Time To Change The Game

Growing up, did you ever play Monopoly or Risk?  Did you ever get to a point where you simply picked up the board, chucked the pieces in the air and told everyone ‘this is a stupid game’?

I did and I feel I’ve reached the same point now with the much bigger game that we’ve been suckered into; mindless materialism. Suckered because it’s a game that creates 99 losers for every winner and for 150 years the traditional left has been playing along, simply trying to ensure that more people win.

The time has come to stop playing an unwinnable game and play a different one entirely.

Looking back 150 years to an age when working people had been driven off the land and into the cities, when live expectancy was short, when malnutrition and slum housing were rife, when education was accessible only the a minority, when social security was almost non existent and universal healthcare yet undreamed of; that early socialists saw the problem in almost purely material terms is understandable.  Confronted with such deprivation the only decent response was to feed, clothe, house, educate and cure.  There are many parts of the world where that still holds true.

But the left has moved beyond trying to meet people’s needs in order to ensure that everyone can live with dignity.  The traditional left has bought into materialism – the mindless pursuit of consumer crap – and in doing so, it has condemned millions to misery.  Misery because the material hierarchy for which they’ve signed up condemns most of them to be losers, and it’s the conscious or unconscious knowledge of this that leaves so many people in modern Western societies feeling dissatisfied, adrift and depressed.

Leftist materialism found its purest voice in New Labour.  New Labour worshipped the rich.  Blair and Mandelson embodied that final capitulation.  They didn’t just feel intensely relaxed about others getting filthy rich, they felt really very chilled out at the prospect of getting filthy rich themselves.

I’ve often wondered what the attraction is.  Of course most of us can understand why people lust after the first million or so; a nice house, a decent car, big TV, all that stuff – not having to worry about paying the bills.  But the second million?  Or the tenth?  Even the one thousandth million?

Looked at in purely quality of life terms the relationship between wealth and wellbeing rises steeply from zero but reaches a point pretty fast where it more or less flat-lines.  A BMW gets you from A to B in relative comfort (I prefer the train, so long as I can sit down and not get charged a fortune), but 5 luxury cars don’t get you there any faster or more comfortably.  The difference in wellbeing between having four homes rather than three is miniscule next to having one home rather than none.  A wardrobe full of the latest Versace dresses and no friends is a poor substitute for a chest of drawers full of hand-me-downs and a dozen people you can turn to when you’re feeling low.

A recent survey concluded that the Mexican telecoms magnate Carlos Slim is the richest man in history because his income equals that combined of more of his fellow countrymen than even legendary rich figures such as Crassus- in Slim’s case his wealth equals that of 440,000 average Mexicans.

Yet Slim doesn’t have 440,000 homes.  He doesn’t have 440,000 cars or even 440,000 fried eggs for breakfast.  The same is true of Warren Buffett, a shrewd investor but an unassuming man whose modest lifestyle belies his vast wealth.  Redistribute their capital and you don’t free up additional resources to be redistributed.  You only pump more money into the system and change the price of goods.  Take away Slim or Buffett’s fortunes and spread around their cash and you redistribute power, not least buying power, but you don’t create more stuff.

Because here’s the thing.  Past a certain point money has nothing to do with standard of living and material comfort; past a certain point it’s about status and then it’s about power.

We are, on a very important level, still the children of our animal selves – with our need to survive, reproduce and to have a place within the group.  It’s just that these days all that evolutionary programming is at work in the city rather than on the savannah.

Status and power are intimately tied up with survival and finding the best possible mate.  Our need to be valued and to be with others that are valued is as hardwired into our brains as is the need to eat, sleep and go to the toilet.

But here’s another thing – value doesn’t have to be measured in financial terms.  There are plenty of circumstances where people have won status, respect and even a more desirable mate not through being rich but through giving more – through being indispensible to the group.  When your people are starving being the person who knows how to grow food gives you a value that being able to hand out gold coins does not.

The trouble is that the left has capitulated and plays a game where value is measured in purely material terms.  As the Archbishop of York John Sentamu said the other day; “it is hard to imagine a more powerful way of telling someone that they are of little value than to pay them one-third of 1% of your salary.”  Yet even if we manage to reduce income disparities – which we most certainly should – in a world where value is ascribed in purely monetary terms, nurses, carers, teachers and so many others are never going to be paid enough to reflect their real value to us.  We have to change the game.

Just think; if we refuse to run on the materialist hamster wheel, if we refuse to coo and ooh and aah over someone’s new car, bigger house, shiny handmade kitchen and designer clothes, those things start to lose their value.

If the natural reaction to someone with five cars was ‘what a wombat’ (apologies to wombats everywhere btw) rather than ‘wow, like your cars’ the incentive to own five rapidly diminishes.  Of course if you’re reading this you’re probably the kind of person that would tell the owner of five cars that they’re a wombat (you’re so polite – I’d expected more anglo-saxon).  If we can persuade all the other people who have been conned into playing this sucker game to do the same then we’re onto something.

It’s tough.  It’s tough to tell people, especially ones you like, that you think the rubbish they buy is just that.  After all when someone has bought loads of stuff to bolster their self esteem it’s pretty crushing to be told it’s just so much tat.  Perhaps better to tell them you like them for themselves but that their tat gets in the way.

So just imagine what it would be like if we were valued for what we gave rather than what we took, not so much for financial giving as the giving of time, concern, support and love.  Imagine the sort of race that would produce to be top dog – and there would be a race because we’re programmed to want to be valued, however that value is handed out.

