"Children of the market"

A post on the Guardian’s blog by Jeremy Seabrook blames a lot of the social ills afflicting British youth on the intrusion of the marketplace:

binge-drinking, the “normalisation” of drugs, the cult of celebrity, the supremacy of what money can buy, incivility, absence of respect, obesity, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases – are by-products of childhoods upon which a major determinant has been a market whose values have been championed above dull politics, and which have, accordingly, captivated the heart and imagination.

The problem is that he’s made an overreaching set of charges in what is otherwise a very useful essay.

Seabrook compares the changes in society wrought by technology and globalization to those that occurred at the start of the Industrial Revolution. For Americans, that analogy lacks the punch it has for the British. English children are fed a diet of jam, biscuits, Orwell and Huxley; Dickens was a social reformer masquerading as a novelist; and the nation’s favorite anthem, Jerusalem, mentions “these dark Satanic mills.” The chaos, social decay, loss of dignity, squalor, and brutal working conditions that came with mass migration from the countryside to the cities are part of the collective memory of the English.

Seabrook argues with some passion that as the Industrial Revolution destroyed an agrarian society and forged a new sort of humanity, so now we are in the process of dismantling the society that accompanied industrial production.

Seabrook is right to point to the loss of a sense of rootedness in our society. Not only are people only weakly connected to communities, but marriages and jobs are also unstable and too often short lived.

Seabrook tries to argue malign consequences for the young for trying to find meaning in the marketplace. I do believe there is truth in what he is saying, but I would point instead to the degradation of relationships, be they personal or with larger social groups.

Is the excellent and misnamed “A General Theory of Love” (a more accurate title would be “The Care and Feeding of the Limbic Brain”) by therapists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon discusses how the limbic brain, the seat of emotions and social reflexes. For example, people with certain types of injuries in the limbic brain are clueless as to how far to stand from other people.

As much as we tend to hold logic and reason (which are mainly the province of the cerebral cortex), it is the limbic brain that produces most of the behaviors we regard as human. And neglect of the needs of the limbic brain produces neuroses and pathologies. Towards the end of the book, the authors discuss how modern society is bad for one’s mental health, which in essence is what Seabrook is arguing.

But in America, it runs against the grain to think that consumer society might exact a high emotional cost. Yet look at the prevalence of the use of antidepressants, particularly among adolescents. And antidepressants are much more costly in America than in other countries, which suggests their usage would be even higher if the drug companies accepted the same profit margins in America that they do abroad.

Some other writers have addressed the conflict between the dictates of the marketplace and more traditional forms of social organization, such as Doug Smith in his book “On Value and Values.” Smith is optimistic that society can keep communitarian values alive despite the propensity in markets to act as isolated agents.

Unfortunately, I am not optimistic, largely because the marketplace itself is so adept at promoting and reinforcing its own values (if you need proof, watch the BBC four-part series, The Century of Self, which is the single most eye-opening work I have ever seen). Seabrook is correct: we are witnessing the formation of a new sort of human being. And those of us of the old school are guaranteed not to like the results.

From the Guardian:

It is astonishing how the most obvious social wrongs and abuses can remain “unknown” until acknowledged by power and authority. Despite continuous news coverage, the unblinking vigilance of the camera, the no-stone-unturned persistence of investigative journalism, the unnoticed gains recognition only when it forces itself upon society, which it sometimes does with great violence.

So it has been with contemporary discussions on youth, its disaffection, misbehaviour and alienation from a world that appears to offer it everything. Since the socialising of children has become primarily another aspect of marketing, the consequences of these developments ought to have been subject to more searching scrutiny than they have received. When the market rules, why should the young be castigated for living by the rules of the market?

While we have been busy bringing democracy to Iraq and other dark corners of the world, there is growing disarticulation from the democratic process in the lives of young people. The inner decay of democracy has been replaced by the daily plebiscite of the market, in which people vote with their feet; a version of popular participation which contrasts with the apparently sterile immobile state of politics.

A new generation has been shaped by experience, which has transformed its sensibility and estranged it from a world in which the power of the freely elected is supposed to hold sway.

