Archive for the ‘Society’ Category


In an interview following the publication of his fifth novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the great Czech author Milan Kundera was asked what sex means to him as a novelist. Anyone who has dipped into Kundera’s oeuvre will know scenes of coitus play a frequent and important role.

“I have a feeling,” he said, “that a scene of physical love generates an extremely sharp light which suddenly reveals the essence of characters and sums up their life situation… The erotic scene is the focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located.”

Kundera could have easily been talking about Love Hotel, a feature documentary showcased as part of BBC Four’s Storyville series earlier this year and made by award-winning independent filmmakers Native Voice Films. The documentary takes the Japanese institution of the love hotel as its subject, a place where couples hire fantasy-themed rooms by the hour.

Love Hotel is a study of this most revealing of human moments as it is played out in a culture famous for its sharp contrast between public and private life, or as the Japanese say, “honne” and “tatemae.” Honne corresponds to one’s true feelings or desires, while tatemae describes the self one shows to the world.

What makes Love Hotel so remarkable is its deeply intimate access to the honne of its subjects, whether they are pensioners, S&M clients, or a gay couple who must hide their love. “A love hotel really is the backstage of life. It’s a place where one can witness the truth,” Mr Ozawa, the manager of Angelo Love Hotel tells us.

Because we meet and get to know the documentary’s participants through acts of sex, we see the true essence of them in moments where, as Kundera observes, their life situation is “summed up”.

In making the film, the directors gained unprecedented access to the Osaka-based Angelo Love Hotel, one of 37,000 love hotels in Japan. Through this one establishment we see ordinary Japanese who feel their everyday lives lack something which this fantasy land provides.

On one level it is a story about the strains of living in a nation which has experienced economic stagnation since the early 1990s, creating a “lost generation” of temporary workers who can’t even afford to have families, as one cleaning lady at the hotel remarks.

Japanese society is well known for its punishing labour conditions and we gain an insight to this through the Angelo Love Hotel manager, Ozawa. Following new legislation to clamp down on the more adult aspects of love hotels, such as S&M rooms and mirrors on the ceilings, the industry is forced to adapt and lose customers in the process.

As is common in workplaces, and especially so in a rigidly hierarchical culture such as Japan, the pressure is passed down the chain. In an amusing scene – one of many in the documentary – we see Ozawa practice his baseball swing with an automatic pitching machine before informing us he imagines the ball is his boss’s head.

On another level it is the story of people seeking to escape the stress and simple boredom of their lives by hiring luxurious-looking bedrooms, many of which are ‘concept’ rooms decked out to look like a 1970s disco, a boxing ring or the inside of a train carriage.

Forty-one year-old Mr Sakamoto, an unemployed husband in a childless marriage, tells us he and his wife, a 43-year-old nurse, visit Angelo Love Hotel to keep their passion alive. As the couple watch an old porn film being projected onto a wall, Mr Sakamoto remarks: “They look so happy.”

Masa and Rumi, a retired couple aged 64 and 65, visit the Angelo Love Hotel to practice dancing. Naturally they choose the disco room, and before they move onto the dance floor they lie on the bed and admire the brightly coloured neon lights hanging from the ceiling.

Rika, a 26-year-old dominatrix, tells us all her clients share “a common sense of loneliness and dissatisfaction with their daily lives.” Her customer Taku, a 35-year-old postal worker, admits during his first visit with her that his life is “a bit shit”.

In many senses, Love Hotel has a close relationship with Kundera’s 1978 classic, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.The novel’s title could almost be a sub-title for the film. In entering the adult theme park that is the Angelo Love Hotel, the documentary’s participants seek to forget their everyday lives. But at the same time, like Kundera’s characters, they fight against forgetting. They strive almost painfully to recapture times when living had more intensity.

Lying in their bed at home, Mr and Mrs Sakamoto stare at the ceiling. “Don’t you think we’ve lost the passion? The way we felt in our twenties?” Mrs Sakamoto asks her silent husband. “We used to have such great sex,” she says.

Reliving the past plays an important part in Kundera’s novel. In one scene Karel attempts to recapture a lost memory from his childhood while having a threesome with his wife and mistress. The act of remembering vanquishes his lethargy and leaves him feeling like a champion. You see a similar zest in the eyes of the Angelo Love Hotel’s customers.

Example of a Love Hotel room.

Example of a Love Hotel room

As with Kundera’s work, Love Hotel is speckled with moments of raw humour.

Mr and Mrs Sakamoto engage in role a playing game where the unemployed husband acts as a stern train conductor and his wife as a passenger who happens to have lost her ticket. Their laughter comes not from the awkward script they act out, but from their acknowledgement of the game. It’s the same kind of laughter you see in the outtakes of movies.

Mr Yamada, a 71-year-old married man, laments his lost libido as he visits the hotel alone. A believer in secrets at any age, he writes a love letter to his beautiful neighbour. “I’m sure that she can’t be interested in an old fart like me, but her smile still makes me think she is,” Yamada says.

His secret love letter is reminiscent of the licentious Utsugi, the elderly main character from one of Junichiro Tanizaki’s last novels, Diary of a Mad Old Man. Like Mr Yamada, Utsugi craves the love a younger woman, in this case his daughter-in-law. Tanizaki, who is one of Japan’s most revered novelists, often used sex and erotic desire to comic effect. As did Japanese film director Juzo Itami, whose classic work Tampopo features a sex scene involving an assortment of food, including whipping cream, raw eggs and a live lobster.

But for some participants in the documentary, Love Hotel is about more than seeking to escape from the pressures of work or the mundaneness of life. It is about escaping oneself.

At the end of his interview, Kundera talks about the dangers of nihilism: “There is a certain imaginary dividing line beyond which things appear senseless and ridiculous. A person asks himself: Isn’t it nonsensical for me to get up in the morning? To go to work? To strive for anything? To belong to a nation just because I was born that way?”

“Man lives in close proximity to this boundary and can easily find himself on the other side. The boundary exists everywhere, in all areas of human life and even in the deepest most biological of all: sexuality,” he says.

“In Japan, everyone is trapped in themselves,” Rika tells the camera at one point. Her job is to help them escape. After her first session with Taku she admonishes him for his reticence: “Let yourself go more. Open mind.” Later we see Taku put on a gimp suit be strung up to the ceiling with rope. “You feel good because I took your freedom,” Rika tells him.

Speaking in the bathroom before a night of coitus, Mr Sakamoto tells us he wants to “go further” this time. He wants to, I imagine, cross a border in his mind.

There is a sense in Love Hotel that several of the participants are close to crossing Kundera’s imaginary boundary, beyond which life becomes senseless and absurd. Perhaps some have done it already. Rika seems to facilitate this, albeit in a safe environment and with an almost maternal affection. It is a wider reflection on the S&M movement, where sex becomes highly fetishized, almost to the point of the ridiculous.

But it is also a reflection of the perils many face in an advanced capitalist society, where the average person’s role is reduced to that of passive consumer or obedient worker. When jobs dry up and you are unemployed, like Mr Sakamoto, it’s difficult to define yourself at all.

With so few opportunities for agency, the act of sex becomes one aspect of a person’s life where they can act authentically. And for some, this means attempting to transgress oneself altogether. They escape their traps, but into what? What lies beyond oneself, except nothing?

In other hands this documentary might have offered us a freak show of bondage obsessed office clerks and role-playing married couples. But Native Lives do the opposite. They go beyond the seeming abnormality of what we see and explore the participants common humanity.

As Rika says to Taku after bringing him down from the ceiling: “Its ok, nobody’s normal.”

Love Hotel was directed by Phil Cox and Hikaru Toda. It was first shown on BBC Four on 16 February, 2015.


The Spirit Level

Posted: February 25, 2013 in Society

Self-flagellation: the act of methodically beating or whipping one’s body as practised by some religious orders.

