The death of intimacy

29 May 2005 |

A selfish, market-driven society is eroding our very humanity

Martin Jacques
Saturday September 18, 2004
The Guardian

It has become almost an article of faith in our society that change is synonymous with progress. The present government has preached this message more than most, while it is a philosophy that most people seem to live by. It is nonsense, of course. Change has never always been good. And recent surveys indicating that we are less happy than we used to be suggest a profound malaise at the heart of western society and modern notions of progress.

The findings are not surprising. The very idea of what it means to be human - and the necessary conditions for human qualities to thrive - are being eroded. The reason we no longer feel as happy as we once did is that the intimacy on which our sense of well-being rests - a product of our closest, most intimate relationships, above all in the family - is in decline. In this context, three trends are profoundly changing the nature of our society. First, the rise of individualism, initially evident in the 1960s, has made self the dominant interest, the universal reference point and one's own needs as the ultimate justification of everything. We live in the age of selfishness.

Second, there has been the relentless spread of the market into every part of society. The marketisation of everything has made society, and each of us, more competitive. The logic of the market has now become universal, the ideology not just of neoliberals, but of us all, the criterion we use not just about our job or when shopping, but about our innermost selves, and our most intimate relationships. The prophets who announced the market revolution saw it in contestation with the state: in fact, it proved far more insidious than that, eroding the very notion of what it means to be human. The credo of self, inextricably entwined with the gospel of the market, has hijacked the fabric of our lives. We live in an ego-market society.

Third, there is the rise of communication technologies, notably mobile phones and the internet, which are contracting our private space, erasing our personal time and accelerating the pace of life. Of course, we remain deeply social animals. We enjoy many more relationships than we used to: cafe culture has become the symbol of our modern conviviality. But quantity does not mean quality. Our relationships may be more cosmopolitan but they are increasingly transient and ephemeral. Our social world has come to mirror and mimic the rhythms and characteristics of the market, contractual in nature. Meanwhile, the family - the site of virtually the only life-long relationships we enjoy - has become an ever-weaker institution: extended families are increasingly marginal, nuclear families are getting smaller and more short-lived, almost half of all marriages end in divorce, and most parents spend less time with their pre-school children.

The central site of intimacy is the family - as expressed in the relationship between partners, and between parents and children. Intimacy is a function of time and permanence. It rests on mutuality and unconditionality. It is rooted in trust. As such, it is the antithesis of the values engendered by the market.

Yet even our most intimate relationships are being corroded by the new dominant values. There is an increasingly powerful tendency to judge love and sex by the criteria of consumer society - in other words, novelty, variety and disposability. Serial monogamy is now our way of life. Sex has been accorded a status, as measured by the incidence of articles in newspapers, not to mention the avalanche of online porn, that elevates it above all other considerations. Unsurprisingly, love - which belongs in the realm of the soul and spirit rather than the body - becomes more elusive.

It is the deterioration in the parent-child relationship, though, that should detain us most. This, after all, is the cradle of all else, where we learn our sense of security, our identity and emotions, our ability to love and care, to speak and listen, to be human.

The parent-child, especially the mother-child, relationship stands in the sharpest contrast of all to the laws of the market. It is utterly unequal, and yet there is no expectation that the sacrifice entails or requires reciprocation. On the contrary, the only way a child can reciprocate is through the love they give, and the sacrifice they make, for their own children.

But this most precious of all human relationships is being amended and undermined. As women have been drawn into the labour market on the same scale as men, they are now subject to growing time-scarcity, with profound consequences for the family, and especially children. The birth rate has fallen to historic new lows. That most fundamental of human functions, reproduction, is beleaguered by the values of the ego-market society. Couples are increasingly reluctant to make the inevitable "sacrifices" - cut in income, loss of time, greater pressure - that parenthood involves.

Parents are now spending less time with their babies and toddlers. The effects are already evident in schools. In a study published by the government's Basic Skills Agency last year, teachers claim that half of all children now start school unable to speak audibly and be understood by others, to respond to simple instructions, recognise their own names or even count to five. In order to attend to our own needs, our children are neglected, our time substituted by paying for that of others, videos and computer games deployed as a means of distraction. And the problem applies across the class spectrum. So-called "money-rich, time-scarce" professionals are one of the most culpable groups. Time is the most important gift a parent can give a child, and time is what we are less and less prepared to forgo.

