In 1975, J.G. Ballard published his eighth and, by my reckoning, his best novel. It was unpretentiously titled High-Rise. As the name suggests, the narrative is an account of life inside an exclusive 40-storey apartment block in East London. The high-rise is one of five identical glass and concrete units, upraised like the fingers of a colossal hand and positioned around an empty concrete basin, soon to be an ornamental lake.
Built on reclaimed docklands along the north bank of the Thames and flanked by derelict nineteenth-century terrace houses and abandoned factories, Ballard’s fictional complex is modelled, quite evidently, on Le Corbusier’s utopian Plan Voisin of 1925, which proposed that Paris’s impoverished, predominantly Jewish district of Le Marais be bulldozed and replaced by a phalanx of 18 aseptic towers. For Ballard, like Le Corbusier, the aesthetic contrast between the sterility of the high-rise and the decrepitude of its environs is essential: the efficiency, amenity and sheer good taste of the building would necessarily exert a powerful centripetal force on its residents, at once promising to shield them from the civic decay of the city all around and providing for their every need—from swimming pools and schools to gyms and grocery stores. The high-rise would effectively replace the city; it would constitute a city within a city: a vertical city.
Significantly, however, there is no provision in common; there is no ‘commons’ at all in the high-rise. Instead, as Ballard puts it, the building was ‘a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation’.¹ The high-rise made it possible, in other words, for the residents to live in near total immunity from the lives of each other. They could exist as individuals with no need for society. And while the promise of the high-rise proved irresistible to a relatively homogenous collection of affluent professionals, Ballard stresses that its residents were not unusually self-centred.
What distinguished them from the rest of the population is that they are the first fully to inhabit—to live into—the peculiar social logic of late twentieth-century life. They are the heirs, the beneficiaries of capitalism’s decades-long purge of the bonds of affection and forms of mutual obligation upon which the social contract is based. The residents are not just the products of late-modern capitalism; they are its fauna, life forms perfectly suited to the otherwise harsh conditions of utter self-reliance. ‘They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances,’ Ballard writes, ‘the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.’² Freed from the cloying demands of the body politic, from every social or political project that might once have required shared sacrifice in the interests of some common good, the bodies of the residents are given back to them in a kind of splendid solipsism. Their bodies are at last their own. And the high-rise is their ideal habitat.
In a little-known masterpiece of political philosophy, Hervé Juvin has described this cultural moment—a moment fully inhabited, lived into, by the inhabitants of the high-rise—as marked by the advent (l’avènement) of a new kind of body: a body cut off from both origin and descent, from kith and kin, from inheritance and obligation; a body given over entirely to the task of its own self-creation; a body with no end other than its own pleasure.³ It is tempting to say that such a conception of the body is necessarily apolitical or even post-political, precisely because it signifies the renunciation of the very principles that give politics its meaning. But bodies such as those populating the high-rise come to demand a politics of their own—a politics in which the cardinal civic virtues of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ are eclipsed by the health, safety and pleasure of the individual.4 The solipsistic, acquisitive body thereby replaces society as the fundamental datum of politics, its proper centre of gravity. As Juvin writes:
Politics used to submit bodies and lives to some destiny or common ideal; politics must now submit itself to the various, passing and capricious destinies we give to our own lives … the advent of the body legitimates politics in the body’s service; it places its satisfaction, its activity, its pleasure over everything—whether law, rules, society, kinship—that might be mere means to those ends.5
But such asocial licence only works if the work of sociality itself is delegated to some other agent—in this case, the high-rise. ‘By its very efficiency’, Ballard notes, ‘the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all.’6
The building is thus a diabolical parody of the civic institutions Jean-Jacques Rousseau deemed necessary to sustain the social contract—institutions that take human beings in their benign ‘natural’ isolation and trade their ‘absolute existence’ for ‘a relative one’; that ‘transport the I into the common unity, with the result that each individual believes himself no longer one but part of the unity and no longer feels except within the whole’.7 For Rousseau, the role of these institutions is more emotional than it is procedural. They cultivate the kind of citizens who will flourish in conditions of interdependence and self-imposed restraint, who see no benefit accruing to the individual that comes at the cost of the immiseration of another; citizens for whom the good of each is inextricably bound up with the good of all.
