conditioned to begin with and fuel self-centeredness and narcissism.

In that vein I wrote about healing our “empathy deficit disorder” in my previous post, and author Jeremy Rifkin has argued much more broadly and in great depth about the rise of an “empathic civilization” in his major, well-documented new book.

I also see the awakening of interconnectedness and service to the common good increasingly visible in the rise of a new business model – one that combines having impact on the common good as well as achieving financial success.  The green business movement incorporates much of this emergence, as well as related trends towards sustainable investment, social entrepreneurialism and venture philanthropy.  I would add to those the growing recognition of the need for a psychologically healthy management cultures, as well.

Interesting, also, in Judt’s book is his argument that the left and right have switched sides, in a sense.  That is, he explains that today the right pursues radical goals, and has abandoned the “social moderation which served it so well from Disraeli to Heath, Theodore Roosevelt to Nelson Rockefeller.” He argues that it’s now the left that is trying to conserve “the institutions, legislation, services and rights that we have inherited from the great age of 20th-century reform.”  For another interesting take on the “reversal” of the left and right from the 1960s to the present, see economist Ev Ehrlich’s two-part essay on his blog, Ev Ehrlich’s Everyday Economics.

It sounds lame, but true: We’re sure living through some interesting times….

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