Homo Brownicus: a cramped and narrow creature of toil

I’m tired of reading the commentator’s mantra that Gordon Brown is suffering because he does not have a vision. This piece of apocrypha, product of an ironic myopia in the commentariat, has been handed lazily and reverently from hand-to-hand until it has somehow assumed the status of received wisdom. Brown does have a vision. He has an idea of what the world is like and what he thinks the responsibilities of government in such a world should be: the problem is that it is a piteously impoverishing and dehumanising one.

Brown’s politics is based on the sincerely held belief that the world has changed dramatically in the last two or three decades. For him, the globalisation of the world economy, the communications revolution and the advent of the knowledge economy have combined to transform utterly the challenges facing Britain. The realm of international relations is now characterised by profound interdependence. Isolationism is as much an anachronism as Socialism-in-One-Country. One can no longer pursue a narrow conception of national self-interest. The problems of the world have been collectivised and necessitate a collective response through international – preferably financial institutions – like the IMF and the World Bank.

The globalisation of the world economy and the technological revolution has created a situation where nations flourish or founder not on the basis of arbitrary raw material allocation or historic infrastructure, but because of the capacities or incapacities of their workforces. Human capital has become the key determinant of economic success or failure. The quality of a nation’s people – their knowledge, character and talents – for the first time in history are the crucial predictor of economic performance.

And as such the nation cannot afford for individuals to waste their talents or to be hindered from fully developing them. It is not only just, but prudent, to ensure that no one is left behind. Barriers must be lifted, opportunities must be extended: equality of opportunity must cease to be a huckster’s phrase and become the foundation stone of our political life. The first and principal duty of every government is to ensure that every member of the national community has the opportunity to develop fully their unique talents and capabilities. Social mobility is to be the defining feature of the New Jerusalem; education is to be the mechanism for its creation.

Education is the core of this vision. It is the state’s embodiment of universal opportunity, the way in which the child is given the chance to live out Brown’s own – psychologically crucial – narrative of the poor kid made good

If we try hard enough, if we are steadfast enough, we will all achieve a sort of secular salvation through work. The aim and end of this self-cultivation is not material success; this is not a consumptionist ideal. Prosperity is merely a symbol. The goal is the continuous development of determination, discipline, thrift, character – everything which lies underneath the entrepreneurship that issues in prosperity. We are to become honourable, self-denying denizens of the republic of work; working not for the treacherous enticements of Mammon but for the dignity that inheres in work.

Sound familiar? Brown has been developing and recapitulating the same themes in speeches since the last millennium. And these aren’t just empty words. Look at the part that he has played in debt cancellation and extending malaria treatment in Africa; or at the pressure that the Treasury exerted on elite Universities to accept state school pupils and the Balls extension of compulsory education or training to eighteen.

That is Brown’s vision: that’s all there is. Technology means that violence and suffering that seem far away are in fact close to us, and must be treated as our problem; the fierceness of global capitalistic competition is such that no nation can afford to be slack or discriminatory in cultivating or encouraging its workforce in pursuit of the inherent Stakhanovite good. That’s it. That’s the vision. And it’s enough to make me wish that, along with all of the other commentators, all I could see in Brown was a tired, frightened technocrat trying desperately to hold onto power even long after he had ceased to have any real sense of what he wanted to do with it.

And why is it such a bad vision? Because it is unhumanistic, philistine, dispiritingly prosaic and – in its practical implications – cruel. Work for Brown may be able to satisfy the sort of psychological needs that we all have: the need to feel that we are doing something purposive and worthwhile; the need to feel that there is some virtue in what we do; the need for stimulation and cultivation; the need for the personal and the human touch that make the days bearable. As with most professional advantages, I imagine these things are open to you as Prime Minister.

But for most people they aren’t. For most people work is an imposition and a bore. Tedious, alienating work undertaken because of financial exigency and an inability to conceive of a different sort of life characterises so much of the work that is done. Just think: what would it mean for a call-centre worker or a data entrant to live in a society in which the locus of value is located solely in the work that one does? How much does that demean and belittle them? How much does it cheapen their lives?

Brown’s exaltation of work reflects a profound disconnection from, and failure to understand, the day-to-day lives of many ordinary people in Britain. It is a failure to understand work as the necessary foundation on which we build our lives. Lives which find their value in the people we love, the books we read, the countries that we travel to, the stupid things that we laugh at: all the human elements of a free and private life after the lights have gone off at the office.

When we hear our Prime Minister speak we need to be confronted with a more realistic picture of ourselves and we need to hear a fuller, more cultured, more human understanding of what it is to live a good life in Britain today than that which we see in the barren, godless Protestant Ethic of Brown. Gordon Brown isn’t in need of a vision; he is in need of the right vision.

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