Hey there Mrs lovely moon
You’re lonely and you’re blue
It’s kinda strange the way you change
But then again we all do too
Devendra Banhart “Little Yellow Spider” 2004
When I gaze upon the night sky and wonder at the beauty of the stars, twinkling away, it is easy to understand how the picture they portray has been described as heaven. It is a beautiful thing to behold and utterly different from anything we might encounter here on Earth. The movement of these celestial bodies in relation to our planet offers little evidence as to which elements are fixed and which others are shifting around in accordance with the demands of the gods that control them. The moon waxes and wanes and appears all over the night sky but wherever, and however much, it reveals itself, when we cannot even see it for ourselves, we are somehow aware of its presence. The lunar cycles exert a strong, unseen influence over much of the natural world. It is most evident in the ebb and flow of the seas, the power of which we can only marvel and, at times, quake before. The same cannot be said for the other astronomical elements. The light from these stars and planets set off on its journey to our senses so long ago that the source may have long since burnt itself out and ceased to exist. When we look to the heavens we are not so much looking though space as through time. We are witnessing the past in the present.
It is the same story when we examine the impact that culture has on our lives. Throughout the entirety of human history patterns of behaviour repeated to the point where they have been imprinted onto the circuit boards of our minds. They have become instinctive and we mistake them for some innate primal human trait. I am firmly of the opinion that there are have been a number of very significant periods in our time on earth that have brought this about. In the first part of this chapter we will look in some detail at those times and we will then go on to examine their impact on our psyche before we open up our response to them.
The first trace of human activity on Earth is believed to have taken place somewhere in what we now call Africa. The world was a different place, for sure, but it would have been recognisable to modern man. It is commonly accepted that we share a genetic ancestry with certain primates. The point where we split from them is thought to have occurred when forest areas receded and our earliest forebears took to the savannah in search of food and sustenance leaving the apes in the trees.
Early human life was nomadic with small groups of hunters foraging to provide for the members of their tribe or community. These were non-hierarchical groups, another distinction from their primate ancestors. Groups of apes and monkeys collect around a dominant alpha-male. This leadership role entitles the holder to first pick of the females. They would not have been given a completely free rein though and would be expected to defend their position against any younger challengers. Life would be competitive and, invariably, violent.
If we compare this to the early human tribes the contrast is stark and revealing. The realisation that they all stood a far greater chance of success in the search for food and shelter, essentially survival itself, if they worked together cooperatively, was keenly understood by all. Indeed, if any male attempted to exert any power or influence over the rest of the group they would be ridiculed and ‘taken down a peg’ by the others. If they wished to stay with the group, this individual must change their behaviour or else leave and fend for themselves or try to join another community.
The land would have been relatively bountiful to these early hominids and if it wasn’t they would simply move on to pastures new. At some point in history this changed and groups started to stay in one place and work the land over time so that it produced food repeatedly. Thus the first great change in human history was realised, the agricultural age was born and, once established, would become the standard way in which humans organised themselves for thousands of years to follow.
The impact this had on life at the time was immense. Previously, whilst nomadically hunting and gathering, tribes would possess only what they needed. Why would you carry a surplus that would merely slow you down and burden you when you could more easily survive, thrive even, with a sufficiency. The newly settled ‘farmers’ however would take the completely opposing view to that. If the land produced more than you needed one year then the wisest thing to do was to store what was left over in case you were not so fortunate the following season. Better still, why not aim to produce more than you need and you can use the extra to trade goods or services from another member of your community. Now, of course, we are starting to rely on having a bit left over so we need to have more land on which to grow the additional crops. More land means we need more people to work it so our family expands and when that isn’t enough we take on extra help. What if someone else is looking to expand their ‘farm’ and they start eyeing up our bit of land with a view to taking it off us? We need to guard against that, so some of our people need to train themselves to defend our property. Hang on though, if they are strong enough to defend us from potential attack perhaps they could initiate a take over of a neighbouring ‘farm’ to provide us with even more land.
