Prosperity is making paupers out of all of us

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SHOCKING NEWS for the comfortably off this week, as a report from the Henley Centre, confirmed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, projects an average increase of 35 per cent in living standards over the next decade. While that may sound the opposite of disastrous in itself, the report, commissioned by the Salvation Army, has prompted the religious group, whose mission has always been to help the poor, to change its charitable policy. The trouble is that all of this wealth, far from making us happier and more contented, is contributing mightily to our loss of sense of community, of purpose and of self-worth.

The report, entitled The Paradox of Prosperity, pinpoints increasing disparity between rich and poor as part of the problem, but emphasises that "all sectors of society are at risk of suffering from the modern social condition - loneliness, stress and a deteriorating quality of life". Rightly, the Salvation Army puts this problem down to a "spiritual malaise". But since it is essentially a religious group, the charity believes that this problem can be solved by turning back to God.

The group is not naive enough to hope it can persuade people to return to the church pews on a Sunday morning. Instead it is pinning its hopes on flexible forms of worship. "Examples of practices that could be developed," the report suggests, "could be lunch-time services in city centres, supermarket Sunday schools and use of technology such as the Internet and community television stations."

However, as if in timely reminder that it is man, not God, who has it within his power to save the planet, a shock report from the UN warns that we are heading for environmental meltdown, and suggests that the rich must cut their consumption by 90 per cent if the earth is to remain sustainable even in the very short term.

Taken in combination, the two reports appear to confirm that wealth is bad for everyone, in just as devastating a fashion as poverty. While this proposition may seem absurd, especially at this time when we are all just beginning to take on board the enormity of the troubles caused by poverty in this country and around the world, I'm afraid the truth is that wealth, too, is something we find difficult to cope with.

A few weeks ago a posh but modestly incomed friend told me of her super- rich hell. She'd been chatting with a group of money-no-object socialites, who'd made the dreadful faux pas of forgetting that not everyone in their company enjoyed the same unlimited riches as they did. Talk had turned to holiday preparations, and the rich folk started bitching about their difficulties.

The first complaint was about the new repair guy at Gucci, whom no one rated much. The next was about the breakdown of the unspoken rule on first- class flights, which apparently is that, for the benefit of all passengers, children should not travel with their parents, but instead should sit with the nanny in standard class. The third, most unequivocal gripe was that "there was nowhere to stay in the whole Caribbean!" What they meant, of course, was that there were no private islands with a perfect availability of staff, since the massive increase in the absurdly wealthy around the world has made these places terribly hard to book unless you get in early. These, you may think, sound like problems you'd like to have.

But they are just meta-versions of the problems that even modestly affluent people have these days. For while these people amply illustrate the "paradox of prosperity" they are also victims, like all of us, of the less neatly alliterative but no less real paradox of lifestyle.

It's almost too gauche to point out the vacuity of the "lifestyle" obsession that began in the Eighties and hopefully has been refined to its nemesis in the Nineties. But really it is ridiculous. As we crown more and more super-chefs and buy more and more recipe books, our diet becomes less healthy and we cook less. As we become more and more sophisticated in our ideas about "interiors", our housing crisis grows. As we become more fixated on creating perfect, low-maintenance gardens, our natural environment becomes further depleted, and as we dress more and more in designer labels, the conditions under which these expensive clothes of ours are made become more and more wretched.

There is much talk now of how it is "lack of social cohesion" that is our problem, and it goes without saying that the highly conspicuous consumption by which our culture is almost defined at present does not help matters. We generate vast amounts of money, then spend it on stupid things. This right to spend is as deeply enshrined in the doctrines of free-market capitalism as the right to earn and not be taxed. But it is all we seem to do, we consumers, and all we seem to want to do. Shopping, said one in five women in a recent survey, is better than sex.

The idle rich have always been with us as well as the hard-working poor. But while it was once true that we "didn't know how the other half lived", the idea now is that we can all enjoy wealth, as long as we sit tight and carry on letting the market decide. Though this is patently untrue (since many people have to be kept poor in order to service the wealthy), we'd still be heading for trouble even if it were.

The Salvation Army is right to talk of a spiritual malaise, and while I cannot believe that it is necessarily desirable or even possible for us to return to faith in God in order to fill this vacuum, we certainly do have to break with our faith in things we can buy. I myself continue to believe Marx's doctrine that "religion is the opium of the people". These days, increasingly, opiates are the opium of the people, and the real tragedy of drug abuse is that it is not about the purchase of pleasure, but about the purchase of a temporary cessation of emotional pain.

We can, I believe, cure ourselves only by consuming less and creating more. My mother was talking the other day of my grandmother's life in rural poverty. "There was just work then, and small pleasures, that was life," she said, with a sad and touching wonder in her voice as she said it.

I remember my grandmother's hard life and her small pleasures. While she had ended her work "in service" when she had married, she still worked all the hours of the day, but with her small pleasures surrounding her all the time.

She loved her flower garden and her vegetable garden, which the family tended without outside help. She liked to knit, crochet and embroider. While she couldn't make clothes well herself, she was involved in that culture of dress patterns and fittings and facings all around her. She cooked splendid meals for her large family, and put her own jams, chutneys and tomato ketchup on the table. Though her house wasn't fancy, it had a traditional front room, used only on special occasions and full of lovely things.

The point I'm making here is not that things were fine in the "good old days". They were not. The point is that ordinary people have always taken pride in their gardens, their food, their households, their dress - all without the help of Terence Conran. The expensive and competitive version of lifestyle that we now play out, is nothing more than a parody of the ways of life we have rejected. What we once created, we now consume.

We work too much and we shop too much. These activities leave us so empty and enervated that we watch television to fill our time. The well-off become depressed, while for the poor serious mental illness is becoming a problem in itself.

Not all of this is caused by poverty or even by inequality, although both of these problems must be urgently tackled. It is caused by consumerism itself, the idea that everything on the planet can be converted into cash, that work is work only if it is paid for, and pleasure is pleasure only if it is purchased. It is a bleak and empty value system that degrades all of us, rich and poor. Instead we must recognise that the time each of us spends alive on this planet is the only thing we have that has real and spiritual value. We are squandering that time, and, grotesquely, it really is running out now.