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.
Jonathan, in general, yes, I agree. Sorry if I didn’t make myself clear – I understand that Andrew is talking about the switch from an industrial to a knowledge economy. In a sense, I am not fully against that, though that balance is a complex set of questions. And I certainly agree that we should have an economy – and a society – based much more on human ingenuity and creativity than on resource extraction. My point was that the extent to which this has been delivered has less to do with market forces, and more to do with the decisions of governments to rapidly expand the number of university places at various points over the last 60 years.
And though I agree that part of the point is to make the institutions we have more accountable, I do also think we need new institutions – democracy should permeate much more of our life, and not be consigned solely to a behemoth state.
Jock – interesting stuff. Do you have a second to turn that into a full post?
Thanks for the comments everyone.
A number of observations – Adam, what Andrew is driving at is not industrialisation but a move from a predominantly industrial economy to a knowledge economy where the creation of intellectual property is to the 21st century what the creation of industrial goods was to the 20th.
This is absolutely an area we need to aim to excel in and I’ve argued a number of times, not least on Bright Green, that it is what an education led culture which places a high value on individuality and freedom is equipped for in a way that a culture like that of China is not. You cannot confine freedom of thought to business and hope to have a truly innovative economy – ask Ai Wei Wei.
However where I completely part company with Andrew and agree with Adam is about the corrosive effect of transferring power from elected and accountable institutions to the private sector.
When Andrew says “Would you really choose to take us to a world in which the state has such unilateral control over our lives?” he’s turned the situation on its head.
The answer to an overarching and unaccountabvle state is to return the state to its proper role – as the instrument of action for the will of the people not the repository of power. As Thomas Jefferson (I have to squeeze at least one late 18th century quote into everything I write) ‘The safest repository of power is with the people’.
If Andrew were to ask ‘by whom would you rather decisions were taken – the state or corporations’ (a far better question than any he posited) then the answer wouold be clear; the state, because in principle the state is elected by and answerable to us and it has a moral dimension. Corporations are not moral entities, they are not accountable to anyone other that shareholders and they are not properly transparent. We can sack the government but not the board.
If Andrew were to point out, as I expect he might, that the state often appears a law unto itself, then I’d say he’d hit the nail on the head. If there is a problem it’s not that the private sector has too little power, it’s that the state often forgets whose power it wields – ours, and the answer to that is to make it more accountable and responsive and not simply to remove power to an ever more remote and inappropriate location.
With regard to business the state should recognise that people need the goods, services and jobs that business provide, give them a level playing field and clear rules to facilitate competition and regulate only so far as public interest dictates, and then in as simple terms as possible. In return business should recognise that no portion of power belongs to it and backk of and let government govern; of the people, by the people and for the people. Seems like a simple proposition – strange though that those oh so dynamic Alan Sugar types always seem to struggle with it.
Do you know what I hate.
I hate having to spend my life denying myself everything that the advertizing world is constantly ramming down my throat. I’m clearly more successful than most at rejecting the demand to consume by advertizing being forced on me everywhere I go, it is absolutely horrendous. But at the same I completely recognize that this is a conscious permanent effort that if I was not permanently being flooded with adds in every aspect of my life I would not have to do. The fact that at times it can make me feel that I am less than others, less successful because the life I actually live is so very constrained compared to the world presented to me by the world of advertizing.
And that is it, advertizing is so completely totally ubiquitous, imposing itself on every aspect of my life, it defines reality more so than even the the lives of everyone I see around me.
By every measure conceivable measure in things like health, education, equality, access to information, access to democracy, access to opportunities and access to a better life every person in this country is better off than those living here 100 years ago.
No other economic & political system that has ever come close to being tried, never mind actually implemented, can come close to this.
You think its alienation rather than apathy that has reduced political discourse and participation. I have to disagree.
I believe the citizens of this country are free to chose the information they want, learn about the issues that they want to learn about and make the political decisions they want. If there were a demand for something different from what we have then the people would vote for it. The people have voted for what they wanted have since for many years.
And those who do not vote have what they want. If they didn’t they would vote for change.
Andrew, you say ‘numerous centres for biotech work to make our futures healthier’ – but I think that statement in defense of market freedom is a bit problematic.
The vast majority of patients passing through hospitals in this country are there with degenerative diseases linked to unhealthy lifestyle – lifestyles of excessive consumption which are of course very actively promoted by powerful corporate interests. The market solution to this is to regard all these unhealthy people as a vast market for a cocktail of expensive risk-modifying medications – which is hardly ideal.
The low-hanging pharmaceutical fruit is almost all gone these days*, and most new patents represent tweaks to existing medicines of pretty minor value – therefore a far more logical way to direct research would be towards public health. The trouble is that corporate research has to ultimately produce a product to sell to folk, and therefore has no interest in primary prevention. We would be far better served if a way could be found to separate the quest for a healthier future from the quest for corporate profit.
*in the West at least; diseases more prevalent in poor countries have received much less attention, and in these cases an undiscovered ‘wonder-drug’ is much more likely to exist.
Andrew – thanks. Well, sure, market forces have pushed us to de-industrialise. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It’s very easy to say that our knowledge economy is a product of these companies, but surely it has much more to do with the mass expansion of higher education in the post war era – a government policy.
And no, I don’t want a centralised state making most of these decisions. Ultimately the structures we have do not allow us to do so democratically. What I’d like to see is much more direct democratic control – through co-ops, mutuals, etc.
On wages, they have stagnated as a portion of GDP. The country has got richer, as it has throughout most of history, but over the past 25 years, the benefits have not been shared equally.
To say that people should be more responsible is not helpful. How are we supposed to make that happen? In some cases, where money was borrowed for luxury rather than necessary goods, I agree people shouldn’t have borrowed. But why did so many do it? What were the changes in society which led them to?
Market forces produce more than mere toys and trinkets. Not everyone is interested in 42 varieties of biscuit, or what ringtone I will listen to today. Britain punches above its weight because we lead the world in engineering, science and technology, in research and in education, in financial and management services, and in high value manufacturing. These are things that have come about because the market forced the realisation that we could not compete in traditional high volume manufacturing methods with the developing world. I used to live in Cambridge, where companies like ARM and Autonomy thrive and where numerous centres for biotech work to make our futures healthier. Such things have come about through competition and the drive to succeed, to make ourselves better than what has gone before.
As for debt, where is the emphasis on personal responsibility? Banks have been criticised for taking excessive risks and rightly so, but that door swings both ways. Just because we have the option to use store cards and interest free credit doesn’t mean we have to take it.
You don’t give a source for your assertion that the majority of wages have stagnated over the past 30 years, I am assuming that it is from the TUC’s recent report. However the report shows nothing of the kind, they have indeed remained stable relative to the median, but the median itself has increased enormously (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/3ef56312-8fa8-11e0-954d-00144feab49a.html#axzz1R2pl5Xk6 ).
Would you really choose to take us to a world in which the state has such unilateral control over our lives? We all have the ability to make more of ourselves, to become better people than our forebears, socially and economically, by taking personal responsibility for our own futures, and exercising the personal freedom that has taken us centuries to acquire. I have a dream too.