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01 March 2009

Talking about... penny-pinching

Talking about... penny-pinching

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Tony Watkins helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture…

I guess we didn't really need the runaway success of Mamma Mia! last year to remind us of Abba's classic 1976 song Money, Money, Money. How could we ever forget such a catchy tune and lyrics voicing such a familiar feeling: wouldn't life be that much easier if we had a little more money? If we could be part of the rich person's world, wouldn't we be free of concerns?

It sounds crass, but how many of us don't secretly feel that way? Even if we don't join the queues for lottery tickets, don't we feel a twinge of envy when someone does well on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Which of course brings to mind another feel-good film, Danny Boyle's award-winning hit Slumdog Millionaire.

In the current economic nightmare, financial security has become a key issue for us all. Will I still have a job next week? Are our savings safe? Will we lose the house? Many of us instinctively cut back our expenditure to just the essentials.

Financial security has become a key issue for us all

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown is urging us to get out there and spend, spend, spend! In line with the thinking of the most famous of all economists, John Maynard Keynes, the Government is increasing public spending - and public borrowing to fund it. And they want us to do likewise. The idea is to get money moving around the system: from pockets into tills to banks and back to pockets. Keep businesses going and there will be jobs. Keep them servicing their vast debts and the creaking financial edifice won't come crashing down around us.

I'm no economist, but isn't one of the major causes of this crisis the staggering levels of bad debt? And yet banks are being told to make it easier for people to borrow money. So people are being encouraged to increase their level of debt at the very time that their jobs may be in danger. Is it just me, or is there something utterly wrongheaded about this?

A new mindset

Slumdog Millionaire (c) PatheEven more disturbing than the economics is the fact that there's no suggestion that our fundamental values need to change. We're encouraged to shift our priorities, but not our overall mindset. The engine of this whole system is consumerism, but it's time we recognised that consumerism is a euphemism for greed.

Back in 1920, the British social critic RH Tawney, in his immensely important book The Acquisitive Society, warned that the pursuit of material things has a profoundly corrupting influence. It may fuel the capitalist machine, but once we define the good life in terms of possessions and wealth, we're in deep trouble. It's bad for our relationships, it's bad for our mental health (as psychologist Oliver James powerfully explores in his book Affluenza) and it's bad for our spirituality.

We become preoccupied with things we would like but don't need. They become badges of success, status and style, and so we slip into the invidious comparison of our things with someone else's. Pride, envy, covetousness all creep in. It's not just about keeping up with the Joneses, but about maintaining what we subconsciously feel is our place in the social order.

This acquisitiveness makes us self-centred, concerned to keep - or improve - our standard of living. We gradually become insensitive to the needs of others, preferring to jealously guard, rather than generously give, what we have. We easily overlook the plight of people like Wendy (Michelle Williams) in Wendy and Lucy, whose financial difficulties propel her towards Alaska in hope of a well-paid job that will solve everything. She is vulnerable to changes in circumstances that make things worse for her, but no one seems to care about her neediness. And her increasing desperation drives her into choices that compound her problems.

It's time we recognised that consumerism is a euphemism for greed

Greed makes us now-centred, concerned with being comfortable in the immediate future. We know we need to tackle climate change, but prefer to satiate our desires rather than inconvenience ourselves for the global good. The innovative documentary The Age of Stupid features Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist in a post-apocalyptic 2055 who, as he views film from our own time, is astonished that we did so little to save ourselves from impending doom. The reason why is not stupidity in an intellectual sense, but in a moral one. It's not that we don't understand what can be done, but that we don't care enough to limit our greed.

This is the most significant problem of the Western world. Lots of clever people have made an awful lot of money. But the whole system has been built on shifting moral sands. Even after all that has happened, there's been little or no recognition that a society which depends on and fosters greed is fatally flawed. Even now there's no widespread sense that we need some moral bedrock.

In fact we need more than a fresh foundation. We need a transformation of human hearts within consumerist societies, so that we realise that we've been worshipping an idol. Jesus insisted that we couldn't serve both God and materialism. It's time we admitted He was right. 

  • Find out more about the issues raised in this article at: lifebeyonddebt.org
  • Toolsfortalks.com contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films, music, magazines and TV - updated weekly.Tony Watkins
  • Photos - Top: Michelle Williams plays a woman at the end of her financial rope in Wendy and Lucy © Soda. - Bottom: Dev Patel and Anil Kapoor face off in Slumdog Millionaire © Pathe

  Tony Watkins is managing editor of Culturewatch.org

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