Good morning and ‘Merry’ Yule, Lemmings. I’ve been racking my brains for a while, trying to come up with some sort of ‘end of decade’ post that would sum up the general state of perplexity that abounds, but short of jumping on the ‘list’ bandwagon (I think Cracked have got that covered) ideas were far from abundant. Earlier today however, I remembered something. A few months ago, I was manning a stall at a freshers fair at a large university. I was there on the company dime, all in the name of mental health promotion (which to those unfamiliar with the practice involves not only singing to choir, but doing so in a purpose built echo chamber whilst simultaneously webcasting it directly in their brains on an infinite loop). There was nothing unusual about the fair (aside from the Live Role Play Society giving a demo outside….things have changed since I was a student) which was essentially a Free Stationary Drive. But about 2 hours in, I had a chilling thought: “These guys were 10 when 9-11 happened”. Back when I was 10, we lived in a pretty self-satisfied world. The commies had thrown in the towel, history was over, Saddam was about to get a reality check and in the process set the tone of wars to come (largely bloodless, provided you’re on our side) while the excesses of Thatcherism were set to be replaced by the comfortable malaise of the Major years. Any clouds on the horizon spelt only scattered showers or maybe welcome shade from the frighteningly bright sun that appeared to be shining out of our arse’s (OK, I’m wantonly exaggerating, as we shall see later, but allow me this brief flight of fancy). Not so for this year’s crop of the Indebted Best and Maxed Out Brightest, for they came of age in a decade marked by one overriding factor: Anxiety.
I feel comfortable on the territory of anxiety. Not only am I a born worrier but I’ve also managed to make a living out of it so no matter how much it takes out of me, at least I get a pay cheque at the end of the month. However, I am alarmed by how anxious we are as a culture and the extent to which it has permeated every facet of our society. As a nation, we worry: We worry about how good we are at this, at how we’ve failed at that, about the damned uncertainty of it all and our impotence to do anything about it. We are fed on a diet of expectations we cannot meet, guidelines we cannot follow, and threats we can neither substantiate nor dismiss. You don’t need letters at the end of your name to figure out that none of this is a particularly healthy way to live, which in turn begs the question, “How the hell did we end up here”?
Before embarking on this exercise, perhaps it’s worth looking back at the world we came from because within it lies a paradox. Let’s start by turning the clock back to 1940. Britain is at war with an enemy who have proved themselves to be a) not fucking about and b) bloody good at fighting wars. America is dragging its heels, Russia have written themselves out of the game (for now) and more people are killed in a single night in Coventry than servicemen and women have died in the last 8 years of continuous war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The threat of national starvation is a real and worrying concern and conscription means that even if you, personally are out of harms way, someone you care for won’t be. To be sure, there was a great deal of anxiety around (fear of death, fear of loss, fear of subjugation, etc) but in a sense, that was a good thing as anxiety can be a blessing as well as a curse. When rendered in its purest form anxiety allows us to remain vigilant when we need it most. It allows our bodies to perform feats they are otherwise incapable of and on a sociological level it can be a great force for unity, galvanising us to act for a greater good. You can see it in the accounts and recollections of veterans: To be sure, there were moments of abject horror and scenes of indescribable carnage, but the overall picture we take from these years (propaganda, stiff-upper-lip and rose tinted glasses not withstanding) is one of shared purpose, a society greater than the sum of its parts and a good fight fought. Those that participated even got the honour of flaky sociologist naming them as The Greatest Generation.
Fast forward to 1963 and a different but not entirely alien picture emerges. On the one hand, Earth is poised on the brink of Armageddon. The two superpowers have amassed the most terrible stockpile of diabolical weapons and all that stands between Joe Public and a Fallout 3-esque wasteland is a shaky understanding that neither side really wants this. In fact, only a year earlier, the world was bought to the brink of total destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis that was only averted by desperate brinkmanship by the leadership of both sides. If you want something to worry about (and herein lies the paradox), I guess this is as big as it comes. Yet again though, this doesn’t appear to be a society racked with worry. There was a confidence on both sides of the Atlantic that things were getting better and that in many ways humanity was reaching an apex in its achievements. This was the year that Harold Wilson gave his ‘white heat of technology’ speech, Martin Luther King his ‘I have a dream’ and the great powers signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. On less dramatic fronts, there were other reasons for hope. Britain was becoming more equal and the stuffiness of post war society began to loosen up as the Beatles geared up for their assault on the world of popular culture. JFK’s assassination bought some rain to the parade late in the day, but in the face of the most titanic threat earth has ever seen, people managed to keep their shit together and even enjoy themselves. Again, there are caveats: To think everyone was swimming in a giant tub of happiness is clearly untrue and the very understanding of the term ‘anxiety’ at the time was very different to the over-pathologised version we used today. Doubtlessly, much was swept under the carpet with the blanket use of Valium, but in many respects it was a far mentally healthier period of time to grow up in.
