The Winter of Content

by Carl Rowlands

One of the last books that economist and public intellectual JK Galbraith wrote in his long and illustrious career, The Culture of Contentment (1992), has passed into relative obscurity. This is a shame, as it may offer a prophetic glimpse into the long-term, paradoxical consequences of the Reagan-Thatcher era. Capturing the neoliberal tendency at the moment of its consolidation, Galbraith’s essay poses incisive questions for those seeking to understand why, after five years of recession, stagnation and austerity, the structures that produced the 2008 financial crisis are stronger than ever, while popular protest remains sporadic and muted.

Galbraith argues that most people in Western societies are not downtrodden proletarians, but instead make up a ‘Contented Majority’. Politically, this majority tends towards a pragmatic and expedient acquiescence in existing hierarchies—what Galbraith calls a 'culture of contentment'. This is primarily a set of social psychological norms, varying according to one’s own position in relation to wealth, whose effect is to render existing socioeconomic conditions subjectively tolerable. For most of us, it is perhaps a recognition that our situation is in many ways acceptable: that, relative to our grandparents and to people living in many other countries, we enjoy a wider range of choices, more sophisticated domestic appliances and much less onerous employment conditions.

While the unchecked concentration of wealth towards the top of society may be unpalatable, for most of us it is easy to ignore on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, those in poverty are increasingly marginalised. The more marginalised the poor become, the more politically ambitious and apparently expensive any poverty-reducing programmes would need to be.  A 'new realism', excluding radical challenges to the existing social order, emerges as the basis for political discourse.

Political implications

In its day, The Culture of Contentment raised huge, apparently insoluble issues for the left. The book is bleakly pessimistic, to the point of being disabling, about the possibilities for enacting radical social change. After the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, which at certain points had posed serious challenges to concentrations of private power, Western societies had become settled. This had important political implications; it’s even possible to see some of the pessimism at the core of New Labour as partly originating in Galbraith’s work. 

The 1992 UK General Election had seen a centrist Labour Party beaten by the Conservatives, but it was the nature of the defeat which struck fear into many. The Tories had succeeded in mobilising the biggest electorate in British political history, primarily on the basis of fear of tax increases. A cursory reading of The Culture of Contentment would have perhaps confirmed Labour strategists' view that social democracy’s failure was structural: the remnants of the industrial working-class could no longer provide an electoral basis to defeat the Conservatives, and many of them didn’t vote, in any case.

For Galbraith, contentment didn’t always produce apathy. He noted that even the contented could be motivated to protest if services that they regarded as theirs were threatened. In a series of pamphlets and articles for the Fabian Review and left-of-centre journals in the early 1990s, Labour thinkers (Robin Cook, Ben Pimlott, Giles Radice) and other European social democrats (for instance, the SPD’s one-time moderniser Oskar Lafontaine) translated this into a search for a middle-class revolt that could be mobilised in defence of effective, non-ideological delivery of education and health services.

Working strictly within the parameters of contentment as a 'people’s party', New Labour, when it eventually emerged after the death of John Smith in 1994, openly sought to lead a revolt of the comfortable and personally ambitious.  One of its central ideological demands was for 'improved' and increasingly individualised delivery of those universal services from which the middle-class disproportionately benefits, to be delivered by a growing cohort of customer-focused private sector players.  At the same time, New Labour bore down upon public services regarded as belonging to those on those on the fringes of public life, such as social security, local authority care homes and social work.

Galbraith correctly identified the blurring and melding together of corporate and public life. Much of corporate culture is highly bureaucratic, demanding passivity from its workforce to ensure compatibility with the hubristic exercise of managerial and executive power. This hubris, linked to 'bonus culture' and the excesses of financial capitalism, was to also become a hallmark of New Labour. New Labour's admiration for modern corporate governance even extended to the 'boardroom battle' conducted between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in its later years. Such a mode of governance is fundamentally corrosive of social solidarity. Ultimately, in a political culture of contentment, we will let those less fortunate than ourselves go to hell—just as most of us probably would, if we were working in an office or factory which faced restructuring. Our own position depends upon compliance with executive decisions. Resistance is left to the powerless and the occasional whistle-blower.

