In a perfect world, when it came to choosing an occupation, we would have only two priorities in mind:
– to find a job that we enjoyed
– to find a job that paid us enough to cover reasonable material needs
But in order to think so freely, we would have to be emotionally balanced in a way that few of us are. In reality, when it comes to choosing an occupation, we tend to be haunted by three additional priorities. We need:
– to find a job that will pay not just enough to cover reasonable material expenses but a lot more besides, enough to impress other people – even other people we don’t like very much.
– we crave to find a job that will allow us not to be at the mercy of other people, whom we may deep down fear and distrust.
– and we hope for a job that will make us well known, esteemed, honoured and perhaps famous, so that we will never again have to feel small or neglected.
Needless to say, these three additional requirements make working life hugely more complicated and unhappy than it would otherwise have needed to be. No wonder we may get stuck choosing what to do. Rather than being able to focus on the jobs that we are passionate about and that we would intrinsically enjoy, we have to twist our natures to appease extrinsic imperatives. There is no way that we could, for example, work as a kindergarten teacher, a psychotherapist, a carpenter or a cook. Our psychological drive to impress, to have power over others and to be known to strangers preclude such relatively modest choices from the start.
The state of our psyches means that we have to aim for far more stellar careers, even in fields we really don’t much like and may have to work much harder than is good for our health or our families. We are prone to be constantly panicked – because the bar for ‘failing’ is so much higher. A slight wind of disapproval from the public might be experienced as appalling, a bit less money than the astronomical sum we made last year will register as fateful. Under pressure, we may make unwise and hasty moves, we might cut corners, involve ourselves in risky schemes and not give our work the time and calm it needs. We’ll be less creative and original because the dangers of failure seem so great.
What would enable us to make the right career choices is something that seems, on the face of it, to have nothing to do with work at all: love, a profound experience of love in both childhood and adulthood.
A child who is properly loved is a creature who doesn’t need to prove itself in any significant way. It doesn’t have to excel at school, dazzle acquaintances or shore up a parent’s fragile sense of esteem (it may do well at school any way but because it enjoys the work, not because it has to boost a parent). It can find its way to its own pleasures, it doesn’t need to amaze; because it’s special enough just by existing. It may end up working extremely hard, but it will do so because it is passionate, not because it craves applause. It can concentrate on doing a job very well, while unimpeded by any worries as to whether it will be known in 100 years or to people in another city. It can potter away in obscurity, deriving gratification from the business at hand.
An experience of adult love further enhances a requisite sense of security. When someone properly loves us, their patience, concern and tenderness make us feel rooted and welcome on the earth. It doesn’t really matter if no one knows who we are and if there is very little left over at the end of the month. ‘Two people who are in love will be happy to sleep on a park bench,’ wrote D. H. Lawrence, an idea which may not be literally true, but which conveys well enough what room for manoeuvre love gives us in relation to our material priorities.
When we are loved, we don’t feel compelled to work harder than the task at hand requires. We don’t need to accumulate beyond measure; we are already titans in another person’s eyes.
It follows that when people crave power, fortune and fame, it isn’t greed that is driving them, but an anguished feeling of being unloved – for which we can feel enormous compassion. They look like winners, they are in reality unhappy victims. All the frantic activity of modern high powered people stems from a feeling of invisibility and unimportance. It’s the labour of those driven on by wounds of lovelessness. Excessive achievements are the legacy of an emotionally damaged sense that it isn’t enough just to be. How much money is needed without love – how little one can get by on with it!
It may have become second nature to us to try to fix emotional wounds through our career choices and exploits. We may not even realise what we are up to. We should dare to ask: what might I have done with my life if I had felt properly loved from the start? And we may have to acknowledge, with tears in our eyes, how different our path would have been, how many genuine ambitions we sacrificed in the name of shoring up a sense of acceptability we should have had from infancy; how much of what we’ve done every day has been motivated by an emotional absence we’re only now slowly beginning to take on board.
The most astonishing career achievements will never compensate anyone for the lack of love they have suffered: work cannot fix a deficit of love. We should enjoy work on its own terms and, in another part of our lives, mourn and seek redemptive substitutes for the love we originally lacked.
The modern age has manhandled nature like none before it ever quite has. Previous eras may not have treated it with too much respect – the Ancient Greeks stripped most of their coastline of trees by late Antiquity, the Romans deforested large chunks of North Africa and killed off all its larger wildlife for food and gladiatorial fights (the Roman historian Pliny lamented how the nobility had destroyed Africa’s elephants to feed their appetite for ivory bedsteads). But the old world lacked the new one’s sheer relentlessness, as well as its dynamite, power saws, pesticides, guns and processing plants.
As the railways cut through the American continent, nature was hacked down with unsurpassed thoroughness. There’d been 25 million bison in North America in the 16th century; there were fewer than a hundred by the end of the nineteenth century. There’d once been a billion trees across the continent; by 1900, 85% of them were gone.
1892: bison skulls await industrial processing at the Michigan Carbon Works, Detroit. Bones were processed to make glue, fertilizer and ink.
A forest being cut down on the way between New York and Akron, Ohio. James F. Ryder, Atlantic & Great Western Railway (1862). National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Across modernising countries, people knew something important was being lost and many urgent attempts were made to slow the extinctions. The Yosemite valley was protected by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Congress established Yellowstone National Park in 1872; President Wilson created the National Park Service in 1916. In England, the Lake District was protected by legal force in the late nineteenth century, in Australia, the Royal National Park was established south of Sydney in 1879, Switzerland created the first European National Park in 1914. On a smaller scale, most modern cities created free parks for their inhabitants: Munich’s Englischer Garten was founded in 1789, London’s Victoria Park was established in 1845, Lincoln Park in Chicago opened its gates in 1865, Central Park in New York was completed in 1876.
When trying to justify why nature might be so important, there was always one answer put forward by promoters of national and urban parks: industrial society, with its factories, crowded streets and tightly packed tenement blocks made it imperative for people to have a chance to get out into nature for fresh air and for exercise. Trees and habitats had to be preserved so that we could keep fit.
Though self-evident, something else – less often mentioned and harder to put a finger on – was also at stake: the idea that nature might be highly necessary for what a few voices were still daring to call our ‘souls’, and others more plainly our psyches. It seemed that nature was as important for treating the psychological ills bred by modernity as it was for addressing its physical ones. Modernity had made us mentally unwell – and nature held some of the cures.
What then might the therapeutic benefits be? At least five themes suggested themselves:
As European pioneers began cutting and shooting their way across the American continent in the early nineteenth century, one unlikely figure, a minor French-American businessman called John Audubon, followed in their wake. He wasn’t after land, gold or bison hides. He was interested in birds, with which he had been fascinated since his childhood in Brittany – and had announced his intention to draw every species in America. In the end, he managed only 435 (there were 2,000 in total), which he etched on large copper engraved plates and collected together in one of the most successful books of the nineteenth century, The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838 (Queen Victoria had a copy, as did France’s Charles X and American President James Polk).
John Audubon, Mallard Duck, 1838
Many of Aududon’s birds were extremely rare and unlikely ever to be seen in the wild by his audience. But one of his most popular illustrations was also of one of the most common of all birds: the mallard duck. Mallards, with their bottle-green heads and white collars, are an immediately recognisable sight to almost anyone who has ever sat on a bench in an urban park in Europe or North America. Despite its ubiquity, it can be highly therapeutic to encounter one. Part of what makes them such a welcome sight is how entirely indifferent they are towards all of what and who we are. They’ll paddle around us beside us, looking out for dragonflies or worms, without fear or favour. Everything that we may think of as important, everything that agitates and stirs us, makes us feel shame or evokes longing, is of no concern whatsoever to a mallard. We may be an important person in society or one of the most insignificant or maligned, that is of no matter to the duck, who will as willingly take a bit of stale bread off the hand of a senior judge as off a convicted felon. The mallards care nothing for our turbulent histories, the dramas in our governments, the reversals in our economies, the shocks in the lives of our famous actors. Things have been progressing in pretty much the same way for centuries for them; the loss of the American colonies or Napoleon’s rout at Waterloo weren’t of any concern and nor are whatever emotions happen to be roiling and tormenting us today. It could appear lonely to face such aloofness, it is in fact the greatest relief from the agony of life in the human beehive, where everything that we say or do, all the gossip about us, our striving for reputation and our wounded pride, consume so much of our nervous energy and stir us in our uneasy nights. By enmeshing ourselves tightly with other humans, we don’t only cut ourselves off from fresh air, we deny ourselves the experience of ‘otherness’, of creatures who can put our own melodramas into perspective via their haughty disregard for our existence – and their laser-like focus on their own, utterly contrasting priorities. Walking down a modern urban thoroughfare, the throb and dynamism of our benighted race is constantly on show. Our thoughts are drawn to what we haven’t yet achieved and what we still so badly want. The adverts implore us to shift our desires, the news enrages and perturbs us, information about our colleagues and acquaintances inflame our competitiveness. At this point, the mallard duck isn’t just another half-way interesting creature to spot while taking a pause on a walk. It’s a pillar of truth waiting for us, in one of the ponds in Victoria Park or Lincoln Park, the Englischer Garten or Central Park, waiting to tell us something that almost nothing and no one else will in the large city: that not a thing about us, good or bad, lamentable or beautiful, is of any interest at all to anyone outside our own vainglorious bubble. In short, and very thankfully, that we don’t matter – one of the most generous, kind and necessary messages that anyone in modernity could ever hope to hear.
