Consumerism and Political Malaise
One of the lost treasures of political autobiography is that of Jo Grimond, leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, from 1956 to 1967 (and again briefly in 1976). While Grimond never achieved high office, he was a first-rate intellectual, with a hinterland spanning art, literature and history. Unlike his contemporaries Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, he was not by temperament a political fixer or party-manager. He was rather a deep thinker, who possessed an uncanny capacity to look beyond immediate political crises, and ask deep questions about the structure, direction and point of politics. In an age when public questions had become colonized by a breed of bland Keynesian technocrats, he thought of politics in unfashionably grand terms. He was not afraid to talk about the ideals of civilization, the threats of barbarism, or the horrors of crass materialism. He found in the ideals of the ancient Greeks (if not always in their practice) a compelling fable which allowed him to diagnose many contemporary ailments. At its best, he thought the Athenian conception of the polis (rooted in citizenship, participation and responsibility) provided a dynamic model for contemporary liberal democratic politics. In the final chapter of his memoirs he sounded a surprisingly grim note:
We have succumbed to the idol of ‘more’. Technical and economic determinism, blind to human values, now decides where we must go. Science and machinery, we are told, under the bureaucracies will conjure up more and more of everything. Our role is to sit up and beg, being content with whatever [is] thrown us. The Christian and Greek teachings which although seldom followed point towards the right way, are now derided. The Greeks taught the delight of self-expression, play, creation, art. They treated human communities as heirs of past triumphs and guardians of the future. They and their Christian successors hoped that we might by adding to its legacy leave the world a better place.
But against this august Greek-Christian sensibility, Grimond detects a rising coarsening of Western societies, driven by an instrumental attitude to people and the world. We create ever more ingenious mechanisms for piling up riches, but we have no attention to the quality of politics, the state of our friendships, or the vibrancy of our public ideals. As Grimond laments: ‘We see now a cult of barbarism, with airlines ticketed out with the most expensive planes available, in the burning up of energy, in the scramble for new gadgets, and the trampling down of non-conformity. Human beings are discounted.’ There is something in this litany of pessimism which recalls the past destruction of civilizations. In the age of Pericles, Athens felt itself to be the centre of the world. Its art, riches, and culture spoke of an untouchable greatness. Yet, as Thucydides chronicles in his History of the Peloponnesian War, there was a cankerous worm at the heart of the Athenian polis. Sumptuousness bred arrogance, security bred recklessness, learning bred foolishness. In this spirit of Thucydidean pity Grimond tells his readers living in a latter-day Athens:
Looking around London it is uglier, dirtier, more expensively and more incompetently run than it was ten years ago. Many of the people in the Underground railway look like refugees from a prison camp. The standard of life may be statistically rising but it is difficult to discern greater well-being in either the homes or faces of most people. A certain mulish worry seems a prevalent expression. Yet their avowed inability, in spite of the vast armoury of tools now at their disposal, to conduct affairs economically or competently does not prevent our governors from essaying constant interference in our lives when it suits them.
What shall we make of such a dire portrait? Almost immediately after writing, Grimond’s mournful assessment took on a peculiar strangeness, pushing against a dominant story of progress and prosperity. After 1989, Western politicians heaved a collective sigh of relief. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, Germany had been reunified, and the Western economies were beginning to recover from the cycle of stops and shocks which had characterised their sluggish performance since the mid-1970s. Britain, after the shock-doctrine of Thatcherism was beginning to settle into something like an ideological consensus. John Major, the moderate Tory, was the perfect representative of a country grown weary of ideological crusades and hard economic medicine. Yet, Grimond sensed, against the shallow instincts of many political commentators, that the malaise and contradiction that sat beneath this new shiny consumer society was deeper than any realized. In the midst of Britain’s present Brexit chaos, it might be time to admit that the doom-saying of Grimond possesses some profound truths. We are one of the richest countries in the world, surrounded daily with technological marvels, but the country feels anxious, shabby, spent of purpose, and sick with both insecurity and the shallow prosperity of the few. Brexit is not just a technical question of being part of a political and trading bloc. It always was an existential question about political meaning. What are our lives together for? Where are we going? How do we navigate a world where most of us feel practically helpless to effect change? Can the country be better than this? This is precisely why the cynical Brexiteer cry of ‘take back control’ spoke to many. In our rapidly changing world an increasing number of people feel scared, anchorless, without a sense of home, and with little sense of a future. What tools should we use to understand the state of decay we appear to be in? How do we translate Grimond’s talk of Greek ideals into a diagnosis for our own times? What needs fixing so we avoid something akin to a Thucydidean collapse? To answer these questions, I propose to read Grimond’s sorrowful petition of decay through the work of Hannah Arendt. Like Grimond, Arendt was a student of the Greeks. Confronted with the alienation and technological horrors of the twentieth-century, Arendt sought a rebirth of old ideals. She desired the best of the old Greek city, purged of its slavery and thirst for domination. At a time when our island feels like its inexorably sinking into a sea of sorrow and memory, Arendt shows us a lifeboat, just as Grimond spells out the character of the storm.
