Show Hide image

Business as usual: how we are dominated by the language of markets

Rowan Williams reviews Mammon’s Kingdom by David Marquand and wonders if Britain has lost all sense of moral purpose.

These little piggies went to market. Photo: Corbis


Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now
David Marquand
Allen Lane, 276pp, £20

The titles of this book’s chapters tell us baldly that it is a story of decline and corruption: “Britain, Now” (listen to the effect of that comma) is a culture that has moved away from any effective commitments to honour, to intelligent collective memory, to ideals of public life and reasoned public debate. “Hedonism Trumps Honour”, “Charismatic Populism Smothers Democratic Debate”; this is our story, and it leaves us disturbingly at sea when we try to answer the question posed in the last chapter: “Who Do We Think We Are?”

It is not an unfamiliar story, and a groundswell of articulately angry books has raised comparable questions, from Will Hutton, Richard Hoggart and Nicholas Boyle in the Nineties to Michael Sandel and Robert and Edward Skidelsky in the past couple of years. Marquand, like all of these, insists that we have, in effect, lost the very idea of public morality; he argues that we are increasingly condemned to live in a world not only of self-interested individuals but of stupid self-interested individuals; and it is perhaps his acute awareness of this stupidity that makes him distinctive in this group of writers.

Deprived of most of the resources of intelligent scepticism, irony and perspective, even humility, which in a more functional culture would give us a bit of critical distance on our dreams – and on those who fall over each other in claiming to realise our dreams for us – we are at the mercy of those whose self-interest is served by exploiting our self-interest.

But, in turn, those cunning and resourceful enough to exploit our self-interest also have to be stupid enough not to be distracted from the profitable business of managing our interests by any larger considerations of long-term effects, whether social, environmental or whatever. As Marquand says, “free choice” has become “a self-validating mantra”, from which we can’t escape because we cannot act collectively in a purposeful way. The relation between producer and consumer, now the norm for every imaginable human interaction, locks us in to a devil’s pact of collective foolishness with no long-term outcome except disaster and universal impoverishment.

The paradox Marquand might have flagged up even more clearly is that we are an increasingly mistrustful society (for the pretty obvious reason that we lack robust social bonds and tangible commitments to the common good) and yet, at the same time, an increasingly credulous society, apparently vulnerable to being swayed by various forms of populist manipulation. Marquand is unsparing on the corrupting effect of leadership (whether putatively right or left, Thatcher or Blair) that seeks to appeal to a mass public while bypassing the mediating structures and networks that allow patient critique and scrutiny.

The “marketisation” of politics, signalled so eloquently in presidential-style televised debates and the hectic analysis of opinion polls, not only erodes our political health, it actually makes us worse people; and Marquand has no qualms about such fierce judgements of value. A properly open society – one in which there is pluralism, honest public debate, social mobility and controls on spiralling inequality – requires certain virtues: “fortitude, self-discipline, a willingness to make hard choices in the public interest and to accept responsibility for them”. We cannot survive without a moral image of ourselves as individuals. Such a moral image is the only thing that will allow us to be sceptical without being cynical, critical without being destructive – the only thing that will allow the possibility of genuine social trust and a shared social goal. Anyone who has read Fred Inglis’s admirable biography of Richard Hoggart, published last autumn, will recognise the apostolic succession here, the elegy for a political consciousness in which solidarity and irony could flourish together.

But Marquand goes further than Hoggart, further than the Keynesian/Orwellian land of lost content, in insisting that a new “public philosophy” must locate human beings in an environment of finite adaptability: we have to be taught that we are “tenants rather than freeholders of the earth”. The truth is that the mythology of the independent person, self-endowed with illimitable will and inalienable claims – the myth that dominates populist rhetoric, from advertising to electioneering – goes hand in hand with an attitude that sees the natural order as a bit of a menace to human “freedom”.

Putting us back into the natural order as a participant not a proprietor is an essential move in breaking away from what currently enslaves us. Hence Marquand’s interest in the resources of religious language: he is crystal-clear that we cannot write off religious traditions because they have some toxic manifestations; but this makes it all the more important to grasp what matters most in them, which is the way in which they affirm simultaneously a human dignity that is not dependent on status or productivity or political convenience and a human finitude that demands to be taken seriously. We are not our own creators; we are not magically protected from what happens to the material world we live in. We are more dependent than we might like to be. And far from this pushing us towards passivity, it intensifies the weight of taking responsibility for each other.

This is a good deal more than just a general appeal to “religious values” as part of our social capital (lots of goodwill to make volunteer organisations work, and so on).Marquand, who has no confessional axe to grind, has actually done some of the necessary reflection on religious doctrine that so many commentators find too taxing. Readers will doubtless disagree about whether these themes outweigh what they see as the less constructive elements in communities of faith. But at least there is the material here for informed argument.

