1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, according to Mind. How we cope with those problems is changing: incidents of suicide and self harm are increasing. Rates of violent crime are also increasing.
Of course how these are reported will skew the figures from one year to the next; and rising awareness will also raise the figures. But all things being equal, let’s assume the trend is upwards. What could be causing it?
Is it because of cuts to those agencies that would otherwise be policing external factors affecting our mental health? I’m thinking of Local Authority noise pollution and environmental protection teams, social workers, support workers in schools and housing, community policing, even support offered by employers.
Or is it more to do with technology that creates more of those external factors? Online banking is incredibly frustrating, but add to that the fickleness of broadband, the hassle of customer support, the built-in obsolescence and dependency that drives our use of technology.
Then consider how much of that technology also undermines our ability to cope: the endless distractions, the corner of your brain that’s permanently listening out for the pings from your smartphone, the other corner of your brain that’s scanning for great Instagram posts. Our addiction to dopamine hits seems to be inhibiting our ability to deal with a lot of modern life.
Or is it because the gap between rich and poor is now so great that it’s more and more noticeable, and the risks of failure that much more serious?
Most probably it’s a combination of all of those, and other factors. Austerity, growing inequality, less regulation, more technology, greater competition, more serious implications of poverty and greater visibility of the lifestyles of the rich and famous – they’re all making us ill, and we’re less able to cope.
Have you seen LaLaLand? I found it profound. It speaks about capitalism itself, and a thought experiment I’ve been trying out on friends:
Imagine an Ayn Rand-inspired world where there is no public subsidy or taxation to incentivize or disincentivize purchasing, and where employees keep 100% of their wages. Would the resulting purchases be a complete reflection of what society valued most? If we wanted something, we would buy it. If we needed something, we would buy it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t.
What would become of art? Museums and galleries, concert halls, theatres and opera venues would close overnight. Those institutions are usually heavily subsidized, even despite expensive ticket prices. We don’t value the high production costs highly enough, despite our bourgeois pretentions of sophistication.
Yet the message of La La Land is “follow your dreams”. In response to Mia’s protestation that she should have done something useful with the last six years of life rather than chase an acting career, Sebastian tells her sarcastically, “’cause the world needs more lawyers”. Whatever the word is for irony that isn’t ironic – fact? – Sebastian is spot on. Actually, the world does need more lawyers, and it needs fewer actors. Why? Because administration to manage the complexity of protecting capital has ballooned with the concentration of wealth.
The real irony is that the very ubiquity of art and the very glibness of messages such as “follow your dreams” has cheapened it so much that it has become commonplace. Art is free: on Spotify, on Pinterest, on YouTube and everywhere: it has been reduced to background for our conspicuous consumption. It’s clickbait, it’s ‘send us your email address with your competition entries’. It provides context for our purchases – I’m a goth, so I must buy these clothes and wear my hair this way, not that way. Art is dead other than the high-end kind, which is more about capital and tax efficiency than supporting aspiring art graduates. Published writers make far less than the minimum wage on average – “follow your dreams” is a route to starvation, and freezing on the streets.
We seem determined to ignore the ugly realities of capitalism, or turn those ugly realities into beauty, because the alternative is acceptance that Things Can Certainly Not Get Better. From the opening dance of drivers stuck in a traffic jam, LaLaLand shouts capitalist realism – if only we workers opened our eyes and saw traffic jams, unemployment and poverty for what they are: failures of our democracy and of our society, of an unsustainable increase in living standards for two generations paid for by fossil fuels, colonialism and exploitation that we pretend no longer to tolerate. We understood that workers in the Soviet Union were fed lies and propaganda, so why is it so hard to accept that Hollywood is our equivalent? LaLaLand hides this message in plain sight.
Is it surprising that what magazine editors and PR people like to call authenticity looks similar across the globe? From Williamsburg in New York to Fitzroy in Melbourne to Peckham in London there are an awful lot of people being authentically artisanal, local, independent and counter-cultural. There are even more people who can no longer afford to live in those places. So how can it be? Maybe authenticity is merely a set of tropes to increase prices and exclude the urban poor, hiding behind masks stolen from the urban working class. Maybe, just maybe, “authentic” doesn’t mean what people use it to mean.
