Heroic Materialism isn’t enough

Daniel Cowdrill

Kenneth Clark, the art historian, summed up his BBC series Civilization (1978) by stating that, “The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough.” 

Put another way, materialism doesn’t have what it takes to hold society together. This is perhaps evident in the causes of the recent credit crunch. Materialism has, once again, proved insufficient.

David Dimbleby claimed in the BBC series How We Built Britain (2007), that the steel and glass houses of commerce are today’s cathedrals. Lord Clark would have disagreed profoundly. The Church has enjoyed a level of success at holding society together that capitalism can only dream of.

The shortfalls of materialism are familiar to Conservatives. Through Disraeli’s One Nation Toryism, Arthur Balfour’s Retaliation, Joseph Chamberlain’s civic gospel, and Harold Macmillan’s middle-way (to name a few), Lord Clark’s critique that heroic materialism “isn’t enough” is recognisably Conservative. The limitations of materialism are also central to any understanding of the ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ of the early 21st Century.  

For Thatcherism too, materialism was not enough, far from it. Thatcherism was not motivated by heroic materialism and it was rarely couched in such terms. The pursuit of material wealth was only part of a wider notion of civil society, in which materialism interacted with and accommodated other elements of civil society. 

David Willetts, a former member of Thatcher’s Number Ten policy unit, explains that Thatcherism had “a broader civic goal”. “Civic Conservatism places the free market in the context of the institutions and values that make up civil society.”

In fact one of Margaret Thatcher’s main assets was her profound belief in civil society. Instinctively she was able to lend moral conviction to the government’s economic reforms, expressed in terms of civil renewal. 

Cameronite Conservatism, Thatcherite Conservatism, Heathite Conservatism and so on, have at least one major thing in common: a justified scepticism of heroic materialism and a need to contain it in the broader context of civil society. An emphasis on materialism cannot form the centre of a social fabric.


5 thoughts on “Heroic Materialism isn’t enough

  1. I’m tempted to throw in a few quotes from Wall Street; another testament to the virtues and vices which unabashed, unashamed, and prolific materialism generates (I’m referring to the 1987 movie as well as the financial district itself), but I won’t. I do believe you are correct in stating that the ‘greed is good’ motive shouldn’t be the only one which drives forward society, and certainly when it comes to those who hold the highest offices of the land, the regulation of that system shouldn’t be the only things that concern them.

    This latest oscillation in the history of world finances and commerce does serve to illustrate why a healthy scepticism is necessary and useful: it stops us from running away with foolhardy idea’s, undermining the bedrock of our economic systems. It stops us from conducting risky investments which can result in the destruction of the wealth of many thousands or millions of peoples. From the South Sea Bubble of the 1720’s, to the Dot-Com boom, to this present crisis, these corrections serve as a warning, a reminder, of what unwise investments, greed, and sometimes downright corruption, can bring to humanity. Yes, healthy scepticism is a good thing, in any human endeavor. It keeps our wits sharp.

    However I draw the line at that point. I concede, in an attempt to anticipate what you might say next. that capitalism has an inherent flaw, and that is to keep it moving, expansion is necessary, and there in lies the reason why these sorts of crises take place. In a sense it is Imperial; empires of ancient times had to expand in order for the followers of the Emperor to be rewarded. Sitting still wasn’t an option. The soldiers would revolt, the ruling elite would be overthrown and perhaps a tyrant would be installed into power. In a world where competition is on such a scale, where former “workshops” for the developed world are starting to compete on an equal footing, we must push forward, we must adapt and develop, in an attempt to stay ahead of the competition. That is a necessary part of our current system.

    Perhaps in time, in our own lifetimes, we might see a new sort of economic system – one which might prize collaboration (for there are countless examples, both overt, and covert – ones we don’t really notice, yet are just as valuable) over competition in the format it is at present. That day could be the dawn of the dream of men like Sir Thomas More, or Gene Rodenberry; dreams we should all yearn for.

    However as it stands at the moment, I believe faith in everything our economic system has accomplished to this very day (the list is long; but, consider the European Empires, everything the US is today, Europes’ reconstruction after WWII, modern day Japan; basically the world as we know it) should be more than sufficient to remind people of its benefits. “It’s a zero sum game.” G.G.

  2. One of the greatest criticisms levelled at Margaret Thatcher is that she created a society of greed and materialism. As many economists have argued, Thatcher ‘set the economy free’ like noone before her which in turn could be seen as encouraging materialism and greed. However her own personal nature and devout methodist uprbringing trveals her motive behind freeing the economy was not for material gain because she did not believe in materialism… rather she believed in freedom.

    She wanted to set the people free. Now the problem here lies in the fact its easy to know what you are freeing the people from, militant trade unionism, economic protectionism, corporate regulations… but all together more difficult to know what you are freeing them to. Thatcher gave us the means to be materialistic but it is us, the british people, not her who created a society of greed and materialism. Bloody good article btw.

  3. Dom, I agree with every word, not surprisingly.

    Prague: I’m not arguing against anyone really. It’s more of a think-piece related to recent events.

    Dan: The cirticism that Thatcherism produced a greedy society, is one that we should take notice of. I suppose that in this popular opinion there lies some failure of the Thatcher government in not enabling the agents of civil society to a great enough extent. However, the view of Thatcherism as a greedy, materialstic ideology, shouldn’t compromise any assessment of what motivated Thatcherism and the fact that in these motivations it shares much common ground with the tory tradition.

  4. “Heroic Materialism isn’t enough”, too true blue! Just reminds us of that old prayer….how does it go again…

    Lord, for tomorrow and its needs
    I do not pray;
    keep me, my God, from stain of sin
    just for today.

    Let me both diligently work
    and duly pray;
    Let me be kind in word and deed,
    just for today.

    Let me be slow to do my will,
    prompt to obey;
    help me to sacrifice myself,
    just for today.

    Let me no wrong or idle word
    unthinking say;
    set thou a seal upon my lips
    just for today.

    Let me in season, Lord, be grave,
    in season gay; (1880 gay!)
    let me be faithful to Thy grace,
    just for today.

    Lord, for tomorrow and its needs
    I do not pray;
    but keep me, guide me, love me, Lord,
    just for today.


    We are honoured that you should ‘lift’ the above photograph from our Shalom Family Campaign for Social Justice website. It’s from a flyer showing Mr Cameron which we picked up whilst at a Business In The Community Event, staged at The Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre London. Perhaps you lovely people would also be kind enough to support us in our efforts to achieve our aims, and invite a few like minded souls know about it too.

    We don’t believe there’s something wrong with owning your own home. We did for 14 consequetive years, and it was a home we built ourselves, for us and our five daughters. Trouble is, was and has been since, is that property developer Crest Nicholson, (Surrey) took a dislike to its appearance, (how shallow?) and got rid of it. In the process their actions caused all of our Family possessions to be disposed of too.

    The big boss John Callcutt got a CBE, a top job with English Partnerships end then another at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Crest Nicholson were awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise 2007! All our local reps know about it but they sit and do nothing. Whether politically red, blue, yellow, or anything else, bullying and immoral conduct is well and truly at Home, in this very-much-less-than United Kingdom, of Great Britain.

    Kind regards,

    The Shalom Family.

    P.S. Help yourself to all the other photos too!

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