Once upon a time how we saw the world was filled with certainty: economics, class and collectives. Now we live in a more uncertain, fluid age shaped by individualism. As Will Davies has said, we are treated by the state as consumers first and foremost; shaped by the things we buy, not what we create in collaboration with others.
Along with this shift has come a new mantra – one signed up to by both New Labour and the Cameroon Conservatives: the power of psychology.
Psychology as the new zeitgeist has been a long time coming. One can go back to the rise of rebellion in the 1960s and consumerism in the 1950s. With a longer time-frame, we can trace its roots to ‘the Century of the Self’ which emerged with Freud and Jung over a century ago.
The challenges which now face governments call for recognising the limits of state intervention and traditional policy. A whole coalescing of factors from public spending cuts to the intractable nature of many problems and limits to the nanny state point to government increasingly emphasising the role the individual plays and the importance of motivation, drive and attitudes, as opposed to the structural and social.
Debates on poverty and disadvantage are moving away from looking at why British society has such endemic and high levels of poverty, worklessness and disadvantage relative to comparative countries. The emphasis is shifting onto what those who are poor lack as individuals. The focus becomes the case studies of those who are poor who succeed, which is then widened to the idea that everyone can succeed. Next stop, the mantra: money isn’t the answer and people can help themselves if they want to.
This can be seen in the rise of ‘Nudge’ whereby government desperately looks for cod-science theories to help explain complexity and why people don’t always act as rational economic units reducing risky behaviour. 'Nudge theory' proposes that people are sometimes more influenced to change their behaviour by subtle approaches and incentives, rather than the more overt ‘push’ and ‘shove’.
At the same time popular culture now psychologises feelings, fantasies and desires and how we articulate much of modern life. The rise of a whole host of reality TV programmes based on the self-actualising, self-fulfilling person – who buys into the ‘I can be what I want to be’ narrative is but one example of this.
From property porn to poverty porn, from your ‘forever home’ as an expression of your personality, to music as your destiny whether you are Subo or Matt Cardle, you can remake yourself if you have drive, commitment and inner belief.
In programmes such as ‘The X Factor’ and ‘The Apprentice’ the participants are encouraged to present and act as one-dimensional men and women of this age: shallow, short-term, superficial, but importantly in touch with their passion, dreams and determination that they have the right to succeed.
This is not all negative. These programmes are entertainment, and sometimes show characters with insight and compassion and give people the chance to be public, find voice and be visible; yet they have to express this in the mantra of today’s narrow ‘I have a dream’, usually involving a person thinking of themselves as a brand.
This has huge consequences for our society, politics and public debate. If all of society’s major problems can be encapsulated in the issues of the individual, and in terms of motivation, character and what shapes personal drive, then the role of government and politics becomes very different. Politics becomes less about structural change, and more about being a cheerleader and motivator of talent.
This is the context and policy thinking which dominated New Labour and animates the conversations of the Cameroon Conservatives; not surprisingly most of the references and gurus are the same. It has become the age of the shameless bloviator: the self-important ideas entrepreneurs who make sense of this new era of change and superficiality: people such as Malcolm Gladwell, with his succession of obvious ideas (‘The Tipping Point’, ‘Blink’) and Richard Florida (‘The Rise of the Creative Class’).
This takes us into the world of the meritocracy – a word loved and constantly misused by our political classes. Michael Young invented the term in his 1958 book, ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, a satire in which he looked at the Britain of 2033 – after a century and half of mass education and selection for the civil service.
He found a world where intelligence had been redefined and distorted by constant testing to the extent it had produced a narrower and narrower concept of ‘ability’ and ‘merit’. This resulted in the winners and elite in society thinking that they had become so because of their personal qualities and virtues, while both they and the non-winners thought that individual weaknesses and shortcomings had left them where they are. In short, this produced a society where people sought individual explanations for their success or failure.
This resulted in a nightmarish world in which the social contract, empathy and compassion for one’s fellow citizen was beginning to weaken and then dissolve. Power, money and politics congregate around ‘the new class’ of winners, while the excluded minority are left leaderless, unloved and with no political party representing them.
Young’s world hasn’t quite come about, but we are heading in that direction. It is true that programmes such as ‘The X Factor’ and ‘The Apprentice’ are just entertainment and talent shows – which we have had for decades. Yet they increasingly reflect and shape society, and provide a framework for our norms and values.
This in turn influences how we see ourselves, society and the role of politics. The march of psychology has not just individualised us, but infantilised us, leaving us defenceless, atomised consumers at the beck and call of advertising, marketing and corporates, who want to shape our brains, desires and urges.
Psychology has become one of the clarion calls of the new political dispensation. We now live in an age of the much-trumpeted sovereign, self-determining individual: the all-powerful, all-knowing consumer citizen, where we can make careful, rational decisions about our life, work, family and pensions.
We are being sold a false premise of liberation, freedom and expression by powerful forces which shape modern life. Instead of seeing ourselves only as individuals, human beings are naturally social and connected who define themselves as much collectively.
We have to learn the limits of psychology from politics to popular culture, and new ways we can think and act rather than just as individuals and consumers all the time. We are, after all, about more than ‘You are fired’ or ‘you made the song your own’!