These days we insist on authenticity. Politicians are told to be more like ordinary people: Donald Trump made his apparent outsider status a key part of his election campaign. We want to keep it real. Locally-sourced, “natural”, “traditional” food, drink, clothes and even cosmetics (because 18th century peasants genuinely cared about what they stank of); musicians, event organisers, hoteliers and bookshops all try hard to market themselves as the real deal: “independent” has become a magnet of discerning cash. The anachrony of all of this authenticity stares awkwardly beneath every advert, flyer and website.
Meanwhile, society simultaneously seeks out ever-diminishing returns on the cheapest rates for housing, transport, fuel bills, insurance, banking – all those invisible purchasing decisions we can keep hidden from view. These savings free up the cash to buy more authenticity, those purchases that display something of who we are: so we can pay £32 for a 750ml glass of imported beer (At the Draft House in W1, in case you don’t believe me) from a menu written in authentic calligraphy.
Authenticity costs because authenticity is a perverse form of capitalism. It’s the cost of inefficiency. Whilst hand-reared cows may be far more sensitive on the environment, may be far more humane, create more pleasant work environments and whatever other myriad benefits it may bring, if we care that much about those things to pay three, four or five times as much as an “inauthentic” equivalent, then why on earth do we carry on in the other 99% of our lives to destroy the environment through our homes and cars, support inhumane practices with the rest of our purchasing, fail to join trade unions and vote for governments that would try far more systematically to regulate for pleasant work environments etc?
The answer is in the same way that no-one actually reads poetry or blogs, no-one actually cares about what authenticity is meant to be authentic to. “Authentic” is simply a badge that whacks up prices for us to wear on our sleeves in order to display our assumed identities: or more specifically, our purchasing power, and therefore our wealth and status. It has nothing to do with being true to our sense of belonging, identity, personal history or roots. Our real selves are shit-scared, traumatised, insecure and miserable: but to admit that is to be weak, and to be weak makes us prey. So we create alternative assertive, positive selves through our social media profiles, with our tattoos, with our slogans on T-Shirts, with brands, with our commodities, commodities, commodities, to mask the stench of our real selves. £32 craft beer is the equivalent of powdered wigs from the 18th century.
To me, authentic should mean indigenous culture. Working class culture. Proletarian culture. As in the contemporary cultural expression of the majority, of the average – not as in authentic jellied eels or authentic folk music from the fields in the 1920s or bread baked in authentic ovens from the 1800s. Authenticity is not nostalgia, it’s what the kids are up to now.
Authenticity is honesty. We now – at least in this endless hangover from the 2008 financial crisis – still have access to unsustainable personal debt to mask poverty, decay and catastrophic insecurity. Car loans, mortgages, credit cards, store cards, student loans, personal loans, inter-generational loans (“the bank of mum & dad”) are all sky high because we can no longer afford the lifestyle we want and the world would experience catastrophic recession if we stopped buying stuff we don’t need. Debt is dishonesty. It masks capitalism’s increasing failure to provide education, healthcare, peace, security and clean air and water.
Ione Skye in Say Anything: “I’ve glimpsed our future, and all I can say is ‘go back'” (image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film)
Western societies have probably never been so well educated. Babies born in the 21st century seem to have every waking and even sleeping moment dedicated to “improving their educational attainment” by their parents, grandparents and benign business owners. The market in education toys is booming. Geek chic is a thing, apparently reflecting the huge interest in all things academic – with a concurrent boom in viewing figures for TED talks, anything with Professor Brian Cox in it and participation in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Apparently undergraduate students no longer do unspeakable things with traffic cones and actually study in the evenings. Free museum entry in the UK for almost two decades has led to vast numbers of us being treated to the edifying benefits art and culture. Even diets are policed in order to make us learn better by eating more “brain food”.
On paper, it would seem that all this attention on childhood development and ongoing education has paid off: undergraduate numbers have exploded in the last forty years. In the UK at least, GCSE and A-level grades went on improving relentlessly until measures were changed.