Such institutions—in the great civic humanist tradition associated with Aristotle, Rousseau and Hegel, right through to Hannah Arendt, Charles Taylor and Pierre Rosanvallon—effect a kind of pedagogy on the emotions. They incline the hearts of citizens towards each other, and thereby cultivate the moral disposition of affective mutuality: what Hegel called the ‘I which is We, and We which is I’. By contrast, Ballard’s high-rise confirms its residents in their isolation; the paradoxical logic of the building at once gathers the residents together and maintains them in a state of mutual indifference that, alas, proves all too thin.
Those familiar with Ballard’s novels will already have a sense of the horrors that lie ahead. No sooner do the high-rise’s amenities begin to malfunction than the layer of compulsory civility that separates the residents from one another vanishes, and the residents plunge headlong into a gruesome ‘war of all against all’, omnium contra omnes. The otherwise homogenous group of doctors, lawyers, academics, pilots and advertising executives turn on each other with a kind of bestial fury as the old social divisions ‘based on power, capital and self-interest’ reassert themselves.8 For residents on lower floors, desperation boils over into bitter resentment towards those living ‘higher up’; they seek out the solace of ad hoc clans, but all that binds them together is their shared sense of impotence. Floor by floor, the residents abandon the sterility that had once substituted for common decency, and lay claim to whatever territory they can by filling it with their own animal odours—of bodily fluids, half-eaten food, excrement. And yet even this only comes to underscore the vast, perhaps even ontological, difference between the ‘rabble’ on the lower floors and the residents higher up. Thus when Richard Wilder, a boorish filmmaker who lives on the second floor, begins his Promethean ascent to the upper levels of the high-rise, he relishes the ‘rich smells’ of the excrement of the residents higher up, whose odour is strikingly different from the floors below.9
Meanwhile, from his imperious loft, the god-like architect of this vast social experiment, Anthony Royal, watches the ‘renascent barbarism’ that has consumed his high-rise. But rather than despair, he is exhilarated by the ‘confused but unmistakable emergence’ of a new social order. Without realising it he’d constructed the incubator of a form of acquisitive violence that would give residents the means of escaping any rigid social hierarchy. And Richard Wilder is the exemplar of that violence. Over the course of his debauched pilgrimage he grows ever more removed—spatially, yes, but also ontologically—from the existence of his wife and sons ‘far below him, deep in the lowest seams of the building’; at the same time, he discovers that ‘free and degenerate behaviour became easier’ the higher he ascended.10 Wilder thus emerges as the high-rise’s truest inhabitant, the one who most fully lives into what he refers to as the ‘secret logic’ of the building. He embodies a potent combination of envy and disdain—lust for the anomie afforded those on the higher floors and utter disregard for those stuck at the bottom—that would for Royal become ‘the paradigm of all future high-rise blocks’, and then of society as a whole.11
• • •
High-Rise, like so much of Ballard’s work, is at once brutal and breathtakingly prescient. Its publication coincided with the disappearance, certainly in Britain, of the last vestiges of the heightened sense of solidarity that had been forged under the conditions of the Second World War and institutionalised in the postwar welfarist compact. For three decades following the war, the lingering memory of shared hardships supplied the principle of social insurance with a powerful moral underpinning, precisely because it helped preserve a live sense of the contingency of poverty itself. Destitution can overtake anyone, and so provision in common is a vital form of self-care of the body politic, an expression of Hegel’s ‘I which is We, and We which is I’. Indeed, one of the more remarkable achievements of the postwar period was to establish the notion that taxation is ‘central to an ethical society’12—which is to say, taxpaying is one of the ways that a political community acknowledges its interdependence, that it registers the moral debt that each owes to all in the social contract.13 It is little wonder, then, that one of the first clear signs that the welfare state had lost its popular legitimacy was a series of sharp cuts to the top marginal tax rate in the United States and Britain in the mid 1970s. These cuts set in train a catastrophic sequence that would see the top decile amass nearly 80 per cent of the wealth in the United States and Europe, and income disparity reach levels not seen since before the First World War.14
Attention is most often focused on the political and policy decisions that allowed economic disparity to reach such obscene proportions.15 But this lays altogether too much blame at the feet of political actors, and thereby ignores the cultural context in which their decisions received broad approval—the extent to which, as Rousseau put it, our stake in the social contract made us all co-conspirators in the commission of grave injustice.16 Generational atrophy, or the fading cultural memory of wartime hardship and solidarity, was also a necessary condition for the delegitimisation of the welfare state, but, again, this was not a sufficient condition. Before a wound this egregious can be inflicted on the body politic, certain moral emotions need to be anaesthetised. In this instance, what must be overcome is a more basic refusal to profit at the expense of the misery of another. Following John Rawls, we could call this a sense of justice, not simply as normative principle but as sentiment.
