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'The Politics of Hope'


Based on his book  "The Politics of Hope",  Rabbi Sacks analyses the rise in the 'politics of anger' in the West today and explores whether it might be possible to create a different kind of politics: the 'politics of hope'.

sacks3In recent years societies in Europe and America have become far more divided.  The gap between left and right has become deeper.  There's been a rise in populist parties of the far right and far left.  The extremes are growing and the centre ground is being abandoned.  This is the politics of anger.  Why has it happened and can we create a different kind of politics: the politics of hope?

The starting point has to be the fact that for the past fifty years societies in the West have been dominated by two institutions, the state and the market — politics and economics, the logic of power and the logic of wealth.  The state is us in our collective capacity.  The market is us as individuals.  And the great debate has been about which is more effective in creating a better future.  The left tends to favour the state.  The right tends to favour the market.

But what if this entire way of thinking leaves out something essential?  We can see this by asking some simple questions.  Suppose there's an organisation in which you have total power.  One day you decide to share it with nine others.  How much power do you have left?  One-tenth of what you began with.

Now suppose you have £1,000 and you decide to share that with nine other people.  How much do you have left?  A tenth of what you had before.

That's because in the short term, power and wealth are zero sum games.  If I win, you lose.  If you win, I lose.  In zero sum games, the more we share, the less we have.  That's why politics and economics, the state and the market, are arenas of competition.

But now suppose you decide to share with nine others not power or wealth but love, or friendship, or influence.  How much do you have left?  Not less.  You have more; perhaps even ten times more.  That's because love, friendship and influence are social goods, and social goods are non-zero-sum games.  If I win, you also win.  With social goods, the more we share, the more we have.  That's because social goods are not about competition.  They're about co-operation.

Our sense of competition is strong; but our bonds of co-operation have grown weak, as families and communities have fractured.

We find social goods, not in the state or the market but in families, communities, neighbourhoods, voluntary groups and the like.  And they're essential to any human group because we are social animals, and what gives us our strength is our ability to co-operate as well as compete.  A world with competition but no co-operation would be lonely, nasty, and fraught with conflict.

To understand the difference between these two kinds of interaction, we need to make a distinction between two ideas that sound similar but are actually not, namely a contract and a covenant.

In a contract, two or more individuals, each pursuing their own interest, come together to make an exchange for mutual benefit.  So, for instance, when I buy something from you, you give me the item or the service I want, and in exchange I pay you.  That's a commercial contract, and that's what makes the market economy.

Or, I pay taxes in return for the services provided by the government.  That's the social contract, and it creates the state.

But a covenant is different.  The simplest example of a covenant is a marriage.  Two people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust, to share their lives, by pledging their faithfulness to one another to do together what neither can achieve alone.

A contract is about interests, but a covenant is about identity.  It's about you and me coming together to form an "us."

The difference is huge.  The social contract creates a state.  But the social covenant creates a society.  A society is about all the things that bind us together as a collective group bound to the common good, without transactions of wealth or power.  In a society we help our neighbours not because they pay us to, or because the state forces us to, but simply because they're part of the collective "us."

When we restore the social covenant, we defeat the politics of anger and re-create the politics of hope.

We can now see why politics in the West have become more divided, abrasive and extreme.  For at least a half century we've focused on the market and the state while ignoring the third dimension called "society."  We've focused on contracts while ignoring covenants.  Our sense of competition is strong; but our bonds of co-operation have grown weak, as families and communities have fractured.

This can work for a while, during times of economic growth and peace, when most people feel that life is getting better for them and their children.  But when they feel that life is getting tougher for them and their children, it all begins to go wrong.  People see around them the zero-sum games of the market and the state.  A few gain, many lose, and everything is about competition and self interest.  That's when you get the politics of anger.

The only real antidote is to renew the social covenant that says, we are bound by bonds that go deeper than self interest.  We share an identity and a fate and we are collectively responsible for the common good.  We need to remember that societies are strong when they care for the weak.  They are rich when they care for the poor.  And they are invulnerable when they care for the vulnerable.  When we restore the social covenant, we defeat the politics of anger and re-create the politics of hope.



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sacks Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. "'The Politics of Hope'." Jonathan Sacks (January 8, 2018).

Reprinted with permission from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. 

The Author

Sacks1Sacks2Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is currently the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor of Judaic Thought at New York University and the Kressel and Ephrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought at Yeshiva University. Many of his books have been translated into French, Italian, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean and Hebrew. Those of his titles currently in print in English, include: The Politics of Hope, Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence, The Great Partnership: God Science and the Search for Meaning, The Persistence of Faith, Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Covenant and Conversation: Exodus, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, Future Tense, and From Optimism to Hope. You can read more of Rabbi Sacks' work or subscribe to his mailing list via his website Follow him on Twitter here.

Copyright © 2018 Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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