This will change the world dramatically, for ever, and nothing will ever be the same again.
It is utterly discombobulating. And in a week in which my mum died (of Alzheimer’s, aged 90, not coronavirus), to say I am punch-drunk would be an understatement.
One way of anchoring myself in these high seas is, you guessed it, research. Not the kind of research I do, but some science: I have signed up for a free course Imperial College London are running through Coursera, seeking to explain the science behind COVID-19. I am not a scientist (I did languages at A Level and a Law degree) but I love science well-explained – I like grounding myself in smarter-people-than-me’s best guess about how the planet works. I prefer to get my intellectual kicks from reading novels, looking at paintings, listening to music and watching films, but a bit of science now and then keeps me honest. Anyone interested in signing up, here is the link: https://www.coursera.org/learn/covid-19
Qualitative research will change dramatically for the foreseeable future, even when projects start getting commissioned again. Over the coming months, I need to work out how to continue in qual business in an online-only qual world. I am lucky in doing a lot of online qual already and I genuinely really enjoy it; but qual without any face to face at all is going to take some getting used to.
I may need to re-invent myself, or maybe just need to let clients know they can still do qual, and I can guide them on how.
What I do know is that the new world we are experiencing during and after this crisis is a very different place. Things we thought we knew about consumers, about audiences, and what they need and want, we can no longer take for granted. Organisations who need to understand the public, whether retailers, governments, broadcasters or whoever, are going to need research. A LOT of research. Once I have got my family through this, I am very much up for being part of that.
Those looking for business wisdom or thoughts on qual research, don’t read on: in this post I’m sharing a personal experience. It’s just one tiny tile in this national and global mosaic of coronavirus experience, but an extraordinary one – and perhaps worth sharing for that reason.
My Mum, Phyllis Riley, died aged 90 on 18th March in a dementia care home called Rosebank in Bampton, Oxfordshire. Not of coronavirus, thank God; the death certificate states ‘old age’ as main cause of death. It was a short illness that took her and we’re grateful for that. I was there with her at the end and, really, we couldn’t have hoped for a more peaceful end to her long life. I loved her hugely of course and always will. I wanted to record for the moment, though, the strange experience I have just had, of just how different dealing with a death is during this coronavirus crisis.
I visited Rosebank every day in her last week. This was a special dispensation for my brother and me, because my mother was dying. Children and the wider circle of relatives were strongly advised not to visit the home, as coronavirus there could be particularly devastating. So my kids were not able to see Granny in her final days. Perhaps that was a blessing in a way.
Every time I arrived at the home, I was directed to the hand sanitiser and then taken into the office, where I had my temperature checked with a thermometer that was held close to but not touching my forehead.
I have two brothers, Mark in Bradford-on-Avon and Neil in Brooklyn, New York. Neil, her first-born, was unable to fly over to see mum before she died, as flights back to the US had stopped. So he has had to watch from afar and wait for news. Skype has helped a bit, but he is finding her death really difficult to process.
Every day when I got home from Rosebank after visiting her on Rosebank, there was fresh news of the world going into a spiral, including my own livelihood facing existential threat. It was dizzying – just too much. If anything, my Mum’s bedside, where I could talk to her as she slept and read her poetry, was a haven of peace.
After her passing, in normal times I might have exchanged hugs with the carers looking after her, but of course there was nothing like that. When I left the lovely old building, I’d have liked to think I’d return in a day or two to have a chat and reminisce and just be around the place, maybe sit in the beautiful walled garden. But now my presence there was non-essential and it felt wrong to bring any risk of coronavirus to the home. So when I left on the morning of my mother’s death, that was it. I may not be back to say hello for six months or more, who knows?
I thought about buying a chocolate and treats hamper as a thank you to the fantastic carers at Rosebank. But would the hamper bring a risk of coronavirus? In the end I went for it. I just hope it was delivered with minimal contact. But should I have?
Two days later on Friday 20th March, I was in Bampton again, this time just past the 12th Century church they used to film some of Downton Abbey, to collect the doctor’s medical certificate. There was a line of tape on the floor a metre or so back from the reception desk at the doctor’s, and I stood behind it. The receptionist wore gloves to handle the envelope she passed over to me.
