They’ve privatised our dreams
There is no such thing as apathy. To be apathetic is to refuse to care about yourself, your family and your community. People are not apathetic. They are alienated. They don’t believe that the institutions of neo-liberal democracy make decisions relevant to their daily life.
The decline in turnout in Parliamentary elections is remarkable, but it is no wonder: dropping electoral participation has tracked the rise of a generation who are not accustomed to decisions being made by those we elect. It used to be the case that politicians were ultimately responsible for how much rent we paid, what kinds of industries we had in the country and what kinds of jobs we did. These decisions have now mostly been handed to the large corporations who dominate our economy. The way we choose our future has to a large extent been handed from the sphere of democracy to the sphere of the market. Where once we could choose parties based on their industrial policies, now we choose industries by buying what they sell us. We’ve swapped the ballot paper for our credit cards. We’ve swapped a say over our future for a say over what kind of phone we have.
And this phenomenon seems to me to have been traced by something else. For my generation, we have grown up in a world where decisions are made by market forces. And so when we think of the future, when we dream of how things could be, we do so not primarily as citizens but as consumers. Martin Luther King dreamed of equality. Generation after generation dreamed of basic stability in their communities. But equality and stability don’t sell. Toys and trincets sell. To make them with the maximum profit, we need flexible labour markets – the antithesis of stability. And so we are told to dream of new exciting toys. We are told to dream of star studded careers which allow us to buy them, and bodies which are enhanced by them. Roman emperors famously maintained popularity with ‘bread and circuses’ – basic needs and temporary frivolous happiness. We have been conned with supermarkets and satellite dishes: institutions which provide endless choice between identikit shit, but remove any choice about whether they should exist.
And both the consumption and the careers we are sold fuel demand for debt. As Gary Dunion has argued here on Bright Green, the insistence that everyone in our generation can be remarkably successful – the constantly perpetuated myth that we will all be neo-liberal super heroes – encourages us to borrow to buy. If I will be rich tomorrow, then it’s OK to borrow then the never-never becomes the now-now.
The way in which increased demand for consumer goods fuels debt is in a sense obvious. Over the last 30 or so years the wages of most have stagnated while a small minority has seen its wealth soar to levels that would make Roman emperors sick with jealousy. For most of us, we see around us ‘Sex and the City’ lifestyles and we feel that if we cannot afford them, we have failed. And so we spend more and more to keep up with the Joneses. Of course, the Joneses are only spending so much because they want to keep up with us. Or, perhaps more to the point, with Miranda, or whatever she’s called.
The way that privatisation has taken our collective consciousness and broken it into individual aspirations is written across our generation: in the brands on our trainers and on our food and our drink, in the diaries of millions of teenagers who hate how their perfectly healthy bodies look and in the huge drop in electoral turnout.
But these dreams were all based on a lie. They were fuelled with consumer debt and with the fictions that are Holywood heroes and neoliberal economics. If we are to build the world anew, we will need to learn to aspire anew. And we will need to do so together. Let’s have a dream.