The role of the moral sentiments in Rawls’ sprawling philosophical edifice is often overlooked. Although Rawls had perhaps undue confidence that the productive capacity of postwar capitalism would largely ameliorate the problem of economic inequality, and that a rational, widely accepted system of redistribution would be sufficient to counter any lingering excess, he also insisted that the stability of a just society depended on the cultivation of moral emotions strong enough to ‘override disruptive inclinations’ to behave unjustly.17 Unfortunately, Rawls’ proposal for how those sentiments might be inculcated was rather weak and relied too heavily on the persistence of the nationalistic solidarity of the postwar era, with its latent structures of authority and mutual restraint. And so by the time his decades-long project was published, Rawls was entirely unprepared for capitalism’s metamorphosis in the 1970s and the emergence of a historically new form of individualism, in which the body is set free from the claims of any political project or civic membership and given over entirely to self-determination.18 It is for this reason that Rawls’ A Theory of Justice reads like welfarism’s last rites: a desperate, belated attempt to give the welfare state normative grounding when it was already on its last legs. The great irony, as Daniel Rodgers wryly observes, is that the year A Theory of Justice appeared, 1971, was the last year the redistributivist consensus in the United States and Britain could be said to still hold:
By the mid-1970s, the engines that had worked in the United States to diminish income inequality since 1945 had quietly slipped into reverse. Real median wages for working men stopped growing in the early 1970s and remained essentially stagnant thereafter, despite the resumption of general economic growth after 1983. Wealth generation became more and more concentrated at the top, where wealth already existed. The trends combined to widen the income gap between the richest and poorest fifths of the population each year almost without interruption from 1971 until the mid-1990s.19
So by the time Rawls provided the great institutions of postwar solidarity with their rational basis and affective content, it was too late. Principles of redistributive justice were already giving way to political pragmatism; the non-state corporatist bodies and labour unions of the 1950s and 1960s had already begun to collapse under the weight of rising unemployment and the influx of migrant workers; the welfare state had already begun its inexorable transformation into the market state, in which the primary responsibility of government was not to serve the wellbeing of the body politic but ‘to maximize the opportunities enjoyed by all members of society’;20 and the sense of the contingency of poverty was already being eclipsed by the emergent language of ‘individual responsibility’, with its accompanying belief that poverty is the result of sloth and dissolute living, and not ‘luck’ or inherited privilege.21
The most immediate effect of these developments was to moralise inequality, thereby converting its persistence in our common life from signalling a failure to honour our mutual obligations within the social contract, to constituting grounds for the exclusion of certain people from any claim in the social contract tout court. And the names for this exclusion quickly became fixtures of the modern political lexicon: ‘free-riders’, ‘welfare cheats’, the sans-papiers. Without these political, cultural, intellectual, linguistic and, indeed, affective shifts in the early 1970s, the ever-growing inequality of the subsequent four decades would have been, quite simply, unpalatable.22 The social wound would have proven too offensive to our moral sensibilities.
