Here we are, in the world’s most respected organisation on social thinking and yet many here seemingly still don't understand the fundamentals of the life we are living in Britain in the 21st Century, writes Paul Atherton.
Through my own personal life and some cultural recommendations, let me show you the differences in economics and in society at large that have dramatically changed beyond all recognition in the last 25 years, and what that means for solving society’s ills today.
As an organisation that promotes Universal Basic Income and social prescribing, it’s not enough for the RSA to just put forward these socially uniting ideas. We also need to enact them. And for that, you must understand what’s really happening in the world.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
So, for my first recommendation, I give you Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a standout piece of ‘working class’ writing from 1914. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of painters and directors working in the fictional town of Mugsborough. It highlights their plight under a plutocratic capitalist system and why people seem so quick to believe it can’t be changed. ‘We must be selfish: the system demands it’, Tressell writes. Only the selfish and cunning will survive, but ‘no-one can be justly blamed for acting selfishly – it is a matter of self-preservation’. More than a hundred years on, its exploration of our ties to capitalism remains incredibly prescient.
My own capitalist experience began in 1984 when at 16, as I walked through the doors of Howells department store in Cardiff – the ‘Harrods of Wales’. I’d joined, by pure luck, the best YTS (Youth Training Scheme) in the UK, as stated by The Sunday Observer, at least. Here I was taught my first life lesson: it’s hard getting work if others perceive you to be too bright or overqualified. Diane, the leader, did her best to explain that I was too intelligent for the scheme, but it didn’t matter to me. I needed the job to pay rent on my flat, to get myself out of a care home. My customers there taught me another lesson: the difference between money and class. Those with only money (new money) were arrogant, rude and ignorant. Those with class and ‘old’ money; humble, polite and knowledgeable. Now of course, in today’s UK, it’s just all money and there is no class.
The meritocracy argument has, in the main, always been a farce. How else can you explain why low paid workers who hold down three different jobs still can’t pay their bills? You’ll find more to debunk the pernicious theory that, if only people on low wages worked harder, they’d be less poor, in my second recommendation - Mary O’Hara’s brilliant 2020 book, The Shame Game: Overturning The Toxic Poverty Narrative.
The Shame Game: Overturning The Toxic Poverty Narrative
I saw this damaging media narrative first hand in 1985, battling for my benefit claimants when I worked at the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS). Thankfully, at the time, the Thatcher administration was beginning to turn scorned claimants into respected customers, revitalising an arcane system of supplementary benefit into the streamlined Income Support, introducing the 0800 freephone numbers that had to be answered in person within three rings, and starting to redesign DHSS offices with plants and removing the bazooka proof screens to be less intimidating. The staff hated it.
Many still looked down on the folk who came through our doors. When my executive officer told me to lie to my claimants and tell them that their giro cheques were in the post during the biggest postal strike on record, I quit, on the spot, in protest. I mean, they were literally sitting in our finance office.
State support has been a thorny issue for successive governments of every stripe. Tony Blair's arrival as prime minister signalled a constant attack on welfare benefits. With the rebranding of the DHSS into the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), he removed single parent benefits, attacked those on disability and introduced premium rate phone numbers where your money and your humanity ticked away whilst you languished on hold on its automated systems.
I, Daniel Blake
Thus, my third recommendation, Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake, a story of a man trying to claim his rightfully due disability benefits following a heart attack: ‘I am not a client, a customer, nor a service user. I am not a shirker, a scrounger, a beggar, nor a thief’. The Cameron government at the time the film came out, said it was utterly fictitious, but anyone who’s ever been inside a Job Centre knows otherwise. The film is a brilliantly insightful exploration of the way the welfare system became corrupted into something designed to bully the very people it had been created to serve. In just a small number of decades, safety nets like welfare and the NHS have been shredded. But nobody notices until they fall from the trapeze of good health, secure employment or protected housing, which by then, of course, is too late.
