The uncomfortable paradox of puritanism


It was a little strange but instructive that my last blog post here – really just asking the questions to elicit Jon Alexander’s thoughts – became translated on Twitter into a debate about puritanism.

Not my fault this time. It was really down to the reaction by Anthony Painter, the far-sighted RSA writer and blogger, who said that talking about abundance risked unleashing more unsustainable consumerism.

I could see exactly what he meant, but I still don’t believe the forces of light ought to wrap themselves up in puritan clothing – as green campaigners tend to do – because, back to the banning of Christmas in the 1640s and the closure of theatres, puritans always lose the political battles. And we can’t afford to be Trumped again.

Yes, there are puritan moments, but the backlash is never far behind – as it was against Savonarola in Florence after his ‘bonfire of the vanities’. Or with the New Look clothing design in the 1940s. People go in the end with Elizabeth David’s cooking or the sense of abundance created by Terence Conran on the 1960s.

So the result is going to be a difficult balancing act. Somehow we need to have a good deal less conspicuous consumption without sounding like – or being described as – puritans.

The only way out, I believe, is to promote abundance in terms of the only things that actually are abundant – human skills, human love, human care. If this sounds rhetorical, then remember that these elements are completely ignored by the political and economic system, simply because they are so abundant. Because our current rules are  puritanical, they only value what is marketable and therefore scarce.

So governments feel they must step in and warn against it, train it, bowdlerise, tear the love from it. That seems to me to be deeply puritanical.

Hilaire Belloc used to say that all political disagreement was basically theological. And this one is about what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called the ‘nature and destiny of man(kind)’.

Do we believe that human beings are fundamentally dangerous, twisted, biased, racist, incompetent and greedy (though clearly some of us are all those things sometimes)? Or do we believe the opposite, aware that – without professional training or payment – most of us successfully bring up children simply by loving them?

I know which side I want to be on here.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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