Winter of content

The Culture of Contentment can help us understand why the massive economic upheaval precipitated by the financial crisis has been accompanied largely by political stagnation.

Unquestionably, the crisis has reduced material prosperity and increased insecurity. Real wages in the UK have fallen to 2003 levels, even as the cost of food, fuel and energy has continuously increased. Many people work on zero-hours contracts or for salaries which place them below the subsistence line, whilst the unemployed are pushed into workfare. Child poverty is on the rise. A growing number of people face a lifetime of underemployment, unemployment and worsening poverty. The situation in countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain is even worse, with youth unemployment reaching unprecedented levels.

Why hasn’t this material decline been more politically explosive? Five years after the crash, many of us continue to live comfortably in a country with highly-developed infrastructure, especially by international standards. True, salaries have been affected, but not every salary—and not everyone is dependent upon a salary. More than 65 per cent of households are still owner-occupiers at a time when, by and large, house prices have been maintained at unprecedented levels. This housing bubble is crucial for sustaining the contentment of the non-rich. Around 12 million people in the UK own shares, and recovery in the stock markets has been notable.  

This relative prosperity translates into subjective contentment. Official data show a universal rise in ‘life satisfaction’ over the last couple of years, with a mean happiness score of 7.45 out of 11. Young people do not seem unduly pessimistic either, with two-thirds expressing optimism about their future.

Moreover, while the most vulnerable have been hit hard, the existence of an underclass is entirely compatible with, and indeed necessary for, the continued operation of the culture of contentment. As Galbraith argues, our society is structured to allow large numbers of people not to be involved in the tough, repetitive manual work of the industrial era. These people are dependent on an effectively marginalised domestic minority to do the hard labour, as well as those working in developing countries. Such marginalisation can be overtly political, but it is perhaps most clearly reflected in the extreme inequality that characterises the housing and labour markets. Those on the sharp end of these inequalities are blamed as the architects of their own misfortune and prescribed hard labour solutions, possibly in the form of workfare or highly-visible community service on the other; solutions from which the comfortable would naturally recoil. The threat of tough manual labour, in the form of work-camp prisons or workfare, lurks about the culture of contentment like the spectre at the feast.

Galbraith’s book doesn’t offer solutions. Its concluding passages envisage problems arising from the social conditions of the underclass and speak directly of the likelihood of a future financial crash. The central paradox is perhaps this: that for all the complacency and apparent stability of the culture of contentment, it ultimately produces massive economic volatility, worsening environmental catastrophe and marginalised, yet acute, frustration. The book also notes the potential for the military-industrial nexus to embroil society in hugely unpopular wars, thereby disrupting contentment on a non-economic basis. For Galbraith, the partial unravelling of the material basis for contentment may well arise from the use of power and money by the top 1%.

Yet, having painted such a clear picture of contentment and its implications, Galbraith leaves it to us to unpick and assess its constituent parts. Is the most decisive factor sustaining contentment unrestrained personal, at the expense of public, consumption? Is it planning for private interests rather than the common wealth? Or is it the assumption that work cannot be re-organised in such a way as to remove the distinctions between those who toil in repetitive tasks and those who plan and design projects?

Galbraith's account demands clarity from the left about what it wants to achieve politically. The continuing failure of social democratic parties around the world tasks us with carving out an alternative to mainstream culture, not only by emphasising the economic casualties of financialised capitalism but by advocating a positive vision of collective provision and participation, whilst deliberately engineering a transformation in the economy in favour of industrial democracy. It is only by properly establishing what a twenty-first century socialism might look like that we can begin to illuminate many of the damaging assumptions lurking behind the rule of complacency, and open up those areas of debate which sit behind lock and key.

Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest.

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First published: 11 October, 2013

Category: Politics

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10 Comments on "The Winter of Content"

By Alan Norman, on 11 October 2013 - 09:06 |

For the overwhelming majority of people in this country deprivation is represented by trading down to ASDA rather than joining the rest of the middle class in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s.  This is not the ground that insurrection is built upon.  Those that suffer from real ,or at least relative poverty, have known nothing else hence the recession has not represented a fall in to the abyss for these people merely business as usual.  The contentment spoken of in the article I would contend is based on the realisation that the present societal paradigm is the best available.  This is a failure of the Left to inspire and educate us as to what a post-capitalist society would look like.  Also as much as I want to like Galbraith he was wrong on almost every socio-economic subject that he ever offered an opinion on.  Shame really because he was such a nice guy.

