In an increasingly competitive job-market, we are, more than ever, socially defined by how much we earn. But does this drive our society?
James Madison once wrote that ‘in all societies, distinctions are various and unavoidable’. Throughout history, humans have seeked to define themselves through status. In the modern world, the symbol of this status is money, and the equipment that money buys.
Increasingly, we live in a class driven society, which allows individual capital gain to calve up our intrinsic humanity. Even though the majority of Britons now have their wages paid electronically, the idea of that all important ‘wage packet’ still grips our imagination. Each and every human’s individual financial status has become evermore important since the global financial crisis of 2008. Typically, the highest earners have come under notable scorn as banker’s bonuses continue to multiply as quickly as the bank accounts they enter. The public outcry has been so vehement that some have had the wisdom (or financial stability depending on which side of the fence you sit on) to refuse the bulging Christmas bonus packet for at least one year.
However, although our society seems to be driven by the ephemeral yet definite valuation of money- it appears that we are no happier for it. Although Britain holds one of the highest net household incomes in Europe at £35,730 a year, which is far more than the European average of £10,000, we still lag far behind in the quality of life tables. Simply put, Britons endure longer working hours, with fewer holidays and a higher cost of living than their European counterparts. Joie de vivre doesn’t appear in our vocabulary- I earn, therefore I am.
This said, it is true that money certainly alleviates the obstacles that litter the road to true happiness. It melts away nagging doubts, soothes sleepless nights and coaxes comfort when it is most needed. One need only look at the running costs of an undergraduate degree, the extortionate prices of private school education or the benefits of private health care to see the difference that relative liquidity makes to important areas of everyday life. These significant conveniences drive the neurotic British class war. On the one side, there are the masses who as F.Scott Fitzgerald eloquently put it ‘cannot forgive the rich for being rich’ and on the other there are the ‘privileged few’ who are ignorant of the fact that they landed on the right side of the coin.
However, there should be a definitive tipping point. Where the scales shift from convenience to greed, where aggressive capitalism falls through its own hollow shell, and where the investment banker becomes no happier than the factory worker to his right on the five o’clock Jubilee Line Tube to Waterloo. It is here where we recognize the true meaning of our existence. Where we reluctantly acknowledge that true happiness cannot be reached through material gain and where we grasp the disjointed nature of all that surrounds us. Although there is no doubt that the modus operandi of our society is fuelled by the weight of our wallets, this should not be the fuel that drives our collective emotional engine.
It is this egalitarian philosophy that needs to beat at the heart of David Cameron’s Big Society. Within this society, community is encouraged through individuality, the collective advanced by the goodwill of citizens within it. It revolves around the conviviality of the British people whereby people help people rather than government intervening in the affaires of communities through bureaucratic regulation. Despite his overly emphasized public school image, Mr.Cameron believes in community, in giving, and above all, in people. This means that every community up and down the country should be able to develop the necessary amour propre required to create successful schools, helpful hospitals and safe streets. The problem with this regeneration of community spirit is that it ignores the lesser angels of our nature, our careful and precise regard for our own self-interest. Therefore, for the Big Society to truly fulfill its destiny the rich must be prepared to share their wealth, to equalize the inherent inequalities that aggressive capitalism ensures.
Bill Gates and Warren Buffet exemplify this melting of the financial iceberg. Last week, they managed to persuade the top 40 of America’s richest individuals to sign up to the Giving Pledge, a remarkable scheme which could transform the entire nature of philanthropy. In signing up to the pledge, these predators of the capitalist food chain have agreed to give away ‘the majority’ of their wealth within their lifetime or soon after their death. This extraordinary and crucially, public, declaration of generous intent is exactly the lubricant required to ease the frigid cogs of the Big Society.
Unfortunately, it seems as if the custom of large-scale philanthropy is more popular amongst our transatlantic counterparts. Although there are some generous donors within the UK such as Sainsbury, Christopher Cooper-Hohn and Arpad Busson, both hedge-fund financiers, it still seems as if the rich are, comparatively, not as generous as the poor if you measure by the proportion of their income. For our society to become indefinitely ‘big’, local communities need to have the means by which they can solve their own problems. This can only occur through the act of giving, the will to redistribute wealth, and to help charity. If government gives people the opportunity to mould their own communities, they will seize it with both hands.
Bleak times discourage our overpowering dependency on the money that seems to define us. Both World wars provide shining testament to this as men and women from all classes and all walks of life bound themselves together to serve the greater good of society. As we now face an altogether less menacing yet undoubtedly perilous future in the shape of George Osborne’s cuts on public spending, we could do no worse than remember the true meaning of our existence. We must allow the better angels of our nature to shine through. We must live with our hearts rather than our wallets.