It isn’t so very long ago that life for ordinary people in Western civilisation was hard, even brutal. People worked hard and often menial jobs for very long hours and for very little reward. People lost loved ones and family members to illness, accident and disease. Many men were widowed and children orphaned due to the death of a wife and mother in childbirth. Ordinary people lived in an age of insufficiency and simply keeping one’s body and soul together and providing for the most basic needs of one’s family was as much as most could hope for. People generally didn’t live long into old age.
Social injustice; the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy was ‘normal’ and the personal misuse of people who had the misfortune of finding themselves in domestic ‘service’ positions by their wealthier employers was commonplace. Educational opportunities for working class people were non-existent or severely limited.
Access to literature and the arts was restricted to the wealthier classes. Opportunities for working class people to better themselves and to rise above their social station were virtually non-existent and even vigorously opposed by the middle and upper classes. Even simple travel wasn’t available to ordinary folks in many walks of life.
Life was an uncertain business and, even if one managed to survive the ravages of disease, privation, accident and poverty, there was always the prospect of having one’s entire world swept away on the tide of military conflict and national obligation. It isn’t so long ago that any able bodied man could be legally kidnapped and pressed into military service, often never to see home and family again.
Such pleasures as there were, were simple. People made their own entertainments and the freedoms of the working class were severely restricted by economic insufficiency, or by political and economic control by the wealthy and powerful and by the Church.
Its difficult to imagine how poorer folks living in those times managed to find any joy in life at all, much less enough of it to make life worth living. People dreamed of an easier life, less labour, more material comforts and a more secure future.
Roll ahead a couple of hundred years and what a different world we see for ordinary people. Technology has transformed every aspect of daily life. Most of the menial jobs have long since been taken over by machines.
Medical science has eradicated most of the diseases that once threatened human life and has found effective treatments for many more. Ordinary people now enjoy access to a standard of medical treatment, hitherto undreamed of. Artificial dentures and body parts are now commonplace, life expectancy is extended well into old age and ordinary people are even undergoing medical procedures for purely cosmetic reasons!
Education is not only available to all, but is even mandatory for young people, regardless of social and economic status. Virtually unlimited access to the arts and to information and educational opportunities are available to pretty much everybody. The internet has provided an information superhighway for everyone and has revolutionised social interaction between people across the street or across the world. High Fidelity sound systems, high definition televisions and an endless supply of the very best of music and cinema is available in almost every home.
Wholesome food of high quality is available more cheaply and more abundantly and to more people, than at any time in previous history.
The standard of material wealth of ordinary people has increased exponentially in the last hundred years or so. Where once a family worked hard to pay rent on a modest home, modern families own their own. And the number of separate bedrooms and bathrooms are a matter of social prestige, much more than of physical necessity. People enjoy a range of consumer goods and labour-saving devices that simply boggle the mind. And they holiday in exotic locations across the globe. It is indeed, the age of the common man! And a weary planet struggles to supply ever increasing quantities of the raw materials and produce that make modern life so easy and luxurious for countless ordinary folks.
When one considers the rigors of life for ordinary people in former times, and the amazing opulence of life in the twenty first century, one could be excused for imagining that, along with the improved quality of life for normal people, the level of contentment within society would have likewise risen. But contrary to what would seem to be the logical outcome of so much improvement in the circumstances of ordinary society, we are now being told that the new epidemics of this century are anxiety, depression and obesity.
The Nirvana that people of earlier times imagined would be delivered by an easier and more opulent life, is proving a mirage and reality is revealing a life and a lifestyle for ordinary people that is a far cry from what was fondly hoped for. Why? Its such a little word and such a hugely important question. There is no doubt no single, simple answer.
It has become clear though, that massive improvements in material wealth, education, medical treatment and social circumstances have failed to deliver a greater quality of life for many people. And only an ignorant fool would imagine that our world can continue to sustain the present indulgent lifestyles of ordinary people, much less provide still greater standards of personal wealth and material comfort.
So given that so much has improved, why is society so frightened, overweight and miserable. While I don’t have access to any empirical studies of this issue, I think a few conclusions can be drawn, just by appealing to common sense and logic.
I suspect that one of the key ingredients of contentment is a matter of certainty … of believing in one’s future. Some aspects of life in earlier times were uncertain indeed. But ordinary people could reasonably hope for some measure of certainty and permanence in a few key areas of life. For starters, ordinary people of yesteryear were relatively ignorant. And there’s truth to be found in the notion that (sometimes) ‘ignorance is bliss’!
It was easy for simple people to believe that many matters were beyond their station and outside their sphere of concern, but that these could be safely entrusted to the church, to the state or to ‘the quality’ … the people of wealth and power. Such people were even held in esteem and respect by a populace that lacked education and enlightenment.
