I shall scream at the next person who says Christmas has become too commercialized! The other platitude we hear at this time of year is that we have all become “mindless consumers”, drawn to the glittering shopping malls like moths to the light from a plastic torch. Surely it is shopping that keeps us together, gives us power, justifies our existence? Isn’t life a struggle to reach a point where we no longer have to worry about where our next plate of beans on toast is coming from? And if we try hard enough we can all get there, can’t we?
Brazil’s ex-president Lula said recently that the aim of his Workers’ Party is not to make the poor richer by making the rich poorer. No way, José! Lula wants to make everybody richer. Pure genius, you have to admit. By “richer” I presume he means giving people more spending power. In other words, more money. And the big shop of the year is Christmas, of course. Which means driving lessons for Dwayne, a fortnight in the Algarve for Courtney and a big new telly for granny.
Paradoxically, perhaps, this end-of-the-year spending spree has made me reflect on 2014 as a year of myth shattering – a time when the money-God has not fared well. In fact, the authors of 2 of my 3 books of the year would be put up against a wall and shot by members of the Capitalist Billionaires’ Club if they had their way. Dare I say that over the past 12 months there has been a bit of a revolution in the way some of us think about life, the universe and property ladders. So, without further ado, here are my fab reading choices of 2014, in no particular order:
1) Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century This is the French economist who tossed an ideological bomb into the swish corridors of big business and somehow got away with it. It takes guts to make such devastating claims about how our economic systems are rigged. Myths like this: there is no mechanism in capitalism for creating equality, as many of us naively believed. The profit motive is not philanthropic – how could it be? The notion that wealth trickles down from the creamy, luxurious top to the grey, muddy bottom is cobblers. The only solution, according to our Thomas? Start taking huge amounts of cash from the very wealthy (money they will never be able to spend) and invest it in education, health and job-creation schemes. I mean, what is this guy on? I hope he uses a police escort.
What Piketty is arguing, based on a mass of historical and economic evidence, is that wealth accumulates and becomes concentrated in the hands of – yes, you guessed – the wealthy. It is inevitable, therefore, that inequality does not diminish, but grows. And grows. Even Scrooge would have to admit that in the last 30 years the incomes of the wealthiest have shot up into the stratosphere, whereas the incomes of you, me and Bob Cratchit have stagnated. Or worse.
Recently a Brazilian oil magnate involved in the country’s biggest ever corruption scandal admitted illegally salting away $20 million in a Swiss bank account, money that was “skimmed” from inflated contracts. The miscreant has now agreed to pay back a total of $100 million. My question is: just what exactly did he intend to do with all that money? Nothing, is my guess, because having it hidden away was the thrill: a secret stash of filthy lucre. And this in a country like Brazil, where 40% of the population live on less than $300 a month. Shameless.
Maybe I’ve been deluding myself. Maybe I was a fool to think that “equality” was something to be worked towards. Nevertheless, the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” will only stop widening when enough people stand up and shout. People like Piketty.
2) Paul Verhaeghe: What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society What is wrong with us? Why do we feel lonely, guilty, inadequate, unlovable? I used to feel the same…until I let this Belgian professor of psychoanalysis soothe my worried mind. Now I understand the current “happiness crisis”. It stems from the way we judge ourselves: if we are not financially “successful”, we are losers. Over the past 30 years the pressure has intensified for us to “perform” economically as individuals. We have all become “consultants”, trying to sell ourselves on the open market we are born into. We have an identity crisis because we cannot remove the mask, the “marketing” face we put on every day to win approval. All our institutions – schools, hospitals, libraries – are now “businesses”, and making money has become sacred. We are mere pawns on the Monopoly board of life.
And, according to Verhaeghe, these anxieties have led to a worrying increase in psychological problems: self-harm, depression, low self-esteem and social phobias. When we allow market forces to judge our “performance” in life, we are bound to become anxious, even paranoid. In the neoliberal circus we are trapped in, there is little room for spirituality – a space that allows for self-awareness on very different terms. This has led to the blossoming of movements such as ‘Mindfulness’, a meditation-based philosophy which tries to bring our damaged souls back to life so that we can appreciate the small miracles that happen to us every day. But as usual, of course, the culprit for this psychological mess is rampant, free-market profiteering: the only game in town, the only reality we have in front of us. Adam Smith – I hope you are listening, you nincompoop!
3) John Gray, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths How about this – life is utterly meaningless! An absurdist farce, a sick joke! Surely not…surely there is order in this chaos, surely human beings are still evolving, there is a master plan and the name is “progress”. Erm, well – not according to Mr Gray, English philosopher and retired professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. You see, our ancestors believed in religion – the purpose of life was to be “saved”, to get into heaven. Then came Darwin. After that we put our faith in Science: advances in technology would keep making the world a better place to live in. So, the question is, are we – you and me – better examples of the human species today, after all this “progress”? I can’t see it, myself.
The problem is, we have swapped our faith in God for faith in the “progress” of civilization, as if “improvement for all” was somehow built into the future – a place we will surely reach someday. Gray exposes this kind of mythology as connected to the naive hopes of modern-day “humanists”. According to Gray, “humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith”. So we are back to a kind of religious belief that things can only get better.
And all this because, as humans, we kid ourselves that we are morally superior to animals, whereas in fact, “human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion”. So, if there is no heaven and hell, no progress, no pride in being human, what the devil is the point of it all? Why are we here? Well, one thing we are here for is to learn from John Gray’s book and stop deluding ourselves.
Only when we face up to the meaninglessness of life will we be able to get together communally and make the best of it, not live as atomised individuals forever struggling to get ahead in the rat race.
Phew! What a lot of food for thought! I hope you enjoyed the ride. Actually, I have my own philosophy of life. It’s simply this: never stop asking big questions, try to become better informed, and learn to love your fellow-humans as you learn to love yourself. Oh, and don’t forget to get your mum a lovely present at the shopping mall…a very small one, of course. How about a book token?