But Rawls’ failure at this point to provide sufficient bulwark against the ravages of gross inequality has less to do with some particular flaw in his philosophy than it does a fundamental moral deficiency in political liberalism. Liberal political orders, after all, rest on the belief that virtuous citizens are not necessary for a society to be peaceful, prosperous, even good—and, indeed, that the private vices of self-interested individuals can, by some wondrous alchemy, be channelled to benefit society as a whole. All that is required, as Jean-Claude Michéa puts it, is to outsource the task of ‘harmonizing of individual behaviour to the neutral and impersonal mechanisms of Law and Market’.23 Much like Ballard’s high-rise, the task of sociality is here delegated to social, legislative and regulatory structures, to schemata that are meant to impose a kind of benign order on a political community regardless of the character of the citizens who comprise it.
But while the putative rationale of liberalism is to make virtue or vice irrelevant to civic stability, the effect is to cultivate individuals who live in near total emotional isolation from one another, who feel no responsibility for the immiseration of their fellow citizens, who are increasingly incapable of exercising the kind of deliberative wisdom and practical solidarity demanded in circumstances of hardship or scarcity—individuals, in other words, who cannot be moral agents.24 What matters is that certain social services are performed, that certain minimal obligations to fellow citizens are met, not who meets them.
Accordingly, what is lost in liberal political orders is the idea that sociality is a vocation, a task given to us to accomplish—what Aristotle called an ergon, but what Roman jurists and later Catholic social theology would term a munus: a bequest given to us by virtue of our belonging to a political community; both a trust and a mutual entrustedness.25 Indeed, the term munus designates the principle of reciprocity and acknowledged interdependence that is at the heart of the social bond, just as it is at the root of the words ‘community’, ‘communication’, ‘communion’, ‘the commons’. The great and terrible achievement of liberalism is to have normalised individualism, as though it were a more basic expression of the human condition than interdependence, as though our ties with others were merely elective and, as such, disposable.
But this normalisation is itself the outcome of what Luigino Bruni has called the ‘grand immunizing project’ of modernity: the deliberate renunciation of the munus, the transformation of one’s neighbour into one’s rival, the studied indifference to the misery of another.26 And yet far from being somehow ‘natural’, this turning inwards of the body—incurvatus in se, in Augustine’s marvellous phrase—this retrieval of the body from any common cause and its rededication to the exclusive pursuit of its own health, safety and pleasure, represents a refusal of the conditions of human flourishing. For it is individualism, not interdependence, that is artificial. Interdependence, on the other hand, or entrustedness, is fundamental to life; as Knud Løgstrup puts it, ‘it is given’.27
If Rawls’ Theory of Justice represents the last rites of the welfare state, then perhaps Ballard’s High-Rise is its death rattle. It is in that novel that we see most vividly, albeit in an extreme form, what happens when otherwise benign institutions are populated with individuals who have learned how to live immune from the lives and needs of others. The institutions themselves come to mirror the misery they are meant to ameliorate. And this was perhaps Rousseau’s most powerful insight into the nature of inequality. Those who profit at the expense of the misery of others are not thereby above the fray; for the injustice of gross inequality impoverishes an entire political community—it confines all members in a condition of, to use Rousseau’s startling phrase, égale gueuserie, equal misery.28
• • •
It is almost unimaginable that inequality in our time can be meaningfully addressed unless we recover the sense of it, the sting of moral wound on our common life. And perhaps the only way of doing that is by recovering a sense of the commons itself. But as Pierre Rosanvallon has stressed, ‘the commons’ does not designate a place or a form of non-private property; rather, it is ‘a kind of relation’, a structure of feeling. It emerges on those occasions when we are exposed to the corporeal lives of others, and in that exposure we encounter both the extent of our complicity in the injustice they have endured, and the possibility of becoming, with them, a community: ‘a group of people united by a bond of reciprocity, a sentiment of joint exploration, and a shared set of hurdles to be overcome and hopes to be realized’.29