A ten minute walk from the Lustgarten and the relief of a mallard: Paul Hoeniger, Spittelmarkt, 1912.
Modernity is founded on the notion that we can – through willpower and ingenuity – change our circumstances. We can divert rivers, transform our fortunes, invent miraculous machinery or start new lives on other continents. But imagine for a moment a tree in autumn, a large tree, an oak or an aspen. It might be late October in a mild year. For a long time, the leaves held out but now they are properly turning, a tell tale silvery grey or ochre tinged with auburn – and within a few weeks and one or two vicious storms from the east, they will be gone, two hundred thousand of them blown around the forest floor, where millipedes, maggots, slime moulds, earthworms and bacteria are waiting to decompose them into primal mulch. Nothing can stop the melancholy process. All summer the leaves protected us, filtering the harshness of the bright sunlight and casting gentle criss cross patterns as dusk fell. In spring, the leaves’ appearance was a symbol of hope and new beginnings. Now the air smells of death and decay. Our lives are no less subject to the laws of nature than are trees. We too are born, develop and must die. There are autumns in our years that nothing can protect us from. But it can be by contemplating the ineluctable processes of growth and decay in nature that we may come to accept more serenely all that we will have to give up and see taken from us with time. There are laws of nature that we can’t resist, that no amount of machinery or eloquence or money or power will overcome. An emperor and a tycoon are as vulnerable as a tramp before the mechanisms of the natural world, who will grind each one of us back down to our cellular origins. It could sound merely tragic – but there is relief from the manic assertiveness of our egos within the grand spectacles of nature. The majestic trees render what might have been a mere humiliation into a call for a noble surrender before an awe-inspiring adversary.
In 1853, the American painter George Inness received a letter from the president of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Company, who was extremely proud of a new line that he and his team had cut through pristine nature to connect up Buffalo with New Jersey. He asked Inness to emphasise the sweep of the railway track and the scale of the roundhouse. But Innes wasn’t so sure of these priorities. He was very fond of trees – their stature and their elegance, but most importantly, their philosophical wisdom. Which is why, when he came to paint his The Lackawanna Valley (1855), he included so many incongruous tree stumps in the foreground of his picture. A civilisation that was more excited about the arrival of a train than the end of nature had forgotten its priorities. It was also a civilisation steered by people at risk of forgetting that they too were still subject to natural laws, that even if they could now reach town in a few hours to buy a hat or transport a wagon of coal, they could not hide from the limitations imposed on all living things. It was perhaps in the end no surprise that those trees had been so impatiently cut down. They had been speaking too loudly of the vanity of all things – to some possibly rather vain railway men.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche spent seven summers – in 1881 and again between 1883 and 1888 – in the high Alpine village of Sils Maria in the south east corner of Switzerland. He rented a room in a modest farmhouse where – far from the crowded cities and turbulent urban passions that he feared – he wrote some of his most famous works, including The Gay Science, Thus Spake Zarathustra and Twilight of the Idols. He would get up very early, and write until early afternoon, at which point he would go out for a two to three hour walk – which was where he grew familiar with the grey-brown mountain cattle known as the Braunvieh. Groups of them were to be found in most pastures, and Nietzsche fell in love with them. He was fascinated by the patient, wise-looking way they dealt with their often less than ideal lives. They didn’t show any impatience or anger. They didn’t appear to suffer from envy or regret missed opportunities. They seemed to harbour no plans for revenge or cower fearfully from the future. They behaved calmly in rain and sunshine, when flies landed on their noses and their heavy bells chafed their necks. Nietzsche felt that they had reached the state of calm and equanimity that had been the goal of all philosophy for the Ancient Stoics, a frame of mind known to the Greeks as ‘ataraxia’. They might not have read too much Zeno or Seneca, but they were true philosophers. Nietzsche gave them a staring role in his own philosophy in Thus Spake Zarathustra: ‘Unless we change (or be converted) and become as cows,’ he wrote, ‘we shall never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
It can be easy to feel bored and listless in modern times. The truly exciting things are often financially and practically out of reach. Nothing about our lives may feel as exciting and as special as it should; we still lack so much. We didn’t start like this. Once we were three years old and everything was amazing: the lightswitch, the zip on our jacket, the way a door closed. Since then our enthusiasm has dropped, but encouragements not to lose a taste for existence abound in the spectacle of nature. Granted; we have not been invited to certain parties, and our job is feeling repetitive – but right now, across parts of Asia and Australia, colonies of weaver ants are building their nests, some of the oddest and most impressive structures that exist. Implausible numbers of these ants, into the many hundreds, will stand with military precision on the edge of a large leaf, and collaborate with others to draw a neighbouring leaf to it with the help of strands of larval silk. They will then harmoniously and diligently sew the two leaves together with their silk thread, building up sealed and watertight structures the size of a human head or larger, in which they set up their meticulously ordered colonies. We can get bored because we are in a tunnel which we’re mistaking for an open view. We can feel like we have explored everything we need to know. But we have only to recall that things are far weirder and more stupefying than we ever tend to think in the city – because we are sharing the planet not only with people we went to school with and high powered television executives but also flying squirrels, hyacinth macaws, vampire crabs, glasswinged butterflies, french angelfish, nicobar pigeons, okapis, rock agamas and tokay geckos – all of whom contribute to a gigantic call for us to take another closer, more wondrous and more enchanted look at what breathes around us.
One of the more curious features of the modern age is that it coincided with an explosion of interest in flowers. By the 1890s, in the suburbs of both London and Paris, it was estimated that three quarters of householders were actively engaged in tending to their gardens. The most popular flowers were lilies, daisies, lilacs, tulips and daffodils. Talk of growing flowers is apt to seem ridiculous to most people under thirty. There are surely more exciting and substantial goals to set our eyes on than the gestation of small colourful temporary bulbs – when, for example, we have romantic love to explore or professional life to succeed at. But it is almost impossible to find anyone over 70 who does not care for gardening. By then, most people’s ambitions will have taken a substantial hit: love or work will not have worked out in key ways. At which point the consolation offered by gardening starts to feel very significant indeed. Flowers become something to be cherished precisely because of their lack of exigencies or overt grandeur. The world beyond will always resist our efforts to bend it to our will, but in the garden, with effort, regular watering and some luck with the sun, we can for brief weeks be the midwives to something as visually seductive as it is consoling. We are moved by the flowers’ tender beauty because we know, by this stage, so much about pain and disappointment; we aren’t sentimental so much as traumatised. We won’t turn down this one of nature’s gifts. It isn’t the largest, but it may – on a mild summer evening – be very much enough.
Those who have wished to protect nature from modernity’s destructiveness have often made powerful appeals to people’s altruism; they have evoked the suffering of other species and the needs of as yet unborn generations. But it is rarely a winning strategy to try to get through to the selfish by appeals to their conscience; it may simply be wiser to target their self-interest. We don’t need to make impassioned speeches begging the drillers and the loggers to be good. We need only point out the cost to themselves, and more specifically to their mental well-being. There may be other ways to get healthy besides going to the park, but it is hard to imagine a species maintaining even a semblance of mental equilibrium without, somewhere in the picture, some very mighty trees, a mallard duck – and a team of weaver ants.
How to Survive the Modern World is the ultimate guide to navigating our unusual times. It identifies a range of themes — our relationship to the news media, our assumptions about money and our careers, our admiration for science and technology and our belief in individualism and secularism – that present acute challenges to our mental wellbeing.
The emphasis isn’t just on understanding modern times but also on knowing how we can best relate to the difficulties these present, pointing us towards a saner individual and collective future.
In 1907, in Edwardian Britain, a shy hesitant boy was born to a highly disciplined and ambitious family living in Manchester Square in London. His father was a major-general and a baronet – and the chief surgeon to king Edward VII. His mother, the daughter of a prominent reverend, managed the servants, took care of her husband’s social life and contributed to charitable causes. She had six children, all raised by nannies; John was the fourth. The household was austere and focused on work and piety. The six children spent most of their time in the nursery on the top floor of the house and saw their mother for an hour a day, and their father for three hours on Sunday mornings.
John on the left with one of his brothers and his parents.
In adulthood, John remembered his mother as ‘remote, self-centred and cold’. His chief attachment was to a nanny called Minnie. Minnie was, he later said, ‘the one person who had steadily mothered him’ while Minnie referred to John as the favourite of the children. But when John was four, Minnie had to leave the household – and John took the loss very badly. When he was fifty-two, he wrote: ‘If a mother hands over her baby completely to a nanny, she should realise that in her child’s eyes, Nanny will be the real mother-figure, and not Mummy. This may be no bad thing, always provided that the care is continuous. But for a child to be looked after entirely by a loving nanny and then for her to leave when he is two or three or even four or five, can be almost as tragic as the loss of a mother.’
At the age of 11, John was sent to boarding school, Lindisfarne prep school in Worcester. It was rigid and sombre. Boys slept in dormitories of thirty, the teachers called them by a number, they lacked any privacy, the food was forbidding and outdoor sports were compulsory even in snow. He later told a friend: ‘I wouldn’t send a dog away to boarding school’.
A dormitory at 11 year old John’s prep school
John was John Bowlby (1907-1990), psychoanalyst, and possibly the most influential figure in our modern understanding of childcare and relationships. Bowlby’s contribution was to explain in scientific detail the sensitivity of a child to its carers in its earliest years. In his great work Attachment and Loss (published in three volumes in 1969, 1972 and 1980), Bowlby explained that an adult’s sense of self is built up through the relationships it has as a child: if a parent or carer is warm, consistent, attuned, steady and kind, the child will thrive. It will have confidence in itself and in the world. It will know how to love and will have the courage to start relationships, secure in the knowledge that it can complain calmly if its needs are neglected. But if the child is humiliated, ignored or shamed, then extraordinary damage will be done to it emotionally. It will always at some level doubt itself, it will be at high risk of suffering from depression and anxiety; sex will be troublesome and in a pattern Bowlby termed ‘insecure attachment’, it will be in the habit of escaping intimacy through defensiveness or rage. In the concluding volume of Attachment and Loss, Bowlby wrote: ‘Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but throughout his adolescence and his years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others.’
Parents had always known that their primary task was to ensure their children’s safety and welfare; but modernity changed our collective understanding of where this safety and welfare might lie. No longer were these a matter of knowing how to curtsey or shoot a gun, read Latin or dance a waltz. First and foremost, the task of a parent was to help a child emotionally. It was to give him or her a solid base, to model healthy love; to guide them towards secure attachment. There was nothing more important than the so-called ‘little things’ that wealthy parents had previously left to nannies on the top floor of townhouses. Healthy humans emerge, wrote Bowlby, from ‘all the cuddling and playing, the intimacies of suckling by which a child learns the comfort of his mother’s body, the rituals of washing and dressing by which through her pride and tenderness towards his little limbs he learns the values of his own…’ By being given such attention, the child learns to trust that difficulties can be managed; that slip-ups are only that and that it is entitled to be treated with kindness and consideration in relationships henceforth. ‘It is as if maternal care were as necessary for the proper development of personality as vitamin D for the proper development of bones.’
In the seventeenth century, a so-called ‘good’ family had let their child cry until it fell asleep; it had smacked it into obedience and had ignored most of its emotional needs – so that it might become polite, brave and modest.
Pieter Coddle, Portrait of a Family, c.1661
Three hundred years later, good parents knew they had to smile when a child showed them its drawings, they had to be present at birthdays and school plays and had to get on the floor and play with a toy rabbit or an electric train – so that their offspring might in time stand a chance of thriving.
Richard and Mildred with their children Peggy, Donald, and Sidney, Virginia, April 1965.
For Bowlby, the chief danger to a child was not that it would be eaten by lions or sidelined at court, but that it wouldn’t be able to love, that it might suffer from anxiety – from having been incorrectly soothed – or depression – from having been insufficiently ‘seen’ and encouraged. Emotional deprivation became for modern parents what poverty and disgrace had been for their forebearers.
Unfortunately, and unexpectedly, such insights into the principles of child development opened a new landscape of pain for modern parents. It is hard enough to feed and clothe a young child. It is immeasurably harder to feed and clothe a young child – and also, along the way, to play games with them, learn the names of each of their favourite stuffed animals, express amazement at their pictures, read them stories a night, explain very patiently to them why child seats are important in a car, ask them with patience not to pull the cat’s tail, implore them with softness to eat their vegetables and guide them gently to brush their teeth.
Even more challengingly, Bowlby’s insights into child development came at exactly the moment in the history of capitalism when businesses and governments began fully to appreciate the concept of competition. In Individualism and the Economic Order published in 1948, the conservative Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek argued that in order to ensure their survival, businesses had to become ever more competitive and aggressive. They had to try to drive competing enterprises into bankruptcy in a never ending economic war of all against all, of which the customer would be the ultimate benefactor. Anxiety, while a personal problem, emerged as the central asset of modern business life.
In Hayek’s worldview, a properly efficient marketplace would be one where we, as individual workers, would be at all times in danger of exhaustion and alarm. This had not always been the case. The philosopher John Stuart Mill had worked in London for a vastly powerful business – the East India Company – from 1823 to 1858. He was mainly involved in policy formation and finished his career in one of the most senior roles: his job title was ‘The Examiner’. It was a highly responsible position; Mill was often required to give evidence on behalf of the Company before Parliamentary Committees. And he was very well paid. The job carried a salary of GBP 2000 – more than 20 times the average income. But while employed by the East India Company, Mill also managed to write some highly influential philosophical works – including, among others, two monumental books: A System of Logic (1843) and The Principles of Political Economy (1848). Mill was able to do so because most afternoons, the East India Company’s offices were extremely quiet: one was only expected to put in four decent hours a day. So Mill could sit at his desk and get on with his writing. Nobody was angry with him for doing so; if anything they were impressed by his work ethic. He might, if he had had children, have gone home very early and never missed bathtime.
In his report for the UK government’s 1864 School Enquiry Commission, the poet and civil servant Matthew Arnold advised that England should follow France in its recommended daily workload for teachers: ‘A teacher at a French Lycée has three four or five hours a day in lessons and conferences, then he is free.’ Arnold was specifically arguing against the English practice of school teachers working any more hours than this supervising games. Arnold and Mill demonstrate how normal it was in the professional world of the mid-19th century to work around 20 hours a week – and be paid handsomely for the effort.
Nowadays, the idea of even having precisely defined working hours no longer feels respectable. We are, in a sense, meant to be always at work. Because of developments in the technology of access, we have been getting steadily busier for a long time. In early 18th-century Scotland, you might turn up in mid-summer at someone’s house – hoping to get them to do some work for you – only to be informed that they had ‘gone to London’ and that they would be ‘back by Christmas’. But if there was anything urgent that needed doing, you could always travel ten days and nights in a coach in pursuit of them. Or you could send a letter: it would take 110 hours and cost two-shillings – two days average wages. But soon things got faster and cheaper. Technology got more sophisticated. By 1840, a letter would only take 33 hours and cost a penny (about GBP 5 today). However, if your quarry had gone overseas, they would be out of reach for weeks or months, at least, until 1858 when the first successful telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic – though if they went to Australia they were safe until October 1872. From the 1930s onwards, the telex meant that work could follow you more assiduously. Extensive documents and files could track you round the globe, so you would never have an excuse for not having relevant materials to hand. But the telex system was expensive and required special operators so there were restrictions on its use. By 1993, email solved those problems – reducing the cost of communication to almost zero – though you could very reasonably say that you didn’t get the email because you were on a train, at the airport or because you had stepped out of the office to have lunch. Until 2007, that is, when the smartphone became mainstream. There are now few moments when one is legitimately beyond reach: in the shower perhaps – though there are very good waterproof cases. Or one could spend time in Big Bend National Park in Texas, where there is, as yet, almost no coverage. The history of communications can be told as a success story, of course. But it is also a record of a tragic gradual conquest of individual privacy.
Modern childrearing practices have come into direct conflict with modern capitalism. At the very moment when we have discovered the importance of competition, anxiety and constant communication, we have also discovered – thanks to John Bowlby – the importance of cuddles, bedtime stories and very patient games on the carpet. A parent returning late from a business trip will fret at the many nights they have missed bath time and the number of stories they haven’t been able to read. A tender part of us has been awakened – and now aches. But these are not worries that would have occurred to a knight returning from the Crusades. In 1095 – when his son Baldwin was two – Count Robert of Flanders, headed overseas on the First Crusade to the Holy Land. He came back home in August 1099 by which time he had missed 1,460 successive bedtime stories. But it didn’t make Robert feel guilty or sad because in 11th-century Europe, being a very good father was not assessed in terms of quantity of contact.
Our best – and very time consuming – ideas about how to raise a child have arrived on the scene at a very awkward moment. Our best ideas about how to run an economy and our best ideas about how to raise families have ended up completely at odds.
Not least, we live at a moment – unusual by historical standards – when pretty much everyone is involved in housework. Today, we tend to think of the idea of having a servant as an immense luxury. But for large swathes of humanity, very large numbers of people employed other people to help them domestically. In 1850 in the UK, for example, families with an income of GBP 300 a year (the basic income of any managerial job) would typically have had two live-in servants. A clerk on half of that (GBP 150 a year) would usually have employed a full-time maid. Even just renting a room almost always meant having a shared servant. But since the second world war, in the most productive economies, it has become prohibitively expensive to employ a fellow citizen to live in your house and make you cups of tea, dust the mantlepiece and clean the bath taps. The technological developments of the 1950s and 1960s – the vacuum cleaners and dishwashers and tumble driers – made domestic work a bit less cumbersome, but they didn’t bring it to an end. The long-promised robotic servants who really will take domestic chores out of our hands haven’t arrived yet. But, of course, they will become standard – eventually. They might be cheap and common by 2045. So there will have been a period from about 1945 to 2045 when domestic work was neither the province of servants nor of robots. A century is nothing in the big sweep of history. It’s just odd and very challenging that we happen to be living in it at the moment.
We’ve been reluctant to admit that operating in certain areas of a high-pressured modern economy might really not be so compatible with having a family. We haven’t wondered on any large scale whether it might not be an idea to remain celibate. For much of history, the question was taken very seriously indeed – and quite often the answer was a definite ‘yes’. A whole range of jobs were seen as incompatible with family life. St Hilda of Whitby was one of the most powerful and accomplished women in the early history of England. She was a very senior administrator, running large agricultural enterprises, was a leading educationalist and was a management consultant to kings and princes. And she did all this while being noted for her good temper. But she remained unmarried and childless. It’s not that, because she was a nun, she wasn’t allowed to get married and so had to make the best of her work opportunities without a supportive home life. The line of thought ran the other way round. She was able to have a stellar career and achieve so much for the community because she was free of the demands of children, relationships and domestic life. Being a nun meant she lived in an efficient collective household – she would be supplied with meals, laundry and heating without having to organise everything for herself. It was an approach to certain kinds of work – intellectual, administrative and cultural – that persisted for many centuries. In 1900, academia in the UK was still almost entirely a career for the unmarried. The view was that certain kinds of jobs require such effort and continuous devotion and loom so large in the imagination that one really shouldn’t try to combine them with the duties of a family. One should live in very well-organised commune (like a monastery or a college), one should be single and one should socialise mainly with people who are involved in the same kinds of work. This stands as a reminder that we’re asking ourselves to do a lot of complicated things at once. No wonder we squabble, feel resentment and experience the occasional burst of despair.
What is perhaps most jarring is that modernity denies the problem; it refuses to accept head-on that capitalism and family life are in direct conflict. It speaks, in it’s more sentimental and insulting moments, of the possibility of ‘work-life balance.’ But there can be no such thing: everything worth fighting for unbalances one’s life. Attempting to have – at the same time – a good home life and a good work life is an inescapably arduous ambition. It might happen; it almost certainly won’t. We have ended up furious with ourselves (and our partners and children) for failing to attain a momentously elusive condition. One might – with similar levels of justice – berate oneself for not combining a job in the accounts department of a supermarket chain with giving piano recitals at the Grosser Musikvereinssaal in Vienna. Yet failure isn’t personal. It isn’t our own incompetence or lack of drive that sets work and home life at odds; we just happen to be living at a point in history where two big, opposed themes have come into collision. We have demanding ideas about the needs of families and have demanding ideas about work, efficiency, profit and competition. Both are founded in crucial insights. We deserve a lot of sympathy.
Since the middle of the eighteenth century, beginning in Northern Europe and then spreading to every corner of the world, people have become aware of living in an age radically different from any other and which they have called – with a mixture of awe and respect, trepidation and nostalgia – ‘the modern age’, or more succinctly, ‘modernity’. We are now all inhabitants of modernity; every last hamlet and remote island has been touched by the outlook and ideology of a new era.
The story of our emergence into the modern world can be traced in a number of fields – in politics, religion, art, technology, fashion, science – all of which have ultimately contributed to an alteration in consciousness, to a change in the way we think and feel. This is some of what becoming modern has involved:
Perhaps the single greatest marker of modernity has been a loss of faith – the loss of a belief in the intervention of divine forces in earthly affairs. All other ages before our own held that our lives were at least half in the hands of gods or spirits, who could be influenced through prayer and sacrifice and who required complex forms of worship and obedience. But we have put our energies into understanding natural events through reason; there are no more omens or revelations, curses or prophecies, our futures will be worked out in laboratories, not temples; even the nominally religious will – when it comes to it – dermur to highly trained pilots and cancer specialists. God has died and modernity has killed Him.
Premodern societies envisaged history in cyclical terms; there was no forward dynamic to speak of; one imagined that things would always be as bad or as good as they had ever been. There was no more change in human affairs than there was in the seasons. Empires would wax and wane; periods of plenty would alternate with seasons of dearth. But the fundamentals would remain. Yet to be modern is to believe that we can continually surpass what has come before; national wealth, knowledge, technology, political arrangements and, most broadly, our capacity for happiness seem capable of constant increase. We have severed the chains of repetitive suffering. Time is not a wheel of futility, it is an arrow pointing towards an essentially perfectible destiny.
We have replaced gods with equations. Science will give us mastery over ourselves, over the mysteries of nature – and ultimately – over death. Careful calculations and electrical spasms in microscopic circuits will allow us to map and know the universe. It is only a matter of time before we work out, at last, the clues to our own immortality.
To be modern is to throw off the claims of history, precedent and community. We will fashion our own identities – rather than being defined by families or tradition. We will choose who to marry, what job to pursue, what gender to be, where to live and how to think. We can be free and, at last, fully ‘ourselves’.
We are Romantics, that is, we seek a soulmate, an exemplary friend who can at the same time be an intrepid sexual partner, a reliable co-parent and a kindly colleague. We are in revolt against coldness and emotional distance. We refuse to be unhappy just to keep up appearances. We will move boulders to find someone who ‘gets’ us, a spiritual twin it will feel as though we have always known.
We have had enough of the languor and judgmentalness of village life. We don’t want to go to bed when the sun sets or limit our acquaintances to the characters we went to school with. We want to move – along with 85% of the population of modern nations – to the brightly illuminated city, where we can mingle in crowds, surreptitiously study faces on underground trains, try out unfamiliar foods, change jobs, read in parks, learn about Abstract Expressionism, rethink our hair and sleep with strangers.
Premoderns lived in close proximity to nature; they knew how to recognise shepherd’s purse and make something edible out of pineapple weed. They could tell when sparrows showed up and what sounds short eared owls make. They venerated nature as one might a deity. But moderns don’t tremble before the night sky or feel a need to give thanks to the rising sun. We have freed ourselves from our previous awe at natural phenomena; we are alive to the sublimity of technology rather than of waterfalls. The emblematic modern locale is the 24 hour supermarket, brightly lit and teeming with the produce of the four continents, proudly defying the barriers of geography and of the night. We will eat pomegranates in August and dates in February.
For most of history, the maximum speed was set by the constraints of our own feet – or with a lot of luck, the velocity of a horse or sailing ship. It might take three weeks to tramp from London to Edinburgh, four months to sail from Southampton to Sydney. In 18th century Spain, the majority died within twenty-five kilometres of where they had been born. Now nowhere is further than twenty six hours away from us, the contents of a national library can fit onto a circuit the size of a finger nail and the Voyager 1 probe hurtles at seventeen kilometers per second through interstellar space, 21.2 billion kilometres from its original blue dot.
We are modern because we work not only to earn money, but to develop our individuality, to exercise our distinctive talents and to find our true selves. We are on a quest for something our ancestors would have thought entirely paradoxical: work that we can love.
Much of the transformation of modernity has been profoundly exciting, thrilling even. Fibre optic cables ring the earth, satellites guide us through the darkness, new ideas overthrow stifling conventions, cities are conjured from the ground and colossal energies are unleashed by the promethean forces of chemistry and physics. The word ‘modern’ still rightly suggests a state of glamour, desire and aspiration.
But from another perspective, the advent of modernity has also been a story of tragedy. We have bought our new freedoms at a very high price indeed. We have perhaps never been quite so close to collective insanity or planetary extinction. Modernity has wreaked havoc on our inner and outer landscapes. We can pick up aspects of the catastrophe in a range of areas:
It was the French late nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim who first made the sobering discovery of an essential difference between traditional and modern societies. In the former, when people lived in small communities, when the course of one’s career was understood to lie in the hands of the gods and when there were few expectations of individual fulfilment, at moments of failure, the agony knew bounds; reversal did not seem like a verdict on one’s entire value as a human being. One never expected perfection, and did not respond with self-laceration when mishaps occurred. One simply fell to one’s knees and implored the heavens. But Durkheim could see that modern societies exacted a far crueller toll on those who judged themselves to have failed. No longer could these unfortunates blame bad luck, no longer could they hope for redemption in a next world. To a horrifying degree, it seemed as if there was only one person responsible and only one fitting response. As Durkheim showed in perhaps the largest single indictment of modernity, suicide rates of advanced societies are up to ten times as high as those in traditional ones. Moderns aren’t only more in love with success, they are also far more likely to kill themselves when they fail.
It was a new word coined in the middle of the nineteenth century to describe a distinctive malady of the mind felt to have been bred by the modern condition. Also known as ‘American nervousness’, it was associated with living in cities, with being shaken by crowds, overstimulated by newspapers, exhausted by choice, cut off from nature and driven frenetic by expectations. Multiple cures were offered: cold baths, compresses, walks in the country, mild electrocution, tight belts around the midriff, a vegetable-only diet, special socks made from lama hair and long periods of silence. To be modern is to be assailed at all times with news of every latest beheading, bank run, government fiasco, film premiere, mass shooting, lasagne recipe, guerilla movement, nuclear mishap and sexual indiscretion to have occurred anywhere on the planet in the preceding minutes. We are always connected and always aware. The average twelve year old has access to two hundred million more books than Shakespeare. The last person who could theoretically have read everything died no later than 1450. We are exhausted.
Not coincidentally, many of the leading figures in the intellectual history of modernity have retreated to isolated dwellings in which to take distance from, and attempt to make sense of, the chaos: Nietzsche to a hut in the Swiss alps, Wittgenstein to a hut in a Norwegian fjord, Heidegger to a hut in the Bavarian Alps. Their writings may not have been typical, but their inner dislocations were. We may not have huts, but we sharply suspect how much we might need them.
Modernity, so keen to wipe away all that came before it, has unleashed a torrent of nostalgia. Never before have so many longed to have lived in an age other than their own. While benefiting from modern dentistry and communications, they have nevertheless dreamt of absconding to a castle in the time of Charlemagne or a stone cottage in the days of King Arthur. Modernity has bred elaborate fantasies of ‘simpler’ lives on South Sea Islands, Native American teepees, and Arabian medinas. These longings might not be plans for real-world action, but they are telling ways of letting out a sigh at the depredations of a whole era.
Modernity has told us that we are all equal and can achieve anything: boundless possibility awaits everyone of us. We too might start a billion dollar company, become a famous actor or run a nation. No longer is opportunity unfairly restricted to a favoured few. It sounds charitable but it is a fast route to an outbreak of comparison – and its associated pain, envy. It would never have occurred to a goat herder in seventeenth century Picardie to envy Louis XIV of France; the king’s advantages were as unfair as they were beyond emulation. Such peace is no longer possible. In a world in which everyone can achieve what they deserve, why do we not have more? If success is merited, why do we remain mediocre? The psychological burden of a so-called ordinary life has become incomparably harder – even as its material advantages become ever more available.
Modernity has in a practical sense connected us to others like never before but it has also left us frequently emotionally bereft, late at night, on our own, in a corner of a diner, like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting, staring out at the darkness within and without. The belief that we deserve one special person has rendered our relationships unnecessarily fractious and devoid of tolerance or forebearance and stripped friendship of its value. The first question we are asked in every new social encounter is ‘What do you do?’ and we know how much an impressive answer will matter. We fall asleep in high-rise apartments with views onto the distant headquarters of banks and insurance firms – and wonder if anyone would notice if we died. The first giant illuminated advertisement – of a soda bottle – lit up the darkness of Times Square in the spring of 1904. It has been harder to sleep ever since.
If it were not already so difficult, we are asked – on top of it all – to smile continually, to hope against hope, to have a nice day, to have a lot of fun, to cheer on holiday and to be exuberant that we are alive. Modernity has stripped us of our primordial right to feel melancholy, unproductive, surly, in despair and confused. It has done us the central injustice of insisting that happiness should be the norm. Not for nothing did Theodor Adorno remark that modern America had produced one overwhelming villain: Walt Disney.
Though modernity may have made us materially abundant, it has imposed a heavy emotional toll: it has alienated us, bred envy, increased shame, separated us from one another, bewildered us, forced us to grin inauthentically and left us restless and enraged.
Fortunately, we do not need to suffer alone. Our condition – though it presents itself to each one of us as a personal affliction – is at heart the work of an age, not of our own minds. By learning to diagnose our condition, we can come to accept that we are not so much individually demented as living in times of unusually intense and societally-generated perturbance. We can accept that modernity is a disease – and that understanding it will be the cure.
How to Survive the Modern World is the ultimate guide to navigating our unusual times. It identifies a range of themes — our relationship to the news media, our assumptions about money and our careers, our admiration for science and technology and our belief in individualism and secularism – that present acute challenges to our mental wellbeing.
The emphasis isn’t just on understanding modern times but also on knowing how we can best relate to the difficulties these present, pointing us towards a saner individual and collective future.
Many of us want to start our own businesses. Public space is filled with reports of new ventures. But the reporting on entrepreneurship is heavily skewed in one particular direction: towards people who have started new kinds of businesses, pioneers who have pushed the boundaries of commerce by creating a wholly original offering, usually through the help of an innovative piece of technology.
The new entrepreneurs might, for example, have invented an app for measuring and controlling the humidity of clothes’ closets, or they might have come up with a tiny sensor that can detect hunger in domestic animals or have built a social platform to connect people planning a trip to Italy.
This emphasis on novelty can leave us feeling that the chief and correct way to become an entrepreneur is invariably going to be through radical, technologically-based innovation. We may therefore, as we contemplate an entrepreneurial future, ask ourselves (with increasing panic) what entirely unthought-of idea we might ourselves come up with to propel us forward. In our frenzy, the answers we arrive at may start to lean towards the implausible, the trite or the naive.
But there is another path. Most of the economy is made up of businesses doing stuff that people have always been doing or have been doing for a very long time: making daily bread or shirts or trousers, teaching languages or giving travellers a bed for the night, raising animals or fixing teeth.
In other words, most businesses operate in areas that economists call ‘mature’, sectors where it’s rather hard to come in and make a surprising fortune. But that doesn’t mean these sectors should be ignored. Far from it; there are a plethora of hugely meaningful possibilities hiding for us in plain sight on account of one, perhaps surprising fact about the economy: a majority of businesses don’t love what they do.
We might make a basic distinction between two kinds of businesses:
– pragmatic businesses
– businesses of love.