On Monday 23rd I had to attend Oxford Register Office to register the death – face to face. This surprised me. But they handled it well. I sat at a distance from the receptionist – after more hand gel – and when a couple arrived after me, they were directed away to another waiting area. In the registrar’s office, I sat well back; she passed me the pen, which I needed to sign off the documentation, with a tissue and then applied sanitiser to it.
By now plans for the ‘funeral’ were under way. In inverted commas because really, this was not a funeral as I had ever imagined it. Mum’s wishes had been to be buried in my Dad’s grave in Carnmoney Cemetery in Northern Ireland. The funeral was to have been over there. But by this stage, there was no prospect of having a funeral gathering there, even if the process of flying my mum’s body over there for burial had been appropriate, which it wasn’t. There might soon be big over-demand on morgue and funeral services, if Italy was anything to go by. So we switched to a local cremation.
Funerals are one of the excepted category of public events that are allowed to continue (unlike weddings). But the maximum number allowed at a funeral is six. This meant we couldn’t bring all of my brother’s and my family along had we wanted to, and within a day or two of mum’s death we had decided we didn’t want to anyway, given the risks of coronavirus. And we thought it best to ask that no one from Rosebank attend either, for safety reasons. So only my brother and I attended South Oxfordshire Crematorium on Thursday 26th March.
We were told we would not be able to touch the coffin; and if we arrived early, we were to sit in our cars rather than come into the building.
When the time came, we were directed to the hand sanitiser and led inside by the two funeral directors from Godfrey & Son of Stanton in the Vale. My brother put some flowers on top of the coffin, but forgot to remove the plastic wrapping. But as we couldn’t touch the coffin, we had to just leave them as they were. We walked in to Song of the Angel by John Tavener.
We had no vicar. This was partly due to coronavirus – we didn’t feel it was right to wait the extra few days until the vicar became available as the disease risk might be so much greater by then – but also Mum didn’t really believe in God and nor do we. So we took at as a sign from the God that doesn’t exist that we should create our own ceremony without anyone officiating.
I think it was rather beautiful in its own way. But it consisted of my brother and I reading things out to each other and sharing a few reminiscences.
I read Field of Vision by Seamus Heaney, which reminded me of Drumnaboy, the farm near Strabane in Co. Tyrone where Mum grew up; and The Trees by Philip Larkin, a meditation on life, death and renewal. I audio-recorded it on my iPhone to share with our brother in Brooklyn. Debussy’s Clair de Lune played Mark and me out.
No drinks afterwards, no funeral banquet – nothing. My brother and I got in our cars and drove to our respective homes, where we washed our hands immediately on entering the house.
There will be a proper funeral for Mum in Northern Ireland, but when, we don’t know. When it happens, it will be her ashes that will return there, not her body.
Really, we’ve been unaffected by coronavirus in many ways. My mum didn’t get the virus, none of my family has it. Mum died and we said goodbye to her. But it was distinctly other-worldly. Maybe that’s fitting for Mum; she was quite an other-worldly figure at times; but a genuinely amazing person. I’ll always miss her.
Here’s the Larkin poem. I wonder if it has a wider resonance for this strange, beautiful, world-changing Spring?
As the clock ticks down to 29th March, repeat to yourself the narrator’s empty reassurance to us all at the end:
This is Britain and everything’s alright. Everything’s alright. It’s OK. It’s fine.
If nothing else, the next few weeks are going to test our much vaunted national GSOH. So put your laughing socks on and settle in. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, as they say.
By coincidence, following The Day Today writer, performer and ardent Remainer David Schneider on twitter (@davidschneider), he posted the picture below on the same day as this blog post. It turns out the The Day Today people got together for a 25th anniversary dinner the other night. As Collately Sisters might have said: “In summary: wish I was a bit younger.” But they have aged gracefully and gone on to other great things, from Brass Eye to Alan Partridge to Death of Stalin to Outnumbered to Veep to IT Crowd to Borat to The Thick Of It to Smack The Pony to Toast of London to, yes, War and Peace (the latter featured Rebecca Front, whose dad btw designed the Beatles logo on the cover of Rubber Soul):
Oh and a special mention for Chris Morris’s interviews a while back with Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling (the late Peter Cooke) – genius stuff if you ever get hold of them. A starter is here Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling.
