“While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
There is a scene in Brexit: The Uncivil War where Benedict Cumberbatch (playing Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings) falls to his knees, puts his ear to the ground and, with an intense and quizzical look, speaks to camera: “The noise is getting louder. What does it mean? What is it trying to tell us?”
This scene offers the correct imagery for our moment. It conveys Britain’s dominant emotion, the same emotion sketched by Yeats in The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Yearning. We are yearning for something. What is it?
For Yeats, the object of his desire is simple: it is his childhood home and the balm of the natural world, so distant from the “pavements grey”. Not everyone shares this particular form of yearning. Many have worked hard to get as far away from their roots as possible. Some studiously avoid nature.
But all of us yearn for something that is solid and real to us. We yearn for meaning. We yearn to belong. We yearn to feel grounded and alive. For some, that manifests as nostalgia in its original sense: aching for a return to their homeland, however that is defined. For others, it is a desire simply to understand the people around them and belong to the place where they live.
When Cummings – or at least, his idealised TV portrait – presses his ear to the ground, he hears a roar of yearning. But he hears it emanating only from some people in the country: the forgotten, the downtrodden, the ignored, the left behind. The setting of the scene is important: Jaywick, an Essex coastal town lying the wrong side of the sea wall, is regularly named the most deprived in England. Cummings wasn’t listening to the roar emanating from London, Manchester or Glasgow. That wasn’t his electoral strategy. But if you listen closely, you can hear it in the big cities too. It sounds different, of course. The top notes are more about housing costs, knife crime, air pollution and inequality than lack of good jobs, no investment and poor transport. But the bass notes are the same. We all want to live meaningful lives, connected with those around us and with the places where we live. And to differing degrees, we all feel cast adrift.
At least a part of this yearning must have to do with our modern predicament. Trend upon trend reinforces a sense of individual isolation, of disconnectedness from place and community. Collective institutions from religions and trade unions all the way down to the extended family are in continual decline. Consumerism and 40 years of marketisation have sought to define us as independent units making decisions based not on the reality of social interconnectedness but on an unreal, isolated rationalism. Globalisation, for all its wonders, smooths out local differences. The same products and experiences are enjoyed all over the world, making it harder for people to identify with the ever fewer distinctive features of the places where they live. The dynamics of a service- and knowledge-led economy force people into ever more concentrated centres of investment – big cities and a few chosen university towns and hotspots. Many of those who remain behind feel bereft. And many who have moved into the machine ache either to connect more meaningfully to their new home, or to return to where they feel they belong.
So disconnectedness – both from place, and from other people – is a modern problem. Perhaps that’s why you see such a strong reaction against those aspects of the modern economy which seem to be fuelling it. Globalisation, capitalism and big business are increasingly unpopular, and many are turning away from the dominant model in search of something more connected. It’s that quest for meaning which sits behind the rise of small, hands-on manufacturing businesses. And it’s there behind the ‘corporate purpose’ trend, whereby companies hope to demonstrate to their employees and customers that they, too, can hear the roar.
You can see it, too, on social media. No other mass activity lays bare so readily our deep yearning for connection. What other explanation can there be for billions of people voluntarily handing over their personal data to a handful of gigantic digital monopolies? In an age when big institutions of all kinds are ever more distrusted, still we tell Facebook where we are and what we’re thinking. We overcome our distrust because the yearning to connect with those around us – family, colleagues, friends and potential friends – is too strong. Click, like, post.
And you see it, of course, in the profound alienation most people feel when it comes to national politics and democracy. There is no time when politicians were popular, but there was a time when our democratic politics made the majority of us feel more or less connected to society as a whole. Who can say that now?
These responses to disconnectedness – increasingly volatile reactions against the economic system, the willing surrender into a digital world offering a temporary but superficial rush of connection, and our democratic discontent – are found in every place, and in every demographic. This is not about the many against the few, the young against the old, Remainers against Leavers or any of the other divides which are destabilising us. Class can no longer predict what you think about ‘the system’, social media is ubiquitous, and few think democracy is working. We are increasingly united in our yearning.
And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Because some of this yearning, at least, is not about modernity at all. It is simply human instinct. And – now, as ever – if that instinct is not met with the politics of hope, it will be met with something uglier.
The political choice before us is bleak. On one side is a reactionary politics which has weaponised the Great Yearning into a dangerously xenophobic nationalism. On the other is a radical politics which claims to be responding to people’s real hopes and desires but is in fact seeking to impose its own divisive ideology from above. In the middle are anodyne liberal offers which ignore people’s deep desire to connect. Almost no one in national politics is meeting that desire with a vision that genuinely brings us together. No one is recognising that the Great Yearning is universal, and therefore a chance to bridge our divides and bring hope back into our politics.
It is time they did.
The economy, the State and politics are like aliens from another planet, coming from a great distance in order to manage and categorise us. In a barely comprehensible language, they make persistent demands of us. We experience them not as platforms for our shared existence but as perplexing and impenetrable systems for controlling us. They make grumbling and bewildered slaves of us all.
And yet each of these systems is defined ultimately by the fact that we all have a share in them. They frame society. They ought to help us feel like we belong. How can we remake them so that they address our human desire to connect?
Connecting with the economy
The Great Yearning is already reshaping our economic life profoundly. Big consumer brands find it increasingly hard to maintain real relationships with their customers. The old levers of mass advertising and big-box high street retail feel bland and inauthentic. Brands which embrace craft, sustainability and knowable provenance are taking over. Only small businesses need apply.
But the logic of finance capitalism forces small businesses always to seek to become bigger; to strip out overheads even if those overheads help them maintain connection with their customers; to lose their authenticity in the name of expansion; and to become ever more vulnerable to takeover.
