(Reprinted with permission from the (London)Times Literary Supplement, written by Amitai Etzoni.)
Charles Handy’s The Hungry Spirit is particularly timely. The triumphant celebrations that followed the collapse of Communism and the adoption of capitalism by most nations have long died down. There is growing awareness of the tensions between global economic forces and those who seek to maintain a civil and humane society, between global corporations and national democracy, between efficiency and the social contract. And an old, nagging query is being faced with renewed intensity: Where does the relentless pursuit of wealth lead us? That is the focus of this book.
Charles Handy writes in readily accessible terms, to appeal to a wide audience. He begins by establishing that capitalism is the best economic system, but also that it leaves our spiritual needs profoundly unsated. Left unchecked, this superb economic engine has degenerative side-effects on the individual, the community, and the environment. In this Handy reflects the dominant post-1990 view that the quest for other economic systems is futile, that while we must augment capitalism, we cannot replace it.
The road to a reconstituted society starts with self-examination. Handy asks each of us to look back on our lives from the perspective of its imagined conclusion. He urges us to think about coming to heaven and meeting the person we would have liked to have been. From this and other such exercises, a person is to come to realize that a relentless pursuit of material self-interest does not satisfy an important element of the self. In a defining passage Handy writes, “We only really find ourselves when we lose ourselves in something beyond ourselves, be it our love for someone, our pursuit of a cause or a vocation, or our commitment to a group or an institution.” From this, Handy builds the notion that true responsibility to self entails responsibility to others and to community. Handy calls this new theology “Proper Selfishness.”
Handy does better than many other popular advocates of self-reconstruction in that he fully recognizes that the individual is embedded in societal institutions, and unless these are reconstructed, developing one’s self will not be sustainable. Hence he favors a broad reconstruction of numerous social institutions. Government ought to enable citizens to be more active on their own behalf by returning select responsibilities to the people, especially through devolution. In the process, Handy embraces numerous currently popular ideas such as greater reliance on referendums, citizen juries, taxes earmarked by citizens, and job creation through “employee mutuals.” At this point, the book turns into a virtual encyclopedia of communitarian ideas.
Policymakers will criticize Handy for failing to respond to many of the questions that have been raised about the proposals he champions. Nor does he deal with the question of whether it is possible for a corporation to be only halfheartedly competitive and still hold its own on the global level. However, one must face these issues only if one accepts Handy’s agenda. His power is in pointing to the core issues that confront us, not in working out the small print.
The distinctiveness of Handy’s approach stands out most clearly when it is compared to those of others. Britain is one of the few countries in the world in which religion is not popularly thought to provide the answers to the spiritual hunger Handy correctly focuses on. His attitude to religion is, therefore, peculiarly British: he sees religion not as a source of the solution but as part of the escape from responsibility, at best a promise that there is purpose to life.
Handy also rejects what is left of the Left in two ways. First, he does not view society as an arena for class conflict, but as one community that can constructively examine its culture and institutions and change them. Second, he makes a strong case for the role of ideas and ideals, as well as dialogue on social and moral issues, as useful forces of change, rather than strikes, boycotts, or mobilization of the masses.
The book lacks a clear conception of who will constitute the force for social change, beyond newly self-conscious and responsible individuals. As I see it, major social changes are not achieved unless they become the cause of a major social movement. Handy does not call for such a movement, but he does provide a text for one. Although Handy avoids the term “communitarian,” his endeavor, combined with the outstanding work of Jonathan Sacks, means that Britain now has major native communitarian gospels and advocates of its own. The United Kingdom may be ready to embrace communitarian thinking on a much larger scale than has been the case up to now.
The Quest for Purpose
Our village is a microcosm of society. At first glance, life often seems to go on much as it always did, but look more closely and change has infiltrated every part of it. Change is ingrained in life, and most of that change we would be happy to call progress. Our cottage had an outhouse when we bought it twenty years ago, and no electricity. It is much more comfortable now. Life for almost everyone in the West is more comfortable than it was. Few things, however, are unmixed blessings and the free market economic system which made it all possible is no exception.
—from The Hungry Spirit