In the criminally underrated British 1980s cult movie How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Richard E Grant plays an advertising executive called Dennis Bagley who has a nervous breakdown over selling a pimple cream. He comes to realise that his life selling pointless things to people who do not need them is harmful, is killing the planet and is making us all not just unhappy, but insane.
Bagley’s wider argument – which he makes in a series of increasingly deranged rants – is that our ever-expanding culture of consumerism feeds an ever-ravenous capitalist beast that exploits labour for no other reason than its own enlargement. Spoiler alert: in the end, he gets better and becomes himself again, but in order to sell his pointless tincture, he has to level up. He thus becomes capitalism personified in one figure: a grotesque, hypersexed, tall-tale-teller extraordinaire.
So far, so Marx. Yawn away, but there is a reason that this kind of critique cuts through in our time, with double the violence: social media. The era of social media has accelerated the psychic reach of capitalism to ever-more grotesque proportions. On Twitter or Facebook or in the Apple App Store we are not only consumers but labourers; each time we tweet or update our status or upload a photo we are effectively clocking in. We are not only buyers of an online service, but workers on its production line, donating our labour for free in order to build lucrative networks through which information and money flow freely. Corporations call this ‘community’. Bagley calls it ‘Jerusalem’ as he looks out over England’s green and pleasant land and extolls the virtues of fad diets and foot deodorisers. Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff calls it “surveillance capitalism”, which I believe is the most accurate description yet.
The great tech corporations realised early on in the millennium just how monetisable we all were. Purveyors of The Cluetrain Manifesto – a ‘how to’ guide for nascent internet-bubble businesses published in 2000 – sat in circles intoning sagely that “markets are conversations”. Two decades on and we realise how wrong they were. We have less conversational agency than ever in the era of algorithms, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Gaslit into giving up data and labour for the sake of vanity and transitory serotonin highs, we are enjoined in a virtual assembly line from which there is no escape.
In the early 1970s, American psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell spoke of the “hedonic treadmill” to describe how the satisfaction of meeting one set of needs is short-lived and simply lays the foundation for another set. That treadmill is our daily reality, kept in motion at our own behest. The resulting system is a self-inflicted prison. The door is open and we can theoretically leave at any time, but we dare not. And yet the truth of it all is that we can leave, but it takes more than willpower: it takes nothing less than a moment of collective re-imagination.
Gods and Monsters
Underpinning every age are imaginaries: Gods and Monsters that sit at the level of the general subconscious and compel citizens to obey social codes. We see them in literature, art, culture and governance: psychic forces that tug at our in-built affection for solidarity and group behaviour. The concept of God has historically played this role with aplomb, whether in medieval Europe or, say, in the caste system of predominantly Hindu India, a uniquely stratified society mediated by ritual and myth. The Enlightenment saw the birth of a new set of imaginaries and the 20th century saw the birth of the term, courtesy of philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre. The imaginaries of this time were rooted in the democratic nation state: a common culture, bonded in rational discussion in the public square.
Note that the term imaginary is not pejorative: it is not designed to poke fun at sincerely held beliefs. Rather it is an attempt to understand the great, unseeable forces that bind humans in structured, Apollonian endeavour. The Industrial Age brought its own imaginaries. The Russian-American writer Ayn Rand would in the 20th century valorise the Carnegies and the Rockefellers, the buccaneers of the age who took the Panopean clay of capitalism and from it wrought an imaginary of individualist excess, buttressed by the codes of rationalism and even racism.
That imaginary holds today. Tech oligarchs and media plutocrats borrow from the imaginaries of yore to create a trope I call the ‘tech god’. In the cultural consciousness they embody the omnipotence of a deity and the swashbuckle of the pirate, melding with something new: the kindness of community, the generosity of ‘free stuff’ and sophisticated tools that speak to each of us. They bring science and reason: an invisible, energy-sucking, numbers-based glue to prove this hegemony.
These imaginaries consolidate the monopoly capitalism of the tech industry. Today, the great corporations are more powerful than banks, than certain states, with unparalleled wealth in the hands of so-called superstar firms and an ever-increasing slice of global GDP moving from labour into their grasp.
The imaginaries of any age are without borders. They extend beyond the corporate world and seep into public life. The tech savant imaginary was translated for the political sphere by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War. There is little doubt that his performance helped cement in the popular imagination the idea of Dominic Cummings, a hitherto obscure political staffer, as a t-shirted data guru/genius in the Mark Zuckerberg mould. The recognisable shorthand here shows just how far the imaginary has set in.
That we imagine that in our time, in our deepest intuitions, government is rightly run by figures like these is telling. It shows how divorced our imagination is becoming from the everyday reality of good governance. We have seen the reality behind the imaginary as we have moved through the Covid-19 pandemic. Consider, we have this past year dealt with a once-in-a-century moment: over a million dead globally, lockdowns, the social safety net frayed beyond recognition. Yet the imaginary has conditioned both the policy response and our response to the policy response. First, we were desperate to continue to feed the productivity beast. We needed to get workers back to offices to keep our inner cities going, it was said. We needed to get children back to school so parents could go to work, it was said. We needed to get students into halls so property developers would not be out of pocket, it was said.
The Bank of England followed suit, insisting that everything would go back to normal very soon. Even usually sensible commentators spoke of a “V-shaped recovery”. When it was revealed that the months to May 2020 had seen Britain’s biggest economic contraction since records began, these same commentators confidently pronounced that in the next quarter we would bounce right back.
This was magical thinking rooted in the imaginary I refer to as toxic productivity. Commentators including myself looked on with increasing incredulity as the government struggled to get their heads around the idea that people will not go back to the shops unless they feel safe. We tried to get the government to change tack. It is not the lockdown that is causing the recession, we repeated over and over, it is the virus. Yet the idea that this was a moment for economic transformation, rather than economic reversion, was jettisoned by a beleaguered and rudderless officialdom who could imagine no other way.
Policymaking in a pandemic is hard, and the purpose of this exposition is not to minimise these difficulties but to demonstrate how imaginaries cripple the thinking of even smart people, often without them realising it, and put them in a position where they advocate irresponsible things. It was widely rumoured early on, for example, that the UK was to follow Sweden in adopting a ‘herd immunity’ approach to the virus. This was based, so we were told, on internal data produced by a special unit at the heart of government: another sop for the imaginary.
Even a cursory analysis would reveal this to be an irresponsible plan; it is absurd to think that a new virus like this was intelligible in terms of viruses that had come before. But the fish that swims against the current has metastasized via the world wide web and converted this niche position into a dangerous, fissiparous orthodoxy. This irresponsible position even now inspires fervour across the globe.
The UK government department that has been most infected by the imaginary of our time has been the Treasury. This is not the place for a detailed analysis of its performance; suffice to say that, while the furlough scheme was a genuinely innovative product, a measure in line with governments the world over that brought relief to so many, the Treasury’s work overall has been lacklustre. There have been 10 fiscal statements in the past year, including four Winter Economy Plans. There is everything right with giving government departments space to experiment and fail. However, this kind of product development by iteration – an imaginary often associated with the tech god – is absolutely unfit for purpose when it comes to national fiscal policy that affects millions.
The Treasury was, not uncoincidentally, also responsible for the most irresponsible policy enacted by a government in recent times: the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. A study was published in October that essentially affirms the harm this scheme caused. Eat Out to Help Out embodies many of the follies of the imaginaries of our time: a hunger for productivity, the desire for the harmful ‘normal’, the undergirding belief in the positives of herd immunity and, of course, the tech-bro desire to ‘just try something’, regardless of the cost. The UK’s economy, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said, is uniquely dependent on hospitality, and so he thought he would spend taxpayers’ money on a massive subsidy.
All of which demonstrates an essential immorality at the heart of the thinking. Just because we are a nation of Pizza Express and Burger King lovers does not mean it is the place of a good government to encourage such habits. At a time when medical experts everywhere repeatedly advised that, in order to combat the pandemic we should reduce our waistlines, stay healthy, boost our immune systems, stay at home and socially distance, the government spent public money to get us out to eat badly. The lines outside restaurants like McDonald’s went for blocks and were of course the longest in the poorest areas. This was hailed by complicit journalists and commentators as a wild success. The Treasury no doubt still considers it so, even as Britain went right into a second lockdown a month or so later, citing rising infection rates, in part as a result of this orgy of bad eating.
Some will say that restaurants should not alone be blamed for the so-called second wave, but this is to miss the point. The immorality at the heart of our policymaking in response to crisis is sanctioned by the imaginaries of our time. The collective adulation for death-wish schemes are part of this too. This is Dennis Bagley-level collective derangement. Isn’t it?