The Work Society and Its Discontents
Perhaps the best place to begin is to consider what Grimond calls the idol of more. By excavating the roots of modern consumerism, we might discover much of what is driving our increasingly fraught and fraying politics, not only in Britain, but in the post-industrial West more generally. How is it, that many contemporary British people are surrounded by relative safety and convenience and yet feel hateful, afraid, and disconnected from one another? Today, Arendt is known primarily as the great theorist of totalitarianism, but this ignores her other substantial contributions to political thought. Of particular concern in Arendt’s work is the way in which liberal-democratic ideals of participation and citizenship, have given way to an apolitical purchaser society of toil and consumption. As Arendt observes in The Human Condition (1958): ‘The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labour and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a labouring society.’ In this valorisation of labour what does Arendt think has been lost? In her view, Capitalist worker-states have lost the capacity to think beyond the narrow confines of economic necessity, towards ‘the “beautiful,” that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful….the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds.’ Frenzied activities of production and consumption increasingly replace the seeking after virtuous modes of life, and the perfection of the political community. And while equality is proclaimed as the primary ideal in such a society, worker-equalitarianism is merely an expression of the conformist leveling required by the logic of consumerism.
Our sameness is increasingly a result, not of a sense of togetherness as citizens, but the outcome of economic standardisation. We walk down the same bleak streets, with the same clone shops, in increasingly identical homes. A longing for the betterment of the community, has been replaced by the acquisition of things. Yet, as widespread poor mental health testifies, this work-society is not meeting deep human needs. What are these needs? They are illustrated in two probing questions, ‘does my life matter?’ Am I making a difference to anything?’ Judging by the rise of what the anthropologist David Graeber has called bullshit jobs, a growing number of people say ‘no’ to both vital questions. In this pervasive state of anomie what is left to hold onto? Responses to such meaning-deprivation are various, but one reaction in particular preoccupied Arendt, namely the racial ideology of the far right. In the absence of strong local and civic identities, Arendt believed that people sought to inherit their way into belonging and mattering through an appeal to ethnic myths. This desire becomes violent and totalitarian when people are willing to escape meaninglessness at any price. The seed-bed of such a politics is according to Arendt, a condition of widespread loneliness. As Arendt notes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:
What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals. In this situation, man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time…..What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality.
How does this speak to our own context? In the wasteland of austerity, a housing-shortage, stuttering pay, and insecure jobs, one can see Britain plummeting into rootlessness. While we have not yet sunk into totalitarian conditions, it may be justly asked whether we have any adequate defences against such forces when and if they arrive. Bluntly, we no-longer have the institutions to root us, and in the ruins, hatred and suspicion continues to grow. In the heated, sometimes poisonous debates concerning immigration, we are offered a glimpse of a possible future, one in which an atomised community of strangers turns on the helpless outsider to relieve its own loneliness. How did we get here? Fintan O’Toole, in his recent book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, chronicles how the welfare state of 1945 gave the weary people who had lost an empire a noble and ennobling vision of caring for the sick, protecting the old, and educating the young. The mixed economy held the promise of a mighty compromise between Capital and labour, state-socialism and market discipline. Yet, as post-war optimism mutated into economic pessimism in the late 70s and early 1980s, people felt increasingly cheated by this grand vision. As Grimond reflected on its shortfalls in 1978: ‘What is true is that collectivism has been the dominant strain in British (and indeed in Western) thinking for the last forty years or so. This has affected social services, as it has all sides of politics. State or bureaucratic socialism has won the day over varieties of Christian or democratic socialism such as syndicalism. Control of officials on behalf of the public has been largely accepted.’ Far from improving the public welfare, Grimond contended that the extension of officialdom had increased patronage, corruption, and the dependence of civil society and the private sector on state-handouts. Thatcherism, in its valorisation of Victorian values, attempted to correct this situation by insisting on self-reliance and civic responsibility. Yet in an era of mass-advertising, and the credit card, these ideals soon degenerated into crass consumerism, and the glorification of selfishness.