It is interesting that he uses the word “honour” to encapsulate some of what has been lost. It’s a word that many will find uncomfortable; it has suffered from associations with patriarchy (the nightmare world of “honour killings”), with status obsession and the hypocrisies that go with it – with a world of artificial conventions, thin-skinned rivalries and murderous repressiveness. Yet Marquand boldly sets out to reclaim it as an essential aspect of reinstating public virtue, and his case deserves to be taken seriously.

Stripped of some of its cultural deformations, what is this about? Basically, “honour” is what makes it possible to look into your eyes in the mirror without shrinking too much. It does not have to be self-congratulatory; in its simplest form, it is just a matter of knowing what questions you need to be asking yourself for the sake of staying honest and consistent. It is being faithful to that “moral self-image”, which is emphatically not the image of yourself-as-moral (self-congratulation) but the image of what would make a morally coherent story out of your uneven and varied experience (honour can demand the clear expression of shame or remorse). Marquand would say, I think, that matters such as MPs’ expenses and bankers’ bonuses are troubling because they suggest a dishonourable mindset, a habit of avoiding difficult questions, dismissing the significance of being or feeling shamed, walking away from a moral challenge.

We don’t much like using the language of shame these days, because we are rightly sensitive to its horrible abuses, especially in the treatment of women; and increasingly, “naming and shaming” has become a way of trivialising and personalising issues and feeding an appetite for cynical gossip. Yet what has happened if we are never able to say of some behaviours that (even when they do relatively little damage) they are something to be ashamed of? Something that ought to mean that you are taken less seriously as a person to be relied on? Honour is to do with meeting our own gaze in the mirror, but it is also to do with meeting the gaze of others.

All this depends on the one obstinate theme at the centre of this book’s argument. Do we or don’t we believe that the public realm has an appropriate moral significance and solidity? Is it something for whose service people can be trained as a fulfilling, not to say “honourable”, professional career? If the fundamental deciding categories of your culture are rooted in financial transactions (if we are all producers and consumers), “public life” is an afterthought: you can sort it out with the skills and habits of other fields of activity, ideally commercial ones, so that the involvement of businesses with schools or hospitals will guarantee “efficient” outcomes, the greatest good for the greatest number at the lowest cost.

Marquand is not arguing for clinical separation between impure commerce and pure public service, a seductive model for the left, the voluntary sector and many more. The issue is whether public service and public good can be so completely translated into the language of market provision that nothing remains that cannot be rendered in business models, no goals without measurable profitable outcomes. If we believe in that non-translatable dimension, we have some theoretical work to do – in reframing concepts of honour, in insisting on an education that makes us familiar with where we have come from (not to reinforce a national myth but to remind us that we depend on the words and acts of others), in restating that we are part of a sensitive ecology of interdependent physical processes. We need an answer to the question of Marquand’s last chapter: what sort of life is human life?

Like Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s How Much Is Enough?, this book challenges us to think whether we have any coherent idea of a good or desirable life at all. In Isaiah Berlin’s terms, it seems that all we have left is negative liberty. Given Marquand’s severe convictions about our collective stupidity, that isn’t a very promising resource for the middle-term future.

The prospect is not unrelieved; Marquand notes the persistent energy in grass-roots politics, in co-operative movements and green activism. He might also take some comfort from noting that, despite his anxieties about stupidity, it is perfectly clear that what people read or consume in the populist media does not automatically shape how they act; scepticism survives, and Middle England is less Mail-clad in conviction than our politicians often assume (a significant test is the levels of generosity in response to aid or emergency appeals, international as well as local, even in times of “austerity”). Social media (rather a deafening absence, for a book about Britain now) presents problems, yet it can function extraordinarily effectively in assembling younger citizens around positive campaigns: I am writing this a few hours after speaking in south London with the gifted teenage organisers of a major electronic-forum discussion on youth crime.

There are aspects of Mammon’s Kingdom that some readers will regard as just a little rose-coloured – and the irritable dismissal of late-Sixties radicalism, especially R D Laing and Edmund Leach, is not entirely fair: there were oppressive family structures, violent domestic arrangements and corrupt habits to be challenged, even if some of the challenges ended up generating new and equally corrupting follies. But overall, Marquand has given us a crisp and serious essay to stand alongside all those others mentioned earlier.

That, though, is one of the disturbing issues we are left with. How many such essays does it take to shift the sluggish bulk of political muddle and evasion? “They have Moses and the prophets; let them listen to them,” as one authority observed; and if they will not listen to them, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. Essays, yes, by all means; but also the sheer practice of other kinds of life.

Rowan Williams is a lead book reviewer for the New Statesman. His new collection of poetry, “The Other Mountain”, will be published by Carcanet in September

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood