Envy the Nineties disease

Hatred of 'fat cat' MPs and businessmen, fear of the successful Germans and Asians, joy at the clever and famous discomfited - envy has become the besetting British sin. By Paul Vallely: Envy serves 'the valuable social function', said Sir Keith Joseph, of making the rich moderate their habits for fear of arousing it. It is also a stick with which to bash opponents who advocate greater equality
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The Eighties were for most people a time of self-confidence and affluence. If we ignored those who fell through the safety nets (and we did), it was pleasant to live in the modest tail of the boom of conspicuous consumption. Greed was good and, if depression crept upon us, the answer was the "retail therapy" of the shopping spree.

In those days, the dominant vice was covetousness. But with harder times - a recession which has hit the middle classes and left the psychological scar of lingering insecurity even now that the economic indicators have finally turned - something has changed. We have developed a sense of embarrassment about naked greed. Acquisition has become vulgar. For some, the unease has manifested itself in talks of communitarianism and responsibilities rather than rights. Others have turned back to conventional religion or to the ersatz certainties of New Ageism. But, in general, "I want it" has turned subtly into "why should they have it?". Welcome to the era of envy.

Sometimes envy shows itself in straightforward form, as in the case of attacks on fat cat businessmen like British Gasman Cedric Brown who get whopping cash bonuses. But it was also there in Euro 96, where xenophobia was directed against Germany, the country with the post-war economic success which has eluded the British. It is there in the disdain for James Goldsmith, campaigning for a referendum on Europe: beneath all the talk of his betrayal of fellow Tories, or his undermining of the British Constitution, there lingers a basic resentment that he has the wealth to use in this way. It is there in the newspaper stories about the personal inadequacies of National Lottery winners and the fractious disputes over how they spend the money.

It is there, too, when "perfect couples" - be they Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, Will and Julia Carling or the Prince and Princess of Wales - have marital troubles. The Schadenfreude seems rooted in a conviction that the rich, the talented and the successful should pay for their happiness. "The dullard's envy of brilliant men is always assuaged by the suspicion that they will come to a bad end", as Max Beerbohm had it in Zuleika Dobson.

And so it goes. There are the stories about Martin Amis and the size of his advances and dental bills, the feuding between Germaine Greer and Suzanne Moore. And there is the squabbling of academics, who, thank God, are prey to the same bitchiness as the rest of us, for all their cleverness: the emotional dynamic of magazines such as the Times Literary Supplement is predicated on envy. So often our responses are mean-spirited. And we know it: envy was voted the "worst" of the seven deadly sins in a recent Gallup poll.

We are talking here about the word which comes from the Latin invidere: to look maliciously upon. Real envy is the feeling of mortification and ill-will occasioned by the advantages of someone else. It is to do with discontent, vexation and spite.

The first crime sprang from envy. Cain killed Abel because the tiller of the soil felt he was less highly regarded by God than was the keeper of the sheep. Envy, said St Augustine in De Catechizandis Rudibus, is "the diabolical sin" from which all other evil flows. This was why envy was numbered among the seven deadly sins - a sin was classified as deadly not merely because it was a serious moral offence but because it gives rise to others.

Not that there is anything specifically Christian in the insight. Some 400 years before the birth of Christ, the Confucian sage Hsun-tzu pronounced that man's nature is to seek self-profit and to envy others. Morality, he said, was designed to educate men to control those desires. The Buddha, too, listed envy as one of the Five Great Evils (along with ignorance, wrath, desire and malignity). And, around the same time, Plato was using a lack of envy as one definition of what made men good.

But it was a Christian, the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who speaks most directly to the envy of the 1990s. Defining envy as "sorrow for another's good", he suggested there were three kinds of envy:

sorrow over another's good fortune not because he or she has it but because we lack it;

grief over another's good because we believe he or she is unworthy

fear that another's good may be the cause of harm to us.