Pragmatic businesses are everywhere. They almost define for us what we think business is in its essence. They know how to make their product or service with a sound degree of competence, but there is a practical, unidealistic edge to the way they go about things. There isn’t anything very powerful drawing them to their particular offering. They might easily have been doing something else. They don’t care about the long-term; the business is only a vehicle for an underlying financial purpose. One eye is always focused on how to sell. If the owners didn’t have to work, they almost certainly wouldn’t.
Such pragmatic businesses may do fine, or even very well, for a long time, but the motivations are easy enough to spot. A discerning eye can tell something crucial within minutes of walking through the door: this is not being done with, or for, love.
Pragmatic businesses dominate the economy. One might say that over 85% of businesses fall into this category.
But there are parts of the economy, and they are heavily in the minority, where things are being done very differently.
Businesses of love produce many varied things, but there are underlying principles holding them together. Here love means:
– a total commitment to excellence of a given product or service.
– a desire to reinvest almost all profit into guaranteeing excellence.
– a focus on the long-term, because the business is – for its owners – the meaning of life. There is no interest in selling the firm now, or perhaps ever. The dearest wish might be to give it to someone you love, like your child.
– love means you’d almost do it for free – and don’t only because you need to live, you need to pay your employees and you want the business to be able to last into the long term. The product or service is what you love and you love it inordinately.
Businesses of love are the sort where the owner has scoured the world for the best kind of flour and wakes up excitedly at dawn to check on the progress of each of the loaves; the aircraft factory where the workers think of every plane they are building like a relative they will always care for; the stationery shop where notebooks and paper are viewed as objects of beauty rather than utility; the travel agency that won’t rest until it knows it clients have enjoyed their trips rather than just paid for them; the sandwich store that views a fine avocado and chicken roll as one of the authentic joys of a tricky life.
Businesses run for love are not always successful in the standard financial sense of the term. Some might just be returning a little over 2% a year. But for these enterprises, money is only ever a means to a greater, more purposeful end.
There are huge opportunities to hand for any would-be entrepreneurs because most of the economy is in the hands of people who don’t love what they are doing. Most law firms, dentists’ offices, hotels and bakeries aren’t in it for love. They may be efficient and canny, but they are – ultimately – just waiting to sell up. We don’t need to be very original to succeed, we don’t need to have invented anything very new; we just need – to make sense of our lives and to make an honest living along the way – to offer the world something we love a little more intensely than most people do.
We all, naturally, want to be winners.
And so, consequently, a great many countries are designed to reward winners. These are the countries that pay a good deal of attention to optimising the conditions of life available to people who win.
In such lands, if one is a winner and falls ill, the hospitals are outstanding:
The transport laid on for winners is superlative:
The housing for winners is spacious, light and uplifting:
And winner children are educated in establishments that resemble five star hotels:
Of course, in such lands, provisions for losers are not so quite so comfortable. There isn’t the money left over. So housing for Losers can be challenging:
Transport for Losers is something of a humiliation:
And the children of losers start to learn young about their negligible status.
This could all sound worrying, but it tends not panic us very much for one fundamental reason related to how the human minds work. Most of us naturally assume that we will – at some point – become winners.
You can see this optimistic part of the brain in action in our well-observed proclivity for playing the lottery. Millions of us show an inclination to believe that we will end up holding a winning ticket – despite the daunting odds.
The chances of winning the UK lottery are one in 14 million. This often isn’t enough to put many of us off.
If we don’t play the lottery ourselves, we may feel a bit sorry for people who do. We may smile at their folly in getting statistics quite so wrong. But in the way we vote, we may display a strikingly similar mindset. We too may cast our votes for political parties determined to reward a tiny subset of winners and cast the vast majority of losers to a less dignified end.
We would do well to study statistics.
Chances of needing to depend on the state for health, housing, transport or welfare over a lifetime:
In short, a degree of financial fragility is the statistical norm; being a loser is the norm. We are far more likely to end up with a mediocre salary, with delicate health and vulnerability to ill-fortune than we are to end up robust, invulnerable winners.
Yet still we insist on creating and supporting Winner Countries. Here are five of the world’s top Winner Countries, countries that go out of their way to make the consequences of winning as pleasant as possible.
Top Winner Countries
There are a few notable loser countries on our planet. They tend not to get the limelight. Here is the list of the world’s top Loser Countries:
5. The Netherlands
In Loser Countries, voters graciously assume that they are and will remain losers – and therefore set about trying to make their condition as pleasant as possible.
They make sure there is a public transport system fit for losers:
Public housing fit for losers:
And public schools fit for complete losers:
In these Countries for Losers, it can be awkward to be a winner. No one applauds you for driving a fancy car. Money won’t buy you schools any better than the loser ones. You might even go to a loser hospital of your own accord. And your taxes might be quite high.
Both Countries for Winners and Countries for Losers have their advantages. The question is whether we are voting for societies that reflect our own statistical realities. By accepting that we will almost certainly be and remain Losers, we might be sad no doubt, but we may also be liberated to scheme to live in societies that make the consequences of failing a lot less bitter.
One of the most troubling aspects of our world is that it contains such enormous disparities in income. At various times, there have been concerted attempts to correct the injustice. Inspired by Marxism, Communist governments forcibly seized private wealth and Socialist governments have repeatedly tried imposing severely punitive taxes on rich companies and individuals. There have also been attempts to reform the education system, to create positive discrimination in the workplace and to seize the estates of the wealthiest members of society at their deaths.
But the problem of inequality has not gone away, and is indeed unlikely to be solved at any point soon, let alone in the short time-frame that is relevant to any of us, for a range of stubbornly embedded, partly-logical, partly-absurd reasons.
However, there is one important move we can make that could take start to reduce some of the sting of inequality. For this, we need to begin by asking what might sound like an offensively obvious question: why is financial inequality a problem?
There are two very different answers. One kind of harm is material: not being able to get a decent house, quality health-care, a proper education and a hopeful future for one’s children. But there is also a psychological reason why inequality proves so problematic: because poverty is intricately bound up with humiliation and a lack of respect. The punishment of poverty is not limited to money, it extends to the suffering that attends a lack of status, a constant low-level sense that who one is and what one does is of no interest to a world that is punitively unequal in its distribution of honour as well as cash. Poverty induces not only financial harm, it damages mental health as well.
Historically, the bulk of political effort has been directed at the first material problem, yet there is also an important move we can make around the psychological issue.
The sketch of the solution to the gap between income and respect lies in a slightly unexpected place: in a small painting hanging in a top floor gallery of London’s Wallace Collection called The Lacemaker, by a little-known German artist named Caspar Netscher, who painted it in 1664.
The artist has caught the woman making lace at a moment of intense concentration on a difficult task. We can feel the effort she is making and can imagine the skill and intelligence she is devoting to her work. Lace was, at the time the painting was made, highly prized. But because many people knew how to make it, the economic law of supply and demand meant that the reward for exquisite craftsmanship was tiny. Lacemakers were among the poorest in society. Were the artist, Caspar Netscher to be working today, his portrait would have been equivalent to making a short film about office cleaners or fruit pickers. It would have been evident to all the painting’s viewers that the lacemaker was someone who ordinarily had no respect at all; this was a vision of the lowest of the low.
And yet Netscher directed an extraordinary amount of what one might call artistic sympathy towards his sitter. Through his eyes and artistry, she is no longer a nobody. She has grown into an individual, full of her own thoughts, sensitive, serious, complicated, devoted: entirely deserving of tenderness and consideration. The artist has transformed how we might look at a lace maker.
Netscher isn’t simply sternly saying that we should have respect for the low-paid: we hear this often enough and the lesson rarely sinks in. He’s not trying to use guilt which is rarely an effective tactic. He’s getting us, in a representative instance, to feel respect for his worker rather than just know it might be her due. His picture isn’t nagging, grim or forbidding, it’s a seductive, delightful mechanism for teaching us a very unfamiliar but critically important supra-political emotion.
If lots of people saw the lacemaker in the way the artist did, took the lesson properly to heart and applied it widely and imaginatively at every moment of their lives, it is not an exaggeration to say that the psychological burden of poverty would substantially be lifted. The fate of lace makers, but also office cleaners, warehouse attendants, delivery workers, labourers and those presently dehumanised under the vast category we know as ‘immigrants’ would be substantially improved. Greater sympathy would not be a replacement for political action, it would be its precondition; the sentiment upon which a material change in the lives of the victims of inequality would be founded.
