[DEBATE] : The Age of Entitlement lies rotting. Its polluted patrons can lead us no more
Riaz K Tayob
riaz.tayob at gmail.com
Mon May 18 15:32:16 BST 2009
The Age of Entitlement lies rotting. Its polluted patrons can lead us no
Bankers and MPs are just the most egregious cases of widespread avarice.
A new, green life requires a radical break with the past
* Madeleine Bunting
o Madeleine Bunting
o guardian.co.uk, Sunday 17 May 2009 20.00 BST
o Article history
In the MPs' expenses controversy there is plenty to entertain and
horrify, but the question that nags away unanswered is a very simple
one: how did they feel entitled to make all these claims on the public
purse? For a group of politicians who have been meticulously exacting in
their calculations of benefit levels or pensions, how on earth did they
feel they could extend such largesse to themselves?
Entitlement is the word that persists through the parallel story of the
role in the financial crisis of the bonuses bankers awarded themselves.
One banker claimed he was entitled to his bonus because of the amount of
wealth and jobs he created for the economy. But where does his
entitlement stand when the wealth and jobs evaporate?
As the credibility of two major British institutions – politics and
banking – collapses, what is coming into focus is not the question of
legality, but the creation of a culture of entitlement. It was this
culture that enabled bankers and politicians to construct a set of
rules for themselves that, when exposed to outsiders, are regarded as
outrageous and profoundly unethical. This is more pernicious than greed
– that involves a degree of moral awareness; no, this involved no moral
qualms at all – what remorse there has been is reluctant and pragmatic.
Two aspects of this are important. The first is how weak individual
ethical judgment turns out to be; only a few MPs seem to have looked at
the parliamentary allowance system and concluded that it was being
abused and they wanted no part in it. What won out was the mentality
that if everyone else is getting a piece of the cake, I want it too. The
second is that the cultural consensus endemic among MPs and bankers is a
version of L'Oréal's advertising slogan – "because you're worth it".
This has been the Age of Entitlement in which those lucky or ingenious
enough to find a way round the rules have richly rewarded themselves
while the rest of us looked on, powerless and humiliated. The L'Oréal
sentiment expresses a kind of dysfunctional meritocracy that has become
endemic. It has been implicit in how inequality has been tolerated, and
explicit in how a hyper-consumption has taken grip over the last two
decades. And what got conveniently forgotten were the obvious questions
that the slogan poses: who decides your worth? And at whose expense?
So far, so angry, so smug. I didn't buy Stephen Fry's argument that we'd
all been on the take. Then I found myself in a discussion on sustainable
development. While Westminster reeled, a challenge on a whole other
scale was on the table a few hundred yards away. But we might as well
have been on another planet given the radical kind of restructuring of
society, economy and politics that was under discussion. And central to
this was the challenge of dismantling the entire baroque edifice of the
Age of Entitlement – the hyper-consumption driving the economic growth
that devours the natural resources needed by future generations. The MPs
and bankers are only the most egregious examples of a pattern of
behaviour evident everywhere: what makes the SUV driver entitled to
guzzle petrol? Or the frequent flyer? Or the householder whose fridge is
stuffed with food miles? Or anyone whose lifestyle involves spewing out
inordinate amounts of carbon?
One would hardly expect a revolution to be plotted in a discussion in
Carlton House Terrace, just off the Mall, let alone incubated in a
government-appointed Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). But these
are times of unprecedented political exhaustion with the mainstream, and
with that comes a new and fast-growing appetite for radicalism and an
abrupt break with the status quo. At such times political energy and
attention move beyond the discredited centre ground in the hunt for
fresh ideas. This is both sinister – the BNP could benefit – and
refreshing, as the Greens may discover next month in the European elections.
In the latter category is a bold paper, Prosperity Without Growth, by
the SDC economist Tim Jackson, which was the subject of the Carlton
House Terrace discussion. It asked if we could imagine a capitalism
without economic growth. Capitalist economies grow by creating and
promising to fulfil new desires; without growth they are plunged into
crisis. It has been deeply built into the system as a way to generate
rising incomes and employment: growing consumption creates jobs and
businesses. All governments see their primary task as growth in GDP –
this is perceived as the primary measure of progress. But that cannot
continue if we are to have any hope of making the kinds of cuts in
carbon emissions to which the UK is committed. There is no credible
evidence to suggest that technological ingenuity alone will do it.
This is the kind of politics no mainstream politician dares address. It
requires abandoning a half-century of political assumptions: your
children will not be better off than you – in fact, in many significant
material ways they will be worse off; car use will have to be
dramatically curtailed, as will flights; working hours will have to be
reordered to share employment; foreign holidays will be rarer; cheap
food, a thing of the past. And along with these unpalatable home truths
will be the need for intervention in the minutiae of people's lives: how
much you heat your home or use water; how you move and eat.
The role of state intervention will be huge; people's choices will have
to be "edited", admits Anthony Giddens in his recent book, The Politics
of Climate Change. Leaving individuals to find the moral strength to
resist the cultural pressures will simply not be effective (the MPs'
expenses saga would seem to justify this conclusion). Our lives will
have to be regulated in ways that we can't imagine. Consumer advertising
will have to be curbed to prevent it exploiting insecurity and anxiety
to create new markets. The fact that the Australian government has
banned all light bulbs that are not low energy is a glimpse of what is
What will be difficult is the governance of these changes: what kind of
state will be required to push these changes through and what powers
will it need to do so? Giddens suggests that there will have to be a
return to small self-reliant communities and perhaps they will have to
have a role in the distribution and monitoring of carbon allocations.
Crucially, how will we weigh the loss of personal freedoms against the
hope of survival of human beings?
Equally difficult will be the massive cultural revolution required to
reorient a set of values rooted in an entitlement to an unfair
proportion of the planet's resources. The illusion of a good life
conceived in terms of individual material advancement has to be exposed
as an advertising con; rising affluence has not produced rising levels
of wellbeing but a dispiriting scrabble for advantage, argues Tim Jackson.
The light at the end of the tunnel is Jackson's insistence that it is
perfectly possible to imagine a way of life with less material wealth
that could actually be far more sustaining of human wellbeing. The
problem is that we need politicians brave and bold enough to start
taking us down that long road – and we have discovered that they are
riddled with the very disease we need to cure.
The Age of Entitlement is over. Now it is time for the Age of Regulation
| Madeleine Bunting | Comment is free | The Guardian (18 May 2009)
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