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I hope you had a peaceful time over the holidays. For me, the Christmas and New Year period feels little different to any other mid-winter week. Proof that Gail knows me well came in the form of a tee-shirt bearing the logo ‘Wake me up on Boxing Day’.

But the opportunity for guilt-free relaxation and time to spend with loved ones is precious and appreciated.

I did a lot of reading as the year ended, and while doing so I stumbled across a word I’d not heard before – the word ‘anomie’.

A quick Google search gave me the following definition:

A condition of instability (in individuals and communities) resulting from a breakdown of standards and values.

My curiosity kicked in. I went down a rabbit hole.

Buckle up, we’re going for a ride.

The term appears in Social Science and Psychology and originates with the French pioneer sociologist Émile Durkheim.

He used the word to describe what he saw as a breakdown of the ties that bind people together to make a functional society, a state of social derangement, if you will. He believed it occurs when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what is actually achievable in everyday life.

He also noted that associated feelings of alienation and purposelessness quickly followed this type of breakdown.

M. Durkheim made these observations in the late 1800s when belief in the historical standards and values imposed by family, community, church and state were still strong. If there were a risk of ‘anomie’ then how much higher is the risk today, 120 years later? 

These days, the disconnection between those that supposedly set society’s values and standards and the rest of the population is a gaping chasm. An ever-growing number of people have no possibility of achieving ‘success’ because of poverty, poor education and deprivation. In the US those in power still talk of the ‘American Dream’. They still tell folks that anybody can be President if they’re determined enough and work hard. Tell that to a young black kid in Riverdale, Detroit and see what happens.

That same disconnection and touting of false promises happens here in the UK.

A few days ago our most recent Prime Minister Mr Sunak gave an upbeat New Year speech intended to boost the nation’s hopes for the future.

Let’s have a look at some of what he said:

On Community

“But a better future also means reinforcing people’s pride in the places they call home. And the change we need is to do away with the idea that it’s inevitable that some communities and some places can never and will never get better. I love my local community and it’s not right that too many for far too long have not felt that same sense of meaning and belonging.”

Mr Sunak was born in Southampton, but I assume the local community he referred to is that surrounding his primary residence – the Grade II listed Kirby Sigston Manor in the village of Kirby Sigston, North Yorkshire. He bought it for £1.5 million before he became an MP. Last year they granted him planning permission to build a leisure complex with a gym, swimming pool and outdoor tennis court in a paddock at the house.

The village has a population of around 100 and has never had a shop, post office or pub, and its school, which opened in 1846 and would have taken around 35 pupils, closed down in 1944. 

But then again, he has other ‘local communities’ to choose from.

He owns a mews house in Earl’s Court in central London, a flat on the Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, and a penthouse apartment on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, California.

On Education

“Every opportunity I’ve had in life began with the education I was so fortunate to receive. And it’s the single most important reason I came into politics: to give every child the highest possible standard of education.….. we will work with the sector to move towards all children studying some form of maths to 18. Just imagine what greater numeracy will unlock for people: The skills to feel confident with your finances, to find the best mortgage deal or savings rate; The ability to do your job better and get paid more; And greater self-confidence to navigate a changing world.”

Well, at least he acknowledged his privileged upbringing. He attended Stroud School, a preparatory school in Romsey, and Winchester College, a boys’ independent boarding school. He read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lincoln College, Oxford. In 2006, he earned a Master of Business Administration postgraduate degree from Stanford University in the US.

It’s his fixation with mathematics I take issue with. Greater numeracy the key to “greater self-confidence to navigate a changing world?”….. Really? Why do I see him crouching, scrooge like, over a candlelit ledger book? He talks of a ‘changing world’ yet seems to have missed the fact that we no longer live in the Victorian age.

I have number blindness and left school with a grade 4 CSE in maths. I’ve lacked self-confidence many times in my life but those feelings had nothing to do with my poor numeracy. For me, self-confidence came from reading, writing and drawing. It saddens me that creativity and self-expression didn’t even get a mention, for there lies the future.

On Jobs

“If we’re going to deliver this better future, people will have to work hard. But I believe good, well-paid jobs are about more than just financial security. They give people purpose, confidence, dignity – the chance to build a better life for themselves. But I also believe that if you work hard and play by the rules – you should be rewarded.”

Sunak worked as an analyst for the investment bank Goldman Sachs between 2001 and 2004. He then worked for a hedge fund management firm, becoming a partner in September 2006. He left in November 2009 to join former colleagues in California at a new hedge fund firm, Theleme Partners, which launched in October 2010 with $700 million under management. Sunak was also a director of the investment firm Catamaran Ventures, owned by his father-in-law, the billionaire Indian businessman N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of IT company Infosys.

Knowing these things shines a different light on his stated belief “that if you work hard and play by the rules – you should be rewarded” doesn’t it?

He’s only been an MP for seven years. Before that he’d spent his 14 year ‘working’ life entirely in the financial sector. Ok, he married well, but given that The Sunday Times Rich List estimates the couple’s fortune to be worth about £730m, he certainly knows a bit about being ‘rewarded’.

And as for playing by the rules. Well, far be it from me to suggest that he’s done anything illegal on his way to making his millions, but it has to be said that his chosen industry has a far from clean record.

How many rules have banks, hedge funds and investment companies broken these past decades? How many have gambled illegally, knowing that if the gamble doesn’t pay off they’ll get bailed out by government?

Oh, and who as Chancellor oversaw a rollback of the regulatory constraints imposed on the financial sector after the 2008 crisis?

I guess it’s easier to ‘play by the rules’ if you have the power to change the rules eh?

But perhaps as PM Mr Sunak genuinely wants to improve the lives of ordinary people. 

After all, many people do good work that benefits society, maybe even some MPs – But much of the work done in society merely takes money from some and gives it to others without creating any benefit to that society. Mr Sunak has made a lot of money doing the latter. Can a leopard change its spots?

I hope you’ll forgive my lengthy examination of Mr Sunak’s words, but I think it perfectly shows the danger we’re in.

If the leader and government of our country are so disconnected from the realities of the people they represent, and if they continue to promote that long broken ‘American Dream’ template. Then our state of ‘anomie’ will only get worse.

All of this puts a lot of pressure on people. An American sociologist Robert K. Merton looked at these pressures and the ways individuals reacted to them. He developed something called ‘Strain Theory’.

In his view people react to anomie in one of five ways:

1) They can do as they’re told (Conformity):

These people think everything is fine.

They have total acceptance of the system.

They pursue the societal goals of ‘success’ using legitimate means i.e. ‘hard’ work’.

2) They can do things differently (Innovation):

These people accept the goal of ‘success’….. but they decide the legitimate, accepted means won’t get them there.

So they look for alternative ‘innovative’ means. Maybe they’ll be an entrepreneur or maybe they’ll turn to crime.

3) They can carry on carrying on (Ritualism)

These folks realise they’re never going to make it.

But they carry on down the ‘hard working’ route regardless (even if it means living in a van).

They live lives of ‘quiet desperation’.

4) They can fight (Rebellion)

Rebels see the inequality and the unfairness of the system.

They attempt to change things through industrial action, activism and revolution.

An ever-growing number are falling into this category. Here’s a list of those taking strike action in the UK this month:

  • Nurses
  • Ambulance Staff
  • Royal Mail Workers
  • Train Drivers
  • Bus Drivers
  • Scottish Teachers
  • Highway Agency Workers
  • Driving Examiners

It’s noticeable that all these people fall into another category as well – They all do jobs that benefit society.

I read this morning that FTSE 100 bosses were paid more in the first three days of this month than the average UK worker will earn in the whole of 2023.

Those with top jobs in the financial sector will have to wait a few more weeks to do the same. 

That’s ‘anomie’ right there.

The last category is the one I’ve been in since 2008. I call it the ‘F***K this for a game of soldiers’ category.

Mr Merton called it Retreatism.

This is the route taken by folks who’ve rejected society’s idea of ‘success’. And they’ve also therefore rejected all the legitimate and illegitimate means needed to achieve that goal.

For me this meant building a boat and going sailing. For others it might mean choosing ‘van life’, backpacking, or deciding to live ‘off grid’ in a cabin in the woods.  

Do these things away from society and you’ll get away with it. Do otherwise and you’ll risk being labelled a bum or a dropout.

So there you have it. 

It’s my contention that in earlier times, people knew where they stood, and they took care of one another. They didn’t look to the government to help them out when things got difficult.

It feels to me that social norms today are under a wartime level of stress, but without a wartime sense of solidarity.

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher said:

“Too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!’… They are casting their problems on society, and who is society? There is no such thing!”

It’s well known that Thatcher had a close relationship with US President Reagan. In his 1981 inaugural speech he said:

“Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”

After reading Mr Sunak’s speech, I’d have to say Mr Reagan was right. 

But if Mrs Thatcher was right, and I fear she was, then where does that leave us?

Afloat on a river of excrement without a suitable means of propulsion, that’s where.

So it’s up to us as individuals to deal with it.

As I said, I chose my path a while back. I’d tried conformity and innovation. They just led me into ritualism, quiet desperation and a suicide attempt.

I’m too old for rebellion now, nothing’s going to change in my lifetime.

So I’ll carry on retreating in 2023, I’ll carry on retreating until I find someplace where I don’t have to.

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I’ll make one here. This year I’ll focus on stuff that makes me happy, not stuff that winds me up. I’ll write more about reading and writing and creativity. I’ll leave society and government to sort themselves out.

Which path will you choose?

Have a good one.

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  1. Tom Cooke Tom Cooke

    I enjoyed your two books and have enjoyed your essays as well. You are a skillful writer. I look forward to more from you and will be buying you a coffee.

  2. Anonymous Anonymous

    Another thoughtful post for the new year. Sunak has no clue about the struggles of relative poverty because he’s never experienced it. Not his fault and at least he’s hardworking and not motivated by the wealth public service can bring on retirement capitalizing on connections made while being paid by the taxpayer. Blair resented the fact that his earning potential was curtailed by public service once citing Bill Gates as who he could have been in a moment of hubris. I’ve passed through Merton’s categories at different stages of my life so far. I’ve been conformist, entrepreneurial, when younger but have now retreated into early retirement. I taught maths and economics in China and all students here study Maths until 18. A Level Maths is not considered particularly difficult by many Chinese students. I’m not sure about the value of learning advanced maths but practical skills like investing in index funds and the importance of compound interest should be taught in schools. Art teaching is neglected here in favor of sciences . I’ve taught talented artists who are forced to study sciences. I was at dinner last week with Chinese friends and we were discussing the high cost of housing in China. Housing costs are particularly acute here as the average salary is only 5000 RMB per month (£600). An engineer who works for an Italian company told me young Chinese have given up saving to buy a house as it’s out of reach without family support. I look forward to more posts in 2023. I have time to read them!

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