We can see the pattern emerging here. This is a pattern that will replicate itself elsewhere in ever increasing scope and scale until we have organised ourselves into hamlets, villages, towns, cities and, ultimately, countries and nations. Religion was key to this expansion in the size of social groupings. When a tribe was small enough for everyone to know one another, trust was not an issue. You knew you could rely on your fellow tribesmen to have your back. Once this intimate knowledge of the rest of the group was broken down by the increase in numbers a new system had to be put in place to ensure that the person you were dealing with was reliable. Hence, if they were of the same religious tribe as you then you could rely on them to a much greater extent than otherwise would be possible.
The effect was not only observed in the way in which we organised our communities but in our whole attitude to the world and our place in it. Whereas previously, the nomadic hunter gatherers would have seen themselves as part of the natural world, utilising the resources they found on their travels but not really leaving too much of a mark on the land they passed through, these newly settled groups of people were so reliant of the land producing repeatedly for them they had to attempt to wrestle some control of the vagaries and whims of Mother Nature.
Even with this newly identified need for control the prevailing view was still that the spirit world and the natural world were linked and that the cosmology was very much a pantheistic one – the gods were a part of their creation and all things were united by these spirits.
Whist the general thesis was similar there were differences in approach. The Shaman would take on the form of an animal in order to commune with the spirits to try to discern the will of the gods. These were spirits that would be found in the trees or the rivers and mountains of the landscape. Animals would also be employed by the agrarian settlers but the gods were much more likely to be entreated by their sacrifice.
The second major transformation, as these seismic changes in the way we live have been defined, occurred much, much later in our evolution. This time, unlike the agricultural shift which was almost universal in its adoption and development, the change came about in a specific way in a relatively small area of the world.
During the 17th century Europe embarked on what would be known as the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Reason or, more simply, The Enlightenment.
We will be exploring religious belief in more depth later in the book but we need to open our discussion here in order to contextualise the setting for the scientific revolution.
We perhaps need to remind ourselves that throughout the entirety of human history virtually every tribe in every part of the world would have engaged in some form of religious practice. Whatever the cosmological view was, the will of the gods had to be interpreted by a ‘religious leader’ in the community. The role of this person was to be the arbiter between the realm of the gods and spirits and that of the people in the world. This was a role that one didn’t select for oneself, if you were ‘chosen’ by the deities then you got the gig. We might use the term ‘calling’ now to describe the process.
This modern idea of bing called to serve the one true god is fairly widespread in its acceptance. Whilst many are sceptical of the very existence of this god, the vocational drive of those that serve ‘Him’ is rarely questioned. The single god of the major monotheistic religions of the world is a relatively recent phenomenon and was certainly instrumental in the push to define more explicitly and specifically what the followers must believe. The structure and strict doctrine of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions is in place for a reason and that is to keep everything and everyone under some form of control.
One of the earliest recorded periods of monotheism prior to the start of the Judaeo/Christian, took place in Egypt. Around 1600BCE there was a vurtual monotheism in place as the Egyptians, en-mass, worshipped a god called Amun-Re. Amun was the de-facto creator of all the universe and didn’t so much replace the other gods of the time as absorb them. This changed dramatically when Akhenatan, the father of Tutankhamen, came to power in 1353 BCE. Whilst his son, the famous boy-pharaoh who’s mummified remains traveled the world long after his death and entombment, might be better known to many of us, the force with which Akhenatan imposed the worship of the sun god Aten has gained a significant notoriety in its own right. Statues dedicated to other gods were ripped down, people found worshipping Amun-Re and others were forcefully and brutally prevented from doing so. In addition to introducing the world to religious persecution as a result of imposed monotheism, this was also the first shift to worshipping a god UP in heaven as oppose to one DOWN on Earth. Until this point all cosmologies – Shamanic and Agrarian – viewed the spirit world and the natural world as intrinsically interconnected.