I find the title probably the most depressing thing imaginable, but I’m sure it’s a good read. He tries to have his ‘Blue Monday’ cake and eat it, feigning disdain for this January marketing ruse while using it himself. He thinks we interrupt each other too much and open-plan offices are partly to blame; he talks of the unproductiveness of too many meetings and emails, and instead the gains to be had from shorter informal chats to move thinking forward and find shortcuts. All sensible stuff, though not enough to lift my January fug, which as previous posts may suggest, is Brexit-related. No, I need a stronger pick-me-up.
Not forthcoming from Marketing Week, who report IPA Bellweather data that:
There were no changes in marketing budgets in the fourth quarter, with 16.4% of marketers reporting they plan to increase spend and 16.4% saying they plan to cut it, leading to a net balance of 0% and marking the end of six consecutive years of growth.
When looking ahead to the 2019/20 financial year, 27% of those surveyed anticipate growth compared to the 26% predicting cuts, giving a net balance of just 1%.
Additionally, the underlying pessimism is predicted to impact every media channel.”
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, down in my heart …
Surely I’m worrying too much, how bad can things get … Let me reassure myself with some nice reassuring ONS / Bank of England statistics, those lot are calm heads:
Oh my good God.
Blue Monday, you’ve left me with no choice:
We still have kittens – no one can take that away from us.
Christmas has been a welcome break from my addiction to Brexit podcasts. Perhaps for that reason I’m seeing things less feverishly than a few weeks ago. No new answers to it all have emerged of course – we’re in a genuine pickle in this country – but it’s not time to give up on us just yet. Why my optimism?
May’s deal will be voted down
Parliament desperately wants to avoid a ‘no deal’ Brexit and, when push comes to shove, will force the government to comply – either by recommending a renegotiation with an alternative approach like Norway Plus, by requiring a new referendum on the way forward and/or by just delaying the leave date until we’re in a position to do so without a cliff edge.
As it stands today, we don’t know those things for sure, because they have not happened yet. And there are viable scenarios in which May could send us careening over the precipice. But they are, imho, pretty unlikely ones. Once we are past the “meaningful vote” on 15th January and what will surely be a feverish few weeks of realignment as MPs vote on alternative ways forward, things could very look different.
The EU for now can’t say anything other than support the May deal, but once it’s dead in parliament, the interesting stuff happens. They have signalled in other ways they will be open to an alternative UK approach, because they badly want to avoid a no deal too.
I am making myself a hostage to fortune here, but hey, I can just delete this post and pretend I didn’t make these wrong predictions. No screenshots please …
So my guess is we’ll avoid the grim outcomes that seem possible now and business will continue after March more or less as usual – for a while at least.
If I really stick my neck out, while I want a referendum on the way forward, I can see a general election scenario later in 2019 – because the government may well reckon its best chance of getting its way on Brexit is not through the current parliament but by going to voters and using the negative Corbyn factor (that is, voters wanting to avoid the Labour leader becoming PM, even if they don’t back the Tories) to get a decent Tory vote and a possible majority. It’s a big gamble, but might they just get into such a corner it starts to look appealing to them?
Whatever happens, Shore will be kicking around talking to the British public about this, that and the other – usually the other – as I’ve done for the last nine years as an independent. Still going strong despite launching in inauspicious post-crash conditions in 2010 and I’m bloody well going to beat what Brexit throws at me too. We need a bit of Blitz spirit perhaps, but why oh why did we impose this Blitz on ourselves?
I picture the dashing data knight as Cleese’s Sir Lancelot at the wedding in Holy Grail, running amok through the castle, wantonly butchering hapless garlanded politicians with his Sword of Truth. Or of opinion data at any rate.
