Sunday, 25 January 2009

The Value of Money - the dangers of empty rhetoric and why the right is wrong on crime

While studying for English at standard grade I somehow ended up memorising the final words of the Great Gatsby, in the vague hope that if it was of no use in the exam, it would at least be of service to me at some point in the future. So understand that in the next seven words or so, when I start to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, it is not only because it fits well with what I want to say, but also because I want to fulfil what has become a lifelong ambition.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgasmic future that year by year recedes us. It eluded us then, but that is no matter, for tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further, and one fine day -

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. "

For once comfortably setting aside the possibility that once again an English teacher may have read too far into a story centric around champagne and the forerunner of ferrero rocher, it can safely be said that these closing lines seem to neatly sum up the vastly flawed concept of the American Dream. The romantic idea that the land is rich with opportunities waiting to be seized by the resourceful and youthful at heart. Even in situations where their efforts yield few rewards, young entrepreneurs should not give up, for ahead lies a destiny shared with Frank C. Ball, the young upstart come "fruit jar king of America". Even as it becomes apparent that a free market society is no place for an upstart business, maintains the publication Nation's Business, the fruits of labour lie only a few floors above, where the industrious and innovative worker will soon join J. L. Bevan, president of the Illinois Central Rain Board, who rather than starting his own business joined the ranks of a large corporation and used skill and poise to climb to the dizzying heights of the board room. The American right wing knows no end of feel good, anecdotal evidence of the rewards that lie in store for all of the hard hearted and the industrious. Throughout Western culture there is a plentiful supply of the kind of rags to riches stories that the right wing of America thrives on. Television programmes such as the X-Factor churn out a constant supply of young and talented individuals who have used their unique abilities as a spring board to success. The pedestals of American history are adorned with the busts of those who have walked the revered road between the log cabin and the big white house with a lawn and occasionally a situation room. In America, say the rich, it is the destiny of every intelligent and ambitious entrepreneur to join them at their table. Yet perhaps "destiny" is a word any willing proponent of the American Dream would do well to avoid. No higher reverence is accorded to any goal or value as that which is reserved for monetary wealth.

For those situated well on the right side of the tracks, this approach would seem to work perfectly. For the last eight years there has presided a government elected not only by the elite whose interests it serves, but also by millions who have come to share in this belief of a land of equal opportunity, so much so that they are prepared to vote for measures beneficial only to the wealthy in the hope that they will one day join them. In the recent presidential elections, the extent to which people seemed to believe in this ideal was revealed in what I expect will one day in a less than startling display of unoriginality be referred to as Plumbergate. People are led to strive for monetary again above all else, so much so that currency has become something of a measure of character. In a meritocracy a person can expect to be judged by the extent of his or her achievements, and when the enlargement of the bank balance has become the greatest ambition anyone would hope to achieve, it is the bank balance against which they will be judged.

Yet what happens when a culture lampoons fast food workers while canonising pimps and gangsters? When a society reaches a stage where such heavy emphasis as in America is placed on social objectives, at the cost and neglect of respectable means of achieving them, society enters what sociologist Robert Merton, from whom I am borrowing heavily, calls anomie. The institutionally acceptable means of achievement are as important as the goals themselves, and in a healthy society strong emphasis will be placed on adherence to both. More often than not, these acceptable means will be based less on efficiency and more heavily on the values of a particular society. An interesting example may be found in a recent study of events aboard the Titanic as the life boats were loaded. According to eye witness reports, while many of the American passengers scrambled for places, those from Britain were content to help their wives and children into life boats before returning bellow deck to don their dinner jackets and join their friends for a last drink. Putting aside the slightly surreal image of an English gentleman dropping his monocle into the sea as he reaches over to chip off some ice for his gin and tonic, an interesting illustration can be seen of how a person might react when they no longer have an acceptable means of attaining their goal, in this case survival. Rather than drawing the swords from their canes and maiming their way to the front of the queue, they were sufficiently adherent to their values to stay within the limits they had been taught.

Does this render the concept of the American dream nothing more than a harmful fantasy? If the American Dream were at present a reality, the inconvenience of punishment would make the lack of acceptable methods of attainment unproblematic, because on balance, there would be no reason to run the risk of imprisonment when there were other, lawful and so convenient avenues open. But, as a wealth of statistics show, this is simply not the case, and the dangers of empty rhetoric promoting ideas to the contrary are there to be seen. There has developed in much of the Western world a culture in such reverence of financial success that little heed is paid to the steps taken to accumulate that wealth, the result being that there is little incentive to stay within the limits of the law, and in fact some amount of pressure to deviate, in pursuit of material gain. The effects of this can be seen particularly in times of economic hardship when, even when faced with economic turmoil on a global scale, there remains in commerce an expectation on directors to deliver profits. Such is the enormous pressure to do this, combined with what as we have recently seen to be a clear lack of corporate ethics, will take unacceptable and at times deviant steps to secure the figures that investors want to see, often at the cost of those working beneath them. In such a situation, it is of little use to suggest that the situation could be remedied by giving directors the means to attain these figures. These are the people who would benefit from a clear moral code similar at times perhaps to the respectable chivalry witnessed aboard the Titanic, where the needs of those less fortunate or less able were placed above their own survival.

