Compelling religious beliefs and moral compasses went out of fashion about the time I was a young journalist. A handful of clerics, Sir Paul Reeves among them, stood out over subsequent years as truthtellers in a relentlessly secularising society but most of us subscribed generally to the Christian moral code and grazed – like the Beatles and other thoughtleaders of the time – at the smorgasbord of religious thinking of both east and west, largely missing the essentials of either.
Then along came the aggressive individualism of globalised capital. The Berlin Wall fell –destabilising the balance of competing ideologies – and morals and collective responsibility more or less disappeared from the public domain.
None of this would have any effect on God whatsoever, but human society was always going to come to harm in this vacuum.
It was predicted that moral values would decline, mankind would become less disciplined and patient, the law of the jungle would prevail and the strongest would mercilessly exploit the weakest.
The globe would become one huge uni-polar world with a few slave masters mercilessly driving billions of slaves. Worst of all the slaves themselves would become hopeless zombies reconciled to their fate as the will, courage and faith needed to resist evil and tyranny was lost.
As C K Chesterton said, When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.
This is one of the most important lessons of history and, collectively, we in the west have focussed on material reality while consumerism has had its wicked way with us.
Unsurprisingly, now we scan the world’s news for something other than tyrannical, bully-boy national leaders tolerated as ‘strongmen’, enslaved continents and dire armaments and financial hegemonies. It seems we are helpless in the face of hundreds of millions of us swimming for our lives in the Mediterranean or on heroic trecks across continents leaving beloved homelands behind and heading for refugee camps and ghettos bleaker than slavery.
Reshaping society won’t be painless but it doesn’t have to be cruel, Richard Denniss says in his remarkably readable Curing Affluenza (a title which will almost certainly water down one’s personal addictions on sight).
As he says, the neoliberal architects of the modern economy will, as they are entitled to, continue to work tirelessly to cut public spending on essential services, income support to vulnerable people and taxes paid by high-income owners.
“These people and the institutions they work for do not need to be persuaded of the case for a change in direction,” he says.
“They need to be ignored by those who are determined to pursue a different vision.”
At the same time, the amount of pain experienced by those who might lose their jobs, their identity or their sense of community when a society is reshaping itself is determined by our social decisions and the respect and dignity society accords them, not by economics, says the author whose central point is that there is nothing economically efficient about borrowing money you don’t have to buy things you don’t need to briefly entertain or impress yourself or others, before you then throw the stuff away.
The end of slavery, women’s pursuit of equality in the workplace and even the invention of digital photography all had enormous economic consequences and climate change will too, says Denniss.
“Similarly, if in the near future billions of people decide to buy less stuff, consume more services, take longer holidays, pay more tax and demand better public services and infrastructure, they will radically alter their communities, their countries and their world.
“No doubt some people will declare that individuals preferring time and services to more useless stuff is ‘bad for the economy’, but what they really mean is ‘bad for the people who profit from selling useless stuff’.
“The parts of the economy that we don’t really need will inevitably shrink, and the parts of the economy that we want more of will grow.
“If, collectively, we choose to buy more leisure time and less goods and services, there is no reason to believe we would be collectively poorer, even if GDP were to fall.”
And curing affluenza will, as Denniss says, inevitably free up more resources and create more opportunities for those with the least. “The sooner we get more equitable distribution of resources, the sooner we will all benefit from the intelligence and creativity of billions of people who are currently unable to contribute.”
Life, he says with disarming simplicity, is a team sport. • Liz Waters