Sir John skewers the carousing Brexiteers by pointing out how divided the country is on what sort of Brexit we want. He cites for example the ORB tracking numbers on how the public makes the central trade-off of Brexit. It’s between controlling immigration (the No1 issue in voters’ minds in the run-up to Brexit, according to Ipsos MORI and others at the time) and having free trade – and the British public is still evenly split on where we see the priority:
But this is not something UK business is quite so agnostic about – and when making massive economic decisions, business counts an awful lot in the government’s calculations. This in the FT last year gives a flavour of how big FTSE companies see it: FT: big business on Brexit. Ipsos MORI’s Captains of Industry study in January showed the levels of concern even then on the UK government’s ability to get a good deal for British business:
With Jaguar Landrover (with whom I did some lovely driver-meets-designer interviews a few years ago on the Range Rover Evoque – let’s get me in here) joining other car manufacturers now in speaking out in some alarm against any kind of hard Brexit (Independent: JLR speaks out), is the game really up now for the hard Brexiteers? Johnson’s infamous “f*** business” sounded a lot more like a cry of desperate panic than of triumph.
Business thinks the hard Brexiteers have no clothes. Some of the public hasn’t completely realised it yet, but business has now started to say it aloud. Cue Danny Kaye …
Never make predictions, they say, especially on blogs that people might read after the prediction has already died a death. But after England lose 17-16 to Colombia on penalties this evening, in a bizarre shoot-out in which Gloria from Modern Family races onto the pitch dressed in a Carlos Valderrama wig, bearing the skull of Pablo Escobar, in order to distract Jordan Pickford, here’s what’s coming next. Not in the World Cup – clearly Switzerland will win it as usual – but in that much more gripping end-to-end contest between two highly talented (surely ‘un-‘? -Ed) teams, Brexit.
Simon Wren-Lewis, an emeritus economics professor here in Oxford, writes a blog called Mainly Macro which is always worth a read. He’s not afraid to roam into politics and he writes for the general reader, not just economists. I think he nails it here on where we are now on Brexit: Simon Wren-Lewis: Brexit Endgame.
That’s pretty much how I see it. The parliamentary arithmetic dictates some form of “soft” Brexit – that is the UK in something like the current customs union, plus a high level of regulatory alignment with the EU – and the hard Brexiteer squeals just now are likely to cries into the void. The hard Brexiteers, for all their media ubiquity, just don’t have the numbers in parliament for a hard Brexit. That’s been clear since they lost in December on the “meaningful vote”. Theresa May is keeping them onside as long as possible for party unity, but eventually – whether at Checkers this week or at one minute to midnight on deadline day – she will go for the best deal available for British business. Yes, business – remember that?
Johnson’s “f*** business” notwithstanding, the Conservatives pride themselves as being the party of business. Ignoring business pleas for a soft Brexit would turn the Tories into a party of the ideological right, not the realistic, pragmatic middle. With Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, the middle ground is there for the taking – or centrist Tories will certainly feel it is. So I just don’t see Theresa May going against UK plc when push comes to shove, despite the rhetoric.
Theresa May seems to me of the sensible pragmatist strain of traditional Tory. She is also I think, though I’m not her biggest fan, or a fan at all in fact, someone who feels a serious sense of duty to her country, not just her party. I think she’s gone way too far already in trying to appease the Brexiteers for the sake of the party; she will have to climb down on a number of high profile statements about Brexit if we are to have a deal at all. But I do think ultimately she knows what side Britain’s bread is buttered on. She will, when she finally has no other choice, disappoint the hardliners. That’s if they don’t bring her down.
Triggering a leadership election and potentially winning it is something the hard Brexiteers can potentially do. The thing is though, her replacement would be faced with the same parliamentary numbers Theresa May has and would have no better chance of uniting the Tories behind a hard Brexit. The Jacob Rees-Moggs and Bernard Jenkins of this world know that May is their best conduit to work through – they are piggy-backing on her, politically, because she commands more support from Tory MPs than they do. She knows they know. What’s going on now seems to be May edging bit by bit towards a soft Brexit and daring them to jump off. If they do, and move to unseat her as PM, it will show the game’s up for the hard Brexiters – it would be a last desperate gamble, feeling they have nothing to lose.
