Secular Britain has lost the meaning of value
Regular Network Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his thoughts on the myth of secular progression in Britain.
I want to focus this week on one of the most harmful elements of this decline in quality of Christian wisdom – the thrall of consumer-based thinking.
I hinted previously that the most overwhelming change in attitudes might have been how greedy and acquisitive this generation has become. I think it remains an important factor, because material possessions have turned into bargaining tools under the thrall of a god of avarice – like a Plutus or Lakshmi figure that treats status and possession as divinity. We know how prescient St Paul was when he said that love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and I think this insidious threat begins with acquisitiveness. It would be too straightforward to comment on how acquisitive many young people are today – they seem to want everything, and the more they seem to want, the less they value what they do have. But it would be churlish to cast blame on this kind of covetousness without really explaining why I think aspiration has taken the form of materialistic greed and avarice.
With all this celebrity worship, financial greed, gang culture, welfare dependency, low self-esteem, secular hubris, etc, I wonder what we are moving towards (particularly if this degeneration is accompanied with the idea of secular progression at the expense of the religious doldrums). Of course we must acknowledge that compared with most of the other countries in the world Britain has a high standard of living and comparably rich material prosperity, and a successful health and welfare system. And further, it would be insensitive to bemoan our own shortcomings when many other countries have less prosperity and fewer opportunities.
But what needs explaining is something quite broad – because quite clearly all of the above tenets of broken Britain are correlatively related, even if they are not all causally related. This is a very complex sociological subject, because direct mapping points of causality are not ready at hand - they involve (like all historical analysis) subjective assessments and personal interpretations of situations beyond the immediacy of one's own perceptions. But if we broaden our views on the sociological results of a secular Britain we find clear patterns of correlation and causation. Consider the increasing wealth divide in the UK, and the poor role models that MPs make. This means more young people are disillusioned, and insecure about what they can contribute to their community, which means they feel unvalued in a class-imbued society. For some, the crime route is harder to resist, for others the outlandish dream of celebrity stardom is just the escapism they need, for others welfare benefits seem like a tenable option.
I mean this not as a reproach – we all have our problems, and whether a man is a rich Hollywood celebrity or a poor sink-estate recidivist, we all have poor ways of dealing with the situations life throws at us, and we all let ourselves and others down. With lengthy allusions in previous articles to the problems in Britain today I have shown that ideas of secular progression are largely distortions of the true picture.
The last few years have been very humbling for me – I have met so many wonderful people from different cultures to my own for whom the commercialism and materialism that blights the Western would be an alien concept. It may be true that many of us in this country would look at those in poverty and say that they should have more, but this truth conceals a deeper truism. Take Christmas as a good example, many of our kids of today may wake up to a house full of gifts – but so many who seem to have everything have very little – the real meaning of value eludes them. I am always very moved to hear about the great work that the Christian volunteer teams are doing throughout the poorer nations, and how my own Christian brother Witchaboon inspires me – it certainly highlights the huge disparity between their way of life and ours.
Having said all that, I think it would be an oversight if we failed to mention how much business drives many of the things I spoke so regretfully about. Take much of the above – the binge culture, celebrity worshipping, sport, and media manipulation (to name but four) – the real driving force behind these is money. As a result of the sixties counter culture we saw how amenable people were to the thrall of powerful outside influences – and this has continued to worsen. They want to keep us hooked, because that is where the money is. So, you see, if we are to acknowledge that the post-sixties assault on Britain was unprecedented in human history (at least with regard to loss of faith) then it must also be acknowledged that acquisitiveness and the ruthlessness of business executives are to blame too.
Consider again the difference between the teachings of Jesus and something that St Paul calls 'the root of all kinds of evil' - love of money. If the corporate machine was a person, what sort of person would it be? It has been well documented by various studies that the profile of the most contemporary profitable business corporations does not make a very attractive person (I say 'person' because a corporation is legally defined in terms of 'a person' of the state or other jurisdiction in which it is incorporated). The corporation profile is roughly similar to that of a clinically diagnosed psychopath, and it is easy to establish parallels between various forms of corporate malfeasance and the symptoms of psychopathy (callous disregard for the emotions, feelings and needs of other people; the incapacity to develop and sustain human relationships; wanton and frivolous disregard for the health, safety and well-being of others; deceitfulness; continual mendacity to deceive for profit; the incapacity to experience shame and guilt; and the failure to conform to social norms and to uphold the law, to name but a few examples).
I doubt we give enough attention to this – it is one of the key components of broken Britain. It would be a mistake to think that broken Britain is only about drugs, gangs, crime, delinquency and celebrity worship. You may be familiar with Adam Smith’s term ‘the invisible hand’ in economics – well that has relevance here. For Adam Smith, the invisible hand acted as a social mechanism that channelled collective objectives toward meeting the needs of the people that made up a society, by ensuring competition between buyers and suppliers which channels the profit motive of individuals into providing products that society desires at prices which are rarely above cost. Of course, what was soon observed, making the argument for laissez-faire economic philosophy strong, is that markets automatically channel self-interest toward socially desirable ends. Although never perfect, that was allowed to happen with some degree of success – and it ought to be noted that the success of the ideology is evident even if the nation in question is in bad financial trouble (as was the case after the Second World War).