Education is obsessed with similar problems – how to keep pupils involved and committed, how not to lose them to the lure of commerce and its entertainments, which offer richer forms of instruction than those offered by the state. Parents, too, perceive their waning social power over children. They have been bypassed by markets, which appeal over their heads, directly to the young.

Parenting has come to mean, increasingly, supplying the money to provide children with all the good things for which global markets kindle an implacable desire. What is sometimes described, rather benignly, as “pester-power” is recognition of this.

A generation has grown, formed within, by and for the market rather than by and for society. Many unpleasant developments over which the government seeks to reassert its declining control – binge-drinking, the “normalisation” of drugs, the cult of celebrity, the supremacy of what money can buy, incivility, absence of respect, obesity, the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases – are by-products of childhoods upon which a major determinant has been a market whose values have been championed above dull politics, and which have, accordingly, captivated the heart and imagination. (The obsession with “hearts and minds” abroad ought, perhaps, to be directed to the multiple alienations of home.)

A peer-driven market culture is the primary source of identity, not being rooted in place, function or purpose, factors which shaped an earlier generation.

In this new social order, there is only one thing worse than domination by the market, and that is exclusion from it, since there is now no other source of knowing who we are.

The market, whatever its emancipatory potential, also brings in its train some strange pathologies, not least of which is the angry resourceless state of those. The means to participate are, arbitrarily, it seems to them, withheld.

This should really come as no great surprise. After all, in the first industrial era, the capitalist labour market created a different kind of humanity out of the wasting peasantry of an impoverished countryside, as people streamed towards the new industrial towns of the early 19th century. A different kind of human being, never before seen in history, was born – the industrial worker, created by the necessities of a national division of labour, which sent its children into mills, mines, forges and manufactories, to learn there a cruel pedagogy of survival.

The 19th century was characterised by the works of intrepid social explorers who ventured into darkest England to discover what kind of alien, and possibly savage, beings inhabited the manufacturing districts. Engels, Mayhew, Booth, Jack London and, in the 20th century, George Orwell, tried to make sense of the strange and perverse character of people whose lives had long ago forsaken the cycle of seed-time and harvest, and had been remade by the harsh rhythms of industrial discipline.

In our time, the temper of industrial humanity has been dismantled, no less thoroughly than that of an archaic peasantry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The epic disturbance in our age has dissolved a national division of labour, sent industrial work to distant countries, and left at a loss people who had never doubted their function and reason for existence. Unlike in the early industrial era, people have become richer at the same time; and this has masked some of the more malign consequences.

The political vacuum has been filled by identities provided by consumer markets, in which people have searched for meaning, now that the factories have been ploughed into the earth, the great workshop of the world has fallen silent, its rusting machinery exported to distant third world factories, its products outsourced to young factory women in Mexico, Bangladesh or Indonesia.

EP Thompson called his great book The Making of the English Working Class. We have seen its undoing, and the reincarnation of the popular sensibility in a form for which no collective name exists. Whatever it is called, it represents a distinctive psychic structure from anything that preceded it. This remaking is now a fait accompli.

It remains the endeavour of conservatives of all stripes to restore the status quo ante, to place the new kind of human being into a familiar, recognisable and controllable context. This is impossible.

The “post-industrial” reality of contemporary Britain is not emancipated from industry, indeed, is even more deeply embedded within it globally, for even basic necessities in daily use are brought in from all over the world; but we look in vain if we seek continuities in the politics that grew out of derelict pit-villages, wasted city suburbs and provincial towns left high and dry by the extinction of the labour they performed.

Of the early industrial era, JL and Barbara Hammond said “the labourer is not a citizen of this or that town but a hand of this or that manufactory”. Today’s definition would be different – the people are not citizens of this or that place, but are the dependents of a global market. This change has the same irreversibility, a psyche refashioned for other, perhaps equally alien, purposes as those which drove people into the choice-less occupations of the industrial towns.

It is a rare hypocrisy that promotes an unchanged politics, when politicians themselves have sought so hard to supersede their own role by preaching the supreme virtue of market values, and then repudiating the consequences of the way these developments work themselves out in the world.

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