The need for new imaginaries
Our only hope, it seems, lies in somehow shifting these imaginaries, pulling them away from the clutches of corporate power. By definition, however, imaginaries are not easy things to dislodge. They are emblematic of an age, are themselves cultural artefacts. They are not of one place or person, but a product of all of us.
You cannot just will an imaginary into being, or write a smart article and wait for others to catch on. Take the archetype of the hungry lascivious capitalist, located in the later Dennis Bagley but also in one Donald J Trump. It is not enough to simply say ‘we think Trump types are bad, so we’re not going to valorise them any more’. As we’ve seen with the US election, the phenomenon of ‘shy Trumpers’ and the attempted coup in the aftermath, many people simply will continue to tacitly respond to that trope and even bend the system to the imaginary’s will, no matter the consequences or contradictions with their professed morals or virtues. The imaginaries of an age flow not from government edict or policy prescriptions or the wishful thinking of the earnest, but from the deepest cultural touchstones: art, popular culture, religion and a shared response to our time.
I am optimistic by nature – though not, I hope, Panglossian – and I sense a shift here; a response to what has come before. In our time of accelerated shared experiences via the web (its saving grace), things flip quickly. I believe we are beginning to see – vaguely, in outline – the emergence of a contrasting set of imaginaries. Let me end by discussing them.
Laying the foundations
First, there is the emerging imaginary of a new kind of empathic leader. The toxic masculinity of our leaders of yore compares unfavourably to a new breed of leader. Empathic, collaborative, often women; leaders like Finland’s Sanna Marin, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and America’s Kamala Harris inspire followers but also devotees.
The psychic pull of this idea is powerful – quite different, I think, to any culturally popular female embodiment of leadership that has come before, which was often located in goddesses or warrior queens. This kind of leadership eschews the individual deism of those types. It distributes power and so is even more powerfully realised when plugged in to the internet, where civil initiative amplifies all.
This is the second imaginary: the empowered civil society. We are used to seeing civil initiative being deployed by unscrupulous politicians and magnates to foment division and consolidate their power. Many online movements serve cults of personality. Yet that which is used for bad can also be used for good. Coupled with a new kind of empathic leadership, an imaginary of patient, distributed civil initiative that rights historic injustices is also taking root. The Black Lives Matter movement is part of this. Where it does this well is not so much when it fights online fire with fire or pitches right against left but where it stands against the cults of any one personality and distributes leadership and responsibility widely. We see the admiration for civil society throughout contemporary pop culture, in a slew of high-profile movies about ‘Hidden Figures’ (the name of one such) of the protest movements of recent history. We see it in social thought, in the actor-network theory of Bruno Latour that eschewed the heroic model of innovation in favour of the analysis of innovation networks and their practices. We see it even in video games played collectively and collaboratively online, or the minimalist music of Steve Reich that gives space to multiple listeners to collectively create the auditory experience.
We also have seen it up close in key RSA projects. For years, the RSA has been part of a so-called deliberative wave of thought and experimentation across Europe, convening deliberative experiments. Now, based on that experience, my team and the RSA US are joining forces to advise a national group of councils on embedding world-class deliberative practice into their economic decision-making, with a view to happier, greener economic development.
The RSA’s Forum for Ethical AI project alerted us to the power of convening discussion among workers of all stripes, in this case on complex technological matters. Ordinary people, given space and agency, could understand and even effectively regulate complex tech, provided the group is diverse and given agency and the tools to collaborate. Applied to politics and thought leadership, this is a cri de coeur for a more equal distribution of agency, voice and power.
Which brings us to a third imaginary: our evolving idea of the balanced mind. No doubt our collective experiences in lockdown have shaped our rising awareness of mental (un)wellness. This, happily, is leading to a greater focus on self and collective care. As our awareness has increased, we are starting to perceive more tangible connections between the individual and the collective, our lives as mediated not by machines or businesses but by nature, ecology and collective good. This is the locus of the RSA’s new Regenerative Futures programme of thought and practice. Its projects intentionally sit at this intersection, bringing policy and practice into alignment in order to – if I may put it this way – resolve the collective challenge of being with a collective approach to becoming. Working together, in synchronicity with the world, rather than enslaved to the caprice of man: this is the ultimate rejoinder to the Dennis Bagleys of this or any other age.
Such are the foundations of a new set of imaginaries for our times. Will they lead to cultural and political awakening, to growth and change? We at the RSA will continue to prove their limits. No doubt we will learn more of their collective capacity to inspire wonder and action in the months and quarrels ahead.
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal