Identifying the way our society thinks
People live according to narratives. By narrative, I mean something very close to ideology, in the widest sense of the word. Your ideology is, in a phrase, the way you think what you think about the world you live in, about society, ethics, politics, justice, poverty, wealth, education, health, welfare, crime, punishment, human rights, race, religion, ethnicity, unemployment, the minimum wage, sexuality, gender, the environment, ecosystems, global warming, war, revolution, oppression and freedom. Every opinion you have on each of these things is one constituent part of your overruling ideology.
It may not surprise you to learn that societies tend to have dominant ideologies at particular times in their history. For example, Britain in the 19th Century largely conducted itself according to what we now call Classical Liberalism. The central tenets of this were a separation between the state and society (i.e. a limited government), and the sovereign liberty of individuals, including such tropes as freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and free markets. Another far more austere example would be the totalitarian ideologies of Fascism and Communism in several European countries from around 1922 – 1945, in which all individual freedom was subordinated in the interests of an omnipresent state. Typically these states would have a Realpolitik justification for their existence, which is to say that they would claim to be after a specific goal (in the case of Nazi Germany this was Aryan conquest, in the case of the Stalinist states this was Communism), and everyone would have to be doing their bit to help achieve this.
So any given society at any given time is inclined to a certain narrative however absolute or vague. At any point in history one particular society will think that x is good and y is bad, when at any other time it may think that y is good and x is bad. Narratives change, and with every change of narrative comes new ideas of what the individual should be working for, and who or what is desirable and who or what is not desirable.
What I am going to try and do in this essay is explain as succinctly and non-academically as possible what the governing narrative of our age is and what it is doing to us. My aim is to make people understand the way they think. The governing ideology of our age is called Neo-Liberalism, and I am going to make the case that it is not only a flawed ideology, but one that is destroying us.
Let me explain in brief what Neo-Liberalism is about. It is a Right-wing libertarian ideology that values the individual competing for economic superiority over other individuals. It takes what’s known as the homo economicus view of mankind – that people are rational (i.e. they are not governed by emotion) and are innately selfish, and therefore make calculated conclusions about how to maximise their own personal profit. Paul Verhaeghe sums up the Neo-Liberal view of the world beautifully:
“People are competitive beings focussed on their own profit. This benefits society as a whole because competition entails everyone doing their best to come out on top. As a result, we get better and cheaper products and more efficient services within a single free market, unhampered by government intervention. This is ethically right because success or failure in that competition depends entirely on individual effort. So everyone is responsible for their own success or failure. Hence the importance of education, because we live in a rapidly evolving knowledge economy that requires highly trained individuals with flexible competencies. A single higher-education qualification is good, two is better, and lifelong learning a must. Everyone must continue to grow because competition is fierce. That’s what lies behind the current compulsion for performance interviews and constant evaluations, all steered by an invisible hand from central management.”
The underpinning ideas behind Neo-Liberalism are clear: you are an individual, and you must compete with all other individuals in order to survive. The emphasis is on production; you must be as productive as possible, and you will be evaluated constantly. You cannot expect help from either the government or other people. If you fail, it is your own personal fault. This has been the way our society has been run for the last 35 years, and since the end of the Cold War in 1991 it has been the way almost each and every single one of us has been trained to think.
The thing that makes Neo-Liberalism ideologically unparalleled is its attitude to religion, ethics and society. Throughout history, economies have been located in these three basic structures of human existence. Neo-Liberalism, however, dismisses all three of them. Now, religion, ethics and society are subservient to the market. Nowadays, anyone religious is associated with sexually deviant priests and terrorism, politicians are ideologically homogenous and powerless to the power of the stock market, and the arts, though often considered interesting, are ultimately an irrelevant distraction. For the last 35 years our society has been trained to believe that the only thing that is truly important in this world is money. Forget religion, art and politics; it’s all irrelevant. The idea of contributing to society is hopelessly old-fashioned. All you need to think about is working hard and earning money.
The reasoning behind this way of thinking (all people being economic, individually competitive units) is based on the idea of meritocracy. Theoretically, in a meritocratic society all people are born equal, and they then compete with each other in order to get what they deserve. The idea is that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything you want. You will earn exactly what you deserve for the amount you have worked. We have been trained to believe that anyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, regardless of being rich or poor, can achieve anything they want if they work hard enough. The bankers earning millions in the City of London? They deserve it because they’ve evidently worked the hardest of all of us. The ‘benefit scroungers’ squatting in a flat in some nameless town in the North? They haven’t worked at all, and they deserve to suffer.
The central flaw in the theory of meritocracy is evident: people are not born equal. Some people are rich and some people are poor. In theory, this means all obstacles, whether class, gender or race-related, must be swept away. Every child must be given the perfect, sterile environment in which to develop. This is, of course, a semi-utopian idea. In itself, meritocracy to most people appears admirable, for the reasons that it champions liberty and getting what you deserve. Unfortunately, however, it has been distorted. What we have now is better described as Neo-Liberal meritocracy rather than the genuine article.
