The Origins of Unhappiness

Chapter 4. Case Study: the 1980s

(Edited version)

There are people far more able and qualified than I to give an account of the wider sociological perspective on how ‘postmodern’ culture, politics and economics burst upon Britain towards the end of the 1970s (see, for example, David Harvey's admirable The Condition of Postmodernity). Much of the more limited perspective that I can offer has been gained through the eyes - not to mention the sensibilities and pain - of the characters who provide the models for the second part of this chapter. From their proximal struggles with a world which most of them saw as the creation of their own inadequacy, I have, I think, been able to discern the operation of more distal influences giving rise to a common culture.

The furthest that reflective people who have lived through this decade were likely to see as they tried to make out the shapes of influence at the edge of their power horizon was the silhouette of Margaret Thatcher and her entourage of apparently unusually ruthless and determined enthusiasts for economic liberalism, the results of the abolition of 'welfarism' and 'socialism', and the restructuring of Britain according to a philosophy of self-reliance and the relentless pursuit of personal interest. However, even the most cursory glance at the literature of social criticism, stemming from the USA - or even merely superficial attention to events in the American political arena - quickly lengthens the perspective.

Margaret Thatcher and her government were merely representatives of a culture which had been flourishing in the Western world long before it made its presence so forcibly felt in Britain. The political influence was not the origin of this culture, but the concentration of power which gave it impetus. The Thatcher government were not the originators but the engineers - the managers - of powers which had already thoroughly dominated the other side of the North Atlantic for some time, and were now blowing across it in a gale. Indeed, what brought Thatcher's downfall just after the close of the decade was not her failure as a politician but her failure as a manager. She was too much of an individualist, and had become an obstacle rather than an enabler of the powers whose path she had up till then done so much to smooth. She was replaced by a man who was barely a politician at all in the sense of having a personal vision or a passionate commitment to an ideal of societal organization - he was quintessentially General Manager (UK).

It is extremely difficult even for the reasonably well-educated, well-informed person possessed of access to some of the more distal powers which social advantage confers to penetrate the murky depths of power which the politics of Western democracies screen. All one can tell with any certainty is that economic conglomerates whose power cannot even accurately be measured (if only because they operate beyond the boundaries of any one authority competent to do the measuring) set in motion interests which are fertilized and nourished by the social conditions in which they take root.

Huge cross-national companies dependent for their survival on ever-increasing expansion float round the global market like giant economic icebergs, crashing into and fusing with each other, while the waves they make are absorbed, and eventually controlled and directed by armies of producers, consumers and enablers (managers) who will typically be located in those parts of the world best designed for their function.

The processes of production and the kinds of alienation and exploitation they involve - and which so preoccupied sociologists and political economists of the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of this - have to a great extent drifted out of the sight of the citizens of affluent Western nations. This is, of course, by no means because they have ceased to exist, but because they have been exported to parts of the globe where labour can be bought more cheaply and conditions of production controlled less scrupulously. While so far as Britain is concerned this has had little visible effect on the ideology of class, it has certainly made some difference to the actual class structure. People ideologically labelled 'working class' became during the eighties far less likely than formerly to be members of an organized, self-consciously unionized industrial workforce, and were, in fact, either likely not to be working at all (becoming part of an 'underclass' existing outside the formal economic structure) or to be engaged in some form of industrially unproductive work, quite possibly in a role to be seen as to an extent 'upwardly mobile'. There was also on the labour market a steadily increasing number of people who had gained formal qualifications in subjects (social sciences, business and media studies, etc.) which led them to expect employment in some form of managerial or other 'white collar' capacity.

The population of countries such as Britain thus became more preoccupied either with the business of consumption, from the point of view both of fulfilling the unwritten duties of consumer and of maximizing the opportunities for others to do so (swelling the ranks of the 'service industries'), or with mediating the complex social powers which the global as well as national economies demanded. While these two roles - those of consumer on the one hand and mediator on the other - can be separated from each other only with a degree of artificiality, I shall for the sake of clarity consider them here one at a time.

The Mediators

The impress of distal power shapes and engages with the interests already structuring social organization in such a way as to carry through its projects with the minimum of resistance. The social revolution which took place almost anonymously in Britain in the eighties took advantage of the proximal needs, aspirations and self-perceptions of a relatively (in global terms) affluent and well-educated populace in order to render the country as a whole far more responsive than it had been to the imperatives of big business. To move money quickly and easily, to dissolve obstacles in the way of rationalization of working practices, and, perhaps most essentially, to expand the scope and influence of the market, meant the wholesale and ruthless removal of as much as possible of the pre-existing social institutions and ideology identifiable as incompatible with these aims. This was to be the Business Revolution, and in order to achieve its aims not only would existing business people be enthusiastically recruited to the cause, but non-business people would have to be - sometimes, but in fact surprisingly seldom, more reluctantly - re-shaped and retrained into becoming business people.

A significant part of the ideology of 'postmodernism' or post-industrialism' was designed to loosen allegiance to 'outmoded' intellectual, philosophical and ethical systems which threatened to impede the permeation of every level of society by business concepts and practices. The bluntly calculating language of accountancy - the 'bottom line' of costs and benefits - had first to oust and then to take over the function of 'old' concepts such as 'goodness' and 'truth'. There can, I submit, be almost nobody reading these pages who was not in some way or other during the eighties caught up in or affected by the extraordinary upheavals which attended the ideological as well as the more crudely material triumphs of the revolution. To some extent or other we all helped to mediate these processes; we had no choice.

To replace with the values of the market, within the space of a decade, the ideology of a social system which at least purported to be based on the values of truth, justice and equality traceable back to the Enlightenment was no mean achievement. Its accomplishment demanded three main thrusts:

1. The application of raw (coercive and economic) power at the distal region of the political system. Here Mrs Thatcher obliged with a ruthlessness scarcely experienced in the memory of post-war generations. The breaking of the unions following the repression of the miners, the remorseless 'rationalization' of heavy industry and the engineering of mass unemployment, the dismantling of the structures of welfare and protection for the poor and the weak, and the deregulation of any system which offered either economic or intellectual privilege of any kind (for example protection against economic competition; professional freedom of self-determination), set in motion the conditions for a radical insecurity more than sufficient to induce the co-operation of the entire population in realization of the aims of the brave new business world.