Alas, all good things come to an end and by the turn of the decade the world was looking a lot less rosy. The cheery optimism of the early 60’s had been bludgeoned to death in the paddies of South East Asia, the streets of Memphis and in front of the stage at Altamont. While the headline event of Mutually Assured Destruction chuntered relentlessly away in the background, something more subtle was afoot in the way we view ourselves. On the one hand, the Hippy movement (though well intentioned) released the genie of individualism out of the bottle while at the same time the medical profession set about turning the world of mental health into something they thought could be ordered, categorised and treated. I’m not going to go into too much detail here because it’s already been comprehensively and brilliantly covered by Adam Curtis in both The Trap: Whatever Happened To Our Dreams Of Freedom and The Century Of The Self. If you haven’t watched them already, stop wasting your time reading this clap-trap and get amongst it. The long and short of it though was that the 70’s were the seed from which the world we recognise today grew. It was a decade characterised by paranoia, economic crisis, dented pride and a new found pessimism. The collective bonds that had done so much to hold everything together in the face of real and imminent danger were strained to breaking point and society was left adrift, buffeted by forces it couldn’t quite get it’s head round. This confused, lost decade finally groped its way to its inevitable conclusion with the Winter of Discontent in 78/79 and from its ashes rose the oddest phoenix: Thatcherism.
Thatcherism was never a certainty and had it not been for an opportune war, the chances were that the project as we know it now would have been stillborn. That aside, it does mark one of the greatest social upheavals in living memory. The old orthodoxy of ‘society’ as we knew it was turned on its head and was replaced by a collection of individuals, each with their own agenda and a god given mandate to fulfil their own desires. Things we had taken for granted as ‘ours’ (water, electricity, railways, etc) suddenly weren’t and a new cockiness seeped into the national discourse. Gone was the certainty of the ‘cradle to grave’ state and in was the law of the jungle, red in tooth and claw. But perhaps the biggest change was the most imperceptible: Class. Prior to this period, you were born in a bracket and there you died. What Thatcherism did (and it’s bloody clever) was not abolish class (the Tories were still as Blue Blooded as they had ever been) but to spin a mirage that it no longer mattered. There were some real changes at ground level (like the ability to buy council houses, a policy that we are still living with the consequences of) but the real meat of the matter occurred at a far more profound level. To the average citizen, it was no longer about the constraints of birth or the bondage of heritage that stopped one form advancing because Thatcher had declared these concepts obsolete. Instead the spotlight swung to glare directly on the individual: If YOUR lot is shitty it’s because YOU didn’t do anything about it. WE’VE given YOU the tools so the ball of failure is in YOUR court. Keep this in mind because it’s important and I’m going to be talking a lot more about it in the next part.
In practice, Thatcherism had two faces. To some, it represented a golden age where the individual, free from the constraints of an overbearing state, could apply themselves and reap the rewards. To the hordes of City traders, The Big Bang marked the death of the frail and infirm Britain of 70’s and ushered a brave new world where the sky was the limit. To a great many more people, it was an utter disaster. The safety nets that had made the 70’s bearable for those less fortunately were savagely cut and the idea that the state had anything other than the most basic duty of care was left to whither on the vine. More importantly, the glue of society was coming unstuck. As deprived communities struggled to keep their heads above water, the very bonds that kept them together weakened. Family breakdown, the lack of secure work and the rise of social ills such as heroin abuse rose steadily while the old touchstones of solidarity such as unions and churches lost their influence and began to perish. However, there was a unifying thread that ran through both these aspects and that was uncertainty. For those at the bottom of the pile, there was the knowledge that they had been effectively forgotten and from here on in, they were at the mercy of the gods. For those who were living the high life, there was still a voice at the back of their heads saying “if this goes sideways, we’re screwed” and a tacit understanding that the very system that created their wealth could also destroy it. As it turned out, a great many were screwed and as Thatcher departed Downing Street, recession set in and many of those who had rushed towards the mirage in hope of quenching their thirst found only sand. Thatcher was followed by Major who did precisely fuck all (oh no, wait…I forgot about the Cones Hotline) and it looked like the dream was over. Labour was resurgent and a great many of us hoped that their entrance would herald a redressing of the balance. The first three years of Labour certainly did provide some sunshine and a feeling that things could be better, but it was a fleeting moment that masked the arrival of a bizarre chimera that would dictate the terms for the next decade, New Labour.
I’ve been very scathing of New Labour in the past and while this is a giant ball of cathartic fun, I do admit that it’s all too easy. However, to really get to grips with how their project turned out to be as weird as it did, you have to look at the conditions from which it rose. Only then can you trace the line to the consequences we live with today. During the mid-nineties it was clear that the right had the ideological high ground. Labour had failed to make any significant gains in three subsequent elections and despite a hard core of traditional supporters it was clear that they couldn’t fight on their own terms any more. Any appeal to public sentiment that the current system was flawed were met with howls from the opposing benches that the solution they had in mind was no better. You want to redistribute wealth? Well, I hope you like uncontrollable inflation. You want people to have a greater say in their working lives? Then I hope you like being held hostage by the unions and their vested interests. In short, they were flogging a dead horse. The solution, it seemed was to play the Tories at their own game, yield ground where they had to, accept the bulk of the Thatcherite consensus but reconcile that with their reason d’etre by trying to nudge the debate in the direction of social justice and a more equitable deal for the many (the mythical Third Way). This strategy required sacrifices that were very hard for some to swallow, such as the abolition of Clause 4, but the result had the desired effect. Labour became electable (and not only electable, but landslide-electable). On the face of it, that was the heavy lifting done with. We’ve got the keys right? So let’s lets drive this baby as far left as we can! Wrong. Once in power, New Labour became paralysed by a fear of losing it again and a strange new breed of politics began its ascent: The politics of managerialism.
Labours astonishing success at the polls was bought about because they had been willing to give up some very deep rooted ideas in the hope that the end (a more equal and socially just country) justified the means. However, that experience had a lasting effect on the party and over time it was the means (obtaining and sustaining power) that became the end. I doubt whether this was a conscious decision (I’m a big fan of headless conspiracies) but the end result was that Labour was a hostage to its own success. From here on in, their modus operandi was triangulation (whenever confronted by two opposing viewpoints, go straight down the middle) and politics was no longer about a battle of big ideas and more a glorified beauty contest. So, for example, if public opinion seems to be drifting left, then that’s where we shall go. If it drifts right, there too we shall follow. On the face of it, there is not a great deal to dislike about this approach as at the end of the day, the majority of people are getting what they want. That’s democracy, right? In theory, yes, but the one thing the theory didn’t take into account were the quirks of the UK’s electoral system. Because we use an outdated and frankly lunatic way of electing politicians, the actual outcome of elections are decide by a relative handful of people in marginal constituencies, most of which fall broadly in the category of ‘Middle Britain’. As a result, these people (who tend to be inclined to the right) have enormous political clout, their own mouthpiece (the Daily Fail) which sold papers by invoking spectres and demons and then berating the government for not doing enough about them (creating an unholy feedback loop). Labour were well aware that if they didn’t keep theses people onside, they’d lose the next election and all the sacrifice would be for nowt. Thus Labour turned its back on it’s political heritage and became little more than an electioneering machine, constantly trying to protect it’s flanks for fear of failure. You can still see it today, as we shift through the ashes of an economic crisis, bought about Thatcherite economics, that they still can’t bring themselves to depart from the script. Fear does funny things to people.
So there’s the backdrop. How, you may ask, has this got anything to do with us being a uniquely anxious society? A lot, so far as I’m concerned. Allow me to elaborate. I worked for three years as an NHS therapist specialising in mild to moderate mental health problems. During that time, I estimate I treated around 450 different individuals, a large proportion of which (perhaps a majority) presented with anxiety related problems. In a very unscientific nutshell, these people could be lumped in to a 3 of broad categories.
1) Those who were anxious because something horrible had happened to them or that they had seen something horrible. This is pretty standard stuff and it’s a case of your body doing what its supposed to, just with too much gusto. Most of the time, you could help them, things would get better and they could chalk up whatever it was that bought them there to life being a bastard at times.
2) Those who, for want of a better word, had shit lives. Be it an alcoholic partner, unemployed for 18 years, whatever, there were aspects of their lives that were crap and as a consequence, they felt crap. Sometimes you could help take the edges off the nastiness of it all and sometimes you could even present them with a picture of a better life. Quite often, you couldn’t and they tended to float around the system, bouncing from therapeutic post to the next.
3) Those, whose lives were completely unremarkable or sometimes even quite good by regular standards, yet who were beset with inner turmoil for reasons that they could not comprehend. These are the ones I want to focus on.
Predominately, but by no means exclusively, they were young (early-20’s to early-40’s), well educated, conscientious and at first, their problems were just as perplexing to me as they were to them (they certainly weren’t covered in my whistle-stop training but that’s a different story altogether). However, after a year or so in the job, I began to see some common threads running through their cases and in some respects, I recognised them from my own life. One thing that struck me was that there lifestyles weren’t usually extravagant, but neither were they impoverished. In fact, when compared to historical and international examples, their lot was good. But that wasn’t the full story. While it was true that grinding poverty wasn’t the issue, much of what they had was built on very shaky foundations. They were often homeowners who had bought completely overpriced housing on easy credit and much of their lifestyle was financed by similar tenuous arrangements. When asked whether they needed all this stuff, the answer would usually be “No”. So why did they do it? This stuff wasn’t exactly necessary and many of them were either racked with guilt at having it or somewhat stressed by the inescapable thought that one day they would have to square the bill. The answer was invariably that they thought this is what they ‘should’ be doing. This is what life ‘should’ look like.
