Thursday, June 29, 2006

Crime, insanity and a nice new pair of trainers

It's a world driven by competition for consumer goods and paid-for experiences, of hi-tech and high-end shopping signals that have become the means by which we keep score with each other.

As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, to be a successful consumer now defines what it is to be "normal". Therefore to be "abnormal" is to be a failed consumer. The lot of the failed consumer is miserable.

The failed consumer suffers not just from exclusion from normal society but isolation. The poor of the past had each other in a community of poverty. Misery could be shared and countered through class solidarity and the hope of a different life. The new poor lick their wounds alone in their council flats, with nowhere to hide from the messages on billboards and TV that constantly remind them of their social failure.

So if you want the causes of crime then look no further than the impulse of the poor to belong and be normal. So strong is this urge that the failed consumer will lie, cheat and steal to "earn" the trappings of success.

Consumerism and crime.

"Rises in mental health problems seem to be associated with improvements in economic conditions." As our GDP increases, we become more disturbed.
Hertz noted that "among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States". In April the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study showing that UK citizens in their 30s today are twice as likely to be stuck in the same economic class as their parents than people born 10 years earlier.

Here too, declining mobility is accompanied by rising expectations. In January the Learning and Skills Council found that 16% of the teenagers it interviewed believed they would become famous, probably by appearing on a show like Big Brother. Many of them saw this as a better prospect than obtaining qualifications; 11% of them, it found, were "sitting around 'waiting to be discovered' ". The council claimed that the probability of being chosen by Big Brother and of becoming rich and famous as a result is 30 million to one.

Advertising (and the businesses supported by it) is not the clattering of the stick in the swill bucket that Orwell perceived as much as the carrot that keeps the donkey moving. You are never allowed to come close enough to eat, however hard you pull. An economy driven by dissatisfaction could scarcely fail to cultivate mental illness.

Aspiration and mental illness

Inequalities of wealth and income are as ever but, more importantly, the new elite makes no apologies for its privileges, including the privilege of ensuring an easy passage through life for its own children.

First, you need a degree, preferably from Oxbridge, and the fee-charging schools are factories dedicated to getting the necessary A-levels. Second, you increasingly need family money, to finance you through either a postgraduate diploma or an unpaid internship. Third, you need connections - and preferably a metropolitan base - to help you get a foothold.

Different combinations of those advantages determine entry to almost every career that brings wealth, power and status.
Success and privilege

Spot the linkages? A society where people are valued only by their consumer goods (including such things as a gym-honed bodies). Those in the higher echelons have the only sure pathways to ensure their children enjoy the next generation of spoils. For the excluded, crime, mental illness, gambling (a new bookie's shop is just opening over the road from me - clearly one industry where the High St. and the internet version are both happily growing at the same time), and aspirations unrelated to reality.

No coincidence either that the cult of celebrity has grown hand-in-hand, especially a whole raft of them who're 'famous for being famous', i.e. no discernable talents.

Of course, this happens at a time when skilled jobs are being shed (see the 'Work' post below), so a further element helps plug the gap - debt. Mhe whole thing is being held up with a mountain of credit, that unlike the Hire Purchase boom of the 1950's / 60's, is not boosting the economy but merely keeping it afloat and ultimately thrusting some into even deeper poverty. The credit isn't just buying an iPod on the plastic, it's also about spiralling house prices based on cheap, accessible mortgages.

What sort of society is it propping up? Britain compared to other western European countries has the highest rate of child and pensioner poverty, lowest-paid workers working the longest hours, most underfunded healthcare and education provision, highest-paid corporate executives, highest prison population and the most violent society.


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