Thursday, January 10, 2008
Big Business and Britain's Brainwashing
This essay of mine appears in today's Morning Star.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye” wrote Antoine de Saint Exupery, in his classic tale The Little Prince.
I thought of de Saint Exupery’s wise words when I recently returned to Britain after spending some time in Europe.
Britain may be at the same level- or even ’ahead’ of the rest of Europe when it comes to the latest mobile phones or computer games, but, when it comes to the most important things in life- the quality of human interaction, solidarity between people and a rich cultural life- it sadly lags a long way behind.
It does so, not because people in Britain are inherently less sociable or less intelligent than in other European countries, but because, in Britain, we have easily the most rapacious, dehumanising and demoralising capitalist system that exists anywhere on the continent.
What British-style turbo-capitalism wants is not a cultured, well-educated population who read books and discuss political and sociological issues, but materialistic, under-educated consumers: people who will unleash their frustrations at living such unfulfilled, alienated lives not through political agitation and questioning the structure of society but by getting "smashed" each and every weekend.
As long as the masses carry on buying the consumer goods that Nazi-style marketing techniques brainwash them into believing they must possess, turbo-capitalism is content. Concepts such as social interaction, solidarity, culture and education for education’s sake don’t come into it, because they simply don‘t translate into profits for the greedy companies that call all the shots.
To demonstrate the grip that big business has on Britain today just think back to the scenes on Boxing Day, when thousands of shoppers fought among themselves to get the best ‘bargains’ in the sales. In the rest of Europe, Boxing Day is known as the second Day of Christmas- a time for rest and reflection-only in Britain is it turned into a shopping orgy.
The Boxing Day scenes were almost as depressing as the statistic that 4.4m Britons spent Christmas Day shopping online, spending £84m on new purchases.
The dumbing down of television and films is an integral part of the turbo-capitalist scheme that seeks to reduce all of us to materialistic, narcissistic zombies.
The process is not just happening in Britain, but in other countries foolish enough to follow our economic path.
In an article in the New Statesman, my wife Zsuzsanna, who grew up under socialism in Hungary in the 1970s and 80s, compared cultural life then and now. Saturday night prime time when Zsuzsanna was growing up invariably meant a Jules Verne adventure, a variety show and a live theatre performance. Foreign imports included the BBC‘s classic serial The Forsyte Saga and David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries whilst one of the most popular and talked about programmes of the entire period was ‘Poetry for Everyone’, in which a famous actor or actress would each night recite a different poem.
Today, nineteen years on from ‘regime change‘, the position could not be more different. TV schedules abound with soap operas, sensationalist-style news programmes, and of course ‘reality’ tv. Prime time terrestrial television in Hungary in the 21st century no longer means poetry recitals, but a choice between ‘Big Brother’ or the equally vapid Hungarian version- ‘Real World’.
The question which must always be asked when try to understand why these changes occurred is, who beneifts? The answer is the big multinational corporations, whose only interest is profit maximisation, regardless of the social costs. The global corporations and financial institutions which play such a dominant role in our lives today don’t want societies of well-educated, reflective people who read and enjoy poetry, debate political ideologies and discuss the works of Aldous Huxley or Carl Jung, but a nation of materialistic, intellectually shallow consumers, obsessed by brand marks and designer logos.
The cost which such a rapacious and soul-destroying economic system exacts on our collective mental health is enormous. More than two million Britons are on antidepressants, a million on Class A drugs. Binge drinking, and what the great German social psychologist Erich Fromm called "acts of destruction" - violence, self-abuse and vandalism - have reached record levels. The Samaritans report that five million people in Britain are "extremely stressed". And last year, a Unicef report listed Britain's brands obsessed children as the unhappiest in Europe.
Elsewhere in Europe things are better because there are still fences put around areas where big business is not allowed to go. Supermarkets and shops stay closed on Sundays- and in many countries on Saturday afternoons too. People still celebrate traditional festivals, which have not become commercialised spend-fests. Children are still treated as children, not as young adults to be bombarded with advertising.
Neighbourhood bars still predominate, places where people of all ages can meet and socialise, or play cards or chess- in contrast to the plc owned ‘horizontal drinking’ chain bars in Britain which only want us to drink as much as possible in as short as possible time.
Yet despite its clear advantages, the mixed economy Rhineland model is under pressure from the more aggressive Anglo-Saxon form of capitalism which has done so much damage to Britain‘s social fabric.
In the interests of our common humanity, it is imperative that the turbo capitalist model be derailed as quickly as possible and replaced by one which puts the real needs of people, and not of capital, first.
It might mean less profits for the few, but for our increasingly dysfunctional and unhappy society, it’s the only path to salvation.