To cut to the chase: I hold that a society or culture entrapped by a perpetual need to achieve, to endlessly generate quantifiable outputs, to obsessively ‘progress’ – slippery term that – is a society most likely to exhaust and dispirit its members. For rather too long, that’s pretty much the position that has been reached.
The emblem and motif of such a society is the treadmill, and the force that drives it, fear. These afflictions affect adult and child alike, trapping both in a perpetual circle of unremitting striving. It continues without cease – no sooner has one goal or objective been achieved, than another looms into view demanding satisfaction. Performance is all. Repose is nowhere allowed. We are required to be strivers. Welcome to the club that should have no members.
The symptoms of this malady are everywhere about us: the child who from the earliest age must be made learning or school ‘ready’; the sales assistant – most likely on a low or minimum wage – as well as the classroom teacher, now both equally performance assessed; the parent frantic to get their child into a ‘good’ school, the better to ‘achieve’; the school shackled to anxiety about their place in the performance league tables; the voluntary organisation, now formally contracted to provide quantifiable outcomes that do not easily mesh with the substance and purpose of their undertaking; the business executive tethered to work 24/7 via mobile phone or tablet and driven by targets. And so on. The list is long.
‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.’ That stark, direct sentence opens Tony Judt’s book, ‘Ill Fares the Land’. It is startling both in its economy and accuracy.
One aspect of this profound wrong, seen from my perspective, is the sense that so many lives appear dominated by fear, true both for individuals and organisations. For where ‘performance’ and the production of ‘outcomes’ – nearly always externally imposed – is the key justification of existence, fear of failure not only looms large, it becomes the underlying condition of existence.
Fear undermines the capacity to either act or speak freely. Agency is hemmed in by external forces and structures, yoked to and reinforced by internalised anxieties. What should be said out loud, what should be opposed, is whispered privately – not for public view or hearing. A once broad territory of potential action is now squeezed within shrinking borders. This enervating fusion of exterior forces and internalised constraints moulds and distorts the very frameworks of reference that filter, grade and shape the way the world is seen and understood.
In ‘After Neoliberalsim?‘, by Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, Michael Rustin, the concept ‘common sense’ is discussed in terms that I find helpful. They deploy the concept to describe how:
‘Neoliberal ideas seem to have been sedimented into the western imaginary and become embedded in popular ‘common sense’. They set the parameters – provide the ‘taken-for-granteds’ – of public discussion, media debate and popular calculation.’
They go on to say:
‘So ‘naturalised’ have its [i.e. neoliberal economic theory] nostrums become that politics can claim to be implemented with popular consent…But it is a common sense that has to be produced and maintained’.
Similarly, it is my contention that a debilitating common sense has been manufactured and allowed to prosper such that crude instrumentalism is the only, or at least the dominant, reference frame for judgment. This common sense has produced ‘taken-for-granteds’ that effectively limit what can intelligibly be thought and said. As I suggested at the outset of this piece, this afflicts adult and child alike. It is a case of mutual entrapment, the pressures on the child mirroring those that burden the adult. The afflictions have become normalised, formed and reinforced by the new common sense such that it becomes almost impossible to imagine a different way of thinking or speaking.
We are in the age of reductionism. The age when the salient and particular features of uniquely separate activities are reduced, and made to serve – or at least to give the impression of serving – purposes and justifications outside themselves. The very language capable of justifying activities in their own terms, for their own sake, appear lost. Who now dares speak up for intrinsic value? It seems such a wet and flabby idea in the face of strident, all-pervasive instrumentalism.
Somehow, not I think out of carelessness, but perhaps because of a sense of embarrassment – a fear of seeming not quite hard-headed or realistic – there has arisen what looks like a rooted reluctance to argue for the irreducible significance of valuing some things and activities intrinsically, for their own sake, as fundamental to giving meaning to our lives.
I do mean argue for, that is, making the case as central to our concerns about, and understandings of, what is constituent to a good life. This requires more than the almost inevitable passing nod to intrinsic value found in reports and evaluations that focus on the instrumental efficacy of this or that initiative or programme, be it in the arts or play or walking in the woods. These nods are no more than empty gesture denoting commitment to nothing in particular.
Both now, and for some considerable time past, the pursuit of instrumental efficacy and assessment has effectively nullified the possibility of speaking seriously about the value of the intrinsic. And in succumbing to the crippling primacy given to instrumental valuations, we betray ourselves, and our children. That in surrendering to our self-imposed limitations we effectively abandon any hope of a rooted, better future. Thus, from my perspective, the best that can be achieved under the present dispensation are minor and temporary ameliorations in an essentially uncongenial world.
It puzzles me, this reluctance to do no more than nod at intrinsic value, and then to move on to notionally more serious considerations. It has nothing to do with a particular political party, it transcends such divisions. Indeed, the current Conservative party, admittedly caught for the present in an unloving embrace with another party, could be said to have turned its back on a particular aspect of conservative tradition. The small ‘c’ conservative mind often seems more attuned, and not embarrassed, to make a spirited case for intrinsic value. In ‘How to be a conservative’ Roger Scruton says without blushing: ‘We must vest our love and desire in things to which we assign intrinsic, rather than an instrumental, value, so that the pursuit of means can come to a rest, for us, in a place of ends’.