Since my central aim is to explicate the way distal power becomes mediated proximally as psychological or emotional distress, I shall not consider its origins and dynamics in any greater detail here. This should not, however, lead us to ignore its enormous importance; without the application of such distal power the following discussion would have been neither necessary nor possible.

2. The construction of a high-level, articulate and defensible intellectual rationale. It is here that we encounter the intelligentsia of 'Postmodernity'. I must admit that I find it difficult to discern the nature and significance of the role of those who managed to lay the foundations of a superordinate philosophy which scornfully swept aside the Enlightenment values we have supposedly misled ourselves with for the past two hundred years. I would not for a moment suggest that those who attacked our, apparently, pathetic notions of abiding truth (Richard Rorty), reality and objectivity (François Lyotard), or individual integrity in thought and idea Jacques Derrida), somehow colluded with distal powers to become apologists for their aims. Nor, to tell the truth, am 1 sure how much their activities really mattered, especially as part of the achievement of the Business Revolution was to discredit and dilute the value and power of intellectual activity itself. However this may be, the result of the new pragmatism was to help remove from the ideological pipeline any awkward little lumps or bumps likely to prove resistant to the smooth flow of endlessly recyclable, critically unstoppable, always expansible market rhetoric. A world without truth is an adman's dream, and, when it comes to respect for truth, there was left following the revolution almost no distinction between the most exalted strata of the academy and the most banal fabrications of television advertising.

In large part, I suspect, the intellectual respectability which ‘postmodernism’, ‘deconstruction’ and so on, gave, perhaps unwittingly, to the operation of the market was generated by the influence upon Academe of the market itself. Under market pressures, ‘truth’ either becomes diluted into the endlessly multipliable uncritical jargons of a half-educated mediocracy (see below), or else it becomes impacted and squeezed into the fearsome locutions of those superintelligent, hypererudite academics who, to succeed in a university knowledge industry where there is simply not enough truth to go around, must spin ever more ingenious and rarefied critical visions out of a strictly limited stock of basic themes. Hence, for example, the popularity among literary theorists of the speculations of psychoanalysis or ‘post-structuralism’ which, respectively, suggest that meanings are not what they appear to be, and that ideas are not attributable m in any significant sense to the people who had them. It is not so much that such conceptions are necessarily wrong or intellectually valueless, but that, to sustain and elaborate the academic market, good faith is likely to give way to the cultivation of novelty. Intellectual debate at the highest level becomes but a high-flown variation on the 'new blue whitener' theme invented to boost the flagging sales of an already perfectly adequate detergent.

The upshot of all this, anyway, was that during the eighties the academy became no longer the refuge of disinterested seekers after truth, nor somewhere to go in search of resistance to Business values. This may, in fact, have been a much more serious loss than might be suggested by the rather equivocal position occupied by intellectuals in the power structure of the Business Revolution. It seems probable that part of the, perhaps unconscious, appeal to many people of the revolution itself was its irreverence towards various kinds of 'professionals' - not least university teachers who had formerly been able to take advantage of a deferential respect they undoubtedly (because they are human) did not always earn. Whatever the occasional pomposity and impracticality of their occupants, however, the universities had nevertheless been the guardians of some of the most central and essential 'forms' of post-Enlightenment society. The dilution of the concept of truth and the redefinition of knowledge as a ready-made commodity in which people may be trained (rather than as something to be discovered by people who have the ability, the time and the necessary patronage to look for it) threatened to make higher learning into a mere extension of shop-floor instruction and to remove from it the possibility of developing any kind of critique of the business culture.

Business must dispense with truth if it is to avoid limits on its expansion and to be able ceaselessly to invent new needs. It has, indeed, a concept ready made to slip into the place of truth - fashion - which far more adequately suits its books. It can, furthermore, happily substitute training for the pursuit of knowledge since its aim is a) to maintain a technology of management by managers who do not reflect upon their role, and b) to instruct a mass consumership in the technology of consumption. It will, it is true, need to preserve an essentially scientific/technological élite in Research and Development, but it has no use for the humanities except as markets. It will also prefer oblivion to history, since fashion can be recycled more quickly if everything seems 'new'. All in all Business can do without higher education, and if given half a chance, as the 1980s demonstrated, will do.

3. The installation of a social apparatus of proximal mediation: i.e., of those whose task it was to convey the influence of the distal 'revolutionary' powers to men and women in the street. In order to slide into place anything so one-track minded and ethically and intellectually impoverished as the Business Culture, there are required towards the practical and ideological base of the social pyramid multitudes of willing workers. It would be utter madness to suppose that revolutions such as these are achieved through the connivance of a vast officialdom in the conscious exploitation of the mass of the citizenry. What is needed, rather, is the enthusiastic co-operation of well-meaning - even altruistic - people in a project they are fully able to believe in. Once someone is convinced that his or her 'motives' are of the best, he or she can be happily recruited to literally any kind of cause (it may be paradoxical but it certainly isn't even improbable that concentration camp guards really could be nice people).

The explanation for the paradox - for the involvement, that is, of benign people in malign activities - is, of course, to be found in our mistaken attribution of the reasons for things to the interior motives and impulses of the people who enact them. As far as the Business Revolution was concerned, there were at the end of the seventies armies of people whose best intentions could easily be invoked as their various interests were engaged in the revolutionary cause. Many of these people already formed part of the business world; others, products of an expanded tertiary education system, were massing at the boundaries of established professional territory, not quite possessing the élite credentials for entry, but close enough to be convinced that given a chance they could do at least as good a job. Self-confident, eager for opportunity, ready to serve and poised for what could only be seen as a thoroughly deserved slice of upward mobility, this vast class of mediators suddenly found itself, once the gates of the established social institutions and professions gave way, rushing into the positions which were waiting for it. The rule of the mediocracy had begun.

A Business society built solely on the imperatives of economic rationality and consumerism could not be run by a hypocritical cadre composed of people consciously compromising the 'old' values of goodness, truth and justice. It had rather to make use of people only half instructed in the traditional culture, sufficiently blissful in their ignorance to install the simple-minded precepts and practices of monetarism and the 'classless society' with absolute conviction. Attachment to knowledge, scholarship, ethical reflection and analysis, logical or epistemological scrupulosity, was a definite impediment to the Business world, and those foolish enough not to relinquish such attachments voluntarily were likely to find themselves the objects of intensive training courses which, whatever the 'package' of 'skills' they pretended to impart, were really forms of instruction in the financial, commercial and promotional languages of Business.

