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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 12/05/2008 | 1 Comment

Thereís a story in the papers today about an all-party group of Christian MPs saying that the main cause of unhappiness in Britain is not about the lack of material wealth but an erosion of religious values.

I have been an atheist since I was a teenager so I have no desire to advance the cause of religion or the views of any particular sect. However, I agree with the aspects of the critique advanced by this group.

If you read much of the research under the banner of Positive Psychology you discover that it underscores the importance of the types of values traditionally been advanced by New Testament Christianity. I am particularly thinking here about the studies on the importance of gratitude and forgiveness or the research showing the importance of meaning and purpose to well-being.

However, I think the malaise at the heart of our society is not just about an erosion of these types of values. I think it is also about the way the political process itself is geared towards individualism and individual gratification.

One of the most persuasive analysis of modern politics Iíve come across was set out by Adam Curtis in his much acclaimed BBC TV series 'The Century of the Self'. In the course of the series Curtis charts the rise of consumer capitalism. Using great footage from the period under analysis he shows how Freudís ideas were used to sell consumer goods. The market ceased to be about fulfilling peopleís needs and became about creating and fulfilling desires. In the 1950s and early 60s this marketing was largely about mass markets and social conformity. By the late 1960s young people involved in the student movement rebelled against these values. At first this took a confrontational political form but Curtis shows how ultimately this rebellion became all about self-expression, encounter groups and the like. The Individual Self was well and truly born. At first business was hostile to this development. They feared that young peopleís rebellion would undermine their markets but then they realised its huge potential: rather than consumption being about conformity people could express their individuality through their market choices.

You might be wondering what this has to do with politics but the last of the episodes in the series is about how the ethos of individual consumerism infected politics. Reagan and Clinton in the United States, and then Thatcher and Blair in the UK, imported ideas from marketing into the political arena. Focus groups were set up. People were continually polled to find out what they wanted from politicians; how they responded to particular words and phrases. In other words, political messages started to become packaged, and market tested, in exactly the same way companies sell shampoo.

At the heart of this marketing approach to politics is the idea that the individual voterís needs and desires should be catered for by politicians and the political process. It is essentially about what politics and politicians can do for you. This is why political parties are now loathe to talk about raising income tax and resort to stealth taxes.

As Curtis points out, this is no way to run a country. It is impossible to create long-term sustainable policies on the basis of the competing desires of individuals. He also points out that once upon a time politics was about big ideas and about governing for the greater good. The job of politicians was to appeal not to our selfish, individualistic instincts. It was their job to appeal to our better, more altruistic selves. In other words, politics was once about society more than it was about self-interest. Of course, this is an idealised version of politics in the past. Of course, self-interest also played a part and politicians often had very limited views of the public interest but these types of values were more dominant than they are now.

The Christian MPs argue that all legislators, charities and businesses should apply a fivefold test to all their decisions, such as whether the action will encourage people to develop positive relationships in their families and communities and whether the action is socially and globally responsible. What they fail to say is that the whole basis of contemporary politics, and standard political practices, in the UK needs to change.

You can watch the Century of the Self on Utube.

Comment By Comment
Terry Allcott
Joined: 21/05/2008

Comment Posted: 21/05/2008 16:26
If you've read JG Ballard's book Kingdon Come this is a fascinating, albeit fictional, account of exactly the sort of thing you are talking about where consumerism for its own sake becomes an almost fascist like substitute for real meaning. Advertising 'goods' religion, a political message or whatever, the process is exactly the same.
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