By way of an aside, lest I be misunderstood, I’ll use the next sentence to attest to the significance and validity of pursuing instrumental value. Thus it is of course the case that pursuing undertakings that are efficacious in the practical matters that comprise our lives and on which they depend, are an essential, unavoidable part of being human. So, I’m not proposing the primacy of intrinsic over instrumental value, of one form trumping the other. I’m noticing that there is an imbalance in the attention we give, and the arguments we make, in respect of intrinsic value. And that this is a thoroughly bad and unacceptable state of affairs.
The power of corporations is well-attested to. Many have turnovers that dwarf some individual states. They have the capacity to affect political and economic decision-making, both at national and international level.
Another feature of corporations is that they are essentially hierarchical, key decisions are passed from the top to the bottom of an organisation (this does not preclude debate within the organisations at any number of levels, but key decisions are made ‘above’ to be implemented ‘below’). ‘Corporate speak’ requires only certain things are said, and said in authorised ways.
What I want now to suggest is that social and civic life has been corporatised. Or,another way of saying this, a corporate mindset has taken hold.
Those areas of life that traditionally allowed for degrees of individual and organisational independent decision-making have been squeezed, and by diverse means channelled into virtual corporations that bind thought, action and speech.
Thus, by way of example, insidiously, drip by drip, state institutions arrogate to themselves the authority that was once vested, in this case, in parents. Thus hardly a murmur goes up when schools are empowered to determine if a child may go on holiday or attend a family event during school term. And we hardly blink in incredulity when the Chief Inspector of Ofsted ruminates out loud that, in his view, parents should be fined if their child does not do their homework; and even more surreal, parents should be fined if they do not read to their children at home. That we hardly blink suggest that we have submitted to a new and sinister common sense, one that redraws the parameters of what we take for granted. It is the creation of a debilitating new normality. This attempted mandatory intrusion into the home, into the private sphere, adds to the individual parent’s sense of having to perform to meet an externally imposed goal. It is deeply disempowering and is indicative of a fundamentally changed relationship between citizen and state institutions.
At the institutional level, the marketisation of the third sector changes the relationship between that aspect of civil society and the state. Shoehorned into competitive tendering processes, and forced into a contractual, service-provider-to-client relationship, contestation with and protest to power is stifled, either by self-imposed constraint, or contractual terms. In this contractual world, third sector organisations are drawn – or impel themselves – into competition with their erstwhile civil society cohorts. In such circumstances, trust-based relationships are compromised, the mutual exploration of ideas stymied.
As with individual parents, so too with these institutions, power, and therefore the scope for agency, is sucked upwards to the local and national state, or its agents. A culture of circumspection is engendered. What should be said loudly, is muted or stilled.
So pervasive is the current instrumentalist common sense, that the justifications deployed in support of this or that civil society purpose gain traction only if they mimic accepted, authorised forms of speech. The irony is that this intensely political project masks its own nature by reducing all talk about how we might want to live to the notionally depoliticised, technical sphere of outcomes, evidence and performance. Here, talk of intrinsic value is otiose, as seeds planted in barren ground.
And yet. And yet it must at the very least strike us as odd that in those areas most precious to us – our loves, our friendships, our strolls in the woods – we would think it both incoherent and perverse to audit what such engagements had ‘achieved’. We would have no trouble in proclaiming that these relationships and activities are valuable in and for themselves. Indeed, their essence would be destroyed were they to become crudely goal oriented. This suggests that, at the very least, there remain trace elements of alternative ways of thinking, ones that allow for other, non-instrumentalist, forms of justifying.
OK, so it looks bad. What to do?
To my question, the answer is that I don’t know. But if I try to draw out the logical consequences of this jeremiad, it suggests that whilst it is both right and necessary, in general terms, to argue our various cases – for art, for play, for music, and so on – in terms that have traction within the current constricted common sense – we cannot stop the world in order to get off to go to another more pleasing – it is also the logic of everything I have said that this is not sufficient.
The current dispensation does not carry within it the seeds of the sort of fundamental, transformative changes required to generate an alternative ‘common sense’, one that offers a radically different version of what a good life might look like, for adults, children, teenagers. This is work that needs to address adults as individuals and families, recognising that, no less than children and teenagers, so many of them are trapped in the treadmill of persistent striving, driven by the perennial fear of failure. This, arguably, is a potentially held-in-common point of connection, creating a space where different forms of justification can be articulated and find foothold.
Who does this and how? I don’t know. But perhaps you and I both have something to do with it.
 Also, for example, see works by Michael Oakeshott and an interesting paper by G. A. Cohen at https://politicalscience.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/workshop-materials/pt_cohen.pdf