An age of worthless values: A society of self-gratification only generates despair, says Michael Meacher

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHY HAS it all gone so wrong? Never in 25 years in politics have I known such widespread and deep malaise. The conventional view is that it's all the fault of the recession. If only we had a real economic recovery, all the cynicism, despair and alienation would disappear. But that is far too superficial an explanation.

Certainly we are in the middle of the deepest and longest slump since the 1930s. It may well last seven or eight years and, as the Budget indicated, the worse half is still to come. But the malaise goes much deeper than mere economics.

Many people today sense that the icons of the age - economic growth and prosperity, political democracy and freedom - are somehow not enough. They feel that, individually and collectively, their lives lack meaning. As Hillary Clinton put it in a striking phrase last April, 'there is a sleeping sickness of the soul' in modern society.

No political philosophy can satisfy unless it seeks to answer, or at least acknowledge, the deepest questions about the purpose and meaning of human life. That is why the current political philosophy of individualism and the economic market ethos of self-interest are at root so unsatisfying. For, paradoxically, by pursuing their own interests to the limit, people will never find happiness. The essence of human aspiration cannot be reduced to self-gratification.

Despite the insistence on the dominance of the market in Western societies today, people are not primarily economic beings. Their social needs, cultural interests, artistic heritage and spiritual aspirations are important, and certainly more central to human life. Indeed the main argument against the current frenzy for privatised market capitalism is that it reduces the richness and diversity of society to a dehumanised flatness.

It is unfashionable to talk of values, especially spiritual values, because it conflicts with the dominant ethic of the 20th-century: scientific materialism. Yet it is surely the fundamental flaw of our value-

arid world that all modern concepts of human society have sought, and failed, to explain the human condition in terms of some lower order code, as though man's unique comprehension of values did not exist.

Marxism interpreted religion, philosophy, art and culture as disguised economic interests. Darwinian evolution stressed the development of higher forms from lower, and talked of the survival of the fittest through natural selection. Freud reduced human will to the subconscious conflicts of the mind. Relativism has been a force to deny all absolutes, norms and standards. Positivism as a movement has renounced all knowledge other than that obtained through the techniques of the natural sciences. And Hayek and his disciple Thatcher have subordinated all man's strivings to the economic imperative of the market.

Such systematic reductionism not only generates despair by denying any purpose or meaning to human life on Earth, it is also profoundly mistaken. There is a metaphysical element to human nature, a higher order of being, that sets humans apart. And so far from the relentless pursuit of self-gratification, it is precisely the opposite - the commitment to a cause above and beyond oneself - that alone can evoke this higher state and lead to real happiness.

It is this realisation of ourselves primarily as social beings that is so badly missing today. It is our social nature that is being denied: that we can only be at one with ourselves if we are at one with those around us - neighbours, local community, fellow citizens within the nation, and indeed at the international level, in terms of the kind of world in which we live. Hillary Clinton was right when she said that people have the 'sense that our lives are part of some greater effort, that we are connected to one another, that community means we have a place where we belong, no matter who we are'.

That is why we need a new start. The iconoclasm of our age, the breakdown of trust in the politicians and established authority in general, the decline in religious conviction and consequent de-anchoring of morality - all have produced a dangerous fragmentation. Consumerism and shopping malls are no answer to this new poverty of the human spirit. The fervent pursuit of deregulation in every aspect of our economy and society serves only to aggravate this loss of social direction and meaning.

The institutional response to this void has not been encouraging. Traditional conservatism offers a belief in individual responsibility, but a deep animosity towards public obligation. Traditional liberalism wants a society that acts in common in everything except the laying down of moral standards. The churches are split between those that offer a certainty that no more than a small minority can credit, and those that wrestle to remould religious belief to a world of intellectual ferment, which only adds to the sense of confusion. Worst of all, the politicians, bereft of ideology in a fluid world, merely squabble over their claims to be the best qualified technocratic managers.

It is true we have already come some way from the Thatcher argument that 'there is no such thing as society'. But rebuilding meaning and purpose in people's lives, elevating the impulse to altruism and social concern above individual self-aggrandisement, pursuing the politics of inclusion rather than rejection or containment - these still cry out for expression as a force in our society.

Adam Smith claimed there was an invisible hand which guided the pursuit of individual self-interest to produce the common economic good. We need urgently now to proclaim the opposite, that promoting the collective good and contributing to the social goals from which we draw our identity are the most promising routes to achieve individual welfare and genuine happiness.

The author is Labour's spokesman for development and co-operation.