The separation of god from the world, reflecting the Platonic dualistic idea of forms, has affected the way in which we in the west view almost everything as we shall see later but, for now, it offers an explanation of how we might cope with the constant changes in the world and in ourselves. We can now think in terms of certain things being unchanging, fixed ideals as decreed by god, that contrast with the messiness of our changing and changeable fortunes in life. Christians often sing songs about how god ‘never changes’, is ‘steadfast’ and ‘true’ – the implication of which is that we are the opposite of that and if we could just aim a little higher in our pursuit of these lofty, non-existent ideas then we might all live a better life together.
This, then, is the context for the birth of the Age of Reason. Europe was a dualistic, monotheistic place, largely under the control of the Church and the feudal lords and masters.
You are reading a book about identity, who do we say that we are and what is going on when we do. This chapter is about change, the change in the culture and its effects on our ever-changing lives. So far we have been exploring some of the more significant periods of transformation and the impact they have had on us as a species. The period we are now about to examine is the time in which the idea of the individual emerged and became prominent in how we identify ourselves.
The shape of Europe from the middle of the first millennium of the Common Era, was defined in the first instance by the various conquests of the Roman Empire but then further still by the adoption of Christianity as their religion. The reach of the Romans ensured that, in effect, everyone was a Christian, a catholic as we might now describe them, if not they would have been under the control of the many orthodox versions the religion. By this time church was a well established and orderly structured institution. The church leaders – bishops, cardinals and priests – were the only people who had access to the religious texts as, at this stage, the Bible was only available in Latin, a language that was not spoken or understood by the vast majority of European people. This meant that all interpretation of ‘God’s’ holy word was carried out by celibate men.
A state of affairs that endured for the next one thousand years until Martin Luther famously rejected the authority of the Catholic Church, as the Holy Roman Empire eventually came to be.
Luther was a German Catholic monk who became increasingly frustrated at the way in which the church was behaving at the time. He was a keen biblical scholar and was finding himself unable to reconcile practices such as the sale of indulgences with what was written in the scriptures. Indulgences were a means by which rich people were able to reduce the time they might spend in Purgatory in penance for their sins, a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card of its day. Luther protested against the authority of the Catholic Church exercised by its priests and bishops. He famously wrote his Ninety Five Theses which, it is claimed, he then nailed to the door of All Saints church in Wittenberg. Luther never intended to take the church on in the manner that transpired but his actions lead to the Reformation and the start of the Protestant church in Europe.
The Reformation was to have many lasting implications and would be the cause of so much religious conflict throughout the following centuries as both the protestants and the catholics literally fought to claim how their understanding of god and what he wanted from his people was better that any other such claim. Leaving that aside, another crucial factor in our story is that the reformation was responsible for ushering in the ages of reason, the enlightenment could not have happened had Luther not felt so compelled to challenge the church’s authority in the way that he did.
This is especially important to us because this was the birth of the individual, as we might recognise the concept, and the sense that one had a self. Moreover there followed a concerted effort to try to define what that self was and what it meant.
Humans have always considered that they have a soul, drawn to the immortal notion that there was something inside us that might continue beyond our death. At various times this soul might be identified in proximity to the nature of an animal – in we were brave we might have the heart of a lion for example – but there was never any real doubt that we all had one and the fact that it might leave the body upon death did not alter the view that our souls were inextricably linked into our person, our body. Indeed the only means of separation of soul and body was in death, so tightly connected as they were thought to be.
It was only when a French philosopher, born in 1596, uttered, arguably the most well-known philosophical phrase ever, ‘Cogito ergo sum’ – ‘I think, therefore I am’, that the separation of soul/mind/self from body was made. What Rene Descartes did was the same as Plato before him with his forms, he applied a dualistic model to the self and defined what it meant to ‘be’.
Descartes was not alone in trying to define what it meant to exist. His conclusion was that everything of who we are is contained in the brain and if that brain was able to think we could conclude that we existed. It must follow, therefore, that if something is unable to think then it cannot exist in the same way as we do. By existence I mean that there is a ‘self’, and identity, of which the subject is aware. As I indicated earlier, there were other philosophers at the time who examining what it meant to exist. Baruch Spinoza, a contemporary of Descartes, was very firmly of the opinion that there could be no such separation of mind and body, indeed he rejected the separation of God from His creation insisting that everything is connected by virtue of being derived from the one ‘substance’ (god), the only thing that existed in and of itself. His ideas did not gain the traction of Descartes and were not developed further, his major work – Ethics – was banned and only surfaced after he died. Thus the Cartesian model became the de-facto prevailing philosophical standpoint. We will come back to Spinoza later in the book but, for now, we must stay with Descartes and examine a little more closely what the implications were of his ideas being adopted so widely in Europe.
