Society is collapsing because you are greedy

Social crises have always been blamed on the extravagance of the rich. But today, all of us - from wealthy to peasant - are labelled ‘decadent’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

At the Battle of Ideas in London on 31 October and 1 November, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill was invited to outline some ‘virtues for a post-recession world’. His speech is published below.

Throughout history, social crises have tended to be explained through the idea of decadence. When society reaches a tipping point, or enters a crisis period, or falls apart, there has been an historical tendency to interpret the problem through the prism of excess and opulence. It’s become a kind of default, and very unsatisfactory, explanation for historical crises.

Right from Biblical times through to today, there has been this idea of society being corrupted by excessive greed. So for example, one of the most popular images from the crisis and collapse of Rome is of Nero playing the fiddle and drinking wine during the Great Fire of 64 AD. No depiction of Rome’s demise is complete without showing the rulers of Rome feasting on grapes or marrying horses or whatever else they did.

One of the best-known legends from the collapse of monarchical France is of Marie Antoinette saying ‘Let them eat cake!’. That quote might not be accurate, but the idea of society being propelled into a state of collapse by the greed of its rulers is a recurring one and a very powerful one. Excessive greed becomes both a symbol of and an explanation for social crisis. The idea of a lack of restraint, a lack of control, becomes the explanation for why society itself is spinning out of control and entering a period of turmoil.

The problem, of course, is that this default explanation is too partial and is narrowly moralistic. It’s partial because it only focuses on one thing. And it can even serve as a distraction from understanding the larger social and economic forces that bring about crises. Rome did not collapse simply because of the eating habits or sexual shenanigans of its rulers. And it’s narrowly moralistic in the way it suggests that desire and sinful behaviour can bring about a society’s downfall.

And yet today, people are putting forward very similar, default explanations for the economic, social and moral malaise afflicting our society. According to the title of one new book, we live in an ‘Age of Greed’. The modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah is the square mile in the City of London. Society has been wrecked, we’re told, by the excessive greed and decadence of bankers in particular, and over the past year we have been treated to detailed, Caligulan stories about how much these people spend on booze, how many times they visit lapdancing clubs, what they eat for lunch and dinner and everything else. The idea of decadence causing social collapse has returned with a vengeance, and it remains as partial and unsatisfactory as ever, completely overlooking the social and economic forces that brought about today’s recession.

However, if we were just witnessing a return of the narrow decadence argument, that would be bad enough. But it’s worse than that. There is something new and unusual and darker in today’s focus on greed. What is different is that today, it is not only the rich and the rulers whose greed has apparently caused turmoil; instead all of us, every single one of us, is implicated in the Age of Greed. It’s not just the modern-day Marie Antoinettes, the rich, the greedy and the fat, who have ruined everything; instead we are all apparently equally complicit in the destruction of society through our lack of restraint and our greed. This, I think, is unusual and deeply disturbing.

Today, everyone from Fred Goodwin to Chinese peasants is complicit. Alongside attacks on Fred Goodwin’s bonus, you will also read article after article telling us that the fact that Chinese people are now eating more meat than before is bringing about an historic food crisis. Alongside denunciations of the bankers’ fast cars and champagne lifestyle, you will also hear denunciations of the fact that more Chinese and Indian people are buying refrigerators, which will apparently contribute to global warming and bring about the End of Days.

Alongside attacks on bankers for making money from thin air, you will see attacks on low-income families who took out mortgages even though they couldn’t really afford them. How dare these poor people buy their homes, who do they think they are? How dare these Chinese people eat so much meat? ‘Let them eat rice’ – that is the miserabilist cry today.

What we end up with is a demand for everyone to restrain themselves, to stop being greedy, to limit their desires. The solution to society’s and the economy’s woes is simply widespread restraint, we are told. However, there is something new and distinctive in this, too. Because today we are told to rein ourselves in, not in the name of transcendence or redemption or as a way of improving our moral and intellectual selves, but simply in order to stop being so destructive. Today there is a complete disconnect between human behaviour and any idea of human redemption.

In history, movements to encourage ascetic living, simple living, always tended to be linked to some philosophical worldview, some idea of making humans better by testing them and developing them and building their character. For the Puritans and the Victorians and others, hardship had something to do with with redeeming humans. Today, the calls for cutting back are not linked to any positive human objective; they are simply about making a virtue out of necessity. It is not about character-building, it is about completely external, numerical things like reducing how many toxins you produce. It’s not about developing the human, but punishing the human in the name of some nonsense external force: usually Gaia.

The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes lived in a barrel because he wanted to achieve purity of thought – today we’re encouraged to live in the contemporary equivalent of a barrel, small eco-houses with no heating and a handful of amenities, merely to keep us in our place, as a way of keeping our destructive selves away from the apparently vulnerable world.

Today’s debate about the recession speaks to a view of people as unrestrained, destructive, and morally incapable; as toxic creatures with no inner moral life that needs to be developed or satisfied. The idea that everyone is now complicit in decadently bringing down society, and the idea that we should lower our living standards without any promise of transcendence, springs from today’s very degraded view of people. It springs from a view of people as simply consumers, exploiters, the users of resources, the destroyers of things, rather than as creators, producers, the makers of things and of history.

In terms of the values we should hold dear post-recession, I don’t think it is wise to draw up a list of values as if it were some administrative task. But we should definitely turn on its head the idea that a lack of restraint explains all our social problems and the idea that human beings are simply sucking the planet dry, and reinstitute a view of people as creative, moral beings.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) The above is a speech that was given at ‘The Good Society: Virtues for a Post-Recession World’ at the Battle of Ideas in London on 1 November 2009.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black said austerity is not the solution to the recession. Neil Davenport reviewed Austerity Britain. When it comes to anti-consumerist tracts, said Daniel Ben-Ami, there are too many to choose from. James Woudhuysen gave three cheers for China’s ‘economic miracle’. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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