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Desocialisation: The Crisis of Post-Modernity

by Matthew Fforde

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In this Christian critique of post-modernity, Great Britain is seen as a case study for many of the tendencies now spreading throughout the West and beyond. In the view of the author, the dynamic that most characterises post-modern society is the loss of ties. He subjects this 'desocialisation' to detailed analysis and explores its origins, its characteristics and its mechanisms of self-reproduction.

This work argues that the principal cause of this dynamic is a matrix of materialist visions of man (including relativism) that deny the existence of the soul, generate a lifestyle of selfish individualism, and cause a breakdown in community.
Examining his subject against the background of de-Christianisation and other long-term developments, the author focusing in on such realities as the decline of the family, the suffering of children and the young, low electoral turnouts, the hollowing of civil society, human cloning, confusion in the field of sexuality, high levels of crime and violence, the decline in trust between citizens, a record prison population, the enormous increase in the number of people living alone, alienation from political institutions, the decay of good manners and the epidemic of depression proposes a return to a true vision of man as the real cure for the contemporary scourge of loneliness, the quintessential post-modern condition.

In this call for Christian renewal, the author makes the case for the spiritual path to the regeneration of community.

UK Price: £15.99 – Published by Gabriel Communications Ltd, Manchester
Product Code: DESS5

Reviews / Comments


Gabriel Communications are well known as publishers of
The Universe, The Catholic Times and 24 other successful titles. Their new venture, the publication of Catholic academic books, represents a brave and innovative departure from the world of newspapers and periodicals. In wanting to provide a platform for counter-cultural writers willing to challenge contemporary values they could not have chosen a better writer than Matthew Fforde, or a more prophetic and challenging title than “Desocialisation – The Crisis of Post-Modernity” to launch this timely new enterprise. Fforde’s is a scholarly, but accessible work, which skilfully provides a forensic analysis of the forces at work in Britain today – and their consequences. As such, it sits well in the tradition of writers like Edmund Burke who argued that “a nation is not an idea of only local extent, and individual momentary aggregation: but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and space” – society, in other words, is much more than just the sum of its members; and Fforde catalogues the disintegration of a society that has lost its navigation instruments. In setting out the uncomfortable facts that detail our social disaggregation, Fforde could also have easily borrowed Thomas Carlyle’s phrase “The Condition of England Question”, penned in 1839, to describe the plight of the English working classes after the industrial revolution. Fforde’s picture is of a country with a deep identity crisis, where traditions are in turmoil, where a disturbed culture has created disturbed people, where disaffection with our institutions is axiomatic, where we are fed a diet of misery literature and mass manufactured mediocrity, where people don’t know their own neighbours and often live in toxic loneliness, and where man has become master of his little universe, with catastrophic consequences. Ours is now a nation where clinical depression affects large numbers of young people, where there is serial addiction and dependency, and where the degraded human ecology mirrors the environmental ecology. Our naked greed is turning Britain into a ravaged waste land and into a biological rogue state – willing to countenance such things as the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos and therapeutic cloning. In jettisoning any belief in the sacredness or otherness of life our despised political classes have given us just one more example of our presumptive arrogance in creating the self made man. Fforde’s critique - the twenty first century “condition of England question” - would nestle comfortably alongside “The State We’re In” by Will Hutton or the “The Principle of Duty” by David Selbourne – who, like Fforde, also had a background in Oxford academia. From their respective Italian retreats – Fforde lectures at a Roman university – both have written about the great disruption of British society and the displacement of the classic virtues and the traditional emphasis on communal duties and responsibilities by an aggressive insistence on individual and group rights – part of what Fforde identifies as the Americanisation of British society. He also details what he characterises as the false anthropologies of – among other things - relativism, rightism, economism, powerism, and societalism – and takes us on a tour d’horizon of the legacy of dechristianisation and the priestcraft of its principal exponents. He asks whether we are constructing “a gigantic and