Much philosophical thought, at the time Descartes was contemplating his existence, was dedicated to prove the existence of God through reason. There was still an almost universal understanding that God existed and that He was responsible for the creation of the universe and all that was in it. What was different now was that it was not sufficient to merely accept this obvious truth, it had to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt. If science and reason were able to establish that the Bible had been right all along then we would all be better off living with that knowledge. We would know and understand the mind of God and have the answer to the age old question of what the meaning of life was. As we now know, it did not turn out quite like that.
The reasoned, scientific approach to establish the existence of God and understand the meaning of life failed and this lack of success can be understood to be for two reasons:
- There is no God.
- Life has no meaning.
I am sorry if either of these statements is shocking for anyone reading this but I thought I ought to get it out there now in case you were hoping to find the answers to the questions yourselves in this book.
The way scientific study has been conducted for virtually all of its history has essentially been an exercise in reductionist thought and experiment. We take something we don’t understand and we break it down into smaller, constituent parts until we reach a level that we are able to formulate some working hypothesis and we then extrapolate those result to give us the answer or we start putting the thing back together again. For many complicated things this approach works and has led to the discovery of so much that has helped human life be extended and enhanced beyond the wildest dreams of someone who would have been alive a mere 50 years ago. This success has enabled science to take over from God. We now hold scientific theory to be more reliable, believable and followable that any deity from our past. For some science is now infallible. We will always get to an answer if we keep breaking things down and examining them as closely as we are able to. This idea they everything is explainable through the application of a mathematical equation or a law of physics (natural law, as it is known) has introduced a new dualism into our cosmology. Previously we have had the platonic perfection of form that can never be realised through the imperfect actuality of that form. We have the steadfast, unchanging perfection of the gods in the heavens presiding over the fate of the fickle mortals struggling to cope with their constantly changing environment. And now we have the theoretical realm of science with its immutable laws determining how everything works and defining how we will live our lives. Each of these appears to supersede the one before it, offering a new way of seeing the world a linear progression from past to present and on to the future. Yet, ultimately, they all fail to sustain and they all fail to explain.
The reason for this, I believe, lies in a failure in their most basic understanding of what life is about. The dualistic, idealistic separation of things from the idea of things is inherently flawed.
Wow, that seems a fairly bold assertion from someone who only managed few o-levels at school, and it is but I do think I can back it up and you will be able to judge for yourselves over the coming pages and chapters.
I will give you a clue though and that is one word – complexity. That is all I will say for now and I would like to return to the whole business of change that we were looking at before.
So we had the enlightenment, reason took over from belief and science became a new religion. There has been a lot written over the years about this period and I would urge you to go and read some of it. But not right now, obviously.
This period ushered in such a lot of change over a very short space of time. We can look at some of the highlights (and lowlights, let’s be honest) of these events, all traceable back to the dawn of the age of reason.
The first really significant thing to happen was the Industrial Revolution. This period was, without doubt, one of the most creative in the history of Western Europe. The innovation and invention that took place not only drove the expansion of the British Empire into all corners of the world, giving birth to the whole of global capitalism as we know it, but it was the first time in thousands of years that there was such a significant population shift from the rural areas to more urban settings of towns and cities.
There were revolutions all across Europe in which the poor masses demanded a shift in the inequalities and disparate fortunes between the rich and poor.
Amidst the political upheaval and the shift in living circumstances there was more war than had been seen for centuries before. Not only that though, this time the wars were fought by ordinary men not just paid militias as they had been previously. The two major conflicts of the 20th century between them accounted for millions of deaths, devastating communities as their boys and men were slaughtered and for what?