I’d add though to the Wren-Lewis analysis one cat that could be put amongst the Brexit pigeons – and I suspect will be, by increasingly desperate Brexiteer Tory MPs – immigration. To get the kind of trading terms we want with the EU single market, the UK will be asked to accept “free movement”. At the moment, the EU is being absolute that it would have to be the exact same kind of free movement we have now; I am not so sure it can’t be tweaked at the edges. But either way, we may well soon once more be back onto the topic of immigration. Why is this significant and a bit worrying?
A week before the Brexit referendum in June 2016, Ipsos MORI showed this in their regular issues tracker – Ipsos MORI tracker June 2016 – that immigration was the biggest issue for British people thinking about the 2016 referendum, ahead of even the economy:
It’s an issue over which the public sits up and takes notice, in a way it really doesn’t over the byzantine maze of trade deals, single markets and customs union arguments. Most of us don’t really know a hawk from a handsaw on those issues when we really get into the detail. We tend to say, “Get on with it and sort it out” to the politicians, which has been the refrain of Question Time audience after Question Time audience for a year and more now. But we know, or we think we do, whether we like having more or fewer people from other countries living in the UK. And we tend to have strong views on it, especially those people who feel there has been too much immigration.
So here is my Nostradamus moment on Brexit: I think immigration is going to come back into the debate, big time, and it will shake things up like no other issue has thusfar. I think it will be used by hard Brexiters as the reason why we can’t agree to close relationships with the EU on the single market and customs union. The hard Brexiters will put May under huge pressure on this, and it may also unnerve a lot of Labour MPs in Leave constituencies. The parliamentary arithmetic that favours a customs union might end up in quite a different place over single market access – and put quite a spanner in the soft Brexit works.
What’s more, this bit of messy politics will not be left to the politicians alone: the public and the press will be engaged as never before in the heated Brexit arguments.
If you thought you’d had enough of the heat, I’m sorry: it could be about to get much hotter.
No one likes an uxorious man – but as my wife Prof. Senia Paseta is the curator of a new (and not untopical) exhibition about pioneering women, a plug seems very much in order. The exhibition opened this week in Oxford and is called From Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared (Bodleian Libraries events page: From Sappho To Suffrage). Equally amazing is something else she has put together as co-director of Oxford University’s Women in the Humanities: a 2018 “Suffrage Wall” of contemporary prominent women who wanted to help mark women getting the vote 100 years ago: WiH’s 2018 Suffrage Wall. It is fascinating, inspiring and moving in equal measure.
The BBC website, like many, has picked up on the display of one particular curio from the suffrage era: the only known surviving copy of a suffrage board game called Suffragetto. Senia explains the background a little here: BBC Arts: how a board game helped women win the vote.
In short, it’s an example of the ingenious lengths the Suffrage Movement went to to raise money for the cause. It’s a reminder too that an eye for popular culture is no recent thing in political campaigning. It’s like someone in 1909 making a Call of Duty: Green and Purple Ops. OK, so Boardgamegeek.com only rate it 5.9 (Boardgamegeek.com on Suffragetto), but on the other hand it’s almost certainly had considerably more female attention in the last week than the guys who write for Boardgamegeek.com have enjoyed in their lifetimes.
The suffrage artefacts in the exhibition are fantastic, but there’s a lot more to the exhibition. You’ll also want to see:
the “Suffrage Wall” – one wall of the exhibition is devoted to the 2018 “Suffrage Champions”, marking 2018 as the centenary of women’s suffrage. Prominent women of today from around the UK and across the political spectrum are there, “making a powerful statement about women’s achievements and the continuing need to challenge barriers to gender equality one hundred years since women were first enfranchised.” Suffrage Champions have each contributed a few words of inspiration and it makes fascinating reading. More detail than could be fitted into the exhibition space lives on the online version of the Suffrage Wall https://wih.web.ox.ac.uk/suffrage-wall.
