Fixing Broken Societies

As the debate continues on the causes of last summer’s English Riots, Michael Roberts examines previous attempts by reformers to address moral malaise and social breakdown.

'Poverty and Wealth' by William Powell Frith, 1888On the evening of Saturday August 6th, 2011 there began a series of events which, by the time they had subsided, constituted ‘the worst civil unrest in England for a generation’, according to the Guardian. The riots, which broke out as a response to the police shooting two days before of a resident in Tottenham, north London, developed over the following three days into an array of attacks on police stations, shop lootings, arson and criminal violence against property and passing pedestrians in multiple parts of London and in other English cities. By August 10th the House of Commons was in special session to debate the events and their implications. By August 21st 1,073 people had been charged with criminal acts, slightly more than half of them under the age of 21.

In the debate about causes and cures that has followed a consensus has emerged: that the riots are to be interpreted as a point of general reckoning. As the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks put it: ‘There are moments in the history of any civilisation when it catches a glimpse of the state of its soul. We have just seen ours, and it has not been a pleasant sight.’ Politicians have talked of English society as ‘broken’, of a community with ‘its heart ripped out’, of ‘parents failing to teach their children right from wrong’, of a ‘slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations’.

In turn, implicit comparison of the present with a time past in which society was not always broken has led some cultural commentators to look to that past for hint of remedy. It is a further symptom of the times that commentators have been drawn to examples of cures that are citizen-initiated (rather than state-sponsored) and also culturally conditioned by a sense of the need to foster an ethic of altruistic commitment to community (traditionally best provided by associations of religious believers, so it is argued). Lord Sacks has gone so far as to pinpoint the decades between 1820 and 1850 as the exemplary period of citizen-led resolution of problems of social dislocation – crime, violence, alcoholism, a cohort of ‘young people out of control’. He might well have spread his range of examples further.

National volunteer campaigns for regeneration of community cohesion through moral reform or ‘reformation of manners’ were a lively and distinctive tradition in English public life from at least the end of the 17th century to the end of the 19th, with outbreaks continuing across the 20th century. The first self-proclaimed Societies for the Reformation of Manners were launched in London in the aftermath of the politically liberating but culturally disorientating Glorious Revolution of 1688. Setting a pattern to be adopted by most of their successors, they operated on two tiers: an official level concerned to ensure that state power supported godly living and a grass roots one focused on respect for community values and standards of behaviour. After gaining a reputation as fanatical and venal killjoys intent on restricting English liberties, these societies failed to survive beyond the 1730s, in spite of a late attempt at revival by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-91). The memory of their purpose and activity remained, however, and proved an inspiration to the second wave of campaigners for moral regeneration, who emerged in the ‘morale-sapping’ 1780s, in the aftermath of the lost war with the American colonies.

This group, spearheaded by the recently converted evangelical, William Wilberforce (1759-1833), once again found a responsive field of recruits for their campaign at both official and community levels. The sense of urgency of their call was greatly assisted by the outbreak of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars with the linked threat to identity and cultural tradition that they posed. (This was also the era of the foundation of the fabled but ill-documented Society for the Suppression of Vice.) At war’s end after 1815 there did indeed ensue something of a golden age for volunteer community projects of moral reform. The next 20 years saw the unpacking of the wartime Vice Society’s composite list of goals into a whole series of specialist societies covering fields such as prison discipline, juvenile delinquency, suppression of public begging, animal cruelty, the abolition of slavery, Sabbath observance and temperance. Not only were these associations refining their goals and techniques of operation, they were also recruiting from a wider range of cultural backgrounds. Churchmen (usually, though not always) felt free at last to associate with Protestant dissenters, women (to a degree) were free to participate in community-building activities with men. Above all, a section of the urban working class felt moved to take up moral reform as an exercise in self-help rather than social deference; the key moment is usually identified as the launch of the ‘teetotal’ temperance movement in Preston in 1832.

From around mid-century onwards the political, social and cultural environment became more complicated for moral reform voluntarists, not that they were daunted from taking on new fields of concern, especially in the protection of victims of sexual exploitation. But the growing authority of professional expertise had its effect in sapping the morale of volunteer ‘amateurs’; the expanding interest of the state in responding to the pre-occupations of an increasingly ‘democratic’ electorate left upper- and middle-class volunteers vulnerable to charges of self-interested ‘paternalism’; and the more stable and prosperous standard of living of later Victorian workers undercut earlier anxieties about the perils of stimulating working-class appetite for ‘irresponsible’ consumption. Perhaps the archetypal initiative of this later period was the Charity Organisation Society (1869), a much criticised attempt to adapt traditional moral reform to more professional standards of service. On the one hand critics deplored the devaluation of altruistic volunteering this implied. On the other they found it increasingly difficult to see why the activity needed to depend on voluntary effort in the first place. Surely paid and qualified state agents could – and should – do it better in an age of democratic citizenship? For the most part, politicians, professionals and the electorate throughout the 20th century were inclined to agree. Now, it seems, we are once again not so sure.