If the ‘invisible hand’ that drove Adam Smith’s economy is the consumer’s liberty in freely chosen acquisition and the seller’s liberty in freely chosen products, then what drives the modern consumer-based ethos is more like an ‘invisible fist’. Behind the scenes of broken Britain – be it the drugs, celebrity obsession, banking, binge culture, or what have you – is an invisible fist that tries to alter people’s psychology. Beliefs and values are psychologically driven, therefore the way to drive people into the habits consistent with acquisition is to wave the invisible fist in a way that consumers see nothing but an innocuous hand. The teenage girl who wants to get on reality TV and be like her idol Whitney Houston may feel like she is pursuing an innocent ambition, but unbeknown to her she is under the thrall of the invisible fist of greed acting behind the scenes. Whether the attention is on subscription to TV channels, travelling, hotels, cosmetics, clothes, media magazines, CDs, DVDs, concert tickets, websites, or whatever – the girl (like millions of others) is ensnared by corporate machinations, intent on making themselves richer and her poorer. Just like a psychopath, the corporate machinations care not for one’s personal circumstances – the corporation is unremitting because it has no moral regulation.
I find I agree with Noam Chomsky on the following point; unless the government of a particular country takes pains to prevent the force of the invisible hand in its fully driven potential, it can destroy communities, the environment, and human values generally. As a rule I am in favour of small, light-touching governments, and minimal state intervention in market forces. But when observing the counter-culture of today I notice that people really do need protection from the insidious threat of market forces. Having said that, it should also be admitted that government intervention and state regulations have little to say with regard to the personal convictions of the consumer. No state regulation will stop a girl from ruining her life by becoming obsessed with the celebrity culture.
Any who have seen the documentary ‘The Corporation’ will have seen the egregiousness in the exploitation of poor people by rich fat cats – because the inhabitants of a poor country will be willing to work for next to nothing (sometimes even a bowl of rice to make it through each day) while there is a demand for labour. But in true psychopathic style, the corporations soon find even poorer countries in which to build factories and exploit poorer people even more cheaply. This sort of thing is visible every day. People who are starving to death do not have much to offer except their volitional slave labour – but to a starving person, working for a bowl of rice a day to line the pockets of greedy corporative executives is better than the alternative. Ironically, in spite of the fact that the wages they earn amount to around three tenths of one percent of the retail price of the products they are making, the corporations are seen as a Godsend because they can help the impoverished citizens avoid death through starvation. Yet as soon as greedy fat cats can find a country even more desperate they will abandon the people they are exploiting and move on elsewhere.
Furthermore, as bad as all that is, the invisible fist does something else; it produces consumer products which involve an awful lot of synthetic chemicals. These pollute our environment and are a huge catalyst in the degenerating health of so many, because measures are not put in place to avert this. Many corporations produce synthetic chemicals and mass wastage in full knowledge of the effects on fellow humans (particularly children, and other animals) - cancer, birth defects and numerous other toxic effects that attack physiological systems. You may think that regulatory measures acts as a pre-emption tool to protect people against this harming of others, but in many cases there is no trace of them. This is because whether a company stays within the ambit of the law depends almost entirely on whether such acquiescence is cost effective to them. If the loss of profit in complying is greater than the financial remunerations attached to non-compliance then there isn’t much of a motive to be lawful, particularly when executives usually close their eyes or fail to see the external consequences of their actions. The fact of the matter is - rich white middle class businessmen do not often come into contact with impoverished Nigerian children who have birth defects due to the river being polluted by their company’s synthetic wastage.
Moreover, to assess business one cannot really avoid enjoining oneself to ideas about media manipulation too. The main objective of the corporations is to maximise profit and market share, which involves the willingness of the consumer. The main objective of the consumer based public relations industry is not to just to sell you the particular product it wants you to buy – it is to get you subscribe to a particularly futile materialist ideology whereby what one has, and how one is perceived through the lens of fashion and status and reputation, are the two most important things. The real kicker is that the corporations claim their products and brands are only reflecting the wants of the consumers as reflected in opinion polls – but anyone who knows anything about polls knows that that is disingenuous. Market polls are devised to influence market opinion, not as a means of measuring people’s tastes. And of course, this increase will be exponential – the greater the media’s force the more it will continue to influence and the more its force will grow further.
Concomitant with this growing media influence is the rise in momentum of those looking to exploit people’s tastes. The upshot is, although it is true (to some extent) that a society’s utility is maximised where the self-interest of free enterprise operates in a competitive market place, it is equally true that both consumers and (in particular) the corporation are both governed by self-interest, and thus susceptible to all sorts of harmful persuasions. As Adam Smith says in his famous Wealth of Nations:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.”
Whatever else we say on the market forces – it doesn’t look like it has made us better. We have always been a world gone bad – and each of us continues to do things that hurts others, and we hurt ourselves in the process. Yet I truly believe that at the heart of each of us is a longing for goodness, justice, peace, kindness and love and grace.
I remember meeting a Christian man from the Congo Republic who had been the victim of a genocide and mass rape that had taken his family and his home from him – and hearing him talk about how the churches sought to forgive by pouring out grace, and how some of the perpetrators of those crimes went on to be pastors in churches, and set up relief and charity missions to bring citizens of the Congo Republic out of poverty. I remember him telling me that the people of England think they have it so good and how their perception of Africa is often one of dismay that they haven’t caught up with the Western industrialised world – but that my country has had the spiritual heart ripped out of it.
I know exactly what he means, and I have been fortunate enough to meet many others like him. They have challenged me greatly, and I have found ways to view the world through a lens that recognises God’s love and grace in places that seemed to be bereft of it. I look at my country and the material prosperity but I don’t really see an overwhelming happiness – I see stress and pressure and stultification, and in many places myopia and cultural ignorance – but most of all I see a country that in many places seems to have lost sight of what being human really is – a nation of individuals that have put up so many walls they hardly know what underserved grace really feels like. What’s most scary is I don’t think any of us are exempt from the criticism – we have all done worse than we should have. Thank God that Jesus is our judge, and that He saw grace as the tool of spiritual renewal – thank God indeed.
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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