Selfishness is not the preserve of the middle class

It might be the food we are eating that turns people into dead-eyed, fat-arsed couch potatoes
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The Independent Online

It seems that hardly a week goes by without the discovery of a new cause of contemporary malaise being announced by a pundit, academic or pollster. The problem, we know, is simple - in spite of relative wealth, comfort and freedom, the majority of us are tetchy and unfulfilled - but the root of it changes week by week.

It seems that hardly a week goes by without the discovery of a new cause of contemporary malaise being announced by a pundit, academic or pollster. The problem, we know, is simple - in spite of relative wealth, comfort and freedom, the majority of us are tetchy and unfulfilled - but the root of it changes week by week.

Sometimes the internet is at fault: instant, inward-looking, a pander to fantasy and self-indulgence, it encourages us to think of ourselves as individuals rather than social beings. Or then it might be the food we are eating - horrid, fatty stuff that turns people into dead-eyed, fat-arsed couch potatoes. Or maybe the reality TV that feeds the blobs so many of us have become is little more than a diet of greed and voyeurism. Politicians, advertisers, teachers, even Sixties' permissiveness, have taken turns as objects of blame and paranoia.

Class is once more in the dock. Apparently, the middle class has, of late, become considerably more selfish, putting the interests of its own little personal unit before that of the outside world. The more the bourgeoisie possess, we are told, the less it wishes to share its good fortune.

Until now, a determination to do what is best for one's own family was generally deemed to be the acceptable face of self-interest. Parenthood provided a sort of inbuilt moral worthiness which justified putting the family concerns before that of the community, even - ask Diane Abbott - at the price of previously hard-held political beliefs.

Parents who tried to establish a sort of balance between selfishness and principle, for example staying within the state education system but ensuring that their little ones went to a nice school, high in the league tables, were on the whole thought to be more acceptable in liberal circles than those who went private.

But, according to the headteacher and author Anthony Seldon, these people are in fact less socially responsible than those who have used their money to buy education in the private sector. Today's true moral unworthies, says Seldon, are middle-class parents who "squeeze and twist the system for their own advantage to get their children into the best state schools". The most obvious and deplorable twist is to use financial muscle to buy a house in the catchment area of one of the more desirable schools.

Meanwhile, in the High Court, a member of that reliable source of moral authority, the senior judiciary, has been singing a different version of the same tune. Commenting on a protracted and miserable divorce war between a hospital consultant and his wife, who is a teacher, Lord Justice Wall chose to make a general comment about the selfishness of the middle class. While custody battles cut across class barriers, he said, "it is frequently the case that the more intelligent the parents, the more intransigent and bitter the dispute."

A certain snobbery lies in the subtext of these remarks. They suggest that those who are unable to buy an expensive house or to enrich lawyers through a lengthy divorce case are somehow less contaminated by money or success. The upwardly mobile, it is implied, should know better about how to behave than those who are stuck in a state of relative poverty.

The point of view that privilege brings with it social responsibilities is one that used to be preached in public schools and is, unhappily, about 25 years out of date. Self-interest, usually disguised as praiseworthy ambition, rugged individuality or positive self-esteem, has become so accepted as a part of the market economy as to be a sign of healthy normality.

Listen to Charles Clarke about the role of university, or follow his arguments for school league tables, an arrangement which encourages the squeezing and twisting of the system as a way of improving standards. Examine the briskly authoritarian policies of David Blunkett towards those luckless people unwisely seeking asylum in this country. The message of our political life is consistent: we live in a world where private interest comes first, where personal dynamism and self-protection are more important than any sense of community.

Middle-class ambition and acquisitiveness have been engines for change throughout history but, before the 1980s, a balance was provided by those who believed that, in an affluent society, providing a state framework to help those trapped by poverty, ill health or age was as important as stoking the market. These people are now widely ridiculed as dinosaurs from a dark age of collectivism.

Selfishness, in other words, is the default mode of 21st-century Britain. That fact is as clear on the nightly TV news as it is on the vulgar and dispiriting programmes about making money for nothing out of property development which invariably precede it.

Those who manipulate the system for themselves and their families in schools, divorce courts or anywhere else, may be moral unworthies but right now they are playing the only game in town.

terblacker@aol.com

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