It is an absolutely brilliant thing, please do take a look. You might start with someone you know already like Katya Adler, Dame Katherine Grainger, Ali Smith or Bridget Christie – then discover amazing women you might not have heard of. I now know who Octavia Goredema, Purna Sen and Sarah Wood are and I realise I really should have already known them. The relative invisibility of women in large areas of public life is still a national, and international, shame.
A teenage Jane Austen’s hand-written novella, called “The Beautifull Cassandra”: https://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/jane-austen/. It’s described as “a parody of sentimental literary convention and style: the heroine falls in love with a bonnet, ‘devours’ and refuses to pay for six ice creams, knocks down a pastry cook and runs away.” Coming with me to the beach, that one.
The venue is the Weston Library, part of Oxford Universary’s remarkable Bodleian Libraries which underwent a multi-million pound refurb in 2015 and is a stunning place to visit these days – decent cafe too, which is always important. If you spent your student years as I did, you may know the Weston Library as that building between the King’s Arms and the White Horse on Broad Street.
It runs for the rest of 2018 and right through to February 2019, so there is no shortage of opportunities to pop your head in. If you’re a tight-a***e like me, you will be thrilled to hear it’s free entry too.
I’m going to do more on the blog this year, he promises again – but this time he means it. But just to put 2017 behind us, I hereby recycle the Christmas tree of The Onion’s inestimable review of the year. Do yourself a favour and take a gander at the big stories of the year: The Onion Review of 2017.
A couple that I particularly loved. This is beautifully done:
And I do like the expression on the woman on the left’s face in this:
So it’s back to work. Hoping to reconnect with some old collaborators in 2018. The last two years in particular have been super busy and it’s easy just to focus on delivering the projects and fall out of contact with old muckers. So I’ll be saying hello again to people and getting out of my coccoon a bit more.
Part of that is making sure I get booked onto some good training courses. I’ve signed up for two already, one with a sense of excitement and one with, being quite honest, some trepidation.
The exciting one is through the AQR, for whom I have been an “ambassador” for several years. It’s a two-parter on the impacts of Behavioural Economics (https://www.aqr.org.uk/calendar/info.shtml?event=EV18BE1), first session being at Wallace Space in Clerkenwell on 25th January, delivered by Crawford Hollingworth and Caroline Hayter. I was lucky enough to be at the AQR’s inaugural session on BE when it was bursting through into qual research consciousness back in 2011. The review of how clients see it now (session 2) will be particularly interesting.
The one I’m a bit nervous about, because it may involve me having to expend time and money on admin, is an online course run by Lesley Cooley, on General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). I am doing it because these important rule changes kick in in a few months and I need to see what Shore needs to do to be compliant. I am not anticipating a barrel of laughs, but it fits neatly with another bigger resolution for 2018 – possibly the most boring resolution I or anyone else has ever made – putting more effort into the admin side of the business. I have tried to shove this Cinderella into the basement with only a bucket of water and a mop, but it’s time to give Shore admin some sunlight this year. Especially with new quarterly accounting requirements starting in the Spring too.
If you haven’t shot yourself by this stage, in a post that started brightly, congratulations. But actually I do feel genuinely refreshed and ready to go, after a quiet close to 2017 that gave me time to catch up with myself. 2017 was a good year for Shore, which I measure by the variety of projects, the number of personal firsts and the enjoyment I’ve had in my work (and it was decent financially too, if you’re being all traditional businessy about it). Highlights of 2017 included:
running a longitudinal online and offline piece tracking and comparing the daily working lives of financial professionals in different roles
interviewing some of the country’s leading doctors about their careers and plans
making segment films with my trusted videographer and director of BBC3’s “The Rapper Who Chopped His Penis Off”, Tim Crawley. What Tim makes of my film projects having hung out with Wu Tang Clan collaborators, I know not. I certainly can’t be accused of not “keepin’ it real”. I mean, Eccles on a wet Tuesday morning …
sorting the hell out of the coffee aisle in big supermarkets, from a shopper perspective
moderating and analysing one of the most complex online communities ever, I think, on a food innovation project. Wowzer.