War is so much a part of human history, as long as there have been settled populations there have been disputes over land ownership and property rights that have resulted in armed conflict. One of the major differences between the two ‘great’ wars of the twentieth century was the number of civilian conscripts that were enlisted to fight. It was unknown for the paid land and naval forces to be supplemented with ‘pressed’ men swelling their ranks but these two conflicts took that to a whole other level. Also the scale of the wars in terms of the number of countries involved was wholly unprecedented at any point before or, thankfully, since. There is also an argument to be had that certainly the second world war was one fought over conflicting ideologies in addition to the usual territorial antagonisms. One could justifiably contend that British land borders were under no immediate threat when the decision was made to side with the Polish and assist with attempting to halt the spread of Nazism that was taking such a grip of much of Western Europe. The conflicts that the west has chosen to involve itself in since the 1940s have generally been strategic in terms of the natural resources a country possesses within its borders (e.g. oil) or ideological. The so-called war on terror that has been carried out in the middle-east has managed to combine both elements. The more cynical amongst us may view ideological differences with regimes in oil-rich countries as something of a contrivance, though it difficult to prove this with any great evidence.
The is a problem with ideological conflict involving people for whom war is not a career choice. Most religions and moral codes have some common tenets that are accepted across them all; the sanctity of human life. How then do you convince someone that something they have essentially been told is an absolute no-no is somehow allowable under the particular set of circumstances that their country no faces? Of course you invoke the dualistic ideas of good and evil. You convince them that God is on your side and sanctions the taking of a life because that is inherently less important that the idea of that life. This was considerably easier to do when the world was a less monotheistic place, you could each have your god on your side, not so easy when there is only one God to go around. This pattern of understanding that has completely consumed western thought allows us to kill someone and feel good about doing so. We can distinguish so clearly between right and wrong – we can reduce complex moral dilemmas into straightforward binary decisions with ease and, more importantly, a complete lack of guilt and self-awareness.
If we can kill someone and claim it was done in the name of love then clearly there is nothing we are incapable of doing provided we are given the appropriate moral encouragement to do so. If there is one thing that ultimately defines the period of Western European history since the dawn of the age of reason it is this. There is name for this phenomenon, we call it ‘capitalism’.
Capitalism could not have happened without the introduction of capital – money. Interestingly the story of the emergence of money is not too dissimilar to that of the birth of religion. If we recall when humans were roaming the earth in their nomadic tribes they would ordinarily be in relatively small groups. The size ranged from around 50 to 150. Any smaller and they wouldn’t have enough people to sustain them. Any bigger and then the social cohesion of the group could be compromised. Dunbar’s number – 150 – was defined to be the optimal size for a social grouping. Beyond this number it is not possible to maintain any meaningful relationship. This cohesion was absolutely crucial for the hunter gatherers of early human history. If you didn’t have a relationship with your fellow tribesmen, if you didn’t know them well, then how could you trust them to maintain the order of the group? Consequently everyone knew everyone else in the group and they all knew what each of them was doing. Around 12000 years ago this changed as the age of agriculture meant that groups would now settle in one place and with this came the necessary growth we discussed earlier. Once the group size went beyond 150 ensuring that each member of the group was working for the good of all became much more difficult and so they had to invent some means of making people think that they were being watched at all times. What emerged from this was what psychologists now refer to as a ‘Supernatural Punisher’ but what most of us would probably call god. To make these ‘beings’ more believable they were given names and roles and great stories and myths were born that told of how these gods came into being and how they created everything and how grateful and, more importantly at the time, obedient we must be to them. From this rituals were maintained that demonstrably showed how dedicated worshippers of a particular god were and through these elaborate displays of faith, trust was built amongst the followers no matter how big the group became. This relationship, based on a shared religion, could span multiple tribes or groups across a broad geographical area. Things didn’t go quite so well when one faith met another but more of that later (or earlier??).