An artist like Netscher isn’t changing how much the low-paid earn: he is changing how the low-paid are judged. That’s not an unimportant piece of progress. Netscher was living in an age in which only a very few people might ever see a picture – and of course he was concentrating on the then current face of poverty. But the process he undertook remains profoundly relevant.
Ideally today, our culture would pursue the very same project but on a vastly enlarged scale: enticing us via our most successful, popular and widespread artforms to a grand political revolution in feeling – upon which an eventual, firmly-based revolution in distribution would arise.
One of the most pressing choices facing modern economies is whether to adopt a policy of free trade or of protectionism, that is, whether to encourage foreign goods into the country with minimum tariffs and allow industries to relocate abroad; or whether to make it hard for foreign firms to sell their goods internally and discourage domestic producers tempted by cheaper wages in other lands.
It feels like a very modern dilemma, but the debates between proponents of free trade and protectionism go back a very long way. The argument began in earnest in Europe in the 15th century with the formulation of a theory known to historians as mercantilism, the forerunner of what we today more colloquially refer to as protectionism.
Mercantilism was, like more or less every economic theory before and since, interested in increasing a nation’s wealth. But it had very particular views about how this should be done. Mercantilists argued that in order to grow richer, a country had to try to make as many things as possible within its own borders – and reduce to an absolute minimum its reliance on foreign imports. The role of government was to help local industries in every sector, from food to textiles, machinery to agriculture, by applying huge tariffs on imported goods and discouraging foreign manufacturers from entering national borders and competing with local players. A strong country was one that knew how to provide for itself and could achieve more or less total independence in trade, a goal known as economic autarky.
The philosophy of mercantilism reigned supreme as the most prestigious and persuasive theory of economics until the 9th of March 1776, the publication date of possibly the most important book in the history of the modern world. In An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith attempted to dynamite the intellectual underpinnings of mercantilism.
Smith argued that the best way for any country to grow wealthy was not to try to make everything by itself, for no country could ever hope to do well in every sector of an economy. By nature, Smith observed, countries had strengths in particular areas – some were great at making wine, others had talent in pottery, others still might be experts at making lace – and it was on such strengths that every country should focus. It would be grossly inefficient, observed Smith, for any country to attempt to be good at everything; far better to zero in on areas of expertise – sectors in which the country enjoyed what Smith called an ‘absolute advantage’ – and then exchange those goods and services with those of other countries. As Smith put it: “If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it off them with some part of the produce of our own industry employed in a way in which we have some advantage. The general industry of the country… will not thereby be diminished … but only left to find out the way in which it can be employed with the greatest advantage.”
This was an application at the level of nations of a theory we can understand well enough at the level of individual life. If someone has a natural aptitude for accountancy, it makes no sense for them to spend a considerable part of each day trying also to make cheese, to sew their own trousers or to learn to play violin sonatas. Far better for the accountant, cheesemaker, tailor and violinist to specialise in the areas in which they each have the greatest advantage and then trade with others to satisfy their remaining needs. As Smith noted: “It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.”
Smith emphasised that if Britain could produce woollen goods more cheaply than Portugal and if Portugal could produce wine more cheaply than Britain, then it would be beneficial to both parties to exchange the product they could make at a lower cost for the one they could only make at a higher cost. Slightly counter-intuitively, both countries would get richer, for – as Smith insisted – trade was not a zero sum game: the overall wealth of both countries would rise as both exchanged goods in the area of their greatest advantage. In such a system, labour and capital would always be optimally employed, directed to those sectors where native skill and opportunity was at its greatest.
Smith understood the tendency of politicians and the public to resist such competition – especially when it came from abroad – and to fall prey to interpreting its effects as a form of robbery or job destruction. But he insisted that the well-meaning attempt to shelter inefficient local producers would always end up impoverishing a country, and hurting its most vulnerable members, because it would prevent labour and capital from playing to their strengths, would make goods far more expensive than they needed to be and would discourage leading companies from a necessary intensity of innovation. The job of the government was to recognise sectors where there was a national advantage, assist in the education of the workforce, but otherwise, reduce tariffs as much as possible, and step out of the way.
With astonishing speed, Smith’s theory convinced most of the economic and political classes of north Western Europe. In Britain, his ideas were first put to a practical test in relation to the primary foodstuff of the nation: corn. Grain prices had, for many years, been protected by government decrees. Cheaper foreign grain had been kept out, apparently in order to protect jobs and national wealth. But Smith’s ideas, now driven forward by his foremost discipline David Ricardo, proposed that all tariffs on imported grain – protectionist measures known as the Corn Laws – were in fact obstacles to economic growth. After bitter debates in Parliament, the laws were repealed in 1846. The result demonstrated to perfection both the advantages and incidental costs of Smith’s ideas: the price of corn dropped sharply, the shopping basket of British consumers tumbled in price and everyone, especially the working classes, had a lot more spare money to spend on other goods, which grew the overall size of the British economy, so that it significantly outperformed all of its European counterparts. But – and it was a very big but – large swathes of British agriculture also went to the wall. Cheap imported corn, largely from Canada and the mid-western United States, destroyed farms and ways of life that had persisted for centuries. The agricultural class, which had been enormously important to the economy, became negligible, both in terms of how many people it employed and how much wealth it created. There were for a time pockets of deep unemployment in the rural sector. Smith’s theories were both correct and, depending on where one was standing, plainly agonising.
An enduring problem for the undoubtedly very sound arguments in favour of free trade is that its costs have seldom been addressed with sufficient passion and ingenuity. The cries of the dispossessed have not been recognised for what they are: threats to the entire stability and moral dignity of a nation. As has only gradually and fitfully been realised, the benefits of an open economy can only properly bear fruit if a series of steps are taken to mitigate the attendant downsides. Any nation committed to free trade must tax the sectors of the economy which have an advantage right up to – though never beyond – the point where this advantage would otherwise be eroded and then use the money to retrain those suffering in the sectors of the economy with the gravest disadvantages in relation to foreign competition. Without such redirection, a nation will become highly unstable politically – thereby endangering any progress that free trade has made. Secondly, governments must enable everyone in the economy to find their own natural areas of strength; which means – in plainer language – high levels of investment in education and a raft of measures to maximise social mobility. Monopolistic behaviour by the rich can endanger the integrity of the free trade system no less than can punitive tariffs or import duties.
Intellectually, free trade has undoubtedly won the argument. It is plainly evident that countries should not put up tariffs, that each country should trade goods and services where it has its advantages, and then allow imports to come in and if necessary decimate local industries where it doesn’t. When a Mexican worker can make a car for eight dollars an hour, whereas an American one costs 58 dollars an hour, it is clearly wise to allow Mexico to do what it can do best, whatever the effect on American car workers. However, defenders of free trade have been grossly negligent when it comes to arguing for, and instituting the political programme necessary to support the efficient operations of the system. It has forgotten the pain of the car workers, the coal miners and the steel makers. And, in democracies, there has been a heavy price to pay for this neglect, in the form of the rise of a new class of mercantilists, who have successfully argued that barriers must again increase, that a country should make everything within its own borders to regain its greatness and that cheap importers are invariably the destroyers of domestic jobs.
These arguments make no sense, but so long as the proponents of free trade fail properly to articulate a programme to remedy free trade’s operations, whole nations will be seduced by the bromides of the mercantilists and will suffer accordingly – until the distinctive wisdom of Adam Smith can once more reassert itself.
When we’re struck down by emotional issues, like depression, anxiety, or love troubles, we’re frequently – and often very wisely and kindly – advised that we should spend some time working on ourselves. If we visit a doctor, we may well be directed to take pills of one kind or another to restore our relationship to the world.
This is – in certain cases – evidently by far the best way, but we may also at points be a little too quick to seek to repair ourselves rather than look out to explanations beyond our own minds. It may be that the greatest cause of certain setbacks lies in an area that self-aware, moderate and modest people are instinctively loathe to blame: the system we live within.
Take anxiety: it is sorely tempting to pathologise ourselves for falling prey to a state of high and runaway alarm. It feels like an illness, but when we look at the world through sober eyes, we might legitimately wonder whether it isn’t occasionally simply the height of sanity to be close to anxious breakdown. Our panicked moods may be a profoundly sane consequence of living as a halfway sensitive human on an exceptionally chaotic and committedly tragic planet.
