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Are we beginning to see a backlash in the mainstream against the excessive importance placed on extrinsic values?


Are we beginning to see a backlash in the mainstream against the excessive importance placed on extrinsic values?

Elsie Roderiques explores whether increasing numbers of people are openly questioning the inherent value of wealth, power and social status in the mainstream.
This is a blog by Elsie Roderiques
Elsie is a member of staff at the Common Cause Foundation.

This week, a group of online ‘influencers’ have come under fire for sharing glowing videos of a paid trip to a factory in China owned by controversial fast fashion retailer, Shein. The company has previously been accused of abusing workers and breaching rules around working hours. The public reaction to what has been called “propaganda” by some has been fierce, and not for the first time. Earlier this year the Guardian published an article heralding the “sudden dawn of the deinfluencer” and it seems to be part of a trend where we’re seeing, in online spaces at least, increasing numbers of people openly questioning the inherent value of wealth, power and social status and of overconsumption and fast fashion – the pursuit of which has been previously been so normalised on social media.

Neoliberal capitalism has, by design, been hugely successful in elevating extrinsic values of power, wealth and social status in the world around us. This has helped to maintain the status quo of pursuing profit and economic growth at the expense of all else (although perhaps the proliferation of extrinsic values came first and made the mainstreaming of neoliberal capitalist ideals possible). Indeed it was former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher herself, a huge proponent of neoliberal economics, who said in a 1981 interview with The Sunday Times newspaper: “What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

And thus, today we have an economic, and indeed social system where to focus on ‘I’, rather than ‘we’; and where to pursue personal wealth and power at the expense of all else is portrayed as entirely ‘normal’ and ‘common sense’. It’s so homogenous and all encompassing that it can indeed feel like “There is no alternative”, as Thatcher famously decreed. It’s not just a failure of our collective imagination; the celebration of these extrinsic values has been hugely seductive, and incredibly adaptive. Each of us, at least in the global north, regardless of our background, opportunity, privilege, race, class, sexuality, gender or ability and against a background of rampant inequity and impoverishment, have been led to believe that we too can pursue wealth and power and social status. The overarching message is that if we just work hard enough, or buy this or that. If you have economic agency, or capital to spend, or can contribute productively, you are welcome to participate in this ‘dream’.

Until now, resistance to this status quo has come from pockets of society; marginalised peoples, the labour movement and radicals have long histories of resistance, organising and building alternative ways of being outside or on the fringes of the mainstream. In two countries which have been the vanguard of imposing a neoliberal capital model, the UK and the US, there are signs of mounting scepticism; the latest British Social Attitudes survey confirms that more people are waking up to the reality that Britain is unequal; particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Two-thirds of Brits (67%) agree that ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth, up ten percentage points since 2019. And 49% now agree that the government should redistribute income to the less well off. 

This is a sentiment that seems to be felt even more strongly by the younger generation; in research published in 2021 by the rightwing thinktank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), nearly eight out of ten young people in Britain blamed capitalism for the housing crisis, with two-thirds (67%) expressing a desire to live under an explicitly socialist economic system. The research showed that young people associated ‘socialism’ with ‘positive’ terms such as ‘workers’, ‘public’, ‘equal’ and ‘fair’.  Capitalism, meanwhile, was predominantly associated with terms such as ‘exploitative’, ‘unfair’, ‘the rich’ and ‘corporations’. This trend is reflected in the USA too, with a Gallup poll in 2018 finding that 45% of young Americans saw capitalism favourably, down from 68% in 2010

Without doing a deep dive into the data from the World Values Survey or the European Social Survey over several decades (which I would very much like to do!), it’s hard to know whether this signals a sea change away from the extrinsic values so deeply embedded in mainstream culture or whether it’s just a sign of disillusionment with work and frustration with a system that’s not working for the many It also remains to be seen whether these sentiments will be reflected in organising, voting or policy change. 

Interestingly, one demographic where tangible change does seem to be taking place is amongst the young and highly wealthy.  In the U.S. in 1995, a group of people convened to form the beginnings of what is known today as Resource Generation, a movement of 18-35 year olds with access to wealth who are among the richest top 10% of individuals or families in the U.S. In 2015, Resource Movement began in Canada, and in 2018 Resource Justice was founded in the UK. Each organisation is committed to working with (mostly) young people with wealth or class privilege who are committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land and power. “I see this money as not mine”, said heiress Morgan Curtis of her inherited wealth in a 2022 interview with the Guardian. “My ancestors made harmful and immoral choices, participating in slavery and colonisation,” she said, “And so I see this money as not mine; as belonging to those communities who had their land and labour stolen from them.”

It’s not only amongst the heirs that the allure of hoarding excessive individual wealth is beginning to lose its shine. There is an emerging field of wealth psychology, and whilst it could be criticised for, in some instances, trying to help people with excessive wealth to feel ‘normal’, it also seems that there is a growing recognition that having excessive wealth also comes at a cost to good mental health. In a recent Guardian article about a Swiss rehab clinic for the super-rich, journalist Sophia Elmhurst writes: “The clients fall broadly into two groups: those born into wealth and those who acquired it as adults. The former often feel directionless, oppressed by the success of their parents and ashamed at the ease of their lives. “The self-made guys are totally different,” Beck said. “Not easier.” Their work ethic was often self-destructive and had led them to neglect family, friends and their own health. But there were also similarities between the two groups. Both seemed to sense that something was missing, a deeper “value problem” as Beck put it, that boiled down to a question: “What am I supposed to do in this world?” There was an absence of purpose, something lacking or lost; a gaping emptiness that lay beneath the money.” To be entirely clear, living in poverty and without access to wealth has far greater consequences for mental and physical health than excessive wealth, and affects many more of us; but this growing body of research on the impact of wealth, exposing the truth of what it means to be excessively wealthy and powerful and beginning to question their desirability and the logic of its pursuit is hugely important. Sociologist and author of ‘Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence’,  Rachel Sherman agrees. Speaking to The Guardian last year she said: “There’s scepticism that this is just about being woke; it’s another form of status to say you’re sad about your money […] Silence around class is one of the things that makes it possible for us to have so much inequality […] These feelings are politically crucial and change is possible when the wealthy talk openly.”

Novara Media correspondent Ash Sarkar touched on this when she appeared on BBC Newsnight programme to discuss the popularity of the royal family in May ahead of the coronation: “When it comes to this generation in particular young people are interested in the values of fairness and in the values of representation, and whatever way you slice it the monarchy is neither a fair nor a representative institution […]. There have been attempts by the royal family to strip themselves of some of the mystery, to invite the media in and show the public what they really do, and what they’ve revealed themselves to be is a cartel of some very weird people. I think that the more that social media 24-hour news tabloid press intrusion gets us to see who they are who they are as individuals; which is people who have been made, in many cases, deeply unhappy by the institution that they were born into; the less people are inclined to support the monarchy either as a political, or national institution, or just a kind of old school celebrity that they can secretly enjoy. The more unhappy you see them being, the less you’re into it.”

Taken in concert, one might wonder if we are starting to see the beginnings of a chasm opening up in the mainstream itself; signs that a system Marx famously proclaimed as containing the seeds of its own destruction, is beginning to falter, or that the seeds are taking root. A few polls and a growing movement of young people redistributing their intergenerational wealth isn’t enough to make such a bold claim. I know this. One swallow does not make a summer. And in 2023, when the richest 50 families in the UK have more wealth than the bottom half of the UK population (33.5 million people), it almost seems ridiculous to note it. However, there are signs emerging, like green shoots through concrete, which bring me tentative optimism that we might yet witness a more mainstream transition away from a culture that is out of balance; excessively focussed on extrinsic values at the expense of intrinsic values and causing harm to all of us, our fellow living beings and the planet we call home.

Tentatively, it does feel like the Overton Window is slowly widening in a world where, at the same time that there is growing inequity and more billionaires than ever before; and when oil companies are posting record profits against a backdrop of rising cost of living, fuel poverty and climate change; there people like activist Mikaela Loach, boldly calling for the abolishment of billionaires (and even philanthrocapitalism) and the redistribution of power and wealth, to their faces; or Morgan Curtis rejecting and redistributing their inherited wealth in favour of simplicity and community; or Tricia Hersey rejecting capitalism and white supremacy by advocating rest; or Georgina Johnson calling for empathy and tenderness in a system that values productivity and ability; or Gary Lineker publicly rejecting the extrinsic security and power values that the UK government prioritise at the expense of refugees, or Bernie Sanders or Gabor Maté acknowledging that, increasingly, people are feeling more and more angry about our economic system and that it’s a rational response and the huge effect it has on our mental health and wellbeing. It certainly feels like more and more of us are beginning to challenge ‘the way things are’ in public; to question the ‘logic’ that “greed is good”, that our social status or what we own or control is what makes us who we are and the marker of a good life. I feel hopeful that what we are witnessing is a reaction that shifts the balance in favour of intrinsic values; to things that we care about deeply and that nurture us, each other and the world around us; things like community, love, social justice, equity, care for our living planet.

Header image by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

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