Militating against such possibilities of exposure is not just civic inertia compounded by our practised indifference to others; there is also the extent of the spatial and even ontological segregation that condemns us to inhabit different worlds. As Hervé Juvin has convincingly argued, the contemporary religion of the body has imposed an age-old division upon humanity: that mythic distinction between the descendants of the gods (theion) and the offspring of the dirt (chthonoi). So, on the one hand, there is the body beautiful, the fabricated body, the body of our own choosing, with its panoply of carnal obsessions from cosmetics, cosmetic surgery and perfumes to hair removal and hairstyling, to body sculpting, body building, body piercing and body art. Alternatively, there are those bodies that remain caught in brute logic of nature. ‘Broken or decaying teeth, worn, limping or disabled bodies, wrinkles and scars’, insists Juvin, ‘separate the worlds more than money.’30
The modern seeds of this division, however, are most likely to be sought in the media’s depiction of the plight of the new ‘underclass’ of the ‘urban poor’ in the mid 1980s. Through some admittedly well-intentioned reporting of a startling phenomenon, Daniel Rodgers contends, an image of the ‘urban poor’ congealed around a series of now familiar clichés: ‘Black, urban, crime-wracked, hypersegregated, welfare-dependent, isolated from and indifferent to mainstream American values’. The effect, according to Rodgers, was to isolate a people who were ‘aliens in their own land’, who had no stake in the social contract, who had no share in ‘our’ world.31
So how might this ontological divide be overcome? Where might a new ‘commons’ be found? I began with a high-rise; let me conclude with another. In 1985, US federal judge Leonard Sand ruled that the relatively affluent New York city of Yonkers had been guilty of intentional segregation of housing and schools. Judge Sand ordered that 200 units of affordable public housing be built in Yonkers at the city’s own expense. His ruling sparked a five-year period of political paralysis, craven opportunism, legal defiance and overtly racist demonstrations against the threat posed by the introduction of an African-American and Hispanic ‘underclass’—them, their drugs and crime. There is, nonetheless, an extraordinary moment in Lisa Belkin’s account of the ordeal. The formidable Bob Mayhawk has been tasked with facilitating the arrival of the new residents and, in effect, cultivating the moral sentiments of existing residents. He requests the assistance of the most intractable opponents of the housing project to interview prospective tenants, one of whom is Mary Dorman. She ventures into one of Schlobohm’s notorious high-rises in west Yonkers:
Mary expected to feel fear, but instead she just felt white. For nearly sixty years, she had thought of herself simply as a person—not a white person, just a person. Even during the worst days of the housing fight, when racial slurs punctuated so many protest meetings, she did not think of herself in terms of her race. Her religion, yes. Her family ancestry, yes. But not the colour of her skin.
Walking the hallways of Schlobohm, however, she started seeing herself as the tenants might see her. White. Middle class. Irish Catholic. Proper. What more did they need to know? She could already feel the blue of her eyes behind her chunky prescription lenses, and her hair practically ached with silver gray.
Had all this not been so new, she might have stepped back and seen the obvious—that this was how it felt to be black in a white world. This constant awareness of living inside your own skin is what the tenants of the townhouses would feel every morning, walking out their door and into a neighbourhood where their face advertised their address.32
Aristotle was right: ‘friendship is equality’. But in order to constitute a true community of friends amid the ruins of pervasive inequality, perhaps we need first to become strangers to ourselves. •
1. J.G. Ballard, High-Rise, Fourth Estate, London, 1975, p. 6.
2. Ballard, High-Rise, p. 44.
3. Hervé Juvin, L’Avènement du corps, Gallimard, Paris, 2005, pp. 206–7.
4. Juvin, L’Avènement du corps, p. 228.
5. Juvin, L’Avènement du corps, p. 207 (my translation).
6. Ballard, High-Rise, p. 44.
7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, or On Education, trans. A. Bloom, Basic Books, New York, 1979, p. 40.