Can we go back? Would we want to go back? To answer these questions we must be clear about the motives that persuaded moral reform campaigners of the earlier period that action was necessary. Not all of them are easy to translate into terms familiar to 21st-century minds. The first volunteers in the cause of ‘reformation of manners’, for example, were strongly influenced by the political fact that, as they saw it, England in 1688 had been delivered by God’s grace from the imminent threat of popery with its linked attributes of despotism and corruption. This deliverance demonstrated that God took a particular interest in England’s affairs – an interest that required reciprocation through a national commitment to a purified standard of piety and communal behaviour on pain of infliction of ‘national punishment’ for under-performance. Such views, inspired by the Old Testament, continued to surface in periods of  ‘national peril’, especially in popular culture. Not all moral reform campaigning was as apocalyptic in its assumptions as that jump-started by political turmoil and war, but the link does remind us that moral reform activity undertaken in fulfilment of religious commitment may be of the socially excluding (even demonising) kind. It is not always socially inclusive.

A further gulf between the cultural assumptions of past and present looms into view when we focus on attitudes towards saving and spending. As has recently become apparent, western societies have managed to shock themselves into an aversion to debt, both communal and personal. Yet the assumption that future prosperity is to remain dependent on a steady general expansion in the availability and consumption of material goods and services survives. While recent looters of electronic and sports goods have been denounced for ‘shopping with violence’, there has, as yet, been little moral backlash against consumerism itself. In the 18th century – and well into the 19th – the idea that pursuit of ‘luxury’ might be a value-free description of personal fulfilment would have been thought, at best, perverse. ‘Luxuria’ remained a sin and pursuit of personal pleasure before religious and social duty imperiled one’s soul and one’s reputation, as well as setting a bad example to ‘the poor’. The best that could be said for ‘luxury’ spending, argued the late Georgian moral philosopher, William Paley (1743-1805), was that ‘so long as the prevalency of luxury is confined to a few of elevated rank, much of the benefit is felt, and little of the inconveniency’. Certainly as the 19th century unfolded – and notably after the mid-century consolidation of urban working-class wages and purchasing power – middle-class moralists grew more comfortable with the idea that modest working-class spending on non-necessities was really spending on ‘comforts’ that stabilised the appeal of home life (and therefore kept people insulated from the temptations on offer in the commercialised world outside). But this shift also flowed from a relaxation in attitude towards the moral value of leisure among middle-class moral reform campaigners themselves and it retained strict limits, not least in what could be bought or done on a Sunday: ‘The market is a good servant but a bad master’, as that key transmitter of late Victorian values, William Beveridge (1879-1963) put it.

It was, in fact, fear of the apparent damage of unrestrained market forces on cultural cohesion and the acceptance of social inequality that drove Georgian and Victorian moral reform campaigners to attempt many of their most ambitious projects of reform. As England’s population expanded, reconfigured as an increasingly urban society, and segregated itself into residential districts based on income level and/or cultural affinity, a certain segment of the professional and commercial middle classes became acutely sensitive to a perceived ‘loss of community’. What ‘community’ might mean to such people remained a fluid concept. From time to time it meant expression of sympathy for victims of a commercially ruthless urban world – street children, child prostitutes and other symbolic reproaches to the market. Increasingly it meant guaranteed provision of schooling in the religious values and knowledge needed to become a reliable adult member of such a society. It always implied expression of awareness by the privileged of the challenges faced by the less privileged, preferably awareness arising from personal contact.

We, the middle-classes … have wronged you, we have sinned against you grievously … but if you will forgive us … we will serve you, we will devote our lives to your service.

So proclaimed the late Victorian Arnold Toynbee (1852-1883), founder of the University Settlement Movement in London’s East End, making no attempt to hide the assumptions of a stable, ranked society on which the proposition rested.

How relevant are such ways of thinking, feeling and acting in response to current events? Who might volunteer? How might they communicate with those they hope to reclaim? How would they relate their efforts to the realities of state expectation of ‘accountability’ and to the power of the market to shape cultural preferences?

Traditionally, those with the time, the inclination and the resources to become volunteers have been the better-off (bankers, brewers and professionals all loom large). Volunteer efforts to bolster communities also depended heavily on the availability and organising skills of (servant-assisted) middle- and upper-class women and of the retired. Given that one of the anxieties driving current debate concerns a perception of parental abdication of traditional roles in the face of the labour market and other pressures, a series of questions arises that are not unresolvable but require recognition. Who might be available to volunteer to lead ‘community building’? How effective are they likely to be, given the ‘target group’? How might culturally better-positioned but less self-confident sections of a community be encouraged to volunteer?

The very attempt to define what constitutes a ‘community’ can be problematic. What is the assumed basis of membership? What are the duties members expect of each other? In the past these questions have tended to get answered by volunteer elites. As a result it is these groups that set the agendas with varying degrees of success in persuading those ‘in need’ of the benefit of involvement in cultural change and in persuading less conscientious members of their own ‘class’ of the need to become involved in bringing this change about.

Above all advocates of community-based voluntary efforts to promote social reform find themselves at some point obliged to recognise that they operate in an environment shaped by the state and by the market. Some of them have taken this constraint as a given but others have felt it their moral duty to point out that state policy and the operation of ‘the free market’ is part of the problem to be fixed. The tensions generated by such dilemmas already seem to have surfaced in the current debate as questions are asked about the line between personal responsibility and structurally created victimhood. When does the ‘abused’ or ‘neglected’ apprentice citizen become the perpetrator rather than the victim?

The historical record suggests that community-based campaigns for cultural change can be effective instruments for setting public agendas of debate and can lead to substantial moral reform. They are, however, extremely dependent on the economic and political structures of the society in which they operate and are never, of themselves, panaceas.

Michael Roberts is Adjunct Professor of History at Macquarie University, Sydney and the author of Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England 1787-1886 (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

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