By Michael N Moore, on 11 October 2013 - 13:05 |

A fews points:

Life in an imperial center is always better than elsewhere.

Cheap products from China increase purchasing power.

Being employed has come to be seen as a privleged position and not exploitation.

The ruling elite seek to buy off the underclass with tax money extracted from those who are actually working instead of the corporate elite.

A racial or educational split between the unemployed and those actually working increases the tensions between these groups.

By George, on 11 October 2013 - 17:24 |

Alan – I doubt that the “contentment spoken of in the article …. is based on the realisation that the present societal paradigm is the best available.” I think you were closer to the mark when you said that those “that suffer from real, or at least relative poverty, have known nothing else hence the recession has not represented a fall in to the abyss for these people merely business as usual.” Only that it isn’t just those in poverty that this applies to i.e. very few stand back and try to figure out what would be the “best available” (whatever that means). Instead they get on with what they are used to and, as long as there is no sudden and severe decline in their own personal circumstances, they will be “content” or, at the most, they will quietly, or even noisily, complain but just get on with it nevertheless.

By Carl R, on 11 October 2013 - 21:34 |

Alan - I am sure that there has been downward mobility as a result of the economic crisis since 2008 (and the weak labour market that preceded it). However, I don’t know the extent of this downward mobility, and if it were intragenerational (ie some middle-class graduates failing to get jobs) I also suggest this would be more of a continuation of existing trends rather than a sudden drop. On the whole, Galbraith stresses that such unemployment is functional; that with the abandonment of wage controls, pressures are applied on the poorest third of society through markets.

Michael -

Life in an imperial center is always better than elsewhere.

Yes, but. If we look at central and eastern Europe - widespread poverty and economic dysfunction in Latvia, Hungary, other countries on the semi-periphery. The nature of these democracies has evolved since the mid-1990s to reflect the financialisation of their economies and the consolidation of wealth. On paper, these places should not be ‘content’ - wages have in no way been aligned with living costs for the majority of the population. In this period, from 1995 onwards, a culture of contentment has been established in many of these countries, sometimes as a result of deliberate government policy, favouring the creation of national ‘wealth clusters.’ Politics remains inconsistent and variable in these countries, and civil society is weak, yet the system which is evolving tends to strongly re-inforce the culture of contentment.

Cheap products from China increase purchasing power.

As do the cheap products from Bangalore and Vietnam. The marginalised manual workers may be many thousands of miles away, but the ultimate truth is that they are *our* manual workers, allowing the majority of us not to be involved in manual labour. It no longer makes sense to refer to a ‘British’ working class in a purely domestic sense. The effect of this is deeply disorientating for those of us who look to workers’ movements to provide leadership.

Being employed has come to be seen as a privleged position and not exploitation.

I think this is a fair point, and this plays a large role in accentuating hierarchy. But it is imaginable that almost everybody will eventually be on a ‘zero hours’ contract. If this really starts to bite into the middle-class, it is quite hard to see how contentment could survive as anything we could call ‘contentment’ - the power relations will have changed to such an extent. This is a tough question for Europe’s conservative parties; on the one hand, they subscribe to a logic which is essentially economic reductionism, on the other hand, they are essentially middle-class parties, and a strategy which threatens middle-class interests would threaten the culture of contentment upon which they largely depend. This may yet unravel conservatives around the world, as they either veer to extremes, or attempt various forms of contortions.

The ruling elite seek to buy off the underclass with tax money extracted from those who are actually working instead of the corporate elite.

A racial or educational split between the unemployed and those actually working increases the tensions between these groups.

Both of these scenarios look very familiar. However, windfall taxes have been levied upon corporations, on occasion. I don’t think the ruling elite has to ‘buy off’ the underclass though. They are exactly where they are for a practical reason! Even when not working, they serve a function in enabling low wages for those who do work. Of course, workfare, once it fully emerges and is accepted, will ultimately fix any remaining social control issues.