As Margret Thatcher later confided to her friend, the Labour MP Frank Field, she expected her party’s slashing of tax rates, to herald a new age of civil engagement and philanthropy—when (in High Tory fashion) the rich would once again, take care of the poor. The fact that this promised land of civic responsibility did not emerge bewildered her. The rapid deindustrialisation of Britain in the 1980s did not herald a new Victorian age. The rich of the Home Counties prospered, while the rest of the country creaked and withered. Thatcher’s miscalculation was to make a significant contribution towards our present malaise. In the world after Thatcherism and New Labour, it is not entirely clear what holds this island together. In a country where shopping seems more central than citizenship, people can feel themselves to be profoundly alone, displacing their disconnection with an ever more bewildering profusion of consumer goods. For Arendt, such a state of affairs is always unsatisfactory, because it degrades the dignity of the individual person. It reduces the rights-bearing citizen to a passive creature of consumption, incapable of virtue, creativity or purpose. We could be so much more, but the apolitical domain of the shop-window invites us to divert our energies from the city to ourselves, from collective, to private concerns. As Arendt notes disdainfully:
In Greece….it was the ever-frustrated ambition of all tyrants to discourage the citizens from worrying about public affairs, from idling their time away in unproductive ago-reuein and politeuesthai, and to transform the agora into an assemblage of shops like the bazaars of oriental despotism. What characterized these market places, and later characterized the medieval cities’ trade and craft districts, was that the display of goods for sale was accompanied by a display of their production. “Conspicuous production” (if we may vary Veblen’s term) is, in fact, no less a trait of a society of producers than “conspicuous consumption” is a characteristic of a laborers’ society.
Here we observe the deep material roots of our powerlessness. In advanced post-industrial societies, most of us are not the fulfiller of our own needs. We wait to be satisfied by corporations and government agencies. We do not feel any ownership over the world about us. We do not believe we have the capacity to perform any deeds that will endure or produce any beauty that will last. The impersonality of modern organisation renders us a passive cog in wheels we can neither control, nor comprehend. In such conditions of isolation, the banner of Brexit and the heroic nationalist myth becomes irresistible. In a polis that has become empty of politics, the flag becomes a talisman against the sense that we belong nowhere. But, in the end, this talisman, this flag, presents an ‘imaginary community’. It is a pleasant piece of poetry, a myth which is increasingly refuted by experience. It does not really meet people’s sense of meaninglessness, it only masks it. How does Arendt think we can escape from the existential senselessness of the work society? Looking back to ancient Athens, Arendt argues that the only cure is a society in which civil participation is felt to be the preserve of all citizens, not just elected officials or selected technocrats. This is the cure, she argues, not merely to public meaninglessness, but an answer to those demagogues who would take advantage of our fear and loneliness for their own political ends.
Re-Thinking the Polis: The Problem of Labour
Since the very early days of her philosophical career, contemporaries found Arendt hard to characterise. Sometimes she sounded like a conservative. She relished in the aristocratic ideals of Athenian society and longed for some version of their return. Yet, she often sounded like a socialist, rallying against the alienations and indignities of a mechanised de-humanised society. At other times, Arendt sounded like an inveterate anarchist. In the human life stripped of dignity by crowds, mobs, and bureaucracies, she discerned the source of the many horrors of the 20th century. In truth, it seems Arendt thought all these streams were fruitful avenues through which to repair politics. What held these tendencies together was her contention that there was no long-term future for the consumer worker-state, whether Capitalist or Soviet. Politics must be rethought if modern human beings were to avoid futility and despair. As she wrote at the beginning of The Human Condition:
Closer at hand and perhaps equally decisive is another no less threatening event. This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate man- kind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.
