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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

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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