Hand in hand with these confusing notions of material worth was their own self worth. As I mentioned earlier, many of these people were very well meaning, thoughtful people who wanted to be liked and wanted to be useful. A frighteningly large proportion of them were also teachers and in many respects, they pegged their own merit against what they perceived as how ‘good’ they were in their chosen field. Now, anyone who worked in the public sector during New Labour’s long reign will be familiar with the following:
“Everyday, I go to work and try to do the best I can. I teach a class of kids who don’t want to be taught, I don’t have the resources to do the job and every day I live in fear of being found out. When OFSTED time approaches, I don’t sleep. I can’t. I think about what they’ll find and the fact that I haven’t met target X or benchmark Y. I’ve done everything I can, but it’s not enough. I’m just a shit teacher and I’ve failed myself and my students.”
In the cold light of day, this appears to be a nonsense statement. It’s hardly their fault that the system is too rigid to allow for circumstance or that the decisions that set the targets were carried out in a parallel universe astride the Thames? The problem is that truth is subjective and if that’s how the truth feels, that’s what the truth is. These problems weren’t just confined to the sphere of work either. People would constantly fret that they were drinking too much, that they hadn’t had there 5-a-day, that they watched far too much telly even though they were in great physical shape and their lifestyles were generally very balanced. New Labour’s preoccupation with securing its political flanks from a hostile and at times irresponsible press (who are equally, if not more culpable) had grave consequences for some people. Throw into the mix the various paedo/terror/cancer/binge drinking hullabaloos, a freaky cult of celebrity and nation in awe of consumerism and you have yourself a heady mix indeed.
Another part of the problem were their own standards. If you always aim for 100%, you are always going to fail. I could help with that a little, but it was only half the battle. There were some other specific problems. We, as a nation have grown accustomed to the notion that once we reach a certain level of success, our lifestyle should change to reflect this. However, this has become untenable in an age when nearly a third of young people end up in university but here there are precious few jobs available that reflect that level of education. What were once the trappings of an elite are now heading towards commodity status, but our perception of how we should reflect this hasn’t caught up yet. As Orwell once said “Here I am, for instance, with a bourgeois upbringing and a working-class income. Which class do I belong to?”. To large extent, cheap credit has managed to fill this yawning cognitive gap, but it’s a fragile and temporary solution that will one day (very soon, I believe) run out of road.
The other problem was much deeper and it is the part that connects the political to the personal. All their lives, these people were told that they could achieve their dreams, that constraints were purely self inflicted and that hard graft would always result in success. This is a lie. A pernicious and dangerous lie that fails to take into account that life isn’t geared that way. The truth of the matter is that we can’t all be winners. The maths simple doesn’t work. But the difference between now and 50 years ago is where the blame lies. Back then, if you weren’t from a background that gave you opportunities, the chances were you wouldn’t really go anywhere and would end up pretty much where you started. That is somewhat tragic, but there is some compensation in the fact that you are not the victim of your own design. “It was life wot did it”. If Thatcherism has left us with one overriding legacy, it is this and it is neither helpful nor healthy.
So what is to be done? The government know there is a problem (they got a Lord to look into it) and have convinced themselves that something must be done, partly because that will generate huge savings from the benefit bill. Their solution is the snappily named IAPT or Increasing Access To Psychological Therapies programme and it aims to provide a staggering 10’000 extra therapists to salve our tortured minds. Having survived a fair few DoH mental health policy drives myself, I have grave misgivings about how it’s all going to work, but that’ll have to wait for another time. The main point about IAPT is that it totally misses the point. It simply serves to patch the holes and mop the brow of mischiefs largely inflicted by a wonky system. What does need tackling is the way we think about ourselves, as people, as a society, as a culture. Some of that will mean curbing some nasty habits (like our addiction to stuff) and facing some hard truths (that admitting that the way we live now is probably not a great way of doing things) and finally get back into the business of ideas. Not ideas about how we can offer A World Class Customer Experience That Cements Our Reputation As A World Leader In Field Of Bollocks or Innovative Solutions To The Challenges Posed By An Economy That Rides Upon A Chariot Of Bullshit. We need to start think about the big things again, stuff that really matters. If we don’t, we’ll only have ourselves to blame when we’re still ‘documentaries’ about Peaches Geldof in 2019.
Happy New Decade y’all.