It is impossible to predict the precise consequences of this, but a growing loss of intimacy and a decline in emotional intelligence, not to mention a cornucopia of behavioural problems, are inevitable. Judging by this week's survey of the growing emotional problems of teenagers, they are already apparent. Such changes, moreover, are permanent and irrecoverable. A generation grows up knowing no different, bequeathing the same emotional assumptions to its offspring.

But it is not only in the context of the changing texture of human relationships that intimacy is in decline. We are also becoming less and less intimate with the human condition itself. The conventional wisdom is that the media has made us a more thoughtful and knowledgeable society. The problem is that what we learn from the media is less and less mediated by personal experience, by settled communities that provide us with the yardstick of reality, based on the accumulated knowledge of people whom we know and trust. Indeed, society has moved in precisely the opposite direction, towards an increasingly adolescent culture which denigrates age and experience. In the growing absence of real-life experience we have become prey to what can only be described as a voyeuristic relationship with the most fundamental experiences.

Death - which most of us now only encounter in any intimate way in our 40s, through the death of a parent - has become something that we overwhelmingly learn about and consume through the media. But as such it is shorn of any pain, any real understanding, wedged between stories about celebrity or the weather, instantly forgotten, the mind detained for little more than a minute, the grief of those bereaved utterly inconceivable, the idea that their lives have been destroyed forever not even imaginable in our gratification-society: pain is for the professionals, not something to detain the ordinary mortal.

The decline of settled community and the rise of the media-society has desensitised us as human beings. We have become less intimate with the most fundamental emotions, without which we cannot understand the meaning of life: there are no peaks without troughs. Life becomes shopping.

So what is to be done, I hear the policy-wonks say. Nothing much, I guess. But the observation is no less important for that. What, after all, could be more important than our humanity? Perhaps if enough people realise what has happened, what is happening, we might claw back a little of ourselves, of what we have lost.

· Martin Jacques is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Asia Research Centre.

The new barbarism


Not since the 1930s has the threat of racism and fascism been so great in the west

Martin Jacques
Thursday May 9, 2002
The Guardian

Since 1989 we have been living in a fool's paradise. The triumphalism about the future that greeted the collapse of communism has proved to be profoundly misplaced. The reason why we should fear the rise of Le Pen is not simply that fascism and an ugly racism are alive, well and in the ascendant in one of the heartlands of Europe, but rather that the world that we now live in is in a corrosive state. Not since the 1930s has the threat of the irrational, of a turn towards barbarism, been so great in the west. It has become an arrogant truism of western life that the evils of the modern world - authoritarianism, ethnic conflict, illiberalism - are coterminous with the developing world. It was telling how some western leaders, including one of our own ministers, in the aftermath of September 11, spoke of the civilised world, and by implication of the uncivilised world, the dark-skinned savages of backward cultures. It is not clear how Le Pen or Berlusconi or Haider fit this world view.

Europe, of course, has always been as much the cradle of barbarism as civilisation, of racism and ethnic cleansing as well as the Renaissance and democracy. Racism and fascism are part of its history and therefore always incipient in its present. Racist parties of the extreme right are in government in Austria, Denmark and Italy. And they are resurgent in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Norway and Belgium. But it is, above all, the reasons for their resurgence that give cause for profound concern: they suggest that we are now entering a new Dark Age.

The first factor in this resurgence is the feeble state of the left. The traditional left has more or less collapsed: the French Communist party now polls little more than the British Communist party at its height. European social democracy, especially its New Labour variant, has come to occupy a centre ground where it is no longer easily distinguishable from the centre right. For most of the last century, democratic politics was dominated by the contest between left and right and as such offered a sense of choice. That choice has now evaporated.

The implications of this for democracy have been little considered. But what if the political marketplace that replaces it is precisely that, a range of products which are largely indistinguishable and palpably fail to offer any real alternative to the status quo, no fundamental critique of society, no different vision of the future? Historically this is what the left offered: its very organisational basis - the labour movement - was rooted in principles, which, if not always inimical to capitalism, certainly offered radically different values. New Labour, in contrast, increasingly raises its money from the rich rather than from the unions. It no longer speaks to its own, distinct constituencies - blue-collar workers and the poor - but a nebulous middle England defined by its political promiscuity.

This brings us to the second factor, the decay of democracy. The aspiration of, and ethical claim for, democracy has been as a vehicle for representing the wishes of the entire people. Democracy is not - yet at least - the subject of a frontal assault from fascism, as it was in the 1930s, but rather of a corrosion from within. Democratic politics is increasingly seen as a less and less useful stage for making meaningful choices about society. This is reflected in the declining status of politics and politicians. It also finds expression in declining voter turnout. This, of course, has long been a characteristic of American politics. But in the last general election here, voter turnout was 59%, over 10% less than in any previous election. In the first round of the French presidential election, the turnout was a similarly record low.

The result is that politics is becoming the preserve of a declining proportion of the population, in some cases not much more than half. Those who bother to vote do so because they feel they have a stake in society: those who don't are those who feel they have little stake. The result is predictable: the political agenda is set by the privileged rather than the underprivileged, the range of debate increasingly circumscribed. In such a situation, the political world becomes more and more detached - potentially dangerously so - from the society it purports to represent.

Modern European democracy, far from being enfeebled by the left/right argument, actually depended on it for its efficacy and virility. Remove that polarity and politics becomes bland, impoverished and increasingly dominated by the market. The most extreme form of this degeneration can be found in Italy, where the trends that are apparent elsewhere, including Britain, can be found in extremis. The market and democracy have become dangerously intertwined, with Berlusconi both prime minister and media godfather. The formal trappings of democracy remain in place but they have been largely stripped of their substance. The Italian regime is a new kind of populism, which combines the tribal racism now on the rise throughout Europe (the Northern League), traditional fascism (the National Alliance, heirs to Mussolini) and authoritarian and unscrupulous corporate power (Forza Italia). If one wants to see the shape of new-style European fascism then one need look no further.

The third factor behind the growth of new racism is the relationship between traditional European racism and the rise of migration. In a continent steeped in racist traditions (anti-semitic, anti-Gypsy), the latent prejudice toward even more visible and even more distinctive minorities - namely, those of different colours and different cultures who come from outside of Europe - should not be underestimated. And the moment of engagement with these new minorities occurs when Europe is suffering a profound loss of roots and identity. In little more than 30 years, west European nations have become increasingly interwoven and more and more indistinguishable from one another. At the same time, Europe has suffered a precipitous decline in its global influence, a process that has partly been obscured by continuing, overweening "western" - namely, American - power. The continent, barring the integration project, has little to boast about, and its self-confidence has suffered accordingly. Of course, multiculturalism and diversity have found many new friends in Europe, including the UK, but it would be a mistake to regard this as the dominant trend, or to believe that racism is in decline, or that 50 years means that the passage of time has resolved the problem.

The fourth factor is the US and the dangerous turn that global politics has taken since September 11. The war against terrorism has, from the outset, worn a distinctly racist colouration, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab. And western (above all, American) collusion in subsequent brutal Israeli aggression - all in the name of race and ethnicity - has only served to reinforce this. The new willingness of the US to intervene in the developing world wherever and when ever it sees fit speaks not only of the fact that it is the sole superpower but also that it is now prepared to act like an imperial power: the American elite now unashamedly uses terms like Pax Americana and the American Empire. Even in the UK, there is an attempt to relegitimise the notion of colonialism. Such attitudes speak of a new sense of Caucasian superiority, a new desire to subjugate those of other colours and cultures in the name of (our) civilisation. This can only fuel domestic racism, the more so because this time around the subjects of this racism are also the subjects of the new colonialism.

Le Pen in France, and the rise of racism across Europe, is no transient phenomenon. It is the harbinger of a new and alarming configuration in European politics, intimately linked to global changes. Racism is part of mainstream political discourse in many European societies. If 1989 heralded sweeping changes in politics, the rise of racism will do likewise. It is all happening with frightening speed. Europe is sliding into a new abyss.