So how come it’s so easy for vested interests to take over mainstream media that this apparently hyper-educated populace swallows uncritically? If people “fucking love science”, then why are they so fucking stupid enough to vote for Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump in the USA, PiS in Poland, Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Fidesz in Hungary and One Nation in Australia?
How come it’s so easy for managers, politicians and other “leaders” to reassure us that the status quo is the way to go, in spite of their incompetence? Unprecedented transparency and access to data made available through technology to an ever-expanding audience with MAs, MBAs, PhDs and first class honours has changed absolutely nothing – inequality is still growing, species are still being lost, we continue to eat contimanated food, we continue to flush our excrement away with clean drinking water and we still object to building new homes while complaining about unaffordable housing. People’s trust in politics is at rock bottom. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that compromise is the bedrock of democracy – a vote for right-wing demogogues who claim to “get things done” is not a protest vote, it is an uncritical vote.
And why do 200m people brough up benefitting from the education benefits of the Teletubbies still watch the Eurovision song contest? I rest my case.
Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow exposed brutally how poor the human brain is at making decisions, and how we delude ourselves that the opposite is true. Modern life is incredibly complicated, and increasingly so. Faced with such a bewildering array of choices and information to appraise, our response has been to batten down the hatches and stick with heuristics such as “gut feelings” and “common sense”.
That societies who are the most educated they’ve ever been can remain convinced that gut feelings and common sense are nothing but bullshit fed by marketing and media lies, and fail to understand principles around reality and interpretation leads me to the conclusion that it isn’t education that is valued by anxious parents, politicians and snake oil salesmen, but simply the earning potential and the acquisition of gongs in order to beat our competitors in the desperate race for diminishing jobs, housing and quality of life. In other words, quality of life is sinking rapidly, we know it, and we’d rather chuck people over the edge rather than go down together. I remember looking around a flat I was interested in buying. It was rented by a slob – it stank of BO, it hadn’t been cleaned in years, there were archaeological strata of skid marks in the toilet, it was full of discarded clothes, dozens of shoes and unwashed dishes, and although the decor was all tastefully on-message, door hinges were broken and fixtures were cracked. There were no books or music on any shelves, no signs of “culture” on display and the walls were completely bare apart from the tenant’s framed degree certificate from Leicester University hanging askew by the front door. An educated pig in his sty.
Education for its own sake, finding joy in the application of knowledge to problems, learning and discussion as an enjoyable way to pass time with fellow human beings – these surely aren’t such insane things to do?
I wrote last time about the political implications of nostalgia. Watching graduates parading through the dross of Wolverhampton with their parents after graduation reminded me of a further, related thought I’d had before: dressing up is another version of this nostalgia, another form of self-hate and escapism.
There are many situations where we dress up, if we stretch the definition of dressing up: the existence of “office wear” illustrates my point. Ann Summers shops provide the uniform for an assumption of what adventurous lovers wear. Replica football strips fulfil the broken dreams of many football fans and erstwhile clan warriors. Smart casual shirts for men, cocktail dresses for women fulfil the dress code for “sophistication”. They each have socially acceptable and unacceptable times and places but in essence, they’re fancy dress.
There maybe a big difference between dressing up as a royalist musketeer in a reenactment of the Battle of Edge hill, wearing a graduation gown and mortar board through the drab and empty streets of failed industrial cities, and wearing a 19th century top coat and tails down the aisle of a 14th century church in 21st century England. But what they all have in common is anachronism: because contemporary times – where we value diversity, equality, tolerance and democracy, for example, just doesn’t have the right cut. We prefer to dress up and celebrate fashions of a time when slavery was legal and it was fine to beat children. This is the way of nostalgia: the arbitrary celebration of “the past” or “heritage” without critical judgement, whilst at the same time critically judging the present (by trying to mask or ignore it).
In a way it’s similar to the floating carrier bag scene in American Beauty. There is no beauty in a floating carrier bag, but it is a sign of desperation with the brutality of late modern capitalism that we have been reduced to finding beauty where there is none. I’m sure holocaust survivors managed to stay sane by doing the same thing.
There is little beauty in late modern capitalism. Instead we choose to pretend there is by dressing up.