The NS Interview: Malcolm Gladwell

“It was good to be right wing at 15 – I couldn’t do any damage”

You have written about everything from class to ketchup. Was there, or is there, a plan?
I have a rough idea where I'll be on Tuesday, but beyond that it's a little vague. Plans are a way to feel better; they don't have any function unless you're a government planning bridges or roads.

Could planning in fact be detrimental to your style of journalism?
Yeah. Serendipity is a strong feature. The universe of things that you don't know is so much bigger than the universe you do know that there are benefits to not being on a linear path.

How does it feel to see your New Yorker essays together in a new collection?
It makes me feel old. It's good to see that they're still readable; some seem such a long time ago.

Which stories stand out for you? The piece about the trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan, seems prescient now.
Yeah, Nassim was way ahead of the curve, so that was a very lucky break. We just thought it would be fun. I have more difficulty with long stories like that; sometimes I get lost in them. But I like the fact that I did it, and I love Nassim.

There are so few places to publish long-form journalism now. Do you worry for its future?
That makes it more valuable, right? Storytelling is a fundamental human need. I don't worry about the New Yorker - I worry about other places. But it's just the business model. I'm more concerned about stores that sell videotapes, where there's no desire for the product.

In Outliers, you talk about society's influence on "genius". Does that reflect your politics?
I'm not very political - only in a kind of indirect way - but I'm interested in class.

How do you react to critics who argue that you simplify or steal academics' ideas?
Outliers very explicitly took a side in an ongoing debate, so the IQ fundamentalists think I'm all wrong. But that's fine. I think of myself as a PR agent for academic sociology and psychology. And that's a role I perform out of great affection. So maybe those critics exist, but no one ever comes to me and says they're unhappy.

You've written a lot about racial and cultural inheritance. Isn't that dangerous territory?
If you believe in culture, you have to take it seriously; you can't just ignore it. I don't think it's dangerous if you're using it to understand part of what makes people who they are. You have to be careful, but it's far more dangerous to pretend that culture doesn't exist.

Your own cultural background is Jamaican, English, Canadian and American. How do the elements of your culture influence you?
It's a lot easier to talk about race in America if you are part black, and it has increased my interest level. But my parents are quite similar: they are both products of educated, middle-class, evangelical, English backgrounds, one from a white family in Kent, the other an aspirational, Jamaican version.

Who are your heroes?
I have heroes, but they may not be relevant to my work. There are crucial academic influences. And I read lots of detective fiction - obviously, I'm in the storytelling business, but you can learn a lot from fiction writers, people like Iain Pears, Michael Lewis or Janet Malcolm.

Do you vote?
They won't let me vote in America. Which is outrageous, since I pay their taxes. But I would vote Democrat, of course.

Is it true that you had a poster of Ronald Reagan on your wall when you were young?
It is - I was a right-winger between the ages of about 15 and 19 or 20. Which is the appropriate time to be conservative, when I could do no damage. Canada was so resolutely left of centre then, it was my version of growing my hair long or being a punk.

What caused the swing back?
I grew up and came to my senses. The American right wing is so tiresome. It's more than the politics - there's a sort of meanness, a pettiness.

As in the Tea Party movement?
People say outrageous things about Barack Obama, who in Britain would be considered centre right. It's just phenomenal, the pitch of the conversation.

What would you like to forget?
I'm so forgetful. I once had dinner with a friend at a restaurant near my house. Then a week later, I took her to the same place, we sat at the same table, and I ordered the exact same thing. And I had no memory of the previous week. So whatever I want to forget, I've already forgotten.

Are we all doomed?
I don't think so. We are always muddling through. We made it through the cold war, the Cuban missile crisis . . . If we can dodge those bullets, we can dodge almost anything.

Defining moments

1963 Born in England
1984 Graduates from the University of Toronto with a degree in history
1987 Joins the Washington Post as a reporter. Later becomes New York bureau chief
1996 Joins the New Yorker as a staff writer
2000 His first book, The Tipping Point, is published. Blink and Outliers follow
2005 Named one of Time's 100 most influential people
2009 What the Dog Saw, a collection of 19 pieces for the New Yorker, is published

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain