On knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

 

Thoughts from 2015.

Who knows where these sayings come from? Anyway, Sarah and I are getting on with our now twenty years long and rising conversation about life and the living of it, when I come out with more or less the title of this piece.

“The trouble is, they seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

‘Did you just make that up?’ asks Sarah, momentarily impressed. Fortunately my reply is that it’s just an old saying that I’ve remembered from somewhere in my childhood. Fortunate indeed, am I, in not taking the credit because without knowing it I’m quoting Oscar Wilde. Who so valued what he’d said that he used it twice.

In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Then in ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’

“Cecil Graham: What is a cynic?
Lord Darlington: A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
Cecil Graham: And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”

So thank you Oscar, for the borrow of your words.

As to what he meant by them, you can of course easily find many a literary essay around the internet telling you what their writers think he meant, if you could be bothered reading them. I of course don’t care, because I’m mainly interested in what the words mean to me.

And for me they conjure up visions of austerity, its money obsessed bean counters and of our societies being controlled by people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Blue and Grey23

How so?

Well as we get closer to the tortuously awaited fixed-term British General Election and as we watch the people of Greece being the latest in trying to get a say in the running of their own country, much of the talk seems to be about money and much of the public judging of people’s abilities to run a country seems to be about how good they are with money. Shadowy characters from within things like the International Monetary Fund and Davos occasionally step forward and reveal themselves to be in practical control of policies, things and places where democracy has not been permitted to go.

And it worries me. I’m broadly pro-Europe, certainly not anti-International co-operation and very definitely pro-Democracy. So coming up to any General Election a key question for me has always been ‘How do we want to live, here in these countries, for the next few years?’ Therefore I’m sentimentally attached to voting for the political party that can offer ideas about this that seem to be for the best for all of us.

And running the economy is certainly part of this. It has to be. But it’s nowhere near the whole of it. I want to be talking and hearing about the desired qualities of our lives – the qualities of hope and mercy and compassion and love and tenderness. The things that make a country a pleasure to live in, a pleasure to be a citizen of. The things we don’t seem to be hearing much of at all since we keep being told various versions of ‘austerity is the only option’ and stumble towards an election where the talk that isn’t about money is about being tough. On outsiders, on claimants and, as ever, on the poor.

So I’m getting very little feel of public engagement in what’s coming up in Britain in just over two month’s time. Bits of protest voting, lots of cynicism and chasms of disengagement. I understand there are a million young people missing from the Electoral Register and I suspect there will be millions more of all ages missing from the polling booths, as people say forgivably lazy things like ‘They’re all the same’ and ‘Doesn’t matter who you vote for the rich will just keep getting richer.’

Well I think it does matter who you vote for and it’s time we all started having better quality conversations about it. About how we want to live and the quality of our houses, our work, our nurseries, our schools, our libraries, our hospitals and our futures. About our lives not just our pockets.

So I suppose this is reading like a bit of a party political broadcast on behalf of the Democracy Party? And it is. For myself I’m an unashamed socialist and I know that I don’t want the current government and their austerity and privatising policies to continue, but I don’t yet know where I’ll be putting my vote to help get them replaced. That’s the job of the democratic process from now to May. To engage us all, intelligently, so we take the chance to think good and hard about how we want to live and how we’re going to get there. We only get a proper go at this once every five years. So it matters.

But at the moment?

“The trouble is, they all seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Or maybe I’m just a sentimentalist? As Oscar Wilde’s ‘Cecil Graham’ would say:

“A man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.”

Well it’s democracy I’m sentimental about. Because when we let go of democracy, when we’re not interested enough to exercise the rights people before us literally fought for, then there are the bean counters of austerity and the sinister forces behind them ready and waiting to come and take even more control of our countries than they already have. And I think it’s time we showed them the door, by voting for how we want to live.

Thank you Oscar Wilde, you've got me thinking there.
Thank you Oscar Wilde, you’ve got me thinking there.

 

 

8 Replies to “On knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing”

  1. I agree entirely with what you say and feel that the only way to break the party political system which allows the bean counters is for people to talk to each other, gain confidence in each other, find candidates from among our number….
    Here in Costa Rica we had an overturning of a corrupt party who had held power for years….because people used the social media – and the usual grapevine – to express their disgust and to encourage each other to vote for a man who was a maverick party candidate but whose stated aim was to restore the country to its people.
    He’s having a hard ride…the last government stuffed the institutions with its supporters and took out ruinous contracts before leaving office….but people are still behind him and some things are beginning to change – slowly.

    1. Good encouragement there Helen. That ‘scorched earth for the next lot’ strategy is in full flow here, so good luck to your own new government and congratulations to the majority in Costa Rica for their understanding, intelligence and patience.

  2. Just one word. Yes.
    Well maybe a few more. Today I heard on the radio that public broadcasting is under threat, or at least MPs are saying the licence fee is unsustainable and we should look at other means of raising the revenue like taxing every household or raising the money through subscription. Once again, I fear, something that belongs to us all is going to be stolen from us marketed, priced and sold.

  3. As always, Ronnie, succinctly and beautifully put. Totally agree with you. We must talk more and we must listen even more. We must involve people in their futures because it is only in engaging in those, as you say, ‘quality conversations’ that we will hear alternative solutions, good ideas, distinct possibilities for the future because there is always more than one way to do things. And money is but one currency.

    Increasingly here, in our tiny corner of France and to my delight, we are seeing currencies of other sorts emerging. Exchanges, trades of services for goods, of information for a helping hand doing something. Life is so much the richer for that too. So why not count that wealth in our end-of-year reckonings? Sadly, this is probably forced by increasingly stringent austerity measures but is testament to the resilience of people and their creativity in hard times. We should draw on this creativity.

    And yes, that attitude of ‘it won’t make a difference if I vote, so I won’t’ brings down the red mist on me too. It is a right and a responsibility to vote. Otherwise you get what you may not have wanted and then you can’t complain because you stood by and let it happen. Exercising your right to vote can make a big difference in the outcome.

    1. Good stuff on other forms of exchange there Lindsay. A reminder we don’t have to have everything defined and controlled by others. So if this ‘austerity’ con is what it takes to wake up our creativity and our interdependence then fine. The bean counters can clear off and be severe and austere on each other and leave the rest of us alone to do more trading with and looking after each other off their radar.

  4. What do you think of the contribution of organisations like 38 degrees to ‘democracy’? They’ve gone beyond online petitions – yesterday they were out encouraging people to tell their MPs how strongly they felt about the NHS.

    1. I think a healthy democracy benefits from well organised pressure groups and 38 degrees is clearly one. I’m not much of a one for demos, unless they can actually then promote debates and changes of mind. But I think we all have different energies, to use in different ways to promote this thinking about ‘how do we want to live and where might our energies and votes best help this to happen?’

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