It is clear, therefore, that being prevented from the pursuit of authentic self-realisation has far-reaching consequences for society at large. Democracy is, after all, predicated upon the presence of a large group of thoughtful men and women, agents capable of sustained and deliberate criticism of themselves and of the society in which they exist. It is a society of differentiated citizens, a collectivity of individuals, not an indiscriminate, homogeneous mass of life-style clones. Democracy is also predicated upon action, upon the understanding that citizens can and will work positively and consistently towards furthering the aims of their communities, aims which continually evolve and develop as the group maintains the level of self criticism referred to above. Hamilton argues that it is this struggle to sustain such a personal and social evolution in the face of market forces that is (or should be) the dominant model for political revolution. He writes: “Post-war rebellions against oppression have worked in the interests of consumer capitalism because they have swept away ancient cultural and religious barriers to the most insidious form of oppression. This is the oppression implicit in sublimation of the self in pursuit of wealth, fame and social success, a form of oppression that is readily embraced”.8 “The defining struggle,” he concludes, “is no longer between proletarians and capitalists about how to divide the surplus of the production process; today it is about how to live a genuine life in a social structure that manufactures ‘individuality’ and celebrates superficiality”.9
The monstrous cause-and-effect (it is hard to separate the two) of such a social structure is, for Hamilton, the politics of the Third Way, an empty politics based on the superficiality of appearance and the insipidity of conformity. Perpetually concerned with providing the people with the lifestyle they believe they seek—Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” is the supreme example—the politics of the Third Way is rapidly dismissed by Hamilton as “life politics”, the politics that suits the consumer society: it focuses on manufactured identity and the flim-flam of marketing, rather than the deeper urges of humanity”.10 Worse still, it is utterly un-reflective upon its own shortcomings, refusing to recognise that the very “life politics” that it believes the public are seeking is nothing but a branded, manipulated and manipulating creation of the all-too powerful marketing machine. Yet perhaps the most insidious effect of Third Way politics is the way in which it has forced the Left into the same economic bed as the neoliberal Right. Politicians of this persuasion claim that the tenets of the free-market long subscribed to by the Right are, actually, desirable. What is needed is, simply, to claim that they will add a “humanising” face to them and continue, they claim, to pay close and compassionate attention to the poor and the needy. Yet what we see, in actuality, is nothing of the sort. All we do see is a politics “marked by the ideological convergence of the main parties … [a politics] in which social democrats have abandoned their traditional commitments and converged on the free-market policies of the conservatives”.11 Hamilton concludes by taking us back to the homogenising effect of this modern “lifestyle politics”: “The more the parties converge in substance, the more they must attempt to differentiate themselves through ‘spin’. The politics of spin are the politics of falsity, and there is a popular belief that the democratic process has become an elaborate charade.”12 But, as the French writer and diplomat Joseph de Maistre wrote, “Toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite”: every country has the government it deserves. Our continued infatuation with the pursuit of material gain, has resulted in a marked decline in our ability to interact with others, and to be able to empathise with their needs. After all, the pursuit of material acquisition is inherently competitive, a dog-eat-dog game with a zero-sum result: if you don’t get the raise, your colleague will. One’s own success depends on the failure of others. Such a pursuit is also time consuming, and the amount of time required just keeps getting larger and larger. Men and women dedicated to the pursuit of financial fortune simply do not have the time to spend with their families and friends, building relationships, contributing to the world and nurturing its communities. Finally, “people who are preoccupied with money and material acquisition have a psychological affinity with things rather than with relationships, and their relationships are more likely to be structured so as to assist the quest for accumulation. Relationships with family, friends and the wider community are mediated through materialist objectives”.13
As we have seen, these materialist objectives are seen through the distorting lens of desire, an instinctual drive evolutionarily accustomed to being satiated, and not used to being perpetually told that what it really wants is just around the corner. The feeling of being constantly cheated out of happiness and contentment produces a feeling of intense dissatisfaction: “Despite high and sustained levels of economic growth in the West over a period of 50 years—growth that has seen average real incomes increase several times over—the mass of people are no more satisfied with their lives now than they were then”.14 To corroborate this, Hamilton quotes some startling statistics: “despite a trebling of real incomes during the period, fewer Americans in the 1990s are satisfied with their incomes than was the case in the 1950s.” He goes on: in 1986, “Americans were asked how much income they would need to fulfil all of their dreams. (Notice the assumption on which the question is based.) The answer was $50,000. Eight years later the figure had risen to $102,000”.15 It is hardly surprising, given that we are led to believe that our dreams will come true tomorrow, that eternal bliss is to be found in the purchase of the latest car. We have become a nation of Tantaluses, reaching for the apple only to have it dissolve into dust on our thirsting tongues.