An expanded Welsh language version of this article can be read here.
Culture, as Raymond Williams puts it, can be thought of as ways of living.
Whether it’s the Welsh speaking communities of Gwynedd or the post-industrial communities of the valleys, our cultures are under threat, indeed face a death by a thousand cuts, because of neo-liberalism.
Neo-liberalism itself is a culture valuing consumerism, profit and atomistic individualism over all else, and is entrenched in the British state and reproduced, not challenged, by the Welsh Assembly.
It will inevitably strangle our ways of life and the environment which sustains it.
Our society, in becoming secularized, has not articulated successfully nor established securely other grounds of belief – another common good and purpose for action.
One consequence is that as our standard of living falls, the means for distraction in ‘excitments & gadgets’ run dry and the authority and the certainty of neo-fascist tropes become so much more appealing.
No end goal
In the language of philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre our culture is in danger of becoming an ‘emotivist’ one, where we have no substantial end goal or ‘telos’; where moral language is bereft of any overarching framework or meaning.
This emptiness is reflected in our politics.
It avoids questions of basic first principles, seeking to bypass them, whilst the elites work to provide us with only limited alternatives – which prohibit debate and criticism of the underlying terms of modern politics as a whole.
In such a condition, the attraction of figures who question those terms forcefully, even violently, is inevitable.
What can we do? In Wales we have summarily dismissed these fundamental questions too, despite the fact our ‘politics’ has only been recently established.
Simultaneously and paradoxically, we unreflectively forge first principles that prescribe an end goal – through the process of legislation.
The Future Generations Act, for example, embodies a potentially radical politics, but as a political society we are not even aware that we are setting ourselves these end goals, which render their achievement unlikely from the start.
Underlying the act are the fundamental ideas and principles we should be discussing, and building up through reflective public debate into a ‘common good’ – a vision of our telos.
We need to discuss, create and continually critique our national way of life.
Doing so now will have to be built on our radical past, because in our current crisis we must do things differently.
There are many figures we can turn to for inspiration in order to embed our hopes for the future in our relationship with the past.
And who better than Newtown’s Robert Owen, visionary and advocate for so many of the ideals that have shaped modern life?
Key aspects of his thought continue to speak directly to the challenges we face today:
- The central importance of a balance and respect between humanity and nature;
- The possibilities of mechanization & emancipation of the human personality from the daily grind;
- The universal ambition and hope that virtuous local politics can be the foundation for a peaceful world order;
- That socialist values – community life ordered by equality, respect and solidarity – are built on a way of life, and not abstract notions of equality. This is what our rural, industrial, and civic communities have all fought for in their different ways.
Unfit for purpose
This solidarity can be revitalized and used to build our common good, but this is an arduous task in the face of the political culture that is enveloping us.
Our first politicians in the Assembly, so many from other walks of life, held some concrete ideas about what Wales meant to them and what it might become.
These were ideals forged in lives and spheres outside of politics, bringing purpose to their work and a sense of what Wales meant to their activities; now we seem to have targets forged in the bowels of a visionless mechanism of technocratic politics.
Today, sustaining political orthodoxy and careers appears to be the norm.
This lack of vision can help to explain the limp response to the challenges of the time, for if Wales does not embody for our leaders a substantive telos or common good, how can we expect them to respond with purpose and direction in the face of a crisis?
After 20 years of devolution, we may ask, why have a Senedd, if there’s no independence of spirit, and no meaning to the idea of ‘Wales’?