Trade amongst these peoples was initially quite straightforward. If you had some goods or a service that someone else required and they were able to offer a reciprocal item or function then you bartered an arrangement in order to make this exchange. The transactions would take place in a towns market and as the scale of them grew records started to be kept of the who was exchanging what with whom. As they would not have been able to transport all the goods they were exchanging to market on a given day they would have been given a something as a token of their value. Eventually these tokens took on a value of their own at first represented by what they were made of and subsequently how much of a given item you could purchase with them. The point is that there had to be some trust that the bearers of the tokens were good for the commodities that were to be exchanged by them. This was easier with coins as they had some intrinsic value but became more problematic when the currency used was not a precious metal but paper. If you look at any bank note in your purse or wallet you will notice that it is basically a promissory note from the issuer that you can redeem this piece of paper for the equivalent of its value in goods or services and that someone will be paid for it. Banks became the institution that fulfilled this function and they had to be trusted. Thus early banks were based around monasteries and churches as they were the trusted institutions of the day.
Wealth and power have generally gone hand in hand. Generally speaking, up until the period we refer to as the enlightenment, there were relatively few wealthy people in Europe. In a manner that reflects the way in which we are now seeing a rich, wealthy elite holding the reins of power, the lords of the various dynastic families that controlled Europe were a self-serving group. They would ruthlessly exploit the peasants that worked their land and kept them in the castles they built that would simultaneously protect them and ostentatiously demonstrate their wealth. It had to be this way, the technology of the time dictated that you needed lots of manpower to get anything done. With the still quite rudimentary tools available, lots of manpower equated to lots of men. This would not change until the agricultural revolution of the 17th century and the introduction of farm machinery that meant that less men were required to do the equivalent amount of work that was previously achievable. The subsequent industrial revolution had an even greater impact and shifted the wealth from the feudal power brokers into the hands of industrialists and, through more progressive structured tax regimes, into the state coffers. Putting to one side the social and economic turmoil that ensued throughout Europe, this shift from a situation in which money was passed from generation to generation with little or no disturbance to the systematic way in which societies function to an almost free-for-all money grab by the middle class industrialists changed everything over a very short space of time. Trade has been around for almost as long as humans have. Capitalism, the accumulation of wealth in order to invest in production, is considered to had its origins in the increased trade in this period. It can now be said to be the prevailing ideology in virtually every nation in Europe. This is a system that has brought about many benefits to those that participated in it. We cannot, however, ignore the harm that the drive to grow economies has brought about. The colonisation of great swathes of the rest of the world where the slaughter of native indigenous populations through both direct and indirect means wiped out thens of millions of people. If they weren’t killed at the point of conquer they might be driven to their deaths through enforced labour and if that didn’t get them then the introduction of germs and disease that they had no immunity from would. Slavery has been an almost constant in civilised societies and continues to be so to this day. Historically, a conquest of a neighbouring tribe, or village, town and country, resulted in the victor taking able-bodied member of their enemy as part of their spoils. These people would then serve their new ‘masters’ until they died. This was taken to new levels with the introduction of the ‘slave trade’ in the 16th century. This entailed ships from Europe travelling to Africa to exchange goods for vast numbers of people. They were forced onto the ships and stored in the most inhuman conditions imaginable before being traded and forced into work on American and Caribbean plantations. The goods that were exchanged for the slaves was then brought back to Britain where it would be sold for great profit. This ‘Triangular Trade’ as it became know was extremely lucrative and responsible for much of the wealth enjoyed in cities of the UK such as Liverpool or Bristol or Glasgow before it was abolished in the early 1800s.
