Day after day explanations for the Brexit vote multiply. I agree that many Leave voters rejected globalisation. I accept that what united many disillusioned working class voters in the north with older, backward-looking, shire Tories were socially conservative views. But that apparent consensus masks quite different motivations people had for voting Leave.
Some Leave voters were rejecting the materialist, market-driven values which have overrun our lives since the 1980s. This value system elevates money, stuff, appearances and fame. These things crowd out other values. Commitment to community, family, friends or work colleagues. Feelings of personal fulfillment such as job satisfaction. The sense of personal integrity which flows from living according to principles or values.
Modern-day economists are the high priests of materialism. They see human beings simply as economic actors motivated by their own self-interest. For them growth is God. Nothing, neither tradition nor the damage to people’s current lives, should stand in the way of what Joseph Schumpeter called 'creative destruction’: capitalism’s constant need to innovate.
The hand of market economics is everywhere. It subtly affects our language. We are consumers even of public services rather than citizens. Decades of psychological research has shown that people are intrinsically motivated. Yet our materialist perspective assumes that top managers will only do a good job if they are awarded bigger and bigger bonuses. We used to think education was about more than a route to career success and higher earnings.
Religious organisations and the labour movement once challenged materialism by emphasising alternative values such as solidarity. In today’s media-dominated world these voices have been reduced to a whisper. In every aspect of life money doesn’t just talk. It roars.
The casualty of rampant materialism is not just the public realm. Individuals too suffer. Countless studies have shown that the more people pursue materialist values the worse their well-being and mental health. This is true for both children and adults.
As a result of my book 'The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives', I’ve talked to thousands of people about these issues. There is a deep and widespread disenchantment with these values. Yet that disenchantment rarely finds expression in politics or the media. Unless they are involved in the environmental movement or some religious groups there is little opportunity for people to talk about the negative effects wrought by materialist values.
A few years ago I ran a workshop for people training to be care workers, mainly working-class men in their 30s, 40s and 50s. As I outlined the essence of materialist values, one said: 'Welcome to our lives and it’s shite'. They described lives increasingly dominated by getting the latest mobile phone or pair of trainers. When asked to discuss and report back on why materialist values undermine well-being they filled four pages of flipchart paper. One line read: 'You never have enough, you’re never good enough and you never get there’. They felt they lived in a moral vacuum. They worried about the impact it was having on their children. They are right to do so.
Despite growing prosperity, children in the UK have very poor well-being. A few years ago Professor Agnes Nairn undertook a comparative study of children and family life in the UK with Spain and with Sweden – two countries with high child well-being. The study paints a picture of parents in the UK (but not Spain and Sweden) spending long hours working and commuting so they can buy their children lots of stuff. This is in part to assuage their guilt as absent parents. It’s also because they think their kids will lose out and be bullied if they don’t have the right gear. Young people sitting alone in their bedroom with all the latest technology is a peculiarly UK experience. Many people from elsewhere in Europe who have settled here tell me of their surprise at what passes for family life in the UK and how we treat our children. Ironically, given Brexit, we have much to learn from our European neighbours about how to raise healthy children. Inevitably it involves putting materialist values in their place.
Most of the commentary in the UK on Brexit assumes that many traditional working-class folk voted Leave because they weren’t getting enough of the cake. This is simplistic. Many want more and better jobs for themselves and their children. They want access to better housing and public services. They quite rightly want higher wages so they don’t have to struggle to get by. But many are suspicious of the cake itself. They think it’s simply more of the same unhealthy fare.
Some commentators focus on the idea that Leave voters were not prepared to believe experts. But many voted Leave despite the possibility of financial loss. Not because they had nothing left to lose. But because they wanted to reject a value system totally based on money. They didn’t agree with the idea that only money matters. I suspect most of the men in my workshop contributed to the one million Scottish votes for Leave.
If they were rejecting the narrow, financial calculations of the experts and giving two fingers to money, what alternative values were they asserting? For many working-class Brexit voters their alternative value was loyalty – loyalty to their community and way of life which they believe is threatened by globalisation. Of course, some Leave voters are bigots and racists. But they are the minority. Rightly or wrongly many Leave voters consciously put their Britishness, and spurious 'national sovereignty’, ahead of their own self-interest. How else can we explain Nissan car workers in Sunderland voting, en masse, for Brexit?
Older Conservative voters in the shires are also harking back to another time – a world they liked better. One more predictable, slower moving and based on what they remember as better values. Much has been made of the selfishness of older voters who didn’t think about the effects Brexit would have on their children. Since their personal finances could buffer them in uncertain times they could also afford an 'I’m all right Jack’ mentality. I’ve little doubt there was real thoughtlessness and naivety in their actions. But I also believe many genuinely wanted to get back to a world which they thought would be better for their offspring.
Much has been made of the fact that one of the main divides in this referendum campaign was that Leave voters were on average less educated than Remain voters. We all suffer from the negative effects of materialism. However, the better-educated can mitigate its effects more easily through access to the arts and exotic travel and less exposure to materialism’s junk culture.
Arron Banks, the funder of UKIP, asserts that one reason the Remain campaign failed is because it kept talking about facts rather than emotional reasons for staying in the EU. But we need to reframe this: Remain didn’t just talk facts, it fought an economic campaign. For example, when it talked about the uncertainty Brexit would create it focused on financial markets, trade deals and how business doesn’t like uncertainty. It didn’t point out how stressful and psychologically damaging this uncertainty would be for individuals and communities. In the big debates Remain hardly mentioned the peace dividend Europe has enjoyed since European collaboration and solidarity first crystallised in the 1950s.
Of course, Leave argued that in the long run Britons would be economically better off by leaving the EU. It also fought a very nasty campaign, using foreigners and immigration to play on people’s fears. But there was something novel about its continual emphasis on sovereignty and repeated calls to 'take back control’. This control is illusory – ordinary people have at best a chance every five years to exert minimal control over our political system. But that mantra had a freshness about it because it wasn’t economic. It wasn’t politics as usual.
While I think that some voted Leave in part to reject our money-oriented way of life, and agree with that sentiment, I don’t think it was a wise move. I voted Remain.
The huge boost to materialistic values in contemporary times resulted from the 'market triumphalism’ unleashed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Britain and the USA consequently embarked on what Edward Luttwak calls 'turbo-capitalism’. This gets its charge from privatisation, financial deregulation, low taxes for the rich, poor wage rates for workers and deregulation of the labour market. As the philosopher Michael Sandel points out, this market philosophy has not been bounded by notions of right and wrong. As a result it 'has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics that afflicts many societies today'. As we’ve seen these ideas are particularly toxic as we all vie with one another for money, power and fame.
Far from putting a break on the rise of a materialist, market-driven culture, Brexit looks set to usher in even more of the same. It has put the right-wing – the very people who unleashed these forces – into the ascendancy. Times columnist and Remain supporter, Danny Finkelstein, argued on the eve of the referendum that any post-Brexit shock to the UK economy was likely to result in policies favourable to business, including lower wages. Within a week of the referendum George Osborne proposed further cuts to an already shrinking rate of tax on company profits. Lord Lawson told the House of Lords that Brexit meant the government could 'finish the job which Margaret Thatcher started'.
Steadying the economy, negotiating our way out of the EU and into different trade deals, and repealing EU laws will dominate our political landscape for at least a decade. This will make it even less likely that the political class will engage with the type of issues I’ve raised here.
There is a desperate need to talk about the toxic values which underpin our market-driven society and undermine our individual and collective well-being. For some a Leave vote was a crie de coeur on this very issue. Sadly I suspect the Brexit they have secured will make matters worse.