Feelbad Britan

‘Feelbad Britan: How to make it better’ edited by Pat Devine, Andrew Pearmain and David Purdy; Lawrence & Wishart, 2009. 250pp

Reviewed by Martin Earnshaw | 03 August 2009

The times we live in call for bold new ideas, a frank discussion of how we got into the current crisis, and an experimental approach to solving longstanding social problems. In short, we need books with the scope and ambition of Feelbad Britain. This collection of essays argues that the current ‘neo-liberal’ paradigm has run its course and that a new type of politics is needed. Feelbad Britain is has certainly been published at the right time. Confidence in the current economic system is low and when even an economist like Martin Wolf can have a brief crisis of confidence in the free market, the book’s call for a post-capitalist politics doesn’t seem as unreasonable as it once might. The problem is that the book exposes anti-capitalist politics as equally shorn of ideas as the mainstream.

Many of the contributors to this book are veterans of the Gramscian ‘New Left’ and claim to bring several decades of political insight to bear upon the current crisis. However, in the keynote essay they draw upon the happiness guru, Richard Layard, almost as much as Gramsci. Layard, in his 2005 book Happiness, argued that despite the unprecedented material gains of the last half century people are now more miserable than at any time since the Second World War. According to Layard, the proof lies in rates of depression which have increased continuously in the past 60 years and now stand at approximately one in six sufferers.

The editors of Feelbad Britain argue that depression is just the tip of the iceberg. A generalised sense of insecurity pervades modern Britain from the corridors of government to the most deprived estates. Connected to this is a Britain that is not so much ‘broken’ as smashed into its component atomised individuals. Individuals are estranged from each other and from any larger collective organisations. Feelbad Britain gives a fairly mixed account of social breakdown. The book fails to interrogate the basis of the claims about mental health made by Layard and Oliver James, which are preposterously gloomy, but it does contain a good discussion about the decline of childhood.

Feelbad Britain argues that in the absence of genuine political contestation, people look to their immediate surroundings to explain social decline ‘the alleged decline in civility and good manners, immigration, drugs and drink, hoodies and burkas’. Feelbad Britain, by contrast, recognises that the social and economic malaise that afflicts Britain is fundamentally rooted in a broader ontological crisis. Thinkers like Layard, they say, recognise that ‘a society cannot flourish without a sense of shared purpose’ but his proposed solutions have ‘all the banality of a self help manual’. For Devine et al we have to examine the entire ordering of society to work out how it can be changed.

Devine et al recognise the origin of the crisis is political in nature. The government has not simply run out of ideas; the very New Labour project was a hollow shell devoid of any view of society or a connection to any social base. This is why it lost its sense of focus so quickly upon coming into power, resorting to an endless round of initiatives, discarded policies and re-jigged departments. New Labour, however, is just a symptom of the wider problem. The book argues that the current crisis has its origins in the 1970s. By this decade the Left had lost a sense of its role as the standard bearer of freedom and progress, instead espousing a conservative workerism. It had no defence against the New Right who came to set the agenda for the next thirty years. Thatcherism was a coherent ideology prepared to use all means possible to secure the dominance of the market. Older solidarities were swept away, replaced by the values of money relations. New Labour was a continuation of this trend, further substituting the ethos of public service in health and education with market principles.

Successive governments have recognised the fragmentation of British society. Feelbad Britain notes how Labour ministers have frequently cited the mantras of ‘community involvement’ and ‘localism’ in an attempt to connect to estranged constituencies. It argues that attempts by government to connect to society are bound to fail due to the size of the gulf that now exists between elites and the people. If new solidarities are to be created, there needs to be a new politics that connects people.

The abstract case for a new politics is well made by the writers of this collection. As they put it, if we were to stick to what works ‘we shall simply be buffeted about and carried along by the prevailing winds, rather than steering towards a goal of our own choosing’. In other words, broader visions are needed in politics. The problem is that their own vision, in line with anti-capitalist politics in general, is anything but alternative.

Their critique of capitalism is generally myopic and ultimately rests on the problematisation of economic growth. Despite their disagreement with Layard over remedies, it is clear that the authors have swallowed his therapeutic agenda. GDP, they tell us, is not an adequate measure of human happiness when capitalism degrades human relations (as well as the planet). Limiting GDP growth would liberate people from the rat race and cure the social disease that Oliver James calls ‘Affluenza’. While it is far from clear that limiting economic growth would make people happier, this is mainstream prejudice dressed up as radical politics. Indeed Oliver James himself said ‘I welcome the credit crunch’ when interviewed on Radio 4 in January.

It is only Kate Soper’s chapter that flags up the obvious problem with Devine et al’s approach. She points out that the Left has tended to be evasive about how its critique of consumerism squares with its values of public accountability. Saying that people are unhappy with consuming implies that the critic knows best.

It is likely in any case that growth for the foreseeable future will be restrained and that mass unemployment and fiscal austerity will mean that people have to do with less. Devine et al may protest that the increased misery this will mean is not what they meant when they said that we need to restrain growth, but their somewhat myopic focus on neo-liberalism means that they have no effective challenge to the some of the forms a politics of austerity may take. The chapters looking at health and education criticise the way the ethos of these institutions has been subverted by the market, but are silent on how they’ve been turned into tools of behaviour change. Similarly, their argument about growth and unhappiness lends itself easily to therapeutic and illiberal policies. It is striking that the government’s response to rising unemployment has been to train 3,600 psychotherapists.

Feelbad Britain is does contain some excellent critiques of the lack of direction of current politics and more books of its ambition are needed. It is unfortunate that it is limited by today’s paltry anti-capitalism.

‘Feelbad Britain: How to make it better’ by Pat Devine et al is published by Lawrence & Wishart Ltd.

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Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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