Business language, Business mores, Business fashions and 'lifestyles' surged during the eighties into every stratum of British social life. University lecturers found themselves abandoning corduroys and pullovers for smart dark suits and flowery ties; previously anonymous clerks and typists turned, overnight it seemed, into the power-dressed houris of the television series Dallas. Doctors found themselves studying business systems rather than case histories; teachers became preoccupied less with lessons than with 'income generation'.

To those who enjoyed their new activities, perhaps their participation seemed like an act of personal choice - certainly many seemed to embrace the new culture as if they'd been waiting for it all their lives. To many others, however, the new era dawned as in a dream, an almost-nightmare in which they donned their shoulder-padded jackets and forced their ethical conceptions into the ledgers of accountancy with a sense of stunned unreality: they seemed to want to do these things (else why would they be doing them?) but felt nevertheless painfully out of tune with themselves. Yet others found themselves unable to cope with the demands of daily life and looked around for help.

Most interesting of all, almost nobody seemed aware that the world had radically changed and that a revolution had taken place. It was just life, from day to day. This does not mean that the revolution was achieved without anguish. Bloodless it may have been. Largely unremarked upon it certainly was by the vast majority whose view extended little further than the ambit of their own domestic lives. But it was certainly not achieved without cost in terms of distress and personal disintegration.

The composition of the 'mediocracy' closely reflected the principal concerns of the culture. Alasdair MacIntyre1 wrote compellingly right at the beginning of the decade on the significance of managers and therapists to a social world which had abandoned virtue, and Robert Bellah et al.2 again highlighted the role of these two groups in maintaining what they call the utilitarian individualism of American culture. Certainly management on the one hand and therapy and 'counselling' on the other are among the most prominent components of modern mediocracies. One should also note the important ideological role of the advertising and promotional industry, as well as the essential disciplinary function of what Christopher Lasch3 has called the ‘tutelary complex’: those whose job it is to set and maintain the normative standards of society, including counsellors and trainers of various kinds and extending deep into the fields of education and social work. All such people stand between the individual and the world in order to mediate his or her experience of it in accordance with the aims of a Business Culture. For the most part these aims are twofold: to establish the ideology of the culture and to extend the market.


The 'manager's right to manage' was a prominent slogan of the early part of the decade, and certainly the managers' role in forcing into place the disciplinary and instructional apparatus of the revolution was crucial to its success. Traditional methods of assessing vocational ability and professional competence, embedded institutional practices of hiring and firing, long accepted (even if unspoken and unwritten) rules concerning the rights and duties of employers and employed were suddenly replaced by new definitions of competence, formal systems of appraisal, restrictions on information and communication, and authoritarian lines of accountability. These 'new' systems of discipline and surveillance, backed by the very real threat of unemployment, were usually introduced as the spin-off of reorganization and change, and extended across the entire working world forms of uncertainty and insecurity which had previously been the lot only of an exploited industrial workforce.

Virtually no place of work escaped the upheavals of reorganization: large public institutions in health and education, small family businesses, public and private companies of every size and description seemed to be overrun by management consultants advising on change and trainers instructing in its accomplishment. The besuited managerial group having a 'time out' weekend at an expensive country club could equally well turn out to be the board of a large engineering firm, a group of NHS administrators, or the senior academic staff of a university department. Everyone who wasn't made redundant underwent a change of role or a change of rank, everyone was taught the new language of efficiency and effectiveness, quality control, appraisal and time management. Everyone, no matter who or what, was sent on a course. I met a telephone engineer in a Dublin guesthouse who was just completing a five-day course on 'the management of change' - he was, he said with a wonderfully ironic smile, due to take his retirement in six weeks' time.

If the aim of this managed upheaval in the lives of almost everyone was intended to realize the claims of its superficial rhetoric - that 'time' could be 'managed', for example - it could only be considered a disastrous failure, for the most likely sequel to 'training days' was organizational chaos. If, on the other hand, its actual achievements - of disconcerting, disorientating, and rendering the workforce receptive through sheer vulnerability to the new business ideology - if these were its real intentions, then it was an immense success. The sublime confidence with which the managerial mediocracy imposed its debased language of ‘performance indicators’, ‘Total Quality’, and so on, on people who had all their lives spoken, albeit uncritically, a far more ethically nuanced language left them conceptually completely off balance.

The captives of the mediocracy thus struggled (often with surprising good will and docility) to force the previously unarticulated complexity of their experience into the linguistic moulds imposed by the hyped-up banalities of Businessese. To a puzzling extent they seemed unaware that rather than being offered a 'whole new way' of 'developing their management skills', or whatever, they were in fact being robbed of the linguistic tools to express the violence being done to their understanding. Their docility - indeed their often apparently eager compliance - in this process is, however, only puzzling if one forgets that people judge intention on the basis of proximal relations, not distal objectives. Managerial mediocrats are often very nice people, completely unaware of the sources of the power they are mediating, and it's hard to take exception to their activity if you locate the reasons for it somewhere behind their kind and obviously well-meaning eyes.

The mediocracy maintains the credibility of its managerial rule, as well as the ultimate viability of its enterprise, by exploiting the knowledgeable. It cannot, of course, become knowledgeable itself without ceasing to be mediocre. The exploitation of knowledge is achieved in two main ways. The first is through the importation into the business enterprise of outside consultants; the second is through the direct exploitation of 'in-house' technical or professional knowledge.

The explosion in the use of management consultancy and training organizations during the eighties was at first sight hard to understand, not least as their employment seemed to run counter to the expressed management aim of cost-cutting. One thing that systems consultants, advisers on information technology and trainers in all kinds of personnel management functions were not was cheap. However, a closer examination of the relations between mediocratic managers and their consultant advisers reveals some interesting ideological gains for the former. In fact, technical consultancy was one of the principal tools through which the mediocracy could maintain managerial control without disclosure of its own ignorance. Technical and professional knowledge becomes 'mystified' as something which no manager could be expected to have, but which needs to be subject to management control through the exercise of economic power. Managerial ‘expertise’ thus becomes quite detached from technical know-how, which it makes economically subordinate - its servant rather than a necessary requirement of its own function. Not only, then, is mediocratic management protected from recognition of its own mediocrity, but it places itself in a relation of control over the technical knowledge which might otherwise threaten it. Business, in other words, can take over professional knowledge without having to go to the trouble of actually acquiring it.

One of my reasons for dwelling on this phenomenon is because of the 'pathology' it gave rise to in the eighties. Among the casualties of the working environment were to be found competent and successful professional and technical employees of both public and private concerns who had previously scarcely been represented at all in the typical clientele of clinical psychology. People who had formerly occupied positions of respect and influence suddenly found themselves sidelined by a mediocracy which first usurped their managerial function and then maintained its position by importing (at enormous, and what appeared to be unnecessary, expense) hired 'experts' to perform the very same technical/professional functions, but on its own terms. Even where professional expertise was not subjugated through the device of consultancy, many people performing technical functions vital to the concerns of an organization but incomprehensible to the mediocracy managing it found themselves in a painfully ambiguous role of indispensability coupled with low status. In the second part of this chapter I shall introduce one or two of the characters typical of this newly exploited class.

It should, of course, be absolutely no surprise that the management of a 'reality' which must be opened up fully to the dictates of the market would ally itself to a propaganda machine. Business and advertising naturally belong together. What was perhaps surprising in the eighties was the extent to which promotional ideology infiltrated its methods and its language into every corner of the culture. The first coup was indeed the redefinition of reality itself. A 'real world' was defined as one in which the ruthless relations of the market reigned supreme. This was the world where nothing was for nothing and the weak went to the wall. Any world constructed on alternative ethical lines was stamped as outmoded, deranged or dangerous. The 'real world' was a hard, cold world of self-made success, virulent moralism, uncompromising individualism and pitiless contempt for sociality of more or less any kind. Having thus defined the world it wished to colonize, Business culture left it to the mediocratic promotional machinery to package it seductively and fill in the ideological details, and suddenly the language was full of market hype.

Not only were social issues and problems of every kind approached through the 'attitude change' mythology of advertising - everything from the training of the unemployed to the fight against AIDS - but even the most sober representatives of high culture found themselves declaiming the virtues of their wares in the manically urgent language of the supermarket. Works of art, scientific theories, affairs of state, medical treatments, courses of higher education, would all be 'sold' with the same tired combinations of fatuous hyperbole. Everything was major, new (usually 'major-new' as a kind of compound attraction), unique, massive, important, 'important-new' and exciting. ‘Stunning’ and ‘awesome’ appeared a little later. Mediocrity was clothed as ‘excellence'. Scarcely any social or vocational practice or pastime could be envisaged which did not seem both designed and expected to engender a kind of frantic excitement; the prescribed mode of mediocratic life was one of the mediation and consumption of euphoria, and anyone who attempted to engage in any other kind of activity, or speak a milder or more considered language, stood in danger of finding him or herself beyond the boundaries of the real world.

The Orwellian irony of 'the real world' is particularly poignant in the light of the promotional impetus of the eighties towards make-believe. For while on the one hand it was a 'real world' of economic rationality and throat-cutting competition, on the other it was one of wildly proliferating market diversification which had to be promoted and stoked by multimedia propaganda. Everything from the political manipulation of demographic statistics to the spells and potions of the 'alternative health' industry was aimed at making people believe not only that the harsh consequences of economic exploitation didn't really hurt, but that the world was positively bursting with opportunity and choice.

Make-believe also performed the job of disguising the inevitable results of emptying the public purse into private pockets. As public assets were stripped and public services depleted of the personnel necessary to run them safely and efficiently, curiously transparent attempts were made to paper over the all too obvious cracks. Examples that spring to mind are the VDUs that appeared in railway stations giving arrival and departure times of trains the spuriousness of which only became apparent to the infuriated traveller after he or she had been wildly misled a couple of times. 'Visitors' Centres' would issue hopeful tourists with 'information' on local events and transportation seemingly inspired by simple fantasy. Anybody who, however well-intentioned, could make money out of an expanding market in promises and appearances did. Prominent among the practitioners of make-believe were also, of course, the therapists and counsellors.


If managers can be seen as the Machiavellian mediators of a disciplinary insecurity which provided the basis for Business Culture, therapists and counsellors were foremost among its gullibly well-intentioned ideologues. This might in some ways be unfair to managers. Though some certainly were, and prided themselves on being, Machiavellian their role models the unscrupulous manipulators of Dallas, most were probably convinced that they were performing a necessary and socially useful task. In the case of therapists and counsellors there can be little doubt that very nearly without exception they were utterly certain that their profession was solely concerned with the humane relief of suffering, and if 'sincerity' (that typically 'internal' eighties substitute for external reality and truth) could be taken as a valid index of social role, then the activities of counselling and therapy would indeed have to be acknowledged as above reproach. I have met hundreds of psychotherapists and counsellors of many kinds from all sorts of professional, semi-professional and amateur backgrounds, and I cannot think of one I would accuse of conscious charlatanism. They provide, in fact, a marvellous example of the way our motives can remain pure while our interests are engaged in the pursuance of enterprises of which we are completely unaware.

It is very easy to come to believe that one has a special gift for counselling. 'I'm a good listener'; 'People seem to find it easy to tell me their troubles'; 'X said it was the first time she'd ever told anybody about that': these are the kinds of experience which set many of us on the road to becoming counsellors. Because we observe the pleasure and relief with which people react to our listening attentively to their troubles, we feel we have discovered within ourselves some special gift of healing. In truth, however, such is likely to be the experience of anyone of reasonable intelligence and good will who can shut up long enough to allow someone else to talk. What we take to be a personal prerequisite for our vocation is merely a universal human potentiality. What it does do, however, is provide us with the inner conviction we need to embark upon a career in which we may with the highest moral probity profit from the distress of others. (At this point 1 think I sense some rising gorges among my readership. Let me therefore emphasize as strongly as I can that I am not denying all validity, moral or scientific, to counselling and psychotherapy. I shall be considering their positive potential in the next chapter.)

We must distinguish, then, between the well-meaning but ingenuous beliefs of therapists themselves about the significance of their role, and their actual functions as part of the mediocracy. The first such function is precisely that of appropriating and marketing aspects of care and concern which should constitute a part of the everyday ethical life of any humane society. In the developed Western world there are likely to be very few people who perceive any incongruity in the professional provision of sympathetic listening, and indeed there may well be an enduring social necessity for the kind of dispassionate confessional role formerly more the province of priests. With psychotherapy, however, this role becomes specifically commercialized, and we are made most acutely aware of this when it comes to the opening up of new markets.