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today

· Forces head in remarkable 'jail' claim
· Top law officer met key Bush officials

Antony Barnett and Martin Bright
Sunday May 1, 2005
The Observer

The man who led Britain's armed forces into Iraq has said that Tony Blair and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, will join British soldiers in the dock if the military are ever prosecuted for war crimes in Iraq.

In a remarkably frank interview that goes to the heart of the political row over the Attorney General's legal advice, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, said he did not have full legal cover from prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

'If my soldiers went to jail and I did, some other people would go with me,' said Boyce.

In his most detailed explanation yet of why he demanded an unequivocal assurance from lawyers that the war was legal, he said: 'I wanted to make sure that we had this anchor which has been signed by the government law officer ...

'It may not stop us from being charged, but, by God, it would make sure other people were brought into the frame as well.'

Pressed by The Observer on whether he meant the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, Boyce replied: 'Too bloody right.'

The admiral added that he had never been shown the crucial 7 March advice by Goldsmith that questioned whether the war was legal. He had only been given a later assurance of legality, which contained none of the caveats. It was only after he questioned Number 10 about legal 'top cover' that he was given Goldsmith's opinion.

Boyce has consistently said he believed the war was legal and morally justified. But, asked whether the government had provided him with the legal cover necessary to avoid prosecution for war crimes, he replied: 'No.'

He added: 'I think I have done as best as I can do. I have always been troubled by the ICC. Although I was reassured ... when [discussions over signing up to the ICC were] going through Whitehall about five years ago, I was patted on the head and told: "Don't worry, on the day it will be fine." I don't have 100 per cent confidence in that.'

In a further damaging development for the government, documents leaked to a Sunday newspaper appeared to show that Tony Blair was considering military action to topple Saddam Hussein as early as 2002.

According to minutes from a meeting held in Downing Street on 23 July, obtained by the Sunday Times, the assumption had been made that 'the UK would take part in any military action' initiated by the United States.

Blair said it 'would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.' He added: 'If the political context were right, people would support regime change.'

The minutes confirm that the Attorney General did not believe regime change was a basis for military action.

A further confidential document leaked this weekend is the Foreign Office legal opinion that expressed grave doubts about the legality of war without a second UN resolution.

An Observer investigation into the legal ramifications of the war also reveals that Goldsmith's advice authorising war was shaped after meeting the five most powerful Republican lawyers in the Bush administration, in February 2003.

These included Alberto Gonzales, Bush's controversial chief legal adviser who has been at the centre of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Gonzales once famously described elements of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war as 'quaint'.

The four other lawyers were William Taft IV, chief legal adviser to the then Secretary of State Colin Powell; Jim Haynes, chief legal adviser to Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon; John Bellinger, chief legal adviser to Condoleezza Rice; and the then US Attorney General, John Ashcroft.

Speaking to The Observer from his Virginia home, Taft explained how the US argument that a second UN resolution was not needed before invading Iraq was put to an undecided Goldsmith. Taft said: 'I will say when we heard about his statement in Parliament [on 17 March] ... what he said sounded very familiar.'

Last week, the government was forced to disclose the 13-page legal document, drawn up by Goldsmith on 7 March, following leaks to the media. This revealed the importance of Goldsmith's trip to Washington, which provided the backbone of the 'reasonable case' for war without a second UN resolution.

In paragraph 23 of his 7 March advice, Goldsmith said: 'I was impressed by the strength and sincerity of the views of the US administration which I heard in Washington.'

In contrast to his 'unequivocal' legal authority for war given to Parliament 10 days later, this document revealed Goldsmith's misgivings over the legality of the war without a UN resolution.

Neither ministers nor Parliament were shown the complete advice, leading to claims they were misled into backing the war. The revelation that the man in charge of Britain's armed forces was also not shown the advice has been described as 'staggering' by Philippe Sands QC, an expert in international law.

Boyce told The Observer: 'I didn't see it - it was not copied to me.'

Last night, government sources confirmed that Goldsmith met the five Washington lawyers on 11 February 2003. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General said he had travelled to Washington to listen to American opinion and had not been pressured to change his view on the war.