universal mass society that will spread anonymity everywhere.” The Catholic economist, E.F.Schumaker, who wrote “Small Is Beautiful” would certainly have approved – as would those other Catholic writers, Chesterton, Belloc, J.R.R.Tolkien and R.H.Benson. In building on that tradition this book goes much further than writers like David Selbourne or Will Hutton (who accurately analysed the irresponsible and corroded nature of our financial structures and institutions and predicted some of the disastrous economic consequences with which we are now living). He also goes further than Amitai Etzioni, one of the founders of the 1990s communitarian movement, and who said that all societies needed to craft a careful balance between claimed rights and responsibility and between autonomy and order. Although Fforde commends the communitarian and virtues movements he argues that even if their diagnosis is in part correct, like the use of bloodletting by medieval doctors, an inappropriate treatment will have no curative effect on the sick patient. Fforde says that this approach is ultimately doomed to fail. His starting point is that we are looking at the problem through the wrong lens. He would share with, Jacques Maritain, the great French Catholic writer who died in 1973, the belief that “One of the worst diseases of the modern world is its dualism. The dissociation between the things of God and the things of the world.” Fforde’s Catholic belief - shared by adherents of all the great religions – is that we each have a soul; that man is first and foremost a soul whose body is merely temporary but whose soul is eternal. He repudiates religious fanaticism but insists that we need spiritual health, that we “are handicapped by spiritual regression….stewardship of the spirit must mean ending our fracture with God.” In a phrase that sums up much of his criticism of what we have become he adds: “only those who do not worship themselves are capable of improvement.” If we learn again to love the soul, and stop assaulting it, and God, then we can begin the painful task or rebuilding our fractured society. Here Fforde builds on the tradition of Christian political thought. His strong scholarship takes us effortlessly into the ideas and writings of, among others, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, R.H.Tawney, T.S.Eliot, Roger Scruton, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who prophetically wrote: “The most important question for the future is how we can find a basis for human life together, what spiritual laws we accept as the foundation of a meaningful human life.” Fforde’s remedies are also rooted in the “personalist” approach of Maritain – who wrote that man must be recognised as a person “as a unity of spiritual nature….made for a spiritual end.” Maritain asserted that natural rights are rooted in natural law. This was key to his involvement in the drafting of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – although “rightism” (which Fforde describes as over-exaggerated emphasis on rights and entitlements) would be inimical to Maritain’s belief in a Christian anthropology, grounded in true human freedom, and based on love and mutual responsibility. Maritain’s thinking was central to the development of post-war European Christian Democracy and I was struck by Fforde’s reference to attempts in Britain to develop twenty first century British Christian Democratic ideas. His magnificent contribution to that debate should be essential reading in those circles. Unsurprisingly, Fforde draws on the writings of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and other Catholic intellectuals, such as Mary Ann Glendon – especially in examining the connection between our loss of spiritual identity and materialism. In challenging our acquisitive society he reminds us of John Paul II’s warning that “Today an invasive materialism is imposing its domination on us in many different forms and with an aggressiveness sparing no one.” To counter this domination and uniformity Fforde invokes the localism of the nineteenth century French political thinker and historian, Alex de Tocqueville who explored the effects of the rising equality of social conditions on the individual and the state in western societies – and who despised the trend towards centralised and overweening forms of government. But, above all, it is Fforde’s uncompromising and radically different world view which is this book’s greatest strength. His formidable writing demonstrates a wonderful ability to combine faith with reason, to insist on the primacy and dignity of the person made in God’s image over atomised individualism, to uphold the common good, and to repudiate relativism – the idea that everything is relative and that there is no objective truth. In his conclusion he urges us to renew our deconstructed and desocialised society and quotes Bonhoeffer’s clarion call: “We have been the silent witnesses of evil deeds. What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men.” In publishing such a straightforward and eminently readable critique of post modernity, Gabriel Communications have provided an invaluable and extremely welcome resource. It deserves to be widely read.