Underlying Arendt’s remarks is the important Classical distinction between ‘work’ and ‘labour’. For the philosophers (most prominently Aristotle) work is what we build a meaningful life around. Work refers to those acts which connect the present with the future, foster beauty and meaning for ourselves and others. Labour by contrast involves those needful activities that are required to keep one alive. They are not sources of meaning, but blunt expressions of biological need. It was Aristotle’s contention that the life of necessity was always lower in the scale of human goods to the life of work, because the latter allowed the individual freedom to care about his city and the people in it. A life of drudgery dedicated to the production of goods was for Aristotle incompatible with the political and outward-facing life of the citizen. The activity of the workman was the domain of the apolitical slave. As Aristotle expressed this idea in The Politics: ‘any task, craft, or branch of learning should be considered vulgar if it renders the body or mind of free people useless for the practices and activities of virtue. That is why the crafts that put the body in worse condition and work done for wages are called vulgar; for they debase the mind and deprive it of leisure.’ (337a10–11). Despite the welcome elimination of mass-slavery in modern cultures, Arendt believed that latter-day technological societies are nonetheless surprisingly grim because they have largely departed from the Greek separation between labour and work. Instead of giving human beings the opportunity to perfect themselves through politics, the pressures of contemporary money-making reduce the horizons of many people to a narrow range of concerns. Instead of seeking out a good life, modern people are so bombarded with prices, goods, and expenditures that these commercial matters begin to absorb all their attention. Their minds become so fixated on the acquisition of material things that they cease to look for moral, aesthetic or intellectual satisfactions. As a consequence, the deep joys of human experience (friendship, connection, creativity, learning) are constantly being crowded out. As the cultural critic Walter Benjamin once summarized this predicament:
The freedom of conversation is being lost. If, earlier, it was a matter of course in conversation to take interest in one’s interlocutor, now this is replaced by an inquiry into the cost of his shoes or of his umbrella. Irresistibly intruding on any convivial exchange is the theme of the conditions of life, of money. What this theme involves is not so much the concerns and sorrows of individuals, in which they may be able to help one another, as the overall picture. It is as if one were trapped in a theatre and had to follow the events on the stage, whether one wanted to or not- had to make them again and again, willing or unwilling, the subject of one’s thought and speech.
Here Benjamin introduces us into a peculiarly modern form of impoverishment. The office worker may inhabit clean and well-regulated surroundings, but his daily activities consist in a series of meaningless tasks that trap his life in the drudgery of labour. He is a colleague and co-worker, but he does no useful work (in the Greek sense). The demands of his workplace (e-mails, reports, and meetings) leave him without the time or energy to consider the community he is part of. His job actively isolates him from a sense of the ‘public’. But as Arendt’s remarks signpost, automation holds out the distinct possibility of the restoration of meaningful work. Instead of giving our lives over to the rat-race of career-orientated consumption, we can again start thinking of society and politics as terrains for purpose, care, and connection. In a world where the factory (and office) is increasingly empty, politics can become something we do as leisure, not in-between work. In this renewed vision of the polis, we can care about our common choices, not as an anxious after-thought, but as a daily reality. In such a post-acquisition society, a thousand forms of social life could be given the space to flourish. In past centuries the majority laboured so the few could pursue their life-projects. Artists, priests, legislators and philosophers worked for lasting glory, while the majority toiled in hateful servitude. Now we are on the cusp of a world without paralysing need and senseless slog.
Of course, the municipal socialist and collectivist anarchist would be at home in such a future. Insofar as the money-society cloaks hopelessness and violence of all kinds, the end of worthless labour, represents the deepest hopes of many a leftist utopia. Yet, we should not underestimate the extent to which such a vision responds to the deepest needs of the patriotic conservative. It was the philosopher Michael Oakeshott who argued that conservatism always prefers ‘the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.’. Yet, there is nothing more utopian, nothing more obsessed with the unbounded and the distant, than our consumer-society? In its constant fixation on future satisfaction, it depreciates the present, the actual and the concrete. How can any true love of country we born when our lives are marred by insecurity, anxiety, and greed? How can the cult of ‘more’ even come close to the love of place? Arendt’s return to old political ideals, offers a route of escape. In a society where labour is no-longer the defining activity of life, the patriot may rediscover is love of locality as an actual feeling, not an abstraction crystallised in a flag.