By Bill Paterson, on 12 October 2013 - 07:59 |

I think you hit the nail on the head here. I would add that the poor/marginalized are much easier to blame for all the problems - inequality,  work,  lack of housing, public services, schools, health service, post service. Next week the decline of the Royal Mail will be discussed and explained via benefit scroungers and immigration not gov privatization. Trying to explain why austerity has not caused significant, sustained large scale protest is important,  but offering alternatively is much more difficult. Whilst in Scotland the prospect of independence leaves open hope for a new left and education based the importance of self realization not more material stuff, independence might also open the way to change from the capitalism in Westminster. 

By Neil, on 12 October 2013 - 08:48 |

I think it warrants even greater emphasis that the ‘culture of contentment’ is not as stable as it appears. If there is still ‘contentment’ then there is also a huge level of pervasive fear and anxiety as on the one hand the condition of poor and working class is assaulted and eroded even further, and on the otherhand the lower and upper middle class gradually declines both as a proportion of the population and in terms of relative wealth.

Arguably the term ‘contentment’ no longer captures the essence of this period: Galbraith was writing at the time of its rise and consolidation; we are living in the time of its decay. The mainstream media and political class focus our attention on the ‘contentment’ at the top and middle and try get us to believe that it will all continue – meanwhile underneath history is piling up the tinder. The ruling elite undoubtedly know this which is why they are laying the ground work for totalitarian rule and major wars; the majority of the population alas do not – they are like the frog oblivious to slowly being boiled alive. Not everyone are frogs though – the phoney calm in the West will not last.

By Carl R, on 12 October 2013 - 10:37 |

Neil - I agree with the gist of your argument, indeed Galbraith considered ‘contentment’ in its 80s/90s variant as susceptible to shocks and upheaval, often resulting from its own myopia and amnesia.

Unfortunately, we cannot make assumptions about how people perceive this situation. An important factor which, as far as I know, *only* Galbraith identifies, and which might really irritate certain Marxists and labourists, is that he identifies the avoidance of hard labour itself as an aspiration. Hard labour often means cold winter mornings outside, it means mind-numbing boredom and muck, it can often mean a reduced life expectancy. Galbraith is sceptical about the capacity of a Marxist system to somehow rehabilitate or deify hard or manual labour, and rightly so.

If the current period is the decline, or metamorphosis of contentment, into a kind of anxious-consumer survivalism, then it will be the prospect of hard labour, in the form of workfare or minimal-income non-subsistence, that will buttress the current system. If I’d make any clear suggestion arising from this, it is the argument that labourism in its reductionist state is dead, and I’d agree, albeit reluctantly, with those arguing that full employment is no longer enough as a leftist objective. For those who are disenfranchised, their fight may well be the fight *not* to work on these terms, whilst the more comfortable majority may be faced increasingly with various forms of financial chaos resulting from demographic, environmental and technological change.

With all this, there’s a chance of something happening, but a pale discourse based on the trad labour movement won’t help and it may be a positive disadvantage. If a change comes, I don’t think it will be necessarily from the left, and it may not even be democratic. One answer might be a working week which is 3+1+1, 3 days in a tenured position, 1 day in a placement, 1 day in the voluntary sector. It is the sort of solution that would only be practically imaginable in an almost post-apocalyptic environment, along with Galbraith’s recommendation that all multinational companies should have a board of directors comprising government, civil society, trade union and United Nations representatives!

By Charles Reitz, on 12 October 2013 - 11:14 |

Corporate globalization is intensifying social inequality and cultural polarization worldwide. Increasing globalization correlates directly with growing inequality both within and between nations. This global polarization and growing immiseration have brought to an end what Herbert Marcuse theorized in “One Dimensional Man” as the totally integrated and completely administered political universe of the liberal welfare/warfare state. Neoliberalism has replaced this “comfortable, smooth, democratic unfreedom” (Marcuse, 1964, 1) with something more openly vicious.

