The last time 85-year-old pensioner Isabella Purves was seen alive was back in 2004. The Canonmills resident – a district in the city of Edinburgh – was a woman of few words and only seen picking up a newspaper from the local shop. A neighbour nevertheless remembered Isabella fondly:
She was always cleaning her brasses and keeping the stair clean and would go out hiking. She was very fit and only became frail in later years. She was an old-fashioned lady, quite a Miss Marple, Morningside-type, but not glam – no pearls or twin sets, but she would wear thick tights and long skirts and was always very well turned out.
And then, in the words of another Canonmills resident, Isabella disappeared off the face of the earth. Some thought she'd moved away or into a retirement home. Others simply forgot about her. However, in 2009 water started to drip from her council flat into the property below. The local authorities were called to investigate. After pushing through all the unopened mail piled up behind Isabelle's door, they discovered her remains. She had been dead for five years and nobody had noticed.
The case of Isabella Purves caught the headlines because it exemplified everything that was wrong with elderly care in the UK, and particularly the decline of society more generally. Loneliness has become an epidemic in neoliberal Britain and elsewhere, especially among the elderly who are deemed to be no longer useful to society. It doesn't help matters that governmental social care services have been chronically underfunded. For example, in 2017 it was reported that 900 people are leaving the social care sector every day in England. Who can blame them? The pay is terrible. The government treats these jobs as an unnecessary drain on resources and its employees as second-class citizens. In the vacuum, family networks have tried to step in to do the work, mainly other senior citizens, unpaid of course. A spate of similar examples to Isabella have occurred across the UK. In societies that have embraced the ethos of market individualism it appears that the very fabric of the community has evaporated. One Canonmills resident said that things turned bad when a large supermarket chain arrived a few years back, typifying what might be called the truculent anonymisation of Britain: 'Tesco changed things. There used to be a butcher's, baker's, we had everything, and you would just meet people. Having a supermarket makes things less personal.'
When I first read about Isabella Purves I was shocked. But not that surprised in the context of austerity and a decimated welfare state. It was an extreme case compared to the norm and certainly had little to do with the topic of this book, homo economicus, the super-rational, money-chasing individual whom neoclassical economics believes we all resemble at heart, like wanna-be bankers, ruthless real estate agents or ambitious entrepreneurs. I made a brief note about Isabella and moved on. But the story kept niggling me. It was something about her isolation and abandonment, how she was partially placed outside the loop of monetary value but still inescapably defined by it. Ossified by a bad ideology and trapped in a symbolic no-man's land. Making matters more complex, news reports implied that Isabella might have desired her seclusion. A neighbour said, 'People will say, no-one looked out for her, but I don't think she wanted to be reached out to. But the area has changed. Not just this area, but other areas have as well.' Could it be that Isabella intentionally sought the solitude that would eventually nullify not only her memory but the farewell rites (i.e., mourning, commemoration, etc.) customary to the newly dead? As a fitting end to the story, it was later reported that a cousin happily swooped in to inherit Isabella's ?100,000 estate, including cash and an apartment.
Then it dawned upon me. What happened to Isabella Purves was not just an extreme case. Her fate was somehow symptomatic of a broader underlying logic concerning what economy and society has become more generally, especially the so-called hero of neoliberal policy, homo economicus. Economic man was designed to be a standalone creature, militantly selfish and the natural adversary of anything remotely social, even though he is reliant on other people as much as anyone else, perhaps more so. As this code was disseminated among the populations of Western economies (the rich, by the way, wanted nothing to do with homo economicus), he was inevitably mangled into an unworkable monstrosity, especially following the largest economic crisis in generations. Today, ten years later, the blind adherence to free market capitalism has not waned. It's perhaps even deepened, sucking the life out of an already crippled social body and mummifying its inhabitants one by one: anonymised, secretive and alone.
On the one hand Isabella was just another elderly person who had slipped through the net. A tragic story to be sure. But nothing compared to the awful wars we have recently seen, economic inequality that's spiralling out of control and the vast environmental destruction unleashed by the unrelenting corporatisation of the living ... and dead. By the same token, Isabella seemed to me a small but not insignificant emblem of an unfolding reality that has gripped everyone like a bad dream since 2007. Symptomatic not only of a malfunctioning economic ideology or failing neoliberal discourse but of a broken reality, a twisted and desperate world that feels devoid of any future. Angry and nihilistic in its outlook. Obsessed with anything remotely smelling of cash, the most private of all exchangeable commodities. If economic man is dead, then it isn't signified by the suicidal banker or cocaine-addled real estate agent, as I've suggest in an earlier book. No, we see the fatality most evidently among those at the bottom of the heap and in the norms that the majority are pressured to follow as if nothing wrong has happened.