During the eighties there was a positive explosion in the expansion of the therapy and counselling industry in Britain. The deregulation of the health care market allowed professional groups, voluntary workers and a wide range of the 'brand name' schools of psychotherapy and counselling to gain access to 'treatment' which had previously been the preserve of medicine and one or two of its satellite professions. As part of this process the market was extended in several new directions, and 'counselling' - previously considered a minority practice of doubtful validity - suddenly became the self-evidently necessary antidote to occasions of distress which up till then people had just had to muddle through as best they could. A particularly good example of this extension of the frontiers of the market into the previously non-commercial territory of ordinary social intercourse was that of 'disaster counselling' and the development of the concept of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’.

The need for the provision of aid and comfort to those involved - victims and their families, professional rescue workers - in 'major incidents' such as transport accidents and sports stadium disasters can scarcely be seen as a matter for debate. What may be questioned, however, is how such aid and comfort may best be achieved, and what was remarkable during the decade under consideration was the entirely uncritical way in which the prevailing winds of Business swept aside the traditional 'coping mechanisms' of family, neighbourhood and Church to put forward as the most obviously proper response a professional network of counselling.

As the letter pages of many a professional journal testified, therapists and counsellors disputed heatedly each others' qualifications to attend the scene and advise on the aftermath of such events, while commercial groups rapidly formed to lay claim to special expertise. A whole literature concerning the particular psychological characteristics and consequences of disasters sprang into existence practically overnight, research grants were applied for, and treatment programmes hastily constructed and advocated for anyone who could conceivably be counted as a victim (even down to people who had been disturbed by witnessing events on the television). Not one of those professionally involved in this activity, I am perfectly ready to be persuaded, had in their heart anything but sympathetic pain for the injured and bereaved, and an ardent wish to help. But equally few, it seemed, stopped to consider that by their very activity - by standing between individuals and the world to mediate their pain and grief - they were a) claiming for Business a previously non-commercial social function, and b) offering a service for the effectiveness of which there was no particularly convincing evidence.

A social services pamphlet issued in response to an aircraft disaster defined 'normal feelings' likely to be experienced by relatives or friends of victims, for example: 'fear of "breaking down" or "losing control" ', 'guilt for being better off than others, i.e., being alive, not injured. . .' It outlined likely physical and mental sensations, for example: 'Privacy - in order to deal with feelings, you will find it necessary at times to be alone, or just with family and close friends.' It offered some practical 'dos and don'ts', for example 'DON'T bottle up feelings. DO express your emotions and let your children share in grief ', and gave guidance on when to seek professional help, for example: 'If after a month you continue to feel numb and empty.'

Now my point is not that such advice is wrong or misguided - much of it indeed is obvious common sense - but that it breaks down public 'forms' of appropriate social conduct and offers them back to the individual reconstituted as commercially available professional knowledge. Unintentionally, of course, it alienates people from their own bodily sensations and mediates their experience by making its meaning dependent on professional interpretation. The person becomes unable to say to him or herself. 'This terrible experience has numbed me', but must say rather: 'What can this strange numbness mean? I must seek the explanation from an appropriately qualified expert.' Once the need (in this case for 'counselling') has been created, the consumership then establishes a demand. No longer confident in their ability to handle their own distress as part of a traditional social process, people demand the presence of counsellors as a right.

There may be readers who find my argument far-fetched. It is obviously helpful, they might say, for people in such dreadful circumstances to have available professional reassurance and help: that cannot be taken as an indication of some commercial conspiracy to rob them of an understanding of their own feelings. To this I would respond that of course I imply no conspiracy - conspiracy is far too 'proximal' an activity to account for the kind of process I am trying to clarify. What 1 can say, on the other hand, is that in my role as clinical psychologist I am daily confronted with people who depend on me to read the significance of their own feelings, and it must in some sense be in the interests of professions such as mine to increase their number.

It was not only an expanding market in the mediation of experience which therapists were able to take advantage of in the eighties. There was also a marked increase in the possibilities for mediating relationship. The somewhat staid Marriage Guidance Council transformed its 'image', renamed itself 'Relate', extended its sphere of operations and became altogether a much more businesslike organization. (Whatever your 'business' in the eighties, it was de rigueur to refurbish your image and adopt a new logo.) Marital counsellors, sex therapists and dating agencies became the respectable end of a market whose business was procuring, in one way or another, emotional and sexual 'fulfilment'.

‘Relationships’ had, in fact, to bear a heavier and heavier strain as they became billed as the main source of warmth, intimacy and satisfaction in a world which was otherwise more coldly competitive than it had been for decades (I have written about this at some length in my book Taking Care). It was, then, not surprising to find a growing army of professional advisers at hand to counsel those who found the strain too great and, once again, to imply thereby that the business of relationship was no amateur matter. Relations between parents and children received similar attention - the decade which 'discovered' child sex abuse, and set up around it an extensive network of professional surveillance and correction, also constructed programmes and packages of ‘parenting skills’ which could be bought off the peg.

The function (as opposed to the conscious intention) of this mediocratic caste of therapists and counsellors was not only concerned with expanding the market for mediation of experience and relationship. It also provided shock-absorption for a society in which emotional and psychological, as well as physical, damage was a necessary part of its economic and ideological policies. Unemployment, ceaseless radical change, diminished status and insecurity all took their toll in the workplace and strained the domestic relations of people whose only recourse was 'counselling'. Counsellors performed the ideological function of representing as proximal causes of distress which were in fact distal, and then offered comfort and advice to those who identified themselves as falling short of the norm in ‘coping skills’, the ‘management of stress’, etc. What was essentially distal economic coercion was represented proximally as a remediable personal failure, and counsellors occupied the space vacated by reason in this conjuring trick to create a substitute ‘credibility’.

The bridge over the credibility gap was at times exposed as a rhetoric too obviously shaky for anyone to trust - for example the suggestion that lack of a job reflected merely the unwillingness to look for one - but more often it was held in place through a suspension of rationality which could be maintained only by a curious kind of sentimentality. Personnel managers of large firms instituting programmes of redundancy could, for example, seriously set up as a humane measure the provision of counselling to those affected. An insult added to an injury was thus presented - and surprisingly often accepted - as a 'package of care' for which the redundant employee should feel grateful.

An aspect of their role from which nearly all counsellors are able (via the mystified notion of 'motivation') to dissociate themselves is thus one of increasing the likelihood of the very social evils whose effects they are supposedly there to mitigate. They do, certainly, offer forms of comfort which are often gratefully received by those in distress (the shock-absorbing function), but they also, through an ideology of personal change which suggests that people have a choice over their predicaments, make the occurrence of such predicaments more probable; just as the 'redundancy counsellor' legitimizes putting people out of work, so the 'debt counsellor' makes more likely the irresponsible extension of credit, and the 'disaster counsellor' renders more conceivable the operation of a 'risk economics' (another phenomenon of the eighties) which calculates the 'acceptable' limits of expenditure on safety.

The Consumers - Markets on Life's Way

Consumerism is, of course, not just a phenomenon of the eighties, but the necessary ideology of an economic system which depends for its survival on limitless expansion of the market. The logic of this system, its adamantine rationality, is inexorable, and its triumphant progress has spanned much more than a mere decade, but the special contribution of the eighties was perhaps to slacken the few remaining ethical brakes on the raw injunction to consume which lies at the root of, at least, affluent Western societies.

Even if the shreds of alternative ways of life remaining from religious and political systems which had placed convivial sociality higher than economic self-interest constituted by the beginning of the decade little more than a kind of desperate hypocrisy, they were in any case swept away by the assertions of a 'new right' which proclaimed its philosophy of competitive individualism with absolute confidence. There was, said Mrs Thatcher, no such thing as society. For individuals and families to grab what they could for themselves was presented, and widely accepted, no longer as selfishness or greed, but merely as the obvious and inevitable - and in a sense therefore the most sensible and virtuous - thing to do.

In this way the 'forms' which (again, even if crumbling) had been held in place by traditional institutions of ethical guidance became openly discredited, and in their place were enshrined the values authorized by Business. Parallel with a stern new morality of cost-effectiveness and rigorous competition there grew up a kind of redeeming therapeutics aimed at the rehabilitation of greed. Counselling became available for people who felt inhibited about money, for example, sufferers might be encouraged to gaze lovingly at a ten-pound note, expressing their desire for and appreciation of it in a therapeutic group of others similarly afflicted. Life had for most people long been structured and shaped by the need for money and the craving for consumer goods. So far as Britain was concerned, the eighties simply made such concerns official and provided a formal ideological framework in which they could flourish.

The most important social function of the vast majority of the population of a country such as Britain is to consume. It is true, of course, that so far our lives as social beings are ordered, perhaps even fundamentally, by public 'forms' of morality which arise more from our common humanity than from the dictates of consumerism, but such 'forms' have become tacit, unofficial, and survive only as the embodied practice of a collectivity of individuals who no longer have access to any coherent, clearly articulated, statement of them. The only values which are made manifest to someone living an everyday life are Business values.

During the eighties we became a monoculture in which just about every conceivable form of activity was appropriated by Business. Whatever was itself not business was sponsored by Business. The very language was adjusted in such a way as to strip people of any role other than that of being clients of Business. At various junctures, for example, both 'passengers' (on the railway) and 'patients' in hospital were redefined as 'customers'. Activities which had formerly had a special identity of their own became disorientatingly subordinated to Business - anyone who travelled on a cross-Channel ferry, for instance, will know how the concept of 'voyage' was converted into a kind of floating retail opportunity. Even isolated individuals became walking advertisement hoardings as more and more ordinary items of clothing were manufactured to carry a written commercial message. Empty churches became converted into supermarkets. The person's life-cycle came more obviously than ever to be marked less by the social and spiritual significance of events than by their market implications. From cot to coffin, the stages of life derived their meaning as much from the typical pattern of purchasing they involved as from any consideration of what Ivan Illich has called 'conviviality'.

Just as the yearly cycle is marked by a series of consumerist celebrations - birthdays, holidays, Christmas, etc. - so the course of our lives has tended increasingly to be demarcated more clearly by the spending sprees they give rise to than by their significance as social rites of passage.

The childhood preoccupation with 'toys' is a good example of this. Given a chance to talk to and occupy themselves with the adults around them, most children are fairly indifferent to toys. However, in a world in which those adults are themselves busily preoccupied with their own corners of the market, children have less chance of socializing than of learning the arts of consumership in their own specially prepared world of toys. Not only do they receive, from the moment their eyes can focus, a training in the acquisition and rapid obsolescence of consumer goods, but they are also inducted into a world of make-believe which offers virtually limitless market opportunities and which may very well serve to detach them for life from any commercially undesirable anchorage in the realities of social existence. For almost all our lives, our market-induced fantasies of how our relations with others, as well as the main events of life, should be tend to obscure the actuality.

There is, in fact, no recess of personal life, however intimate, immune to the intrusion of the market. Sexuality is a case in point. Early in adolescence the addictive power of male sexuality is commercially harnessed to a marketed female insecurity to create a model of 'relationship' which leaves both boys and girls - and later young men and women - at times incapable of controlling and almost always unable to understand both their sexual feelings and their need for intimacy. At worst, youths are reduced to barely articulate chunks of erectile muscle, quartering the Friday night streets in an alcoholically heightened expectation of finding girls they can fuck in a car park somewhere - girls who, again at worst, signal, probably unconsciously, a raw seductiveness no less market-inspired than the romantic love they actually crave. These can appear as people emptied out of their humanity, enacting like sleepwalkers fantasies in which they have been soaked ever since they were small children. They are, of course, not empty of humanity at all. They are like everyone else, human bodies subject to all the pains and longings which are common to human bodies. The difficulty is that they have learned no ways of giving expression to and elaborating their embodied humanity other than those constructed and promoted by the commercial interests of Business.

Very few people have the confidence any longer to allow their subjective experience of their bodies to guide an understanding of their 'relationships'. A woman who doesn't feel as sexually rapacious as the heroines of her husband's videos is often easily persuaded that there is something ('frigidity') the matter with her. She is far less likely to take her body as a valid index of the state of her intimate environment than she is to regard it as a substandard commodity. Many women find themselves conforming with a kind of weary despair to the fantasy-infused sexual expectations of their male partners authorized as 'normal' by a commercial world which relentlessly fetishizes sex. And men, as much deprived of an understanding of their own needs for tenderness as of the arts of expressing it, become totally mystified by their female partners' ultimate disgust with and fear of sex. The market defines as 'abnormal' (and hence in need of further consumer activity) states of social and interpersonal being which are an inevitable part of virtually everyone's experience, but which, like not wanting sex, offer no other market opportunity.