So too JK Galbraith’s emphasis on contentedness in our several cultures today is outdated. A counter-offensive is the political challenge today. Under system duress, continuing allegiances to crumbling structures of power will be seen as fatally misguided, because they entail real material loss and suffering; they can and will swiftly shift. We are seeing today the beginning of the end of a decaying system whose productive base is not being reproduced.Multiple groups internationally already recognize that commodified existence and economic want are not natural, but rather contrived. In the riveting words of Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012): “The game . . . is up. . . . Even our corporate overlords no longer believe the words they utter. . . .” (2012, xii).

Hedges and Sacco had to admit, however, that when they began writing their book, “the nation-wide revolt was absent;” that is, until the Occupy Wall Street movement flared-up up in dozens of U.S. cities. Their ultimate conclusion is that oppositional forces are real, not speculative: “There comes a moment in all popular uprisings when the dead ideas and decayed systems, which only days before seemed unassailable, are exposed and discredited by a population that once stood fearful and supine. . . . Astute observers know the tinder is there, but never when it will be lit” (2012, 226-227).

By Michael N Moore, on 12 October 2013 - 14:05 |

Carl, Thank you for your attentive response to my posts.

I said:

The ruling elite seek to buy off the underclass with tax money extracted from those who are actually working instead of the corporate elite.

A racial or educational split between the unemployed and those actually working increases the tensions between these groups.

You responded:

“Both of these scenarios look very familiar. However, windfall taxes have been levied upon corporations, on occasion. I don’t think the ruling elite has to ‘buy off’ the underclass though. They are exactly where they are for a practical reason! Even when not working, they serve a function in enabling low wages for those who do work. Of course, workfare, once it fully emerges and is accepted, will ultimately fix any remaining social control issues”

I respond: Right now in the US I would have to say that the discontent centers around the conflict between the downwardly mobile fomer labor artistocracy ( a/k/a “the middle class”) and the growing racialized underclass (reserve army of unemployed and lumpen). The focus appears to be on keeping government supported privileges within the dominant group to avoid general austerity.

The attempt by Occupy Wall Street to direct anger at the economic elite appears to have fizzled, but the Tea Party activist have actually become a threat to the political establishment. Witness the intense oppostion to opening up health care access to the working poor.

The US appears to be permantly addicted to a huge internal disenfranchised racialized labor pool based in its agricultural sector and spreading from there.  It is important to remember that our much celebrated freeing of slaves was a false narrative. According to “Slavery by Another Name”, African-American de facto slavery continued well into the 20th Century. It hard to see a distinction between this and the current work force of brown people whose existence is “illegal”.

By Carl R, on 12 October 2013 - 17:23 |

Bill, I’m sure that there is some potential within independence movements to forge different forms of political discourse - certainly, though, it’s not guaranteed (check the article on Irish anti-austerity elsewhere on this site). In addition, if an independent (or more likely a heavily devolved) Scotland were to retain the British pound, this would mean that Scottish economic policy might focus far more on fiscal components and questions of ownership - incidentally providing much more scope than Westminster to interrogate the existing political settlements.

Charles, thanks for your feedback. My motivation for writing this article is that there has been a disconnect between (far)leftist perceptions of the economy and the perceptions of the majority for quite a long time, at least in the UK. In other words, when Galbraith wrote about a ‘Culture of Contentment’ it was barely contemplated or digested by the radical left, and whilst it was considered by the centre-left, they possibly drew the wrong conclusions, according to their own agenda. Most of the Marxist left have used the language of impending catastrophe since the 1930s. There have been some recessions, dramatic crashes, some of which have been serious, and which have caused absolute misery for some people. I’m not saying it’s all been great, and I am anti-capitalist. But the majority of people in developed countries live in advanced economies with fantastic technology, access to energy resources and food, in mixed economies with intelligently planned infrastructure. Even now.

I don’t think we can determine how to proceed if we think that a) capitalism is causing abject misery for a majority of people in Western societies b) this ‘miserable majority’ is very close to total rebellion c) Any such rebellion will be focused on the economic elite d) The new system established will easily address the issues caused by capitalism. This might be perceived as defeatism, but it’s an attempt to clear away rhetoric from the more fluid realities that most people face, and which are, ultimately, reflected in the numbers.

People that never acknowledged that contentment existed, can’t easily now say that the concept is outdated, and belongs to the 1990s. That’s a bit too easy, and it detaches our politics from social realities, which is a dangerous place to be.

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