This selfish land

What has happened to us? At the first suggestion of new fuel blockades, people rush to hoard petrol and even food. There is no more than mild denunciation; on the contrary, many commentators argue that such behaviour is entirely rational. Far from being ashamed of filling every spare can with fuel that may soon be needed for ambulances, people boast about their smartness, their foresight, their ingenuity. To be caught short of anything in these times suggests a lack of wit and street wisdom; it is simply, in the modern argot, uncool. As for concern about the environment, that is for Greenpeace and the birds.

What we have seen in recent weeks is merely a symptom of our condition. We live in a selfish land, and the voters' perverse response to the fuel crisis (they want better schools and hospitals, lower taxes, low interest rates and a stable economy - a combination that defies logic) suggests that our troubles go deeper than we thought. It is not that people do not understand the arguments; it is just that they do not care. They want jam, and they want it now. This applies equally to pensioners. As Charlotte Thorne writes (page 25), it is absurd to expect them to make sacrifices for the needy among their own age-group, when no such redistributive demands are made (at least not explicitly) on the rest of the population.

As David Marquand argues (page 27), we have lost all sense of civic values. The market domain - in which everyone acts as though life were one long car-boot sale - has colonised the public domain of professionalism, equity and service, and even the private domain of love, family and friendship. It does not just tolerate selfishness and try to turn it to useful ends; it denies the possibility of any other spur to action. To the most convinced advocates of the market, the public service ethic is not just an ideal that has gone wrong, it is by its nature a con, a device, as Professor Marquand puts it, "to legitimise a web of monopolistic cartels whose real purpose is to rip off the consumer". The extreme marketisers, drawing on social Darwinism, see selfishness in every human exchange as surely as Marxists see capitalist oppression and class struggle.

Extreme? Perhaps not. It is the great failure of the Clinton administration in the US - and the potential failure of new Labour in Britain - that it has failed utterly to change the culture. The north Atlantic consensus about the supremacy of the market domain is stronger now than it was a decade ago; indeed, new Labour ministers, with their privatisations and their partnerships and their performance indicators, have taken to it with all the enthusiasm of children who have discovered a new toy. Millions of Americans clearly decided last Tuesday that, if they were going to get markets, they might as well have a president truly wedded to them. The world is safer now for billionaires than it has ever been.

The point is well expressed in a new book, One Market, Under God, from the American commentator Thomas Frank. He charts the development in the US of what he calls "market populism", a philosophy that has clearly influenced such Tories as John Bercow (page 18). Populism is nothing new: the idea that an elite of liberal journalists, academics and politicians were out to subvert the patriotic, law-abiding, pro-family values of the Middle American or Middle English masses (working class and middle class) goes back to the late 1960s. But market populism, in Mr Frank's analysis, rejects all that. If anything, it wants a smattering of rock-and-roll street cred, knowing full well that the 1960s generation and its successors now comprise the majority of the electorate.

The new populism argues that markets, far from being mechanisms for exploitation, are actually the medium of consent. They manage, as Mr Frank puts it, "to express the popular will more articulately and meaningfully than do mere elections". The entrepreneurs are the new folk heroes, giving the people what they want, fighting for the little man, challenging arrogant elites, old money and professional cartels. And, as Mr Frank writes: "Since markets express the will of the people, virtually any criticism of business could be described as an act of 'elitism' arising out of despicable contempt for the common man." Thus, the class struggle is re-engineered, so that bosses and workers stand united against trade union leaders, left-wing academics and politicians, public-sector professionals and all who question the supremacy of the market domain. From this position, it is very hard to see how the disinterested civic values that Professor Marquand laments can be quickly restored.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture