The sitcom Peep Show shows life from the point of view of two flatmates- ‘the El Dude Brothers’, ‘the Croydon Bullingdon’, ‘a couple of yardies’- Mark Corrigan and Jeremy ‘Jez’ Usborne.
They’ve been friends since uni, share a flat- on and off- for nine series and, in their own dried up, desiccated, weird and unfriendly way, really do love/like each other. Yet despite this they’re very different people with different outlooks: Mark’s more Crunchy Nut, Jez more Frosties; Mark’s a real meat and potatoes, Jez – a vegetarian who eats fish and posh bacon; Mark’s the sex civilian, Jez the sex Olympian (if China would allow it).
If you haven’t watched Peep Show and some of these quite niche references are going over your head, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about, but read on and hopefully all will become a little clearer. I wish to make the case to you that yes, you could perhaps be happy if you believed a load of rubbish, but really, like Mark, you should live relentlessly in the real world.
Jez: “Plus, you know how I feel about capitalism.”
Mark: “Yes, confused”
If there’s one thing that will go down at a party like a snake in a salad spinner that needs dry-cleaning it’s an attempt to defend capitalism, but here’s why you should share Mark’s outlook. First though, I want to be clear about what I’m defending, as many- like Jez- are confused. It’s not all a conspiracy to keep you in a little box, but instead a system which raises the individual above the state and allows them to trade freely the product of their labour under the law.
Dan Hannan provides an excellent understanding in this debate at the Oxford Union. He says how the desire to better yourself is a fundamental in human nature under all systems, but the unique thing about the capitalist system is that it harnesses this ambition to a socially useful end.
Under every other system imagined there is a group of people sat on top and the only way to improve your situation is to suck up to those people, be they ‘kings, or bishops, or commissars’. Under the free market though you satisfy the desire to improve yourself by providing a good or service to your fellow members of society that they want and appreciate.
In doing so you enrich yourself, but you also provide a benefit to the person you supply that good or service to. Having provided the good or service, you benefit by some medium of exchange- most likely money- which you can then trade for some other good or service, perhaps a good or service that you could not, or would not be as good at, creating or providing yourself. It could be some necessity you need to survive, some luxury you feel improves your life in some way, or perhaps something that allows you to be more productive and provide more to others in turn- like a piece of machinery or software.
‘All very well in theory’, I hear you cry, ‘but what about in practice?’
Mark: “It’s only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you’re not lying in your own shit, dying at 43 with rotten teeth”
Mark makes this point pretty succinctly.
For most of human existence life has been ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Recurring famine, cyclical poverty and periodic epidemics made life miserable across the globe. Any increases in productivity were nullified by population pressures and attempts to change this were pure utopianism.
However around the mid-eighteenth century this did start to change. For the first time the Malthusian trap was permanently broken and the transition to the affluence of modern societies began. As societies industrialised their prosperity grew to previously unattainable heights, as demonstrated in the graph below, lifted from The Economist.
In Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began, full-time earnings for common labourers, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled in the 70 years after 1780, and real wages doubled again 1840-1910. Due to an accompanying Agricultural Revolution food became more plentiful and famine very rare. Average height has increased steadily for the last 150 years, much due to improved nutrition.
Drastic improvements are not purely a thing of the past either. Poverty is a reality still for many people alive today, but things are getting better. The UN’s ‘Millennium Development Goal’ of halving extreme poverty- defined as living on less than $1.25 a day at 2005 prices- was achieved ahead of schedule. In 1990 36% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, but this had fallen to 15% by 2011 and 9% in 2015.
Of course that’s not to say job done- clearly 9% of 7 billion people is still too many- but it is vitally important to recognise where we are and how we got here. Only by doing this can the trend be continued.
To a Medieval serf the transformation would indeed seem miraculous, but it was not divine intervention but consumer capitalism that caused this change. While poverty has been the norm for most of civilized history, free market capitalism, allied to representative government has been the exception. North and Weingast, in their seminal paper, demonstrated how British economic success began after the Glorious Revolution and the curbing of the state’s ability to intervene in markets and the establishment of parliamentary primacy.
Many of the improvements to people’s lives in the modern day have resulted from the incorporation of former socialist countries into global trading systems. China has been transformed since it allowed private ownership in 1978.