There are two basic reasons why meritocracy does not work: one, because the notion that everyone starts off the ‘race of life’ with equal opportunities is illusory (is it so wrong to wonder if life should even be a ‘race’?), and, two, because after a while a meritocracy creates a new elite, who then shut themselves off from the rest of society. This elite (whom these days we tend to call ‘the 1%’) then proclaim themselves to be the most intelligent and industrious, and everyone else is punished for not working hard enough. This belief ties in with a phrase I’m sure we’re all familiar with in some way: ‘if you’re clever, why aren’t you rich?’
Thus far, I have explained that Neo-Liberalism involves individuals competing with each other for economic status, and each believing that they have an equal opportunity to do well. Who could possibly object to such an appealing idea? Equal opportunities for all, the greatest rewards for those who make the greatest effort? Well, it is nigh on impossible to guarantee economic and intellectual equality at birth for everyone. A wealthy background usually goes hand in hand with a good education. The philosopher Ad Verbrugge very accurately says that the idea of the ‘free’ individual who enjoys unlimited freedom of choice thanks to his or her own efforts is one of the greatest fallacies of our age.
And here I am brought to pointing out something I am deeply ashamed to say our society endorses, however unknowingly: Social Darwinism, or survival of the fittest. To put this in context, Social Darwinism was the belief from the mid-19th to mid-20th Centuries that the white, predominantly Christian race was superior to all other races, and it was the White Man’s Burden to raise the primitive races to their level whilst maintaining superiority (I am reminded of the character of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby crying that “if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”). In order to maintain superiority, Western countries had to eradicate the weakest elements of their societies. Around the beginning of the 20th Century this belief acquired a ‘scientific’ justification in eugenic theory, which is the social philosophy that aims to improve the human race by preserving ‘desirable genes’ and eradicating undesirable ones. This was taken to previously untouched extremes by the Nazi party.
Now, when I say that our society endorses Social Darwinism I do not mean that we believe in the genetic superiority of the white race over all others (or, at least, not to the extent we used to when it was fashionable). Rather, we have kept the pseudo-scientific belief in eugenics, albeit implicitly, and transferred our prejudice to a new, equally defenceless target: the poor. The logic that leads to this prejudice goes something like this:
1. All people are born with innate characteristics and a certain set of genes, which are either good or bad.
2. This country is a meritocracy, and if you work hard enough you will receive exactly what you deserve.
3. Therefore, the people born with the best genes will have the best skills, and therefore will be able to work the hardest and receive the best reward.
It is not hard to see how dangerous this pattern of thought is. It leaves people believing that everyone beneath them on the social hierarchy does not work hard because they are innately incapable, and they deserve to suffer. This is why we are forever plagued by newspapers decrying ‘benefit cheats’, and why the Chancellor George Osborne has made us believe that the country consists of two kinds of people: “strivers and skivers”. Failure is a sign of intrinsic weakness and disease, and help should not be given to people who fail because it simply prolongs their useless existence.
And of course all this is becoming exacerbated by this age of immense and increasing inequality. At the moment, the 85 richest people in the world own the same amount of money as the bottom half of humanity (that’s 3.5 billion people). In Britain since 2008 there have been £80bn of cuts to public money – that’s money going towards things like benefits and public services – which, incidentally, is the same amount that bankers have made in bonuses in that time. The arguments people use to justify this kind of inequality stem from what I have thus far discussed; the enormous salaries these people are receiving is commensurate to their work rate. This is why we now have a bonus culture, in which hard work is supposedly repaid in commensurate bonuses. Witness the CEO of WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell, who on average earns 780 times the amount of WPP’s average employee. Supposedly he is working 780 times harder than his average employee.
Since Reagan and Thatcher, the first Neo-Liberal President and Prime Minister respectively, came to power between 1979 and 1980, Neo-Liberalism has changed the very fabric of thought in the West. Inequality has accelerated to unprecedented levels (which is bad for reasons I shall explain elsewhere), the poor are suffering from increasing poverty and wanton aggression, and almost all of us have lost our belief in everything apart from that emptiest of things: money. And with the idea that we are individually responsible for our own ‘success’ comes the crushing phenomenon of guilt and insecurity that my generation suffers from, without a doubt the most appalling scars that Neo-Liberalism will leave on our unprotected wrists.
I have just about managed to cover some of the central tenets of Neo-Liberalism here, but it would be impossible to explain the phenomenon in full in just this one article. There are other things that need to be explained – our need for productivity and evaluation, the loss of identity, the erosion of culture, the destruction of the family – which I cannot cover here. But the message should eventually be forthcoming, and people will understand.