8. Ballard, High-Rise, p. 69.
9. Ballard, High-Rise, p. 185.
11. Ballard, High-Rise, p. 96. It’s hard, at this point, not to think of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).
12. Pierre Rosanvallon, The Society of Equals, trans. A. Goldhammer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013, p. 187; see also Carolyn Jones, ‘Mass-Based Income Taxation: Creating a Taxpaying Culture, 1940–1952’, in W.E. Brownlee (ed.), Funding the Modern American State, 1941–1995: The Rise and Fall of the Era of Easy Finance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 107–47.
13. This is not to say that those who pay taxes should refer to themselves, much less think of themselves, as ‘taxpayers’—a self-appellation most often dripping with bad faith and resentment. Rather, taxpaying should be one of those moral deeds, to adapt an argument made by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that is altogether hidden from the person performing them. That is, taxpaying is the unreflective, habitual deed of a virtuous citizen; it’s simply what a well-formed member of a healthy political community does. See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. G.B. Green and J.D. Godsey, trans. B. Green and R. Krauss, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001, p. 149.
14. This phenomenon is examined at length by Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. A. Goldhammer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2014; and Anthony Atkinson, Inequality: What Can Be Done?, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2015.
15. This is the focus, for example, of Joseph Stiglitz’s recent books The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, W.W. Norton, New York, 2012, and The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do about Them, W.W. Norton, New York, 2015.
16. See Stanley Cavell, ‘Companionable Thinking’, in A. Crary (ed.), Wittgenstein and the Moral Life: Essays in Honor of Cora Diamond, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2007, p. 295.
17. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. edn, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 398.
18. To her tremendous credit, Martha Nussbaum has made up for what was lacking in Rawls’ account of the moral sentiments, in her Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013.
19. Daniel T. Rodgers, The Age of Fracture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2011, p. 199.
20. Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, Penguin, London, 2002, p. 229.
21. Rosanvallon, Society of Equals, pp. 216–17; see also Yascha Mounk’s remarkable new book, The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2017.
22. Rosanvallon, Society of Equals, p. 218.
23. Jean-Claude Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil: An Essay on Liberal Civilization, trans. D. Fernbach, Polity, London, 2009, p. 88.
24. See Alasdair MacIntyre, ‘Social Structures and Their Threats to Moral Agency’, in Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 186–204.
25. See Russell Hittinger, ‘Social Pluralism and Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Doctrine’, Annales Theologic 16 (2002), pp. 385–408.
26. Luigino Bruni, The Wound and the Blessing: Economics, Relationships, and Happiness, trans. N.M. Brennen, New City Press, New York, 2012, p. 13. See Bruni’s fuller treatment in The Genesis and Ethos of the Market, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2012, pp. 34–56.
27. K.E. Løgstrup, The Ethical Demand, ed. H. Fink and A. MacIntyre, trans. T.I. Jensen, G. Puckering and E. Watkins, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1997, p. 18. See also Robert Stern’s exceptional essay ‘“Trust is Basic”: Løgstrup on the Priority of Trust’, in The Philosophy of Trust, ed. P. Faulkner and T. Simpson, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017, pp. 272–93.
28. See Frederick Neuhouser, Rousseau’s Critique of Inequality: Reconstructing the Second Discourse, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 178–9. I’m reminded of Alasdair MacIntyre’s aphorism: ‘Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards as well as for those who fail by them.’ MacIntyre, ‘Three Perspectives on Marxism’, in Ethics and Politics, p. 149.
29. Rosanvallon, Society of Equals, pp. 288–9.
30. Juvin, L’Avènement du corps, p. 127 (my translation).
31. Rodgers, Age of Fracture, pp. 201–2.
32. Lisa Belkin, Show Me a Hero: A Tale of Murder, Suicide, Race, and Redemption, Back Bay Books, Boston, 1999, pp. 190–1.