Of course, the effects of social anomie are witnessed much more vividly amongst the deprived sections of society. Among the unemployed and low income families, there can be found a much more realistic sense of exactly how removed from truth the American dream really is. If you call anomie the divergence of aspirations and expectations, it is among these classes that it will be the most prevalent. Such is the pressure to succeed when compared to the relatively meagre attempts to promote a lawful and moralistic lifestyle from those whose voices are largely drowned out by the culture of mass media that there is a huge pressure to live up to what society has come to expected. For people who find themselves in such a position, the levelling of the playing field could not be more vital. Poverty, and particularly social exclusion, have to be tackled if these people are to be given access to the incredible opportunities the righteous on the right never tire of talking about. Criminal policy may in the past have been an area the right wing considered to be home turf, however it is blatant that only through pursuing the policies traditionally associated with the left, such as social justice and the obliteration of social exclusion, can a market society be made to work. Particularly in coming years, education will come to be seen as each nation's greatest benefactor. The advent of mass communications has enabled a global market for jobs which means that more and more those jobs which can be done cheaper elsewhere are moving across borders. As countries realign to find their own niches in the global market, it is critical that education and retraining is made available to those in every sector of society, so that they are equipped to take on those jobs either which will not move abroad, or else those which were previously unavailable but which will come to settle in their own country, in order to ensure a strong and fair labour market with equal opportunities for good jobs.

Combined with this crusade for social justice, which countries such as the United Kingdom already pursue with vigour, there must be a wide scale refocusing of ideals away from the concept of money and material wealth as the holy grail, and towards a more open, diverse value driven society. Emphasis on the importance of family life, currently neglected, particularly in the over-worked and under paid areas of society, must be met with an equal strengthening of the institution in order to lessen the effects of the economy that currently impact on it. The importance of open and equal access to education must be highlighted as critical to the pursuit of social justice and a level playing field, however the value of education not as a means to and end but as an end in itself equally must not be underplayed. A greater respect for public service must be built to match the existing respect held for those who have (or had until recently) found great success in the city. All in all, what is required is a vast restructuring of society so as to lessen the importance assigned to monetary gain and emphasis the importance of other areas of life such as the family.

America is not the sort of country to give up on its dream. But in many ways, that is what those on the right have done, because rather than continuing to push for a levelling of the playing field, they are attempting to dupe themselves, or more likely everyone else, into believing that this has already been done. It is clear, from what has been written about how economic circumstances influence crime by the likes of Robert Merton, Messner and Rosenfeld and Elliot Currie, that there is a real danger to promoting such an image of an equal society of such singular aims as accomplished, when this vision is so far removed from the status quo. These theories were crafted to explain why America, as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, still had one of the highest crime rates. The answer is that when a country is so singular in its visions of success and so unaccommodating to the needs of its citizens in getting there, it creates a culture driven to meet its goals by any means necessary, even those society would consider illegal or immoral. This lesson does not just apply to the United States and can be extended to the likes of Britain where, over the past ten years, enormous steps have been taken to ensure a more level playing field on which every person can achieve their full potential. It remains however the case that Britain is not so different from the United States in the values that have become ingrained in our culture, for example with the glaring spotlight that tabloids focus on certain celebrities, combined with the morbid obsession it seems to have for their inappropriate and deviant behaviour. In this example the problems of social justice can be seen to go travel far beyond the economic realm as, such is the enormity of the coverage received by ill-behaving celebrities, a new instance of anomie can seemingly be created almost entirely by the media as. With such a huge emphasis placed on the status of particular celebrities with little thought given to the cause of their infamy, a new goal, fame, can be set with little regard for the means by which the more pathetic celebrities garner headlines. Likewise, over the last decades both the United Kingdom and the United States have entered into a state where politicians with legitimate policies, aims and objectives are afforded little more credibility than those who have tried to put polish on air.

Whether it is a lack of positive role models for young people in the media or simply the disproportionate respect that people hold for those with vast wealth met with a lack of focus on how it was accumulated, there remains a clear problem in this country and in America, that will take more than just government policy to change.

I have borrowed heavily from the works of Robert Merton, Messner and Rosenfeld, Box, Jock Young and Elliot Currie. For a more in depth explanation of social anomie or economic causes of crime in general look them up.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, I'm no expert in the subject but the gist I got was that if society places emphasis on a particular characteristic (in this case wealth) but does not have satisfactory mechanisms by which this characteristic can be achieved, inevitably there will be those who will break society's rules in order to attain that desired characteristic. Is that essentially correct?

    I think the idolisation of "wealth by any means" can be seen in a lot of the policies of the right. See for example Cameron's idea to increase the threshold on inheritance tax and reduce taxation on savings, an idea which massively benefits the children of the super rich, and is no way linked to achievement.

    The Tories like to talk about individuals not being penalised for their success, but all of their tax cuts and cuts in investments, for example proposing vouchers for private school pupils, do nothing except privilege the wealthy regardless of how the wealthy have gained their wealth or what they have added to society.

    Their view of the world as rich being better ignores the fact that what individuals add to their society cannot be expressed in a purely monetary sense. And that the work done by people on the rungs of society which they would look down on is essential for the smooth running of the society in which they enjoy their wealth.