Society and Individualism: Why Giles Fraser Is Wrong About Everything

Giles Fraser is a really nice guy. Inner city clerics like him do a great deal of good work and should be recognised. However, he has written something recently that helped me to understand why his kind of benign religious leftism puts me on edge, despite the good practical results it sometimes achieves.

In the piece Fraser declares that he is ‘not a liberal. No, I’m not a conservative either. I’m a communitarian. Blue labour, if you like. But certainly not a liberal.’ Here, Fraser defines ‘the essence of liberalism’ as ‘a belief that individual freedom and personal autonomy are the fundamental moral goods.’ Fraser explicitly rejects that belief – ‘I don’t buy this’ – and affirms a ‘robust commitment to the common good, to the priority of community. It is intellectual laziness and a form of cheating to think we can always have both.’

What Fraser’s done there is prioritised the group above the individual. It’s not hard to understand why he thinks that’s a good thing. G4S, Libor, tax avoidance cartels, the HSBC narcotrafficking scandal – none of this is an advertisement for capitalist individualism. The 1970s neoliberal idea has become synonymous with desperate poverty, rotting infrastructure and sclerotic, unaccountable, dysfunctional elites. There’s a general diffuse yearning for togetherness and order, to which post-Thatcher governments have responded with soothing communitarian rhetoric.

The failure in the priest’s case, a failure of imagination and perspective, is that Fraser never defines what kind of community he imagines we all live in. The word ‘community’ conjures up a small-town arcadia of quiet happiness and simple, decent routine. But many communities as they actually exist are not like that. Communities tend towards homogenity, and there are always people within those communities who are at risk of marginalisation, isolation… or much worse.

Does Dr Fraser think the community should come first in the following cases:

– Mr Y is a African refugee who fled his native land after his activism in a reformist political party led to attempts on his life. Following an asylum application, the UK Border Agency puts him in a white working class tower block on an edge of town where social workers routinely have police escorts, and where the BNP enjoys wide and vocal support. Attacked, exploited and living on the breadline, he jumps to his death from the sixteenth floor.

– Miss X grows up in a traditional Muslim family in an inner city Asian ghetto. She plans to go to college and qualify as a lawyer. However, her father and brothers want her to marry a distant Mirpuri cousin three times her age. If she protests, they beat her. When she leaves the house, she is followed in cars. Eventually, she is kidnapped, taken to rural Pakistan and  never heard of again.

– Kid Z is a black British teenager from an East London estate where almost everyone is connected in some way to the drug trade. At fifteen he still goes to school for two or three days a week, and finds the work interesting, but his friends and relatives ridicule him for studying. Instead of sitting his GCSEs, Kid Z drifts into a street gang. A year later, he stabs and kills a man in a dispute over a £12.50 drug debt. Six months after that, he is serving life for murder.

Fraser’s work as a city priest should tell him that these are not extreme cases. And he refers to that work in an oblique way:

For liberals the word community means little more than co-operation for mutual advantage. Here, individuals exist fundamentally prior to community. There is no such thing as society, and so forth. Liberals are doing it for themselves and rely on the invisible hand of self-interest to do the community work for them. This sort of philosophy has little to offer those who are trying to eke out a living in the tower blocks of south London. It is a philosophy that has demonstrably failed.

But the prolier-than-thou note misses the point that what the coalition is doing to these South London families, at least in terms of cuts to benefits and services, is being done in the name of communitarism. We’re all in this together, but if you can’t or won’t contribute, society won’t take care of you no matter how sick you are.

And yet Fraser persists in seeing individualism purely in terms of material desires. In his last piece he wrote that: ‘making choice the gold standard in every circumstance is to concede to the moral language of capitalism.’ We can argue whether the instinct to work and get on is some kind of sin in itself – I’m not sure that it is – but individualism is also about the right not to be hurt, not to be killed, to be kept safe and happy as far as is possible, and to make our own way in the world without terrible things happening to us. The communitarian model only works if we accept the huge assumption that our peers, our parents, our community and spiritual leaders always have our best interests at heart. The evil truth of the Sophie Lancaster case was that if Lancaster had left her home town, she probably would have lived.

Does Fraser understand that not everything about a community is necessarily good for everyone within it? Maybe not. Last week he slammed a Cologne court’s reasonable decision to outlaw circumcision. The court based its ruling on the fact that babies aren’t in a position to consent to delicate physical alteration. In that article, Fraser complained that ‘one of the most familiar modern mistakes about faith is that it is something that goes on in your head.’ In fact:

This is rubbish. Faith is about being a part of something wider than oneself. We are not born as mini rational agents in waiting, not fully formed as moral beings until we have the ability to think and choose for ourselves. We are born into a network of relationships that provide us with a cultural background against which things come to make sense. ‘We’ comes before ‘I’. We constitutes our horizon of significance.

Got that? And if circumcision is an essential part of this ‘horizon of significance’, why not FGM, the widow pyre and the ducking-stool?

There is certainly a critique to be made of secular liberal individualism. Greed and the love of status, self-aggrandisement, personal vanities, rages and delusions, the refusal to believe that the other 99% of the population exist – all that has led to a tsumani of avoidable suffering and evil. And we have learned the hard way that a free world guarantees only the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself, and that even in a free world not all of us are going to find love, or live a fulfilled life.

