I recently received an email from a friend asking if I would contribute to a book he’s editing entitled What Matters Now: prescriptions for a simpler life. ‘A new genre of literature is emerging about the roots of happiness,’ it began. ‘Authors like Alain de Botton, Oliver James and Naomi Klein argue that the materialist/celebrity culture has left people unhappier than ever. They argue that older and simpler pleasures — a walk in the country, the companionship of family and friends, a beautiful view — provide better oxygen for the soul than the acquisition of more branded goods or the pursuit of money, fame and status.’
I told him I would be happy to contribute provided I was allowed to take a slightly different tack: ‘If you want an essay rebutting your central thesis, saying people like Naomi Klein are talking rot and that the keys to happiness are money, fame and status, I’m in.’
I suspect that these bad-tempered attacks on ‘materialist/celebrity culture’ will become more and more commonplace over the next 12 months. Indeed, it is ironic that the new decade should be called ‘the Teens’, given how middle-aged and curmudgeonly the zeitgeist is at present. Britain appears to be going through one of its perennial bouts of romanticism in which the modern world, with its Tesco superstores and dumbed-down reality shows, is compared unfavourably to a mythical past in which people spent their days growing vegetables and their evenings reading poetry. I blame Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Come to think of it, maybe we would be better off in a pre-industrial society — even if, as one historian pointed out, the most salient fact about the 18th century is that people were in pain 50 per cent of the time. At least in the 18th century it is hard to imagine Alain de Botton being considered an intellectual. I cannot take seriously a man who lectures me on the unimportance of money while sitting on a pile of over £300 million. He may be right in asserting that money can’t buy happiness, but the reason most of us are obsessed with the stuff is not because we’re labouring under any such illusion. It’s because we need to keep earning it in order to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads.
I also find it a bit rich when de Botton and his anti-capitalist comrades chastise us for being preoccupied with status. Are they really unaware that this criticism is a way of advertising their own superior social standing? For at least 200 years, Britain’s public schools have been teaching their pupils to avoid the conspicuous pursuit of fame and money for the simple reason that engaging in such activity is a low status indicator. Whenever I hear a liberal intellectual bemoaning the vulgarity of ‘celebrity culture’ and expressing contempt for anyone unworldly enough to be impressed by designer goods, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with a Scottish earl in which he condemned snobbery on the grounds that it was ‘common’.
Such paradoxical thinking was on full display in a recent newspaper feature entitled ‘The Enriched List’. The idea was to identify ways in which you could lead a full and meaningful life without being wealthy. One suggestion was to take up basket-weaving, but the argument for doing so was less than convincing: ‘According to fashionable sources, contemporary basket-weaving is the craft du jour.’ The notion that we shouldn’t be guided in our lifestyle choices by shallow notions of what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’ because a more broadminded perspective is now ‘in’ is a little self-defeating. Either you slavishly follow the latest trend or you don’t. But it’s a bit much to look down your noses at people who do so on the grounds that it’s no longer trendy.
My friend’s main argument for why I should contribute to his book is that thinking about alternative sources of happiness is very au courant. His email continued: ‘The current recession, the bankers’ bonus row, the MPs’ expenses debate have all spurred questioning our society’s values and discussion of the desire for something better.’ No doubt that’s true, but if the yearning for more deep-rooted forms of satisfaction is linked to Britain’s faltering economy, won’t it disappear as soon as we start to recover? My advice to anyone thinking of jumping on this anti-capitalist bandwagon is to do so quickly because it will shortly grind to an abrupt halt.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.