There are two occasions when I consider beating myself like Silas from The Da Vinci Code to be appropriate: when I have embarrassed myself in respected company and when I have carelessly left a valuable possession on public transport. The two occasions appear unrelated, except to suggest that I am a tad bumbling. According to my current read however, they are strongly related. It’s all down to living in an unequal country, say Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

I am a latecomer to The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, which was first published in 2009. Throughout the work the authors draw on a dazzling number of sources to demonstrate how the more unequal a society is in terms of wealth, the more social ills that society has.

More unequal societies have higher rates of obesity, homicide, teenage pregnancy, mental illness, and illiteracy. They also have higher rates of incarceration and, unsurprisingly, lower rates of social mobility and lower life expectancy. Just to clarify, the authors argue it is inequality (the difference between how much the top 20% earn and the bottom 20% earn) which causes all of these problems, not poverty (average income of a society). There is, according to the data presented, only a weak relationship between health/social problems and poverty.

The UK is a good example of an unequal society. The top 20% of earners in the UK are roughly seven times richer than the bottom 20% of earners. The top 10% earn 12 times as much as the bottom 10%. Income inequality in the UK is actually growing faster than any other rich country, according to an OECD report in 2011.

That’s all very interesting, but how does it establish a relationship between feeling embarrassed in public and feeling regret when you leave your camera on a bus? And what on earth does it have to do with the act of whipping oneself? Well, this is the interesting part. It turns out that I am not the only person to handle mortification with mortification of the flesh.

If you live in an unequal society you are more likely to suffer from evaluation anxiety, also known as status anxiety. It’s the hyper-awareness of your place in society and the feeling that other people are constantly sizing you up.

“Instead of accepting each other as equals on the basis of our common humanity as we might in more equal settings, getting the measure of each other becomes more important as status differences widen. We come to see social position as a more important feature of a person’s identity.”

If you’ve ever felt out of place at a party it’s probably because you grew up in a society which trains you to be highly sensitive to your place in the order of things. Unless you are in the higher echelons you are likely to rank yourself lower in the social spectrum, resulting in feelings of shame – the same kind of shame which religious devotees might experience before picking up the whip. Some people combat this feeling with an inflated sense of importance. Adolescents are more sensitive than others to status, which explains why many go through bouts of depression and self-harm.

Unequal societies also have lower levels of trust. The British trust other people less than the Swedes, for example. As such, British people are more suspicious of others’ motives and generally more afraid of crime. The feeling of regret when you leave a valuable possession on a bus is, I imagine, more intense in the UK than it is in Sweden. In a country where everybody mistrusts each other, your initial reaction to leaving a camera/wallet/mobile behind is not “I’ll get it back in a few days,” but rather, “It’s gone for good!”

Having lived for a short time in one of the most equal developed societies in the world (Japan) and grown up in one of the most unequal developed societies (UK), I believe The Spirit Level’s conclusions are correct. The Japanese are famously modest in social interaction, rarely exhibiting a puffed-up sense of importance or asking questions which might embarrass someone. A common question when you meet somebody for the first time in the USA or Britain is, “What do you do for a living?” If you’ve ever been unemployed, you’ll know what an insidious question this is. The Japanese almost never ask this. In my experience of Japanese social interaction, people do not “size each other up” like we do.

They also trust each other more, and with good reason. When I left my wallet on a local train going from Okayama to Osaka I thought I would never see it again. Millions of passengers ride local trains each day, so the chances of it being handed in seemed slim. “What a dolt I am,” I sighed. Despite my doubts I reported the lost wallet at Osaka Station and borrowed money from a friend to carry on my journey to Tokyo. Two weeks later I received a package in the post containing my wallet. Everything was there – my credit card, my ID, even my cash. Not a single yen had been stolen.

My initial self-rebuke turned out to be unfounded. There was no need for mental self-flagellation because in a country where crime is relatively low and more people trust each other, valuable items are not stolen from buses. Or not as frequently, anyway.

The Spirit Level is an important book because it explains what many of us have felt, but didn’t have the statistics to prove: that a more equal society benefits all of us, in body, mind and soul.

Free will is not a myth

Posted: January 17, 2011 in Philosophy, Society

This article was originally published in New Escapologist – a magazine I contribute to and would recommend to all.

In a recent article in the Independent entitled “The uncomfortable truth about mind control: Is free will simply a myth?”, Michael Mosley argued that, although we don’t like to admit it, the notion that humans have free will is a delusion.

Mosley cites the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram to back up his argument. Milgram is famous for a controversial experiment in which volunteers were enlisted to take part in a “memory and learning experiment”. According to Mosley, Milgram wrote that the experiment was intended to answer the question: “How is possible, I ask myself, that ordinary people who are courteous and decent in everyday life could act callously, inhumanely, without any limitations of conscience.”

In the experiment, volunteers were told that they would be ‘the Teacher’ and their job was to give ‘the Learner’ – who they believed to be another volunteer – a simple set of memory tasks which they would be tested on. For every wrong answer the Teacher would have to give the Learner an electric shock. The voltage of the shock increased with every wrong answer. The Teacher and the Learner conducted this ‘memory experiment’ in two separate rooms, with a microphone and speakers connecting the two.

The results of the experiment were shocking. 65% of volunteers increased the voltage to a level that would have killed the Learner. Mosley goes on to cite other similar experiments which demonstrate the extent to which we are willing to blindly obey authority or conform to social expectations. All of this is convincing evidence for the assertion he makes at the start of the article: “We like to think that we exercise free will, that put into a situation where we were challenged to do something we thought unacceptable then we’d refuse. But, if you believe that, then you are probably deluded.”

Although Mosley’s article raises fascinating questions about human behaviour, it does not prove that free will is a myth. Every human action is preceded by a choice. The volunteers in the experiment chose to obey authority, even if it made them uncomfortable. It is easy to think that this means humans are not free, that the majority of us are hardwired to blindly follow orders or seek conformity. I disagree. Although the volunteers did not feel free, they were free.

To say that Milgram’s experiment proves that free will is a myth is like saying that because Queen Elizabeth II does not dissolve Parliament when she feels like, it means the Queen does not have the power to do so. Technically the Queen can dissolve Parliament at any time; she just chooses not to for practical reasons. In the same sense, a person who obeys authority or conforms to social expectations has the power to choose freely; they just choose not to use it.

The question that Mosley should be asking is not, “Is free will a myth?” but why are we so willing to give up free will in order to conform? The 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described this as the “herd instinct” and was rather scathing about the people he believed to be “herdmen”. However another German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, believed that the herd instinct is much more complex than a simple desire to fit in.

Heidegger gave the name “They-Self” (or Das Man in German) to the state of being which is governed entirely by the herd instinct. The “They-Self” is you in everyday life: it is the Parent-You, the Work-You, the Neighbour-You. In other words, it is the you that plays the roles and lives by the rules that society, not you, construct. Heidegger described the “They-Self” succinctly when he wrote, in his seminal work Being and Time, “Everyone is the other and no one is himself.” For Heidegger, the “They-Self” is the most basic form of our existence; the “They-Self” comes first and the “I-Self” comes afterwards, if at all.

Stanley Milgram’s findings are disturbing because they prompt us to ask, “How would I act such circumstances? Would I act as “Them” or as “I”? It is a question with frightening implications and which often leaves us believing vainly that we would be in the minority. As Mosley rightly points out, such a belief is a terrible delusion.

The question of whether or not we exercise our free will is not limited to life or death scenarios. It is a question which can be, and should be, addressed in everyday life. As Heidegger argues, it is in everyday life that people tend to relinquish their individuality and become a part of “Them”. The real test of individual freedom for most of us will not be in the dramatic scenarios fabricated by psychology experiments but in the way we live out our lives. Everyday choices, while rarely a matter of life or death, are always a matter of freedom.

There’s more on free will in Issue Four and more Milgram in Issue One.

Wiltshire Hospitality

Posted: June 30, 2010 in Living, Society

Originally in my Wiltshire Blog

On the benefits of extending hospitality to friends from far away.

“If it were not for guests all houses would be graves,” wrote Kahlil Gabran. I believe ‘grave’ is an adequate description.

I have been into houses where it is evident I am the first guest in many years. The place often feels like the neglected wing of a museum: lifeless, sombre, and neat.

Throughout history and in most cultures, hospitality has been an important social function. In ancient Greece it was a sacred duty to accept passing strangers into your home. The same was true of the Middle Eastern cultures; a tradition which is said to continue to this day.

When Macbeth deliberates over killing King Duncan, he does so not only because he is Duncan’s subject but also because he is his host, “Who should against his murderer shut the door, / Not bear the knife myself.”

It is with this ancient tradition in mind that I welcomed two friends from Japan to my home in Wiltshire last weekend, and played the part of host as best I can.

Chieko and Shigeru are in a band called Eddy, and they have come to the UK to play live gigs in London and Scotland. I arranged their gigs in and around London and managed to get them three gigs; the remaining two are happening on 1 July in Guildford and 2 July in Brixton.

As a sign of thanks they gave me four cans of Japanese beer and a yukata. I drank the first beer during the England v. Germany game. I drank the remaining three immediately afterwards.

One of the great things about having guests from abroad is that they see all the things you are used to with fresh eyes.

Watching Chieko and Shigeru take photos of Devizes Marketplace made me think that rather than go on holiday to escape a place you are bored with, you should try inviting guests from another land.

They will be fascinated by all the things you take for granted, and their fascination may spread to you.

Chieko and Shigeru enjoyed the easygoing pace of the countryside and said they felt refreshed as we drove them to Great Bedwyn train station, passing the Pewsey white horse and Wilton Windmill on the way.

Returning to Devizes, I was surprised to meet a flock of sheep crossing the road. As I dug out my camera for a few pictures I thought that this probably happens every day in Wiltshire.

“But not to me”, my mind countered, as I took half a dozen photos of sheep.

If you would like to see Eddy live, they will be playing at The Row Barge in Guildford on the evening of Thursday 1 July, and at The Windmill in Brixton on the evening of Friday 2 July. For Edinburgh dates please enquire to t.f.mellors [at]

It used to be that only celebrities had to worry about intrusive photographers. With the rise of Facebook however, we are all becoming victims of the voyeurism of others.

Last summer I attended an excellent party in the Wiltshire countryside. As with most good parties I invariably became drunk, performed ridiculous actions and then was swiftly taken home – with a change of clothes, in this case.

When I awoke the next morning – with the usual mixture of hangover and regret – I was shocked to find that photos of the party had already been put on Facebook. I am not against photos being taken at parties. I have come to expect it at the early stages of a party, when everyone is sober enough to feign a pose. But when the party is in full swing! Now, that I object to.

The problem with a photograph is that it can never fully capture the moment. It can record visual data with great accuracy – sometimes too much accuracy! – but there is a lot more to a good party than visual data. Because of this the photo is always out of context and is rendered meaningless. (Tabloids and gossip rags thrive on this by the way, inventing scintillating stories to go with each picture.)

In most cases this isn’t a problem, as we can imagine the context more or less accurately for ourselves. It will never be the same, but it will be close. An example is a photo of someone who has just hit their thumb with a hammer. We can easily imagine the pain that person must have felt, and it will probably be quite accurate. With a party however, things are different.

A good party is full of chaotic energy and, like a theatrical production, is different every night. One of the best parties during the Middle Ages was the festival of the Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night featured The Lord of Misrule – generally a peasant – who reigned over the celebrations. The hierarchy was reversed and, for a day, chaos and revelry ruled.

A modern party needs the same sense of anarchy. Alcohol provides the usual means. As people loosen, social boundaries slowly disappear. Things begin to happen in the party world that would never happen in the everyday world. Often they happen within a game, where the rules of the game replace the rules of society. Twister is a great example – can you imagine people doing that in any other setting? Party games are as liberating as they are ancient, originating in the Roman and pagan festivals that came before Twelfth Night.

The everyday world and the party world should co-exist in a kind of balance. When the balance is disturbed, bad things happen. When the Roman festival of Saturnalia – the forerunner of Twelfth Night – was shortened by Caesar Augustus, it caused huge revolts among the people. Euripides recognised the need for balance in his play, The Bacchae. In trying to repress the worship of Dionysus – the god of wine and ecstasy – the young king Pentheus brings ruin to his city, his family and himself.

For many, keeping this balance is the secret to a good party life. For others, it creates a difficult tension between reality and fantasy. I believe that this tension is a good thing, however. It can make you aware of the fantasy in your everyday life, and when the worlds blur. Once you get used to the tension, you can see the world as a kind of theatre.

Some believe that the everyday world and the party world should be kept separate. That, just as the Twelfth Night festival ended on the stroke of midnight, so all parties must come to an end. With light heads, the revellers must make their way home in the darkness, for the dawn brings the return of the ‘real’ world. This has long been the conventional thought on the subject. I am not so convinced.

By bringing elements of the party world into the everyday world, we can become aware of how we play roles in life – from the ambitious office worker to the reckless party animal. We can see how these roles – while important – need not dominate us, and that we can have fun with them.

Transporting elements of the party world into the everyday world also gives us an opportunity to subvert the rules (social conventions, etiquette etc.) of the everyday world. In doing this we can emphasise the above point – about the roles we play – and have fun at the same time. The whole process allows us to increase our understanding of what constitutes reality.

At this point you might say: “Surely that is what Facebook photos of parties are doing – bringing elements of the party world into the everyday world.” But Facebook photos of parties are not elements of the party world; they are just photos (visual data) of the party world.

Photos of the party world (or of anything else) are static. They do not convey the dynamic energy of a party. They are objects of the everyday world, which is also static. As objects they become open to judgement by the social and moral standards of the everyday world.

By taking elements of the party world and turning them into objects of the everyday world, photos undermine the mystery and the reality of the party world. They ridicule the dynamic chaos (aka fun!) of a party by making it look stupid and even offensive. They are, in short, an unfit representation of the party world and should be abandoned altogether.

Perhaps the best argument against Facebook photos of parties is that in order for the photographer to satisfy their voyeuristic urges they need to stay sober. Now what kind of party is that! Next time you go to a party, leave your camera at home. You might end your days like Pentheus if you don’t. Forget the photos, unwind and have fun.

Photo credit: Will Montague

The true cost of rush hour

Posted: November 19, 2009 in Philosophy, Society

The true cost of rush hour is more than an overpriced train fare – it’s our humanity.

The thing that people lament most about working life is the loss of time. Time to pursue your passions and interests, time to spend with your family, and time to act. When I say ‘time to act’ I mean specifically the time to act on your gut feelings and instincts – feelings such as empathy. I focus on this because I have experienced it recently.

On an average weekday a working person’s experience of the world is limited to the journey to work, the lunch hour (if it is taken), and the journey from work. The journey to work is dominated by the fear of being late, while the journey home is dominated by the desire to relax and unwind after a hard day. Both of these – the fear and the desire – become excuses we use to console ourselves for not acting on our gut feelings of compassion.

Recently, for example, I finished work just before five – which is early for many, I know! Tired, I walked hurriedly to the bus station to catch the 5pm bus home. On the way I saw a wounded pigeon sitting helplessly on the pavement. I immediately felt something in my stomach which I believe was empathy. I stopped and wondered about the pigeon’s fate, but the draw of home was too powerful. The clock was ticking. I would have to wait an extra forty minutes if I missed the 5 o’clock bus. I hesitated, and walked on. I made my way home feeling guilty, reassuring myself that I could not have done anything because I didn’t have the time.

A friend of mine recently told me about how the Japanese philosopher Motoori Norinaga believed in something called jyou . Jyou is based on an idea by the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming that all humans have an innate knowledge of the difference between good and evil which is “intuitive and not rational”. Jyou is the feeling which accompanies that innate knowledge. It is the gut instinct to act on a situation, such as that of the wounded pigeon, which creates feelings of empathy and compassion.

Working life creates conditions which stifle and suppress our jyou. Watch big city commuters walk past a beggar or a Big Issue vendor, and you will see this to be true to the majority of working people. In our hectic, work-obsessed lives we do not have the time to act on empathy and so we repress the desire to act until eventually we have repressed the feeling of compassion altogether.

If we reclaim the time to act we will reclaim a sense of right and wrong action which is innate in us. If we all try reclaiming some time today, there is a chance we will feel the jyou inside us next time we walk past a creature in need of help.


Photo credit: Dr Karanka

Workingman’s holiday blues

Posted: November 16, 2009 in Society

Christmas at McDonalds

One of the cruelest developments in the working world over the past thirty years is the inclusion of traditional holidays – such as Boxing Day and New Year’s Day – into the working year. Most middle class professionals aren’t affected by this, and probably do not realise the extent to which working people oppose and resent the encroachment of work into their traditional days of rest.

When the manager at Domino’s Pizza – where I currently work part-time – told everyone which days they must work over the Christmas period, there was a collective groan from the staff. I was told I would be working from 5pm until 9pm on Christmas Eve, and the same on Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Others would have to work until 11pm. One girl was surprised that Domino’s had extended their closing time on Christmas Eve from 9pm (last year) until 11pm. Another worker – who being 16 earns a meagerly £3.57 per hour – said how he had hoped to visit his father over Christmas, as he rarely has time to do so.

If this society continues on its present course I am certain that in 20 years time it will be normal for shops and fast-food outlets to be open on Christmas Day. Something unthinkable as little as thirty years ago. How things have changed from earlier periods in England’s history, when festivals were treated with deep respect and when holidays were just that – holy days.

During the middle ages the Christmas festivities lasted a full twelve days, during which people engaged in great feasting and merrymaking. It wasn’t just Christmas which provided days of celebration though. The whole year was full of days which people were obliged to take off work – Saints days, Easter etc.

In Medieval England, it wasn’t the goal of material prosperity or ‘progress’ which governed the economy of the country, it was God. Medieval accounting books began with the words “For God and for profit”. As David Boyle points out in his excellent essay, Economic Thought in the Middle Ages (published in The Idler #42), this doesn’t mean that business didn’t exist during that period. On the contrary, it boomed all across Europe. The Hanseatic League is evidence of that. The difference between then and now is that the rules which governed business in Medieval Europe were religious rules, based on cooperation and fairness (see Aquinas’s idea of a just price). They were rules designed to benefit everyone, to reflect Christ’s teachings and ultimately, to glorify God.

The change in thinking since then has been radical. Competition has replaced cooperation, and ‘growth’ has replaced God. Work has come to dominate. Many people will be lucky to get more than three days off work this Christmas. The economy struggles to give us any time off at all, and when a holiday is forced upon us – as with the great snow day earlier this year – economists bemoan the loss of money it causes. In playing Malvolio to our Toby Belch, they seek in earnest to take away our cakes and ale. Unlike Malvolio however, they are succeeding.

Photo credit: financeguy 高志傑

Why America’s belief in freedom is the biggest obstacle to healthcare reform.

Anyone who has been to US recently will know that the word on everyone’s mind and every newspaper front page is ‘healthcare’. While vested interests battle pro-reformers at heated town-hall meetings across the country, I’ve thought about the language they use and have realised that this isn’t just about a controversial new policy. It’s about what it means to be free in America today.

The relatives I visited in the States are staunch Republicans, and therefore strongly opposed to Obama’s proposed health reforms – even though they would benefit enormously from them. My grandmother for example pays thousands of dollars every year for the medical treatments and prescriptions which aren’t covered by her health insurance.

My uncle Steve was in the process of changing doctors while I visited him. Steve has suffered from bi-polar disorder for most of his life. Since his last breakdown he’s spent four years taking a cocktail of drugs, most of which are sedatives. He finds it difficult to wake up in the morning and although he wants to get back to work, he knows it’s impossible if he continues with the same medication.

Steve decided to transfer to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh – one of the country’s leading psychiatric hospitals – but his insurance wouldn’t cover the transfer, meaning he could have to pay up to $1,300 a week for treatment.

Knowing this about my grandmother and uncle I couldn’t understand why they are against public health insurance. Initially I thought it was out of a dislike of Obama’s new administration – and although this probably plays a part – the real reason goes much deeper.

Many Americans have a deep distrust of government intervention. While some see this as a reaction to the current administration’s corporate bail outs, I see it as a long-standing element of the American psyche.

The philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1849, “That government is best which governs not at all”. Thoreau’s anarchism seems extreme but it underlines a perception of freedom which continues to dominate America today.

Thoreau’s idea of freedom was heavily influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief in the importance of individuals living a life of physical and mental ‘self-reliance’. “It is only as a man puts off from himself all external support and stands alone that I see him to be strong and to prevail”, Emerson wrote.

Emerson’s self-reliance continues to influence the meaning of freedom today. It is this freedom which opponents of public healthcare believe they are defending. Ronald Reagan held up this freedom, along with America’s “traditional free enterprise system”, when he attacked Kennedy’s plan to extend social security and create what Reagan called “socialised medicine”.

One letter to the editor of a newspaper expressed a Reaganesque argument against Obama’s reforms: “If I want to give my money to help others I am free to do so, but I don’t want the government giving my money to other people without my consent”. It boils down to the question, “Why should I pay for that person’s healthcare?”

It’s true that there are charities which provide healthcare to some of the 47 million uninsured Americans, but these charities will never be able to satisfy the vast need for free treatment. One of America’s most well known healthcare charities is Remote Area Medical (RAM). RAM operates on a shoestring budget of $250,000 per year. That’s less than one cent for every uninsured American.

Opponents to reform argue that charities like RAM should deal with the uninsured. This argument assumes that if you can’t afford healthcare it’s your own problem. Yet the lack of adequate health insurance isn’t just felt by the uninsured, it’s felt by society as a whole.

If an uninsured person becomes ill, it affects their family, their friends and their employer. It affects utilities companies – if they fail to pay their bills due to hospital fees – and eventually the government, if they go bankrupt and become unemployed. (Half of all bankruptcies in the US are at least partially caused by medical costs).

If we leave the unfortunate to deal with ‘their problem’ we are denying our responsibility to those in need. Aneurin Bevan, the chief architect of the National Health Service (NHS), said that refusing to treat a person who cannot afford it “may be sound economics [but] it could not be worse morals”. Without public healthcare, millions will go on untreated.

At the heart of this debate is a freedom which concerns itself with the individual and rejects any notion of community. It’s a freedom which has been influenced by Emerson, but one he would never approve of. Emerson argued for people to be self-reliant in every aspect of their life – from their thoughts to their work. The mass dependence upon corporations which typifies American life today is a far cry from self-reliance.

Today’s definition of freedom is the only freedom that can exist in a capitalist society where people are routinely pitted against each other in the ‘spirit of competition’, and where profits hold more value than relationships.

I’m sceptical that healthcare reform will happen in America, unless maybe there is a national emergency like the Second World War – without which the NHS would not have been founded – but even then it seems unlikely. The American lexicon won’t allow it. Not without a fundamental change in the values underpinning the language. Not without a change in what it means to be free.