The Return of the Agora
How do we get to such a society? For his part, Jo Grimond believed that Arendt’s world of empty factories was an already-present reality in the post-war world. Heavy industry was dying, while new professional workers enjoyed unparalleled levels of leisure-time. Harold Wilson’s ‘white-hot heat of technology’ was felling all before it. Reflecting on Britain’s economic position in 1978, Grimond noted ‘at the time of writing we are bedevilled by what is optimistically considered a temporary lack of work, we may have to resign ourselves to a higher level of unemployment than was once thought necessary.’ Not all was doom and gloom, however. In the ashes of the workers-state Grimond believed that ‘socialism without a state’ might yet spring up to replace it. Echoing the politics of Robert Owen, Grimond argued for a pluralist political settlement capable of replacing the monolithic forces of the state and corporate enterprise. People would find renewed purpose, not through the agitation of their desires, but through the possibility of participation in the life of the community. Through a network of local institutions, co-operatives and unions, Grimond saw a way to break with the crass materialism and political apathy of the modern world. Yet, as Grimond was at pains to point out, his liberal syndicalism was not the workers-state of conspicuous consumption reborn. Any effort expended in the new state of plenty should not be an end in itself, but as a means to ‘play, self-expression, dancing, enjoyment, and tolerance.’ Underpinning Grimond’s post-labour society was the right of every citizen to be paid a minimum income. Such a scheme would not only protect people against poverty but expand the range of voluntary activity. Not only would such citizens have a greater opportunity to care for the needy but would be freer to devote themselves to activities that would enrich community life, including art and the maintenance of local amenities like libraries, theatres, and ad hoc forms of community education. Noting the modern rise in self-employment, Grimond reflects optimistically: ‘Self-employment must include, indeed largely consist of, work for the community. We must involve far more people in the building of their own community.’ Cities, once designed for the requirements of industrial workers, could finally be refashioned to accommodate a greater range of pastimes and pleasurable pursuits. After centuries of indignity, Grimond believed that the West could again find its centre of gravity in the agora, and its promise of a life of beauty and significance. In the possibility of vacant offices and museum factories, Grimond discerned the contours of a richer life within our grasp.
What have such grand plans got to do with Brexit? I contend that one cannot deal with the anger unleashed by the 2016 referendum without addressing the root causes of that anger. Such rage clusters around the question of European Union membership but leaving the EU will not defuse that anger unless followed by fundamental political reform. People are angry because they feel homeless, bereft of meaning, and without anchor in a rapidly changing world. Unless we rise to the challenge of our present conditions, the multiplying contradictions of our age will swallow us whole. Such a task appears politically urgent in Britain as our system of government grinds to a halt. Yet, such a task is needed in all the post-industrial economies. The factories continue to empty, the amount of necessary labour keeps shrinking, and yet, we continue to sustain the worker-state, dimly aware of the misery we are in. As David Graeber puts it:
Rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
There must be a better world than this. Both Grimond and Arendt articulate a resolute refusal to be diverted from the possibility of a larger, fuller life. No facsimile of politics should ever be accepted for the real thing. Either the polis is based on participation or there is no polis. Either we find ways of enhancing beauty and meaning, or we will sink into greed, violence and loneliness. Citizenship must mean more than a flag and a passport but personify an invitation into a shared project of civic betterment. Crafting this invitation is the great existential challenge of this century.
 Jo Grimond, Memoires, (London, Heiman, 1979), p. 294-5
 Grimond, Memoires, (London, Heiman, 1979), p. 295
 Grimond, Memoires, p. 293
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958: 1998), p. 4-5
 Arendt, The Human Condition, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958: 1998), p. 13
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (London: Penguin, 1951: 2017), p. 626-7
 Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, (London: Apollo, 2018), p. 19
  Jo Grimond, The Common Welfare, (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1978), p. 70
 Frank Field, ‘What would Thatcher do today about . . . the rich’, first published in The Times, (18 April 2013), http://www.frankfield.co.uk/latest-news/news.aspx?p=102514 (Accessed 23 Mar. 19)
 Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 160
 Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 4.
 Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, trans. Peter Demetz, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 37
 Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 317
 Michael Oakeshott, ‘On Being Conservative’, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), pp. 408-9
 Grimond, The Common Welfare, (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1978), p. 49-9
 Grimond, The Common Welfare, (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1978), p. 139
 Grimond, The Common Welfare, p. 42
 An excellent summary of Jo Grimond’s Basic Income scheme can be found in The Parliamentary Debates (Hansard).: House of Lords official report, Volume 465, p. 290-291
 Grimond, The Common Welfare, p. 147
 Grimond, The Common Welfare, p. 147
 David Graeber, ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant’, in Strike!, https://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ [Accessed March 25, 2019]