It is, of course, not difficult to identify the particular markets which give definition to the various milestones of our lives. In some of the more obvious festivals of the consumerist life-cycle, social rituals seem, in fact, to have given way almost entirely to commercial ones. Marriage, for example, seems more or less to have disintegrated as a meaningful social 'form': its rules, its function, its moral and societal significance are curiously difficult to define or state. By contrast, the consumerist aspect of marriage as 'wedding' has gained a ceremonial precision as elaborate as that of any arcane religious rite. From the wedding dress to the placecards for the reception tables, from the purchasing of the rings to the bridesmaids' bouquets and the booking of the video, the business of getting married has taken on a demanding, deadly earnestness which all but eclipses any other social meaning the act may have. It is almost not too outrageous to suggest that we are close to being able truthfully to say that the point of getting married is to have a wedding.

Infancy and old age are alike in exempting the subjects themselves from being targets of the market - to qualify for that one needs to have some spending power. It is, of course, not difficult to exploit the pride and pleasure of young parents in their new baby (even competing with breast milk may be not so much a defeat as a challenge), but the market opportunities offered by old age have to be established less directly.

Any doubt about the principal function of the elderly in late twentieth-century British society will be quickly resolved by a glance at their bedside tables or bathroom cabinets. The arrays of bottles of medicine, boxes of pills, inhalers, creams, powders and unguents to be found there give plentiful evidence of the value of old people to our economy. Not to mention all the other institutions of the health care industry (day centres, nursing homes) which will, as chance would seem to have it, in all probability manage to extract their (if not their carers') last penny just before they die.

'Cynical', did I hear someone say? The predicament of the old gives the starkest testimony imaginable to the spiritual profligacy of our way of life. We have no use for their knowledge, for their memory, for their humour or for their love. We leave them as isolated as we dare in cold and lonely rooms where the most they are likely to have for company is a cat, or a weekday visit from the district nurse. And, just as we talk most animatedly about our holidays, or our cars, or our microwaves, they will tell us, if they get the chance, about their operations, their pills, and the progress of their leg ulcers. My point is not a moralistic one intended to stir up shame or inspire new resolves to care: it is rather to indicate the structure of the boat we all find ourselves in, and in which, individually, we shall all eventually founder.

Because the stages of life are given meaning by the consumerist 'forms' which place them in relation to a particular market, and because distal influences are inevitably experienced as proximal or 'internal' events, it follows that a breakdown in the power of the market will be experienced as personal breakdown. There is, in fact, one stage of fife where the market does seem, at least partially, to lose its grip in this way. The ‘mid-life crisis’ is not so much a personal breakdown as the temporary absence of a market structure to distract and absorb the energies of post-child-rearing, middle-aged people who have suddenly found themselves confronted by a world which offers little to preoccupy them other than the approach of old age and death. What inevitably feels like a personal hiatus may thus more meaningfully be understood as a gap in the market.

The untapped market opportunities offered by middle-aged people at the height of their economic strength, but no longer with dependent children to expend it on, have not gone unnoticed in the commercial world, but even so it seems peculiarly difficult to identify and exploit a set of needs powerful enough for people in this position to dedicate their live’s to satisfying. In this respect middle age contrasts interestingly with adolescence. The insistent self-concern and blossoming sexuality of the adolescent, though often painful enough, are immediately engaged by a market designed to define and exploit them. Through a wide and highly elaborated range of popular cultural media the young person is invited, seduced and bludgeoned into a garish supermarket which positively explodes with sights and sounds offering meanings for his or her feelings and retailing satisfactions of his or her needs. The middle-aged person, on the other hand, steps into no such emporium of excitement. On the contrary, he or she emerges from a marketplace centrally concerned with parenting and family life, and all the consumerist activities associated therewith, into a suddenly silent, almost empty space likely to fill him or her with a mixture of loneliness and confusion.

In the absence of any guidance from the environment about how to conduct their lives - in the absence, that is, of recognizable consumerist 'forms' - middle-aged people have a limited range of options. One is simply to become relatively inactive, self-absorbed and 'depressed', perhaps looking back nostalgically to happier days. Another is to shake free of market influence and become engaged in activities which have social, political or spiritual significances not (yet) easily appropriated by Business (this, of course, is the aspect of mid-life addressed with considerable distinction by C. G. Jung). A third is to recycle the activities and preoccupations of earlier phases of the market - the 'second time around' phenomenon which certainly enticed a significant proportion of 1980s middle-aged males.

The seeming inevitability with which so many men during the eighties found themselves circling back to the age of twenty-five almost as soon as they hit the age of forty was on the whole, however, not matched by their spouses. While these middle-aged men, seemingly in droves, departed the family home to set up all over again with women almost young enough to be their daughters, their deserted wives had for the most part no such opportunity. Largely excluded from a sexualized market place which fetishizes only youthful female bodies, no longer centrally necessary to their grown-up or nearly grown-up children, their only possibilities were bitter resignation or, if strengths acquired in their young days were sufficiently developed, a kind of break-through into independence and a degree of spiritual self-sufficiency. If one can envisage one class sufficiently extricable from the web of Business Culture to form the core of a counter-revolution, it would probably be that of middle-aged women.

As things are, the market does indeed show signs of trying to organize itself for the middle-aged, and the more it succeeds in doing so, the less, I predict, will be the incidence of 'mid-life crisis'. So far, however, market provision for this age group does not seem particularly imaginative: not much beyond invitations to invest and manage money, buy time-shared holiday accommodation, private health insurance and personal pension plans. Rather surprisingly, the British consumership, during the eighties anyway, still seemed relatively resistant to the option of reconstructing youth through cosmetic surgery, chemistry and prosthesis, though no doubt there was expansion in that direction. Aggressive marketing, one might have thought, might have bitten the ethical bullet and, through PR and promotional campaigns, more actively have developed an advocacy of mid-life divorce and recycled younger adulthood (or at least make-believe versions thereof). On the whole, however, the middle-aged are still a relatively unexploited group, and as such are likely to continue to feel uncomfortably dislocated from market 'forms'.

