Book reviews, Social commentary

‘Fractured: Why our societies are coming apart and how we put them back together again’ by Jon Yates [review]

“The problem is not that we are different from each other; it is that we are distant from ‘the other’.”

Jon Yates believes our country has a serious problem. It’s one which undermines our economy, democracy, security, well-being and health. Yates calls it the People Like Me syndrome (PLM for short). 

It is ‘the villain of the story’ in this important new book.

X-ray

Yates believes the Brexit vote was like an X-ray which reveals the fractured state of UK society.

Difference of opinion was not the problem, but the distance between people and the lack of understanding is.  PLM is the reason

‘you wake up the day after a knife-edge election and find out that none of your friends voted the other way’. 

Hero

But as well as having a villain, this story also has a hero. And its one that has the power to undermine PLM, and triumph over it. As Yates explains:

“Every successful society in history has evolved different institutions to constrain People Like Me syndrome but in every case they have the same effect. They bring together those who are different. They build trust. They prevent division. These institutions are the hidden glue that is central to our human story. I will call them our Common Life.”

Yates’ optimism is rooted in his belief that PLM is malleable. It can be undermined by ‘rituals, habits and institutions’ which foster a Common Life.  As he puts it, with a hope that will resonate with many:

‘Division does not have to be our destiny’.

Common life

In Fractured, Yates paints with the broadest brush-strokes possible, describing how macro-developments in human history have affected how we relate to each other. From being hunter-gatherers in smaller groups, to forming farming communities in the agrarian revolution, and then onto urban communities formed by the industrial revolution.

Using illustrations from history, anthropology, economics, politics and sociology, he argues that each of these transitions created interregnums which made societies create a common life. This is what enabled humans to manage difference and resist the dysfunction and destruction that PLM brings.

Change and choice

Without dewy-eyed nostalgia, he dissects why the Common Life of our grandparents generation is coming apart at the moment. He shows how societal change has undermined the voluntary elements of the common life of clubs and societies, and how the power of choice has damaged the mandatory elements.

“This common life has been withering away. Few of us join clubs or societies and those who do are much less likely to meet those who are different. Our workplaces and schools…have become increasingly divided by wealth and education levels.”

Specific proposals

Fractured ends with specific proposals for mandatory programmes which intentionally bring different people together at key points in their lives: as teenagers, as new parents and at retirement age.

As the author pre-empts, it is hard to see how participation in such schemes could be enforced. But, just as the NHS was a radical creation after WW2, Yates argues we need a similarly bold approach if we are to repair society after the pandemic.

Confidence

Fractured is a highly impressive book on a vital subject.

Without being overly-worthy or heavy, Yates provides a convincing diagnosis of the problem. He writes with huge confidence, loading each chapter with fascinating stories which keeps the narrative fizzing along.

But in addition, there is a deep conviction in this book. Yates believes what he is writing and, critically, he has seen these theories work in the charities and initiatives he has developed.

Coherence

Lastly, he marshals all these qualities into an impressively coherent argument. Fundamentally, the book makes sense: each chapter builds the argument and is superbly summarised at the end of each section.

My only serious critique is the book’s silence about the role of private schooling in maintaining our fractures and promoting PLM. I would consider the entire argument of the book as against the separatism and elitism of private education.

Optimism

Many endorsements of the book refer to its optimism. This is because Yates provides an answer to mending the problem of a fractured society.

But this positivity should not mask the fact that his book is a call for a radically interventionalist policy to mend societal divisions. It advocates mandatory action of a type not seen since conscription.  Yates’ narrative does have a happy ending – but only if are willing to take up his challenge.  

I would recommend everyone to buy Fractured, reflect on its message and be part of putting our society back together again. As David Goodhart says of this book:

‘This is the post-pandemic manifesto we need.’

Buy Fractured: Why our societies are coming apart and how we put them back together (HarperNorth)

5 thoughts on “‘Fractured: Why our societies are coming apart and how we put them back together again’ by Jon Yates [review]”

  1. Yep. I have been an advocate of the PLM perspective for years. Bill Clinton made a v good comment on it once he left office.
    At it’s most fundamental, PLM = “I am, and there is no other” and Joan Armatrading’s “Me, myself, I”.

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  2. Thanks for the review, Jon.
    Does Yates refer at all to the role of the church in breaking down barriers, building community and, for believers, nourishing ‘com-union’?

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    1. Hi David, thanks. Yes, Yates refers a lot to the church’s role, especially in the feast days and other traditions which bound rural communities before industrialisation. He then refers to the explosion of religious societies in the new urban communities.

      Faith is not extensively analysed – but this would be matter for another book. For example, I think it cuts both ways as religion has also been a major factor in dividing people too.

      Did you know that Sarah and Roger know Jon Yates as they were at St Mark’s together for many years.

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      1. Thanks Jon. In the Anglican parish system, the Vicar is appointed to take responsibility for the ‘cure of souls’ for every single person living in the parish. And every single person has the right to attend services in the parish church, get married and hold their funeral there. This sense of shared connection to a neighbourhood has, I believe, the potential to contribute significantly towards the Common Life that needs to be re-discovered. The problem is, many Anglican churches today are so fragile they have become pre-occupied with their internal life and survival rather than developing a wider vision.

        When I am next in touch with Sarah and Roger, I will talk to them about the new book by Jon Yates!

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