Like homo economicus, who has now been thoroughly ravaged by a noxious economic dogma and anonymising commercial milieu, Isabella represents what happens when society is stripped of the public. From about the mid-1980s successive regimes in the West have pursued a tireless battle against the public. This is not just about the sale of basic state-owned assets and the incessant commercialisation of everyday life. The war is against the very concept of the public sphere itself. For example, at no other time since its inception has the welfare state been so hated by the governing elite. Social care. Unemployment assistance. Health. Local councils and libraries. Municipal parks. Anything relating to what used to be called 'the public good' is attacked at the roots. Austerity redefines it as a fiscal liability or deficit rather than a shared investment in common decency. The ruling credo is now clear. For better or worse (usually worse), the private, moneyed individual reigns and anyone who claims otherwise must be some old, crusty collectivist – a dinosaur from another bygone age. It's not that all social connections have been evacuated in this economic wasteland. There are still plenty of those. It's just that we only now get the bad kind, the type that makes people like Isabella Purves want to disappear rather than face another ankle-biting bureaucrat or Tesco's carpark attendant. Indeed, when the public disappears like this, it could be argued, a veritable avalanche of social forces descend on the individual, separating him or her from the protective pack and exposing them to the worst excesses of economic collectivism otherwise known as post-2007 capitalism.
The tragic figure of Isabella Purves therefore opens a window onto a broader social landscape, revealing the shared devastation that this miscarriage of individualism has inflicted on an increasingly ill and emaciated social body. When corporations rule the world and a myopic state apparatus transforms our lives into one enormous, badly managed K-Mart, a special type of backwardness emerges. Innovation stalls. Skills that took generations to accumulate waste away. Democracy becomes farcical ... nay, a bad joke. Personal debt hangs around one's neck like some medieval torture device. And people like Isabella, who were once young and full of life, are cast to the wayside and forgotten.
Privatised to death
The public. What does the idea mean? And perhaps more importantly, why does it grate so badly with the dominant norms of capitalist culture today? The word has Latin origins from publicus and populus, meaning the people. But this understanding of 'the people' is not simply the sum of different individuals since populus implies a shared and common interest: survival, wellbeing, freedom, the good life and so forth. It binds us to the fate of others, a sort of distributive responsibility in which we are all answerable to each other. We can extrapolate from the concept to include the people's voice (e.g., democracy) and a shared stake in our future or mutual self-determination: res publica. The state and civil society were once seen as the champion of this public claim over self-governance. Unfortunately, both have now become its professed enemy. After society was reconfigured into a brutalist paradise of self-serving individualism, using neoclassic economics as the blueprint, any sense of the 'public good' has been squashed with distain. Look at what has happened to local councils in the UK. In an excellent essay on the topic, Tom Crewe argues that the real seat of public democratic expression isn't the centralised state but local authorities. Since 2010 their funding has been slashed by 37 per cent. The forecast is 60 per cent by 2020. The result? Disappearing public toilets. School budgets slashed. Parks crumbling into disrepair. Street lights turned off at midnight to save money. Hundreds of public libraries closed and a 25 per cent reduction in staff since 2010. Indeed, only after a few years of vilification it's remarkable how hard it is to now remember what the word 'public' was like before the rise of neoliberal capitalism. It is like trying to recall how things got done before email.
When I was a child in 1970s (semi-socialist) New Zealand, a school teacher tried to astonish us by holding up a glass of water. The lesson was on money and the latent dangers of an exchange society. 'One day children,' he intoned, 'even water might someday be something you can only buy with money.' We laughed, totally unconvinced. There's no way water, which falls freely from the sky and flows off the mountains, could be privately owned or sold as such. It intrinsically belongs to everyone.