some initially angst-inducing but as it turned out, really successful fieldwork in the same room at Home Sweet Home, a few months apart, on two very different projects. The project on electrical goods packaging in particular was one where I really wondered how it would go, but it ended up really quite a vintage night’s groups. It’s great when the challenging topics come through and produce a bit of magic like that – and big thanks to Podengo for getting the brilliant participants on that one.
helping a fantastic copy writing agency with their clean up of a thicket of pensions communications
highlight of the year probably, no offence to other projects: listening to teenage boys talk about their attitudes to relationships. Only a small part of a much bigger project, but it is just so fascinating to see how young people are growing up now, particularly with mobiles now acting as almost part of themselves, with all the dangers that brings. Good news is, I think there is much to be optimistic about, on that side of life anyway.
Hoping for a good crop of projects to educate and entertain myself and others in 2018. If nothing else, it takes my mind off Brexit.
The School of Life essay How To Reform Capitalism, (available at The School of Life shop), is worth a read for anyone engaged in the commercial world but who wonders about its values. Most of us then.
Here’s the blurb:
It is normal to feel frustrated and sad about aspects of modern capitalism. At the same time, realistic hope of change can seem either utopian or demented. In fact, the way that capitalism works is inherently open to alteration and improvement. This is because the problems of capitalism are, in their essence, not about money, law, or politics, but about human psychology – the field of expertise of The School of Life.
As this bold essay argues, the path to a better sort of capitalism starts with a clear-eyed understanding of our emotional functioning and the workings of our psyches. What follows is nothing less than a blueprint, revolutionary yet utterly practical, for a wiser and better kind of capitalism.
The main argument of the book is a simple but powerful one. It is that capitalism as practised so far has been good at getting the things it set out to do – but it set out with too little ambition. It’s not so much the tackiness and emptiness of brand communications that are the bane of modern life – though they are a bit – it’s that we haven’t yet created big markets in products that actually meet the emotional needs of modern life.
I love this critique of the emptiness of much of business culture, in a chapter wonderfully entitled The Depression of the Business Community:
Throughout history, when business has been harshly judged, criticism has focussed on the idea of greed; business is bad because it is an activity driven by greed.
However, this badly misses the point. If one were to accuse business of any single flaw, it should not be greed but pessimism … Hard-headed managers have rarely been outright corrupt or unnaturally avaricious: but they have very often suffered from a curious kind of melancholy, a distinctive sadness about the world and its inhabitants.
They set out six depressive beliefs that pervade business culture:
customers will never care about workers
customers have low appetites that can’t be improved
the only way to sell is through deception
you can only make big money from the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid
you can’t afford to care about the psychology of your staff
the only legitimate role for surplus wealth is philanthropic donation (not, for example reinvestment in the people involved in the business).
Read the book for more explanation, it is I think entertaining and thought-provoking. A book coming from a Marxist point of view? Well, no.
I verge towards the left these days, but I’ve never been attracted to Marxism. While I admire the passion for fairness that runs through it, and I agree that every human being is ultimately of equal value – and some cats too – it’s always struck me as based on misconceptions about what makes people tick. So, for me, a communist utopia wouldn’t actually make people more fulfilled or happy. People want to do their own thing; they have their own ideas, ambitions and needs; they have their own dreams for life. In a Marxist system, innovative ideas get their head if the Party agrees with them, but otherwise get stuck somewhere in a Kafkaesque maze of petty officials with their own agendas. I heard a probably apocryphal story of a Russian official visiting London in the Soviet era and marvelling at the lack of queues for milk. “Who’s the minister in charge of milk distribution?” he is reputed to have asked.
The idealism of the far left also seems to me to suffer from a belief in the perfectability of humankind. It is a dangerous thing to believe in, no less so after reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus (Harari Q&A in The Guardian ) – in which he posits that a growing ability to make ‘software improvements’ to ourselves may lead ultimately to a transhumanist future, in which our minds no longer reside in our bodies. To see what that could be like, and to get rather freaked out, watch Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror, the episode called San Junipero (The Atlantic on Black Mirror’s San Junipero).
