A selfish, market-driven society is eroding our very humanity
Saturday September 18, 2004
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.
A selfish, market-driven society is eroding our very humanity