My, how times have changed. Today my London water bill – issued by a distant, foreign-owned monopoly who most likely doesn't give a shit about the residents of Stoke Newington – is astronomical. The same goes for energy, transport, sport, education, music, culture. The list goes on and on. Even air is now considered a private good: purified 'bottled air' can be purchased in heavily polluted sectors of the global economy. It is obvious that this concerted offensive against common ownership is reaching new heights, despite the conclusive evidence that neoliberal economics and its devotion to private property simply doesn't work ... even by its own standards. It is important to note, however, that the public sphere has not been entirely eradicated from society. A part of it still remains, but as a gross caricature, designed to manipulate and control rather than express the spirit of the people. I am speaking here, of course, of the state, which is as much in need of total reform as the financial industries. Most people woke up following the bank bailouts and recognised in the state a perverted type of public domain, one that we ironically fund ourselves through taxation, bankrolling our own non-access to a dignified life. That recognition ought to have triggered the widespread rejection of capitalism, something even the Governor of the Bank of England said he expected during the financial crisis. But it didn't quite turn out that way. The connection between economic trends and political attitude is never so simple.
It's true that the Western liberal state has always represented an objectification that stands over its creators like an alien force. But never has it been so removed and hostile to the common interest as it is today. It legitimises shameful levels of inequality. Paves the way for the corporate colonisation of almost everything. Engages in expensive and unjust oil wars. This is what unfortunately makes the modern state so dangerous to the spirit of democracy. In its wake we inevitably witness the rise of populism (e.g., Brexit in the UK and corporate fascism in the USA) as well as wanton riots like those that spread across London in 2011 as thousands of young people finally snapped. When governments become this type of tax-funded, anti-social publicus, it serves to displace the negative externalities of 'extreme economics' onto the individual him or herself, immigrants and the poor.
One such externality is typified by our manic attachment to money, a human artefact that has mysteriously taken over much of life as we know it. It becomes the only way of relating to each other under extreme capitalism. The only available means to do anything. Everything has a price and that fact is revealed with persistent and piercing clarity. While money sometimes seems like an instrument of empowerment, allowing us to do this or that, it is also fundamentally defined by its absence. This is why money inherently makes the world and us in it so inadequate. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, money ultimately 'brings nearly every human relationship up short'. Moreover, the source of cash and our ability to obtain it becomes a continuous, perpetual anxiety. What might be termed a sort of money madness infiltrates our social imagination, which has been convincingly linked to the epidemic of mental illness in many Western societies. Although some might retaliate and direct their bile towards the state, it is typically rechannelled towards easier and more accessible targets, including ethnic or religious groups. This too is why nationalism and neoliberalisation are often so closely aligned, despite what some say about the alt-right being against market fundamentalism. On the contrary. It's what happens when cash-centricity meets nouveau fascism that is really worrying, something I dub cashism later in this book.
Why has neoliberalism entered into this authoritarian phase? I believe things really shifted up a gear in 2003, when war become the Western state's key motif for tackling problems of governmentality. As US and UK officials deceived the public, ignored their protests and went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the thousands of innocent men, women and children who died as a result were not the only causalities. Something also radically died in the civic capacities of people governed in pan-capitalist societies, most notably in England, America, France, Australasia and South East Asia. State policy became openly militarised, as did daily life. With the arrival of Tony Blair and George. W. Bush we see most of the gains of the 1960s counter-cultural movement swiftly retracted, heralding a new type of bullish mentality towards statecraft. Blend that trend with the rise of 'extreme inequality' in terms of wealth distribution, then punitive hierarchies in the public and private sector are probably inevitable, as does the growth of technocrats who now must police the gulf between the 99%-ers and the elite.
Like an occupying military, unpopular policy is pushed through now regardless of whether we like it or not. Power exudes such confidence in its own influence that it seldom bothers to convince or persuade people of this or that policy's rightfulness. It just does what it wants and then says, 'What are you going to do about it? Nothing? That's what we thought.' Think here of government's militant stance towards junior doctors in the UK at the end of 2016 who were protesting about the implementation of potentially dangerous employment contracts. Or the passenger (physician, David Dao) who was viciously removed from a United Airlines aircraft in April 2017 when it was discovered the flight was overbooked. Economic power transitions from persuasion to brute, almost military-style force very easily today. In this respect, it is telling that when the architect of economic austerity in England, George Osborne, stepped down in 2016 and went on summer vacation, he was spotted in Vietnam. However, he wasn't sunning himself by a swimming pool or exploring the local cuisine, as other tourists might. Osborne was instead seen firing what looked to be an M60 light machine gun in an old Vietcong base. It seems that he'd finally got to live out his Rambo-complex after all, an attitude clearly evident in his approach to the British public too.