Much the same could be said of depression. We experience this condition deep within ourselves, but a share of its causes must lie beyond our own neurochemistry: in jobs that cannot give us the creative, autonomous feeling all humans require to be content; in the disappearance of community and the atomisation of the modern individual in the soulless vast metropolises of modernity; in commuting distances that put a reckless strain on our relationships and our time with ourselves; and in exposure to media that promote unfair feelings of envy and comparison.
When it comes to relationships, our inadequacies too can’t all be of our doing. They are in addition caused by the notion that we must be capable of being madly and beautifully in love with one other person for the whole of our lives, that our lover should be our best friend, confidant, sexual partner and co-parent for friction-free decades, that we should be able to feel constant sexual desire for them and that our tendencies to sleep around, get furious or bored are signs of madness or (that modern equivalent) ‘commitment phobia’. Against such deluded expectations, it may be just normal to end up failing – as most of us will.
We should at points be ready to make a frank admission that life is collectively rather than just personally difficult, for reasons that extend into the political, ideological and existential spheres. Our solutions must therefore stretch beyond pills to encompass an acknowledgement of a range of species-wide challenges. We shouldn’t just work on ourselves for not being well; in certain areas, we need also to work on the world for making us so.
It is common to hear that unemployment has been caused by our genius at mass producing things and systematising processes; we have become so efficient at making goods and generating services, there is now a great deal less work for people to do. We have run out of needs, and therefore, of work.
In the developed world, it may seem as if we simply all have enough now – enough fridges, clothes and cars – and, therefore, that consumption has reached a kind of limit – and employment along with it. As a result, a large share of the population seems fated to have nothing to do other than survive on charity and government hand-outs, for there is simply nothing for them to do: our needs have been met. We may be prepared to grant that unemployment in the undeveloped world is a little different; there’s so much to do there after all, and one can point to factors such as poor skills, corruption, lack of access to finance and bad transportation as the central reasons why employment prospects in these less fortunate lands have been held back. But in the rich world, it can seem as if economies have stagnated principally because we’ve run out of things we want to buy from and sell to one another.
That said, we can always conjur up some vain and unnecessary desires – yet another fashion fad or more unnecessary phone apps or video games – but this doesn’t take away from the main thrust of the argument. We’ve run out of true needs – and that’s why there isn’t enough good, meaningful work about.
But this cannot – on closer examination – really be true. The rich world remains full of genuine unmet needs and therefore full of honest employment possibilities. To get a sense of the untapped opportunities, we need only think of all the things that make us miserable on a day-to-day basis: behind most of our quotidian frustrations and griefs, entire industries are waiting to be created. There will be no so-called legitimate, deserved unemployment until the day when all our needs have been met or, put another way, until everyone is content and satiated. We’re still rather a long way off this point. The unemployment that currently exists is in no way inevitable or necessary: it is a symptom of our inability to identify and then adequately organise ourselves to satisfy our needs.
Some might say that we know what our needs are well enough; we just don’t have the right technology to meet them. This line insists that what is holding back the development of new industries is first and foremost technological stagnation. Until innovation in technology allows us to fix a fresh range of issues, we must just sit out our days idly and wait for the scientists and engineers to catch up with our needs. This belief is lent credence by all the cases where technological developments did indeed lead to the creation of high-employment industries. We can think of the consequences of the development of the combustion engine, computer code or stem cell treatments.
However, an absence of technology cannot be held responsible for all the needs we have that are currently going unmet – and therefore all the unemployment which dogs our societies. We know from history that a great many of our once unmet needs were later fulfilled (with huge implications for employment) in ways that didn’t depend on the development of any particularly radical kind of technology. There may well have been a process of standardisation and industrialisation, but no genius-level scientific fix was needed. In fact, more interestingly, new jobs were created because certain of our needs came into focus; they entered our imaginations as things we wanted; we became more aware of things that were missing in our lives – and jobs followed on a large scale.
Take for example, the development of the enormous industry that surrounds seaside holidays. The sea has been around a long time. Yet it’s only relatively recently that humans have discovered the pleasure of bathing in salt water, then lying on a towel in the warmth for a few hours. Mountains too have been around for a while, but only in the last 200 years have a sizeable number of humans thought of gaining inner peace, health and perspective by going to wander around in them – with enormous implications for employment. Everything needed to build comfortable sofas has been known for centuries, but it’s only in the 20th century that we’ve seen the point of mass manufacturing furniture on which to loll. The same arguments could be made in relation to other new and enormous industries: those that provide us with sparkling water and toilets, aerobic instructors and marriage counsellors, pop songs and sushi, national museums and children’s playgrounds, football and pizzerias, daily newspapers and gardening centers, management consultancies and insurance firms.
Retrospectively, we can see how difficulties that people once regarded as just part of life, acts of god, were gradually systematically addressed. The satisfaction of latent demands has not been frivolous; awakening them has meant the deployment of intelligence, imagination and kindness: the recognition that certain valuable, even sometimes crucial things for a good life, were missing.
The same point holds for us today: we retain many demands that don’t require technology to fill. If we run through some moments of a representative day we can pick up on a wide range of unsatisfied needs. At each point of these moments of dissatisfaction and disappointment we are encountering the early hints of what, in the future, should be major areas of new employment.
Consider the following sources of frustration or longing:
– the ugliness of most cities and the desire to find nicer places to live
– our inability to control our moods
– our failures to sleep very well
– the dramas around our relationships
– our sense that we have wasted our talents at work
– our feeling that we don’t have enough good friends or satisfying conversations
– the challenges of raising children
– our desire to live more communally rather than in our own restricted families
All of these anxieties, reservations and disappointments are – seen from another angle – emergent demands and if these demands came into full focus, and were properly interpreted, they could generate new – highly useful – products and services and many new employment opportunities.
Think of relationship crises. One or other of you is sullen, then there’s a painful altercation. Suspicion and disappointment circulate. Voices are raised. A door gets slammed. Someone might end up sleeping on the couch. It’s awful. But we’re accustomed to feeling this is something we absolutely have to sort out ourselves. We don’t as yet treat it like having a broken arm or a faulty boiler: things that are automatically recognised as calling for specialist assistance (and employment). If in the future this latent demand were fully acknowledged, there would be large numbers of jobs connected to helping us in our relationships.
Far from being at a late stage of development of the workforce, we have as yet only learned how to meet a small portion of our major needs: only a small proportion of the things that go wrong in everyday life belong within the market as it is currently configured.
The obstacles to the development of the products and services we need – and hence to the creation of new jobs – isn’t solely or predominantly technical or financial. The real obstacles are a lack of specialised skills around the identification and then the satisfaction of needs. There are perhaps three areas of skill that need to come together in order for a latent desire to be translated into a profitable and benign business that can generate future employment: Perception, Industrialisation and Persuasion. To look at these in a little more detail:
Areas of need – like the ones we’ve been noting – have to be clearly recognised. Underlying insights have to be firmed up; problems have to be seen as issues that can be addressed rather than as painful givens of nature. This is an act akin to artistic creation – the entrepreneur, like the artist, has to pick up on faint tremors in the human soul, and clearly define their nature and causes.
Then come the challenges of industrialising and systematising solutions. It isn’t enough to cobble together responses. One has to create organisational flow charts, carefully identify job descriptions and scout for the right talent, manage large numbers of employees, research and develop specific products and services, organise finance, meet deadlines, cajole business partners, deal with complex regulatory and tax requirements, keep costs under control and be intensely focused on efficiency, competitiveness and profit.
But none of this will work unless enough people can realise that they do in fact need a particular service or product. This means getting large numbers of people to recognise a problem as one they have – and to feel excited by the idea of a solution. They have to be moved not only to admit this is an area of difficulty but also to have a basically optimistic orientation. The relevant skill, here, is consciousness raising: getting others to find an appetite in themselves.
Considered separately, all these skills exist, but their integration is highly challenging and elusive. People who are good at perception, are often weak at persuasion and lacking in industrial knowledge – so their originating insights can’t develop, while people who are good at industrialisation tend to be much less focused on perception. And persuading skills are generally subordinate to industrial abilities. Which means we’re not well placed to create new industries – and new work. The roadblocks are cognitive; we aren’t thinking properly.
The search to reduce unemployment and create jobs has normally been focused on bluntly economic levers: keeping down inflation, tax breaks, regional support, the reduction of red tape around taking on new employees. But we can see another larger prior factor: the need to cultivate a particular mentality in which imaginative and executive skills are united. Unemployment is a tragedy that stems from our inability to understand ourselves well enough, then properly exploit what we have realised about our needs with the use of managerial and financial discipline.