The point I’m trying to make is: “It’s only the miracle of consumer capitalism that means you’re not lying in your own shit, dying at 43 with rotten teeth”
Mark: “No! I hate political correctness gone mad, more than anyone! I don’t wanna teach the world to sing, that would be horrible! But slavery? The Holocaust? That’s just… not on! Whereas, I Have A Dream, South Africa, Benetton, it’s, you’ve got to say… fair enough. Yeah?”
When Mark finds himself living with a gay couple, he bemoans the fact that he doesn’t really get anything out of the sex noises coming through the walls anymore, and declares it ‘political correctness gone normal’, but in the end he’s fine with it.
Having inadvertently befriended a white supremacist, he confronts the only friend he’d made since Nick Bickford in ’96, telling him, ‘you can’t hate people because of their ethnic background!’
Mark is many things but, when it comes down to it, intolerant he is not. I imagine you’re on the same page here already so I won’t dwell on it, but it’s worth pointing out that thinking capitalism is on balance a good thing doesn’t mean you’re a racist, or a homophobe, or a sexist for that matter.
Mark: “Well, listen, I’m sorry if I didn’t do it right and I’m sorry if you assume that I eat red meat and don’t necessarily think money or Tony Blair are a bad thing, but if there isn’t room here for people who stand against everything you believe in, then what sort of a hippy free-for-all is this?”
Mark is a man being dragged quite reluctantly into the 21st century. He accepts that the ‘60s happened, that sex is okay now, that the Beastie Boys fought and possibly died for our right to party, and that a candle stuck in a wine bottle doesn’t quite cut it anymore, instead you have to have Class A drugs and fisting. He accepts all this, even though he doesn’t necessarily like it.
Like Mark you should tolerate things and people you don’t necessarily like or agree with. Mark allows Jez to live in his flat rent free and lends him over a thousand pounds, and yet they agree on almost nothing. You might want different things to someone, you might even want similar things and just have different ideas about how to achieve it, but you shouldn’t hate them for that. Debate them, argue with them, plead with them, but learn to live with them.
Sophie: [Picks up T-shirt] “What about this?”
Mark: “You do know who that is don’t you?”
Sophie: “Yeah, it’s Chairman Mao isn’t it?”
Mark: “Exactly, the man was responsible for the deaths of 60 million people. I don’t want him on my chest”
Mark doesn’t venerate Tyrants, nor should you. An obvious point it may seem, but one that needs making. Just watch this video of the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, on This Week arguing that Mao ‘on balance did more good than harm’. The man was responsible for the deaths of 60 million of his own people. As Mark points out, it’s not a competition, but if it were it would beat Stalin’s 20 million, as well as the 9 million+ Hitler killed in the holocaust, the 2-7 million deaths resulting from Khmer Rouge policies in Cambodia, and so many other of the atrocities that have occurred at the hands of this most murderous mode of government.
Tyranny should be opposed in any form and wherever it occurs, be it Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, wherever. Regardless of the ideology they claim and regardless of the colour of the flag that they fly, dictatorship should be opposed in all its guises. The ‘ironic veneration of tyrants’ is not that funny.
Jez: “Well, how do you explain all the problems in the world?”
Mark: “I mean, I couldn’t just… there are so many historical and economic factors”
As Mark says, there’s no simple answer to all the world’s problems. Socio-economic phenomena are often incredibly complex and it’s not necessarily easy to understand why they happen or how to change them. If someone says they’ve found the solution, you should be pretty wary. As Sydey J. Harris said, ‘Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell should stay there’.
Much as nutshell sized philosophies are often very digestible, neat and easily comprehensible, it’s important you live relentlessly in the real world. The sense that you’ve found the solution might be very inspiring and make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but if it’s not grounded in practicality it might kill people- potentially tens of millions of people.
An Honourable Man
To conclude, Mark is an honourable man. He’s not a man without flaws, he can be a weird guy, sometimes even a real piece of shit, however I’m not saying you should want to be him, but to think like him. He’s sceptical and rational but also tolerant and compassionate. I think if we could all be a bit more like that, it would be so Rainbow Rhythms.