People want authenticity. They also want low prices and convenience, and in most cases the latter wins out over the former. Nothing else can explain the success of Amazon, a company so clearly unethical and incapable of authentic connection with its customers, and yet so vastly profitable. But all that convenience comes at a huge social cost. It requires the institutionalisation of low-wage, precarious work which gives no sense of meaning or belonging to those who must undertake it (don’t be fooled by the Bezos Brigade, Amazon’s clunky attempt to astroturf their way to a better reputation). And it feeds the fires of the Great Yearning – even while people order from Amazon or buy fast fashion from Boohoo, many crave something more human, more real, more connected.
A programme to connect with the economy must therefore prioritise small and socially purposeful businesses which offer meaningful work and authentic relationships. That means changing corporate governance law so businesses are not beholden only to their shareholders’ priorities. And it means reforming competition law to support business diversity, alternative models of corporate ownership and longer-term supply chain relationships.
It also requires a renewed focus on the everyday economy – sectors such as retail, health, transport and food, where most people work and which we use every day. As Karel Williams and others have shown, it’s these unsung parts of the economy which genuinely touch our lives every day. So when we talk about industrial strategy, let’s hear less about bio-tech and AI and more about supermarkets and social care.
This is a programme to give space in the economy to those businesses which offer good work, good products and ultimately good relationships. That is what people are yearning for, and we need to find a politics which delivers it.
Connecting with the State
How popular is the State, really? Even those (and they are many) who support a bigger State in the abstract are likely to be underwhelmed by their real-life interactions with it. People are sick of being treated like a number on a spreadsheet and not like a human being. They may love the NHS, but mainly because of the relationships forged within the furnace of childbirth, illness, pain and death. They love it, in other words, because of its human element. That’s why so many yearn for the days when they knew their doctor personally.
Meanwhile the miserable grind of austerity has undermined many of the best routes to connection between citizen and State. Underfunded schools are leaving teachers stressed and parents angry. Cuts to early years provision have removed one of the State’s best opportunities to build real relationships with its citizens – young parents desperately need connection. And the wider attack on local government funding has left councils impotent to meet rising social need. Despite the best efforts of some, the relationship between people and local government has never been worse.
Repairing the relationship will not be as simple as reversing austerity. Yes, our services need to be much better funded. But no matter how much public money is spent, the State will continue to activate this generation’s highly attuned sense of distrust unless it stops behaving like just another big and unaccountable institution telling people what to do.
It needs to start acting, instead, like a partner in a meaningful relationship. And if that sounds fuzzy, speak to some of the practitioners making this a hard reality. Hillary Cottam has shown what happens when the welfare state allows real relationships to grow in the cracks between its monolithic need to standardise, manage and control. Her radical experiments in public service delivery show that unemployment, social isolation and poor health are best addressed by creating the space for people to connect with those around them. We yearn for a reason. We know human connection is what allows us to thrive. So let’s make addressing the Great Yearning the central goal of the welfare state.
Connecting with politics
We are liable to get too misty-eyed about democracy. Ever since Aristophanes put the boot into Cleon in the 5th century BC, politicians have been the target of public derision. David Runciman has shown how democracies are always plagued with self-doubt. It is an essential element of the democratic life to question constantly whether we’re doing it right.
But even so, our distaste for politics and politicians has reached epidemic levels. Back in the 2000s, political disengagement was the main concern. But what seemed like apathy was in fact a simmering anger. And now that anger has boiled over into populism. The heat of the financial crisis, the expenses crisis and finally Brexit was just too much. It is now no longer hyperbole to say that our democracy is under threat.
Populism offers a dangerously superficial form of connection. By simplifying politics into a binary – the pure ‘people’ against a corrupt ‘elite’ – populist leaders seek to act as tribunes of the people, to form and then exploit a supposed bond between themselves and the masses. But the reality of democratic politics is always messy and plural, and that makes the populist bond fake by default. This is not the authentic connection people really crave – but with populists now dominating the mainstream, it is seemingly the only thing on offer.
Real relationships are the antidote. These could be between people and politicians – for instance, the New Local Government Network’s proposal for ‘unconditional devolution’ would push power away from Westminster and Whitehall and as close to communities as possible; and this would in turn require communities and local politicians to work more in partnership with each other. Or they can be between people and other people – deliberative techniques like Citizens’ Assemblies show what happens when people are given the space to connect with each other and discuss big, complex issues; and the growing impact of the community organising method (seen through the work of Citizens UK and countless smaller local groups) demonstrates the power of people working with those around them to make change.
Democracy can be saved, but not by top-down party politics. It can be saved only by people themselves connecting with those around them to create real political agency. So let’s make that the principle which guides reform of our political system. Empower the people and watch the yearning subside.
“No, I have never found
The place where I could say
This is my proper ground,
Here I shall stay.”
Cummings is in No.10 now. No doubt he still has his ear to the ground, but the early signs suggest it is still a specific and deeply divisive electoral strategy which guides his interpretation of that roar. There are signs that proper devolution could be on the cards, and at least one hire which suggests a commitment to addressing the yearning. But while the double-headed monster of Brexit and unfettered finance-led capitalism remains unslain, it is hard to see how the desire for belonging can truly be met. The rhetoric around Brexit seeks to tap into the Great Yearning, but the reality will almost certainly be further dislocation from the places and the people with which we seek to connect.
Perhaps the next government will get a chance. Meanwhile, there are communities and organisations all over the country working tirelessly to help people reach what Philip Larkin never found – their proper ground. Eventually the politicians will catch up. And those who move first will reap the reward.