Mammon's Kingdom

November 24, 2015
David Marquand

Although historian David Marquand's Mammon's Kingdom is nominally about Britain (it's even subtitled "An Essay About Britain, Now"), its main points appear to apply, at least, to my own native culture of Denmark as well, modulo some historical details. While its subtitle is at least accurate inasmuch as the book is an essay about Britain, it's only partially about now. Well over half of it is about the historical shifts that led to the current state of affairs. The chapter titles serve as a satellite-photo view of Marquand's points:

  1. Hedonism Trumps Honour
  2. Amnesia Conquers History
  3. The Market State Invades the Public Realm
  4. From Fate to Choice and Back Again
  5. Charismatic Populism Smothers Democratic Debate

The main point is that British culture has been marketizedIn Denmark, the last Social Democratic minister of finance openly declared that we ought to move from a "welfare state" to a "competition state", centered entirely around the needs of the market., that capitalism has been promoted from being an economic system to being an all-pervading cultural force — and hence, that Britain has become Mammon's Kingdom, a country of culturally and morally impoverished money-worshippers. A marketized society will inevitably start to shed its cultural and ethical values when they're not of immediate use to the economy, and the result is a vestigial public realm with no use for history, honour or democratic debate — or any piece of nature that isn't marketable. With any notion of a "common good" destroyed, the stage is set for massive inequality, rampant consumerism, class snobbery, political corruption and decay of democracy. It's the same basic point Marcuse made decades ago in One-Dimensional Man.

Perhaps the largest difference with Marcuse's polemic (apart from Marquand being a much clearer writer) is that Marcuse was predicting a bleak future from a position when progressive counterculture (and a thriving civil rights movement) was still making strides; Marquand is reporting from the midst of the very society Marcuse was warning about. Everything has been marketized, and the market logic has gotten so deep inside our heads that even the thought of a non-market-driven civic culture seems like a quaint, naïve fantasy.

Perhaps ironically, the 1960s counterculture movement is among the villains of Marquand's piece: It represents moral individualism, which was part of a two-front battle against the public realm, the other front being fought by market individualism, as advocated by Friedrich Hayek These two movements are situated on opposite sides of the left-right spectrum, and are largely mirror images of each other: Market individualism imagines people of traditional, conservative moral virtues operating in a laissez-faire economy, whereas moral individualism imagines morally libertine actors within a vaguely-defined collectivist economy. Although opposed to each other, both sides were also opposed to the public realmIt occurs to me that in terms of the Political Compass, the zeitgeist of the postwar years was - on both left and right - a major shift towards libertarianism.. However, this individualist ideology didn't lead to more civic liberty: In fact, it led to the opposite, with massive centralisation and government strongarm tactics being imposed (under the Thatcher government) in order to break unions, crush social mobilization and clear the way for marketization. The old public realm elites (intellectuals, public service officials and working-class leaders) fell, and were replaced with a new market elite, with no loyalty to society and no merit beyond money and celebrity. And the old elites, Marquand argues, were at least decent.

Although I agree with Marquand in his opposition to marketization, I find that a weak point of the book is that it seems to come very close to an unhealthy glamourization of the past; the Romantic trope of the Lost Golden Age as applied to the recent past of British history. Almost inevitably, the Lost Golden Age turns out to have been rather less golden in reality (and reviewers with better knowledge of British history than me have accused Marquand of committing partial accounting). Viewed as political polemic, the notion of resurrecting the past is probably also rather useless outside of conservative circles.

The conclusion is unfortunately (and, I guess, symptomatically) the weakest part of the book, and is very close to a non-conclusion. Marquand suggests that Britain have a "national conversation" about how the market can be "re-tamed", and suggests that a new civic society might be forged that combines the conservative, liberal and socialist traditions, with a morality in which "the common good comes before individual appetites". He also suggests that religious tradition might have a role to play in drafting a new civic culture — if only for religious experience in creating community; Marquand himself is an atheist. There is nothing in the conclusion that suggests any action, and it seems to me that calls for "national conversations" (regardless of nation or subject) are a dime a dozen these days, and rarely lead to any actual change beyond the generation of a large number of tweets and Youtube videos.

Nevertheless, it's a thought-provoking book, and Marquand makes his points well.

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