Beyond the Market

(The Nationalist, 22 August 2003)


Perfectionism has been described as the respectable addiction of the twentieth century. And we in Ireland have, in some respects, become perfectionists, demanding nothing but the best for ourselves (not necessarily of ourselves). There is usually a commercial agenda driving us to this. We have the feeling that to be content with anything less than the best is to sell yourself short: if something isn’t just right, dump it and buy a new one – because you’re worth it. Get the latest model car because that is a way of demonstrating that you are special, not an ordinary Joe Soap but a person of significance. We think we have to undertake a change of house, despite all its wrenching displacement, in order to move up in the world. What then of a marriage that goes through a bad period; do we leave it in search of another partner who will have the attributes so absent in the first? Do we postpone living in and enjoying the present, believing that after the next car, job, house or partner everything will be fine? Perfectionism is a caricature of Christian hope.

The gospel according to Margaret Thatcher and liberal economics have contributed much to this change of attitudes. It gives priority to efficiency, competitiveness and productivity at the expense of human relationships. For instance, we are losing the art of conversation, and human communication degenerates into mere chatter. Individualism is replacing community, and selfishness replacing self-giving or thinking of others. How many of us know who our neighbours are?

Economic growth seems inseparable from personal stress, job insecurity, short-term work-contracts, the demand for greater mobility in the job-market, and a high level of personal debt. I don’t find it surprising that eight people out of ten questioned in a recent survey said their lives were more stressful and more unmanageable than five years ago.

Part of the problem seems to be that both people and politicians believe there is an automatic connection between economic growth and human welfare. But there is no necessary correlation between the two.

What happens to security, commitment, solidarity, pride in the job, when people are expected to hawk their skills from one job to another against a background of periodic unemployment and constant re-training? When an economy treats people merely as disposable units of production at the beck and call of global capitalism, that is how they may start to behave in the rest of their lives too. The antidote is to insist, no matter what, that people be treated with the full dignity and respect due to human beings.