I’m talking about a system which creates lots of winners because that sort of value generates more value – we become valued because we give of ourselves and those we give to feel valued because they receive our love, time, concern and attention.  It’s a virtuous circle and the resources involved are infinite not scarce.  It’s a recipe for a happy, sustainable society.

It won’t be easy.  Not only have millions invested a lot of their hopes and dreams in stuff but some very big and powerful companies have invested millions (upon millions upon millions) in creating an addiction to things, anything that can be sold to them.

But we can make a start.  Let’s stop complimenting people on the stuff they’ve bought and start complimenting people on the good things they do – or just for being a good person.  A pebble rolled down a hill…

So much for financial status addiction, but as for what money buys you when you already have status – power – the answer there is hardly new.  We want democracy.  We want power to rest with the people and we want those we elect to govern on our behalf to do just that – to govern for the 100%, not just the 99% and certainly not just for the 1%.  Where corporations and the super-rich have accrued power for themselves, we want it back.  They can have their share, like the rest of us; a ballot paper, a pencil and if they want to use it – a voice.  But they don’t get to use their money to buy a megaphone to drown out the voices of the 99%.

But whatever we do we should remember this; human nature is what it is – it may not be quite a constant but it evolves at the speed at which continents drift – very slowly.  We mustn’t aspire to perfect people.  As Christopher Hitchens noted; “It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.”  Mao and Hitler and Pol Pot all hoped to transform people and ended up slaughtering them.

Rather we should aim to improve society so that it brings out the best in people rather than the worst.  We’ve found that while greed may be a powerful force for growth, it’s also a poisonous, polluting force that corrupts those it touches and crushes those that stand in its way.  If we want a society driven by more wholesome urges; the desire to help, to care, to nurture, to discover, to create, to beautify, to understand – then we must reserve our respect and reverence for those who embody such values.

So let’s focus on needs and let’s focus on deeds and let’s stop measuring our worth by the stuff we own – as someone I once loved said to me; you don’t own your possessions, they own you.

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3 Responses to “Time To Change The Game”

  1. David Quoosp Says:

    Problem is, all those in the media and on TV, or with high profile positions who espouse equity and a frugal lifestyle, all seem to quite like a nice house and the lifestyle that goes with it. But wasn’t it ever that way? I suspect even the well-intentioned left and many Greens are not too badly off, come from a good background and have a bit in the bank… I also agree that you can’t make people into what you wish, especially while you have a lot more coming in than they do, so it won’t change in a hurry.

    I long ago realised you can only do it for yourself. I don’t care if the next man wants a shiny car – I want time with my children, less working and more time to grow my own food. He can do what he likes and he won’t change because of me.

    On a secondary thought, do ‘we’ really want what the 99% want and would that type of democracy be good? We’d be hanging paedophiles from lamp-posts, deporting anyone slightly swarthy and performing all kinds of unpleasantness that many people are actually quite in favour of.

    But yeah, an interesting post and good points well made. I very much agree with the sentiment.

    • You may be slightly missing my point (or you may not, but let me clarify anyway) – I’m not arguing for frugality per se in this context (though in the wider context of a world with limited resources, a growing population and considerable pressure on the environment there are many reasons aside from social cohesion to be less materialistic) – simply that we try to decouple value and status from wealth.
      I’m trying to unpick the problem of people feeling and being undervalued because they’re paid less. It’s all part of this ‘if you’re so great why aren’t you paid more’ syndrome that expresses itself, for example, in the banks’ claim that they need to pay huge bonuses to attract the best and the brightest – when many of the best and the brightest patently are doing other things like scientific research, medicine, criminal law, campaigning, writing, architecture etc etc that are just as demanding, just as valuable (if not more so) to society but who are often paid far less.
      As I tried to explain – I’m not trying to suggest that we don’t try to meet citizens’ material needs so they can live with dignity – quite the opposite – I’m simply arguing that if we opt out of a system that confers status and respect through material means and, especially pertinently, to those who are wealthy simply because they are, we may start to break this unhealthy cycle.

      As for

      He can do what he likes and he won’t change because of me.

      …well – social pressure is an amazing thing. I’d rather bring about change through this sort of persuasion than through forcing people through legislation. Mrs Thatcher engineered a revolution in attitudes in the 1980s. I don’t think it’s beyond us to do so again and what better time than during a financial crisis.

      Lastly democracy and your asking;

      “Do ‘we’ really want what the 99% want and would that type of democracy be good? We’d be hanging paedophiles from lamp-posts, deporting anyone slightly swarthy and performing all kinds of unpleasantness that many people are actually quite in favour of.”

      Well yes we want a proper representative (as opposed to delagatory) democracy where we elect people who represent we the people who elect them. Just as we try cases before a judge and jury so that the emotions that lead to mob ‘justice’ are kkept at arms length from the process, so too do we expect our elected representatives to take a long, measured and dispassionate view – but here’s the critical bit – in our interests Yes we need to improve the way our politicians tackle diffixult issues – the split over immigration has pitted one side operating with racist undertones against another that seems unprepared to address what are the genuine concerns of their electors because of political correctness, or as has been suggested because New Labour hoped new immigrants would vote for them – a sort of attempt at gerrymandering through an open door policy, which was equally wrong.

      But the points you raise are all important and there’s more than a grain of truth in what you say. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the debate.

  2. Lynne Spencer Says:

    Another thoughtful article Jonathan. On a day when record youth unemployment has hit the headlines, I feel especially concerned about our young people who are in the eye of a perfect storm here -brought up to worship at the shrine of materialism and now with no means to buy anything.

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