But it’s not as if capitalism is exactly pulling up trees at the moment either. Which is why I was interested to read How To Reform Capitalism. It’s not a book about economics, but a book about what a better society might look like. It takes as read, as I do, that commercial and consumer life is realistically always going to be part of what we’re dealing with. It proposes a shift in the way we think about it.
We have used it as a system for satisfying our physical needs, through feeding and clothing ourselves and providing (sometimes) a roof over our heads. We then wonder why capitalism does not satisfy us spiritually, why we are unhappy; why its leading brands sell things that don’t really matter to us that much and don’t make life better. And here, rather than despairing and decrying capitalism as inevitably a force to destroy happiness, The School of Life sees the potential for its future improvement. Why not imagine a capitalism in the future in which more enlightened consumers buy products that meet needs towards the top of Maslow’s pyramid – that fulfil them spiritually (Maslow used Jung’s term “self-actualisation” for this)? As the final sentence on the book says:
We don’t have to stop selling. We need to learn to engage commercially with our highest needs.
It imagines a future Times Square no longer advertising Coke or Nike but:
dedicated to the promotion of cures for loneliness, aids to forgiveness and those psychological ingredients that will help us be wise and kind.
This is what cathedrals once did. Is it so absurd to imagine a future age in which human activity focusses on meaning and purpose again? The bigger things of life – real meaning and purpose – are still exciting to think about; they move us when they fleetingly come to our attention. It’s just that our experience of them these days tends to be scatterfire. Churches brought focus on the deeper point of life (while unfortunately providing some misleading guidance on that). In the secular age, we connect with these deeper feelings through a hundred splinters: a charity donation, a moving experience watching a film, a look in your child’s eye. The individual moments are satisfying but the whole is deeply unsatisfying, because we lack the help we need to join them up into coherence. It goes against received wisdom to suggest that a future commercial world might be a place that helps put this jigsaw of purpose together for people, rather than offering them pointless objects to buy in a moral wasteland. But actually, why not?
This is not, importantly, an anti-commercial book. For example, it praises advertising for identifying what really motivates people and for talking to our core needs and desires. It’s just that the products offered by that advertising – perfumes, clothes, cars – are unfit for purpose. What is needed, argues the School of Life, is not better advertising but better products:
The challenge now is to narrow the gap between the fantasies being offered and what we spend our lives making and our money buying.
It’s not about minimising capitalism but extending it to our “unattended needs”.
I suspect they are onto something. Because I do see a generational shift in what people expect from life, a greater insistence on living lives that are worthwhile and have meaning. There is an impatience with the soulless. It’s not just because getting by has got harder for most of us since the Great Recession – material comfort has been ruled out as a solution. I think it started long before that, actually in my generation that entered the workforce in the 90s. We were appalled by – but felt powerless against – long hours working culture and drear in the workplace. Slowly, people more bold and inventive than me redesigned old workplaces, created new exciting ones, shifted attitudes and expectations. But it’s been more gentle evolution than paradigm shift so far.
My generation are now in our late 40s. While I “stepped sideways” into the freelance life – a whole other story – my peers are now business decision-makers. They are, I think, a generation that is open to change but won’t do it on their own (we Generation X people are just too cynical). What might bring the tectonic shift in business culture is the younger generation Y and Z people coming through, asking for it and needing it (Harvard Business Review on Generation X, Y & Z). These are generations for whom finding meaning and a deeper satisfaction in life are important. Might Generation X become unlikely FW de Klerks, wising up to the iniquities we inherited then administered, and enabling others to take a fairer and kinder capitalism forward?
Generation X, my generation, is not heroic – it does think the old world is rubbish, it is just too shaped and beholden to it to overturn it completely. Carrying on with our heart not in it is easier. But generational generalisations are always a bit broad brush, aren’t they – and the truth is, there is an optimistic, thoughtful wing of Generation X, which the School of Life’s mission and values exemplify. Here maybe is how my generation offers something for the Ys and Zs. But we have left them the heavy lifting.