A Rich Man's World
by Jeremy Seabrook
www.zmag.org, September 6, 2007
The most puzzling aspect of the official
response to social evils in rich societies is its superficiality.
"Remedies" proposed for under-age drinking are a characteristic
expression of this: raise the drinking age, make drinking more
expensive, prevent the sale of cheap drink in supermarkets and
petrol stations. Similarly, in reaction to knife crime, gun crime
and to teenagers terrorising the streets (a war on terror at home
might be a useful initiative), government ministers say: "parents
must take responsibility" or "stringent laws are already
in place" to deal with these things. David Cameron, with
rival vacuity, speaks of "making families and communities
There is, of course, a good reason for
the silence over a more searching analysis of what is wrong with
"our" society. For all social ills are supposed to be
remedied by economic success. And the economy has "performed"
extremely well for the past 15 years. It is inconceivable that
consistent growth, continuous expansion, and an uninterrupted
rise in disposable income are compatible with the levels of violence,
addiction, fear and social ill-being that we see all around us.
The government is bound to deny any connection
with the health of the economy and the sickness of society. That
these may be intimately linked, not only at times of insufficiency
and misery, but at times of prodigious wealth-creation and excess,
is the taboo which prevents a more rigorous examination of that
most lasting of relationships, the one between economy and society.
This is why the Thatcher legacy, largely
unmolested by her New Labour successors, has been so malignant.
The proponents of economic liberalisation speak as though deregulation
brought with it no social or moral consequences. Deregulation,
they claim, is a good in itself. Removing obstacles to growth
and expansion must deliver the desired outcomes of affluence,
contentment and social peace. Government intervention, red tape,
rules and directives that inhibit enterprise are equated with
a denial of freedom. These stern defenders of the real world actually
live in a hermetic world of fantasy, in which "pure"
economics of a kind unknown on the planet will magically waft
whole populations into a realm of peace and plenty.
John Redwood's even more maniacal vision
of an ultra-competitive Britain is part of this effort by true
liberals to unfetter the creativity of the people by turning us
all into entrepreneurs in a world of universal business. This
utopia is as bizarre and unreachable as anything ever devised
by the vain dreamings of the left; but while the illusions of
the left have long been discredited, the experiments of the social
alchemists of the right are regarded with benign indulgence. Their
most exaggerated thinking of the unthinkable is destined to become
the orthodoxy of tomorrow.
When confronted by gun and knife culture,
the excesses of substance abuse, addictions, social and family
breakdown, extreme individualism and the exorbitant rewards that
co-exist with extreme poverty, a collusive consensus exists to
shield these phenomena from their cause.
The economy now has to be treated with
a veneration long lost to mere religion. It is anthropomorphised,
the object of a tender concern of which people have ceased to
be recipients: is it sick or healthy, does it need an injection
or a shot in the arm, is it suffering or slowing down? It is as
capricious as a prima donna, volatile and unpredictable, subject
to bouts of brooding and uncertainty. It is also a semi-sacred
phenomenon, which must be read for signs and portents. It must
be propitiated and sustained, treated with an awe and respect
which humanity forfeited long ago.
Indeed, humanity has become something
of an intrusion into the majestic workings of the global economy.
We are all abject postulants before its ability to deliver the
goods, to yield dividends, to perform miracles and lay golden
eggs. This is why "human nature" is so important to
the idealists of the infinitely perfectible economy. The only
flaw in an infallible universe is a faulty, unregenerate, indeed,
fallen humanity. In this way, the holy mysteries of the economy
are at one with the Christianity of which the economy is the deformed
and wayward offspring.
This is why all the cruelty and violence
in the world are to be laid at the door of "human nature";
unregenerate, incorrigible; while the economic system reaches
ever greater heights of perfection. Human nature is the vast toxic
dump on which all the evils of the world are blamed, now that
the perfections of universal growth and development have been
achieved. Thus are good and evil are reconfigured in a world of
plenty. In our miserable daily account of life, humanity appears
as wankers, weirdos, paedophiles, rapists, muggers, robbers, alcoholics,
junkies, loonies, vandals, yobs, louts, crooks, nutters, thugs
and crazies - a vast litany of disgrace walks the earth, even
as the hymns of praise to commodities fill the air.
It is clear that setting the economy free
has enslaved the people; not in the old ways, not as in the early
period the industrial era, when laissez-faire led to misery, want,
hunger and exploitation, but in ways unimagined in the grim environment
of the 19th century. That material deprivation was part and parcel
of capitalism has been taken for granted; that excess may set
up a different order of social pathologies seems rarely to have
occurred to the ideologues of perpetual growth and expansion,
which now includes, it seems, all politicians.
But this is at the root of the unquiet
disturbances of the age. Deregulation in a world of insufficiency
brought unparalleled misery and loss. Deregulation in a time of
unequalled wealth brings other ills: a system that delivers the
goods also delivers some formidable evils, which take a toll of
humanity scarcely less than it did to the starvelings of early
For with the dismantling of the old industrial
landscapes and the export of the pollutants and poisons of industry
to the distant places of the world, the old disciplines that tethered
human beings to the productive machinery have been, of course,
relaxed. No longer schooled to the relentless rhythms of loom
and lathe, of machine and mechanism, the iron rules of control
have been swept away.
The society of abundance requires a different
kind of sensibility from that which served the old machinery of
production: the deregulation of human wants, needs, demand and
desire have been a necessary accompaniment of the profound economic
changes we have experienced. Economic "success" in this
context takes on another complexion. The removal of industrial
disciplines also does away with restraint, self-control, limits
on what we may and may not have in this world. It also uncovers
some distinctly undesirable desires - instant rage and jealousy,
an inability to tolerate being thwarted, a morbid desire for the
Government legislation such closing down
outlets where the young may obtain alcohol, or making the possession
of guns illegal, is as vain as destroying the coca crop in Colombia
or tearing up poppies in Helmand province, for this will do nothing
touch the emptiness within, the unanswered need, the loss of meaning
and belonging, the absence of purpose; above all a generation
of whom nothing more is asked except that they get themselves
"trained" to serve the economy.
The economy does not exist in a separate
sphere from society, morality, the wellbeing of the spirit and
heart. But it has been allowed to encroach upon areas of human
experience that should be shielded form its violent incursions.
Only when we are prepared to acknowledge that, and to act upon
our knowledge, will lives cease to be forfeited to its savage
hunger for human sacrifice.