This tragic contradiction is best explored in literature and the arts. When it comes to politics, we haven’t even worked out a way for everyone to get enough to eat. Wittgenstein said when all the practical questions are solved the real problems of life remain completely untouched. But the belly comes before the soul and we are still stuck with practicalities. We are still struggling to establish what Norman Geras calls the ‘minimum utopia’ of rights, protections, duties and welfare. And yes, one of these rights should guarantee some kind of personal autonomy. Another should be the protection of difference. To reject a community, to leave if you want to. The living, breathing, flawed human individual, in all its manias, stories, elegies and complications, must come before the group, the community, the religion or the concept. If Fraser can’t accept this, he will show not just a failure of imagination but a failure of compassion.

Update: Sarah and Norm have also written on this.

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6 Responses to “Society and Individualism: Why Giles Fraser Is Wrong About Everything”

  1. Emily Hewson (@emilyhewson) Says:

    Thanks for this Max. Interesting stuff. You’ve probably hit the nail on the head regarding my own unease with Fraser’s writings at times. However maybe if I explain things how I see it… My own Christian faith leads me to believe that yes, ultimately we were created for community, but that we all have a responsibility to look after one another within that community. And when we talk about “community” there are morals and values attached to that regarding the Christian view of community. Maybe that’s something Fraser didn’t make clear in the article. Not sure. That still means that we have to understand ourselves and where we fit into this, and that does in fact touch on understanding ourselves as individuals. In fact we believe that we were created as individuals who could make our own minds up, but also that as individuals who were also meant for community. The idea is that people make decisions to become Christians out of free will, not coercion. If we’re working together in “true” (Christian idea of) community, I believe that Christians should (and many do) look out for the vulnerable, those who are struggling, marginalised, who are on-the-edge, who are faced with deportation, who are suicidal etc. In fact, many of us sacrifice an awful lot to make sure that those who are vulnerable in society are being supported and become part of a loving, meaningful community, because that’s what we believe the Christian community is all about. But at the end of the day, we as individuals have to make that choice of whether we are going to help those in need, whether we’re going to be generous, supportive and sacrificial in our love for others. No one else can make that decision for us. Of course we can only do so much, and I appreciate that not every Christian thinks it’s their place to do it. Yet I personally believe that this is what it’s all about. I could probably write more but I’ll leave it at that!!

  2. Colin Says:

    I’ve never been dragged into a police station by the law and thrown into jail for being gay, but I’ve had members of my community throw slurs after me. Mr Fraser can take his community, and shove it.

    Particularly the religious community. I’ve always thought that the left has forgot its Marx. Religion is an opiate for the people. It dulls the senses, make things nice inside the rush, but it’s not good for the individual or the community in the long run. As we see every day.

    Like in the case where Mr Fraser complains about what is de factor mutilation in the name of religion. It might not be as bad as female genital mutilation, but it’s like saying that pneumonia is an acceptable cultural marker because it’s at least not cancer. I’d say that both pneumonia and cancer are pretty bad, but grant that cancer is worse than pneumonia.

  3. Ben Says:

    I’ve always been suspicious of Fraser and this recent article does a horrible thing-confirm my prejudices! The word “communitarianism” sounds an awful lot like the Indian conept “communalism” i.e. Hindu fundamentalism and the facturing of communities in once tolerant cities like Mumbai.

    I think rather than writing a bone-headed ill thought out article here, Fraser has let his mask slip a little too far and he has been revealed as someone who is far more extreme than he wants to appear. For instance reducing the concept of personal automony to the desire for Iphones and ladies in short skirts is a tatic often used by Islamic fundamentalists to denegrate the liberal freedoms of the west.

    I call myself a liberal (along with other labels like social democrat, atheist ect) because I believe that fundamental rights begin with the individual as a first principal i.e free speech, bodily integrity, passive/active electoral rights, freedom of belief ect-all these function best at the level of each individual. My idea is that when someone “improperly” infringes on the rights of another, the infringment should be curtailed. This forms the basis, perhaps,of a community. A kind of social contract between idividuals to be, in essence, decent to each other.

    A little naive maybe and it can’t always work. But better than the tyrannny of “community leaders”.

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    Emily

    Many thanks for commenting here. The problem is I think that Christian communities don’t always in practice promote the values you describe. Unfortunately, not everyone’s as compassionate as you! Fraser’s mistake is to idealise both his faith’s potential for doing good and the idea of the community in general

    In any case he makes it clear that this is an ecumenical thing. In the previous piece on circumcision he acts as if he is speaking for Muslims and Jews. I think that’s why he doesn’t specify. All he’s saying is that the community has to come first. He’s writing as if the community were run by compassionate and tolerant people. Even in such a community I don’t think the group should have the final say, because even good people can make bad decisions and we need to respect the views of minorities

    And, as I’ve pointed out, many communities are not in practice run by good and kind people. They could be run by militant Stalinoid atheists who think that Christianity should be illegal.

  5. Sarah AB Says:

    I agree with your unpicking of the article – and with Ben’s point about the way in which personal autonomy can be framed as something selfish and banal – I seem to remember Priyamvada Gopal making that elision in her piece about women in Afghanistan.

  6. maxdunbar Says:

    It’s mad really isn’t it. Giles Fraser likes having the freedom to make his own decisions doesn’t he?

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