Who will create the Good Society? It’s a question that begs an immediate response; Labour, the Conservatives, or, if you are feeling optimistic, perhaps the Liberal Democrats. Certainly the Greens have the closest policies but they are furthest from the kind of power that lets them turn their ideals into reality.
The answer is probably not to be found in Westminster or the political system at all. Instead the architects of the Good Society are much more likely to found on the high street, on a billboard, a TV screen or the pages of a glossy magazine. The Good Society, as things stand, won’t be a democratic and social construction. Instead it is going to be a private and profitable concern – and therefore about as far from any meaningful definition of the words ‘good’ and ‘society’ as you could possibly get. So will the Good Society be consumerised or socialized?
A socialised good society…
The Good Society to me at least is a world that is more equal, sustainable and democratic. But what does that means in practice? The issue I return to again and again is time – time to be with the ones you love, doing the things you really enjoy. Not just working and consuming all hours.
The question we need to ask ourselves is; do we want to die wishing we owned more stuff or having had more time with the people that matter to us? To step away from such morbid thoughts, what about this as a simple and joyous option for the good life — the time to read a child a bed time story. The beauty of the concept is that it is relatively cheap (the book not the child) but to make it happen we need to slow down just a bit. Instead of being on the consumer treadmill 24/7 we have to make a trade off for other better pleasures. For the office worker it means a more secure job that won’t be outsourced. It will mean that the pressure to obtain promotion for more pay to stay ahead in the game of status approval is not overwhelming. For the office cleaner it means society ensures through a living wage that you don’t have to take on three jobs to make ends meet. For everyone it means we produce and consume less and the planet stands a chance of survival. For all it means we can spend time with our children. But we cannot do these things alone – it requires a changing set of social norms about what we value and the ability to redistribute time and money so those at the bottom in particular have more options. The good society is not something we can achieve individually by opting out and down shifting, it is fundamentally a collective endeavor. It requires political action, to shape and regulate the market. It needs to curb the pressure for capital to exploit labour by enforcing decent wages and working hours. But contemporary British party politics doesn’t offer such a vision, not yet anyway. So the Good Society becomes an option secured through the market.
Or a consumerised one?
This week saw the launch of an iPad application (an App) which lets you read your child a bedtime story from the office, the airport or the business dinner. Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime is now on sale to ensure “parents never have miss bedtime again, no matter where you are on the planet”. The parent can obviously talk and even sing to their child through the phone but the App lets both interact through the screen as characters are moved about. At last you can have it all – the job and all it buys, and the peace of mind that you are still being a good parent.
But of course life isn’t that simple. The best you can do as a lone consumer and worker is to have a sterile relationship with your child through a piece of technology. Furthermore, you have to work for the technology to obtain the technology that fills the gap left in your life by having to earn and own at such a rate. Then a new piece of technology comes along, like the new iPad 2, and you must have it and you have to work harder and spend less time with your child to get that. It too will promise you can have it all. And so it goes on. We can’t stop this self-destructive process alone. The pressure to conform and keep up is too great. I write this of course on an Apple computer – not because it works that much better than my old PC but because it looks and feels great. It tells the world I’m Apple. I don’t want to be a loser do I? I don’t want to be a failed consumer- someone who can’t keep up.
Chris Stevens of Atomic Antelope which makes the StoryTime App has said “it’s a conversation we knew would happen, and needed to happen. You can argue that it’s a real shame having a child read a story through a slab of cold glass. But on the other hand, if the alternative is not having a story at all I think it’s a good option”.
Atomic Antelope like all companies work in a market. If they don’t design killer Apps that clean up and make a profit someone else will. There is little or no morality in this. It’s cut throat competition. Chris goes on “We’ve seen children as young as one able to use the iPad – it’s amazing how kids take to it so naturally”. The commercialisation of a baby’s life may be a concern to Chris personally but the need for the corporation to make a profit (legally) trumps everything. If they don’t produce an App for parents to develop an electronic relationship with their child, retailing at £2.39, someone else will.
If a remote relationship with your child, mediated by expensive and ever changing technology, is the only option then you take it. But what about the option to live a more balanced life? How do we get that if none of the political party’s put it on the table? There are some signs that politicians are starting to address the insecurity and anxiety of life on the treadmill. David Cameron wants a happiness index, Nick Clegg talks about Alarm Clock Britain and Ed Miliband said in a recent speech that people need more time for those they love. But until they put in place policies that allow us to choose how much work and how much leisure time we have – it’s just talk. The market has to be stopped. You can’t argue with it – it’s like trying to argue with a shark. Just as the shark only knows to kill and eat the market only knows how to make a profit.
If you search for the term ‘Good Society’ what comes up second is a report Compass did in 2006 of that name. What comes up first is this:
The Good Society is a community of free thinking individuals who live for the greater good. We band together to inspire noble living, effect social change, and we prefer to do it in style. We are a fully sustainable, fully organic clothing company who cares about the world around us. We believe in simple living, contagious giving and freedom for all.
The Good Society is a profit making jeans company. Their site is full of the usual images of beautiful people that make you want the life they obviously have. There are lots of good and well-meaning Corporate Social Responsibility promises too. But more jeans that you don’t need just means more work, more status competition, less time and more damage to the planet. The very opposite of the Good Society.
The marketised Good Society will never address the fundamental problems of lives out of our control, it will treat the symptom but it will not address the cause. The Good Society cannot be bought just as you cannot have a relationship with your child through an iPad. The Good Society can only be created by us when we take control of our lives, our community and our society by doing it together as citizens rather than alone as consumers. That is the Good Society.