on 18 June 2011
In this remarkable book Delsol looks into that strange emptiness that exists at the heart of contemporary society. On the surface, we...what she calls "Late modern" society, should be comfortable and at peace. We have few rules and little ideology. Everything seems possible and all values are, superficially at least, accepted. Much of the world also has an unprecedented material wellbeing.
All this is an inheritance from the 20th century. A period when various ideological certainties rose and were then destroyed. But, as this next century starts to unfold, it is becoming plain that the contemporary imperative for an absence of absolute values has itself become an ideology that simultaneously robs its adherents of hope, strength and resilience. And this is the danger; that a culture of resigned acceptance masquerading as tolerance is wide open to a renewed offer of utopian certainty.
The void at the centre of modern western society is simply unable to support its crust of Human Rights. Without solid ideological foundation Human Rights are being shredded by expediency, the trivial and competing interests. The `right' to wear your hair blue at school is as much of a `right' as is the Right to life and freedom of conscience.
But is it possible for a society to survive without any foundations? Is it enough to "live well" in a state described by Delsol as "the sad heroes of emptiness"? Will our contempt for wisdom and all that our predecessors believed in bear any fruit? Can a civilisation of individuals clinging to ephemeral moments amidst the replacement of family life by tribal relationships be stable? Can we retain any Rights having already abandoned the notion of the dignity of the individual man?
The 20th century suggests not and is now hiding behind a thin screen of `universal' human rights.
But this, the darker side of "Late Modernity", is working behind the screen. It is transforming traditional global cultures in a similar way that late antiquity transformed the ancient world and brought forth the Christian view of creation and temporal order. The Islamic world shrinks away from this force back into greater, and expansive, fundamentalism while, in the West, we are seeing our civilisation spun into reverse; back to crude values that would be familiar in 3rd century Rome. In that world there is nothing special about individual human beings. They are not made in the image of God and can be owned and used like any other asset. There is no eternal life after death, there is no divine punishment for evil deeds and there is no redemption.
All this has to be in place before a man will kick another into a gas chamber.
We believe we don't do that sort of thing any more and we do not yet own slaves. But we freely kill our unborn, our sick and our old. We freely buy products made with slave labour and see little wrong in that great totalitarian `virtue' of sacrificing some for the good of all.
This book is well written and is easy to read but you will need to concentrate. It asks very awkward questions about some very big issues and is intensely rewarding. But it is not gloomy. Delsol sees this moment of transformation as an opportunity for a rebirth. We will tire of Late Modernity and wish for something better.