Economic growth became the force driving all commercial activity. As I wrote earlier, trading with ones partners was nothing new but it was now taking place on, well, an industrial scale. Lots of people were becoming very wealthy, many more than at any point prior to this time. Many more people were not though and they became another commodity that the capitalist system used on the generation of wealth. Some of those that were exploited by the system rebelled. The ‘golden age or piracy’ if I may use such an expression, came about through disaffected sailors, many of whom were treated as badly as the slaves they transported, taking control of their ships and their destinies in an attempt to event things up a bit. These were men who accepted that they were going to die anyway so they might as well go down on their own terms. Back on dry land, the lot of the average worker was not much better. The possibilities for rebellion of any kind were limited. The ordinary common man or woman had no participation in the democratic processes of the time and so could not effect change in that way. When they did try to become part of the electorate in the way a large group of Mancunians did in 1819 in St Peters field they found out just how difficult it would be. A day of peaceful protest ended in the death of 15 of the protesters and extensive injuries to countless others. It was clear that the ruling classes were not going to give up their power without a fight. A very uneven fight in keeping with the whole system in place at the time. Over the following decades and centuries, through the power of collective organisation, protest and outright revolution things changed. Many people died and many more suffered but, ever so slowly, employment regulations were introduced, public health standards improved and, ultimately everyone was entitled to vote – to have their say in who ruled on their behalf. The capitalists and the system they upheld were not stupid. They were ruthless and in general cared for only one thing – profit. They realised though that in order to maintain their profits concessions had to be made along the way, so they made them where they had to. This was, as I pointed out, as a result of pressure being placed on them from below. It was also applied from above as governments, now elected by the very people who were previously being exploited, understood that they had a responsibility to the whole of their populations, not just those who had the money. In Britain the introduction of the welfare state and the NHS ensured that people were not abandoned when they became unable to provide for themselves or unwell to look after themselves. This did come after two of the bloodiest conflicts the world has ever witnessed so, swings and roundabouts and all that.
The working classes were kept alive so they could produce goods that the upwardly mobile middle-classes could buy and the profits (still) went to the upper echelons of society. A simplification but useful for illustrative purposes because this is how it was for many many years and the world of commerce gradually took over public life and became the measure by which nations were judged. For Capitalism, there is no such word as enough. There always has to be more and so when nearly everyone had everything they needed how could they be encouraged to consume more. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the trade unions – bodies set up to enable workers to wrestle better conditions of employment from their bosses – making a profit wasn’t such an easy thing to do when you had to pay people at a level commensurate with their efforts and no one need to buy your goods because they already had them.
This situation called for something extreme and resulted in what we now refer to as Neo-liberalism. For this new tweak to the capitalist system to be effective two things had to happen; people had to feel that they could and would profit from the economy and the economy itself had to keep growing, meaning greater consumption.
The American dream as it is called suggests that anyone in that country can be as successful as they want to be. The only thing stopping you is you and your will to make it happen. There is a grain of truth in that, there are examples in the US of people who have made good. They have, through hard work and a steely determination, managed to break out of whatever lowly situation they started out in and become that thing so beloved of capitalists the world over, the self-made man. But there haven’t been very many. This fantasy is not just reserved for people on that side of the Atlantic, in Europe and more specifically the UK the possibility that ‘it could be you’, as the lottery commercials put it, prevails. The suggestion, the myth, dream, fantasy – call it what you will, is very powerful. This fits perfectly with our dualistic view of everything. The reality for nearly everyone is that you will not make your fortune but the possibility that you might get up there keeps you working hard down here.
Two politicians in the 1980s ruthless exploited this trait. Ronald Reagan and Margeret Thatcher both created the situation in their respective countries whereby anyone could buy into the rampant greed that characterises that period in the UK and the US. The banks and stock exchanges became de-regulated and state-owned companies were sold off cheaply to allow everyone to have a stake, to own a bit of the wealth-making machinery. The state let go of the reins and allowed business through multi-national corporations to gain such a strong foot hold in the way that countries were organised and run that we will never be able to loosen their grip.
At the same time these same corporations continued to make stuff. This was largely stuff people already had so they needed to encourage people that they had to replace them. One method was to build in obsolescence, make things that would not last and would need to be replaced more often. The other was to break down family units by suggesting that the way they did things (together) was not as good as doing it by themselves. So we replaced the music centre in the home with a personal ‘Walkman’ and it is easy to see how that small change to our lives has brought us to Netflix and the iPlayer.
Everything is aimed squarely at the individual.
In the next chapter I want to examine more closely the effect these changes in culture have had on us, collectively but more importantly, as individuals. The question, ‘Who do I say that I am?’ Would never have been considered for much of our history and now seems to be the most compelling question of our age. Why is that?