Employment was a matter of being trained at an early age, into a trade or job that would likely remain one’s lot for one’s entire working life. So having achieved a level of competence in some chosen (or imposed) job, one could forget about learning and simply get along with life.
Those areas of uncertainty that remained … illness and death, accident and privation were the same uncertainties for all and fate rolled its dice with neither fear nor favour. So the travails of life for ordinary folks were a common and communal experience, shared and shouldered by all. There was a feeling of solidarity, of belonging and of mutual support amongst the lower classes.
Religion played a major role in the lives of ordinary people and the church provided a sense of belonging. It also provided an explanation for the awful rigors of daily life, consolation in its moments of travail and (most importantly) a promise of ultimate justice and happiness in a life after this one. The church also played a major role in the regulation of people’s behavior and held itself up as a beacon of authority, charity and decency.
The low level of material wealth, the harshness of life and the restrictions imposed by the state, the church and the upper classes were more or less uniform amongst the masses and the working class adopted a fatalistic attitude to their lot, as some kind of ‘normal’ for ordinary folks.
What a contrast today! For starters, lower class society is no longer ignorant, They are educated. The notion that many aspects of one’s future are outside one’s personal control and better left to the state, the church or to the wealthy and powerful is thankfully becoming a curiosity of history. But the realisation that responsibility for the future rests with the individual is a cold and harsh reality to live with.
The revolution in education and communication has removed the veil of mystery that previously surrounded our governments and religious institutions. And the exploitations, excesses and misdeeds of the rich and powerful have long ago become exposed to the masses by the tabloid press. In much of western society, there’s a universal contempt for politics and politicians. Religious faith and alegience to the established church is at an all-time low and the evil misdeeds of a corrupt and perverted clergy are nowadays providing daily entertainment in the media. We are seeing endless inquiries aimed at investigating the long-past sins of not only the Church, but also other institutions, including those run or overseen by the state. Dreadful stories of the most appalling mental and physical abuse of helpless innocents, by the representatives of these institutions are regularly reported in the press. (As an aside, while there’s much talk of seeking justice for the victims, I think the main event will be the seeking of ‘compensation’. ‘Compensation’ invariably seems to take the form of cash. How money can have any role whatever in righting such wrongs is a mystery to my simple mind. Its power to create, inflate and perpetuate now unprovable tales of such wrongs, on the other hand, I can easily understand. I’m certain that a great deal of cash will ultimately flow to the legal profession and to the victims. I’m just as certain that not one of those diabolical wrongs will be cancelled out by any amount of legal extortion. I am reminded of the witch trials of former times.)
We no longer enjoy the security of our ignorance. We know now, that no church or state or upper class can be relied upon to look out for us. With the security of belief in these higher powers swept away, we have no heroes, no saviors, no benevolent authority to believe in. Deprived of our former champions, we kid ourselves that we, who are now better educated and more sophisticated, no longer need them. And at the same time, people are worshipping at the feet of any number of latterday saints …. media gurus like America’s Donahue, Oprah and Doctor Phil and any number of media personalities ranging from current affairs commentators to food chefs! Fundamentalist religious sects are enjoying a significant revival and spiritualism, naturopathy, clairvoyance and even astrology are all alive and well amongst the working class! And we have developed an unhealthy reverence for ‘experts’. Every absurdity and stupidity that politics, commerce or religion wishes to inflict upon us is ‘supported’ by a host of tame ‘experts’ who we look to for assurance that all will be well. Noone seems to make any connection between the causes that experts support or resist and the sources of their sponsorship or the payoff for their ‘contributions’! Our need for something to believe in outside of ourselves is an enduring malady. Our desire to have someone else take the responsibility for our lives continues. Our education may have taught us to know and remember much, but it seems, it has failed to teach us to think and to understand.
Where once, a person could learn a trade or profession and then look forward to a lifetime of security and employment from that investment, the pace of change and the advance of technology means that there is no longer an end to the learning, nor security in the long term tenure of any employment. And where unskilled people could once look forward to regular employment, technology has rendered many of their former employments obsolete. The availability of paid work for unskilled folks is dwindling and their future, outside of the welfare system, looks bleak indeed.
The modern affluence of ordinary people, the proliferation of cheap, mass produced consumer goods and the tireless efforts of the marketing industry have seen a radical change in the social order of the working classes. Where once a general level of poverty was a norm and a unifying force amongst the working class, the new affluence and the market driven consumerism that accompanies it has seen a disintegration of the solidarity of the people. Where once a person was judged on their personal character, they are now judged on what they appear to own and how well they are doing. Where once was mutual support, now there is petty competition and petty snobbery. The worst facets of upper class society have filtered down to the working class. Where honesty and integrity were once the measure of a person, their material circumstances are now the primary index of character and worth.