Perhaps the most important theoretical lesson to be learned from the weakness of the market's hold on life in middle age is the fact of the ultimate dependence of consumerism on biology. If the person is to become locked into his or her essential role as consumer, then consumerist 'forms' have to be linked to biological need. It is, in the last analysis, the body which is seduced into the market's embrace, and it is ultimately the physical sensations of satisfaction which entice us into the glitteringly packaged world of consumer goods.

Consider a little vignette of the mid-1980s. The scene is an inter-city express from Nottingham to London. It is Saturday. A young family distributes itself round one of the tables. A slightly punky young woman with spiky blonde hair, perhaps in her late teens; a young man maybe a year or two older, thick set, with short-cropped hair, a sleeveless T-shirt revealing tattooed biceps and love-bitten neck; a boy of about five, short fair hair and a hard, shrewd gaze; a girl of about nine, apparently too old to be the couple's daughter, with bleached, in places bruised, skin, and an apparently permanent expression strangely compounding supplication and complaint. The table, the rack above them and parts of the seats not occupied by their own bodies are taken up with holdalls and plastic bags. For the entire journey of nearly two hours the older pair converse not at all except to exchange invitations to eat, drink, smoke or hand tabloid newspapers and magazines to each other. The children squabble a little, complain a little, make the occasional demand. Central among the heap of plastic bags on the table is a huge, cumbersome ghetto-blaster which emits the ceaseless chatter and pounding rhythm of popular radio.

There is no point of the journey when all four of these people are not consuming. The plastic bags contain a seemingly endless supply of crisps and canned drinks, cigarettes and packaged sandwiches, plastic toys and puzzle books. Incredibly, at about Bedford, the bags run dry and all four depart for the buffet car to replenish supplies, leaving the radio gabbling and thumping on the table. They are having a happy day out together - they seem relaxed and there is an affectionate quality to their relations which one senses is not always there (the bruises on the young girl's deathly white skin). Though there is very little interaction between them, they seem not discontented: indeed there is something almost deteminedly exclusive in the intentness with which they consume, and they are as if encapsulated from the indignant gaze of those other customers of the railway who are forced to consume with them the DJ's babble and computerized 'music' (nobody dares intrude on the idyll - the tattoos and muscular arms bespeak a possible instability it would be unwise to test).

What is this activity which they seem so contentedly to be sharing while, actually, hardly communicating at all? The word springs irresistibly to mind: they are doing precisely what the radio's commercials so insistently recommend - they are 'enjoying'. The journey is one of uninterrupted enjoyment of tastes, sounds, tabloid scandal, the decoration of tantalizingly wrapped packages, the sucking in of tobacco smoke and the excited exploration of new plastic toys. Like piglets at a trough they are united in solitary enjoyment which graphically links physical craving with the 'satisfactions' designed to stimulate it.

Consumption on this kind of scale is, of course, not a matter of spontaneous choice, but is maintained by the institutions of a highly elaborated culture. Indeed, it would not be too far-fetched to identify the family in the train as members of a 'consuming class' which bids fair to replace in societal importance the old 'working class'. Consumption is, of course, not restricted to any one social stratum, but then neither was work. Just as the economy used not to be able to function without an industrial proletariat exploited for the purposes of production, so now, in countries such as Britain, it cannot function without a semi-employed proletariat exploited for purposes of mass consumption. 'Enjoyment' thus becomes the social function of the mass of society on which the Business economy depends.

It is certainly in this 'consuming class' that one observes the clearest dedication to, and most assiduous, if informal, training in, 'enjoyment'. There is, for example, likely to be far more emphasis placed on the importance of instant satisfaction in the consuming than in the mediating class. Consuming class people are more likely than their mediating class counterparts to feel an obligation to provide their small children with instant comforters like sweets, to provide the family with a restaurant service at meals (with an emphasis on choice both of dishes and of the time at which they are eaten), and to make the chief consumerist festivals like the summer holiday and Christmas into occasions for particularly lavish spending. The mediating class - successors to the 'old' middle class - will by contrast lay more stress on the importance of delayed satisfaction to occupancy of a social position which necessitates the exercise of managerial power.

The logic of a consumerist ideology which aims at exploiting the essentially physical capacity for enjoyment of a mass consuming class culminates inexorably in a process aimed at creating addiction. The ultimate market success is to exploit the properties of the human nervous system such that a stimulated ‘excitement’ is followed by ‘instant satisfaction’ in a maximally accelerated cycle. Food, drugs, alcohol, tobacco and sex clearly lend themselves admirably to the process of ‘addictification’, and the challenge to the market resides only in its refining and augmenting their addictive properties (the reduction of food to its most easily assimilable and basically appealing properties - 'fast food' - is an obvious example). Products less directly biologically linked may be sold on the basis of an association with an addictive bodily process: here one thinks immediately of the ubiquitous use by advertising of fetishized sex which has less and less time for romantic subtleties, employing a rapid series of sharp-focused sexual images which punch straight into the nervous system. Alternatively, products not obviously associated with primary biological needs may be rendered virtually addictive through appropriate processes of research and development. Popular music, for example, by being reduced in subtlety and aesthetic demandingness, electronically standardized, perfected, amplified and delivered through systems which cut out or obliterate competing stimuli, manages to hook the consumer into something approaching biological dependence. (To look at the rows of mesmerized customers flicking through the racks of tapes and CDs in the strangely dehumanized mass record emporia found in any city centre is to be reminded of other scenes of addiction - lines of solitary drinkers in 1950s Glasgow bars, for instance.)

Even cultural products designed for the mediating classes were during the eighties marketed increasingly on the basis of their biological appeal. Art, literature, drama and dance, as any recording of an arts review programme broadcast later in the decade is likely to testify, came to be constructed and appreciated on their ability to affect the nervous system of the consumer. The highest praise critics appeared able to bestow on an artistic or cultural production was that it excited, satisfied, moved, stunned or astonished them. Art is thus finally emptied of any pretension to social significance, and is reduced simply to a passive experience of an essentially physical state.

The ultimate Business logic is, then, to reduce the average member of the consuming class to an addict of the mass market, locked by the nervous system into an optimally cycled process of consumption, rendered immune to unprofitable distractions, dissociated from any form of solidarity which might offer resistance to the function of enjoyment. The vision is no doubt apocalyptic, but it is one the 1980s brought closer to realization.

1. See his After Virtue, 2nd ed., Duckworth, 1985.
2. Habits of the Heart, Hutchinson, 1988.
3. 7he Minimal Self. Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, Pan Books, 1985.

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