Governments of every shape and size continue to herald the market as a force for good, perpetuating a glamourisation of inequality and elitism. Economic policies have a reach far beyond their practical implications; by shaping our conditions, they shape our everyday attitudes and approach to life. The innate schadenfreude of free-market economics in their pedestalisation of wealth and shaming of any less thus has a damaging effect on our behaviours and interests.
Despite flip-flops from swathes of tax cuts to spending cuts, the same fundamentals remain: no effort to create wealth, simply to drain it from the already-parched mouths of the millions. Instead of inciting popular opposition, sympathetic media pumps out programme after programme that sows internal division, rather than revealing the true cause of economic hardships.
As neoliberal economics have grown and changed since the time of Von Hayek, the idea of “balancing the books” has come to resemble a hostility towards systems of welfare. Chris Philp, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury since 2015, published a 2013 paper calling for “workfare” in which claimants are pushed into tasks akin to community service. The removal of the £20 universal credit uplift post-Covid, despite the comfort it provided to many, as well as a current lack of commitment to increasing benefits in line with spiralling inflation further proves an apathy to welfare, despite it being such an essential factor in enabling the population of Britain to pay for the necessities of life.
These very values have dangerously permeated every level of popular culture. Benefits Britain is a prime example of this, with the use of terms like “raking it in”, or “the taxpayer dolls out the lion’s share” designed to rouse anger with the benefits system among the wider population. This portrays welfare as stealing from the wallets of the taxpayer to provide for the “lazy”; an ideology that diverts attention from real political mismanagement of the public purse into fostering internal conflict. As of a 2018 government survey, 34% of the population see social housing allocations as unfair, likely a result of this stigmatisation of welfare systems, as such a widespread pessimism is doubtfully deduced from personal experience or research.
The impact extends beyond a hostile approach to welfare systems with an ingrained economic rat race designed to impose conflict amongst all members of society, no matter their position. This manifests itself in disturbing practices – the financial crash of 2008 was generated by bankers granting high-risk mortgages to those they knew could not afford repayment schemes in order to profit. This is uniquely sadistic, with morals discarded for the pursuit of wealth, and a continual struggle to gain foothold in a volatile market, no matter the harm it causes others. Thus, the economic context of competition ingrains and exploits a sense of success at another’s expense.
This is again reflected on every level of media today. Granting the Kardashians a platform for so long has glamourised consumerist wealth — reflected in their palaces of valuable commodities — and fostered the hostility and individualism that comes with this pursuit. On the flip side, The Jeremy Kyle Show preyed on the misfortunes of others for the entertainment of an audience of millions, used as a modern-day witch trial to encourage aggression and violence, reflecting the ability to relish in comfort while others suffer. The suicide of a guest on the show and its subsequent cancellation told us all we needed to know about the dangers of such a practice.
This runs even deeper; Love Island is a show in which the aim is to sell love for the pursuit of wealth — whether that be the prize money or the inevitable swathe of brand deals that follow “stardom”. This show proves the impact of dog-eat-dog economics in two ways: driving forced relationships and ingrained hostility manufacturing a popular viewing experience. The failure to cancel this show despite the suicides of multiple associated individuals — both guests and presenters — proves that the pursuit of wealth makes us stoop to ever-lower moral levels to pay our way. An incomparable obsession, only possible in such economic volatility.
Our everyday experiences shape the values and interests we hold. As long as our culture shames welfare and glamourises wealth, we will never reach a place at which we value the well-being of society over our own narrow victories. If we live in fear of the invisible hand of the market snatching away all we have, we will never learn to sympathise with the misfortunes of others. If the fetishisation of the market continues — as heralded by continuous Conservative governments, whoever the leader — we may never be liberated from the chains of this irrational self-interest.