After leaving the DHSS, a job advert in a window prompted me to apply to be a secretary at a firm called Exclusive Character Merchandise (ECM). I was turned down but offered a job to set up their telesales operation instead. And although I had no idea what one was at just 19 years old, within a year I’d created a half a million-pound department selling licenced printed merchandise to Hitachi, Cunard, Liberty and Hamleys. The idea of going from a shop window ad to an on-the-spot interview, to being offered a much superior job to the one I went in for, all agreed on a handshake there and then, without a shred of paperwork being passed, would be inconceivable to anyone under 45 today. Instinct, trust and risk have been utterly eliminated in the 21st Century.
Hence my wildcard fourth recommendation, the 1983 film Risky Business, in which Tom Cruise plays a high school student who sets up a brothel in his home that ends up getting him his place at Princeton University. The movie sparked a generation to throw caution to the wind but also had a tinge of foretelling of where society was going; as Cruise’s character says, ‘doesn’t anyone want to accomplish anything anymore, or do we all just want to make money?’, the reply from the whole group is ‘make money!’. This is not a flippant recommendation, it's an important reminder that culture, especially in the teen mind, can encourage and cajole. It marks out Gen X perfectly. A fictional world where risks are encouraged and those risks have successful outcomes, is one where risks are taken into the real world.
The Power of Yes
Of course, this daring comes with consequences. Challenging the orthodoxy is good. Breaking the law is usually not. Which brings me to my fifth recommendation - the 2009 play The Power of Yes. The playwright, David Hare, is commissioned by the National Theatre to write about the global financial crash of the previous year. After some months interviewing all the major players like George Soros and Alan Greenspan, he concludes it can’t be done. Given a few months more to try, he comes back with one of the greatest conceits in British theatre. Hare writes the play about why he can’t write a play about the financial crash, and in so doing demonstrates the total insanity and illegality of the banking system in the 21st century. That insanity runs right through my sixth recommendation, the 2015 film, The Big Short based on the book, which powerfully demonstrates why the financial crash happened and why most people invariably don’t pay attention to the world around them. ‘They did something you other suckers didn’t… they looked!’
The Big Short
I took my Financial Services Act exams after my stint in telesales and sold mortgages and insurance for a while, which taught me all I ever needed to know about financial markets. It made me realise that money was neither controllable nor always necessary. I saw first-hand what The Big Short so cleverly exposes as ‘the giant lie at the heart of the economy’. Thus, life lesson three was learnt – you’re not living the life you think you are.
Utopia For Realists: And How We Can Get There
And when you realise that the world doesn’t work the way you’ve been told, suddenly everything becomes more achievable. My seventh recommendation. Utopia For Realists: And How We Can Get There, by Dutch Historian Rutger Bergman (2017), is the reason I believe, even now, that if we just take the trouble to stop and think, we have the power to change Britain for the better. Rutger writes, ‘we can’t move forward without looking to the past’. If we look clearly enough, ‘we can see that we’re already living in the Land of Plenty’, he says.
Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto and the War for Our Wallets
That’s where I found myself in 1988, aged 20, doing exclusive deals with fashion designers like Paul Costelloe and Arabella Pollen, selling their clothes directly from catwalk shows I’d put together using an array of contacts in Cardiff, from top models to theatrical staging. This was very much a cash business, and why my eighth recommendation is Brett Scott’s Cloudmoney: Cash, Cards, Crypto and the War for Our Wallets from this year. Money is no longer what you thought it was, and cash itself is the only remaining ‘roadblock against a greater concentration of data collection and power within Big Tech and big finance companies’. In fact, cash is our last saving grace from being commodified entirely.
By 21, I’d bought my first flat. It wasn’t an aspirational thing; with the government having removed rental caps a few years earlier, it just made more economic sense - something addressed in my ninth recommendation, Vicky Spratt’s book, Tenants (2022). Housing has changed out of all recognition in the millennium. In fact, in the last decade or so it has changed more than in any other part of British history, including Domesday.
Social Dilemma / Great Hack
My tenth and eleventh recommendations are a pair of Netflix documentaries; The Social Dilemma and The Great Hack. The former illustrates how tech companies created our dependency on social media: besides technology, illegal drugs are the only other industry to describe their customers as ‘users’. The latter shows how this dependency is applied to surgically change groups of people’s behaviours, like Cambridge Analytica did with elections around the globe. Your life really isn’t yours to live anymore.
At 22, in 1990, as a mature student at Cardiff Business School two things happened. I was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). And I started up a gift delivery lingerie business. Touch of Silk became a nationwide hit thanks to a handy endorsement I engineered from Vogue Magazine. This PR success drew me to London, to public relations and marketing agencies, and eventually client directing the likes of Diageo, The Telegraph and CNN.
Aaron Sorkin’s 2012 television series, The Newsroom, my twelfth recommendation, highlights what I learnt from CNN and its commodification of news as entertainment. When asked why America is the greatest country in the world, the main character laments the passing of the days when the USA ‘...waged wars on poverty, not on poor people’.
The Power Of One: The Media and Homeless Stereotypes
The truth, in the 21st Century, is that the only way to achieve any kind of social change is to change the media narrative on the issue. That’s why my thirteenth recommendation is The Power Of One: The Media and Homeless Stereotypes, my chapter in the British Academy Representing homelessness index. As I write in The Power of One, ‘to end homelessness you have to change how people write and talk about it.’ I should know. I became homeless in 2009. I still am.
Museum of Neoliberalism
My fourteenth recommendation would be to take a trip to the Museum of Neoliberalism in Lewisham, London, which shows clearly how our economy, and our thinking, has declined from the 1970s to now. It was that decline in freedom, choice and proactivity that prompted me to start making films back in the early 2000s instead of setting up businesses. The Ballet of Change, my series of four short films, projected onto London landmarks collected into the British Film Institute archive and my video-diary, Our London Lives, which resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of London, are proud achievements - every bit as entrepreneurial as anything I ever did in the 80s and 90s, but made on little to no money and with no intent of financial return.
The Innovation Illusion: How So Little is Created by So Many, Working So Hard
As you will have read, I've managed to achieve and achieve. But since 2009 and becoming homeless over a credit-file error the naysayers are beating me hands down. Up until 2009 it didn’t matter what obstacle you threw at me; I could find a way around it. Back then, I still inhabited a world where I could always find that one person who’d listen to reason and turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’. Now, my world is a constant battle with bureaucrats and bureaucratic thinking. If I can get past the unmonitored emails, the artificial intelligence and the automation drones, the people I encounter, choose to do nothing, rather than doing something they could be held responsible for. Which explains my fifteenth recommendation, Swedish economists Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel’s 2016 work The Innovation Illusion: How So Little is Created by So Many, Working So Hard. They describe the ‘instinctively defensive’ institutions and the rise of a ‘compliance mentality’ which has created an inertia in western societies and a lack of innovation, ideas and responsibility.
But there is hope. You’ll find it in the work of French economist, Thomas Piketty, and the former Greek minister of finance, Yanis Varoufakis. And in my final, and sixteenth recommendation, Doughnut Economics by the British economist, Kate Raworth. She argues that western fixations on economic growth need to be replaced with a ‘bigger goal’ of ‘meeting the human rights of every person within the means of our life-giving planet’. That removes the pursuit for money and kick-starts a whole new wave of societal thinking.
Taken together, all these cultural and academic recommendations illustrate how the world you inhabit in 2022 isn’t remotely like what it was just over a decade ago, and another universe altogether from two decades ago. You are now living in an entirely different reality in Britain: from money to economics, from media to societal cohesion. And unless we all wake up to that fact, Rutger’s Utopia will always be painfully out of reach for just about all of us, especially the Daniel Blakes of this world.
In the 18th century, RSA Fellow Adam Smith showed it only took one person to change how the world did things when he gave birth to the idea of capitalism. In 1970s America, Milton Friedman helped give birth to neoliberalism. So why don’t we all now listen to Fellow Kate Raworth in the 21st Century and create a world of Doughnut Economies?
I’ve been, and am, a proud Fellow of the RSA. The RSA’s Fellowship has changed the world in the past. The unifying power of Fellowship gives us the power to do it all again. We are a network of topflight decision-makers. We just need to make the right decisions and act. The time for talking is at an end.
So take the Christmas break to read (all written works are available in the RSA Library), watch, listen and learn, and then tell me how you want to act in the comments below.
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