The Winter of Content


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. 

Leave a comment