John Gray

Welfare State to Unfair State

Mammon’s Kingdom: An Essay on Britain, Now


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 288pp £20 order from our bookshop

Towards the end of this short, powerful, elegiac book, David Marquand writes:

Ours is a populist age – instinctively hostile to the values of the old elites … To be sure, it is also a hyper-individualist age. But despite appearances to the contrary, populism and hyper-individualism go together. A mass of disaggregated individuals, in a society where the public realm has been demeaned and where public trust seems to be vanishing, is more likely to respond to a populist appeal than to any other. Populist languages make no demand on their listeners; they flatter the emotions; and they place the burdens of freedom on someone else’s shoulders.

The mutually reinforcing conjunction of individualism with populism is commonly observed in the context of 20th-century totalitarian states. The countries in which fascism flourished were not highly cohesive places. Their societies were fragmented and anomic, and it was the weakness of institutions and public values that gave fascist populism its chance for power. But populist politics is not always so extreme, or so antagonistic to the conventions of democracy. As Marquand argues, a milder type of populism has taken over much of the political process in Britain during the past thirty years. While society has become more centred on individual fulfilment – mostly measured by success in the marketplace – political parties have become vehicles for a succession of more or less charismatic leaders. Along the way, public discourse has withered and large-scale ideas have disappeared from view.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter