Regular readers of this blog will by now be more than aware that we at Mediolana harbour a deep sense of attachment towards our city of incorporation. Nevertheless, we are not blind to at least some of its darker realities, and the news that the financial, legal and cultural capital of not just the United Kingdom but arguably Western Europe has suffered biological leakage to the tune of over 80,000 people in a single year does not remotely surprise us.
It is all too easy – and logical – to point the finger at the Brexit ‘decision’ and ‘process’ for this decline. But this allocation of blame is ultimately unsatisfactory, and fails to recognise the deeper, structural problems which have needlessly blighted life in London for far too long; in particular, if the following deficiencies continue to remain unaddressed, one of the most iconic urban areas anywhere in the world could slide into a permanent population recession:
- Bad value. The most obvious issue confronting London today is that it offers sensationally awful value for money when to comes to the bare necessities. Specifically, the cost of both public transportation and housing – neither of which are world-class, taken as a whole – is nothing less than an insult to the intelligence. Most people can only take so much of this before they begin to wonder whether there might not be a better way of doing things.
- Zero capitalism. Connected to (1), municipal and city-wide authorities alike have lost sight of the need of industry for reasonably-priced land and buildings. As copiously demonstrated in metropolitan units from Berlin to Barcelona, the manufacturing and creative industries of the future can flourish in unlikely locations – as long as they are not smothered by anti-competitive rent-seekers.
- No time this time. Compounding it all is a profound sense of time-and-motion sickness: in the insane rush to get to wherever it is they think they are going, Londoners – especially, though not exclusively, those in the professional classes – are readily exchanging quality of life for that extra bit of speed and purported glitz. Friendships, relationships and transcendence have been swapped for an even-faster smartphone. But the messages on the screen are getting increasingly contentless.
A recent item that caught the eye of our Creative Director & CSO illustrates that while some cultural norms can change in a remarkably short period of time, others are almost impossible to shift. Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare has revealed that full-time employees clocked 2,026 hours of work in 2015, just twelve hours fewer that the equivalent total for 1995; this is despite years of government discussions and initiatives designed to wean the East Asian economic giant off its addiction to presenteeism.
Most analyses – particularly Western ones – about Japan’s long-hours culture come across as both patronising and fearful: the overriding sentiment is that those crazy, work-obsessed Japanese need to chill out and Be More Like Us, while there is usually a strong undercurrent of nervousness at the sheer indefatigability of Japan’s labour force.
However – and after some contemplation – we at Mediolana think this school of thought is missing the central point. Putting in plenty of overtime in an office setting is not necessarily a bad thing; however, when it becomes decoupled from results and starts to infringe on areas of life that it has no right to significantly influence, then it is quite justifiable to ask serious questions.
In particular, Japan’s culture of persistent overwork has resulted in the nation running a chronic sleep deficit; this is threatening not just to derail Japan, Inc., but Japan, period:
- Macro Decision-Making. Arguably the core catastrophe arising from being a country that is collectively zonked is that Japan’s macro decision-making capabilities have been severely compromised. In particular, the placement of several nuclear power stations on earthquake fault lines passed almost entirely beneath the radar; this tier-one disaster waiting to happen did not generate any significant civil society response or governmental action until after it had actually occurred, with predictably dire consequences.
- Declining Intimacy. Another repercussion of the salaryman model is not having the energy – and increasingly, the inclination – for establishing deep emotional bonds with a member of the opposite sex. The corollary of this is a copulation collapse – and a birth rate that presages depopulation on a truly astonishing scale. Addressing this genuinely existential issue is something that the Japanese body politic is evidently too tired for; its reflex response of continued hostility to immigration – even when confronted with certain and acute impoverishment – is that of a comatose entity.
- Performance Anxiety. Maybe the most troubling part of the time-expended economic model is that it is clearly no longer delivering the sensational growth rates of the past. In 2001 (and following one lost decade), Japan became a pioneer in printing the heck out of its currency in an attempt to stimulate (or perhaps more accurately, simulate) expansion of the economy; several rounds of quantitative easing and two-and-a-half lost decades later, it is pointless to even pretend that this system is working.
Like many countries in Northern Europe, the United Kingdom of the 2010s is notable for the near-complete absence of religion and spirituality in public discourse: the country has undergone a process of profound secularisation in the last twenty-five years, with many basic social values unrecognisable from their 1980s counterparts. It was therefore with some interest that our CSO read an article authored by Cristina Odone – one of a tiny number of British journalists who is even capable of writing about religious topics in anything other than media clichés – claiming that the UK is ‘on the brink of a Christian Spring’ (Despite our secularist enemies, we are on the brink of a Christian Spring, 19th November 2013).
Odone posits three reasons for a resurgence of Christianity in Britain: (i) Pope Francis; (ii) Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury; and (iii) a popular ‘backlash’ against the more gross examples of shallow materialism. After some contemplation, we at Mediolana do not find any of these to be compelling. While billions of people around the world of all faiths and none seem to find Pope Francis an unusually brilliant spiritual beacon – and his papacy has already seen a stunning turnaround in mass attendances, at least in Italy and the United Kingdom – the structural problems of the Roman Catholic Church, not least systematic child abuse and eye-watering levels of financial corruption, are in all likelihood far too deep for one pope to solve. As to Justin Welby, we would bet good money that a plurality of a representative sample of the British public are more familiar with the teachings of Justin Timberlake; ‘twerking’ might be viewed as somewhat quaint in ten years’ time.
However, Odone might be onto something, at least indirectly: she could be correct in pointing to a largely-unexpected change in spiritual orientation in the UK, but for entirely different reasons – principally economic ones.
The economy of the United Kingdom is starting to show alarming signs of social distress. Mired in corruption and with no realistic prospect of experiencing any kind of meaningful growth, the British economy is essentially dysfunctional for an ever-increasing percentage of the population. This can be seen in the surreal blossoming in what is meant to be a G7 country of the food bank, an institution that was unknown even a few years ago but the utilisation of which has been burgeoning beyond the exponential: while just 26,000 food parcels were handed out in 2008-9, the figure for April-September of 2013 was over 350,000. And things are likely to get much, much worse, with inevitable interest rate rises almost certain to clobber millions of ‘middle class’ households in the years to come.
Of course, these developments are not guaranteed to produce any given spiritual outcome. But it is almost unthinkable that religious institutions, and religion and spirituality more generally, are going to take the flak for the mess – partly because they have become so marginal in the lives of most people, and partly because they tend to stand in stark opposition to the rampant materialism and wild social distancing that has helped to engender this situation. Instead, it is a set of elites which are largely defined by their alienation from religion which will be seen to have failed. It is in precisely this kind of social flux that new movements step in to fill vacua. What these will be is anyone’s guess – but to exclude some form of religious or spiritual dynamic from them, even in a macro-context of increasing secularisation – may be premature, or even incorrect.