Money makes the world go away

A global obsession with the pursuit of wealth is producing a culture of isolation and despair

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Mukhtar Mohidin, who won pounds 18m last December, thoughtfully provided the latest big lottery winners with six tips on "How not to Mukhtar it up", in the Sun on Monday. Tip number two was the best: "Don't go over the top by splashing out," counselled Mukhtar, "or you will only think of material things and your life will become empty."

Mr Mohidin himself has now changed his name and is, in effect, living in hiding from his friends and relations somewhere on the south coast. His life, I am sure, has not become empty, but it does seem to have become a tad tricky. And, meanwhile, the two latest winners have gone public and been subjected to an avalanche of startlingly vehement abuse from their nearest and dearest.

They have, it was immediately revealed, five failed marriages between them, and the nicest thing said about one of them, Mark Gardiner, was that he was "an evil drunken bastard". Given that lottery wins seem to magnify the worst in people's lives, we can soothe our envy with the thought that Mr Gardiner is in for a hard time.

Of course, it is easy to mock this tabloid stuff, but the broadsheets aren't much wiser. In a tortured editorial aspiring to disentangle the morality of these big wins, the Guardian came up with this memorable concoction of piety and unmeaning: "Money on that scale, with which the winners seem unable to come to terms, encourages a lust for money which goes beyond reasonable consumption patterns." Really? Or rather: come again? When you say "reasonable consumption patterns" ... oh, never mind.

The problem appears to be that money is not simply the objective expression of good fortune, it is a way of life that requires training and experience. The Tory MP Peter Temple-Morris said about the lottery: "The vast majority take part because they have not got much money in the first place." Quite. And so these poor people rashly assume that big money is like little money, only bigger. They think a Ferrari is better than, but not fundamentally different from, a Peugeot. But now Gardiner and Mohidin are learning that it is. A Peugeot is a car, a Ferrari is a mirror in which Caliban sees his own seething, distorted features.

Twice before in this column I have stated the truth which daily becomes glaringly more apparent - that the National Lottery is trash, a sleazy, low-life Treasury rip-off, a scummy exercise in triple taxation that demeans and infantilises everything it touches. Look, for example, at Arthur Coward, now suing Camelot because, after spending pounds 110 a week on the first six lotteries and then calculating for four hours a day for six months, he says that the true odds against winning anything are 1,132 to one, not, as Camelot's advertising claimed, 56 to one. Mr Coward, you are a complete child, grow up.

But rather than climb down into the nursery with the toddlers, let's try to work out what is really going on here. There is another big money story around at the moment - the pay of directors, and specifically the hilariously juicy "packages" being handed to themselves by the directors of denationalised companies. Only yesterday it was reported that Derek Stevens, finance director of British Airways, has received a 47 per cent increase, to pounds 439,000. And, usefully for those who like their collapsing cultures to show a degree of symmetry, the directors of Camelot have been drawn into this neighbouring scandal. They, too, have been generously rewarding themselves for their business acumen in accepting wheelbarrow loads of fivers from the Government.

Both stories are suffocating. A terrible airlessness hangs about them. They evoke a world in which the absolute of big money controls all meaning and significance. Mukhtar Mohidin may warn against an empty life, but the Sun runs pages and pages on the lottery, how to win, how to spend it and then how to be humiliated in the Sun when you do. The Guardian may speak grandly of "disbursements", but it can't make sense of it either. And why do papers and politicians rage against the directors? Because they've worked the system to get their hands on the only thing the system offers - money. Sure, politically they're breathtakingly inept. But how full is your life? Name your superior spiritual sustenance. Exactly.

Money, you see, is rapidly becoming everything, not just to the lottery punters and the denationalised freeloaders, but also to everybody else in the world. Globalisation and the technocratic futurephiliacs are rapidly burning away all alternative values. The only club anybody wants to belong to is the Big Money Club. The only offer politicians can make is economic growth and the only transcendent claim is that of wealth.

This is not just a morally and, in view of the "cruisewear" that rich people always seem to buy, aesthetically repellent spectacle, it is also a political catastrophe in the making. Some time ago Mickey Kaus, a writer on the American magazine New Republic, sanely and sensitively argued that inequality of wealth was not a threat to democracy, but the isolation of wealth was. Money has become just too overwhelmingly important. As a result the rich are driven to remove themselves from society. Those besieged American estates with their electronic surveillance and their signs warning of "armed response" are, like Mukhtar Mohidin's south coast hideaway, foreshadowings of an utterly collapsed social order in which anything other than money is incomprehensible and in which, therefore, there can be no functioning society.

Kaus says public policy is wasting its time trying to soften the inequalities generated by the market because the inequalities are not in themselves the point. What, he says, politicians should be doing is attempting "to restrict the sphere of life in which money matters". What, of course, our politicians and businessmen are doing is precisely the opposite. Through the lottery and the interminable pursuit of flagrantly unearned "packages" they propagate the view that only money matters. And even the virtuously anti-lottery Baroness Thatcher manages to see moral rigour in the idea that Tories should artificially support silly house prices, a phenomenon that the middle classes once used as their own private no-lose lottery.

Perhaps Kaus appears ludicrously idealistic. However disastrous the fate of most lottery winners, however abused the denationalised chairmen, the pursuit of big money still sucks the air out of our lives. A force powerful enough to relativise money - to, as another American thinker has put it, "create a sphere of life in which money is devalued, to prevent those who have money from concluding they are superior" - seems inconceivable. The obvious truth that "money isn't everything" seems pale in comparison to the equally obvious truth that, as far as the modern masses are concerned, it is. "Money isn't everything," runs a bank ad in America. "Yeah, right," sneers the line beneath.

But if that sneer is right, then democracy and civilisation are over. Unless money can be relativised, unless those without are able to feel as real as those with, then we can all look forward to shoot-outs on the "armed response" estates, as people with empty lives fight it out for the only plenitude on offer.

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