David Alton (Professor Lord Alton is Professor of Citizenship at Liverpool John Moores University).
Dec 09 2009.


While it is increasingly acceptable to talk about the need for ‘
ethics’ and moral compass as an overview, I’ve yet to read the word “soul” appearing in critical commentaries on the state of the world. “Souls” have been for some time excluded. Nor has “soul” ever been an easy term to deal with. In the original catechism (first published in 1889 – and revised in 1985), after introducing God “who made me to know him love him and serve him” we learnt that “God made me in his own image and likeness.” Question four focussed on this likeness. Is this likeness to God in your body or in your soul?” and the answer is “This likeness to God is chiefly (notably not exclusively) in my soul”. Questions 5 to 8 continue to describe the soul; “My soul is like to God because it is a spirit and is immortal” and in response to the question “Of which must you take more care your body or your soul?” the answer is “I must take more care of my soul”, for Christ has said “what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul” and “to save my soul I must worship God by Faith, Hope and Charity; that is I must believe in him, I must hope in him and I must love him with my whole heart.” We also learnt that “there is a likeness to the Blessed Trinity in my soul, that as in one God there are three Persons, so in my one soul there are three powers …. my memory, my understanding and my will”. In the brief summary The Faith of the Catholic Church by Bishop David Konstant (2000), the simple question “what is a human being?” is answered “A human being is a unity of body and soul” adding “Faith affirms that the soul is created directly by God and is immortal” . Much of the traditional discussion of the “soul” has focussed on its immortality – the soul not dying with the body but continuing to exist waiting for the resurrection “when body and soul will be reunited”. Bishop Konstant emphasises that in scripture the word “soul” “refers to human life, or to the entire human person – though it is often used to “signify the spiritual principle of our being, directly created by God”. This essential unity was lost sight of in Western philosophy as it slipped into dualism after Descartes separation of body and soul. However, in Catholic theology as spelt out by St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas in contrast to ancient Greek thought (Plato), soul and body “together form a unique person”. The Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes insists that man must be “considered whole and entire, with body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will”, echoing the Fourth Lateran Councils assertion “man was created by God in unity of body and soul – the spiritual and immortal soul is the principle of unity of the human being whereby it exists as a whole – as a person – and it is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his own moral acts”. Consequently “the whole man – not a detached soul or a being closed within its own individuality, but a person and a society of persons is involved in the salvific economy of the Gospel” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church para 65). At Vatican II the Magisterium broke out of the body-soul schema and emphasised ‘person’ (following among others Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain) as the key word. Since there has been a failure to undertake the difficult task of explicating the “transcendental capacity” of man contained in the soul. In Desocialisation: The Crisis of Post Modernity Matthew Fforde insists on the need “to recognise the soul within us”. In order to tackle what he analyses in great depth as the “material matrix” he simply states “It’s the ‘soul’ – stupid”. He believes that to deal with the crises of post-modernity there needs to be “a retrieval of the soul”…. “people must be constantly told they have a soul” (p321). It’s a bold, counter-cultural assertion and one that should be taken seriously as a possible means of reasserting the neglected ‘transcendent dimension’. The problem is “the soul has perished” or is now “reduced to a metaphor”. Highlighting personal loneliness, relationships lacking in authentic content and the general weakening of the institutions and mechanisms of community, Matthew Fforde points to the suffering of children, the faith in membership of trades unions, the growth of minor political parties and the rise in violence as demonstrations of what he coins as “de-socialisation”. Selfish individualism is presented as a key characteristic as “people tend to act in competition with each other, use each other and in ways which involves treating their fellows as objects” Fforde diagnoses what he terms the eleven false anthropologies of post-modernism definition of terms; humanism rationalism, rightsism, socialism, economism, powerism, animalism, physiologism, sexualism, psychism and feelingism – all of which form what he describes as a complex materialism matrix which “constantly denies the existence of the spiritual and supernatural” by providing “substitute means by which to satisfy man’s religious needs and impulses”. Two things stand out in his wide ranging moral tract, the quest for community in an increasingly atomised world and the need to counter balance competition and choice with moral certainly. Dominating this materialist matrix is the philosophy and culture of “relativism” which gets a good rebuttal from Fforde who not only demonstrates its self-contradictions, and its practical effects (“the more opinions within the rational debate there are, it is argued, the greater the statistical probability of getting things right”!) but insists that relativism is anti any common project. “There are no shared bases upon which to act, no true goals for which to strive together”. Relativism is therefore “acid on the soul and the community” says Fforde “it is an attempt to blow the common project to smithereens”. It is this emphasis on the common project that marks Fforde’s work out. Significantly, though greatly influenced by the American philosopher Gertrude Himmelfarb’s work. “De-moralisation” (published in 1995), Fforde entitles his work “De-Socialisation”. He points out that a lifestyle of selfish individualism leads to de-socialisation “the idea of a common project gets thrown out of the window” as the materialist matrix (dominated by relativism) knocks out man’s capacity for choice, rendering him unable to act or think in moral terms, and this taking away completely any sense of personal responsibility. In other words “De-socialisation de-responsibilizes man” as Fforde puts it (p83). For Fforde the assault on the soul discourages the life according to the Spirit and “inhibits the release of the socializing potential of the soul of man” (p77). While Fforde’s description of the absence of any sense of community in modern Britain bears the flaws of a slightly out of touch urban exile (Fforde’s reference to Leeds for example is unrecognisable) his general theme is to ask “where now is the real community governing itself according to a common project?” Nor does a shift “from self regulation to state regulation” help. Fforde opens up a debate currently raging on how much the state should intervene, from child abuse and domestic violence cases to banks, railways and car industries, but he greatly underplays the need for a fairer redistribution of wealth and income (nationally and internationally) revealing a tendency to blame the poor for there plight or leave them to it. Indeed (p226) he seems to argue against the state as an instrument for the redistribution of wealth – counter to the Catholic Church’s social teaching. But to argue with the particular economics and politics of Fforde’s analysis would take us away from his basic point that “people do not know how to behave towards each other, act for each other and live with each other”. To return to “the soul”, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church reminds us that

through his spirituality man moves beyond the realm of mere things and plunges into the innermost structure of reality ….. openness to transcendence belongs to the human person man is open to the infinite and to all created beings. He is open above all to the infinite God – because with his intellect and will he raises himself above all created order and above himself; he becomes independent from creatures is free in relation to created things and tends towards total truth and the absolute good. He is open also to others, to men and women of the world, because insofar as he understands himself in reference to a ‘thou’ can he say “I”. He comes out of himself, from the self centred preservation of his own life, to enter into a relationship of dialogue and communion with others”.

For Karl Rahner the soul is “human nature in its self-awareness”. It is the “substance of man …. one of the principles of his being and is substantial in character – contrary to the assertions of psychological actualism”. He argued that the doctrine of the soul “as an expression of man’s self-understanding in general, should be part of the subject matter of any general anthropology”. Matthew Fforde’s De-socialisation at least points us in the right direction."

Dec 09 2009, by John Battle

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Version: 29th August 2010

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