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A Rich Man's World

Proposed remedies to cure our ailing society are vacuous because no one wants to admit the real problem: economic prosperity.

Jeremy Seabrook

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 feel safe."

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 industrialism.

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 unattainable.

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.

Jeremy Seabrook has written more than 30 books (including Travels in the Skin Trade and Consuming Cultures), and has worked as a teacher, social worker, journalist, lecturer and playwright. He has contributed to many journals, including the New Statesman and the Ecologist.

© 2007 The Guardian

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