It is in the confluence of all three of these plagues - envy out of greed, envy out of injustice and envy out of fear - which is so singular in Britain in the Nineties.

Envy out of greed we are all familiar with. In our time, envy consumes not merely inwardly but materially and conspicuously. Constant improvements in communications permit constant advances in envy. What we see, we want. And the more we are enabled to see, the more we want. This is, after all, the basic principle of advertising.

It has a downside, too; just as the more the Third World poor see of our ads and soaps the more they desire, albeit in shanty-town parodies of our icons of consumption, so the cathode-ray tube brings the world's poor more often into our living rooms and with them comes more guilt. It leaves us with a consumer society in which, according to the American sociologist Ivan Illich, there are inevitably two kinds of slavery: "the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy" - those who want more for its own sake and those who want whatever someone else has got.

Envy out of a sense of injustice is what feeds the newspaper stories excoriating fat cat directors of gas and water public utilities. The same kind of envy does not attach itself to high earners like, say, Eric Cantona or Paul McCartney, because with them we have a sense of talent rewarded. Not so with characters like the chairman of the standpipe-crazy Yorkshire Water Authority. The utilities fat cats are seen as creaming off cash from industries which belonged to all of us until they were privatised and placed in the hands of a few. To cap it all they have failed to justify themselves by making the massive profits associated with the private sector to which they now belong. Justice, we feel, has not be done at any level.

But it is Aquinas's third category - envy out of fear - which speaks most to us today. This too is age-old: "I had rather be a toad, and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner of the thing I love for others' uses," said the benighted Othello. But the same dog-in-the-manger impulse is at work today. With the increasing globalisation of the world economy, we are made to compete for our jobs with the cheap labour of the Far East. We can no longer applaud the fact that sections of what was once the poor world have pulled themselves out of poverty and are rising to our own levels of prosperity. We have begun to envy them and fear that their success may be bought at the cost of harm to us. Once, capitalism was sold on the hope of growth and a better life for all; now, the capitalism of envy and fear has succeeded it, bringing insecurity and a sense of lack of control to even the middle classes of the West.

We used to think that morality was the answer. For every philosopher like Hobbes, who said that envy was one of the driving forces of mankind, there was a Spinoza who insisted that it was an emotion which must be constrained. But that was before this age, when we are all increasingly making our own morality and deciding that anything goes so long as it does not intrude upon others. Now we are more likely to agree with that arch-opponent of morality, Nietzsche, who claimed that envy was the true basis of Judaeo-Christian ethics - the ethics of the weak, who hate and fear strength, pride, and self-affirmation, undermining the impulses that have led to the greatest and most noble human achievements.

Nietzsche has had his way. For with the fag-end of Thatcherism we have come to the point in which only the superman can survive in a world which is increasingly driven by fear and where not just companies but even people have to be downsized.

Envy here is merely a means of control. It serves "the valuable social function", said the Thatcherite guru Sir Keith Joseph, of making the rich moderate their habits for fear of arousing it. It is also a good stick with which to bash opponents who advocate the social strengths of greater equality. The "politics of envy" is the cry, with accusations always that those who want to grope towards discovering some new sense of community or mutual responsibility will always level down rather than up.

And so we are left with a world in which individuals are primarily identified by their work ("What do you do?" is still our first inquiry on meeting someone new). Yet the world of work, through downsizing, redundancy and cuts has become a place in which loyalty and shared values have been replaced by insecurity, looking over the shoulder, and presenteeism (the urge to be seen at work, even when it is unproductive). Fear rules, and with it the envy of the goods, status and security which we increasingly lack.

Once, envy was deemed to be an outgrowth of pride. Small wonder that modern thinkers are revising that. "The main psychological root of the liability to envy is a lack of self-confidence in our own worth, combined with a sense of impotence," said the philosopher John Rawls. In that relativist impotence, the seven deadly sins have become just seven types of ambiguity. We cannot go back. But it is difficult to see the way forward