Along with the new-found affluence of the lower classes, we now see the worship of a new religion of consumerism. People within society are revered for the amount of personal wealth that they have acquired and the level of wealth is of far more import than the means by which the acquisition is achieved. The very wealthy are held up and revered as icons of the success to which lower class people now aspire. We see people achieving election to public office where their only real credential seems to be that they are rich beyond the level of normal people.
Of course, it isn’t necessarily true that the new epidemics of anxiety and depression are really that. Perhaps people in former times were just as anxious and depressed. And perhaps they simply didn’t talk about it. And communication simply wasn’t what it is today. There weren’t teams of social scientists taking the mental pulse of the community and studying it inside out, as there seems to be today. I can’t say for sure that life in days gone by was, on balance, any better for ordinary people. What I can see though, through my own existence and through the people with whom I have personal contact, is that anxiety and depression are real and emerging problems within society, along with obesity. And while I can’t say with certainty, why this should be so … why people are so unhappy when they have things so much better than ever before …. I think that a summary of what I’ve discussed points to some obvious concerns.
People no longer have anything that they believe in. The persons and institutions that previously provided beacons for ordinary people to look to, have been torn down and unmasked. And just as children need to know that they can rely on the adults in their world, to provide meaning, regulation and purpose to life, so do ordinary adults need to believe in something bigger and more powerful than themselves.
Where once a person in hard times was surrounded by peers who shared their situation and who supported each other through their trials, now a person is wholly alone, and loathe to confess their difficulties to contemporaries who are as likely to shun as they are to support.
Consumerism and the endless competition for new and bigger and better and flashier has failed miserably to bring happiness but, in the total absence of anything better and more substantial to believe in, its hold over ordinary people grows ever stronger. That cathedral to consumerism, the suburban shopping mall, grows always larger and more splendid. And ordinary people with no belief to fall back on, cannot face the failure of consumerism. Even though they MUST know that the earth’s resources cannot possibly sustain their addiction to endless new goods and fashions, their efforts to acquire, to possess and to parade their wealth continue unabated.
Work is no longer a possession to be relied upon for one’s future. It is, at best, a current and temporary respite from the terror of joblessness, requiring endless learning and retraining, just to remain employable.
Previous predictions about a new age malady called ‘future shock’ … the inability to adapt to constant and dramatic change, has proven far more accurate and cataclysmic than predictions of new ice ages, global catastrophies and the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuels.
In short, cynicism has replaced belief, competition has replaced solidarity and consumerism has, like a pied piper, led ordinary people down a blind ally. Instead of happiness and fulfillment, they find the only enduring rewards of acquisition are anxiety and more uncertainty. Happiness will never be delivered by consumerism, nor will it ever be defined by an individual’s material circumstances. When people cease to revere human qualities of integrity, honesty and compassion they are left with no valid values to give meaning to their existence. When they have no prospect of a secure future; when their very ability to maintain their lifestyle and their place within society relies upon their ability to endlessly adapt to a constantly changing working environment, there can never be any belief in the future.
If western society is to ever achieve a higher level of civilisation, it must learn that the happiness and security of ordinary people is the only valid barometer of success. And if you provide society with everything to live with, and nothing to live for, then you have failed miserably. The health of the economy is NOT a measure of the health of a nation and the level of a person’s personal material wealth is no measure of their happiness. We must find a way to evolve beyond consumerism, to something that is meaningful and purposeful on a personal level.
The current state of affairs, where all of society is bowed down to an unsustainable consumerism and where people are addicted to endless reality TV to dull the ache of emptiness in their hectic and meaningless existence, simply cannot continue. A lifetime spent depressed and anxious, ever fearful of constant change and ever driven by a pointless need to have ‘things’, is no life at all.
I am reminded of a documentary that I once saw. Scientists were studying the social behavior of chimps and there was a large group of these creatures. They had evolved their own version of a social order and their life was peaceful. They were fed artificially and in sufficient quantity to sustain them. As an experiment, the quantity of food was suddenly increased, far beyond what the group could conceivably consume and the result was amazing. The natural greed of the individuals overrode their social programming and the established social order immediately broke down. The whole group descended into greed and violence. When the food rations were restored to a normal level, the violence abated and the social order reasserted itself. I think we could learn much from those chimps.
I believe that society will rediscover poverty, when our poor earth finally begins to run out of resources. Perhaps that is when humans will be forced to rediscover more valid values; when they will learn anew to support and care for each other and when a person’s compassion and integrity will be the only measure of who they are …. and what they have will be of no account at all ….. where avarice will be seen for the sickness that it is. Maybe the only way we can find real riches is to rediscover material poverty.
Bring it on, I say.
John Seymour once wrote “You can progress in many directions …. up a gum tree for example”. It seems to me, we are all of us, involved in an insane race to somewhere that isn’t nice at all.
Andrew Caddle 2013_10_06
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